Critias on Preclassical Natural Catastrophes

“There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes.”

Excerpt From “Timaeus” by Plato
This material may be protected by copyright.

What’s Critias talking about here? “Fire and water” suggests meteor strikes, volcanos, tsunamis, deluges.

4 thoughts on “Critias on Preclassical Natural Catastrophes”

  1. Critias continues in the person of a long-deceased Egyptian priest addressing the Greek sage king Solon, “a relative and a dear friend of my great-grandfather, Dropides”: “There is a story, which even you [the Greeks] have preserved, that once upon a time Paethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt.”

    “Helios” is the Greek counterpart of the Egyptian sun god Ra, who in mythology drives his chariot across the sky each day. Given this context, it doesn’t take much imagination in the present day to see this passage as a mythological interpretation of a sun-like object following a non-sunlike trajectory ending in an explosive fireball followed by a more widely-dispersed heat pulse as the ejected spherules rain back down into the atmosphere. The modern scientific interpretation will be clear to anyone with the applicable astrophysical knowledge, which lends credibility to the story given that it accurately describes, without the benefit of modern knowledge, in the mythological interpretation of its time, a rare event of a type that is well understood today. Although decidedly brief in comparison to other warming factors, the intense heat of atmospheric passage of such an object and/or the ensuing heat pulse from ejected spherules could have had a place in the causal chain of the Younger Dryas meltwater pulse.

  2. In the Timaeus, even the long-deceased Egyptian priest suggests a more scientific interpretation:

    “Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals; at such times those who live upon the mountains and in dry and lofty places are more liable to destruction than those who dwell by rivers or on the seashore.”

    While modern events have yet to inform us, the greater thermal inertia of water than land could mitigate the effects of such thermal pulses within a certain intensity range for those who live near enough of it.

  3. Speaking as “one of the [Egyptian] priests, who was of a very great age” to the Greek sage king Solon, Critias then goes on to explain why records of water-borne events — akin, perhaps, to the seismic tsunamis that ravaged Mediterranean coastlines after the Minoan eruption circa 1600 BCE — survived to his day in Sais at the head of the Nile Delta but not among the Greeks:

    “When, on the other hand, the gods purge the earth with a deluge of water, the survivors in your country are herdsmen and shepherds who dwell on the mountains, but those who, like you, live in cities are carried by the rivers into the sea. Whereas in this land, neither then nor at any other time, does the water come down from above on the fields, having always a tendency to come up from below; for which reason the traditions preserved here are the most ancient.”

    “Whereas just when you and other nations are beginning to be provided with letters and the other requisites of civilized life, after the usual interval, the stream from heaven, like a pestilence, comes pouring down, and leaves only those of you who are destitute of letters and education; and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves.”

  4. Critias continues in the person of the long-deceased Egyptian priest: “In the first place you remember a single deluge only, but there were many previous ones;”

    By “a single deluge only” I’m guessing the priest refers to the biblical flood, which coincides roughly with the findings of modern research into a sudden influx of water through the Bosporus from the Aegean into the Black Sea that occurred somewhere between 7,500 and 8,800 years ago. The sources of Black Sea inundation likely differed over time as the surrounding Ice Age glaciers melted, and the time it took for this influx to reach its successive stages of equilibrium are subjects of modern debate, although its treatment in the Christian Bible and in other ancient texts lend the appearance of a sudden catastrophe that would have been hard for those populating the agrarian communities along the old Black Sea coastline to outrun.

    The priest could also have been referring to the more recent Minoan Eruption circa 1,600 BCE, which triggered seismic tsunamis that coursed around the Mediterranean and would have swept away many a coastal community.

    Later in the same passage, the Egyptian priest continues his account to Solon: “For there was a time, Solon, before the great deluge of all, when the city which now is Athens was first in war and in every way the best governed of all cities, is said to have performed the noblest deeds and to have had the fairest constitution of any of which tradition tells, under the face of heaven.”

    It soon becomes evident in the Timaeus that the priest refers by “the great deluge of all” to the natural catastrophe circa 9,000 years before Socrates (11,400 years ago) that he claims to have put an end to a putative Atlantean power against which the armed forces of the precursor of the city-state known to Socrates as Athens in particular campaigned successfully. Again, this time frame coincides roughly with the modern estimate for the Younger Dryas meltwater pulse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.