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 Parthenon was built to pay homage to the goddess Athena.
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.
One day Ikis and I got talking about his grandmother Aspasiya.
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. 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.
Without intending to, I asked a question which 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?’
Ikis retorted: ‘She wouldn’t want to just leave and go…. ‘
He belaboured the theme of tradition. The Greek way of life. The family, the sense of belonging and caring for children and the aged.
‘For us it’s impossible…putting children in crèches or old people in homes.’
After I left Athens, I head east to the island of Evian. I 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.
For the ancient Athenians, she 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.
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.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.
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.