Game of Gods

Who among us has not at some point been interested in mythology? The stories? The drama? The art? Ever since I was little I have loved mythology. Was it because Hercules was the first movie I ever saw in movie theaters? Maybe. But the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece have been captivating people for centuries because of their elaborate and dramatic backstories and lives. It’s rare to find a collection of stories so complex and rooted in such spectacular architecture, sculptures, and history.

Our study abroad class visited Athens last weekend and looking upon the Parthenon, the Agora, the old temple of Athena you’re taken back in time. The whole experience is surreal, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that ancient Greeks stood upon the very same spot as you.  The temples are striking not only because of their size but because of the history behind them, real people made and used these structures in their everyday lives.

A major part of Ancient Greek life were the dedications made to the gods to stay in their good graces. “The richest members of society would donate marble structures, bronze works, and luxurious vessels and the poorer members would donate clay figurines, plaques, and busts” (Acropolis museum; Fig. 1).

A bust from the Acropolis museum, an example of the type of sculptures made in honor of the gods.
Figure 1: A bust from the Acropolis museum, an example of the type of sculptures made in honor of the gods.

Why donate to the gods? To avoid the wrath of natural disasters – earthquakes, storms, volcanic activity, and floods. The Greek gods are famous for their deathly tempers. What we blame on geology, the Greeks blame on the frustration of the gods. The major players in the game of natural disasters were Zeus- the king of the gods and the ruler of the sky and weather, Poseidon- the God of sea, floods, and earthquakes, and Typhon – the lesser known God of monsters, storms, and volcanic eruptions [1]

Mott Greene, a professor from Puget Sound University, wrote a book called Natural Knowledge and Preclassical Antiquity where he explored the links between Hesiods work Theogony (the origin of the gods) and actual geological events. He linked the final battle of the Titanomachy (the ten year war between the Olympian gods and the Titans) to the 1613 (+13 years) BC volcanic eruption at Thera, arguing that the events of the eruption coincide with the events of the battle [2-3].

The eruption that happened would have been a super plinian eruption, meaning that it was extremely explosive. This eruption had a column of ash 36 km high (estimated based on the volume of ash and other volcanic material ejected), a giant mushroom cloud of ash, ash and pumice raining down, and volcanic weather [4]. Additionally, this particular explosion was a caldera forming eruption – which means that when the volcano was finished erupting it collapsed in on itself and fell into the ocean leaving only a ring shaped island behind it. The possibility that the people of Greece would interpret this eruption as a battle between the gods is actually fairly reasonable. The earth quaking, the sky getting clouded over with dark ash, giant chunks of rock falling from the sky, and then finally the collapse of nearly an entire island into the ocean seems pretty apocalyptic.

What the Greeks didn’t realize is that, scientifically, massive eruptions like this are caused by a much more complex series of events. The Aegean Sea rests upon a subduction zone, making it a prime location for volcanoes as well as massive earthquakes. When one tectonic plate subducts underneath another, the crust of the more dense plate melts into magma that will rise and pool in a magma chamber. The magma in that chamber will eventually erupt to the surface and begin forming a volcano. More volcanoes will start forming all along the border of the two colliding plates and form a volcano chain (Fig. 2). This type of geological setting is abudant with hazards including earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes; with the number of disasters the area experiences, who wouldn’t think that there were supernatural forces at work? For more information on the tectonic setting of the Aegean, see Micah or Ray’s blogs.

Map of the Aegean with the earthquake prone areas outlined in green, the chain of volcanos outlined in Orange, and the subduction zone highlighted with pink.
Figure 2: Map of the Aegean with the earthquake prone areas outlined in green, the chain of volcanos outlined in Orange, and the subduction zone highlighted with pink.

So the Greeks, like all people throughout history, tried to account for scientific events in a way that made sense in their world. As I’m learning more about geology, I’m astounded by the number of ways that it influences our modern lives as well as history. Without realizing it, the Greeks were observing major geological events and interpreting them with what they knew to be true. After the final battle of the Titanomachy, the Greeks believed that earthquakes were the angered titans trying to escape. Geology shaped the myths of the Titanomachy, the great flood that ended the Bronze Age, the oracle of Delphi, and likely all other floods, earthquakes, and volcanic activity of the times. The Greeks dedicated great architecture, sculptures, and works of art to avoid angering the gods and having to experience their wrath. Their lives were being shaped by geology just as much as the Earth around them.

References

[1] Borut, 2013, The Olympian Gods: Greek-gods.org (accessed June 5, 2015)

[2] Lauritzen, Bill, 2011, The Invention of God, Earth360.com, p. 29-31

[3] Friedrich, W., Kroner, B., Friedrich, M.,Heinemeier, J., Pfeiffer, T., and Talamo, S., 2006, Santorini Eruption Radiocarbon Dated to 1627-1600 B.C., Science, Vol. 312, No. 5773, p.548.

[4] Druitt, T.H., 2014, New Insights Into the Initiation and venting of the Bronze Age eruption of Santorini (Greece), from component analysis, Bull Volcanol, Vol. 76, No.794.

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7 thoughts on “Game of Gods”

  1. Hi Katie,
    It was great fun to read your blog and to learn more about the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. You did a great job introducing your blog topic and then continuing with the narrative. Your inclusion of outside sources, combined with your own impressions, is a great way to share your experiences with friends and family.
    Your blog entry made me think about how we make sense of he world — what myths and narratives we use in order to understand what is happening all around us. Whether we know that natural disasters are created by the gods or not certainly influences what we do and how we behave, doesn’t it? Your entry provided some excellent food for thought. It’s a great beginning to some more excellent work where you can use your own lens and understanding of the world to interpret what is happening in Santorini (or what the gods did to the island) 🙂

  2. Katie – I think you did a wonderful job of leading into and then explaining how the Greek Gods played significant roles in explaining the forces of the Earth and the natural disasters they experienced. I’m not sure I could have done a better job myself. I also like how you were able to lead into your blog topic through your experiences in Athens.

    In the next map that you make, lets sit down and look at it together so I can show you what the conventions are for labeling.

  3. Hi Katie,

    I enjoyed reading your blog and what is working best for you is your casually academic voice which is consistent throughout the post. You have a good balance of academic and personal perspectives which works great in describing the relationship between geology and ancient Greek gods. What struck me as the strongest point in this post was your explanation of the formation of a caldera accompanied with the likely ancient Greek assumption that the caldera forming was actually a battle between gods. This had me considering what other ancient explanations could there have been for natural disasters, and any writing that inspires further thought is a good thing. This was a great post: casual while still presenting valid information, consistent voice reinforced by outside sources, and a great topic. I look forward to reading future posts.

    Justin Kanzler

    1. Thank you very much for the feedback! I’m glad my voice comes through, that’s just the tone I was aiming for. 🙂

  4. Hi Katie.

    Awesome introduction, I find myself hooked by your title and all the mention of mythology. You then smoothly relate this hook to your main ideas of the physical structures of mythology. Your post successfully connects an abundance of information ranging from the geological history of the Aegean, to the beliefs and natural explanations that Ancient Greeks practiced. Your writing communicates a wide array of ideas in a factual and smooth voice that not only provides information but also creates many images (such as the portion depicting the caldera-forming battle of the gods). I specifically enjoy your point that Ancient Greeks were impacted both physically and religiously by the geological occurrences that surrounded their home. Your post does well in conveying history and connecting the Ancient Greeks beliefs, architecture, and practices to your own personal ideas.

    I look forward to learning more from your future posts.

    Jose Martinez

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