Mapping seismic gods in the ancient Mediterranean

Cracks in the ground
Foto: Colourbox.de/

Sabine Neumann (MCAW, University of Marburg) & Tomáš Glomb (CEDRR, Masaryk University)

The Mediterranean region is located in an active seismic zone. Destructive earthquakes were and are a threatening constant for its inhabitants. Re-occurring natural events have a significant impact on different areas of human life and lead to adaptions and resilience. While studies on ancient disasters have emerged during the recent years, one area that has only received little scholarly attention is religious coping with earthquakes.

In our project we aim to explore the religious coping strategies to earthquakes by analyzing direct links between seismic hazards and divine agency. Poseidon is typically the god who caused earthquakes but was also able to mitigate seismic shocks and save cities from destruction. He has been worshipped in the ancient Mediterranean with numerous epithets as Gaiaochos, Séisichtôn, and Ennosigaios formed from designations that the Greeks had for the earth and particularly refer to earthquakes. Other names are associated with the protective function of the god as themeliouchos (ensuring foundations) or more general asphaleios (guaranteeing safety). 

In our project, we take a twofold approach. We zoom in to specific places and explore local micro-historical contexts to understand how ancient actors established security and developed resilience through religious practices. To do so, we also show how seismic phenomena shaped the local myths. Second, we apply a macro-spatial GIS perspective to evaluate whether the overall spatial distribution of such cults was impacted by seismic activity in the region. The potential of the macro-spatial GIS approach will be explored primarily on the case study of the cult of Poseidon, i.e., an established cult in the ancient Mediterranean of the chthonic deity significantly connected to water and earthquakes. In this context, we introduces a spatial proximity analysis conducted between the places of worship of this god, estimated from archaeological and epigraphic evidence, and other spatial data approximating the aspects of reality related to Poseidon’s attributes such as places of seismic activity and water. When compared with the spatial distribution of other contemporary cults (e.g., Aphrodite, Artemis, or Dionysus), such analysis has the potential to reveal patterns specific to Poseidon and answer the question whether certain aspects of Poseidon were worshipped only locally or in a widespread manner as a re-occurring reaction to natural phenomena. The results will shed light on the role that religious practices had in helping the people in the ancient Mediterranean to cope with earthquake disasters and to establish security for their future.