I will preface this with a brief apology that my updates on life in Greece have been thus far quite minimal. I would blame this on the spotty wifi in Attica, but it is truly a consequence of my attempt to live, absorb, experience all that I can – an attempt that subsequently leads to a necessary investment in recovery at the end of each day. The wifi aspect of this journey was an interesting one. I am so accustomed to the luxury of outside communication at my fingertips at all times; on this trip, it was difficult to sign on just to check and respond to emails, let alone to keep in contact with my loved ones. I thank them, especially the ever patient and understanding N, for their understanding in what was a blur of intense and emotional experience; rather a tour de force of sorts of attempting to absorb as much as possible out of each new site, each new town.
I began this blog post back in Loring Hall after our 11-day trip around Attica, still letting the dust settle from our days on the road. I intend to detail as much of that trip as possible, but that is not for now. I find myself wanting to return to my first few days here and the embarrassment of riches I had already experienced before we even embarked on our bus around the country.
If you have been to Athens, it is likely that you have been to the acropolis. But have you ever taken the time to explore the caves that line the path up to the Parthenon there?
We spent our morning walking through the Exarchia neighborhood on our way to the National Museum of Archaeology. The anarchists of Athens hold Exarchia. It is rather haunting to walk by the massive, beautiful building of the old Polytechnic university and know that it is inhabited by anarchist squatters reclaiming this quarter of the city as their own. On the 17th of November, 1973, the Polytechnic was host to a student-organized popular uprising against the Regime of the Colonels. It is still celebrated as a national holiday today; Exarchia still embodies the fervent anti-fascist attitudes leading to the uprising some 40 years ago.
But in the heart of Exarchia, down the block from the Polytechnic university, is the National Museum of Archaeology. It is, as one might expect, overwhelming in its rich, vast collection. Though we spent only a morning there I can already confidently assert that I could have spent several days just poring over the material offered through its many halls. Here is where the contents of the “Treasury”of Atreus are held, amongst other infamous Ancient discoveries; the face that Schliemann beheld and took as Agamemnon’s will still stare you in the eye as you walk through the Bronze Age wing. When I speak of an “embarrassment of riches,” the immense collection at the national museum comes to mind. A veritable cornucopia of invaluable artifacts rests there informing one’s experience throughout Athens. Whatever you see there once rested on the landscape you traverse, spanning the cultural experience of thousands of different generations down to the prehistoric era. There is the marble universe of the classical period, the clay pots of the proto-, geometric, and post-geometric era, and the stunning collection of flawless gold from the Mycenaean era. For the moments you inevitably become overwhelmed by all there is to see, there is a gorgeous indoor garden cafe to rest and process.
Finished with the museum, we walked through Monastiraki, the flea market neighborhood of old Athens, to lunch of gyros and then up to the theater Dionysus. In the blazing heat we discussed the festivals, the incredible tragic works that would have been performed there. Standing on the ancient seats of the theater one looks out on the city replete with concrete now, but which once was mainly pasture and space. I tried to imagine the view, imagine what it would be like to watch a performance with the port of Piraeus in sight, vast fields, wandering herds of goats.
After the theater, we scaled the sides of the acropolis exploring the different caves there. The first is the immense cave to Aglauros, an elusive figure in myth. She is one of the daughters of Cecrops, the “snakey” (and thereby autochthonous) early king of Athens. The most popular variant of the myth cites the birth of Erechtheus, as a consequence of an attempted rape of Athena by Hephaestus; Erechtheus is born from the earth itself, pregnant by Hephaestus’ spilled semen. Athena entrusted a box which held Erechtheus to Aglauros and her sisters, warning them never to open it; however, as often happens in myth, this warning was ignored. Consequently, Aglauros and her sisters went insane and plummeted to their deaths from the top of the acropolis. In another variant, however, a cave dedicated to Aglauros feels more fitting: a prophecy foretold that Athens, involved in a protracted war, would find success if only someone were willing to sacrifice themselves for the city-state. Aglauros, hearing this prophecy, jumped off of the acropolis and saved the city. There are theories that young men would reenact this sacrifice in wartime – not actually sacrificing themselves, but as a show of respect for Aglauros and the prophecy that once saved Athens playing at self-sacrifice to recreate the same successful result. The cave is vast, and now home to a large bird’s nest; a panoramic view of the city sprawls beneath.
Further up from the cave of Aglauros is one to Aphrodite. This cave is particularly charming due to its continued use; dedications to Aphrodite are scattered throughout the ancient niches that were used for similar offerings thousands of years ago. One can see small notes folded up and tucked into crevices in the rock, hopeful wishes from new lovers. Dried flowers scatter the niches, and a stack of beautiful rocks which continues to grow in height.
Finally, there is the cave of Pan. Pan’s cave was dedicated to him during the Persian war, right before the battle of Marathon. Herodotus recalls that Philippides ran into Pan on a journey, who asked him why the Athenians didn’t worship him. “I like you Athenians quite a bit,” Pan said, “but you don’t worship me; I’ve helped you out before and I’ll continue to do so, but why don’t you seem to like me?” As a result of this conversation, the cave was dedicated to him.
Pan is one of my favorite gods. He’s actually the son of my all-time favorite god, Hermes. Pan is interesting because he’s this little magical woodsy fellow who goes about his business and essentially loves anybody who tries to commune with nature – but like all gods, he also has the capacity to be incredibly dangerous. The word “panic” derives from his name for the manner in which he is able to induce paranoid hallucinations in large groups of soldiers who begin to think someone is attacking them and subsequently attack each other. Like most individuals, he doesn’t enjoy being woken up during naptime – high noon, “Pan’s hour.” But in typical god-like fashion, grumpiness takes on a terrifying association when paired with the awesome power of any god. Basically, once you start to read through myth, you begin to gather that it’s not a good idea in general to mess with any of the gods.
The birth of Pan is a delightful story, and I will begin conclude this post on that note. The Homeric Hymn to Pan recounts how Hermes fell in love with a daughter of Dryops, and they had a child together – but Pan wasn’t an ordinary child. He was born with hooves and horns, and a full beard. While the daughter of Dryops sees this and runs away, horrified, Hermes is delighted, laughs, and takes Pan in his arms and brings him to Olympus.
The cave to Pan is just the sort of place Pan would love best. Lots of winding paths and varying entrances and tiny nooks and crannies to sneak into. It also has a little bit of a saucy reputation recounted in the Aristophanes play Lysistrata – basically, it’s a great place to have secret sexual encounters, but you might need to find a good place to purify yourself before you re-enter the citadel.
I will finish by including a translation of the Homeric Hymn to Pan, because I find it truly lovely and the cave of Pan has stuck with me as one of my favorite spots in Athens.
Muse, tell me about Pan, the dear son of Hermes, with his goat’s feet and two horns —a lover of merry noise. Through wooded glades he wanders with dancing nymphs who foot it on some sheer cliff’s edge, calling upon Pan, the shepherd-god, long-haired, unkempt. He has every snowy crest and the mountain peaks and rocky crests for his domain; hither and thither he goes through the close thickets, now lured by soft streams, and now he presses on amongst towering crags and climbs up to the highest peak that overlooks the flocks. Often he courses through the glistening high mountains, and often on the shouldered hills he speeds along slaying wild beasts, this keen-eyed god. Only at evening, as he returns from the chase, he sounds his note, playing sweet and low on his pipes of reed: not even she could excel him in melody —that bird who in flower-laden spring pouring forth her lament utters honey-voiced song amid the leaves. At that hour the clear-voiced nymphs are with him and move with nimble feet, singing by some spring of dark water, while Echo wails about the mountain-top, and the god on this side or on that of the choirs, or at times sidling into the midst, plies it nimbly with his feet. On his back he wears a spotted lynx-pelt, and he delights in high-pitched songs in a soft meadow where crocuses and sweet-smelling hyacinths bloom at random in the grass.
They sing of the blessed gods and high Olympus and choose to tell of such an one as luck-bringing Hermes above the rest, how he is the swift messenger of all the gods, and how he came to Arcadia, the land of many springs and mother of flocks, there where his sacred place is as god of Cyllene. For there, though a god, he used to tend curly-fleeced sheep in the service of a mortal man, because there fell on him and waxed strong melting desire to wed the rich-tressed daughter of Dryops, and there he brought about the merry marriage. And in the house she bare Hermes a dear son who from his birth was marvellous to look upon, with goat’s feet and two horns —a noisy, merry-laughing child. But when the nurse saw his uncouth face and full beard, she was afraid and sprang up and fled and left the child. Then luck-bringing Hermes received him and took him in his arms: very glad in his heart was the god. And he went quickly to the abodes of the deathless gods, carrying his son wrapped in warm skins of mountain hares, and set him down beside Zeus and showed him to the rest of the gods. Then all the immortals were glad in heart and Bacchic Dionysus in especial; and they called the boy Pan because he delighted all their hearts.
And so hail to you, lord! I seek your favour with a song. And now I will remember you and another song also. (Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White)