Ancient Greek Weather, Disasters, Animals and Nature

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Aristotle Wind Rose

Even though Greece has the same latitude as New York, it has a warm climate similar to that in southern California, thanks to the tempering effect of the Mediterranean Sea. Most of Greece has spring- and summer-like weather throughout much of the year. More rain tends to fall in the autumn, winter and spring than in the summer. The mountains and northern regions are cooler, with four distinct seasons and hot summers and cool winters. Some mountains receive snow in the winter.

Spring is generally pleasant and sometimes rainy. Summer is dry and hot and can be very muggy and humid. Autumn is slightly rainier and has temperatures that are generally slightly warmer than in the spring. Winter varies in length and coldness depending on the region.

It is in not unusual for temperatures to drop below freezing at night in parts of Greece in January and for there to be temperature difference of 30̊F between night and day so bring layers of clothing if you are traveling there in the autumn, winter or spring and bundle up in he morning and shed the layers as the temperature warms. It also seems hot when the weather is sunny and cold when it us windy and cloudy.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Tower of Winds

The Tower of Winds is the oldest known observatory. Built in the 1st century B.C. this octagonal tower, contained a sundial, weather vane and waterclock, and was the ancient equivalent of a meteorological station. Each face of the tower is inscribed with a face representing a wind blowing from that direction. Sundials outside the tower — which acted as both timepieces and calendars — were comprised of spikes placed on the roof of the tower and lines and figures drawn on the tower's walls that provided measurements of times and season. The position of the shadows told the time and the length of the shadows told the season.

Tower of Winds

In the octagonal Tower of the Winds in Athens (second century B.C.) the four cardinal direction are depicted by winds as are the four in-between directions (northeast, southwest, etc.). Certain myths and symbols are attached with each one. The puffy cheeked faces of blowing winds that we see on many old maps dates back to the Greeks. All the Greek winds had names and after time these names became synonymous with the direction from which the came. This set the precedent as to why we determine direction from where it comes from rather than where it goes.∞

In 270 B.C., Timosthenese of Rhodes added two winds to the ten named by Aristotle to create the direction that became the 12 original compass points.

Disasters in Ancient Greece

The Greeks blamed earthquakes on Poseidon, the Earth shaker.

In 730 B.C., the Roman geographer Strabo wrote, the city of Chalcis suffered a severe drought and 10 percent of the city's young men were sent as an offering to Delphi. Unable to absorb such a large number of people, the young people were sent to Italy to establish the colony of Rhegion.

Book: “Earthquakes in Human History” by Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders (Princeton University Press). It describes earthquakes in the Dead Sea and Britain area and in Sparta in 464 B.C.; Lisbon in 1755; New Madrid Mo., in 1811; San Francisco in 1906; Tokyo in 1923; Peru in 1970; and Nicaragua in 1972.

Thera Volcanic Eruption

In 1645 B.C., a volcano on Santorini erupted with such force that some believe it caused the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, 70 miles away. Thirteen cubic miles of material exploded into the sky. Settlements on Santorini were buried under a thick layer of ash thicker than the one that covered Pompeii. [Source: William Broad, New York Times, October 21, 2003]

The main eruption was preceded by a smaller one — a shower of light pumice that buried the town of Akrortiri, down slope, under many feet of ash. This may have sent most of the residents away. No skeletons or human remains have been found on Santorini .

The main eruption began when sea water entered a vent of the volcano and mixed with magma and gases, producing an ultra-violent explosion. The center of Thera collapsed into a sea-filled caldera. Santorini was buried Pompeii-style under ash, up to 900 feet deep, that preserved frescoes and wall paintings that recorded everyday life from the period and contained Egyptian motifs.

The explosion produced a huge tsunami, possibly 300 feet high. This tsunami swamped and hit the coast of North Africa, sending water 200 miles up the Nile. On Crete, an 50-foot-high tsunami wiped out coastal settlements. Inland ash may have ruined crops and grass that fed livestock.

The Thera eruption may have been the largest eruption on Earth in the last 10,000 years. Some scientists have calculated was 90 times greater than the one at Mount St. Helens and four times greater than Krakatau, which killed 36,000 people . Some say it was much larger than that, perhaps even larger than Tambora, which erupted in 1816 and produced the year without summer and famines in the United States.

ash from the Thera volcano

Thera Volcano and the End of Minoa

After the Thera eruption 50 foot tsunamis smashed against Crete’s shores, smashing ports and fleets and severely damaging in the maritime economy, which was vital for the Minoans as it was an island civilization. Ash levels of 10 feet were recorded 20 miles away on the island Anafi. That was incredible amount of ash that distance away.

In 1939 Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos theorized that eruption of Thera caused the collapse of Minoan civilization with damaging earthquakes and tsunamis. Some doubts were raised about earthquake side of the story because earthquakes associated with volcanic eruptions are usually not that strong. In the mid 1960s scientists dredging up sediments found thick layers of ash linked to Thera’s eruption and found it covered thousands of square miles.

But the theory was given a blow in 1987 when the date of the eruption was set at 1645 B.C. based in the presence of frozen ash in Greenland ice cores, 150 year before the pervious dates, and 200 years before the steep decline of Minoan culture. The theory was given another blow in 1989 when a Minoan house was found built above the ash layer.

Now the reasoning goes the eruption took time to bring down Minoa. Some archaeologists say the eruption and tidal waves did not destroy Minoa rather it weakened, making it vulnerable to conquest. An the Mycenaeans were the ones who conquered it. They theorize the that ash from the eruption could have destroyed crops, brought about a famine, opening the way for a conquest from the Mycenaeans.

A century earlier a large earthquake destroyed the palace of Knossos. It was rebuilt. An earthquake that occurred around the time of the Thera explosion damaged the palace. In the decades that followed all the major palaces of Crete were damaged by fire, most likely by invaders. By 1450 B.C. nearly all Minoan palace-cities, except Knossos were mysteriously destroyed. Around this time pottery styles and writing styles changed reflecting styles introduced from Mycenae, suggesting that the Mycenaeans took over Crete. By the 14th century B.C., Knossos appeared to be under the administration of the Mycenaeans.

Minoan ruins at Knossos

Impact of Thera Eruption on the Eastern Mediterranean

The Thera eruption had a dramatic affect on the eastern Mediterranean that lasted for decades, even centuries. Dense clouds of volcanic ash and deadly tsunamis were generated over a huge area, crippling ancient cities and fleets, setting off climate changes, and sowing political unrest.

The Thera eruption produced two large ash clouds. One that was blown by lower atmosphere winds to the southeast towards Crete and Egypt and another that was blown by the jet stream in the stratosphere to the northeast over Anatolia (Turkey). Dr. Peter Kuniholm, a tree ring expert at Cornell, found that trees found in an Anatolian burial mound grew three times faster that normal for about half a decade around the time of eruption, presumably because the ash turned the region’s normally hot, dry summers into ones that were unusually cool and wet.

But although the ash seems to have helped trees it is thought it severely damaged wheat fields and reduced harvests. Many think it was the primary factor behind Mursilis, king of the Hittites, setting out from his Anatolian kingdom and attacking Syria and Babylon, which lay between the two plumes, and seizing their stored grains and cereals. This in turn prodded Babylon towards collapse and hurt one of its allies, the Hyksos, who ruled Egypt and traded with the Minoans.

The plagues described in the Bible are thought by some to be a result of the Thera volcano. The explosion and land submerged by the tsunami may be the source of Plato’s story of Atlantis. Some scholars speculate that ancient Minoa or Thera may were have been Atlantis, which Plato, supposedly heard about from Socrates who in turn heard about it from Egyptians. Some historians believe the Thera eruption changed the entire coarse of history. With Minoans out of the picture, they hypothesize, cultures on the Balkan peninsula were able to develop into classical Greece.

Outside of Fira on Santorini itself are the ruins of Akrotiri, a Minoan settlement, that was buried Pompeii- like by the Thera eruption. The leader of the excavation died in 1974 when he fell in one of the excavations and hit his head. Few artifacts have been found which means the people fled before the volcano erupted. Only a small area has been excavated from the hardened volcanic ash, revealing houses with that are now in the Athens Archeological Museum.

Great Earthquakes of Ancient Greece

Spartan city destoyed by an earthquake in the 5th century BC

Dr Iain Stewart wrote for the BBC: “The first earthquake of 'epoch-making importance' struck Sparta in 469-464 B.C. occurring at a time when the balance of power between Sparta and Athens was in a delicate state. It took Sparta by surprise, killing more than 20,000 Spartans and immediately leading to internal and external uprisings by its subject peoples. The result was the so-called 'earthquake war' between the Spartans and their neighbours, during which Sparta's refusal to accept help from Athens resulted in increased hostilities between them. These hostilities festered for decades, culminating in 431 B.C. with the start of the Peloponnesian Wars, a 25-year bloody civil war between Sparta and her allies and Athens and her allies. [Source: Dr Iain Stewart, BBC, February 17, 2011. Dr Stewart is a senior lecturer in Geography and Earth Sciences at Brunel University, with research interests in the geology and archaeology of earthquakes in the eastern Mediterranean. He co-edited a Geological Society of London special publication on 'The Archaeology of Geological Catastrophes', and was co-convenor of Brunel University's conference on Holocene Environmental Catastrophes and Recoveries. |::|]

“Shortly after the start of the Peloponnesian War and the third in a series of epidemics that ravaged Athens, the summer of 426 B.C. brought one of the most disastrous earthquakes recorded in the ancient sources. Contemporary reporters tell of widespread building collapse, destruction caused by seismic sea-waves (tsunamis) and thousands of victims. Although its effects were concentrated north of Athens, near modern-day Lamia, there were wider ramifications. A Spartan army camped 100km west of Athens at the Isthmus of Corinth were poised to attack the city, but numerous violent earthquakes forced them to flee home. |::|

“Meanwhile the seismic sea-wave wreaked havoc along much of the coast north of Athens, including an island called Atalante where an Athenian fort and several warships were destroyed. Accounts by later writers such as Diodorus Siculus (first century B.C.) and Strabo (first century AD) actually report that the island of Atalante was created as a consequence of the seismic sea wave. The high death toll, widespread damage and dramatic coastline changes would no doubt have exacerbated the tense situation endured by an Athens besieged by war and epidemics. |::|

“The Peloponnesian Wars formally ended in 404 B.C. though intermittent hostilities continued between Sparta and Athens until a peace treaty in 387 B.C. . But shortly after this another calamitous earthquake event befell the region: in 373 B.C. a violent earthquake, accompanied by a seismic sea wave, destroyed Helike and Bura, two cities situated on the southern shores of the Gulf of Corinth, roughly 150 km west of Athens.” |::|

Impact of the Great Earthquake on Ancient Greece

Apollonia, Crete, submerged by an earthquake in AD 365

Dr Iain Stewart wrote for the BBC: “The destructive force and the vicinity of the great cultural centres of the Greek world, undoubtedly made the earthquake at Helike a momentous scientific event. It led to Aristotle formulating his theory that earthquakes and accompanying seismic sea-waves were the physical product of contrary meteorological conditions rather than supernatural actions, a theory subsequently accepted for more than 1,800 years. [Source: Dr Iain Stewart, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“It must have also made had a major impact on Aristotle's contemporary, Plato - born around 427 B.C. and in his mid 50s when Helike was lost. The destruction in a single night of the revered city of Poseidon by an earthquake and seismic sea-wave and its disappearance into the sea bear the main hallmarks of Atlantis's sudden demise. |::|

“Other hallmarks can be found in the accounts of the two great earthquakes that preceded it, however. With the great Spartan earthquake of 464 B.C. that ushered in the frenetic wars between Sparta and Athens, and the seismic sea-wave that ripped apart Atalante island in 426 B.C. under the shadow of these warring superpowers, most of the ingredients for Plato's obliteration of Atlantis are there. |::|

“At the end of a century that had witnessed one of the most violent earthquake storms to have affected the ancient world, ordinary Greeks probably didn't speculate on the origins of the mythical Atlantis; they were too busy surviving its reality. |::|

Did the Destruction of Helike Inspire the Atlantis Myth?

Dr Iain Stewart wrote for the BBC: “At the time of its destruction, Helike was the flourishing capital of the Achaean League, a confederation of city states, and revered throughout the ancient world as the cult centre for worship of Poseidon. The sacred grove of Poseidon was second only to the oracle at nearby Delphi in terms of sanctuary sites at that time, and in promoting a spirit of harmonious co-existence and collaboration with neighbouring states, Helike ensured that it largely remained uninvolved in the turbulent political upheaval around it. This state of political and social harmony, and the healthy economic growth that it encouraged, ended one winter's night in 373 B.C. . [Source: Dr Iain Stewart, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Possible location for Atlantis?

“Numerous contemporary and later sources provide dramatic testimony to what happened to Helike and Bura that night. The Greek writer Pausanius, visiting the site of the devastation almost 500 years later, recounted how, 'An earthquake struck the country and destroyed every single building, until the very foundations of the city were lost for all time.'

“The accompanying seismic sea-wave '...flooded in far over the land and overwhelmed the city and its surroundings, and the swell of the sea so covered the sacred grove of Poseidon that nothing could be seen but the tops of the trees. A sudden tremor was sent by the god, and with the earthquake the sea ran back, dragging down Helike into the receding waters with every living person.'

“After the disaster, whatever was left of Helike's land was divided amongst its neighbours. The nearby city of Aegion assumed control of the Achaean League, and Helike went into political obscurity. A tradition sprang up amongst its Achaean neighbours that Helike had been punished by Poseidon for defiling the sanctuary, though it was perhaps more its unrivalled supremacy amongst the other city states that sealed its ultimate downfall. |::|

“Nevertheless, its removal from the political scene was mirrored by the physical removal of the city, believed by most ancient writers to now lie deep below the waters of the Corinthian gulf. Travellers like Strabo and Pausanius, searching out the city several centuries later, were shown only a few sunken ruins and accounts of a submerged bronze statue of Poseidon that snagged the nets of local fishermen.” |::|

“The destructive force and the vicinity of the great cultural centres of the Greek world, undoubtedly made the earthquake at Helike a momentous scientific event. It led to Aristotle formulating his theory that earthquakes and accompanying seismic sea-waves were the physical product of contrary meteorological conditions rather than supernatural actions, a theory subsequently accepted for more than 1,800 years. It must have also made had a major impact on Aristotle's contemporary, Plato - born around 427 B.C. and in his mid 50s when Helike was lost. The destruction in a single night of the revered city of Poseidon by an earthquake and seismic sea-wave and its disappearance into the sea bear the main hallmarks of Atlantis's sudden demise. |::|

Animals in Ancient Greece

Akrotiri blue monkeys
The Greeks did not worship animals directly but specific animals or qualities of animals were associated with many deities such as owls with Athena and bulls with Dionysus. In important religious events animals were sacrificed and played important symbolic roles.

Greeks regarded snakes as symbols of reincarnation and healing based on their ability to shed their old skin and emerge look brighter and healthier. The God of medicine, Askelepious (Latinized to Aesculapius) was originally identified as a snake. A snake motif appears on some symbols for the medical profession. Greeks and Romans were happy to have snakes living around their temples and homes and even introduced them to some their colonies. This may help explain the fragmented distribution today of the Aesculapian snake, the most “popular” species.

There were lions in Greece until the first century A.D. Cicadas were valued by the Greeks for the singing ability. In “Geoponika” , a collection of classical Greek agricultural writings published in the sixth century A.D., salt alum was promoted as way to get rid of flies and live bats tied to tall trees, it was believed, kept locusts away. Over the years a variety of concoctions with things like vanilla, eucalyptus sassafras, cloves, citronella and pennyroyal have been touted as effective insect repellents.

The basilisk was originally a snake that was so horrible just looking at it killed a man. Pliny the Elder described it as small golden snake with a golden crown. In the Middle Age became a snake with the head of rooter or a human.

According to Greek legend, spiders were created when the a seamstress named Arachne challenged the goddess Athena to a contest. Later the weaver was ashamed of her impunity and hung herself. Athena felt sorry for her and brought her back to life as a spider and her noose was made into a web. Her name was also given to the scientists who study spiders (arachnologists), the fear of them (arachanaphobia) and the class of animals (Arachnida).

Ancient Greek Mythical Beasts and Evidence of Their Existence

Beasts found in Greek mythology include centaurs, satyrs, griffons and dragons. There are number of giants and semi-human, larger-than-life beings. Among them are Atlas, the Cyclops and the Titans. Arguably the greatest of them all was the Pelops. Described as having shoulder blades made of ivory, he is said to have created the Olympic games to thank the gods after winning a rigged chariot race. He ruled over Greece’s southern peninsula — the Peloponnese, which means “Pelops island.”

Adrienne Mayor, an independent folklorist, believes that some of the beasts and giants in Greek mythology may have been based on fossils of dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals found in ancient Greece and other places familiar to the Greeks.

Centaur skeleton?
Mayor bases her theory on: 1) the fact that the locations of Greek myths are often rich in fossils; 2) a head of an unusual monster depicted on Corinthian vase that looks just like a skull of an extinct giraffe, whose bones are commonly found on Greek islands and Asia Minor; 3) mastodon bones found on the island of Samos, where giants are said to have lived, can be arranged to look like the bones of giants; 4) skeletons of “Protoceretops” (dinosaurs) found in Central Asia match descriptions of griffons, who first described by Scythian horsemen who lived there and passed on to the Greeks.

A temple in Olympia was said to have a relic of the mighty giant — a massive shoulder blade. During the Trojan War it was reportedly shipped to the walls of Troy to bring good luck. Greek chroniclers, including Herodotus, described seeing the remains of giants. Mayor believes the Greeks were not making this up and what they were describing were bones of prehistoric animals such as mastodon or mammoth, whose skeletons when placed upright could very easily pass as the skeleton of a giant. She told National Geographic, “Since the 19th century, modern paleontologists have discovered rich bone beds of giant extinct mammals in the same places the ancient Greeks reported finding bones of heroes and giants.” The Aztec had similar ideas about the fossilized mammoth and mastodon bones they found.

Mayor also said, the Greeks “found fossil ivory tusks from extinct mammoths in the ground and assumed the ivory was produced by the Earth, like gems and minerals. In fact, the ancient Greeks word for ivory, “elephas”, was the name they gave to elephants once they did encounter them.” Ths first encounter probably occurred in the 4th century B.C. When Alexander the Great’s army faced a force of Persian war elephants.

Plants in Ancient Greece

The Greek botanist Theophratus wrote about "the hundred-pedal rose" in 270 B.C. In Greek mythology, roses were created when Aphrodite the goddess of beauty, was born.

Based on the fact that some Greek gardens around 400 B.C. had small plots of grass, some scholars give the Greeks credit for developing the first lawns.

Sea and Ancient Greece

Minoan flying fish
One of the first known accounts of a shark was a description written by Herodotus in 492 B.C., describing shipwrecked Persian sailors being attacked by “sea monsters” in the Mediterranean. Centuries later the Greek poet Leonidas of Tarentum immortalized a sponge diver named Tharsys who was bitten in two by a shark.

Greek and Roman legends describe dolphins helping shipwrecked sailors and playing with children. According to the ancient Greeks dolphins were originally pirates that made the mistake of kidnaping Dionysus, the god of wine. To punish the kidnapers for their deed Dionysus turned their ship sails into grape vines. When the pirates leaped into the water they turned into dolphins.┵

According to a Heredotus the famous 7th-century B.C. historian Arion was kidnapped by pirates. To escape Arion leapt into the seas and sang. His song attracted a dolphin, who led him to shore at Cape Matapan, Greece.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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