Thursday, September 10, 2009

Finally, literally, in ruins


"...But returning to the point, the more I look around Greece- especially as I move away from Pangrati and visit the more wealthy and commercial districts, the more my 'village of Athens' idea becomes a little more complicated. There are clearly strains in Athens that are more resistant to this western ethos of economy but I'm afraid I've been looking more at the outliers. It's disappointing, but I think I've mistaken almost cosmetic cultural differences for differences of another kind. Not that I'm completely ruling out what I've spoken of before, but I -to an extent- feel that this culture is not foreign enough, that I'm not in enough of a Wonderland. Of course, I didn't come to Greece simply to be disconcerted- and I'm not completely "concerted" now but it definitely strengthens my resolve to go to even more foreign cultures- hopefully ones that have been isolated from Western influence to a greater extent. That's misleading. Athens has not been isolated at all and seems to only convert its forms or resist out of national stubbornness

But my personal discombobulation was not why I wanted to come to Greece at all and was only something I've really focused on because I didn't really expect or think about it. What Modern Greece actually is wasn't a serious consideration. So it's greatly gratifying to have the ancient world take on a more dominant role just as I'm becoming accustomed to the modern one. Meaning: classes have finally started to get going and we've visited many an ancient site since I last wrote to you. I don't know if you recall, and I didn't realize to what extent, but my classes are so completely and uniformly focused on ancient Greece that I can't escape thinking about it constantly. But there's no better place to do it than here

The juxtaposition of ancient and modern Greece is actually quite odd since they don't seem to engage with the history any more than your typical classicist does but I suspect the culture and traditions are something more deeply-rooted, even visceral. This is encapsulated well, I think, in the fact that most ancient Greek sanctuary sites have a modern Greek Orthodox church right next to it. Ritualistic sites remain ritualistic sites even though they've adapted. Similarly, in antiquity, the last sacrificial festival of the year had a special twist: they would do the regular ritualistic stuff, cut some hair from the cows head, and tempt it up to the altar with cakes&c (the animal always had to go up to the altar of its own free will) and then they would pounce on it, surprising it, and then kill it with an axe, cut it up, and roast it. But in this last festival of the year the man who killed the cow was then brought into town and put on trial for murder. He inevitably said "I didn't kill the cow, the axe did!" The axe was then put on trial, convicted, and they would all go down to the river and throw the axe in. Today, there is an annual ritual in Greece in which the Greek priests lead a parade to the river and throw in a cross. Obviously, there isn't the sense of the scape goat, the atonement for sacrifice (atonement being an imprecise word that doesn't cover the larger implications of the ceremony, I think), and many of the more interesting qualities- but it is oddly similar. It's similar to traditions in Mexico in Catholicism in which the religion is different but the local customs can't be rooted out and thus become sanctified. But anyway, this was all an aside to tell you about my trip on Saturday to Sounion/Brauron!

The trip was amazing. I wish that Americans didn't always speak in hyperbole (not that I don't adore hyperbole- my most recent facebook group is "I speak in dramatic hyperbole and would rather set myself on fire than stop." My favorite quote: This party is literally worse than the holocaust) so that I could use a word that isn't also routinely used to describe hamburgers, showers, and really nifty belt buckles. Sounion is a temple dedicated to Poseidon located on the outermost tip of Attika. Lord Byron visited there (and actually, legibly, carved his name into one of the columns) and wrote of it in Don Juan: Place me on Sunium's marbled steep/ where nothing, save the waves and I/ May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;/ There, swan-like, let me sing and die.

So, a satisfactory place to die and although I might not share his pathos the general sentiment is something I certainly can understand. It, as you can probably tell from the photo I sent earlier, is on top of a cliff that falls off into the sea, surrounded by similar cliffs and similarly breathtaking islands. Apparently, it's the first land you see whether coming from Troy or Crete and it offered safe harbors, so a key strategic area to control and usually the beginning of some pretty daring journeys, so it is just the place for a quick sacrifice to Poseidon. I don't know if you remember the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur (the one with the maze, the bull-man, and the virgins- but doesn't every Greek legend have a virgin somewhere in there?). But accordingly, Theseus was sent off to slay or be slayed by the Minotaur and on the way home he was to put up black sail if the venture was unsuccessful and a white one if he was. Sounion is where Theseus' father, the king of Athens, waited to see whether the sail was black or white. However, on the way back Theseus "forgot" to change his white sail for the black and so his father, upon seeing the coming black-sailed ship, threw himself off the cliff and Theseus incidentally became the king of Athens. A very convenient lapse of memory. It is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. Of course I didn't take a single picture, since I didn't think to bring my camera.. or sunglasses or sunblock, more serious of a problem than you'd think in Greece.

After which, we went to the oldest remaining theater in Greece which is, curiously enough, located in the silver mines of southern Attika. It's a region that was mostly populated by slaves at the time and adjoining the theater is a silver "washer," as it were, that separates the ore. Apparently the 'boss men' of the slave camp didn't want to have to go all the way to Athens on festival days, so they built their own theater. Isn't that so The Man? I found out after the trip that it was only my group that went there and we did so only because of a timing/staggering issue and because it was on the way. But doesn't that say something about the sheer quantity of sites that our professor could pick out a site almost at random to waste a few minutes?

Then we went to Brauron, a sanctuary of Artemis. The sites that aren't so central (or as absolutely beautiful as Sounion) are almost untouched and they aren't as controlled and roped off. So Brauron was almost interactive, we could walk the bridge and sit (or rather lounge, as the Greeks, like the Romans, didn't bother to sit up while eating) at the 'dining table' (or stone pedestal remnant of a dining table) and even rehearse the ritual bear dance in the courtyard- not that I did, but I could've. Okay, so Greek mythology again (and I find these things fascinating but if you don't you might want to scroll down. I probably should've warned you of this earlier). When Agammenon left Mycenae to sail for Troy, the weather didn't agree. So he, in true Agamemnon fashion, sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, in order to make for fair weather. Apparently, at the last moment Artemis swooped in and replaced Iphigenia with a stag and carried her off to Asia Minor to be an attendant in one of her temples. After Agamemnon returned to Mycenae successful, his wife, understandably pissed about the whole daughter-killing business and having acquired a lover of her own (don't they always?), gives Agamemnon a bath and then kills him. Agamemnon's son, Orestes, upset about the murder of his father kills his mother and her lover and goes off to find his sister. It's a vicious circle, really- once you get started killing family, you can never stop. The spot where Orestes and Iphigenia landed upon their to Attika is where this temple to Artemis was built. Since, the ocean has moved back about kilometer so it's located in very hilly, dry countryside (only a mile or so from where the forest fire devastation cut off- divine intervention, no?). The mythology is interesting enough but even more interesting to me is the ritual that was built upon it. All Greek girls were sent to this temple at eleven or twelve years of age so that they could become properly domesticated into women. Or rather, girls were sent there upon puberty so that they could become wives (since they were always married shortly after). They stayed there for four months to a year serving as attendants to Artemis, like Iphigenia, and then had a great ceremony ( in which they performed what is known as the "bear dance," where they stripped off a bear costume) to celebrate their having changed from wild things (ie archtoi "little bears") into women and then they offered up all their childhood toys and gifts to Artemis. And when the girls died in childbirth (which 40% of them did, since they were only 13 or 14 when having children), the bloody clothes they died in in labor (eek) along with the rest of their childhood things were offered up as well. Afterwards, we went to the beach, which was fun and salty and beautiful


We've already encountered Brauron in text in my Mythology/Religion class, which is promising to be much more interesting than I had anticipated. About which I'll tell you more, as I've grasped a better idea of it myself and if you're interested. I can completely sympathize with your rusty-Greek woes! We just began translating yesterday (Thucydides- History of the Peloponnesian War Book IV) and I'm completely out of practice- I just stared at the text for a half an hour, completely overwhelmed. But, although I made some embarrassing and obvious mistakes, I think I'm getting back into the swing of it. Remind me to never discontinue translating if I don't want a massive headache later. By the way, I feel like I've been writing a little more British-y than usual. I blame my professors- two of which are British, all of which are characters. Oh! I almost forgot- a joke!

How can we tell that Oedipus was an amateur classicist?

He conjugated when he should have declined.

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