Representations of Tsunami in the Ancient Mediterranean: Cosmological Perspectives in the Long Durée
Several major tsunamis affected the coasts of the Mediterranean in ancient times, with severe consequences in terms of human and material losses. How were these catastrophic sea floods understood in religious and symbolic terms? It is well known that, in ancient Greek tradition, tsunamis were interpreted as the manifestation of Poseidon's wrath because of acts of impiety committed by men. Furthermore, it is possible to identify a longue-durée cosmogonic and cosmological framework in the cultures of the Mediterranean, through which tsunamis were perceived in symbolic terms with common keys in both the Judeo-Christian and Graeco-Latin traditions (Álvarez-Martí-Aguilar 2023).
Sea and Chaos in the Ancient Imagination
These common keys can already be identified in Babylonian and Ugaritic mythical accounts from the second millennium BC, where the sea is represented as a chaotic entity confronting the forces of cosmic order. This primordial battle between the cosmic deity and the sea, as a representation of the chaotic forces threatening humanity is extensively developed in the Hebrew Bible in the scenes of Yahweh’s confrontation with the sea. This primordial confrontation must be understood within the framework of the biblical cosmogonic model, which revolves around the concept of creation as the act of separating previously existing cosmic elements and confining them to a specific place by establishing perpetual boundaries (Cho 2019).
Genesis 1:9 describes the withdrawal of the waters, which, in turn, allows for the appearance of dry land, the living space for humanity. In other biblical accounts (Ps 104:6–9; Jer 5:22; Job 38:8–11) Yahweh commands the waters to recede and force them to occupy the place reserved for them in the cosmos. That forced retreat is replete with underlying tension. The sea is represented as a contained body, in which it is possible to perceive a latent will to expand and return to its previous state.
Fig. 1. The Flood destroys life on Earth (Crispijn de Passe, 1612; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
The image of the boundary imposed by Yahweh on the waters by delivering a powerful command –Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped (Job 38:11)– thus acquires a tremendous symbolic power; it serves as a protective wall for humanity in the face of the perpetual threat of the return of the waters. The flood with which Yahweh decides to eradicate life on earth (Gen 6–9) implies the disappearance of that protective wall and the return to the status quo before the creation, when waters covered the earth.
The AD 365 Tsunami
This model of perception of the relationship between the land and the sea in cosmic terms in the Hebrew Bible served as a conceptual framework for constructing representations of the tsunami phenomenon in the Judeo-Christian cultural tradition, in a longue durée process that can be traced through two singular and unique cases.
The first case represents the best-known earthquake and tsunami in antiquity, which occurred on 21 July AD 365, affecting the coasts of Greece, Sicily, Croatia, and North Africa. The Christian authors in the fourth century AD referring to this tsunami repeat the image of the sea’s anomalous transgression of its own boundaries, those imposed by Yahweh in the act of creation. This implies the return to original chaos and a repetition of the Flood episode. St Jerome, in his biography of St Hilarion (ca AD 390), describes the miraculous halting of the AD 365 tsunami by the saint on the beaches of the Croatian city of Epidaurus: It seemed as though God were threatening a second deluge, or all things were returning to original chaos (Hieron. V. Hil. 40). To avoid catastrophe, the saint detains the tsunami standing at the beach and stretching out his hands in front of the raging waves, that finally subside and recede. Implicitly, the saint conveys to the raging sea the message repeated in Ps 104:6–9, Jeremiah 5:22, and especially in Job 38:8–11, reminding it of the boundary that God imposed on it during the act of creation, which should never again be transgressed.
AD 1755: The Miracle of Cadiz
The biblical narrative and the cosmological model that it contains would yet again play a similar role in singular religious expressions emerging in the wake of the famous earthquake and tsunami of Lisbon that took place on 1 November 1755, on the morning of All Saints’ Day. The earthquake destroyed the city of Lisbon, which was then ravaged by fire and the tsunami triggered by the earthquake. In addition to Lisbon, many places in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula and on the Atlantic seaboard of Morocco suffered destructive floods, among them the city of Cadiz in Spain.
Fig. 2. Lisbon during the great earthquake of 1 November 1755 (Engraving, 1755; Reproduced in: O Terramoto de 1755, Testamunhos Britanicos = The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, British Accounts. Lisbon: British Historical Society of Portugal, 1990).
The earthquake occurred when the people of Cadiz were celebrating the Mass of All Saints’ Day, and the arrival of the tsunami plunged the city into a state of panic and religious fervour. Following this episode, a tradition about the miraculous detention of the tsunami thanks to the intercession of Our Lady of the Palm spread in the city.
The crowning moment of the miracle occurred when a priest stopped in front of the waters and, driving the banner of the Virgin into the ground, exclaimed: So far, Mother! According to the tradition, the waters were detained and began to retreat. In the account of the miracle of Cadiz –as in that of Hilarion in Epidaurus–, the priest reinforces the cosmic limits imposed by God on the sea during the act of creation.
Fig. 3. Miracle of Our Lady of the Palm in Cadiz (Félix Quijada, 1936). The lower part of the painting shows the priests stopping the tsunami through the intercession of the Virgin.
Catastrophes, Rituals, and Social Memory
This account and its symbolic keys are still commemorated in the city of Cadiz. Each year, on 1 November, a religious service and a procession set off for La Caleta Beach, where the tsunami entered the city in 1755. There, the priest holds a cross over the waters to “bless them.” The image suggests that the priest holding the cross over the sea is an annual reminder of God’s message to it, showing the ocean the cosmic limits that it should never cross again.
Fig. 4. Blessing of the waters during the commemoration of the Miracle of Cadiz in 1755. La Caleta Beach, Cadiz, 1 November 2021 (Photo: Manuel Álvarez-Martí-Aguilar)
Throughout the history of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, earthquakes and tsunamis have triggered religious reactions which, in turn, have generated mythical narratives in which the deity confronts the sea, dominating and containing it. Through the transmission over time of accounts of miracles and the annual celebration of rituals commemorating past catastrophes, the symbolic keys of the ancient model of perception of the sea and tsunamis have been updated in new social and religious contexts. This is a unique example of religious phenomena unfolding on Fernand Braudel's longue durée time scale (Braudel 1958).
Manuel Álvarez-Martí-Aguilar is a lecturer of Ancient History at the University of Malaga (Spain). His lines of research include the historical process of Tartessos and Phoenician Iberia, as well as the modern historiography of the ancient world. In recent years, he has led a line of research on the impact of historical earthquakes and tsunamis in the ancient Mediterranean, analysing the symbolic keys to the perception of tsunamis, and studying the religious and apotropaic responses to this type of phenomenon. He has recently co-edited, with Francisco Machuca, the volume Historical Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Archaeology in the Iberian Peninsula (Springer Nature, 2022). He has been appointed Dorothy Tarrant Fellow of the Institute of Classical Studies - School of Advanced Study, University of London, for the year 2024.
This blog was first published by the Environmental Humanities Research Hub.