The Melt Down (1977)

The Man from Atlantis was a TV series that cashed in on the popularity of underwater films in the 1960s and 1970s. Even though the series didn’t run for long, it was impressive enough to birth multiple adaptations as comic books and novels. From today’s perspective the whole project seems a bit silly with questionable character drawing and superficial visual attractions. I was however impressed by the great emphasis on scientific details in the story lines. The episodes are also a bit like disguised lessons in popular ocean science.

The episode “Melt Down” written by Tom Greene deals with a sudden global sea level rise caused by melting of the polar ice, intentionally induced by the series’ super-villain Mister Schubert. You could call it prophetic, but then of course, the reason for the meltdown here is not collective political failure but individual roguery. The depiction of the effects of sea level rise are spooky nevertheless. Looking at it today, 50 years later, this little dialog seems to recapitulate perfectly the absurdity of the current situation along the coasts of the USA. “Hey, aren’t you from that Ocean Institute? You know what’s causing all of this?”

It’s quite funny – if only it wasn’t quite as sad…

Thanks to my comic dealer at the fantastic Fantastic Store for the lead!

The Last Wave (1977)

This is a 1977 Australian movie about a series of freak storms in Sidney. It was Peter Weir’s second major film after the success of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” two years earlier. Both films depict the arrival of supernatural or unexplainable occurrences in otherwise totally orderly lives. In “The Last Wave” the plot picks up Aboriginal nature philosophy, according to which time moves in cycles with some kind of extreme natural event to usher in the end of each cycle. The protagonist, who is not an aboriginal but a white Australian, has foreboding dreams of a major flood. The movie leaves it open whether such a flood is really taking place eventually. But in this sequence the protagonist has a vision of a totally submerged Sidney while sitting in his car.

What else I found noteworthy is that the movie depicts the metropolis Sidney as a site of ancient Aboriginal rituals and forces despite its appearance as a “white” and “modern” city. This other cultural and spiritual layer in the foundation of colonial cities like Sidney or New York is a topic that is also picked up in other movies of that era like the horror movie Wolfen from 1981.

Colonial and native Tall Tales

Extraordinary natural occurrences and appearances were traditionally explained in myths, legends or so called Tall Tales. They fall in the larger genre of folklore and different from myths or legends they are relatively young or have known or contemporary authorship. An example from European Antiquity would be the “Alexander Romances“, fictitious accounts of the life of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BCE) that exist in over 100 known versions and several languages. In the USA a popular figure of Tall Tales is the giant Paul Bunyan. Tales about Paul Bunyan first appeared in the mid 19. Century and include among others explanations for the existence of the Grand Canyon and Minnesota’s Thousand Lakes.

In a facebook post I recently came across this humorous first nation version of a Paul Bunyan tales. It’s a great example how natural science, political satire and ancient mythology intersect. And it also shows how closely connected and intertwined the folklore of US-American white settlers and the folklore of first nations in the Americas is.

Believe it or not, us Ojibwe also have a story about Paul Bunyan. He came to the area known as Red Lake and tried his de-forestation BS, but Nanaboozhoo – The Greatest Ojibwe who ever lived – obviously wasn’t having none of that. They got into a fight that lasted 3 days, and finally our hero picked up a giant walleye and slapped the outlander silly with it. Paul got knocked on his ass in a mud puddle, so hard it left an imprint of his buttcheeks there in the wet ground…that’s why the lake is shaped the way it is and why we were able to keep our forest.
You’ll never hear this story in a book, but that’s basically how I heard it from my father when I was young – after coming home from kindergarten in Bemidj (Paul’s favorite town, mwahaha!) and talking about him.
That’s the story behind the Paul/Babe & Nanaboozhoo statues in that town. This used to be a sign at the rez line, I remember the chimooks didn’t like it and kept cutting it down. But the story lives on, and now you know.

Material and spiritual barriers

Sculpture of fish god from Lepenski Vir, likely to have been part of the people’s spiritual responses to flooding. Credit: Mickey Mystique/Wikimedia Commons

In a beautiful article from 2019, Patrick Nunn gives a couple of examples for protection architecture that serve both material and spiritual purposes. I would argue, that this is the case for any protection structure also today, at least if it is visible. The interesting question here is not, whether a spiritual barrier was or is working today, but rather what functions it fulfills for the well being of the community and thus its protection in a broader sense.

Here are some excerpts with examples from Brittany (France), Serbia and the UK:

“Take the stone lines at Carnac, in Brittany, some of which extend for kilometres and involve thousands ofmenhirs, once regarded as boundary markers or memorials to fallen warriors. The idea of Serge Cassen that these stone lines represent “a cognitive barrier” between the physical and metaphysical worlds intended to halt the disastrous impacts of rising sea level in the Gulf of Morbihan more than 6.000 years ago is in keeping with what we are learning elsewhere.

“Neatly arranged deposits of once-valuable objects such as stone tools, even human remains, may have been intentionally created as votive offerings to divinities to stop the ocean’s rise. Cemeteries may have been intentionally situated on coasts, symbolically stabilising them in the minds of local peoples. Sandstone sculptures of fish gods from Lepenski Vir inSerbia may have been totems intended to prevent inundation.”

“Even physical barriers, long recognised as useless against the encroaching ocean, may have become symbolic; an example of wooden structures from Flag Fen near Peterborough in the UK was interpreted in this way by Francis Pryor.”

Qingyuan flooded, April 2024

These images are from news reports from the metropolis in the Guangdong province, Southern China. The region experienced massive floodings in April 2024 once more due to intense rain. It’s not a coastal city, instead Qingyuan has been repeatedly flooded by water from the Bei Jiang river.

Power and disaster

In Greek and Roman Antiquity extreme weather events and natural disasters like droughts, earthquakes and floods were a frequent occurrence. They also offered important stages for the display of political power. Political leaders would rush to the occasion to help the population out of their hardship and make sure that other powers and posterity notice. In fact, according to historian Holger Sonnabend, political power was recognized mainly by the ability to help and rebuild. This was even sometimes used by suffering cities to get as much support as possible from rivaling politicians.

Accompanying the imperative of help was the public display of grieve. Compassion was expected of those in power and it was common for leaders to require historians to write up their grieve in dramatic ways. Here is an example from the 7. Century CE by Georgios Kedrenos, who describes in retrospect the expression of grieve of emperor Justinian upon the earth quake in Antiochia in May 526.

“He threw aside his crown and his imperial clothes, and, dressed in dirty rags, wept for several days, and even on feast days he entered the church in pitiful robes because he could not bear to put on any signs of his power.”

The educator and historian Libanius (314 – 392 CE) on the other hand wrote in an eulogy on emperor Julian that the earth itself mourned with an earth quake and several tsunamis in the Mediterranean in 365 CE the loss of this great emperor the year before.

“Earth truly has been fully sensible of her loss, and has honoured the hero by an appropriate shearing off of her tresses, shaking off, as a horse doth his rider, so many and such great cities. In Palestine several; of the Libyans all and every one. Prostrate lie the largest towns of Sicily, prostrate all of Greece save one; the fair Nicaea lies in ruins; the city, pre-eminent in beauty, totters to her fall, and has no confidence for the time to come! These are the honours paid to him by Earth, or if you choose, by Neptune himself; but on the part of the Seasons, famines and pestilences, destroying alike man and beast, just as though it were not lawful for creatures upon earth to enjoy health now that he has departed! What wonder then is it, if such being the state of things, many a one, like myself, deems it a loss not to have died before!”

(full text in english)

For the disaster of 365 in the Mediterranean see also this post.

Noah’s Ark on a silver coin

This silver coin was printed in 1737 to celebrate the end of the flood and famine in Silesia in 1736/1737. The front shows the biblical scene of the dove returning to Noah’s Ark with a German text from Psalm 37, which translates as “Put your life in the hands of the Lord; have faith in him and he will do it.” The back side depicts a sacrifice and the Ark on Mt. Ararat in the back.

Ammianus Marcellinus on the tsunami of 365 CE

This is the famous section from the 28. book of the “Res Gestae”, the history written by Roman historian Ammianus who lived from around 330 – 400 CE. It describes the earthquake and tsunami of July 21. 365 CE which shook the whole Mediterranean. The scene described by Ammianus is most likely set at the coast of Sicily. As the author mentions, areas as far as the Egyptian shore were affected by tsunamis resulting from the earthquake which had its epicenter near Crete. The city of Alexandria was heavily destroyed and the event was publicly remembered in the city for at least a hundred years as the “Day of Fear”. As Egyptian researcher Yasmine Hussein explained to me, it takes less than 40 minutes for a tsunami from Crete to arrive in Alexandria.

“For a little after daybreak, preceded by heavy and repeated thunder and lightning, the whole of the firm and solid earth was shaken and trembled, the sea with its rolling waves was driven back and withdrew from the land, so that in the abyss of the deep thus revealed men saw many kinds of sea-creatures stuck fast in the slime; and vast mountains and deep valleys, which Nature, the creator, had hidden in the unplumbed depths, then, as one might well believe, first saw the beams of the sun.

Hence, many ships were stranded as if on dry land, and since many men roamed about without fear in the little that remained of the waters, to gather fish and similar things, with their hands, the roaring sea, resenting, as it were, this forced retreat, rose in its turn; and over the boiling shoals it dashed mightily upon islands and broad stretches of the mainland, and levelled innumerable buildings in the cities and where else they were found; so that amid the mad discord of the elements the altered face of the earth revealed marvellous sights.

For the great mass of waters, returning when it was least expected, killed many thousands of men by drowning; and by the swift recoil of the eddying tides a number of ships, after the swelling of the wet element subsided, were seen to have foundered, and lifeless bodies of shipwrecked persons lay floating on their backs or on their faces. Other great ships, driven by the mad blasts, landed on the tops of buildings (as happened at Alexandria), and some were driven almost two miles inland, like a Laconian ship which I myself in passing that way saw near the town of Mothone, yawning, apart through long decay.”

Original online source.

Thanks to Holger Sonnabend for the lead!

Bhola Cyclone of 1970

The 1970 Bhola cyclone (also known as the Great Cyclone of 1970) was a devastating tropical cyclone that struck East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) and India’s West Bengal on November 12, 1970. It remains the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded and one of the world’s deadliest humanitarian disasters. At least 300,000 people died in the storm, possibly as many as 500,000, primarily as a result of the storm surge that flooded much of the low-lying islands of the Ganges Delta. Bhola was the sixth and strongest cyclonic storm of the 1970 North Indian Ocean cyclone season.

Yajnaseni Chakraborty writes in an online article, that the cyclone also formed a new nation: Bangladesh. Since the 1940’s East-Bengal had been a part of Pakistan, officially called East-Pakistan, and was governed by the central Pakistani military government:
“A few days after the disaster, with East Pakistanis seething in anger against the West Pakistan government, political leader Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani held a rally at Dhaka’s old Paltan Maidan, famously declaring, “Ora keu aseni (none of them turned up),” and went on to say, “From today, we are independent East Bengal, no longer East Pakistan”. The next day, says Haider, ‘Ora keu aseni’ was printed as a banner headline in the newspaper ‘Pakistani Khabar’, controlled by the Pakistan government’s Press Trust.”

The following Bengal War in 1971 took another 3 million Bengali lives, according to the Bangladesh government. In August 1971 the nation was finally declared independent. Today Bangladesh is regarded as one of those countries with a highly effective disaster protection program.

The Bride and the Sink Hole

The city of Alexandria once had an extensive network of water cisterns below ground that distributed drinking water from a channel connecting the river Nile south-east of the city with the city’s harbor in the west. This was vital for the survival of the population as the Nile flood brought sweet water to the city only once in the summer months. The water needed to be stored for the remaining year and the deep cisterns served that purpose. As the „city of layers“, as it is often referred to, grew and layers upon layers of streets and buildings were added, the cisterns underground would collapse from time to time, creating sink holes and cracks in the streets. In some areas, sea water dissipates into the ground, further enhancing the erosion of the structure.

The artist Islam Shabana told me the following story: In 1973 a young, newly wed woman fell into a sink hole that suddenly opened up under her. When people came to her rescue she disappeared completely into the abyss. Rescue teams climbed after her but never found the body.

The disappearance of a young woman in broad daylight and right before the eyes of the people is of course the stuff for an enduring urban legend. One popular story speculates that she was abducted by a love-struck Jinn who was enraged by her marriage to another man.

The woman is simply referred to by Alexandrians as „The Bride“. Alexandria itself is called „The Bride of the Mediterranean“ and one of Alexandria’s emblematic figures is the mermaid, which in Arab means „Bride of the Sea“. And what makes this story for Alexandrians even more meaningful is, that in the same street the Bride disappeared another body disappeared too: the body of the city’s founder Alexander the Great. As was confirmed to me by Islam Shabana, Al Naby Danyal (Prophet Daniel Street) is the most probable location of the shrine that held the emperor’s body, referred to as Soma, meaning simply „The Body“. The building and Alexander’s remains are lost and it is unclear what happened to them. Historian Islam Issa writes, that most probably it was situated on the corner of Al Naby Danyal and Fuad Street and might still be there, only underground.

Today even more than in the 1970s, sink holes are appearing everywhere in the city, especially in the winter months. The ground below Alexandria is hollowed like a Swiss cheese, as historian Kathrin Machinek explained to me. The cisterns have not been in use for decades and there are so many, that it is impossible to say, where and when the next one will collapse. The sea level rise in the Mediterranean and land subsidence due to the incessant building activity above ground makes matters worse.

Prophet Daniel Street, freshly paved, on the corner of Fuad Street in April 2024.

Thanks to Islam Shabana for the lead!