Thalatta, Thalatta! Stories from the Deep.

This is what Greek soldiers cried out when they saw a mountain called Theches. (Deveboynu Tepe as it’s now known*.) They had travelled from Babylon to Turkey after a failed expedition in support of the Persian King Cyrus. The mountain was still 5 days march from the coast, so to us it might seem early for a cheer, but it indicates their different sense of time and their longing to be home. They could see the sea from the top and British scholar Timothy Mitford believes he has found the very cairn that the soldiers built for a grateful sacrifice.

1922 edition of Ulysses by James Joyce

The cheer was used later by Jules Verne, for the discovery of an underground ocean; by Iris Murdoch and James Joyce. In Ulysses, Buck Mulligan calls the sea ‘snot-green’ in a parody of Homer’s ‘wine-dark’’, which referred to the silkily impenetrable depth of colour it shared with the rough wines of the period. Homer also called it ’unharvestable’, because it was just so much less controllable than the land, and possibly too, because its fecundity was less seasonal – you couldn’t exhaust it.

Plato thought swimming was as basic an accomplishment as reading, though it was doubtless more essential among those dependent on the sea for an income. The sponges brought up from the ocean floor were in common use and the island Kalymnos was just one to thrive from trading in sponges, pearls, shells and strange foods. Divers often put olive oil in their ears and mouths to try and counteract the effects of pressure.


The most famous diver whose name has survived was Scyllis from Scione. He had become rich during the war between Persia and Greece by rescuing goods from ship wrecks. The Persians, who could not swim, kept a close eye on him. One day, in 480 BCE, he and his daughter, Hydna, also an expert diver, escaped under risky cover from a storm, en route causing further chaos among the Persians by cutting cables and pulling up anchors. They then swam about ten miles to join the Greeks.

Other heroic divers were famous for supplying the Spartans with provisions when they were besieged by the Athenians at Pylos. Those few who made it through the Athenian ranks were well rewarded, having pulled skins behind them which were full of linseed, poppy seed and honey. This sounds as if it could just as easily be medicine as food.

During the siege of Syracuse, the inhabitants drove piles into the harbour to stop the Athenians from advancing. Divers were sent down to cut the piles, an extraordinarily hard thing to do.

Satyr riding on a wineskin.

Those who couldn’t swim could blow up a goat skin and paddle. Several air-filled skins tied together could transport animals and equipment across rivers. Harder work than our balloons, but more ecologically sound.

Alternatively you could leap onto a passing dolphin, like these hoplites with their shields. It’s a joke of course, but shows that a close connection between humans and dolphins is not a recent discovery.

*( 30 Km south of Trabza).

Published in the Hastings Independent Press Issue 81


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