Greek writer Pausanias gave an account of how a great earthquake destroyed the city of Helike. Moments later, a tsunami swept away what remained of the once-flourishing metropolis, which had been a worship center devoted to Poseidon, earth shaker and God of the sea. No trace of the legendary society existed outside of ancient Greek texts until 1861 when an archaeologist found a bronze coin with the unmistakable head of Poseidon. In 2001, a pair of archaeologists located the ruins of Helike beneath coastal mud and gravel. They are now working to unearth what some consider the "real" Atlantis.
Helike was an ancient Greek city that disappeared at night in the winter of 373 BC. It was located in Achaea, northern Peloponnesos, two kilometres (12 stadia) from the Corinthian Gulf and near the city of Boura, which, like Helike, was a member of the Achaean League. The city was thought to be legend until 2001, when it was rediscovered in the Helike delta. Modern research attributes the catastrophe to an earthquake and accompanying tsunami which destroyed and submerged the city. In an effort to protect the site from destruction, the World Monuments Fund included Helike in its 2004 and 2006 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites
Helike was founded in the Bronze Age, becoming the principal city of Achaea. The poet Homer states that the city of Eliki participated in the Trojan War with one ship. Later, following its fall to the Achaeans, Eliki led the Achaean League, an association that joined twelve neighboring cities in an area including today's town of Aigion. Eliki, also known as Dodekapolis (from the Greek words dodeka meaning twelve and polis meaning city), became a cultural and religious center with its own coinage. Finds from ancient Eliki are limited to two 5th century copper coins, now housed in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin. The obverse shows the head of Poseidon, the city's patron, and the reverse his trident. There was a temple dedicated to the Helikonian Poseidon.
Helike founded colonies including Priene in Asia Minor and Sybaris in South Italy. Its panhellenic temple and sanctuary of Helikonian Poseidon were known throughout the Classical world, and second only in religious importance to Delphi
The city was destroyed in 373 BC, two years before the Battle of Leuctra, during a winter night. Several events were construed in retrospect as having warned of the disaster: some "immense columns of flame" appeared, and five days previously, all animals and vermin fled the city, going toward Keryneia. The city and a space of 12 stadia below it sank into the earth and were covered over by the sea. All the inhabitants perished without a trace, and the city was obscured from view except for a few building fragments projecting from the sea. Ten Spartan ships anchored in the harbour were dragged down with it. An attempt involving 2000 men to recover bodies was unsuccessful. Aegium took possession of its territory.
The catastrophe was attributed to the vengeance of Poseidon, whose wrath was incited because the inhabitants of Helike had refused to give their statue of Poseidon to the Ionian colonists in Asia, or even to supply them with a model. According to some authorities, the inhabitants of Helike and Bura had even murdered the Ionian deputies.
About 150 years after the disaster, the philosopher Eratosthenes visited the site and reported that a standing bronze statue of Poseidon was submerged in a "poros", "holding in one hand a hippocamp", where it posed a hazard to those who fished with nets.
Around AD 174 the traveler Pausanias visited a coastal site still called Helike, located 7 km southeast of Aigion, and reported that the walls of the ancient city were still visible under water, "but not so plainly now as they were once, because they are corroded by the salt water".
For centuries after, its submerged ruins could still be seen. Roman tourists frequently sailed over the site, admiring the city's statuary. Later the site silted over and the location was lost to memory.
A. Giovannini argued that the submergence of Helike might have inspired Plato to write his story about Atlantis. Ancient scholars and writers who visited the ruins include the Greeks Strabo, Pausanias and Diodoros of Sicily, and the Romans Aelian and Ovid.
On 23 August 1817, a similar disaster, an earthquake followed by a tsunami, occurred on the same spot. The earthquake was preceded by a sudden explosion, like that produced by a battery of cannon. The aftershock was said to have lasted a minute and a half, during which the sea rose at the mouth of the Selinous River and extended to cover all the ground immediately below Vostitza (the ancient Aegium). After its retreat, not a trace was left of some artillery depots which had stood on the shore, and the beach was carried away completely. In Vostitza 65 people lost their lives and two thirds of its buildings were entirely ruined, as were five villages in the plain.
The submerged town was long one of the biggest targets for underwater archaeology. Scientists were divided in their opinions about the exact location of Helike. Numerous archaeologists, historians, professors and explorers wrote, studied and actively searched, trying to discover any trace of the ancient town, with little success. But their work, essays, observations and studies contributed to an important and growing body of knowledge. Among them are the following:
In 1826, François Pouqueville, French diplomat and archaeologist, who wrote the Voyage en Grèce; in 1851 Ernst Curtius the German archaeologist and historian who speculated about its location; in 1879 Julius Schmidt, the director of Athens Observatory, issuing a study comparing the Aegeion earthquake which occurred 26 December 1861 with an earthquake which might have destroyed Helike; in 1883 Spiros Panagiotopoulos, the mayor of Aegeion city, wrote about the ancient city; in 1912 the Greek writer P. K. Ksinopoulos wrote The City of Aegeion Through the Centuries, and in 1939 Stanley Casson, an English art scholar and army officer who studied classical archaeology and served in Greece as liaison officer, addressed the problem.
Other investigators include in 1948 the German archaeologist G. Karo; in 1950 Professor Robert Demangel, who was from 1933 to 1948 the director of the French School of Archaeology in Athens; in 1950 Alfred Philippson, German geologist and geographer; in 1952 Spiros Dontas, Greek writer and member of the Academy of Athens; in 1954 Aristos Stauropoulos, a Greek writer who published the History of the city of Aegeion; in 1956 the Greek Professor N. Κ. Moutsopoulos; in 1967 Spiros Marinatos, a Greek archaeologist who wrote the Research about Helike and in 1968 Helike-Thira-Thieves; in 1962 George K. Georgalas, the Greek writer; and in 1967 Nikos Papahatzis, a Greek archaeologist who published Pausanias’ Description of Greece.
Spyridon Marinatos, emphasizing the importance of the discovery of Helike, said that only the declaration of a third world war would obscure the discovery of Helike. He pointed out Helike as an unresolved problem of Greek archaeology in 1960. In 1967, Dr. Harold Eugene Edgerton worked with the American researcher Peter Throckmorton. They were convinced that Helike was to be found on the seabed of the Gulf of Corinth. Dr. Edgerton perfected special sonar equipment for this research but permission to search was not granted by the Greek authorities. In 1967 and in 1976, Captain Jacques Yves Cousteau made some efforts with no result. In 1979 in the Corinthian Gulf, the Greek undersea explorer Alexis Papadopoulos discovered a sunken town and recorded his findings in a documentary film which shows walls, fallen roofs, roof tiles, streets, etc. at a depth of between 25 and 45 m. "Whether or not this town can be identified with Helike is a question to be answered by extensive underwater research. In any case, the discovery of this town can be regarded as an extremely interesting find", according to the Greek scientific journal Archaeology.
In 1988, the Greek archaeologist Dora Katsonopoulou, president of the Helike Society, and Steven Soter of the American Museum of Natural History launched the Helike Project to locate the site of the lost city. Ancient texts, telling the story of Helike, said that the city had sunk into a poros, which everyone interpreted as the Corinthian Gulf. However, Katsonopoulou and Soter raised the possibility that poros could have meant an inland lagoon. If earthquake caused soil liquefaction on a large scale, the city would have been taken downward below the sea level. Also, if earthquake caused the sections of coastline to fall into the sea, this would have created tsunami, which in turn would have flooded the inland lagoon with the city in it. Later, over time, the river sediment coming down from the mountains would have filled in the lagoon hiding the city remains beneath the solid ground.
Before Helike was rediscovered, a few false starts came along the way. In 1994, in collaboration with the University of Patras, a magnetometer survey carried out in the midplain of the delta revealed the outlines of a buried building. This target (now known as the Klonis site) was excavated and a large Roman building with standing walls was found. Also a well-preserved settlement of an early bronze age was uncovered. Finally, in 2001, the city of Helike was rediscovered buried in an ancient lagoon near the village of Rizomylos. To further confirm that the discovered site belongs to Helike, the earthquake destruction layer consisting of cobblestones, clay roof tiles, and pottery was uncovered in 2012. This destruction layer is in good agreement with ancient texts on the location of Helike and earthquake effects to the city.
Excavations are being carried out in the Helike delta each summer and have brought to light significant archeological finds dating from prehistoric times when Helike was founded up until its revival in Hellenistic and Roman times.
[Sidenote: Acrisius and Danae.]
The life of Acrisius, King of Argos, had been a burden to him ever
since the unfortunate day when an oracle had predicted that he would
be killed by his grandson. Until then the king had been very fond of
his only child, Danae, and until then, too, had thought with pride of
the time when he would bestow her hand in marriage upon the noblest of
all who came to woo.
Now his plans were all changed, and his only wish was to keep her
unmated,--a somewhat difficult task, for the maiden was very fair, and
Acrisius knew that the wily God of Love would endeavor to find some
way to outwit him and bring his plans to naught. After much thought,
Acrisius decided to lock Danae up in a brazen tower, around which he
stationed guards to prevent any one from even approaching the captive
But, although safely concealed from the eyes of men, Danae was plainly
seen by the everlasting gods; and Jupiter, looking down from Olympus,
beheld her in all her loveliness and in all her loneliness. She was
seated on top of her brazen tower, her eyes wistfully turned toward
the city, where girls of her age enjoyed freedom, and were allowed to
marry when they pleased.
[Sidenote: The shower of gold.]
Jupiter, pitying her isolation and admiring her beauty, resolved to go
down and converse with her for a little while. To avoid being seen, he
changed himself into a golden shower, and gently dropped down on the
turret beside her, where his presence and spirited conversation soon
won the maiden's heart.
"Danae, in a brazen tower
Where no love was, loved a shower."
This first successful visit was frequently repeated, and Danae no
longer felt lonely and deserted, for Jupiter spent most of his time
with her, pursuing his courtship most diligently, and finally winning
her to a secret marriage, to which no one offered the slightest
objection, as no one suspected his visits, which he continued quite
[Sidenote: Birth of Perseus.]
But one morning the guards rushed in terror to Acrisius' palace to
announce that Danae, his daughter, had given birth to a son, who, on
account of his beauty, was called Perseus. The king no sooner learned
this astonishing news, than he flew into a great rage, vowed that
mother and child should perish, and dispatched the guards to fetch the
Acrisius, however, was not cruel enough to stain his own hands with
his child's blood, or to witness her execution: so he ordered that she
should be placed in an empty cask with her helpless infant, and
exposed to the fury of the waves. These orders were speedily executed;
and Danae's heart sank with terror when she felt the cask buffeted
about by the great waves far out of sight of land, and out of all
reach of help. Clasping her babe close to her bosom, she fervently
prayed the gods to watch over them both, and bring them in safety to
some hospitable shore.
"When round the well-fram'd ark the blowing blast
Roar'd, and the heaving whirlpools of the deep
With rough'ning surge seem'd threatening to o'erturn
The wide-tost vessel, not with tearless cheeks
The mother round her infant gently twined
Her tender arm, and cried, 'Ah me! my child!
What sufferings I endure! thou sleep'st the while,
Inhaling in thy milky-breathing breast
The balm of slumber.'"
Simonides (Elton's tr.).
[Sidenote: Danae at Seriphus.]
Her piteous prayer was evidently heard, for, after much tossing, the
cask was finally washed ashore on the Island of Seriphus, where
Polydectes, the king, kindly received mother and child. Here Perseus,
the golden-haired, grew to manhood, and here made his first appearance
in games and combats.
In the mean while, Polydectes had fallen in love with Danae, and
expressed his desire to marry her; but Danae did not return his
affections, and would not consent. Angry at her persistent refusal of
his proposals, Polydectes wished to compel her to obey, and thereby
incurred the wrath of young Perseus, who loudly declared that none
should dare force his mother as long as he were there to defend her.
This boast did not at all allay the monarch's wrath; and, hoping to
get rid of the young boaster, he bade him go forth and slay Medusa, if
he wished to convince people that his bravery was real.
[Sidenote: The Gorgons.]
This Medusa was one of the three Gorgons. Her sisters, Euryale and
Stheno, although immortal, had never had any claims to beauty; but
Medusa, when only a girl, had been considered very handsome indeed.
Her home, in a land where the sun never shone, was very distasteful to
her, so she entreated Minerva to let her go and visit the beautiful
But when Minerva refused to grant her wish, she reviled the goddess,
and declared that nothing but a conviction that mortals would no
longer consider her beautiful if they but once beheld Medusa, could
have prompted this denial. This presumptuous remark so incensed
Minerva, that, to punish her for her vanity, she changed her beautiful
curling locks into hissing, writhing serpents, and decreed that one
glance into her still beautiful face would suffice to change the
beholder into stone.
"Fatal Beauty! thou didst seem
The phantom of some fearful dream.
Extremes of horror and of love
Alternate o'er our senses move,
As, rapt and spellbound, we survey
The horrid coils which round thee play,
And mark thy wild, enduring smile,
Lit by no mortal fire the while,
Formed to attract all eyes to thee,
And yet their withering blight to be;
Thy power mysterious to congeal
And from life's blood its warmth to steal,
To petrify the mortal clay
In its first gleam of wild dismay,
Is a dread gift to one like thee,
Cursed with a hateful destiny."
Mrs. St. John.
[Sidenote: Perseus' quest.]
The gods, who had carefully watched over Perseus through his childhood
and youth, now decided to lend him their aid, so that he might
successfully accomplish the great task of slaying Medusa. Pluto lent
him a magic helmet, which made the wearer invisible at will; Mercury
attached his own winged sandals to the youth's heels, to endow him
with great rapidity of flight; while Minerva armed him with her own
mirrorlike shield, the dreadful Ægis.
"Minerva thus to Perseus lent her shield;
Secure of conquest, sent him to the field:
The hero acted what the queen ordain'd,
So was his fame complete."
[Sidenote: The Grææ.]
Thus equipped, Perseus flew northward until he came to the land of
perpetual darkness, the home of the Grææ, three horrible sisters, who
possessed but one eye and one tooth, which they handed about and used
in turn, and who were the only living beings cognizant of the place
where Medusa dwelt.
Invisible by virtue of his magic helmet, Perseus drew near the cave
without fear of detection, and intercepted the eye while on its way
from one sister to another. As soon as it was safe in his possession,
he spoke to them, promising to restore it if they would only give him
accurate directions for finding Medusa. The sisters, eager to recover
the treasured eye, immediately gave the desired information; and
Perseus, having honorably fulfilled his share of the contract,
departed in search of Medusa.
[Sidenote: Death of Medusa.]
Perseus at last perceived the Gorgon's home in the dim distance; and,
as he was fully aware of Medusa's petrifying proclivities, he advanced
very cautiously, holding his shield before him at such an angle that
all surrounding objects were clearly reflected on its smooth,
He thus discovered Medusa asleep, raised his sword, and, without
looking at anything but her mirrored form, severed her head from her
body, seized it in one hand, and, holding it persistently behind his
back, flew away in great haste, lest the two remaining Gorgons should
fall upon him and attempt to avenge their sister's death.
[Sidenote: Birth of snakes.]
Perseus then swiftly winged his way over land and sea, carefully
holding his ghastly trophy behind him; and as he flew, Medusa's blood
trickled down on the hot African sand, where it gave birth to a race
of poisonous reptiles destined to infest the region in future ages,
and cause the death of many an adventurous explorer. The drops which
fell into the sea were utilized by Neptune, who created from them the
famous winged steed called Pegasus (p. 154).
"And the life drops from thy head
On Libyan sands, by Perseus shed,
Sprang a scourging race from thee--
Fell types of artful mystery."
Mrs. St. John.
The return journey was long and wearisome, and on his way the hero had
many adventures. Once, when flying high above a mountainous country,
he caught a glimpse of Atlas, his pale face turned up to the heavens,
whose weight he had patiently borne for many a long year,--a burden
which seemed all the more grievous after the short taste of freedom he
had enjoyed while Hercules stood in his place (pp. 228-9),--
[Illustration: PERSEUS.--Cellini. (Loggia de' Lanzi, Florence.)]
"Supporting on his shoulders the vast pillar
Of Heaven and Earth, a weight of cumbrous grasp."
Æschylus (Potter's tr.).
[Sidenote: Atlas petrified.]
When Atlas saw Perseus flying toward him, hope revived, for he
remembered that Fate had decreed that it was this hero who was to slay
the Gorgon; and he thought, that, if he could but once gaze upon her
stony face, he would be free from pain and weariness forever. As soon
as the hero was within hearing, Atlas therefore addressed him as
"'Hasten now, Perseus, and let me look upon the Gorgon's face, for the
agony of my labor is well-nigh greater than I can bear.' So Perseus
hearkened unto the word of Atlas, and he unveiled before him the dead
face of Medusa. Eagerly he gazed for a moment on the changeless
countenance, as though beneath the blackness of great horror he yet
saw the wreck of her ancient beauty and pitied her for her hopeless
woe. But in an instant the straining eyes were stiff and cold; and it
seemed to Perseus, as he rose again into the pale yellow air, that the
gray hairs which streamed from the giant's head were like the snow
which rests on the peak of a great mountain, and that in place of the
trembling limbs he saw only the rents and clefts on a rough hillside."
Thus the mere sight of Medusa changed Atlas into the rugged mountains
which have since borne his name; and, as their summits are lost in the
clouds, the ancients supposed they sustained the full weight of the
[Sidenote: Story of Andromeda.]
Thence Perseus flew on until he reached the seashore, where a strange
sight greeted him. Away down on the "rock-bound coast," so near the
foaming billows that their spray continually dashed over her fair
limbs, a lovely maiden was chained fast to an overhanging rock. This
maiden was the Princess Andromeda. To atone for the vanity of her
mother, Cassiopeia, who claimed she was fairer than any of the sea
nymphs, she had been exposed there as prey for a terrible sea monster
sent to devastate the homes along the coast.
[Illustration: PERSEUS AND ANDROMEDA.--Coypel.]
An oracle, when consulted, declared that the monster would not depart
until Andromeda was sacrificed to his fury; and Perseus could even now
perceive the receding procession which had solemnly accompanied her to
the appointed place of sacrifice, and chained her fast.
At the same time, too, he saw the waters below the maiden lashed to
foam by the monster's tail, and the scales of his hideous body slowly
rising up out of the water. Fascinated by this horrible sight, the
maiden's eyes were fixed on the monster. She did not see the rapid
approach of her deliverer, who, dauntless, drew his sword from its
scabbard, and, swooping down, attacked the monster, cheered by the
shouts of the people, who had seen him, and now rushed back to witness
the slaying of their foe.
"On the hills a shout
Of joy, and on the rocks the ring of mail;
And while the hungry serpent's gloating eyes
Were fixed on me, a knight in casque of gold
And blazing shield, who with his flashing blade
Fell on the monster. Long the conflict raged,
Till all the rocks were red with blood and slime,
And yet my champion from those horrible jaws
And dreadful coils was scathless."
Of course, this fierce struggle could have but one conclusion; and
when Perseus had slain the monster, freed Andromeda from her chains,
and restored her to the arms of her overjoyed parents, they
immediately offered any reward he might be pleased to claim. When he,
therefore, expressed a desire to marry the maiden he had so bravely
rescued, they gladly gave him her hand, although in early youth the
princess had been promised to her uncle Phineus.
[Sidenote: Phineus petrified.]
Preparations for the marriage were immediately begun; and the former
suitor, who had been too cowardly to venture a single blow to deliver
her from the monster, prepared to fight the rival who was about to
carry off his promised bride. Unbidden he came to the marriage feast
with a number of armed followers, and was about to carry off
Andromeda, when Perseus suddenly bade his adherents stand behind him,
unveiled the Medusa head, and, turning its baleful face toward Phineus
and his followers, changed them all into stone.
The interrupted marriage feast was now resumed; and when it was over,
Perseus took his bride to Seriphus. There, hearing that Polydectes had
dared to ill treat his mother because she still refused to accede to
his wishes and become his wife, he changed the importunate king into a
rock by showing him his Medusa trophy, gave the kingdom to the king's
brother, and, accompanied by wife and mother, returned to his native
land. The borrowed helmet, sandals, and shield were all duly restored
to their respective owners, and the Medusa head was given to Minerva
in token of gratitude for her help. Greatly pleased with this gift,
the goddess set it in the center of her terrible Ægis, where it
retained all its petrifying power, and served her in many a fight.
[Sidenote: Return to Argos.]
Arrived at Argos, Perseus discovered that a usurper had claimed his
grandfather's throne. To hurl the unlawful claimant from his exalted
seat, and compel him to make full restitution and atonement, was but a
trifle for the hero who had conquered Medusa; and Acrisius, now old
and weak, was taken from the prison where he languished, and restored
to his wonted honors, by the very youth he had been taught to fear.
But the gods' decree was always sure to be fulfilled sooner or later;
and one day, when Perseus was playing quoits, he accidentally killed
his grandfather. To remain at Argos, haunted by the memory of this
involuntary crime, was too painful for him: so he exchanged his
kingdom for another, that of Mycenæ, which he ruled wisely and well.
When Perseus died, after a long and glorious reign, the gods, who had
always loved him, placed him among the stars, where he can still be
seen, with his wife Andromeda, and mother-in-law Cassiopeia.