Where myth and science collide

Dr Spyros Pavlidis talks about the creation of the Aegean archipelago, the Santorini eruption that destroyed Minoan civilization and how the myths are often accurate

Have you ever wondered how many islands are there in Greek seas and which geological phenomenon created these unique formations of the region?
What places Greece in the top world countries that are highly seismic, yet its earthquakes rarely cause damage and sometimes can’t even be felt by the residents?
Eminent European scholar, a specialist seismologist and geologist, Professor Dr Spyros Pavlidis, visited Australia recently for four lectures – as a Visiting Professor of the Greek Studies Program, University of Notre Dame Australia, the Australian Institute of Macedonian Studies and the Cultural Centre Kostis Palamas.
The Chairman of the School of Geology and the Dean of the Faculty of Science of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Dr Pavlidis teaches Neotectonics and Palaeoseismology. The aim of his field, he says, is to understand the seismological history of the Earth.
Dr Pavlidis has studied the genesis of the seas with focus on the Aegean, and the influence of the geology on world civilizations including the Greek civilization. He reveals that seismic activities in the past may offer explanations to important events in ancient Greek and European civilisation.
Professor Pavlidis tends to approach his research area, being science, both from scientific and geological as well as cultural point of view, which is unusual for a scientist. As such, he doesn’t dismiss Ancient Greek and other myths as complete fiction. Myths, he tells Neos Kosmos, play a role in contemporary scientific thought.
“Each myth contains historic elements. A myth is an amalgam of reality and fiction; it is not a complete fabrication, since anything that is completely untrue does not survive. Myths, and especially Greek myths of the pre-Homeric era, offer a unified and complete view of natural phenomena and the processes of both nature and the universe. Human beings have always been mythmakers and they continue to be in this scientific era,” Professor Pavlidis says.
It is in the context of geomythology, that lately geologists are trying to interpret and understand the knowledge and interpretation of the world ancient myths were carrying.
Ancient Greeks, Dr Pavlidis explains, thought of Earth – Gaia – as the Big Mother, self-existent, the Almighty Goddess, which personifies the general cosmic frame within which life evolves, a small piece of this set being the man. This was typical of both the Ancient Greek mythology and philosophy, from which it started. For philosophers, the central issue was to understand nature, to describe it.
“To understand the humans, we need to understand the nature, they used to say.
“Gaia also represents a significant, scientific hypothesis by James Lovelock of the last thirty years or so, which views the Earth as a hyper-organism. What evidence do geoscientists possess today to inform their opinion on this subject and why do we continue to look to myths for an answer? All myths are catalytic to human thought from both cognitive and psychological standpoint.
“Regardless of the doubts surrounding them, they are still considered a primary form of historicity.”
And of his efforts to describe the rocks where, in difficult circumstances, our ancestors set their roots, Dr Pavlidis says:
“My foundation in the mountains and the peoples bear the mountains on their shoulders”, wrote our poet Odysseas Elytis. This phrase best reflects the meaning of my humble effort to describe the rocks where our ancestors founded European civilization.”
The birth of Aegean archipelago, from myth to science
Examining the geological history of the region, from the vast Tethys Ocean to the Aegean Archipelago, Dr Pavlidis explains that it was tectonics alongside volcanic activity that gave birth to the unique and diverse formations of the region.
The man who, for the first time in the history of natural science correlated quakes and waves in terms of cause and effect, was the Greek historian Thucydides.
“In the summer of 426 BC, when a tsunami hit the Malian Gulf between Euboea and Lamia, Thucydides described how the tsunami and a series of earthquakes intervened with the events of the raging Peloponnesian War.
“In his book History of the Peloponnesian War, he was the first to argue that ocean earthquakes must be the cause of tsunami.”
After Japan and few other countries, Dr Pavlidis says Greece is in the group of the countries that carry the attribute of highest seismicity and earthquakes.
“In Greece we are fortunate enough that majority of earthquakes take place in the submarine area, so there is no major seismic damage.”
Alongside Italy and Turkey, Greece is located at the border between the African and the Eurasian tectonic plates. In the Aegean, this collision of these plates – which is the strong one in terms of geological data – is pushing rocks strong and at some point they break. The earthquake is the breaking of rocks; the potential energy accumulated there is converted into kinematics and within seconds transported into huge amounts of energy.
“When elsewhere there was land, as here on the old continent of Australia, nowadays Greece was covered with sea. The many islands of Greece didn’t exist, it was all the Tethys Ocean, that existed between the old continents of Gondwana and Laurasia. From the clash of the continents, a big orogenessis (mountain creation) started, lasting more than 50 million years, and a compact land in place of today’s Turkey and Balkan Peninsula, was created, called Aegeis.
Because the collision between continents in Aegean was the biggest one, it started to slowly disintegrate and break by large faults and the islands were created. These peaks with few fields were left as our islands, and that’s why Greek islands are, generally speaking, mountainous regions.
“When travelling today in Aegean, it gives you the feeling that you are travelling from one mountain top to another,” Dr Pavlidis explains.
The shaping of the land and its geography, in his words, had a crucial effect on people who settled there.
“People faced many difficulties, depending if they needed to survive in the mountains or at the seaside. People on islands had to become good sailors, to learn the trade – and that is why the Aegean Islands became the centre of the first cultural revolution – Neolithic revolution, exporting products such as obsidian (volcanic glass) everywhere around the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean.
“To do this, they had to build boats, to know navigation, to know how to sell, but also to develop the language to communicate with other tradesmen.”
The second great era of Aegean Bronze Age followed, with Cycladic and Minoan civilizations, that played a central role in the development of Western culture.
The Minoan Eruption
What or who brought down the Minoans, Europe’s first great culture, flourishing for at least five centuries?
In 1939, leading Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos pinned the blame on a volcanic eruption on the island of Thera (Santorini), that occurred about 1620 B.C., and turned daylight into darkness over the Mediterranean. In 1967, Marinatos dug up the ruins of Akrotiri, a prosperous Minoan town on Thera that had been buried in volcanic ash, while the Atlantis hypothesis rejuvenated.
“The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history – the Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption), which occurred some 3600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization. The eruption left a large caldera surrounded by volcanic ash deposits hundreds of metres deep and may have led indirectly to the collapse of one of Europe’s first high cultures – the Bronze Age Minoans on the island of Crete, through a gigantic tsunami.
The volcanic eruption on Santorini, believed to be one of the greatest volcanic explosion of the past 10,000 years, is believed to have created tsunamis 40 feet tall that caused the most damage.
“One of the most studied and the most mysterious eruptions of all time – the Santorini eruption is believed to have devastated not only Santorini – that was uninhabited for 1000 years to follow – but also had a deep impact on the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean,” Dr Pavlidis says.
About the excavation site of Akrotiri – led by Professor Doumas and a team of Greek archaeologists – Dr Pavlidis says entire cities were found from prehistoric times – with an amazing layout, multi-level buildings with stairs and drainage system, streets, and strongly developed art and fine-wall paintings, that described the daily life, depicted fishermen, everything that reflected a great culture and happy people – entombed in the solidified ash of the eruption of Thera.
Today’s popular destination for tourists and young couples, the island of Santorini is what remains after an enormous volcanic explosion that destroyed the earliest settlements on a formerly single island, and created the current geological caldera. The impressive caldera cliffs that decorate islands’ coast is in essence the exposed history of volcano, that gives away its important geological configuration.
“We call it an ‘open geological book of Santorini’. That’s the uniqueness of the Santorini volcano, you can see it from inside.”