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The makers of Hellas: a critical inquiry into the philosophy and religion of ancient Greece online

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hollow gorge, so narrow as in parts to afford space only for the river which
flows along it beneath gigantic cliffs that tower above, on either side, to a
height of nearly 1500 feet. This is the famous pass emphatically described
both by its ancient name of Tempe, " the Cleft," and also by that which it bore
in the Middle Ages — Lykostomo, " the Wolf's Jaws."

Here, indeed, is a scene which, like Thera, might well make a thoughtful
observer pause and ask : How did it originate ? What force rent those tremen-
dous " Jaws " asunder ? To this the Hellenes themselves replied : A beneficent
force ! for through these opened jaws was disgorged the flood of waters which
would else have overspread the land and turned the fruitful plains of Thessaly
into a standing lake. The Peneius, which discharges itself peacefully through
Tempe into the sea, receives the waters of the other rivers of Thessaly, four in
number, which in their turn collect and bear to it those of all the streams pouring
down from the mountain walls of the Great Plain. The two Thessalian lakes,
Nessonis and Boebeis, were thought in antiquity to be the sunken remnants of
the great sheet of water which was supposed to have overspread the land in
primeval times (Strabo, c. 430, vii. 5). "Thessaly," says Herodotus (vii. 139,
cf. Leake, Northern Greece, iv. p. 513 et seq.), "is surrounded on every side by
very high mountains ; to the east by Pelion and Ossa, the extremities of which
are united together, to the north by Olympus, to the west by Pindus, to the
south by Othrys. In the midst is the hollow Thessaly, watered by many rivers,
of which the five principal, having joined their waters into one channel (the
Peneius), are discharged into the sea through a narrow strait. It is reported
that anciently the valley which gives passage to the river did not exist ; that
neither the rivers nor the lake Boebeis had names, though the waters flowed as
at present, and that they thus made Thessaly a sea (j^elagos)."

Let us add that in these suppositions the old writers have been confirmed
by modern geologists — without Tempe, there could be no Thessaly. Well,
indeed, might the opening of the Wolf's Jaws appear an operation of the
utmost importance to the Thessalians, and well might they shudder when, in
after days, they heard of the cold-blooded possibility suggested by Xerxes :
that, by merely shutting up the " Jaws " again — blocking the passage of the
Peneius to the sea — it would be easy to dispose of a hostile Thessaly (Hero-
dotus, vii. 130).

The beneficent force to which the Hellenes assigned the " cleft " of Tempe
was — the force of the sea. In the language of the myths, it was due to
Poseidon. " The Thessalians say," remarks Herodotus in the passage just
cited, "that Poseidon opened the channel at Tempe, through which the
Peneius flows, and this will appear probable to those who believe that Poseidon
shakes the earth, for the separation of the mountains, Olympus and Ossa, seems
to me to have been caused by an earthquake."

In these words of the historian, we have one of the leading theories of
antiquity concerning earthquakes : viz., that they were caused by the rushing
of the sea waves into hollow caves on the coast, whence penetrating far inland,
they shook the solid foundations above, and produced the quaking and rending
asunder of the earth's crust. This theory — although far removed from the
truth — is neither so meagre nor so inadequate an explanation as it appears,
for it is based upon another — which, from the standpoint of the ancients, was
satisfactory enough : Poseidon (Neptune), " the Might of the Sea," becomes
Enosichthon, "the Earth-shaker," because he is first GcBeochus, "the Earth-up-
holder." To repeat here what the reader will find more fully discussed elsewhere,^

^ See under "Poseidon," Hellas, p. 204.


" Poseidon was supposed to hold up the earth, as Atlas supported the sky
— an idea which originated in the fact that, seen from shipboard, the land
appears to rest on the sea as on a foundation." It will be seen, therefore,
that on this theory it is easy for the Earth-upholder to become the Earth-
shaker at his pleasure ; and the awful suddenness and vehemence of an earth-
quake, or an earthquake-wave, seemed in those early days only the natural
outcome of the revengeful and implacable temper of the " dark-haired Earth-
shaker," the choleric monarch of the sea.

Poseidon, therefore, was worshipped in all parts of Greece visited by earth-
quakes, and at Tempe a temple was erected in his honour, as Petrxus, "the
Rock-cleaver," on the alluvial ground at the mouth of the Peneius.

It was, however, along the southern part of the great line of fracture — the
northern coast of Peloponnesvis — that the power of the Earth-shaker was most
clearly manifested. Achaia, the smallest district of Peloponnesus, is merely
a narrow seam of land, lying between the mountains and the sea, and best
described by its prehistoric name of ^gialos or JEgialeia, "the coast-land."
Concussions of earthquake, so travellers tell us, have tossed the surface of the
little land into a multiplicity of forms — deep dells and craggy steeps, yawning
ravines, and cloud-capped precipices (Dodwell, Tour through Greece, ii. p. 303).
Seen from the sea, the spurs of the mountains, as they descend into the plain,
lie in huge convulsed masses, or fall in abrupt terrace-fashion, like a succession
of gigantic landslips (Sir T. Wyse, Excursion in the Peloponnesus, ii. p. 281).
Here, in this district, sacred in early days to Poseidon, occurred in 373 B.C.,
two years before the battle of Leuctra, one of the most appalling catastrophes
of ancient times — a fearful earthquake, by which the city of Bura was
destroyed, and the neighbouring city of Helice, once the chief town of Achaia,
completely swallowed up by the wrathful waves. This terrible fate overtook
the city during the night, and when, next day, 2000 Achseans came together to
bury the dead, they found to their horror not a trace of the city remaining —
not a man nor a dwelling. The Hellenes regarded this as a judgment on the
inhabitants, who had driven suppliants out of the sanctuary of Poseidon
Heliconios and murdered them. Centuries later, the fishermen of the Corinthian
Gulf declared that their nets often became entangled in the image of the god,
standing sternly upright beneath the waves, as though testifying to the justice
of the sentence on the doomed city (Pans., vii. 24, 7 ; Diodor., xv. 48).^

Hardly less dramatic is a similar event mentioned by Thucydides and
others. About a century earlier (464 B.C.), in "hollow Lacedaemon, cleft with
glens," occurred an earthquake, which detached one peak of Taygetus,
destroyed Sparta, and buried more than 20,000 Lacedaemonians beneath the
ruins. This event also was regarded as a punishment sent by Poseidon on the
Spartans for the murder of certain Helots who had taken refuge as suppliants
in his sanctuary at Tsenarum ; and it had far-reaching political consequences,
for the enslaved Helots took the opportunity of the general terror (and
probably, also, of the cause assigned to the catastrophe), and rose in rebellion.
These Helots, mark you, were Hellenes, descendants of the Messenians whose
country the Spartans had, as we have seen (p. 26), unscrupulously annexed.
They established themselves on Mt. Ithome — not only the chief fortress, but
the national sanctuary of Messenia — and there began the third Messenian War,
a struggle which lasted ten years. When, finally, in the tenth year of the
siege, the Messenians could no longer hold out, a powerful ally was at hand in
the shape of a Delphic oracle current among the Spartans, which bade them
" let the suppliant of Zeus Ithomatos go free " — a warning which resulted in

^ For a fuller account see under ' ' Poseidon, " Hellas, p. 206.


the regaining of their liberty, at the cost of exile, by the Messenian Helots.
Nearly a century later (369 B.C.) their descendants were brought back and
their wrongs avenged by Epaminondas (Thucyd., i. loi, 128, 103; Strabo, c.
367, vii. 6; Plut., Gim., 16).

Between the terrible catastrophe of 373 B.C., which swallowed up Helice,
and the year 1861 of our era, Peloponnesus has been visited by some thirteen
earthquake-shocks, in which the city of Corinth was the chief sufferer, having
been laid in ruins no fewer than three times — in a.d. 77, 522, and 1858. Nor
has the northern half of Greece been exempt, witness the earthquake which
occurred at Thebes in 1853 (T. F. T. Schmidt, App. iv. to Wyse's Excursion in
the Peloponnesus),

Now, wending our way eastwards, we have in the long narrow island of
Eubcea a most remarkable phenomenon. Fragment for fragment, it corre-
sponds precisely to that part of Middle Greece from which it was torn.
Geological evidence shows that its mountains are continuations — end-masses —
of the chains of the mainland : the steep heights of the promontory of Censeum
on Euboea answer to those of (Eta ; the hot-springs of -^^depsus to those of
Thermopylae ; a fertile strip on the coast to a similar strip in Locris (P. W.
Forchhammer, Hellenika, p. 12); and at one place so closely does the island
approach the mainland, that the strait between, the Euripus, was bridged over
in ancient as in modern times. ^

The view that Euboea had formerly been one with the continent was held
in antiquity, and is mentioned by Strabo, Pliny, and others (Strabo, c. 60, i.
19; Pliny, ii. 88, 204; iv. 12, 63). There are numerous allusions also to
visitations of earthquake in historic times. Thus, Thucydides tells of one
which happened in Euboea during the Peloponnesian War, and in which a
portion of the island was swallowed up by the sea. The views of the historian
are in curious contrast to the popular mythical theory of Herodotus, given
above. Thucydides explains the occurence of the earthquake sea-wave (which,
as we now know, is propagated together with the land-wave from the centre of
the disturbance) by the force and rapidity of the rebound of the sea upon the
land, from which it has just been repelled by the violence of the seismic shock
(iii. 89).

Thus, the phenomenon of Euboea, no less than that of Tempe, aroused
thought and inquiry among the Hellenes, and that, if we are to believe our
modern myth-interpreters, long before the age of Thucydides. It is quite
possible that the event may have actually occurred within the memory of man
(according to modern views, it must have taken place at a relatively late
period) (Bursian, op. cit., ii. p. 349, 395) ; and consequently the story of the
catastrophe may have been handed down as part of the great body of tradition
embodied in the myths. However this may have been, Forchhammer, who
has made the most elaborate study of the locality, sees the rending of Euboea
distinctly set forth in the saga of the (Etaean Heracles (Forchhammer, op. cit.,
p. 16 et seq.).

He takes up the story at the point where the hero has just returned in
triumph with lole from the sacking of (Echalia, and is about to offer a sacri-
fice of thanksgiving to Zeus on the promontory of Cenaeum. Lichas, the
messenger of the forsaken wife, brings him the fatal robe which Deianeira, in
her innocence, imagines will restore her husband's love to her. Heracles puts
it on as his sacrificial garb ; immediately the sun beats upon it, the texture
grows soft and fastens itself round him like a coat of wax ; the poison sinks

^ For an account of the Euripus and its fluctuating tides, which,^o jess than the island itself,
engaged the attention of antiquity, see Hellas, p. 43. ^ - - 7- > v ' '^ ^^''^


into his veins and causes intolerable agony. Mountains and sea resound with
the cries of the hero ; in a paroxysm of fury he seizes the unfortunate Lichas,
and dashes him into the sea ; after him he throws the robe, tearing off with it
the adhering quivering flesh. Then, in his despair, he has himself conveyed
across the sea, carried to the summit of OEta, and placed upon the pyre whence
his apotheosis finally takes place.

This, by far the most dramatic and powerful of the numberless sagas con-
cerning the hero, a story which Sophocles has invested with an intensely
human interest, Forchhammer interprets thus : the long robe thrown oft' by
Heracles is the island of Euboea ; the bringer of the fatal gift, Lichas, is
represented by the little islets, the Lichades, between Euboea and the main-
land ; the cries and groans of the hero are the fearful sounds that accompany
the rending of earth's surface ; and Deianeira, the deserted wife, whose one
fault is that she loved, not wisely, but too well, Deianeira is, what her name
denotes, the " enemy of man," the destroying force of fire and earthquake.

So much for modei-n myth-interpreters ! We shall not quarrel with the
reader if he prefer Sophocles to Forchhammer.

There only remains for us now to notice the disappearance of land. Of
this in^connection with earthquakes, in historic times, we have already had two
examples in Achaia and Euboea ; and, therefore, when Pausanias (viii. ;^;^, 4)
tells us that Chryse, a little island near Lemnos, the supposed scene of the
wounding of the unfertunate Philoctetes on the voyage to Troy, was swallowed
up by the sea, there is no reason to doubt the truth of the statement. In fact,
soundings taken between Lemnos and the continent would seem to indicate
the presence there of submerged land (Choiseul-Youftier, Voyaye inttoresque
dans V Empire Ottoman, ii. p. 218 et seq. Of. Neumann u. Partsch, p. 338).

(3.) Phenomena connected with Water.— No less remarkable than
the phenomena presented by the solid earth of Greece, are those of the liquid
element on her surface. Just as we have seen land vipheaving and land
vanishing, so now we shall see water appearing and water disappearing in
apparently the most mysterious and inexplicable fashion. Torrents, big with
the winter's rains, rush down the mountain-sides, form a league, swell into a
mighty flood as though, united, they would devastate the land, and then — are
seen no more. Rivers pursue an open-air course for miles, and then suddenly
vanish, to reappear perhaps at some great distance. Lakes rise as if by magic,
and then, as by a stroke of the enchanter's wand, where the waters stood, dry
ground presents itself.

(a) Rise and Fall of Lakes. — Lest the reader should think that we are
drawing upon imagination, let us hear what an eye-witness of one of these
astonishing sights has to say about it : " Suddenly," says Mr. Clark {Pelopon-
nesus : Notes of Study and Travel, pp. 311, 312), "at a break in the forest, our
eyes were greeted with a scene of which the charm was enhanced by the sur-
prise. Two thousand feet below us lay a wide expanse of still water deep
among the hills, reflecting black pine woods, and grey crags, and sky now
crimson with sunset ... a lake seven miles long and seven miles broad,
washing the base of famous Cyllene . . . worthy to be matched for size with
Windermere, for beauty with Lucerne."

Yes ; but how comes a lake to be washing the base of Cyllene ? — " a lake
which as yet has been sung by no poet, mentioned by no historian, described
by no geographer." There's the rub ! In vain does the traveller scan his
map ; in vain does he jog his memory. The lake is no mirage of the desert.
True, but it has, notwithstanding, no real existence, no right of tenure. With
all its beauty, the water is an intruder and a despot which has taken possession


of the plain of Phoebus and ousted the unfortunate inhabitants, who are now
encamped upon the northern hillside.

Such was the appearance presented by the plain when visited by Mr. Clark
in 1857. When seen by Colonel Leake in 1806 it was partly dry ground,
partly swamp ; in the age of the Antonines it was dry (Pausanias, viii. 14, i ;
Leake, Morea, iii., p. 135) ; and, further back still in antiquity, its meadows
and cornfields supported a brave race who cultivated it assiduously. So im-
possible did the rise of a " lake " appear even to a shrewd observer like
Colonel Leake, that he speaks of certain water-marks on the hills around
(attributed by Pausanias to a previous submersion) as giving rise to " the
vulgar belief of the waters having once covered the whole Pheneatic plain."
The water-line he supposed to be the result of evaporation ; but the " vulgar
belief " for once proved right. ^

To what, then, are we to attribute the sudden appearance of the *' lake " ?
Simply to the fact that the waters of Pheneatis have found the usual channels
by which they make their escape to the river Ladon blocked up, and so have
submerged the plain.

To understand this we must call to mind once more the little " chambers "
into which the country is divided, and specially its deep cauldron-shaped
basins, surrounded on all sides by mountain walls which effectually hinder
the flow of the rivers along " natural " channels. But for a certain peculiarity
in these mountain walls, every hill-enclosed valley of Greece would be a
Pheneus. The fortunate peculiarity which prevents this is the soft calcareous
rock of which they are formed, and through which, in the course of ages, the
waters have hollowed out for themselves subterranean passages from which
they ultimately emerge into the daylight again, and either find their way to
the sea or join a larger river. Whatever may be the differences between the
western and the eastern sides of Greece, and to whatever geological age the
mountains may belong, they one and all present this feature. Whether we go
north and study the lake of Jodnnina (Pambotis) in Epeirus ; or east to that
of Topolia (Copais) in Boeotia ; or south to the valley of Eastern Arcadia ;
Pheneus, Stymphalus, Caphyae, Orchomenus, and the double hill-divided plain
of Mantineia-Tegea — we find the mountains, without exception, affording this
outlet to the waters of the district, the katabothra, or caverns by which they
enter, and the subterranean canals along which they flow. It will be readily
understood now how any obstruction to the mouth of these underground
labyrinths — such as might be caused by fallen rocks, trees, and debiv's, or any
internal alteration such as might result from an earthquake shock — would
prevent the escape of the waters, and thus cause them to rise in the valley
and form a " lake."

The most typical instance of these phenomena is the famous Copais in
Boeotia, better described by its other ancient name of the " Cephissian " Lake,
for, most certainly, if there were no river Cephissus there would be no floods,
and consequently no " lake " on a grand scale. ^ The Cephissus, in fact, forms

^ An old Romaic (modern Greek) prediction had foretold that the lake of Pheneus would
never fill again until Greece had regained her liberty. Strangely enough when, in 1 82 1, the
revolt of Ali Pasha (in which the Greeks took part) began, the lake did reappear. Whether
this phenomenon was " assisted " or not we cannot say ; but who can wonder that the Greeks
are somewhat " superstitious " ?

•^ The ancients used the names Copais and Cephissus without any clear discrimination, yet
in Copais (or Lake of Copae, at the north-east extremity of the basin) there is always some
water, even in summer. Cephissus comprehends the whole tract of occasional lake* and
marshes, enlarging or diminishing its boundaries according to the season (Leake, Northern
Greece, ii., p. 158). See also Hellas, p. 14.


the lake. One of the largest rivers in Northern Greece, it rises in the Phocian
valley, receives all the snow-swollen torrents of Parnassus and Oetia — think
what that means ! — and then proceeds to pour them into and swamp the
northern Boeotian plain — a work in which it is aided by two smaller rivers,
the Melas (or Black-stream) and the Probatia. The Copaic plain is really a
deep basin sunk among the mountains, which hem it in on all sides, and in
which some twenty katahotlira exist. These, however, are not sufficient to
carry off the immense amount of water in winter, and consequently the forma-
tion of the lake is an annual occurrence. Finally, by May the floods brought
by the Cephissus and its allies begin to sink, and soon they have disappeared
from the greater part of the plain ; they have found their way across it,
pierced the boundary mountains on the eastern side, and discharged them-
selves into the Eubcean Sea. Not, however, precisely as they came ; they
have paid for their temporary occupation by a very precious deposit. The
mineral particles which they brought down from the mountains in their im-
petuous course, and the salts which they held in solution, have been left
behind, filtered through in their passage across the plain, forming a soil of
wonderful fertility — one of the richest, as we have seen, in all Greece. The
Copaic basin thus reminds us of the Nile valley. To this annual overflow
Bceotia was indebted for her wealth ; to it, also, as will easily be perceived,
she owed her heavy, " fat " air, her mists and fogs — that crassus aer, in short,
which in antiquity had passed into a proverb.

(b) The Barathra or Katahotlira. — The foregoing notable instances will
suffice to show the exceeding importance of these natural outlets for Greece.
A brief description of them, therefore, will not be without interest.

In antiquity they were called simply pits, barathra.^ The modern term,
Katabothron, is now often applied to the whole of the underground passage,
but erroneously, for this consists of (i) the barathron proper — pit or cavern
into which the water descends ; (2) the canal or tunnel through which it flows;
(3) the kephalaria (springs or heads) by which it reappears — the outfall.

The barathra which receive the Cephissus on its way to Laiymna, are great
caverns at the foot of precipitous rocks, some 20, 50, or 80 feet in height.
Their size may be estimated from the fact that the stream which enters one
of them is 30 feet broad and 4 to 5 feet deep. Strange to say, these outlets
do not always occur where we should expect to find them — i.e. where the
shores are low — but often where the mountains are highest and rockiest, and
where they project farthest into the lake. The barathra thus being above the
level of the lake-plain, the water can only enter when it has reached a certain
height. Hence, in the month of August or earlier, four only of the Copaic
katabothra are active ; several of them are quite empty, and may be inspected.
During the Greek Revolution, these caverns served as temporary refuges for
the women and children, until they could escape under cover of night to
hiding-places more secure from the pursuit of the Turks (Forchhammer, op. cit.,
pp. 159-172 ; Leake, Northern Greece, ii. p. 281 ; Fiedler, op. cit., pp. 100-129 ;
Bursian, op. cit., pp. 195 et seq.).

How these mysterious, but most necessary, outlets were formed is still to
a certain extent a matter of conjecture. The most probable hypothesis is,
that the clefts are the results of earthquakes ; and, given an opening, no
matter how small, through which the water could penetrate, the formation of
the tunnel is easily explained by the chemical action of the water on the soft
calcareous rock, assisted by the mechanical friction of any particles loosened

^ The Barathron at Athens was simply a pit, into which criminals were thrown.


but not dissolved by the stream, and carried along as sediment (Geikie, op. cit.^
pp. 351, 357). If we imagine this process going on for ages, we can under-
stand something of the way in which the wonderful subterranean labyrinths
within the Greek mountains were hollowed out.

(c) Reappearance of the Rivers : the Kephalaria. — Tortuous labyrinths these
underground passages are ; so much so, that it is often difficult to trace the
progress of a stream from its entrance into the barathron to its exit at the
outfall. In the two cases already mentioned — the waters of Pheneus, which
join the Ladon, and those of Copais, which discharge themselves into the
Euboean Sea — their course is clear, as in both cases a single mountain -ridge
only is pierced through. It is supposed, however, that ultimately all the watery
treasures of the shut-up basins of Eastern Arcadia, with but few exceptions,
find their way by underground channels to the river Alpheius, either directly
or indirectly, and are thus conveyed through Elis to the Sicilian Sea. A noble
river is the Alpheius. Now diving into the heart of a mountain, now winding

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