Heracles, the first hydraulic engineer

According to historian Terje Tvedt the Greek god and hero Heracles derived from a much older Egyptian hero of similar name. The now submerged city Heracleion off the coast of the Nile delta was named after the god and Heracles plays a central role in the ancient literature of the region. The historian Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in the 1st. Century BCE, recounts Heracles’ story in detail. Among the many feats he describes, several are connected to hydrology. The most famous one is of course from the Twelve Labors of Heracles. Here is the original passage from Diodorus’ History:

“He received a Command from Eurystheus to cleanse the stables of Augeas, and to do this without the assistance of any other man. These stables contained an enormous mass of dung which had accumulated over a great period, and it was a spirit of insult which induced Eurystheus to lay upon him the command to clean out this dung. Heracles declined as unworthy of him to carry this out upon his shoulders, in order to avoid the disgrace which would follow upon the insulting command; and so, turning the course of the Alpheius river, as it is called, into the stables and cleansing them by means of the stream, he accomplished Labour in a single day, and without suffering any insult.”

Hercules the engineer as seen by Francisco de Zuraban

The story is reminiscent of the way ancient Egyptian society used the annual floods of the river Nile to fertilize but also clean the farm land along the river banks.

Here are two other hydraulic engineering feats:

“When Heracles arrived at the farthest points of the continents of Libya and Europe which lie upon the ocean, he decided to set up these pillars to commemorate his campaign. And since he wished to leave upon the ocean a monument which would be had in everlasting remembrance, he built out both the promontories, they say, to a great distance; consequently, whereas before that time a great space had stood between them, he now narrowed the passage, in order that by making it shallow and narrow​ he might prevent the great sea-monsters from passing out of the ocean into the inner sea, and that at the same time the fame of their builder might be held in everlasting remembrance by reason of the magnitude of the structures. Some authorities, however, say just the opposite, namely, that the two continents were originally joined and that he cut a passage between them, and that by opening the passage he brought it about that the ocean was mingled with our sea. On this question, however, it will be possible for every man to think as he may please.”

“A thing very much like this he had already done in Greece. For instance, in the region which is called Tempê, where the country is like a plain and was largely covered with marshes, he cut a channel through the territory which bordered on it, and carrying off through this ditch all the water of the marsh he caused the plains to appear which are now in Thessaly along the Peneius river. But in Boeotia he did just the opposite and damming the stream which flowed near the Minyan city of Orchomenus he turned the country into a lake and caused the ruin of that whole region. But what he did in Thessaly was to confer a benefit upon the Greeks, whereas in Boeotia he was exacting punishment from those who dwelt in Minyan territory, because they had enslaved the Thebans.”

Full text in english translation

The Great Pacific Plastic Patch

When I read about this assembly of plastic garbage, I was inevitably reminded of stories out of the saga “Erik the Red” or the Irish Legend of Saint Brendan. In other words, it has everything for being a modern myth, a contemporary fairy tale: A gigantic new island that appeared in the pacific ocean suddenly. It’s size is questionable. It is floating, so it’s exact position is also questionable. It is very hard to get to and it is dangerous.

Take for example this excerpt from National Geographic:

“Many expeditions have traveled through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Charles Moore, who discovered the patch in 1997, continues to raise awareness through his own environmental organization, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. During a 2014 expedition, Moore and his team used aerial drones, to assess from above the extent of the trash below. The drones determined that there is 100 times more plastic by weight than previously measured. The team also discovered more permanent plastic features, or islands, some over 15 meters (50 feet) in length.”

And a nameless Captain is quoted: “Fishermen shun it because its waters lack the nutrients to support an abundant catch. Sailors dodge it because it lacks the wind to propel their sailboats.”

So while islands like Tuvalu and cities like Jakarta are projected to sink beneath the sea in the next 100 years to join Atlantis and the many, many sunken islands and cities of our mythology, new and fascinating islands appear.

I wonder if the Great Pacific Plastic Patch too will become the stuff of songs and poetry in 200 years from now.

Islands and Whales

In folktales from various cultures there are tales of sea animals so big, that they get mistaken for islands. In some stories, sailors land on them and spend time on “land” before realizing that they are actually on top of a living, breathing animal. These islands accordingly appear and disappear, rise and sink into the ocean frequently. In the Irish Legend of Saint Brendan, Brendan of Clonfert, a monch and fabled navigator, and his disciples land on a giant sea creature called Jasconius. “Because of its size, Brendan and his fellow voyagers mistake it for an island and land to make camp. They celebrate Easter on the sleeping giant’s back, but awaken it when they light their campfire. They race to their ship, and Brendan explains that the moving island is really Jasconius, who labors unsuccessfully to put his tail in its mouth.”

In mythology sea animals often trick humans into believing that they are on safe, solid ground. But equally often, they rescue people from floods and offer their bodies as rescue boats. See for example the tale about the fish Matsya here.

Thunderbird and Whale

“Throughout Cascadia (southern Canadian and northern US-American west coast), earth shaking and/or tsunamilike effects are frequently described in stories about the acts and personalities of supernatural beings, often in the guise of animals. Many stories from western Vancouver Island and northern Washington tell of a struggle between Thunderbird and Whale, and throughout Cascadia stories about these figures frequently include explicit mention or visual imagery suggesting shaking and/or tsunamilike effects.

Alert Bay; a Thunderbird and Whale painted on the front of the house of Kwakwaka’ wakw Chief Tlah go glas (Malin 1999). Photo taken by Richard Maynard, 1873, print available from Vancouver Museum, 23.

Thunderbird and Whale are beings of supernatural size and power. A story from Vancouver Island says that all creation rests on the back of a mammoth whale, and that Thunderbird causes thunder by moving even a feather and carries a large lake on his back from which water pours in thunderstorms.

Shaking and ocean surges can be inferred from the story of Thunderbird driving his talons deeply into Whale’s back, and Whale diving and dragging the struggling Thunderbird to the bottom of the ocean (other versions have Thunderbird conquering Whale). Shaking is implied by imagery: Thunderbird lifts the massive Whale into the air and drops him on the land surface.

The struggle between Thunderbird and Whale is unique to the Cascadia coast and appears in stories from Vancouver Island to northern Oregon. From central Oregon south, thunder or whale figures appear individually in stories describing earthquake or tsunami themes. The central figures are variously identified as Thunder, Thunderbird, or bird and Whale, fish, or sea monster. In northern California, one tribe has an “Earthquake” figure with “Thunder” as his companion. Stories from Puget Sound and eastern Washington also use these motifs in conjunction with descriptions of earthquake effects.

Thunderbird and Whale stories are part of a systematic oral tradition that used symbolism and mnemonic keys to condense and present information in a format that could be remembered and retold for generations.”

excerpt from Ruth S. Ludwin et al.: “Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake: Great Coastal Earthquakes in Native Stories”

full text: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/252069651_Dating_the_1700_Cascadia_Earthquake_Great_Coastal_Earthquakes_in_Native_Stories

Sunken Lanka

From an article by Patrick Harrigan in the Colombo Sunday Times in 1989:

“One example of a recurrent storytelling motif that appears and re-appears under various guises is that of characters or even whole kingdoms that are said to be ‘sunken‘ or gone ‘underground’ and which may periodically re-surface only to disappear again. Such stories are known the world over, or course, but in Lanka they have been developed into a fine art.

The ‘original’ Lanka is said to be mostly submerged, like an iceberg. In remote antiquity, we are told, Lanka or Lemuria as some call it was a continent that was home to brilliant civilization of exceptional spiritual vitality, but which later catastrophically sank beneath the waters except for the small portion that is Sri Lanka today.

Ptolemy of Alexandria, the 2nd Century AD ‘Father of Modern Geography’, and other ancient geographers consistently reckoned Lanka or Taprobane of their time as being many times greater than the island known to geographers today. Was it really so, or was Taprobane larger only in the imagination of those who saw it or heard of it?”

see full article here.

The serpent disliked the weight upon his head

“At the beginning of time, the surface of the Earth was primeval ocean where this great serpent swam or lay. The daughter of the highest deity (who dwelt in the heavens and had birds as servants) came down from the upper realm and spread a handful of earth to form the world. The serpent, however, disliked the weight upon his head, and, turning over, caused this newly made world to be engulfed by the sea.”

A folktale from Indonesia.

from: Dixon, R. B. Oceanic Mythology, Cooper Square Publishers, New York. (1916)


Frazer: The flood myth

It might be time for a clarification. Since flood myths play quite a big role in cristian creationist ideology and since there is a lot of material online on the subject hosted on creatonist propaganda websites, I feel I need to distance myself from the creationist idoelogy once and for all. I am arguing in this blog that mythology and folklore are aesthetic reflections of natural events like tsunamis, high tides or other extreme weather phenomena. In othe words, most myths are most likely creative renditions of lived experience. This does however not mean that myths are true or – for that matter – that the bible is right. In fact I am opposed to any creationist ideology, particularly of the US-American Christian ultra-right, and fundamentally opposed to the idea of founding ethical codes of conduct on religious authority.

Having said that much, here is an online source of a chapter from Sir James George Frazer‘s book “Folk-Lore in the Old Testament” from 1918. (On a creationist website…)

The Scotish scientist Frazer is one of the founding fathers of anthropology and his study “The Golden Bough” (1928) became one of the most influential and popular texts in anthropology.

This is the section from “Folk-Lore in the Old Testament” on the flood myth. In it he gives a very detailed account of several flood myths from all continents:


Flood stories from around the world

In this really impressive online source, a guy called Mark Isaak has collected hundreds of flood myths from literally all over the world. Quite a collection! It gives a good impression of the omnipresence of the flood myth. Check it out here:


You can also chek out this article on the topic online which gives more of an overview.