Parthenon Tsunami

The classic Parthenon atop the Athenian Akropolis is remarkable for its numerous and diverse depictions of horses, that occur in both pediments, in the kentavromaxia (centaur-battle) metopes along its south side, and in the processional frieze external to the naos along its north, west and south sides. Despite intense interest in the Parthenon over recent centuries, and the limited resources of the ancient Athenians to maintain horses, the association of the horses with tsunamies appears to have been overlooked.

Parthenon Pediment east
Fig.1 - Parthenon East Pediment

Of particular interest are the horse-drawn chariots installed at the shallow extremities of the east pediment (Fig.1). The horse-drawn chariot at the left or south corner is shown rising with only the head and arms of its driver visible, while its horse heads "dash up from the soft ripples of water". Meanwhile, at the right or north corner, the horse-drawn chariot is shown descending with only the upper half of its female driver depicted holding the reigns, while its horse heads are ghasping their last before sinking into the pediment floor. As both horse-drawn chariots are shown heading right or northwards, contrary to the movement of the stars, the usual interpretation that the south chariot represents the rising sun driven by Elios ("Helios") and the north chariot represents the setting moon driven by Selene ("Moon") seems a little naive.

However, in view of the recent spate of tsunamies, the horse-drawn chariots in the east pediment may represent a pair of tsunamies that swamped the deme of Attika (capital Athens) around the middle of the second millennium BCE. Ancient Greek myth recalls two major pre-historic flood events, the flood of Oguges (Ogyges) and the flood of Diokalion (Deucalion), where the latter was far more devastating and followed the former by an indeterminate period of time, although possibly within a century or so. As the central sculptures of the east pediment depict the birth of Athena from the head of Dios (Zeus) through the action of the earth-splitting double-axe of Ephaistos (Hephaistos), we submit that the birth of Athena took place in the interval between these two flood events, and that both events stemmed from the volcano underlying the Aegean island of Thera (modern Santorini), which is known to have erupted catastrophically in around 1630BCE, and whose wide-rimming sea-girt caldera is known to have partially collapsed a century or so later (see Hyksos and Sea-Peoples). As the low-lying Athenian plain lies at the head of a mountainous gulf, it is vulnerable to the full force of tsunamies.

The identification of these floods as tsunamies is suggested by the names given to these destructive events, where the obvious and trivial solution that the names refer to actual historical persons is dismissed in favour of descriptive epithets personified. By regarding the name Oguges as a compound of two words ogkow ("swollen") and Ge ("Mother Earth"), Oguges can be deemed a "swelling of earth", possibly a gigantic bubble of gaseous rock that arose amidst the Theran crater before it burst violently to send a tsunami all round the Aegean. Hence the female driver of the north chariot can be deemed to represent Mother Earth. The architectural term "ogee" is used to describe arches and domes that exhibit reverse curvature.

Likewise Diokalion may also be compounded of two words, di ("second") and okellon ("wave" or "oscillation") or wkualos ("sea-swift"), whereby the flood of Diokalion becomes the second tsunami to smash the Aegean, that probably emanated from the partial collapse of the Theran caldera. From the myth of this flood event, the name of Purras (Pyrrha), wife of Diokalion, conveys a meaning of fiery redness, that may also refer to a volcanic eruption. All Ellenes (Hellenes) claim to be descended from Diokalion and Purras, whose populace is said to have sprung from rocks thrown over their shoulders. As seismic waves travel at a swift (wka) 800km/hr, a seismic wave generated by Thera, situated about 300kms southeast of Athens, would take less than thirty minutes to reach Attika.

However, situated about 60km south of Athens on the opposite shore of the Saronic Gulf (Gk savron = reptile), lies another volcanic complex known as Methana, but also referred to in ancient times as Xelona ("Turtle", which is a reptile). Lying on the same volcanic arc as Thera and Etna in Sicily, which marks where the African plate is sliding under the European plate, a seismic wave issuing from Methana would take less than five minutes to reach Attika. Although partially hidden from Athenian view by the island of Aegina, references to Poseidon in Attika and surrounding demes may have infered Methana (see Proto-Aeolic).

The speed and sound of a tsunami crashing onto land can be compared to a charge of cavalry or chariotry, which no doubt explains the numerous depictions of horses on the Parthenon and also why the Greek deity Poseidon was so often portrayed driving a chariot drawn by four mighty foam-flecked and wave-maned stallions. The sculptures of the west pediment (Fig.2) depict the contest between Athena (athanatos = "immortal") and Poseidon ("water-demon") for control of the Akropolis, where Athena armed with spear and shield is shown standing to the left or north of centre while Poseidon armed with trident and possibly a net is shown standing to the right or south of centre, predictably since this is the direction of the sea. On either side of the godly pair was installed a chariot with horses rearing up towards the deities. The rearing horses could represent the rising of a wave as it enters shallow water, or a standing wave formed when one flow surges against another. In the kentavromaxai (centaur-battle) metopes, the various depictions of kentavroi wielding uprooted trees and boulders, and pummelling even the strongest of men into the ground, suggests the brute strength and debris-laden aftermath of a tsunami or flash flood of similar magnitude.

Parthenon Pediment west
Fig.2 - Parthenon West Pediment

As the Athenian basin is relatively flat and shaped not unlike a horse's head, where the port of Piraeus forms its mouth and the Akropolis its eye, it is not difficult to imagine an unbridled wave-maned beast charging nine kilometres overland to lick within minutes the foot of the Akropolis, whose plateau is barely seventy metres above sea-level, whereupon a dark and shadowy mass may have been seen writhing about, not unlike a black knight toppled by a white rook on a chequered plain, before returning just as fast whence it came. Following such an event, a procession of survivors to the relative safety of high ground seems plausible, if only to re-group and assess the damage. Indeed, the placement of the Parthenon on the highest part of the Akropolis may have been an imperative, part of a tsunami education and early warning system.

However, whereas the mushroom cloud that arose from the eruption of Thera probably preceeded the tsunamies that struck ancient Athens, the mukular clouds that arose from the exploding nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Power Plant followed the massive earthquake and tsunamies that struck northeast Japan in March 2011.

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