A replica of Athena in the U.S.
Early on my second morning in Athens, I left the small hotel where I was staying in Ommonia and walked to the Parthenon, arriving there just before 8am. I got about 40 minutes to myself before the first tourist buses arrived. As the sun rose and the columns of The Parthenon lit up in a deep golden hue, my thoughts dwelled on a famous woman named Athena.
And what a woman she was!
That eternal symbol of freedom from tryranny!
History has not seen another like her and how precious she seems to me today as Vladimir Putin’s dogs of war trample on the people of The Ukraine….
Built in 500 BC, the Parthenon, that stupendous architectural achievment, was never meant to be a structure in it own right; it was built namely to house a statue of the goddess Athena.
A what a statue it was.
Long since vanished, it was one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world. At 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.
For the ancient Athenians, their patron Goddess was credited with saving their city state from two attempts by the mighty Persian empire to stamp out their radical new system of government called democracy. A system they called ‘people power’ and which meant that no one could rule or make laws without the consent of the people. Democracy was the anthithesis of what the Athenians called ‘tyranny’: rule by a despot – by a Hitler, a Stalin, a Putin, a Li Xinping ….history is full of dictators, of monsters in human form.
Athena was not only a goddess of war and proof that a democracy could defend itself against a far mightier enemy; she also represented the victory of knowledge over authority, of reason over ignorance.
History had never seen a deity like her.
The association of Athena with knowledge as well as liberation, outlived ancient Athens. It sprang into life in the collective imagination of generations of Europeans and Americans, for whom the association of a woman, a goddess, with liberation, had a powerful resonance.
The image of a goddess representing the march of Freedom and Reason became a universal one. In France, an enormous statue was constructed and shipped piece by piece to New York: the statue of Liberty. Classical Europe’s gift to the New World. It was the best known of all the incarnated Athena’s to appear out of the European imagination; a timeless goddess armed with a flaming torch.
Born in Athens during the 5th century BC, Athena made a long journey through the ages before finding her new home on Staten Island, New York.
In the afternoon, back at my hotel after my visit to The Parthenon, Ikis and I got talking about another very different woman: his 95 year old grandmother.
At one point he took me over to look at a framed black and white photo. 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. 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 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. 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. ‘
He 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. I have decided not to tell her about it because then she will just worry for nothing. But I know that she hasn’t got long…and it’s hard…I love her very much. ’
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.
I left the hotel in Ommonia and travelled to the island of Evian and a month later returned to Athens where I booked a night at Ikis’s hotel before flying out the following morning.
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 with 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. She made up her mind…she was real stubborn…I never told her about the cancer’
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….’
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 though, they’re miserable. 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.
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 encountered two women, one in the prime of her life and the other, nearing the end of her life.
One woman was famous and she’d 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…….