The Naked Sponge Divers of Kalymnos Greece


Greek skin divers with scythe, collecting net and scandalopetra
Greek skin divers with scythe, collecting net and skandalopetra


Owing to the fact that only 18% of the rocky, infertile land of the small volcanic island of Kalymnos, one of the Dodecanese in the southeast Aegean, Greece, was suitable for cultivation, the inhabitants turned to the sea as their source of income in the form of  boat-building, fishing and sponge-diving.

Getting them ready for the market: washing sea sponges in Kalymnos Greece
Getting them ready for the market: washing sea sponges in Kalymnos
Greece

Sponge-diving is the oldest profession of Kalymnos and the main source of sponges in the Aegean.

Kalymnos Dodecanese Greece
Kalymnos Dodecanese Greece

Sponges have been mentioned as far back as the eighth century BC, in Homer’s book, The Iliad, Hephaestus washes himself with a sea sponge and in The Odyssey, sponges are used to wipe down tables after eating.

Other uses of sea sponges were as padding for helmets, drinking vessels, water filters and contraceptives.

From the time the first diver took a deep breath before plunging naked into the deep blue depths of the Aegean Sea, until the present day, various diving techniques have been employed.

Boys with sponges Kalymnos Greece
Boys with sponges
Kalymnos Greece


 Skandalopetra, naked diving, skin diving or free diving.

This was the first diving technique used on Kalymnos.
 A cylindrical, glass-bottomed object called a ‘yali’ was used to locate sponges on the sea bed, once sponges had been spotted, naked, armed only with a mesh bag and a scythe, the diver would attach a length of rope to himself weighted with a stone called a skandalopetra.

The other end of the rope was attached to the boat, after taking a deep breath the diver went over the side and with the help of the skandalopetra, quickly reached the sea bed.

A skandalopetra, a centuries old Greek sponge diver’s weight
A skandalopetra, a centuries old Greek sponge diver’s weight

Once on the sea bed as many sponges as the diver could carry were cut with the scythe and placed into his mesh bag, when his lungs were at bursting point, a sharp tug on the rope alerted the men in the boat to haul the diver up to the surface.

Naked sponge diver diving with a skandalopetra - Nautical Museum of Kalymos Island
Naked sponge diver diving with a skandalopetra
 Nautical Museum of Kalymos Island

Using this diving technique, with a single breath of air, it was possible to descend to approximately thirty metres for about three minutes.

Naked Greek Sponge diver with skandalopetra
Naked Greek Sponge diver with skandalopetra

A skandalopetra, a centuries old Greek sponge diver’s weight, is a flat smooth stone (marble or granite) with rounded edges and a hole in the middle, weighing from eight to fourteen kilos.

Giant sea sponge from Kalymnos Greece
Giant sea sponge from Kalymnos Greece

Scafandro (Diving suit)

In the mid 1800s the diving suit, or scafandro, as the Greeks called it, was introduced to Kalymnos.

This was a weighted, watertight canvas or rubber suit, a diving helmet made from copper, brass or bronze, supplied with air through a hose from a manual surface pump, and heavy boots.

A scaphandro suit used by sponge divers is on display at the Nautical-Sea World Museum in Kalymnos.
A scafandro suit used by sponge divers is on display at the Nautical-Sea World Museum in Kalymnos.

The introduction of the scafandro meant divers were able to remain much longer on the sea bed, gathering many more sponges than when employing the previous naked diving technique.

Sponge diver Kalymnos Greece
Sponge diver
Kalymnos Greece


With the use of the scafandro productivity increased a hundred fold, the few small boats now became fleets of larger boats, venturing as far away as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, often staying away from Kalymnos for up to six months at a time, sponge diving was now big business,Sponges from Kalymnos were now being exported all over the world.

Nikolas Vouvalis (1859-1918) became the wealthiest sponge trader in the world, together with his wife, known to the people of Kalymnos as Vouvalina,  they donated the Vouvalis Girl's school, the Vouvalis hospital, the church of Saint Nikolaos and much more to the island.

The family residence is today The Historical Museum of Kalymnos, some rooms remain exactly as they were when the family lived there. 

Nikolas Vouvalis and family sponge traders of Kalymnos  Greece
Nikolas Vouvalis and family
sponge traders of Kalymnos
Greece

The drawback to this new-fangled method was that if sponge diving had been a risky business before, now, with the skafandro, it was positively dangerous.

Divers were making several dives a day without taking breaks for decompression, many died or were paralyzed by the decompression sickness (The bends), it’s said that as many as 10,000 died and another 20,000 were permanently disabled between the 1886 and 1910.

Not a single family in Kalymnos was without the loss of a father, brother or husband, which, in many cases, meant a complete loss of income, all through the perilous pursuit of sponges.

At this time Kalymnos, as were all islands of the Dodecanese, was under Ottoman rule, the bereft island women pleaded with the sultan to do something about this dangerous form of diving, it was robbing the island of their men, the sultan heeded their request and the scafandro was banned.

So, it was back to skinny-dipping with a mesh bag and a stone.
As you can imagine profits plummeted, the divers, who had become wealthy merchants, had grown used to the good life, no way were they going back to fishing for sardines, and, in a few years, the scafandro was back.

Greek sponge diver John M Gonatos
Greek sponge diver
John M Gonatos

Hookha, naghile and Fernez (Surface-supplied diving) and scuba diving.

By the 1920s the Hookah, Fernez, and  Narghile diving system, using surface supplied air, fed through  hose to the helmet, were in full use and by 1970 scuba  (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) had practically taken over, things were on the up and up, but, as they say, all good things come to an end.

Sea sponge divers using Fernez technique Greece
Sea sponge divers using Fernez technique
Greece

 The rise and fall of sponge diving on Kalymnos

In the past, the biggest threat to the sponge divers of Kalymnos had been over-fishing and the development of cheap, artificial sponges, but worse was to come.

In 1962 Egypt and then, in 1972, Libya, banned Greek sponge divers from their territorial waters, now diving in only Greek waters and the international Mediterranean Sea, the annual haul of sea sponges dropped from 120 tons to a mere 40 tons.

Sea sponges  Kalymnos Greece
Sea sponges
Kalymnos Greece

The fearless divers soldiered on but in 1986 catastrophe hit, a fast-spreading blight more or less wiped out sponges in the East Mediterranean, leaving sponges rotting on the sea bed.

This disease lasted for nearly ten years, the natural sea sponge of Kalymnos, known as Kalymnian gold, was slowly being replaced with synthetic sponges or natural sponges from Cuba.

The Greek sponge divers of Tarpon Springs Florida

During the early 1900s many Greek sponge divers, knowing the area was rich pickings for sponges, emmigrated to Tarpon Springs, Florida.

After the setbacks in the Greek sponge trade, in later years, many more followed.

Sponge diver and five men on a boat, Tarpon Springs, Florida.  Real photo postcard,  1907.
Sponge diver and five men on a boat, Tarpon Springs, Florida.
 Real photo postcard,  1907.

With their diving skills and know how, these Greek divers turned Tarpon Springs into the sponge capital of the world.
A large Greek community has emerged; white-washed houses, narrow streets, Greek food, traditions and culture have all given the place a Mediterranean feel.

Greek sponge diveing boat Tarpon Springs Florida
Greek sponge diveing boat
Tarpon Springs Florida

Below: A wonderful short video clip below showing Greek sponge divers in 1932 Tarpon Springs Florida



Second and third generation Greeks can be seen waiting along the waterfront, calling to tourists of Tarpon Springs to come see the sponge diving exhibitions, or book tickets for fishing trips.

Others, the ‘spongers’ sell their wares, Kalymnian gold, from stalls at the sponge docks, you would be forgiven for thinking you were on the Greek island of Kalymnos!

Greek sea sponges from Kalymnos
Greek sea sponges from Kalymnos

 Modern day Kalymnos

Sponge diving is now but a small cottage industry on Kalymnos, but, in honour of the courageous, (or should that be reckless?) divers, an annual ‘sponge week’ is held every summer.

Sea sponges Kalymnos Greece
Sea sponges
Kalymnos Greece

This consists of diving competitions, spear fishing, street parties, delicious Greek food is abundant and wine flows like nectar.
Today bars, cafes and restaurants line the water front of Pothia, the capital and port of Kalymnos and once the sponge diving capital of the world.

View of Pothia and St. Savvas monastary. Kalymnos.
View of Pothia and St. Savvas monastary. Kalymnos.

 
The past can be found in the center of the waterfront area, at the Nautical and Folklore Museum which features displays of the traditional regional dress and the history of sponge diving. 

Sea sponges  Kalymnos Greece
Sea sponges
Kalymnos Greece
Below: An interesting film showing Greek sponge diving on the island of Kymolos



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Overview
Stathis G. Hatzis was the head diver of Symi‘s  and the Dodecanese‘s  hundreds of free divers – sponge divers in the early 20th century. In 1913, he dived to a depth of 88 meters, for 4 minutes, in his attempt to locate and tie the anchor of the Italian battleship Regina Margherita which had been lost on the ocean floor.
The book is the biography of Stathis Hatzis and follows Stathi in his three day adventure to find and secure the lost anchor, making a total of 16 record free dives from 50 to 88 meters depth. Rare photos and documents reveal the achievements of an island population consisting of thousands of free divers and their families, who, with Symi and the Dodecanese as an epicentre, achieved greatness in the Aegean for centuries, thanks to the precious sponges gathered from the depths of the Mediterranean and traded in the markets of Europe and America.

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Bellstone  The Greek Sponge Divers of the Aegean Michael N Kalafatas
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Review

"What an eye-opener this book is, and especially for a proud Greek-American who, like Michael Kalafatas, is a son of the Aegean. The saga of the sponge fishermen of the Dodecanese Islands and their contribution to America is a great tale--and brilliantly told in this very special book." (Michael Dukakis)

Click on the link below to learn more about this interesting book

The Bellstone: The Greek Sponge Divers of the Aegean


Natural sea sponge from Kalymnos
Natural sea sponge from Kalymnos



If you found this post interesting, I think you'll enjoy reading about the free divers of Amorgos, home to the cult film 'The Big Blue', click the link below.

 Amorgos and the 1988 Cult Film "The Big Blue" Revisited After 29 Years 


And why not watch the cult film?

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The Big blue Cult film
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Prometheus, Pandora's Box and Why, in Greek Mythology, Woman Was the Catastrophe of Humanity


Pandora's Box John William Waterhouse
Pandora's Box
John William Waterhouse


Pandora’s Box, one of the most loved Greek myths, is also one of the shortest, but, saying that, to fully understand this marvellous myth, and how Pandora came to be the first mortal woman on earth, the bane of mankind, you need to know a little about Prometheus, so, it gets longer!


Prometheus brings fire to mankind Heinrich Fuger 1817
Prometheus brings fire to mankind
Heinrich Fuger 1817

Prometheus, one of the Titans (these gods came before the Olympians, and lived on Mount Othrys, not Mount Olympus), was given the task, by Zeus (Roman-Jupiter) King of the Olympians, of creating mankind, shaping him from water and earth, his brother, Epimetheus, was given the task of creating animals.

Epimetheus, God of Hindsight, and lack of brain matter, as it turns out, was ordered to create the animals first, and then, when that task was accomplished, Prometheus, God of Foresight, was to create mankind.

 What a lot of trouble and strife would have been avoided if it had been the other way around, but, that’s hindsight for you!


Prometheus molding man from clay Constantin Hansen
Prometheus molding man from clay
Constantin Hansen

With much enthusiasm and not much thought, Epimetheus set about his task.
 Once the animals were molded from water and earth, dipping into a bag of tricks, given to the brother’s by Zeus, Epimetheus bestowed on these lucky creatures all the best qualities; strength and speed for pursuing and killing prey, fur and feathers for protection, claws and teeth for self defense and finely-tuned senses.

His job finished, Epimetheus sat back and proudly surveyed his work, he was about to tell Prometheus that he could now start on mankind when suddenly a thought occurred to him, he’d used up all the best qualities, mankind was going to be rather an inferior species!

Tentatively, Epimetheus said to his brother “Er, Prom, I’ve finished my animals, you can get on with man now, but, before you do, I’d better tell you something”, and went on to explain what he had done.

Prometheus, used to Epimethus’ lack of foresight, just had to make the most of a bad job, to compensate for the lack of qualities left for him to work with; he made man stand upright, like the gods, and then paid a visit to his pals on Mount Olympus to see what he could do to safeguard man’s survival.

After Prometheus has created Man out of mud, Athena breathes life into him. Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1912
After Prometheus has created Man out of mud, Athena breathes life into him.
Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1912

 Hephaestus (Roman-Vulcan), God of Blacksmiths and craftsmen, and Athena (Roman- Minerva), Goddess of wisdom, handicraft and war, risking the anger of their father, Zeus, and feeling sorry for Prometheus, decided to help by giving him their knowledge, so Prometheus, in turn, could teach arts and crafts to mankind.

Just as Prometheus was about to leave Mount Olympus, Hephaestus presented him with fire “Here, take this, it may come in useful for mankind”, and this, my friends, is where the trouble started.


Giorgio Vasari, 1511-1574, and Cristoforo Gherardi, 1508-1556
. Vulcan's Forge (detail). Fresco. Palazzo Vecchia, Florence. 
Giorgio Vasari, 1511-1574, and Cristoforo Gherardi, 1508-1556

 Prometheus returned to earth to teach man the art of survival, how to hunt for food, how to build houses and boats and how to read and write, and, I’m sure he regretted this one, the ritual of sacrificing animals to the gods.

As man made their sacrifices to the gods, Prometheus noticed that they seemed to get the short end of the stick, the gods inevitably chose the choice cuts of meat, leaving the bones and fat for man, to turn the tables, Prometheus thought he would show man a trick or two.


From a Liebig trade card   Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven,  gave it to man, teaching them many arts and handicrafts.
From a Liebig trade card
  Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven,  gave it to man, teaching them many arts and handicrafts.

 Prometheus cut an ox into two pieces, saying to man, “Watch closely, this is how you are to perform your next sacrifice, you’ll come off much better, trust me”, and with that, he made a smaller parcel, using the best cuts, wrapping it in the ox’s stomach, and a larger parcel, consisting of the skin and bones, which he concealed in fat.

Sure enough, at the next sacrifice, the greedy gods chose the larger parcel, unknowingly leaving the lean meat for man.

On realizing what had happened, Zeus thought “I’ll teach those tricksters a lesson, let’s see how they like raw meat”, and with that, snatched that wondrous thing called fire, from earth and from mankind.


Statue of Zeus (Detail) Chateau de Versailles
Statue of Zeus (Detail) Chateau de Versailles

 Seeing what had happened, Prometheus felt bad, this was all his doing, he never should have taught man to trick the gods, “I must make amends, they needed that fire, I must find a way to return it to them.” He thought.

In the dead of night, whilst all the gods were snoring on Mount Olympus, Prometheus broke into Hephaestus’ work shop, stole the fire, hid it in a hollow fennel stalk, and with it, hot-footed it back to earth.

Prometheus stealing fire. Jan Cossiers
Prometheus stealing fire.
 Jan Cossiers
The next morning, on discovering that, thanks to Prometheus, man, once again had possession of his treasured fire, Zeus’ anger knew no bounds and he ordered Hephaestus to capture the immortal Prometheus, chain him to a rock, where, an eagle would eat his liver, which would grow again during the night, only to be nibbled at by the eagle again, the next day.


Eagle devouring Prometheus' liver Theodoor Rombouts
Eagle devouring Prometheus' liver
Theodoor Rombouts

Prometheus’ punishment was to continue for all eternity, but ended when he was eventually freed, many years later, by Hercules.

Prometheus had been punished by Zeus for his treachery with fire, what was to be the fate of mankind for accepting stolen goods?

This is where Pandora comes in, to punish humanity, Zeus ordered Hephaestus and Athena to mold a woman from earth, the first mortal woman created by the gods, a woman who would wreak havoc on earth, the catastrophe of mankind, who, up until now had been living the life of gods, as immortals, innocents, knowing not of birth and death, evil and hardships.


Pandora Jules-Joseph Lefebvre
Pandora
 Jules-Joseph Lefebvre

 Many of the gods of Mount Olympus had a hand in creating the first mortal woman, as Hesiod (Greek poet between 750 and 650 BC), tells us, in his epic poem, “Works and Days”:

 “Athina taught her needle work and weaving and clothed her, Aphrodite  "shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs" (Lines 65–6); Hermes gave her "a shameful mind and deceitful nature" ( Lines 67–8); Hermes also gave her the power of speech, putting in her "lies and crafty words”

Pandora, without being named, was actually first mentioned in an earlier poem by Hesiod, “Theogony”:

“From her is the race of women and female kind,
of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who
live amongst mortal men to their great trouble,
no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”

Owing to the many gifts bestowed upon her, the first mortal woman was named Pandora, meaning "the all-endowed" or, "the all-gifted".

Once Pandora was ready, in her best silvery dress, hair adorned with flowers, looking as pretty as a picture, Zeus offered her as a bride to Epimetheus, remember him, the half-wit brother of Prometheus?


Pandora  Alexandre Cabanel  1823-1889
Pandora
 Alexandre Cabanel  1823-1889
As Pandora’s dowry, Zeus presented her with a “Pithos”, a large earthenware jar with a wide mouth, used by the ancient Greeks for storing wine, olive oil, grains, or even burial of the dead, and instructed her, that under no circumstances, was she ever to open the jar.


A pithos from Crete Louvre Museum   Found in Arcades  Crete,  675 BC. Terracotta, stamped and incised decoration.
A pithos from Crete Louvre Museum
 Found in Arcades,  Crete,  675 BC. Terracotta, stamped and incised decoration.

 It is more commonly thought that Pandora was given a box, but this may be down to incorrect translation of the word “Pithos”, translated into Latin from Greek by the sixteenth century humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, as box instead of jar, and once Dante Rossetti painted his famous picture of Pandora, the jar’s fate was sealed, it had become a box. (Kouti in Greek)


Pandora by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Pandora
 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

 Now, Prometheus had warned his brother, Epimetheus, never to accept any gift from Zeus, but Epimetheus, the fool that he was, had forgotten this advice, and on seeing Pandora’s beauty, without a second thought, took her as his bride.

Epimetheus and Pandora lived quite happily together, the only blot on their relationship being Pandora’s nagging at Epimetheus to open the jar, after all, it was her dowry, how silly of Zeus to tell her not to open it.

Epimetheus, surprisingly, took heed of Zeus, there was no way he was allowing Pandora to open that jar, and so he hid the key to its large lock, which Zeus had given him when Pandora wasn’t looking.

One night, Pandora, who wasn’t an evil woman, only curious and disobedient, and also rather brave to consider defying Zeus, decided that when Epimetheus was asleep, she would break open the jar, which she did, and the consequences of her reckless act were dire!


Pandora Arthur Rackham
Pandora
Arthur Rackham

As soon as the jar was opened, out flew all manner of abominations: evilness, hate, crime, war, poverty, pain, disease, hunger, hatred, but there, hanging on to the edge of the jar, remained hope.



 Hope Edward Burne-Jones- Hope (1896)
 Hope
Edward Burne-Jones- Hope (1896)

Pandora flapped her arms about, trying to get these evil spirits back to where they had come from, but to no avail, on seeing that all these goings on had awoken her husband, she quickly slammed the lid shut, trapping hope inside.


 Opening Of Pandora's Box Frederick Stuart Church 1842
 Opening Of Pandora's Box
Frederick Stuart Church 1842 

 “Oh you silly woman” exclaimed Epimetheus, “look what you’ve done, you’ve brought wretchedness upon the heads of humankind, at least open up the jar and free that last little creature, so at least we may have hope."


Pandora, Epimetheus and Hope Arthur Rackham
Pandora, Epimetheus and Hope
Arthur Rackham

 According to the poet Hesiod, in his poem “Works and Days” a story about the creation of man, inspired upon meeting the nine muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory), there are five ages of man, the first four, all relatively idyllic, until along came Pandora, who caused the beginning of the fifth age, the last age, the age we are in now, to be a never-ending age of trouble and strife.


Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania.  The Nine Muses
Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania.
The Nine Muses 

1. The Golden Age

Men lived like gods, knowing no hardships, no pain; life was one long balmy summer

2. The Silver Age

Zeus has now created man inferior to god, the year now has four seasons, and man must grow his own food, but life is still idyllic.

3. The Bronze Age

Men are now war-like meat-eaters and carry spears, their weapons and houses are made of bronze, when they died they went to Hades (The underworld).

4. The age of Heroes

This is the Mycenaean age, an age of heroes, who, after death either went to the underworld, or to the land of the blessed.

5. The Iron Age

Men are now evil, and are burdened with all the worries of the world; they must toil and suffer for the rest of their lives. Innocence has gone for good.


 And so, this myth goes a long way in showing how and why there is evil in the world, the similarity here, to the biblical story of Eve and that dratted apple, in Genesis, is quite interesting, a few differences, but, both give the same message, woman was the downfall of man!

This post, written with love and meraki, is dedicated to my friend Pandora Spelios.

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