Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Cindy Clendenon, Hydromythology and the Ancient Greek World: An Earth Science Perspective Emphasizing Karst Hydrology. Lansing, Mich.: Fineline Science Press, 2009. Pp. xvii, 502. ISBN 9780981842103. $32.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Catherine Connors, University of Washington Seattle

When I was a girl, my grandmother told me about her trip to Ireland to see where her mother had been born. My great-grandmother had told her that 'we used to water the cows in Lake Wincheon,' but my grandmother said, with some melancholy, 'when I went to see it, it was all gone.' I eventually told this story to my Irish husband, and his sister, a water scientist, told me that the lake comes and goes because it lies on a limestone bed pierced by holes and underground caverns; when the water table falls, the water drains out of such lakes like water drains out of a bathtub (sometimes it has disappeared in less than a day). The time I went to see Lake Wincheon (Lake Funshinagh), it was filled up again; I wondered what ancient stories might have been told about its comings and goings by the people who lived thereabouts.

This sort of landscape, described by the scientific term 'karst,' is formed when groundwater gradually dissolves bedrock, usually limestone. Water flows through the hollows; streams may appear and disappear into them; subterranean caves can suddenly collapse, opening dramatic sinkholes. All of this can seem surprising and uncanny. Das Karstphänomen (1893) by Jovan Cvijić demonstrated the role of groundwater dissolution of rock in establishing the geomorphology of the Dinaric Kras region and established karst, the German form of the local place name, as the scientific term for these formations generally (see further Derek Ford, 'Jovan Cvijić́ and the founding of karst geomorphology' Environmental Geology [2007] 51: 675-684). In describing the features of this area bordering the northern Adriatic Strabo writes: 'And in the very inmost corner of the Adriatic there is a temple of Diomedes worthy of mention, The Timavum. For it contains a harbor and an exceptional sacred precinct and seven streams of fresh water that go straight into the sea in a wide and deep stream. Polybius has said that all except one of them is salt water and that the local people call the place the source and mother of the sea. But Poseidonius says that a river, the Timavus, flows down out of the mountains and falls down into a chasm and after flowing underground for about one hundred and thirty stadia it makes its outflow into the sea' (Strabo 5.1.8, cf. Virgil Aeneid 1.242-246, Pliny Natural History 2.229)

The intriguing project of Hydromythology and the Ancient Greek World is to consider the extent to which the surprising features of caves, sinkholes, streams, and so forth in Greek myths may reflect features of karstic geological formations. The author is a water scientist who 'works at a state environmental protection agency where she manages water and wastewater infrastructure projects' (p. 502). Her grandfather farmed in a karstic area on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee; her professional pursuit of water science brought her in contact with karstic formations in Indiana and Michigan (p. x-xi). These experiences sparked her interest in subterranean streams, caves, sinkholes and other features in Greek mythology. Clendenon brings to the enterprise a lively practical interest in hydrology and geomorphology and an engaging enthusiasm for fearless speculation. The result is refreshing, if not completely satisfying.

Clendenon presents her approach as analogous to the search for a geological basis for the myths of Atlantis in the work of Dorothy B. Vitaliano Legends of the Earth: Their Geological Origins (Bloomington 1973). As Clendenon notes (p. 9-10), Dora P. Crouch has drawn attention to the role of water available from karstic formations in her studies of the management of water in Greek cities: chapter 7 of Crouch's book Water Management in Ancient Greek Cities (Oxford 1993) is titled 'Karst: The hydrogeological basis of civilization.' Clendenon is right, I think, that an understanding of the workings of karst systems can be useful in the interpretation of Greek myths. Once you know about how water can behave in a karstified formation, things you thought were completely 'made-up' in Greek myths (say, Poseidon striking the ground and producing a spring, or Arethusa's undersea journey from Elis to Syracuse) look more like responses to enigmatic features of a karstic landscape.

Clendenon aims for a comprehensive approach to the representation of ground water and surface water systems in Greek myths; about a third of the book focuses specifically on karstic phenomena. Part 1 provides an introduction, and Part 2 lays out the historical background and sources for Greek mythology. Part 3 surveys freshwater myths and includes discussion of Tartarus. Part 4 looks at springs, Part 5 considers the sea and coastal marshes, Part 6 focuses on karst hydrology, Part 7 looks at karst geomorphology as a background to Greek myths, and Part 8 examines myths of the Argonauts in Libya in the context of the karst formations there. Part 9 looks at volcanoes, including Thera.

Classical readers might wish that this book cited primary sources by book and chapter number, rather than merely by author's name. Clendenon works with texts in English translation, not in the original Greek or Latin. A good sample of the project's strengths and weaknesses is the discussion of the Timavus (p. 253):

'Writers of the first century BC and first century AD who referred to features of Kras include Greek Stoic polymath Poseidonius of Apamea (Syria), Romanized Greek Stoic geographer-historian Strabo; Roman poet Virgil; and Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder. In his books on the natural world, Roman Stoic philosopher and tragedian Seneca the Younger (first century AD) described karst solution processes, the development of large caves, and the disappearance and reappearance of streams.'

This is all extremely interesting, but without specific citations Clendenon has not presented information in a form a classicist can readily use. It takes some work with texts, indices and commentaries to come up with Strabo 5.1.8, Poseidonius Kidd F 225, Virgil Aeneid 1.244, Pliny Natural History 2.166, 2.229 and Seneca Natural Questions 3.26, 6.7, and 6.20 for the passages cited here.

Not everyone will be convinced by every hydromythological reading offered by Clendenon. Still, the ideas and information this book brings to the discussion of Greek myths are genuinely thought provoking. A search for realities that underlie myths can collapse into narrow rationalism that ignores the power of the ancient stories. Clendenon, however, is not narrowly rationalistic in her approach to the relations between Greek myths and karstified landscapes in which the stories unfold. She doesn't make myths look more rational; rather, she opened my eyes to the uncanny, surprising qualities of the landscapes in which these stories were told.

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