It seems like madness to me. An entire civilization, one of the most significant of them all, founded on and fueled by an unswerving belief in a parade of fictitious characters called Gods.
The ancient Greeks had Gods for everything. Zeus the God of the sky, Hermes the God of travelers (we’re big fans), Athena God of war strategy and wisdom (I’m not sure how they put those two together), Hades the God of the underworld (nobodies favourite), Nike the Goddess of victory (and I thought they were shoes) and my personal favourite, Dionysus the God of wine and dolphins.
Wine and dolphins. Of course. Only Oliver and the ancient Greeks know why wine and dolphins have their own God and why they were put together into one portfolio. There’s more. Oliver, who really ought to be granted an honorary doctorate in Greek mythology, has helped me compile a list (see below).
This Pantheon of Gods spurred the ancient Greeks on to great things. Well actually, it spurred the ancient Athenians on to great things. Ancient Greece, we have learned, was not actually one unified country, but rather a grouping of City States who spent most of their time fighting with each other, which ultimately proved to be their undoing. Athens and Sparta were the mightiest and most famous of the two but couldn’t have been more different in their approach to life.
The Athenians were the ones responsible for all that cradle of civilisation stuff – democracy, philosophy, the arts and of course their own fair share of warring. The Spartans on the other hand believed that anything other than warring was a total waste of time. They believed this so much that they enslaved a population ten times the size of their own to do everything they needed done other than warring.
Sparta’s legacy today is mostly found on T-shirts, in shops lining the streets surrounding the Acropolis, which depict one stick figure kicking another stick figure with a caption reading ‘Caution this is Sparta’. The Athenians legacy on the other hand is a mindboggling array of architecture, sculpture, sporting events, philosophy and arts.
In fact, after a week touring the major centres of ancient Greek civilization we were all enlightened by the extent to which the groovy Greek Athenians, and their undying belief in all those Gods, still weave their way into our lives. If, for example, you have ever ‘panicked’ then you can thank, or curse, Pan the God of the wild for the cry he let out in battle with the Titans (monsters in league with Kronos, the father of Zeus… it’s complicated) which was so effective it made them all ‘panic’.
Or if you have ever found anything ‘tantalising’ then you can thank Minos and a few other dudes (Oliver can’t remember the names of the other dudes at the moment – I’m thinking of revoking his honorary doctorate) responsible for passing judgement on humans. Anyway, Tantalus committed some crime or other and was sentenced to eternal life with an unbearable thirst while sitting in the middle of a beautiful stream that would retreat whenever he reached out for a drink. ‘Tantalising’ isn’t it!
There’s more, so much more. Stories which explain ‘echoes’, ‘narcissism’, ‘psyche’ and a bunch of others that I’ve already forgotten. We learnt all this listening to an audio book on Greek Mythology (Oliver listened to it three times) while we drove hither and thither across the scenic, mountainous countryside, mostly from one ancient Greek site to the next.
We started in Athens of course where we visited the Parthenon along with a quizillion other people. So many people visit the Parthenon the Greeks recently doubled the ticket price to help pay for their debt and hopefully persuade Angela Merkel not to kick them out of the Euro club. What could be more electorally popular than making the foreigners pay! And don’t start me on Italy’s ‘tourist’ tax. But I digress.
The Parthenon is a shadow of its former self, yet still an impressive sight with all its crazy angled columns and bent lines working their optical illusionary magic. I stepped up on a random rock sitting in the courtyard to take a photo over the heads of the hordes and was rewarded with a whistle blow and a stern reprimand from a plain clothed Greek official. There was no sign, no fencing, nothing to indicate the rock ought not to be touched. It may have been a candid camera thing… I’m not sure.
We also checked out the remains of the ‘Temple of Olympian Zeus’ where Oliver got in trouble from another plain clothed official for idly picking up a stone and tossing it at a tree across the empty grass space. After that we all got in trouble for taking a rest by leaning on a wall under the shade of a tree. Once again, no sign or instruction to indicate that this would constitute a code violation. Just a stern look from a bored looking woman who, I rather suspect, didn’t have anything better to do.
It happened again at the Acropolis museum. We were all busily admiring the ancient artefacts recovered from the Acropolis site when the sculpted image of a man and woman entwined with flailing limbs on the top of a terracotta like teapot caught my eye. I pulled out my camera to snap a photo for which I was rewarded with another stern reprimand from the museum official.
‘No photos!’ he said gruffly. I was taken aback. I didn’t mean to do the wrong thing and I had seen no signs or instructions indicating no photography. ‘Oh, no problems’ I said apologetically. ‘But can I ask why?’. The museum man looked a little puzzled, like he’d never been asked to explain ‘why’ before. I pressed the matter, because I was a little disgruntled and because I was genuinely curious. He explained it was because, ‘people often fall over while taking pictures’. Hmmm.
Despite the overly officious museum officials, the Acropolis museum was excellent. A shiny modern building purposely built to house artefacts from the Acropolis and the ancient Greek Agora (the beating heart of ancient Athenian life, politics, arts, philosophy and religion). As the ‘Horrible Histories’ video we played for Amy and Oliver said, ‘It was where Socrates did most of his talking and impressed everyone who could understand him’. That is, right up until they all got sick of him and made him drink a cup of poison.
The museum displayed what was left of the incredible marble sculptures which lined the pediment (the triangle shaped eaves at each end of Greek temples) and frieze (the long lengths of marble that sits on top of the columns but beneath the roof) of the Parthenon and much more besides.
It even has space set aside specifically for all the sculptural work of the frieze which was taken (dare I say stolen) by British Lord Elgin in 1801 and which is still housed in London. The Greek Government has been trying to negotiate return of the priceless works since 1980 but the British refuse to yield. There must be more to it than I understand, but I can’t contemplate any argument which would trump the Greek claims? It’s Greek. Give it back!
After Athens we hired a car and drove to Delphi, the second most significant ancient Greek site and home of the ‘Oracles of Delphi’. More mumbo jumbo to my 21st century scientifically educated mind and it was therefore astounding to learn about the pilgrimages made by ancient Greeks everywhere to make offerings and have their fortune told by someone intoxicated by ‘vapours’ and who was supposedly therefore articulating the thoughts of the Gods.
The ancient Greeks considered Delphi ‘the navel of the earth’, the centre of everything and was chosen because two eagles set forth by Zeus are said to have crossed paths in the skies directly above.
We had made a sport of trying to avoid violating Greek archeological site and museum codes of conduct by this time, but mostly failed. The museum at Delphi houses two larger than life statues carved as a ‘votive’ offering for the Oracles. I asked Emma to stand next to them while I took a picture so y’all could see how big they were, but before I could pull the trigger the museum mafia leapt from their chair and called out across the hall, ‘no posing with the statues!’.
I turned in stunned silence to survey my assailant. Once again I had seen no signs, no notices and no explanations offered. ‘You can’t pose next to the statues’ she reiterated. ‘Oh ok…’ I said, but once again feeling a little disgruntled and curious I asked ‘why?’. The explanation offered was that it was a rule across all Greek museums, which while no doubt true, still falls well short of a reasonable rationale as far as I am concerned.
I’d like to tell you that we reformed our unruly behavior after that, but it’s not true. Amy received a code violation in another very fine museum at ancient Olympia when she tried to take a photo of the very large marble statue of Nike, Goddess of Victory, that 2500 years ago proudly stood upon a 6-meter-tall plinth out front of another Temple of Zeus. Just moments before she had said to me, ‘let’s see if we can get out of here without a code violation’. Afterwards she said, ‘oh reng it’ like water off a ducks back.
Emma took to subterfuge after that, walking a graceful arc through the central hall of the museum where she just happened to walk into a photo I was taking of the impressive sculptures from the pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
Ancient Olympia of course is the birthplace of the Olympic games. It all got started with a single running race in 776 BC but soon grew to include a chariot race, armored foot race, the Pankration (a brutal anything goes except biting and eye gouging fighting match), wrestling and pentathlon. It was serious business in which the victor’s assumed the status of demi-gods and everyone else went home in disgrace. If indeed you got to go home at all. It was brutal competition in which competitors were regularly killed. Women incidentally weren’t allowed to compete or even watch because the men all competed in the nude. If they tried they were thrown off a cliff. Crazy ancient Greeks.
Most of the site requires a fair bit of imagination, but the running stadium was awesome. 192 metres long surrounded by gentle grass slopes that could seat up to 45,000 spectators. The sprints held here were the blue ribbon event of the games just as the 100m is today. Oddly enough we ran the course without receiving a code violation. I beat Amy. Just saying. Emma and Oliver argued for three days straight about who crossed the line first in their race.
Some of Amy and I racing.
The Acropolis, Delphi and Olympia completed our ancient Greek trifecta. We also visited the Panathenaic stadium (birthplace of the modern Olympics in 1896), Flisvos Marina with its collection of obscene motor cruisers, Meteora with its monasteries perched on the top of rocky monoliths, stayed in our first Airbnb, crossed a crazy bridge with a toll that cost the equivalent of $20 Australian dollars and hung out in a Greek holiday haven in a thunderstorm. But I’ll waffle on about all that later.
So far Greece has been an enlightening experience which has left me musing over many things, but mostly about how seemingly intelligent people can become so enthralled, captured, motivated, inspired and driven by belief in figments of their imagination. It is, perhaps, an artefact of that question which plagues us all, though mostly we try to ignore it. How did I get here, and how did here get here?
After musing on this in the odd idle moment here and there I am forced to concede, as Emma maintained all along, that the stories of the ancient Greeks and their gods are a logical and cleverly interwoven explanation of the world and how it works, which in the absence of anything else clearly provided a compelling and perhaps comforting explanation for why things are the way they are.
It is no different, I don’t suppose, in that sense from the creation stories of any other culture. And who knows, perhaps in time Stephen Hawking and his mates will smash a few more sub-atomic particles together in Switzerland and come up with a new unified theory of everything which will render my scientifically skeptical world view just as fictitious as the Gods of the Greeks. In any case, fictitious or not, we have much for which to thank the ancient Greeks and their Gods.
Oliver’s list of ancient Greek Gods (he and Amy also came up the the title for this blog post).
Zeus – God of the sky, Hermes – God of travelers, Hades – God of the underworld, Poseidon – God of the sea and horses, Athena – God of battle strategy and wisdom, Nike – God of victory, Dionysus – God of wine and dolphins, Kampolia – God of sea storms, Ares – God of War, Pan – God of the wild, Aeolis – God of the wind, Oranus – the first God of the sky, Artemis – God of hunting, Apollo -God of sun, music, medicine and prophecies. Hephaestus – God of blacksmiths and volcanos, Demeter – God of Agriculture, Aphrodite – God of love or ‘Luurve’ as I like to say, Nemesis – God of revenge, Iris – God of rainbows, Asclepius – God of doctors (but not medicine because Apollo got that job).