Greece is a country immersed in mythology. Some stories are local, colorful, specific; some are vast and all-encompassing. These myths shape identity; provide etymology; teach lessons; are simply fun, bizarre, absurd, beautiful. Our seminar is entitled “myth on site” for a reason – every patch of every city in Greece is linked to a mythical past.
But the ancient myths of Greece are built into her countryside, her entire atmosphere, along with a new, pervasive cultural mythology as well. The myth of Greece: what she is, what it means to be in Greece, what it means to study Greek mythology, what that mythology has made out of her landscape and her people. There is myth behind the way the pilgrim comes to Greece. There is myth behind the way one walks through her streets. There is myth whispering out of her ancient temples that has grown out of the mythology that built them. Greece is living myth, not only in the sense that she maintains a visceral pride in her ancient heritage, but in the shape that pride has come to take. This mythology is, again, atmospheric; it is nebulous, somewhat intangible. More than any other description I might provide I would leave you with the unsatisfactory cliche that it is a feeling; Greece is a buzz you begin to sense when you start to explore her culture at a distance; Greece is a buzz that makes you feel you might be levitating as you traverse her land.
This feeling derives in part from the powerful understanding that your pilgrimage to Greece reaches back in a tradition so ancient you cannot fathom its depth and age and weight. But your journey to Greece will not match the arduous paths that those who came before you had to take to see her.
The Koile Deme is located in the Southwest of Athens, at the foot of the hills of the Muses and the Pnyx. The hills of the Muses are purportedly the place where Musaeus was born – a favorite singer of the Muses who used to sing on the spot and was later buried there. In contrast to this artistic myth, the Pnyx had a pragmatic political purpose in the ancient world: it was the meeting place of the ekklesia, a popular assembly open to all [male] citizens in ancient Athenian democracy. But Aristotle wrote “Man is a creature of the polis” because the Athenian citizenry lived by a cultural code that emphasized on a profound level the necessity of participation in a democracy. Such was this emphasis that men could actually be fined if they neglected to attend the ekklesia.
A visitor to Athens who docked their boat at the port of Piraeus would walk through Koile along the ancient road where Kimon was buried. They would cross the Long Walls on their way to the hill of the Muses. The Koile Deme has its own impassioned history; like the rest of the city of Athens, this deme belongs to her people; however, in the 1980s it was closed off to its own neighborhood by archaeological projects, open only to those willing or able to pay the fee to enter. The community, in response, stood up in a universal cry for reclamation of their own neighborhood. This is ours, this is where we live; you will not shut us out. The exclusivity of these projects, while sometimes enabling a city to profit on the curiosity of foreigners, risks alienating its own citizens. In this instance, the Koile deme was reclaimed. It is living myth, living history, and as such it remains alive, an active participant in the daily lives of the Athenians walking its paths every day.
From the Koile Deme one begins to ascend the Hill of the Muses. Even the sounds of the city are intact remnants of old: cicadas in the trees make the same rhythmic, melodic clatter of the ancient landscape. Through the olive trees that smatter the hillside in tenacious root systems on the sandy soil the Hill of the Muses rises. On all sides there is no view but olive, but caper flowers, but century plants adorned with carved names of contemporary Athenians and tourists alike. The grade of the hill goes from gradual to rather steep. The climb takes on an intensity in the heat; the olive trees are short, scrappy pieces of assiduous vegetation that offer little protection from the relentless Mediterranean sun.
And suddenly, as the hill begins to crest, you turn backwards. You can see the road from Piraeus. This is the view those who traveled over the sea would have seen; this is the journey that lay before you. What was once a vast countryside is replete with apartment complexes and busy highways and large industrial buildings, but there is the same sea beyond, and the same old roads; the metro still runs along what were the Long Walls; the road in Koile you’ve just traversed is still marked with rivets from ancient carts that moved upon it. Before you, there is the summit of the hill of the muses.
And then you step forward.
The first view of the Acropolis of Athens for any visitor is awe-inspiring. It is impossibly formidable. It is awesome and strong and intimidating, but it calls to you, beckons you forward. This isn’t yours, it’s for Athena. It isn’t yours, it’s for the Athenians. It isn’t yours, but it is yours, it’s open to you, and you, who have made the journey, are welcome, encouraged, to come closer. At the top of the hill of the Muses, you lose your breath. The climb has been steep. You remember, looking back, how long this same journey – a journey that took you maybe 24 hours; maybe less; maybe years of studying or saving; maybe you arrived on a whim – you remember, looking back, how long this same journey would have taken an ancient person standing in the same spot. You feel the weight of it, the weight of never being able to know the weight of that. But you do know, too.
You can understand why Musaeus and the Muses purportedly came to sing here.
A little further up the path, the last remaining shard of the immense Philopappos monument looms, lit up from behind by the sun and staking a large claim upon the Athenian skyline. The Philopappos Monument was erected by Giaus Julius Antiochus Philopappos in the 2nd century CE. Like most monuments in Greece, it is a prime example of sociopolitical propaganda. A blend of Roman, Greek, and Comogene culture harmonize in a triangular relationship to that which is the essence of Athenian culture: the Parthenon. Imagine the Philopappos as the point of an Isosceles triangle, the Parthenon and the Propylaea making the other points. As you stand under the shade of Philopappos’ monument, you look out upon the pinnacle of “Pan-Hellenic” culture. Moreover, its location on the Hill of the Muses is loaded with Athenian significance. In myth, this was not only a favorite dwelling for the Muses themselves, but it was a strategic point in the battle against the Amazons. The so-called Amazonomachy is repeatedly used by the Athenians to assert their authochthony – the fact that they came from the earth, have always been there, have roots going back to the first battles of gods and men. Later, it was used in battle for the purposes it held in myth; the Athenians used it in the Persian wars and again in the Peloponnesian wars, and later it was taken up by the Macedonians for military purposes as well. But the monument itself is not simply devoted to the assimilation to Athenian culture. Instead, it blends elements of Greek, Roman and Comogene culture to put Philopappos at home in all three. The lictor procession depicted on the monument ties back to one of the most solemn rituals in Roman culture. Meanwhile, there is a depiction of Philopappos himself, along with the name of his father, seated upon a throne – a dramatic, immense assertion through sculpture of his leadership and his claim to this ancient space. A small depiction of Heracles helps to bridge the gap between cultures, a hero claimed by the Comogenes and the Greeks, beloved by the Romans. It is likely that you have never heard of Philopappos; neither had I. But his monument dominates part of the Athenian landscape.
After the ascent some of us walk home through the national gardens. We walk through the manicured landscape past a small zoo with goats and rabbits and chickens into a park where a small brass band is playing “New York, New York” to a small crowd. The landscape keeps changing, moving, adapting; the people continue to live in their city just like living in any other city. But the currents run back to the river of a rich ancient tradition, a fertile continuous culture visible from every streetcorner Athens.