Several weeks ago, I was in Seattle to give a talk. Rainy most of the time, the city is often overcast. But on a clear day, suddenly one can look out Rainier Avenue and see, hulking, Mt. Rainier. It is as if some dark magic had occurred. The clouds suggest nothing is there. They clear. The sheer force of the mountain makes itself felt. The whole city is marked by this mysterious hide and seek.
One can see why indigenous peoples, who had more of a sense of these things, worshipped volcanoes. Power and transience. Some distance away are the remains of Mt. St. Helen’s. 30 years ago, the top blew off. The stump of the volcano remains.
As St. Helen’s was exploding, everyone left except one man who stayed with his cabin by a lake. The mountain side collapsed. The lava took the cabin, with him in it, back into the earth.
I have just gone to Santorini (named for the Venetian St. Irene) in the Aegean. There 3400 years ago, the great volcano lurching up in a giant island exploded. The air was filled with fire. Most of the island sank beneath the sea (the origins of the Atlantis story - see here and here).
The crater or caldera of the volcano is Santorini and the surrounding islands. Far beneath the sea, the still living volcano has thrown up a small lava island, Neo Kamenei. A boat ride and one can walk up it, look into the crater, see out to the few islands making some pieces of the circle of the larger former island and the blue and open sea.
Our guide has lived on Santorini all her life. In August, she says, the path smokes. Even now one can see wisps down in the crater. The June heat of the Aegean beats down, the heat of the magma comes up through our shoes. The volcano exploded four times in the last century, the last time in 1950. There were great showers of smoke and fire but nothing threatening even to Santorini close by (the guide has photographs). But the island coming up out of the sea is a fragile mass of decaying lava rock, a few grasses, many withered and a few bright and hopeful yellow flowers. The immense heat of it is an energy of a possible explosion – scientists monitor it daily and reassure everyone to go about their lives, that the extraordinary beauty of this circle of islands, this crater, these sunrises and sunsets, will remain solid. The island itself, as one clambers up over slipping rocks, doesn’t suggest it.
Her son, the guide says, once went off by himself down into the crater. It is a couple of hundred feet below and looks solid. It is way hot, she says, full of gases – one can see wisps of smoke – and he staggered up, tipsy, from breathing it. As in a fairy tale, if she had known, she said firmly, she would never have given him permission (like all explorers, he went off…).
The great explosion sent a tsunami – initially 75 meters high (the one that hit Thailand was 20 meters high). It took 20 minutes to hit Crete (the boat ride today lasts about 4 hours), still 45 meters high. Everyone on that side of Crete like Thailand went down to the shore where the water was drawn out, and then…
The archaeologists call the original the round island. No name survives for it. The remains were absorbed beneath the sea, but on Thira (the Dorian name for what is today Santorini), were preserved in volcanic ash.
Most excavations are of burial sites, the objects recovered (or plundered as by the British or grave robbers) are ones buried with the dead, for their travels in the underworld. Since 1960, archaeologists have come to respect the places they work in. Now teams of scientists try to listen and reconstruct what they unearth.
On Thira, there is a whole town, Akrotiri, deserted by its inhabitants as the volcano warned of eruption, leaving most of the buildings and many objects including frescoes are in tact, preserved by ash. Currently, the excavations are closed, but there is a record of what is found in the Santorini museum. Because one fresco shows two women beside one another (a naked breast hangs down), some archaelogists named it “The Room of the Ladies.” In the goddess culture, it may be that every room involved the same sense of the universe, of spirit; even teams of archaeologists need to tread carefully, including with their words.
The Santorini Museum has many of the frescoes and other finds. Among the 5 or so is a large one of blue monkeys (there are also blue monkeys playing with crocuses in the Archaelogical Museum in Heraklion). Blue monkeys are not native to Hellas or these islands. They are not native to Egypt. They come from elsewhere in Africa. In 1999, the team of scientists carefully excavating Akrotiri found within a box a container with a perfectly forged golden ibex (see here). This goat is also African. In the circuit of the trading goddess cultures, influences moved from old Europe and the Cycladic islands to and fro with Africa. As a research question, it would be useful to find out how the rich cultures of Africa, not just the Pharonic culture which influenced later Greek art and Athens, interacted with Crete and Thira, and whether some of the life oriented, egalitarian goddess-cultures also have African inspiration or roots (anyone who knows something about this, please write to me).
The Akrotiri excavations have just begun. At a campground, I spoke with Benedict, an archaelogy student working with student tourists because there are no jobs. 4 years ago, a roof collapsed in Akrotiri, killing one visitor. The site has been shut every since. The Professor in charge of the excavation in Athens is not doing anything. It is a depression. The reactionary Greek government is short of funds. The standstill is a mirror of the New Acropolis Museum, supposed to open 5 years ago (to coincide with the Athens Olympics), just opening its doors now, on June 20th. The desire to unearth the secrets of the past is real, but perhaps only the ones leaders and scholars already know (a goddess culture with some roots in Africa; for a long time as Riane Eisler points out, scholars refused to recognize the blackness of some Pharoahs – the “master race” just couldn’t be…black. And to set out to find black women …Better perhaps not to pursue it too deeply or quickly.
But the secrets are there to be found. Mt. St. Helen’s, Mt. Rainier, Neo Kamenei work on a different time scheme. Still, the fragility of life, transience, hangs in this place like the wisps of clouds coming in over the sun, in over the white tabernas and houses set steeply on the stark cliffs of Santorini, nearer and nearer.