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Greek Diving History

As for all communities established along the coastline sea, related techniques, such as shipbuilding, seafaring, as well as fishing, were developed in Greece from the down of the history. Greeks established very strong ties with the sea and soon they become a tremendous sea power. Bold discoverers visited in their ships the entire known ancient world and they established commercial relations with distant nations. The nautical supremacy of the Athenians, with their warships the "TRIREMS" -that bore three rows of oars as well as a metallic ram projecting from the bow- enabled them to withstand victoriously the assault of outnumbering Persians who wanted to enslave them. It is thanks to their maritime valor that they established trade colonies throughout the then known world.

Simultaneously Greeks discovered at a very early stage the immense wealth of the sea bed and consequently fishing and free diving developed greatly. The free divers of that ancient world were not used only for nourishment needs but also for war purposes. Thus they formed a precious part of warship crews. Most of the existing reports relating to these times give evidence of the feats of these diving warriors. As was then customary, heroic duds were divined and thus the names of heroes were added to mythology. Thus besides Poseidon, the God of the sea and master of the fate of every seaman, Greek mythology refers to the astounding diving achievements of GLAFKOS.

According to tradition GLAFKOS was the son of Anthidonas and of Alkyonis, but others say he was the son of Poseidon and of Mayadas. One day, as he was fishing, he noticed that one of the fish caught after butting a herb, was instantly revived and jumped back in the water. He tried that miraculous herb himself and felt being filled by a divine strength. Since then his diving capacities became superhuman. He could stay immerged for hours thus becoming a tremendous fish catcher and sponge collector. His love affairs were however unfortunates, for instance, that of his enamour of Symi. He carried her to dwell in the isle that still bears her name to this day, (an island whose inhabitants have to this day amazing diving capacities and are considered among the best divers in the world together with famed Asian divers of the "Ama" tribe. The "magical" herb eaten by Glafkos is the plant called in Greek "AGROSTI" which still grows nowadays on the isle of Symi.) Later Glafkos separated from SYMI and he took YDNA as a mate, the daughter of the famous diver SKYLLIYA , who was herself a tremendous diver. Still later he had a relationship with SKYLLA (daughter of KRATEIDAS) who disclaimed his love. As a consequence, in the name of the God Poseidon, he transformed her into a monster, (mentioned in the ""ARGONAUTICAL expedition" living on the rocks called "SYMBLIGADES or PLAGTES" together with the other monster called "HARYVDHI" through which no ship could pass through as the stones were moving and closing the passage.) Finally GLAFKOS had a romance with ARIADNI of Naxos but he was overtaken by DIONYSSOS. It is there that OKEANOS and TITHIYA (sea demons) took hold of GLAFKOS and made him for ever a sea divinity. According to other version Glafkos was turned into a sea divinity by the Gods whereupon he jumped with dispair into the sea and was lost in its depths because he had been made immortal whereas he was not given the gift of eternal youth.. Another version goes that he was lost in the sea depths because he could not prove to his companions that a water source of their region rendered humans immortal. A final version is that his conversion as a divide is due to his love for MELIKESTIS who, before him, changed his human nature by jumping into the water and had become the PALAIMON sea divinity.


In Herodotus SKYLLIYS the Skionian (from Skiona in Halkidiki) is referred to as " a superb diver" and it is mentioned that he dived in the deepest parts of the sea. He taught the diving techniques to his daughter YDNA. At the beginning SKYLLIS was an ally of the Persians and he partook to their expedition against the Hellenes. When the Persian flute shipwrecked an the shores of Pilion, he dived and recuperated valuable objects from the sunken ships, but kept however for himself some of the most valuable. Thus he lost the Persians favor and had to escape by swimming (oft underwater) the distance of 80 Stadius (approx. 15 km). With his daughter's help he succeeded in destroying the remainder of the Persian Ships and , diving below, they cut their anchors and all safety means. In their honour the "Amhiktyons" erected their statues at Delphi. The statue of YDNA was subsequently taken away to Rome by the Roman emperor Nero, whereas the statue of SKYLLIYAS stood there up to the year 170 A.C.

It should be particularly noted that Herodotus mentions, as regards YDNA, that only virgin women were allowed to practice the diving art in antiquity.

References as to the feats of divers for military purposes, making No mention of any particular ones, are made by Homer in ILIAD - Rhapsody verses 733-750 ,"truly, the Trojans have in their ranks such capable divers?" as well as by Thoukididis in SIKELICA, 7th book, chapter 25 where referring to the siege of Syracuse by the Athenians, he describes the method and the endeavors exerted by the Athenian divers to destroy the underwater defensive barriers of the harbour.

In the works of Aristoteles there are distinct references not only to sponge gathering by means of free diving but also reports as to special instruments invented by divers so as to remain submerged longer. Furthermore Plutarchos as well as Oppianos make reference to a lighting system used by divers at that time, in order to see around them at the great depths at which they were active as, otherwise, at small depths there was no visibility problem. When going under divers were holding in their mouth what was known as "the white pomade" which they spat as soon as they went to the bottom. This concoction, unknown to us, phosphoresced when in contact with the sea-water, thus enabling divers to see around them.

The resort to divers for clearly military operations is also mentioned to have taken place in the course of the battle of Thermopiles when the Greek leader Leonidas sent a special corps of divers to kidnap the Persian emperor from his headquarters, considering that the only way to reach the Persian encampment was via the sea. Although the raid was a success, the Persian emperor was not captured as he was not in his quarters that night.

The tradition of sponge collection, with their unbelievable feats, spread to many Greek islands, but its main representatives are the inhabitants of Kalymnos and Symi. It is said, though this has not been ascertained, that Alexander the Great dived, and remained underwater for a long time, using a crystal bell. (shortly before his unexpected death, making some experts to speak about decompression sickness).

The first recorder descent, made with the use of an autonomous apparatus, is that of a women, called EVGENYA MASTORIDI, wife of PHOTIOS MASTORIDIS, and effected in the isle of Symi in 1863. Her husband was a renowned sponge diver and he brought in Greece the first scaphander. As his country men were not easy to convince to try the new equipment, which considered risky, his pregnant wife wore it and dived at the entrance of the harbour. The use of such diving "wear" spread throughout these two islands and brought wealth to its inhabitants. However it also brought the terrible and then yet unknown diver's sickness, up to these days one can meet on the island of Calymnos one of these former "mechanics" (as these autonomous divers were then called) hit by the paralysis caused by this accursed foe.

Particular attention should be given to the story of STATHIS HADZIS, the firs man ever to dive freely to a depth of over 80m. Hadzis was a famed diver of the island of Symi. The captain of an Italian warship called the "Regina Margherita" asked him to recover his vessel's anchor that had been lost at cape Pigadia off the island of Karpathos. On 16 July 1913, in the presence of the entire crew of the warship, he effected the unbelievable immersion to a depth of 88m., just holding a stone in his hands that dragged him to the bottom swiftly. When in the darkness of the abyss , he succeeded in locating the lost anchor, he tied to its chain a wire which he was carrying round his waist. The whole operation lasted 3min and 58 seconds, as recorded by the ship's officers. Hadzis was upon his ascent examined by doctors. He was vainly trying to tell them that it was only underwater that he had the ability of holding his breath for such a long time. This unbelievable feat by Stathis Xadzis was recorded in the ship's log. The story became known throughout the world thanks to two persons: the modern world champion in deep diving Jacque Mayol and a former sailor of the warship who attained in 1950 a high ranking position in the Italian Admiralty.

(Bibliography: Mythology of Gods and Demons/ The Conqueror of the immense Blue G.Detorakis/ relevant books : Pafsanias 9,22,6-7/Athineos 7.296-297/Filostratos.Icons2/ Commentaries of Platon/The Barbarians by K.Plevris)

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