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Alexander von Humboldt – Of the Samothracian Legends

Alexander von Humboldt, a 1843 portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler.


Today’ s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a quote from Alexander von Humboldt’s ‘View of Nature’, chapter four, ‘ideas for a physiognomy of plants’, sub-chapter 8—”Of the Samothracian Legends”. From the 1850 English edition translated by E. C. Otte, and Henry G. Bohn.


Diodorus has preserved to us these remarkable traditions, the probability of which has invested them with almost historical certainty in the eyes of geologists. The island of Samothrace, once also named Ethiopea, Dardania, and Leucania or Leucosia in the Scholiast of Apollonius Rhodius, the seat of the ancient mysteries of the Cabiri, was inhabited by the remnant of an aboriginal people, several words of whose vernacular language were preserved in later times in sacrificial ceremonies. The position of Samothrace, opposite to the Thracian Hebrus, and near the Dardanelles, explains why a more circumstantial tradition of the great catastrophe of an outburst of the waters of the Pontus (Euxine) should have been especially preserved in this island. Sacred rites were here performed at altars erected on the supposed limits of this inundation; and among the Samothracians, as well as the Boeotians, a belief in the periodical destruction of the human race (a belief which also prevailed among the Mexicans in their myth of the four destructions of the world) was associated with historical recollections of individual inundations.

According to Diodorus, the Samothracians related that the Black Sea had been an inland lake, which, swelled by the influx of rivers (long prior to the inundations which had occurred among other nations) had burst, first through the straits of the Bosphorus, and subsequently through those of the Hellespont.!

These ancient revolutions of nature have been considered in a special treatise, by Dureau de la Malle, and all the facts known regarding them collected by Carl von Hoff, in an important work on the subject. The Samothracian traditions seem reflected as it were in the Sluice-theory of Strato of Lampsacus, according to which the swelling of the waters in the Euxine first formed the passage of the Dardanelles, and next the opening through the Pillars of Hercules. Strabo, in the first book of his Geography, has preserved among the critical extracts from the works of Eratosthenes, a remarkable fragment of the lost work of Strato, which presents views that embrace almost the whole circumference of the Mediterranean.

“Strato of Lampsacus,” says Strabo, enters more fully than the Lydian Xanthus (who has described the impressions of shells far from the sea) into a consideration of the causes of these phenomena. He maintains, that the Euxine had formerly no outlet at Byzantium, but that the pressure of the swollen mass of waters caused by the influx of rivers had opened a passage, whereupon the water rushed into the Propontis and the Hellespont. The same thing also happened to our sea (the Mediterranean), for here too a passage was opened through the isthmus at the Pillars of Hercules, in consequence of the filling of the sea by currents, which in flowing off left the former swampy banks uncovered and dry.

In proof of this, Strato affirms, first, that the outer and inner bottoms of the sea are different; then that there is still a bank running under the sea from Europe to Lybia, which shows that the inner and outer sea were formerly not united; next that the Euxine is extremely shallow, while the Cretan, the Sicilian and the Sardinian seas are, on the contrary, very deep: the cause of this being that the former is filled with mud from the numerous large rivers flowing into it from the north. Hence too the Euxine is the freshest, and the streams -flowing from it are directed towards the parts where the bottom is deepest. It would also appear that if these rivers continue to flow into the Euxine, it will someday be completely choked with mud, for even now, its left side is becoming marshy in the direction of Salmydessus (the Thracian Apollonia), at the part called by mariners ‘The Breasts’ before the mouth of the Ister and the desert of Scythia. Perhaps, therefore, the Lybian Temple of Ammon may also have once stood on the sea-shore, its present position in the interior of the country being in consequence of such off-flowings of rivers. Strato also conjectures that the fame and celebrity of the Oracle (of Ammon) is more easily accounted for, on the supposition that the temple was on the sea-shore, since its great distance from the coast would otherwise make its present distinction and fame inexplicable. Egypt also was in ancient times overflowed by the sea as far as the marshes of Pelusium, Mount Casius, and Lake Serbonis; for whenever in digging, it happened that salt-water was met with, the borings passed through strata of sea-sand and shells, as if the country had been inundated, and the whole district around Mount Casius and Gerrha had been a marshy sea, continuous with the Gulf of the lied Sea. When the sea (the Mediterranean) retreated, the country was uncovered, leaving, however, the present Lake Serbonis. Subsequently the waters of this lake also flowed off, converting its bed into a swamp. In like manner the banks of Lake Moeris resemble more the shores of a sea than those of a river.” An erroneous reading introduced as an emendation by Grosskurd, in consequence of a passage in Strabo, gives in place of Meeris, ‘the Lake Halmyris’, but the latter was situated near the southern mouth of the Danube.

The Sluice-theory of Strato led Eratosthenes of Cyrene (the most celebrated in the series of the librarians of Alexandria) to investigate the problem of the uniformity of level in all external seas flowing round continents, although with less success than Archimedes in his treatise on floating bodies. The articulation of the northern coasts of the Mediterranean as well as the form of its peninsulas and islands had given origin to the geognostic myth of the ancient land of Lyctonia. The origin of the lesser Syrtis, of the Triton Lake, and of the whole of Western Atlas, had been embodied in an imaginary scheme of fire-eruptions and earthquakes- I have recently entered more fully into this question in a passage with which I would be allowed to close this note:

The northern shore of the Mediterranean possesses the advantage of being more richly and variously articulated than the southern or Lybian shore, and this was, according to Strabo, already noticed by Eratosthenes. Here we find three peninsulas, the Iberian, the Italian, and the Hellenic, which, owing to their various and deeply indented contour, form, together with the neighbouring islands and the opposite coasts, many straits and isthmuses. Such a configuration of continents and of islands that have been partly severed and partly upheaved by volcanic agency in rows, as if over far extending fissures, early led to geognostic views regarding eruptions, terrestrial revolutions, and outpourings of the swollen higher seas into those below them. The Euxine, the Dardanelles, the Straits of Gades, and the Mediterranean with its numerous islands, were well fitted to originate such a system of sluices.

The Orphic Argonaut, who probably lived in the Christian era, has interwoven old mythical narrations in his composition. He sings of the division of the ancient Lyctonia into separate islands, ‘when the dark haired Poseidon in anger with Father Kronion struck Lyctonia with the golden trident.’ Similar fancies, which may often certainly have sprung from an imperfect knowledge of geographical relations, were frequently elaborated in the erudite Alexandrian school, which was so devoted to everything connected   with antiquity. Whether the myth of the breaking up of Atlantis be a vague and western reflection of that of Lyctonia, as I have elsewhere shown to be probable, or whether, according to Otfried Muller, ‘the destruction of Lyctonia (Leuconia) refers to the Samothracian tradition of a great flood, which changed the form of that district,’ is a question which it is here unnecessary to decide.”


Our modern copy of the new edition of ‘Views of Nature’. Edited by Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls. Translated from the original German into English by Mark W. Person. University of Chicago Press, 2014.


Quotation text source:🌿More about Alexander von Humboldt:
Alexander von Humboldt – Of the Samothracian Legends

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