Peril, bravado and tragedy: the Greek tradition of sponge diving

Peril, bravado and tragedy: the Greek tradition of sponge diving

Peril, bravado and tragedy: the Greek tradition of sponge diving


Did you know that the very first form of diving was sponge diving? In ancient times, the people of the Greek islands did not dive for pleasure as we do today, to explore the underwater realm and see all the different creatures that dwell there; diving was their livelihood. They dived in order to gather natural sponges. The humble sponge had all kinds of uses: filter, painting utensil, drink container, body cleanser. Thus it was a valuable commodity, and could be traded for goods or money.

The traditional way to dive for sponges was to ‘free dive’, which means to jump from a boat holding a skandalopetra, a heavy stone, which would take the diver to the sea bed, as much as 100 feet down. The driver had nothing to rely upon but his ability to hold his breath for long enough to cut loose some sponges and return safely to the surface. Needless to say, the depth and the need to hold one’s breath for so long – up to five minutes – made this an exceedingly perilous job. As the poet Oppian wrote in the third century AD, ‘No ordeal is more terrifying than that of the sponge divers and no labour more arduous for men.’

In my latest novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, I wanted to draw on this ancient Greek tradition of sponge diving, and explore the traditions surrounding the way of life and how the inherent danger of the work affects people. My fictional island of Helios, therefore, has a long association with sponge diving, and the heroine Oriel, a newcomer to the island and a diver herself, is keen to learn all about it.

Damian, the leader of the island, explains to Oriel that in his father’s generation, sponge diving was one of the main industries on the island. About a third of the island’s men and boys were absent all summer, diving off the shores of Tripoli and Malta. A sizeable group of islanders would leave each May – yet come the autumn, a depleted group would return. ‘In those days,’ Damian explains, ‘one man in three was either dead or crippled from the bends before he reached marriageable age.’ Under Damian’s leadership, other means of earning a living are being developed – such as olive oil production (see https://hannahfielding.net/staging/1129/creating-my-own-olive-oil/). But some of the men continue to follow in their ancestors’ footsteps and dive for sponges, and each year there are still two or three casualties.

The emotional impact of these losses on the little island community are apparent to Oriel when she comes across a shrine to St Nicholas in a chapel by the port. There she sees miniature paintings that tell the story of the sponge divers and the perils involved with this ancient tradition, and before the paintings, so many flowers and gifts. They are laid by the women of the sponge-diving families, as offerings for protection for their men and as thanks for the miracle of their safe return.

Why, Oriel wonders, would these men take the risk? After all, with synthetic sponges flooding the market, sponge diving is nowhere near as lucrative as it used to be. It comes down to tradition, Damian explains:

‘To the romantic young, it naturally seems a grand thing to sail away every summer to the shores of Africa and to come back, pockets full of money, hailed a hero… I have seen young boys playing at sponge fishing: swimming underwater, wearing the sponge-fisher’s mask and carrying their spear, pretending to detach sponges from the bottom of the sea. An aura of heroism surrounds the profession.’

Thus the sponge divers carry with them an air of machismo, of the valour and strength of the gods. Yet those they leave behind struggle to trust that those gods will watch over their men and keep them from harm in their quest to find what they call ‘the golden fleece’ of the sea.

When she is invited to a farewell ritual, held every May when the sponge divers head off for North Africa, Oriel can’t help feeling it will be less festival and more funeral wake. But she attends, because it is an opportunity to observe something she can see is so essential to the character of this island and its people.

At the port, she watches as the fleet of brightly coloured achtarmades, boats used for sponge diving, are loaded with supplies, and then the divers are ferried out to the boats. They proceed to put on quite the show, some fifty boats racing about the harbour in a display of daring that has the onlooking islanders cheering on these sponge gladiators.

Then, on land, a procession, with young choristers and musicians – and the mood changes. It is time to say goodbye. I write:

The pain of leave-taking, the heavy weight of absence to be borne, the apprehension of dangers to be encountered … the uncertainty … was imprinted on each of the swarthy features of the women. Mothers, wives, sisters, sweethearts – every one of them dressed in black – now stood as still and undemonstrative as statues.

A priest is taken out into the bay in a boat, and he blesses the fleet. Then a bell tolls and all is silent. A moment later, there is a flurry of white as six doves are released into the air. This is the sponge divers’ signal. Their boats trace the sign of the cross in the harbour three times, and then they sail away into the open sea. Like a Greek chorus, the islanders watch the boats slide gently away on the water with unwavering gazes. Then, as the last boat slips out of sight, the people left behind on Helios give a final wave, and then cross themselves. The long months of waiting have begun.

To understand the sponge diving of Helios is to understand that the Greeks are a proud people who are rooted in tradition. Damian knows that very well, and he sees it as his job to respect the old ways while leading his people into the modern time. Oriel, however, has much to learn about the Helios way of living. Can she overcome her preconceptions and cast off the role of outsider? Is Helios a place where she can finally belong?

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4 years ago

Thank you for the history lesson. I have seen sponge divers in the movies. In Corfu and Crete I have seen amphorae on display in restaurants. http://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6e9f2a728ac93fc88f41e0ddbbafa2999763f3b92d97b02d689b3ff809f2c09e.jpg
Statue dedicated to Turkish sponge divers in Marmaras, Turkey.