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Helike: the True Story of Atlantis

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Helike was a city founded in the Bronze age of Greece. It had colonies in Southern Italy and Turkey, and, according to Homer, even sent a ship in the Trojan War. And although Helike had all this plus its own language and currency, it was wiped from the map one winter night in 373 BCE.

A coin with Poseidon on the face

First all the living creatures fled the city; the dogs, birds, and even the rats left. Five days later, the sky lit up with what was described as “immense columns of flame”. Soon following these events, the city was swallowed by the sea and all of its citizens went with it. Even the ten Spartan ships were taken down with the city, as they were anchored in the harbor and were pulled down with the city. But what happened? What caused this city to disappear?

Bronze-age walls at Helike

The legend surrounding the fall of Helike is mostly attributed to Poseidon’s wrath. After the city of Helike refused to give a statue of Poseidon to Ionian colonists, and in some stories killed Ionian officials, the god Poseidon was furious. However, the truth lies in the earth, not the sea.

An excavation in 2004

An earthquake brought Helike to its knees that night. A very powerful earthquake. Small tremors leading up to the large quake could have scared away the animals. Five days later, the people were possibly witness to “Earthquake Lights”. A phenomenon that is not fully understood today. On rare occasions, before a large earthquake, strange, aurora-like lights can be seen in the sky. This effect has only been recently caught on video, with a recent example being the 2007 Peruvian earthquake:

After witnessing the sky catch fire, the city was drowned, but that is not the end of this story. Eratosthenes visited the site 150 years later, commenting on the statue of Poseidon being just above the water, posing a danger to those fishing with nets. Eventually the visible parts of the city began to degrade. A traveller by the name of Pausanius described its condition in 174 CE”The ruins of Helike are also visible, but not so plainly now as they were once, because they are corroded by the salt water” And until that point, many Roman tourists would visit the site.

If you seek for Helike and Boura, once cities in Achaea, you will find them beneath the waves; and the sailors still show you the sloping cities with their buried walls.

-Ovid (Roman poet)

Due to the course of nature, silt began to cover the city and the site was forgotten to be real. It slipped into myth and legend, and some even say it inspired Plato to write his story of Atlantis. Only in a 1960 book, by archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos, was the city purported to be real. Marinatos claimed that not only was the city real, but was the most important unresolved problem in Greek archaeology.

Helike pottery

It took another forty-one years for the city to be found beneath a lagoon in Greece in 2001. The Helike Project was founded to discover Helike’s location and every year there are more discoveries in the site relating to prehistoric civilizations.

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