Swimming for Victory
What is lurking beneath the waves? Do we know what unseen dangers we may encounter as we explore the world’s oceans? What is watching us in the dark depths of the seas? If you’ve seen any disaster movie set on the high seas, you’ll know what we mean. You may even be thinking that ‘you’ll never go in the water again’…
However, it wasn’t sharks, violent storms or even icebergs which proved to be the undoing of the Persian navy of Xerxes I. In fact, it was an ingenious young girl who excelled at swimming and diving: the magnificent Hydna of Scione.
Hydna was the daughter of Scyllis of Scione, a well-known diver and swimming instructor, and received training in his field of expertise. Scione (in Chalcidice, north-east Greece) was then controlled by Athens who were embroiled, along with many other Greek states, in a long-running war with Persia.
In 480 BCE, the Greece mainland was under attack by Persian forces and the Persian leader, Xerxes I, had stationed part of his naval fleet close to Mount Pelion, a short boat journey from Hydna’s home.
As a storm raged overhead and whipped the sea to a frenzy, Hydna and her father swam many miles towards the Persian ships. Meanwhile, the Persian sailors battled against the wind whipping at their boats and hurried to secure the sails.
Unbeknownst to the sailors, Hydna and her father were secretly approaching their location. Armed with knives, the pair reached the rocking ships and dived beneath the waves. Under the choppy surface, Hydna saw dozens of ropes holding the ships anchor in the bay. Hydna, releasing her knife from between her teeth, began to sever the thick ropes. One by one, the ships began to move, heading towards the eye of the raging storm.
Caught off-guard, the entire fleet was destroyed.
Pausanias, a Greek Geographer writing in the 2nd century CE, claimed that statues of Hydna and her father were dedicated at the Sanctuary of Delphi where they remained until the Roman Emperor Nero ‘borrowed’ them to adorn his new palace… Sadly, we do not know what became of them.
A few things to note:
- We only have one source for Hydna, and neither she nor her father are referenced in historical works concerning the time period, such as Herodotus’ Histories. As such, we cannot be 100% certain that Hydna existed. However, given that the Greeks considered themselves to be masters of the sea (Hall, 2014), it is likely that expert female swimmers did exist.
- Hydna may have been seen as the Greek equivalent of Artemisia I of Caria, who commanded the Persian fleet during the Battle of Salamis which took place the same year.
Hall, E. 2014. Introducing the Ancient Greeks: From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.