Early on my second morning in Athens, whilst it was still dark, I got up and walked to the Parthenon. I followed silent streets until I reached the acropolis, where I began the ascent to the Parthenon over a wide, zig-zagging ramp. I got there before well opening time (8 am); I was hoping I might get a short period of relative solitude before the main tourist rush began. As it turned out, I got about a half an hour.
But it was worth it.
Aware of looking at the farcical remains of what was once an architectural miracle, I nevertheless felt elated watching the sunrise illuminating the columns, one by one, wrenching them out of the cold morning shadow. In that short-lived moment, I surrendered to the simple and incredible idea that that those columns were two and a half thousand years old, a time span as hard for me to comprehend as the distances between stars in the universe………
The same feeling of elation had overwhelmed me the first time I saw the pyramids, but this was different because the pyramids belonged to an ancient culture with which I had no connection; which was bizarre and other-worldly. But the columns in front of me, turning from ivory grey to yellow orange, were far more familiar to me, closer to my experience of my life. Educated in a school system which was borrowed from the British, I had from an early age been familiar with ancient Greece. There were the passing references to the various myths of the ancient Greeks in the works of the English novelists and poets we studied. There was the influence of ancient Greek culture in much of the historic English architecture around the city; the parliament house for example with its Grecian columns and carved marble figures, a direct copy of the Parthenon. In later years, reading the works of European philosophers such as Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Marcuse, I realized how strong the influence of ancient Athens had been on generations of European intellectuals, artists and writers. The ancient Greeks were always there, somehow close and yet distant, a matter of passing references and symbols; something I encountered time and again but didn’t make the effort to investigate further until much later in life.
Before I knew it, the sun was up and that small time of elation had passed as the first groups of package tourists arrived. I made my way down, and it was no easy trip. Hundreds of people, belonging to every conceivable nationality, were on their way up. It was a like a procession of devotees, speaking many different tongues, making their way to a tower of Babel. Two and half thousand years before, great processions had also made their way up to the acropolis.
Their purpose was rather more serious than sight-seeing.
The Parthenon was built to pay homage to the goddess Athena. Two statues of Athena were constructed on the Acropolis, one inside the Parthenon which was called ‘Athena Parthenos’ and one outside, called ‘Athena Promochos’.
Athena Parthenos was a marvel. It was 12 metres high. Athena was clad in a long flowing robe reaching the ground. On her head, she wore a diadem with a large miniature sphinx and two griffins. In her right outstretched hand, she held a Nike – a trophy of victory. On her left side was large shield. Her face and arms and hands were carved from ivory; the rest of her was constructed from bronze and overlaid with gold – over 1000 kilos of it. The statue was situated at the back of the Parthenon, so that it was framed by the marble columns. In front of it was a pool of water. Athena Parthenos is regarded as one of the great wonders of the ancient world (as if the Parthenon wasn’t enough!).
A replica of Athena Parthenos in the U.S.
The statue of Athena outside the Parthenon – Athena Promochos – stood on top of a large, square marble pedestal. Made of bronze, it was 9 metres high. It showed Athena with a shield on hand and in the other, held aloft, a long spear. Athena Promochos shone brightly in the powerful Greek sun and could be seen by ships far out to sea.
Late on a Sunday afternoon, I came into the lounge/dining area with my notebook and found it full of people, adults and children. There were plates of food on the table. Ikis was sitting at the table talking to a young woman holding a baby. It was a family get-together. I was about to retreat from the scene, when Ikis yelled out to me and invited me to come and sit near him.
The young woman with the baby was his sister; she was a doctor working in a hospital and she spoke good English. We got talking about Aspasiya (who, tired out from the afternoon’s events had retreated to her room). During the times I had sat in the lounge/dining area with my laptop, she often came over sat near me, staring at me. Sometimes she brought a small bowl of dates and put them next to me. She was a funny old woman. I couldn´t talk to her but somehow I liked her.
At one point Ikis took me over to look at a framed black and white photo. There were a few of these photos on the walls, but most of them were of Athens. This one was quite different. It must have been taken from a boat out to sea. In the foreground was water. On the right, on top of a bare, steep hill was a small church. On the left was a small elliptical bay and a row of two story stone houses, maybe five or six of them. In front of them, a few small wooden fishing boats were moored. Behind them were olive groves and looming on the far horizon, a range of mountains.
‘That’s the village where Aspasiya was born….’ Ikis said.
He pointed to one of the houses: ‘This one was where she lived. Her family owned land…olive trees. ’
‘By the standards of the time, they were well off?’ I said.
‘Yes, they were. She raised my mother in this house. After her husband died, she never remarried. Later, after my mother got married, she and my father moved into this house. Then the house and land passed to my parents.
´Passed to your parents? But it belonged to Aspasiya.’
‘She got on well with my father and you know, she was glad to have a man to take over running things…’
Aspasiya, it seemed, had renounced her right to the house and land of her parents and simply given them to her daughter’s husband. Then again, as Ikis often reminded me, Greece was a traditional society. And in the past, it must have been far more traditional.
‘What price tradition?’ I thought to myself.
‘My parents’ had three children. I was the first, then came my sister who you’ve met and then came another daughter but she died when she was 3 years old – she swallowed a part of her doll and choked to death. I can remember it so clearly. It was horrible….that sort of thing stays with you…afterwards, my mother became depressed. She wanted to go somewhere else. So my father sold up everything and came to Athens. You know, if my younger sister hadn’t have died, we probably would have never left Pelion. In Athens, my father started running cafes and shops. He did well. Then he built this hotel. In 1998, my father died suddenly from a heart attack. My mother died two years ago. ‘
The doctor added: ‘Aspasia cannot understand why she has outlived her daughter and her son in law. She prays a lot. A few months ago, I took her to have some tests done. She’s got cancer but its slow growing. We have decided not to tell her about it because then she will just worry for nothing. But we know that she hasn’t got long….’
Looking at the photo I said ‘The village looks beautiful’.
‘It was’ said Ikis, ‘although the place is very different today.’
To underline the point, he took out his mobile and showed me some colour images of the village. On the headland, there was a mass of luxury houses and apartments. Only if you looked carefully could you see any sign of the church, a cross at the top of a steeple. The original stone houses in the bay were still there – on either side of them restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops.
Without intending to, I asked a question which stirred up emotions and got a somewhat indignant reaction:
‘Doesn’t Aspasia get bored with sitting around here all day…. I mean, this isn’t exactly a great place for an old lady…. doesn’t she ever want to go back to the village?’
The doctor spoke up: ‘She’s a part of the family. She wouldn’t want to just leave and go…. her position is here…and Ikis wouldn’t want it…. you see, here in Greece, its normal for the grandmother to live with the family. We are tight knit society and the family is everything.’
‘The Greek way of life’: it was a theme which she and Ikis warmed to; the extended family, the sense of belonging and caring for children and the aged.
Ikis said: ‘For us it’s impossible…putting children in crèches or old people in homes.’
The doctor chimed in (and maybe she had her baby in mind when she said this): ‘For a child to leave the family for example, say to go elsewhere to work, it’s a disaster for the parents. Anything which undermines the family is bad. It’s the same with the old people, everyone belongs somewhere in Greece…. they have a place…’
After I left Athens, I head east to the island of Evian. I stayed in a small family run hotel on the southern coast and spent my days swimming, walking, reading – and writing or rather, typing. Autumn was a beautiful time to be in Greece, the main tourism season was over, the days were fine, the nights were cool and the ocean waters were still warm from the summer.
My thoughts dwelled on the goddess Athena and the remarkable statues of her which originally formed the centerpiece of The Parthenon.
She was a unique deity.
There were many myths concerning her. That almost goes without saying in a polytheistic culture open to a great diversity of deities and legends. Of the various myths concerning Athena and how she came into being, one of the best-known ran like this: the god Zeus had sex with the goddess Metis. Metis was the goddess of wisdom (and from whom our words ‘meter’ and ‘metric’ are derived). She became pregnant and Zeus swallowed her to forestall a prophecy which said that her offspring would be greater than he. Metis however gave birth to a daughter inside Zeus, which gave him such a terrible headache that he asked the god Hephaestus to cut his head open with an axe. This Hephaestus did, whereupon Athena was born.
Like so many of the fantastic tales of Greek mythology, this was a parable rich in implications. The swallowing of Metis by Zeus represented knowledge being repressed by power; the birth of Athena represented the victory of knowledge over authority, of democracy over the blind power of the dictator. History had never seen a deity like her: a goddess of knowledge and democracy, representing the triumph of the reason over ignorance and freedom over dictatorship.
The association of Athena with knowledge, with liberation, is one which outlived ancient Athens. It sprang into life in the collective imagination of the Romans – and much later, generations of Europeans and Americans, for whom the association of a woman, a goddess, with liberation, had a powerful resonance. Long after the worship of Athena died out in ancient Greece, various incarnations of her appeared in the hearts and minds of people a long way removed from the ancient acropolis. In the beautiful classical cities of Europe, statues of mythical Greek women representing the triumph of knowledge and freedom were constructed. The image of a goddess representing the march of Freedom and Reason became a universal one, so that in the late 19th century, when a Polish writer named Joseph Conrad sought to cast doubt on the idea of western civilization, he specifically employed this very image. In ‘Heart of Darkness’, the story’s narrator Marlowe, travels by steam boat into the jungles of the Belgian Congo in search of the mythical Kurtz. At the commencement of his journey he sees a painting done by Kurtz of a woman striding forth, holding a burning torch and surrounded by darkness. The painting is richly symbolic given the fate which has befallen Kurtz – an emissary of ‘civilisation’ who has turned into a monster. In the fate of Kurtz there is a powerful condemnation of European colonialism and beyond that, a deeper sense of foreboding. In Kurtz and the fallen woman is an omen for an approaching disaster about to engulf the whole idea of western civilisation: the 1st and 2n world wars, trench warfare and Auschwitz. In the 19th century however, Conrad’s was a prescient but singular kind of pessimism. Europe was in the grips of an unbridled optimism.
In France, an enormous statue was constructed and shipped piece by piece to New York: the statue of Liberty. It was the most beautiful of all the incarnated Athena’s to appear out of the European imagination; a timeless goddess armed with a flaming torch. None of Conrad’s dark and prescient pessimism here: this was a statue of unabashed optimism; a symbol of liberation. Born in Athens during the 5th century BC, she had made a long journey through the ages before finding her new home on Staten Island, New York.
Athena: a remarkable goddess.
From the south coast of Evian, I travelled slowly northwards and then west, completing a big circle which eventually brought me back, a month later, to Athens. On the night before getting on my flight back to Amsterdam, I stayed at Ikis’s hotel.
Something was different and it took me a while to realise what.
Aspasia was nowhere to be seen. I thought maybe she was dead.
I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject when I met Ikis. Soon enough though, I heard all about it.
‘Aspasia isn’t here….she’s gone back ……’
‘To the village…Pelion.’
‘For a visit?’
‘No, not a visit…. she’s gone back there to die’
‘Did you tell her she had cancer?’
No! She didn’t want to stay in Athens. She made up her mind to go back to her village…she was real stubborn….you know what old people are like…’
Ikis had evidently been surprised at how determined the old lady was; he and his sister and other members of the family had tried their best to talk her out of it. To remind her of her place in the family. But she’d stood her ground.
I thought of how she had spent her time sitting in that chair near the entrance to the hotel, day after mind numbing day, there in the fluorescent light, with a hologram of Jesus behind her and an bible in front of her.
I said: ‘well, I can understand her…’
Expecting Ikis to contradict me, I was surprised when he said ‘yeah, I can too, she should decide where she wants to die…’
But Ikis was having trouble coming to terms with it. He described how he had put Aspasiya in his car and driven over to Pelion. It was a long trip, it took him most of the day. He arranged for her to stay in the very same stone house where the family had once lived.
‘The exterior is the same but inside it’s different. It’s been renovated. It is rented out during the summers but during the off season, the rent’s cheap. Winters there on Pelion, they’re miserable. It’s much further north than Athens. It rains a lot, there are strong winds, big waves, grey skies. Summers are fine, but winters….’
Ikis had arranged for someone come and look after Aspasiya and help feed her and wash her. But he didn’t feel right about leaving her there. He was haunted by the idea that she would die alone during the winter and he wouldn’t be at her side. He was very emotional and on the verge of tears.
The problem was, he had a hotel to run and he couldn’t just close it and go and live with Aspasiya during her last days.
All her life, Aspasia had been a dutiful woman. She had lived her life as society and god had expected her to do. She had been a good wife, a good mother, a good grandmother. She had deferred to the demands of tradition. The house and land which by rights, had been hers, she had handed on to her daughter’s husband. He had sold them and used the money to establish himself in Athens. In the course of her life however Aspasia had not lost her idea of herself and what she wanted. Her last wish was to die in the place where she had been born; where she was baptized, grown up and got married and given birth to her daughter.
On my flight out, I thought about how during my stay in Athens, I had been preoccupied by two women, one in the prime of her life and the other, nearing the end of her life.
One woman was famous. She had had an enormous impact on western history.
The other woman was unknown, anonymous, illiterate, and utterly undistinguished.
I admired each of them, albeit for completely different reasons.