My sister and I arrived in Athens midafternoon on Lamas, the feast day of the first harvest. A blast of dry heat greeted us as we left the airport and surveyed the barren brown hills. It transported me to my childhood when I’d lived in distant and exotic climates, and I felt the old excitement of being abroad again.
Going to Greece had long been a dream of mine. It was a spiritual pilgrimage, a Hajj to be undertaken at least once in a lifetime. Greece figured prominently in the college classes on the Goddess I had taught for ten years, but I’d only known it through the books and slides I lectured from. I longed to see its sacred sites in person.
Our hotel was at the base of the Acropolis, within a block of the Acropolis Museum, a stunning work of modern architecture that quotes the structure of the Parthenon. The Parthenon and Erechtheon had been stripped of their bas reliefs and engravings—even the famed Karatydids– were now housed in the museum, either already or soon to be replaced by copies on the temples.
I had to pinch myself as I lay awake that night peering up at the brightly lit Parthenon hovering just above our balcony window.
The next morning we joined a throng of tourists ascending the Acropolis and filed by the Parthenon. Stripped down, it seemed more like a construction site and a work in progress. None the less, it retained its glorious proportions and was a miracle that it still stood.
We wandered down into the Agora. In the vast space and having lost the crowds, the ancient magic of the place kicked in. I scouted out the Church of the Apostles, a small octagonal structure, commemorating the place where Paul once preached, and the well-preserved Temple of Hephaistos.
A piercing, high pitched buzzing filled the air. Cicadas.They seemed charged with an ecstatic energy and drama that lent itself to poetry or Greek tragedy. They might have inspired Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sappho, the keening women Over the course of my visit, I found that anyplace with a shred of vegetation, and its blessing of shade, was invariably accompanied by a Greek chorus of thrumming cicadas. (There were plenty of places without shade.)
The meltimi winds blew steadily, whipping up a huge amount of dust in the Agora. Without them the heat would have been insufferable, although the winds could be pretty intense too, sweeping through an outdoor restaurant, like at our upscale rooftop restaurant under the Acropolis, knocking things over, blowing things away!
Yia su! Hello. I got confused when I heard people saying it in place of good-bye, but it turned out to mean that as well. I try to speak the host language at least a little when I’m traveling. I bought a phrasebook for the trip but saw right away that Greek was too challenging for me, and I never used it. Greek sounded like a combination of a Middle Eastern language, Italian, and one of the Slavic languages, and my phrasebook said that those were in fact the sources of modern Greek. Fortunately, everyone we encountered spoke at least some English. It was required learning for them beginning in the fourth grade.
Athens is a city of 4 million people, a tremendous and sprawling place, and a full third of Greece’s population of 12 million. Cheaply constructed buildings were thrown up after World War II, drawing masses to the city, leaving the countryside, which had formerly been farmland and pastures, largely barren and unattended.
We passed some of these empty tracts of land on our drive to Delphi. In the distance stood the ancient capital of Thebes, home to the ill-fated Oedipus, who had consulted the oracle, eventually learning the truth about his ancestry and bearing it out. It was also the birthplace of Dionysus and Herakles (Hercules) and the poet Pindar. From a distance, it looked a town like any other.
As our bus climbed Mt. Parnassus, the scenery became greener. We caught a glimpse of the Gulf of Corinth. Delphi itself was a place of quiet enchantment, and we quickly fell under its spell. All commercial enterprise was consigned to a neighboring town, miles away. Our guide had the mastery of a university professor, and provided us with an illuminating commentary.
Small votive figurines of the Goddess were found in caves surrounding the site, dating back to 3500 BCE. In earliest times, Delphi was sacred to the Earth Goddess Gaia, and a Sybil recited prophecies next to a giant boulder.
With the advent of male divinities, the site passed to Apollo, and a temple was erected. A priestess delivered the oracle next to a crevice in the earth from which vapors escaped, putting her in a trance. She was called the Pythia, in homage to the Python or dragon that had guarded the matriarchal site. Zeus was said to have released two eagles that converged there, marking it the center of the earth, and an omphalos, or navel stone dropped from heaven, in a spectacular reversal of the cosmic order.
The length of time it took us to reach Delphi (3 hours) put my sister in mind of how truly remote it must have been in ancient times, and yet pilgrims came there from as far away as Sicily and Asia Minor. The “sacred way” became cluttered and claustrophobic with statues, temples, and treasuries, erected by the city states to vie for power and curry favor within the powerful priesthood. I was just as glad to be seeing them in their “ruined” state, winnowed and culled by time.
To be continued tomorrow . . .
BIO: Sally Mansfield Abbott is the author of MIAMI IN VIRGO, a mystical feminist coming-of-age novel. She has taught classes on Goddess Worship in Prehistory at several colleges in the Bay Area. She is a poet and peace activist.