Maritime vignettes

This is a story of opportunity and suffering. Eleusis is a coastal community and the briny deep has provided its residents with sustenance and wealth. At the same time, the sea has brought the same townspeople more than their fair share of misery and destruction.

It almost feels like a perennial repetition of the old story of Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. He pursued her as a mare-goddess; she tried to hide from him among the horses of King Oncius in Arcadia, but Poseidon found her and mated with her in the form of a stallion.

The union resulted in the birth of Arion, an extremely swift immortal horse endowed with speech (how many evolutionary advantages can one creature acquire in a single generation?). But Demeter was so enraged by this encounter that she became known as Demeter Erinys (Fury). Her anger only subsided when she bathed in the River Ladon in the Peloponnese (thus becoming Demeter Lousia i.e. the Bathed Demeter). Nevertheless, her relationship with Poseidon must have remained terse, as evidenced by events in Eleusis, where the realms of the two gods come into such close contact.  

The fish of Eleusis

Eleusis Bay is an enclosed sea that covers an area of 68 km2 and has a maximum depth of 37 meters. It is sheltered from the open seas, winds, waves, and swells almost throughout the year, offering the inhabitants of the surrounding lands a small and deep basin where they could pursue their livelihood in comparative safety. And they were not slow to realize the opportunities available.

As Eleusis developed into a prominent sanctuary and a vibrant town, it attracted enterprising merchants, shipowners, and fishermen. The ancient port was artificially enclosed by a semi-circular pier of white tufa. The blocks were large and well-built, with small openings at intervals to allow seawater to flow in and out of the harbour. Over the years two additional piers were added to provide a safe and convenient landing ground for merchant vessels and fishing boats.

And there must have been quite a few of those. According to an inscription discovered in the late 19th century, the Roman emperor Hadrian attempted to alleviate the problem of fish prices in Athens and Eleusis. As it turns out, the prices in Athens were distressingly high, since supply fell perennially short of demand. The comic poet Antiphanes suggested in his comedy The Wealthy that the Athenian navy should escort fishing boats to Piraeus, in an effort to increase the offerings available on the fishmongers’ tables. In real life, fishermen from every nearby community (including Eleusis) were perfectly willing to bring their catches to Piraeus, causing shortages up and down the coast of Attica. Hadrian eliminated duties in Eleusis to encourage local fishermen to return to this port rather than pursue higher prices at Athens.       

Skull and crossbones

In the early 1300s the archbishop of Athens, Michael Choniates, described Eleusis as “speechless and full of a profound silence” because pirates land there and send whoever they discover to Hades. Where once pilgrims arrived to celebrate the Eleusinian Mysteries, now pirates initiated them to the Mysteries of Death. Poseidon was sending forth another round of misery.

The earliest pirate raids seem to have occurred in the 7th century when the Arabs became a permanent threat to the coastal communities of the Byzantine Empire. The imperial navy could not protect them; the coasts of the Peloponnese and Attica, as well as the islands of the Saronic Gulf, were left exposed to marauding parties that caused havoc. The raid of 881 was particularly destructive and resulted in the abandonment of the islands of Aegina and Salamina. It was likely at the same period that the last few residents of Eleusis left their homes along the coast and sought safety inland. Perhaps they hoped to return when the danger had passed, but it was not to be. The Arabs were “assisted” in their lethal endeavours by the Genoese, the Normans, and the Turks. It would be many centuries before the Bay of Eleusis would be peaceful and safe.  

SOS Eleusis

Desperation gripped the local authorities in June 1938. For the past few months, the sea had become a cesspool of unbearable odours, dirty oil, and floating garbage. The sailing boats that attempted to use the small harbour encountered difficulties, while the sea breeze brought no solace from the oppressive summer heat to visitors and permanent residents. The fresh air had been replaced by something altogether less wholesome. The reason was the oil discharged at sea by the cargo ships that frequented Eleusis.

In May 1842 the government of King Otto opened a Customs House in Eleusis, while a Sanitation Station was added in November 1845. The port of Eleusis was slowly coming back to life as it supplied the Peloponnese and the islands of the Saronic Gulf with agricultural products from Boeotia. As the population grew, so did the number of people earning a living from the sea. In the 1850s there were a few dozen fishermen (mostly foreigners); in 1928 there were more than 700.

By that time, Eleusis was industrializing rapidly, so the volume of trade passing through the port also increased. Cement was exported to the Ottoman Empire and Egypt, while raw materials and machinery were imported for the new industries. Traffic was substantial enough to warrant the imposition of a special duty on all industrial products exported from Eleusis; the revenue would go towards the community and the port. But all this happened with little serious planning; no measures to protect the environment were envisioned or adopted. Soon, the sea was in crisis.

Demeter was unleashing her fury against her old nemesis.

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