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!

River as a landscape – Nilotic landscapes

The “Palestrina Mosaic” or “Nile mosaic of Palestrina”, a town near Italy’s capital Rome, is a late Hellenistic floor mosaic depicting the Nile in its passage from the Blue Nile to the Mediterranean.

Around 100 BCE, Nile landscapes were quite a fashion in Roman art. In fact, wikipedia has a whole article on “Nilotic landscapes” as an art subgenre of its own. The allure of the Nile and it’s natural and social surrounding must have been so great across the Mediterranean world, that from Ancient Egypt to the Minoans (2.000 BCE), the Greeks (500 BCE), the Romans (until the 7. Century CE) and into the Renaissance in the 16. Century, Nile landscapes were a popular motive in painting as well as mosaics and tapestry.

The Palestrina mosaic shows beautifully how water, land, vegetation and social life were interconnected in the Egyptian societies along the Nile. It’s a fluid, constantly changing and evolving concept of landscape and of society, I find very inspirational.

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:

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:

Rebuilding Mankind out of rocks

In the Greek myth of Decalion and Pyrrha, the couple recreates mankind after the universal deluge by throwing rocks over their shoulders to let them grow into men and women. Why rocks? And why over their shoulders? Is this how a community, a city is rebuilt?
Ovid concludes in his Metamorphosis that mankind – the second one, so to say – is hard and enduring becasue it is made out of rock.

Painting by Domenico Beccafumi from the 16. Century

Italy; 16. Century; 1. Century AD; Pagan; Painting; Text; Myth

All things have turned into a boundless sea – The myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha

In the ancient Greek and Roman mythologie there is also a story of the great deluge and of an arch. Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD) retells it in his “Metamorphosis. Book 1”. Infuriated by mankind’s brutality, the highest of the Gods, Jupiter, announces: „You might well believe that men had sworn to act as criminals. Let them all quickly pay the penalty they richly merit! So stands my judgment.” Jupiter than chooses his weapons of destruction. He shies away from fire, as he fears that the „ sacred eather, by some accident, may be set on fire from so many flames“.

“[…] So he sets aside
those weapons forged by hands of Cyclopes
and approves a different punishment—
he will send rains down from the entire sky
and wipe out mortal men beneath the waves.

So he immediately locks up North Wind
in Aeolus’ caves, along with any blasts
which scatter clouds collecting overhead,
and sends out South Wind, flying on sodden wings,
his dreadful face veiled in pitch-black darkness,
his beard heavy with rain, water flowing
from his hoary locks, mists sitting on his forehead,
his flowing robes and feathers dripping dew.

When Jupiter stretches his hand and strikes
the hanging clouds, heavy, crashing rainstorms
start pouring down from heaven. Iris,
Juno’s messenger, dressed in various colours,
gathers the water up and brings it back
to keeps clouds well supplied. Crops are flattened,
fond hopes of grieving farmers overthrown,
their long year’s work now wasted and in vain.
And Jupiter’s rage does not confine itself
to his own sky. For Neptune, his brother,
god of the azure sea, provides him help
with flooding which augments the pouring rain.
He summons the rivers to a meeting
and, after they have entered their king’s home,
says to them:

“This is not now the moment
for a long speech from me. What we require
is for you to discharge all your power.
Open your homes, remove all barriers,
and let your currents have free rein to flow.”

Neptune gave his orders, and the rivers

return, relax the mouths of all their springs,
and race down unobstructed to the sea.
Neptune himself with his trident strikes the land.
Earth trembles and with the tremor lays bare
the sources of her water. Streams spread out
and charge through open plains, sweeping away
all at once groves, planted fields, cattle herds,
men, and homes, along with sacred buildings
and their holy things. If any house remains
still standing and is able to resist

such a huge catastrophe, nonetheless,
waves higher than the house cover the roof,
and its towers, under pressure, collapse
beneath the surge. And now the land and sea
are not distinct—all things have turned into
a boundless sea which has no ocean shore.
Some men sit on hill tops, others in boats,
pulling oars here and there, above the fields
which they just ploughed not long before. One man
now sails above his crops or over roofs
of sunken villas, another catches fish
from high up in an elm. Sometimes, by chance,
an anchor bites into green meadowland,
or a curved keel scrapes against a vineyard
submerged beneath the sea. And in those places
where slender she-goats have grazed on grasses,
misshapen sea calves let their bodies rest.
Nereïds are astonished at the groves,
cities, and homes lying beneath the waves.
Dolphins have taken over in the woods,
racing through lofty branches and bumping
into swaying oaks. Wolves swim among sheep.

Waves carry tawny lions and tigers.
The forceful, mighty power of the boar
is no help at all, nor are the swift legs
of the stag, once they are swept into the sea.
The wandering bird, after a long search
for some place to land, its wings exhausted,
falls down in the sea. The unchecked movement
of the oceans has overwhelmed the hills,
new waters beat against the mountain tops.
The deluge carries off most living things.
Those whom it spares, because food is so scarce,
are overcome by gradual starvation.

The fertile territory of Phocis,

while still land, separates Aonia
from Oeta, but when that flood took place
was still part of the sea, a wide expanse
of water which had suddenly appeared.
In that place there is a soaring mountain
which has two peaks striving to reach the stars.
Its summit rises high above the clouds.
Deucalion lands here in his small boat,
with the wife who shares his bed—for the sea
now covers every other place. They revere
Corycian nymphs and mountain deities
and prophetic Themis, too, the goddess
who at that time controlled the oracle.

No man was finer than Deucalion,
no man loved justice more, and no woman
had more reverence for gods than Pyrrha.
When Jupiter observes the earth submerged
in flowing water, with only one man left
from many thousands not so long before
and sees one woman from many thousands
a short while earlier, both innocent,
both worshippers of the gods, he scatters
the clouds, and once North Wind has blown away
the rain, he makes land open to the sky
and heaven to the earth. And the sea’s rage
does not persist. The lord of the ocean
sets down his three-pronged weapon, calms the seas,
and summons dark-blue Triton standing there
above the ocean depths, his shoulders covered
by native shells, and orders him to blow
his echoing horn and with that signal
summon back the flooding waters and the sea.
Triton raised his hollow shell, whose spirals
grow as they curl up from the base—that horn,
when filled with air in the middle of the waves,
makes coastlines under east and western suns
echo its voice—and thus, once the god’s lips,
dew dripping from his soaking beard, touched it,
and, by blowing, sounded out the order
to retreat, all the waters heard the call,
on land and in the sea. They listened to it,
and all of them pulled back. And so the sea
had a shore once more, full-flowing rivers
remained within their banks, floods subsided,
hills appeared, land rose up, and dry places
grew in size as the waters ebbed away.
After a long time, exposed tops of trees
revealed themselves, their foliage covered
in layers of mud. The world had been restored.

When Deucalion sees that earth is empty
and observes the solemn silence over
devastated lands, with tears in his eyes
he speaks to Pyrrha:

“O wife and sister,
the only woman alive, linked to me
by common race and family origin,
then by marriage, and by these dangers now,
we two are the total population
of the entire world, every place spied out
by the setting and rising sun. The sea
has taken all the others. Even now,
there is nothing secure about our lives,
nothing to give us sufficient confidence.
Those heavy clouds still terrify my mind.
O you for whom I have so much compassion,
how would you feel now, if you had been saved
from death without me? How could you endure
the fear all by yourself? Who would console
your grief? For if the sea had taken you,
dear wife, I would follow you, believe me,
and the sea would have me, too. How I wish
I could use my father’s skill to replace
those people and infuse a living soul
in moulded forms of earth. The human race
lives now in the two of us. Gods above
thought this appropriate, and we remain
the sole examples left of human beings.”

Deucalion said this, and they wept. They thought
it best to pray to the celestial god
and to seek help from sacred oracles.
Without delay they set off together
to the stream of Cephisus, whose waters
were not yet clear but by now were flowing
within their customary banks. And there,
once they have sprinkled their heads and garments
with libations, they approach the temples
of the sacred goddess, whose pediments
are stained with filthy moss and whose altars
stand without a fire. As they touch the steps
before the shrine, they both fall on the ground,
and kiss the cold stone, in fear and trembling.
Then they speak these words:

“O Themis, if gods
may be overcome with righteous prayers
and change their minds and if their anger
may be averted, reveal to us the art
by which destruction of the human race
may be repaired and, most gentle goddess,
assist our drowned condition.”

The goddess
is moved and through the oracle speaks out:

“Leave the temple. Cover your head, and loosen
the garments gathered around you. Then throw
behind your backs the bones of your great parent.”

For a long time they are both astonished.
Pyrrha’s voice is the first to break the silence,
refusing to act on what the goddess said.
Her mouth trembling, Pyrrha asks the goddess
to grant her pardon, for she is afraid
to offend her mother’s shade by throwing
her bones away. Meanwhile, they both review
the obscure dark riddle in the language
of the oracle they have been given,
examining the words between themselves.
And then the son of Prometheus consoles
Epimetheus’ daughter with these words
to reassure her:

“Either we have here
some subtle falsehood, or, since oracles
respect the gods and do not recommend
impious acts, our great mother is the Earth
and, I assume, what people call her bones
are those rocks in the body of the earth.
These stones are what we have been commanded
to throw behind our backs.”

Although the way
Deucalion has interpreted the words
encourages the Titan’s daughter, their hopes
are plagued by fears—that’s how much both of them
have doubts about the heavenly command.

But then what harm will there be in trying?
They go down, cover their heads, unfasten
their tunics, and, as they have been ordered,
throw stones behind where they are standing.
The stones—and who would ever think this true,
if old traditions did not confirm it?—
began to lose rigidity and hardness.
Gradually they softened, and then, once soft,
they took on a new shape. They grew larger
and before long acquired a gentler nature.
One could make out a certain human form,
but indistinctly, like the beginnings
of marble carvings not yet completed,
crude statues. But still, those pieces of them
which were earthy and damp from any moisture
were changed into essential body parts.
What was solid and inflexible changed
to bones, and what just a few moments before
had been veins remained, keeping the same name.
Soon, with the help of gods above, the stones
which the man’s hand had thrown took on the form
of men, and the stones the woman had cast
changed into women. That’s why human beings
are a tough race—we know about hard work
and provide the proof of those origins
from which we first arose.

I found the source in the book “Naturkatastrophen in der Antike” by Holger Sonnabend.
The Ovid Quote is from:

Italy; 1. Century AD; Pagan; Myth; Literature

…after three days the sea would rise and take everything

John Malalas (Greek: Ἰωάννης Μαλάλας, Iōánnēs Malálas) was a Byzantine writer who lived around 500 CE. In his Chronicles he records the following story from Constantinople:

“In the 5th of the Indiction such a thing happened: a woman who lived near the Golden Gate was hung up one night, and talked a great deal, so that the crowds in Constantinople came running, and they went away singing hymns to the church of St. Diomedes of Jerusalem, and they brought down the woman from her house and took her to the church of St. Diomedes. She said that after three days the sea would rise and take everything.

All were singing hymns and shouting ‘Lord have mercy.’ It was rumored that many cities had been swallowed up.

At that time in Egypt and Alexandria a plague was occurring. The King sent Narses the cubicularius with light, fast boats and some others to learn what was happening. The children of Narses went as his emissary to St. Diomedes. They learned from the assembled crowd what the woman had said. They came and reported to Narses what was happening in the church, and that they heard from the hanged woman that after three days the sea would rise and drown everything. The crowd heard what she said and went away distraught.”


thanks to Jasmin Hettinger for the tip.

Scipio looks back on the Ruins of Karthago

The greek historian Polybius, who lived in the era of the Punic wars around 200 BC reports about the Roman military leader Scipio after his troops conquered and burnt down Carthage:

“Turning round to me at once and grasping my hand Scipio said, ‘A glorious moment, Polybius; but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my own country.’ It would be difficult to mention an utterance more statesmanlike and more profound. For at the moment of our greatest triumph and of disaster to our enemies to reflect on our own situation and on the possible reversal of circumstances, and generally to bear in mind at the season of success the mutability of Fortune, is like a great and perfect man, a man in short worthy to be remembered.

Scipio, when he looked upon the city as it was utterly perishing and in the last throes of its complete destruction, is said to have shed tears and wept openly for his enemies. After being wrapped in thought for long, and realizing that all cities, nations, and authorities must, like men, meet their doom; that this happened to Ilium, once a prosperous city, to the empires of Assyria, Media, and Persia, the greatest of their time, and to Macedonia itself, the brilliance of which was so recent, either deliberately or the verses escaping him, he said:

A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
And Priam and his people shall be slain.

And when Polybius speaking with freedom to him, for he was his teacher, asked him what he meant by the words, they say that without any attempt at concealment he named his own country, for which he feared when he reflected on the fate of all things human.”

From Polybius, Histories, Book 38

Thanks to Holger Sonnabend for the tip.

Greece, Tunisia; 1. Century BC; Pagan; Literature; City: Carthage