Is Athena in Athens, her namesake city? If so, where and how does she live? Do today’s Athenians “believe” in her? As a deity, historical figure, patroness? Under the guise of a honeymoon, I went to find out. I looked for her on the streets and in the people. I’m still not sure if I found her- maybe if you read between my lines you can tell me?
The fundamental confusion I had about ancient Greek civilization was with all those blurry, intersecting lines. Drama, philosophy, mythology and history all seem to intertwine, leaving one to wonder if a Cyclops is a real threat and if Helen of Troy existed. When people ask about the honeymoon, they don’t ask me if I could feel the Acropolis while I slept (I could), they ask if I witnessed riots and unrest. Poor Greece. Poor because they suffer from a national reputation as lazy and economically challenged, rather than as descendants of an innovative and influential civilization. The blurry lines could not exist without so much that flourished. It’s a lot to uphold while the world is calling you lazy.
On Adrianou Street in Athens, Aristotles Marouli sold me a beautiful leather bag. I asked him about Athena and he accessed his Greek pride which was not too far beneath the skin. “I am Greece. I am sorry.” He said he was sorry not because he was sorry to be Greek, but because he was about to insult the European Union. The Sunday before our conversation, the vote had passed to stick with the Euro rather than return to the Drachma. “I am not Germany. I am sorry. They killed millions of people. And we? I am Greece.” We spoke for a while about Greece’s contributions, dating back thousands of years, and the relative youth of countries such as my own. So what do people see and feel when they look at images of Athena and the other Olympians? According to Aristotles, they can draw on these figures as a source of pride, much needed in this time of disregard.
On to the island of Naxos, and to Nicoletta, gregarious daughter of the family that runs Hotel Grotta. Mama makes pies (fig and kefalotiri!), Papa makes wine, and Nicoletta is a tourist’s muse. On the grounds of lovely Grotta, you can park your ATV in the shadow of the Temple of Apollo, which like the Acropolis, you can feel in your sleep. As Chicagoans orient themselves to Lake Michigan, Naxians have the iconic ruin constantly on their radar, nodding in its cardinal direction instinctively in reference while indoors. I asked Nicoletta who her favorite deity was. “Mmmmm… Apollo. Yes, the music, but also, he was laid back. And Athena, she was smart, clever. Not Hera, she was jealous. Yes, sure Zeus was unfaithful (Naxian wink), but he is the father of all the gods. Ehhh… Athena was clever to plant the olive tree… yes, I love olives too… and they are good for so many things. Not Aphrodite– too passionate– I don’t want all that passion. Not all the time. Just on special occasions (Naxian wink).”
But how do people regard the Olympians today? In a religious way, historical, cultural, or something else?
“It’s for pride. Today many see us for our struggles. When we look back to Ancient history, we feel pride. (Head instinctively tilting toward the Temple of Apollo.) Religious, no. Greeks are generally Orthodox Christians. My parents’ generation more-so than mine, which is more secular. You see my parents’ generation dressing in black, attending church regularly, but ours is more relaxed.”
But I’ve heard that there’s a resurgence of polytheism. That some people do worship the Olympians as actual deities.
“You heard this? Where? Oh wait. There was something. A family in my son’s kindergarten class. The young boy did not want to go to church, which we understood, that is common. But more than that he wanted his classmates to pray to the Olympian gods. The family was not from Naxos; they were from Athens.”
Hellen ritual performed by members of the YSEE, Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes
Made with Paper app
Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionism emerged in the 1990s, and in Greece is now institutionalized under the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes. As fascinating as this is, I decided not to hijack my honeymoon and search for hellenic rituals. Instead I did some shallow Wikipedia research and found that “polytheistic reconstructionism is not a religion itself, but is the methodology for re-establishing a historical polytheistic (or pre-Christian) religion in the modern world”. I imagine the kindergartner and his family practiced Hellenismos or Hellenism, a traditional polytheistic religion that revolves around the Greek Gods, focused on Athena and the other eleven Olympians. The Supreme Council’s website has a comprehensive and bold FAQ section that holds no ambiguity. For example:
Some make fun of Ethnic Hellenic religion by referring to the wanton sexual practices of the Gods. How do you respond to this?
We simply pity them, because of the degenerate level of their boundless stupidity. Our Gods and Goddesses are not personalities, nor do they have a gender that would allow them to participate in physical practices necessary for mortals.
We Ethnikoi Hellenes, describe the Gods anthropomorphically simply because the High Theology contained within the Myths can be better appreciated when it is changed into a more comprehensible language, conforming to human measures. Every Myth hides within it one of many profound symbolisms. Mortals are invited to seek and research them according to their quality, which is dependent on their Understanding of the Cosmos and Education. It is not surprising therefore, that when vulgar people bring a Myth down to their base level they interpret it accordingly.
I must be one of these vulgar people, because while gazing at anatomically awesome statues, I did spend some time thinking about how in the versions of the myths I know, gods and mortals sometimes get it on. This happens in in a transcendent way in a book I picked up in Mykonos, the day before our ferry departed for the ancient island of Delos.
Have you ever read something that you’re torn between recommending for a Pulitzer or for use as toilet paper? Morning on Delos by Giorgos Asimomitis is a true genre-buster, combination erotica/sci-fi/political op-ed. Its protagonist Zannis Elefterios is a hunky activist-scientist-time traveller, and poses a major threat to the neo-conservative movement in the United States. Thinly veiled as George W. Bush and the republican administration, the “Guidance Council” wishes to convert the United States to a theocracy. Made up of the Pastor-in-Chief, Secretary of Sacred, and the Crusader General, the Council is threatened by Zannis’ team of scientists who have been traveling in time to solve historical anomalies. If they solve the eighth anomaly, the Council may be thwarted in their plan to replace democracy with theocracy.
Zannis’ time travel is not physical, but rather a journey of his consciousness, aided by a psychotropic cocktail and Pallas, Zannis’ love interest, who anchors him to the earthly dimension as he travels. Despite a mutual attraction and hours spent together in the lab, Zannis and Pallas do not initially act on their impulses. When Zannis travels to 454 BCE Delos to witness the anomalous destruction of the island, he is moved by the scene of two Delian children. The boy falls off a cliff and dies, despite the girl’s attempt to save him. She lives, but is hours later raped by pirates. Zannis wants to travel back to this time and place to embody the boy, avoid his death, and save the girl from pirates. Before traveling back to Delos to rewrite history, Zannis and Pallas make love, a transcendent experience that makes him realize she is “not human in the ordinary sense”. Once in Delos, in the form of the young boy, he runs into the goddess Athena, who he mistakes for Pallas. It turns out Pallas and Athena are co-workers, Shepherds who traverse time. Athena is before going into after, and Pallas is after coming into before. After providing him sexual enlightenment, Athena brings Zannis before the twelve Olympians. They straighten his form to ideal perfection, rearranging him in their image to the thirteenth Olympian, and sending him back to his own time. Zannis’ sacrifices as a traveler result in the obstruction of the Christian Right’s takeover of the United States. He allows his astral body to join essences with Pallas, and they become Shepherds together.
So who have we found so far?
A clever goddess who was worshiped by your ancestors, in which you feel pride.
A relic of an honorable tradition, that makes you truly Greek.
A free and independent entity, flowing unhindered through and around the material world.
A literary Shepherd of time, helping mortals fight just battles against theocracy.
How did I first know her? Like many, my first introduction to Greek myths was through the beautiful illustrated anthology by D’Aulaires.
What this version of the myth tells us:
She is the goddess of wisdom.
She was Zeus’ favorite child, having sprung out of his head.
She was birthed wearing a robe and helmet, with grey eyes.
Nike was her companion, the spirit of victory.
Athena led armies, but only for just causes.
She was skilled at the loom and the potter’s wheel, and demanded respect from her students. She turned the boastful Arachne into a spider in punishment for weaving an irreverent scene of Zeus and his many wives!
She competed with her uncle Poseidon for Athens, settling the dispute by giving a finer gift. Poseidon struck a cliff with his trident and made a spring. Athena planted an olive tree which gave the people food, oil, and wood. For this, she won Athens.
She ruled from the Acropolis with the wise owl on her shoulder, and the artful Athenians prospered.
The reason the olive tree was the best gift of all, is because it gave the Greeks self-reliance. This is still part of the modern Greek character. As a lazy honeymooner, I was welcomed on Athens and every island, but no desperation for my Euro or approval was displayed at any turn. In a difficult economy, the Greeks still have their olive tree, and they still have Athena. From the moment she sprung from her father’s aching head, she’s been guiding heroes from Odysseus to Perseus. If you agree that I found her, you can agree that she still guides the Greeks of today.