A myth-take about Helice, the earthquake, and Diodorus Siculus

In 373 BC, two years before the battle of Leuctra, an earthquake destroyed two cites of the Achaean league, pitching them into the sea.  This evening I received an email about this. 

I am writing a book about the science of disaster prediction, and will be making a brief reference to anecdotal evidence (and, more recently, scientific evidence) that some animals do seem to show a premonitory response to earthquakes. The earliest written account seems to be that of the earthquake/tsunami destruction of Helice (Achaea) in 373 B.C., where snakes, rats, weasels etc were supposed to have left beforehand. The account is often attributed to Diodorus, but reading through various translations of his History I have found his account of the earthquake, but no mention of the prior migration of animals. …  if you happen to know whether he did give an account of animal migration before the earthquake, I would certainly appreciate the reference so that I can quote it rather than relying on secondary sources.

I would have preferred at least to get a reference to Diodorus!  A quick Google search revealed that this is a legend doing the rounds, such as here:

In Rupert Sheldrake’s book, ‘Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home; and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals’ cites many occurrences of “Forebodings of Earthquakes and Other Disasters”, Chapter 15: … The first detailed description from Europe concerns a cataclysmic earthquake in 373 B.C. at Helice, Greece, on the shore of the Gulf of Corinth, which swallowed the city up.  Five days before the quake, according to the historian Diodorus Siculus, rats, snakes, weasels, and other animals left the city in droves, to the puzzlement of the human inhabitants.

So … what’s the story?  Well, I find from the RealEncyclopadie that Diodorus describes the earthquake in book 15, c. 48:

When Asteius was archon at Athens …  great earthquakes occurred in the Peloponnese accompanied by tidal waves which engulfed the open country and cities in a manner past belief; for never in the earlier periods had such disasters befallen Greek cities, nor had entire cities along with their inhabitants disappeared as a result of some divine force wreaking destruction and ruin upon mankind. 

The extent of the destruction was increased by the time of its occurrence; for the earthquake did not come in the daytime when it would have been possible for the sufferers to help themselves, but the blow came at night, so that when the houses crashed and crumbled under the force of the shock, the population, owing to the darkness and to the surprise and bewilderment occasioned by the event, had no power to struggle for life.

The majority were caught in the falling houses and annihilated, but as day returned some survivors dashed from the ruins and, when they thought they had escaped the danger, met with a greater and still more incredible danger. For the sea rose to a vast height, and a wave towering even higher washed away and drowned all the inhabitants and their native lands as well.

Two cities in Achaia bore the brunt of this disaster, Helice and Bura, the former of which had, as it happened, before the earthquake held first place among the cities of Achaia.  These disasters have been the subject of much discussion. Natural scientists make it their endeavour to attribute responsibility in such cases not to divine providence, but to certain natural circumstances determined by necessary causes, whereas those who are disposed to venerate the divine power assign certain plausible reasons for the occurrence, alleging that the disaster was occasioned by the anger of the gods at those who had committed sacrilege. This question I too shall endeavour to deal with in detail in a special chapter of my history

No mention of animals on the move.  I then looked into Strabo, Geographica VIII, 9:

For the sea was raised by an earthquake and it submerged Helice, and also the temple of the Heliconian Poseidon, whom the Ionians worship even to this day, offering there the Pan-Ionian sacrifices. … Helice was submerged by the sea two years before the battle at Leuctra. And Eratosthenes says that he himself saw the place, and that the ferrymen say that there was a bronze Poseidon in the strait, standing erect, holding a hippo-campus in his hand, which was perilous for those who fished with nets.

And Heracleides says that the submersion took place by night in his time, and, although the city was twelve stadia distant from the sea, this whole district together with the city was hidden from sight; and two thousand men who had been sent by the Achaeans were unable to recover the dead bodies; and they divided the territory of Helice among the neighbours; and the submersion was the result of the anger of Poseidon, for the Ionians who had been driven out of Helice sent men to ask the inhabitants of Helicê particularly for the statue of Poseidon, or, if not that, for the model of the temple; and when the inhabitants refused to give either, the Ionians sent word to the general council of the Achaeans; but although the assembly voted favorably, yet even so the inhabitants of Helice refused to obey; and the submersion resulted the following winter; but the Achaeans later gave the model of the temple to the Ionians.

But again there is a shortage of rats in this account.

The answer is to be found in Aelian, De natura animalium, book 11.  An English translation does exist in the Loeb, but I have no access to it.

quinque enim diebus priusquam pessum iret Helice, omnes in ea mures, mustelae, serpentes, scolopendrae verticilli, et alia hujusmodi animalia, magnis copiis exibat per viam, quae ducit Coriam. Haec Helicenses cum fieri viderent, admirabantur; neque tamen de ei causa facere conjecturam poterant. Proxima autem ab illorum animalium egressu nocte terrae motu concussa civitas subsedit, et inundantibus aquis abolita est; et pariter cum urbe Lacedaemoniorum naves decem, quae tum forte ad portum appulerant, eadem maris exundatione perierunt.

Which we may render as:

for five days before Helice went down, all the mice in it, the weasels, serpents, scolopendrae verticilli (?) and other animals of this kind, in great numbers flowed out by the road to Corinth. When the Helicians saw this happen, they marvelled; however they were unable to make a guess as to the cause of it.  But the next night after the egress of those animals the earth moved violently and the city subsided, and by the inundation of water was obliterated; and likewise ten ships from the city of Sparta, which had put ashore by chance then at the harbour, perished in the same flood of the sea.

So that’s the real source.  Nice to see a legend floating around which is NOT about Christian origins for a change!

UPDATE: It turns out there is a website dedicated to Helice, which has the sources in English for the disaster here.  Aelian is given as follows:

For five days before Helike disappeared, all the mice and martens and snakes and centipedes and beetles and every other creature of that kind in the city left in a body by the road that leads to Keryneia. And the people of Helike seeing this happening were filled with amazement, but were unable to guess the reason. But after these creatures had departed, an earthquake occurred in the night; the city subsided; an immense wave flooded and Helike disappeared, while ten Spartan vessels which happened to be at anchor were lost together with the city.

1 Response to “A myth-take about Helice, the earthquake, and Diodorus Siculus”


  1. Lynn Sugayan

    I heard or read a story about Helice, a young woman who was beloved by the muses and was a consort of Pan. She lived by a willow spring called Aganipe. I cannot find any references to this story. Was the city named for her?