Greece – Attic Wanderings

Who would make a pilgrimage to the shrines of Greece without traversing the Sacred Way to Eleusis? One may go by rail to this seat of the ancient mysteries, —a method prosaic to us, but which would seem sufficiently mysterious to the uninitiated. He may sail, as I did once, from Salamis into the glassy bay which seemed to be under the spell of a holy calm. But better still is it to go from Athens by the Sacred Way which so many pilgrim feet once trod in the great processions to Eleusis. This road was in ancient days a street of tombs, most of which have crumbled into oblivion, like the memory of those to whom they were dedicated.

Historically and geographically, the Convent of Daphne, built in Frankish times on the site of an ancient temple of Apollo, is a halfway house beautifully situated. The double sanctity of a Christian church on a heathen foundation provoked Mr. Edward A. Freeman to a little pious swearing: ” Here, as on the Athenian Acropolis, we may curse the name of Elgin, and bewail the columns carried off from their own place to lose beauty, value and interest in an English museum.” The excavations of the Greek Archeological Society have uncovered the site of the great temple where the Eleusinian mysteries were celebrated. The close student may follow the lines of this structure beneath later Greek and Roman restorations. One may trace too the encircling wall of the sacred precinct and the plan of the propylaea, and may find here several epochs of Greek architecture from the earliest period to Roman times. The lover of details will note some of the exquisite capitals, and that the Doric columns have flat edges between the channellings, which, if less incisive, are much more practical than the sharp edges, easily nicked, at Athens.

But deeper questions absorb us. We are in one of the most sacred places in Greece. The ruins of this temple speak in hushed tones of an inner sanctuary of the Greek religion. The veil of mystery still hangs over the portals, and no one, has as yet penetrated into the dim interior of this secrecy. It does not follow that esoteric rites and reputed mysteries are more deeply religious than those which are less exclusive; but here it would seem that a more personal dedication of the initiated led to deeper spiritual experience. The greatest contribution which Greece made to religion, however, was not in the establishment of an exclusive mystic cult, not in the separation of the Church from the world, but in the diffusion of religion through every department of life; and whatever Eleusis may have done for the development of the belief in a future life, it has exercised no such influence on the world as the lofty, unconcealed argument of Plato based upon the nature of the human soul. But it is well that Eleusis should remind us that the Greek religion did not lie wholly on the surface, and that we have not yet sounded its depths. Crinagoras of Mitylene, a court poet at Rome in the age of Augustus, could write: —

Though thy life be fixed in one place, and thou neither sailest the sea nor treadest the paths of the dry land, go at least to Eleusis, that thou mayest see those great nights, sacred to Demeter, through which thou shalt keep thy soul serene among the living and go to join the great host with a lighter heart.

The visitor is well repaid by the charming view across the bay to Salamis. The new town of Eleusis has been moved down from the hill to make way for the excavations. The houses are small, with walled gardens, but the Greeks live mostly out of doors, and the cooking is done in huge stone ovens in the garden. Under a grapevine we saw a woman running a sewing machine, — the scene itself a little patch of new life set into the old garment.

The mountains around Athens always present their challenge to a walker. I was not satisfied till I had scaled Hymettus and got the commanding view of the sea from the top. It is a rough climb, and the ridge is not so near as it seems to be in the clear air of Attica. The unobstructed view gives a good idea of the topography of Athens, lying on the plain between Lycabettus and the Acropolis. Far in the distance rise the snow-capped peaks of Parnes. I found upon Hymettus no bees and no honey, though I am told they are there, but the old ruined monastery of Kaesariani had a picturesque interest, and near it was a shepherd’s but in which mother and daughter were spinning wool on a bobbin, holding one end on the ground and whirling it rapidly. The scene was as archaic as the woman at Eleusis with her sewing machine was modern.

To know the mountain which looks on Marathon, and to see Marathon looking on the sea, one must climb Pentelicus. It is an easy ascent. The old and the new meet together in the marble quarries on the mountain side. From these same quarries were hewn the snowy blocks, the curved and channelled drums which formed the exquisite temples on the Acropolis. Though the quarries have been worked for centuries, the scar is small in the mountain side. The monastery, as I have before said, is perhaps the richest in Greece. The lady who was with me, being an ordained minister of the Unitarian Church, was an object of much curiosity to the monks, who were surprised enough to learn that a woman priest in America might marry after her ordination.

The deep grotto not far from the old quarries was doubtless an older shrine than the convent. From the summit in the soft languid air and in a brilliant sun one may look on Marathon and the sea together. To the east lies the island of Euboea, and sleeping in the blue calm are Andros and Tenos; to the south the islands of Makronisi and Keos nestle under Attic shores; to the southwest is Athens and the Attic plain. Just below lies the bay of Marathon, and near it is the memorial mound to the heroic dead, which for centuries has been a shrine of Greek patriotism. It was here that Greece stayed the might of Persia; it was here that a battle was fought for Greek independence in 1824; and the Greeks counted it a third national victory when one of their country-men in the race from Marathon to Athens in 1896 beat the athletes of the world and raised the national flag to the top of the staff.

It is an easy walk from Athens to Colonus, the home of Sophocles, and to the Academy of Plato. You will not find the twelve olives nor the

Deep-flushed ivy and the dear, Divine, impenetrable shade,”

but somehow the place has a different atmosphere for you, because you know that the poet and the philosopher have been there.

Piraeus to most travellers is associated with clamorous boatmen, inquisitive custom-house officers and exacting coachmen. It is still the seaport of Athens, but dislikes to be regarded simply as an appendage to that city, and the rivalry occasionally breaks out in local fetes. Piraeus has its own carnival and tries to outdo that of Athens. For many centuries this old harbor has been a scene of bustling activity, and the bustle still goes on. The archaeologist finds diversion in the remains of the long wall built by Themistocles and Conon, and in the theatre excavated by the Greek Archaeological Society. Interesting too are the old shiphouses or dry docks with ways built down to the water.

My visit to Oropus was made by water, on an Island trip” with Dr. Dorpfeld. We landed on a long, beautiful beach and set out for the oracle of Amphiaraus, one of ” The Seven against Thebes,” whom Pausanias says the people of Oropus first honored as a god. After a walk of about three-quarters of an hour up a beautiful slope and across fertile fields, we struck the course of a brook shaded by trees, and along its banks made our way to the holy ground. Again I was struck with the sensitiveness of the early Greeks to scenes of natural beauty. It was certainly by no accident that sites made charming by commanding views, flowery fields, singing brooks, and shady groves should be chosen for the sacred ground on which their temples were reared. This love of nature may be less reflected in early Greek literature than it is in modern times, but one who has seen the places where their temples stood cannot doubt that it existed.

Much of the southern part of Attica is devoid of trees; but at Oropus the tree-lover may delight in wooded hills of fir and olive, among which the nightingales sing as beautifully as they sang centuries ago. How fresh the grass, how balmy the spring air !

Pausanias, who, though occasionally sceptical, faith-fully retailed the popular superstitions, tells us that, when Amphiaraus fled from Thebes, the earth opened and swallowed him up; and he mentions a number of men who had honors paid to them as gods. Amphiaraus had a temple here, a statue in white stone, and an altar. There was a fountain near the temple, and when any disease had been cured by means of the oracle, it was customary to throw into the water gold or silver coin. The beautiful brook, and a clear spring which flowed into it, easily suggest the site of the old fountain. The temple, excavated by the Greek Archaeological Society, was a small building; there are traces of the columns, and in the middle we can see where the cult-statue stood. Innumerable statues once crowded the holy precincts, and rows of seats from which they could be seen; but nothing but the bases of these statues remain. A long colonnade furnished a sheltered walk for those who came to this sanitarium, and there are traces of rooms which Dr. Dorpfeld regards as bathrooms—one for women and one for men—mentioned in an inscription. Back of this colonnade are the remains of a charming little Greek theatre. Only a few seats of the auditorium are preserved; but the columns which made up the proscenium are standing, except their capitals. The architrave for the columns has been found, so that the height of the structure can well be determined. An inscription contains the word proshene. Behind these columns can be seen the slots to receive the bolts or bars by which pictures were fastened in between them, except in the middle of the row, where the space was used as a doorway for the actors. This building is of much importance in supporting Dorpfeld’s theory of theatre construction, involving the view that the actors played in the orchestra and not on an elevated stage.

My approach to Rhamnus was also from the sea. The old city wall may be followed up the hill, and passing through an ancient gateway one sees the terrace walls within. The lower circle of seats of a primitive theatre are still preserved, and bear the names of the ancient holders. Sections of old walls made of small stones without mortar seem to be the remains of dwelling-houses. But the most interesting remains at Rhamnus are the ruins of its two temples. They stand side by side on a great terrace, and we can trace the wall which bounded the sacred precinct. Both are temples of Nemesis, — one the old, the other the new. We see here, as on the Acropolis at Athens and in the Peloponnesus, that the new temple was built by the side of the old one, which perhaps goes back to the sixth century before Christ. At Athens we have only the ground plan of the old structure left; but here the walls stand four feet high, — higher, indeed, than the ruins of the newer and larger temple which was placed beside it. The old temple was built of limestone and had but two steps, as in the old temple of Athene at Athens. The noble statue of Themis, which is one of the most admired figures in the museum at Athens, was found here. The goddess standing erect is the impersonation of justice, dignity and power. There is no trace of “the AEginetan smile,” with which so many of the early figures were enlivened. This work belongs to a later period of art, Mr. Kabbadias assigning it to the third century before Christ, the beginning of the Alexandrian epoch. We are not left, as in so many cases, to conjecture the name of the goddess and of the artist who wrought it. The base was found with the statue itself, and bears the name of Themis, to whom it was dedicated, and of Chaerestratos, who made it. In the old times an artist’s fame was made with a chisel; today it is remade with a spade. Eight years ago we knew nothing about Chaerestratos; today the spade has unearthed a work from his hand whose strength, elegance and beauty place him indisputably among the great artists of the past. Next to seeing the statue is the pleasure of seeing the place where it stood in the old temple.

The new temple was built of white marble—whiter than Pentelic — from the very hills on which it was reared, so that it must have seemed, as does the temple of Bassae in the Peloponnesus, to grow right out of the landscape. It is easy to see that it was never completed. Only the fluting of the upper and lower drums of the columns had been cut in, the rest being left, as was customary, to be worked off from these guide-marks when the columns were set up. The same incomplete tooling is seen on the surface of the steps.

The old temple and the new are set so close to each other that they are only a few inches apart– at one end about eighteen inches, at the other but five or six. The visitor with a straight eye asks why they were not built perfectly parallel, when it would have been so easy to do it. The same divergence in the foundation lines is seen in other cases, where new temples were erected close beside those of much earlier date. The explanation of Penrose is that this difference in orientation comes from the difference in the Greek calendar. Greek temples, as already shown, were so built that the rising sun would shine directly into the front door of the temple on the day of the year devoted to the god. If the day were changed, the position of the sun would be changed also. But, assuming that the same day of the year was nominally retained as the festal day, in the lapse of two or three centuries the uncorrected Greek calendar would bring about sufficient variation between real and apparent time so that the sun would not rise on that day in precisely the same place on the apparent horizon that it did when the first building was erected. The new building was adjusted, therefore, according to the new position of the sun, and stood askew with reference to the old. One would suppose that the practice of orientating their buildings would have revealed to the Greeks the imperfection of the calendar, but it may not have been easy to correct -it. To change the direction of the building was perhaps easier than to change the day of observance.

The delightful view from Rhamnus across the channel to the hills and mountains of Euboea beyond is inseparably connected with the memory of its temples. A brisk breeze blew over the water, and rendered landing and embarkation in the small boats against the rocky shore somewhat difficult. We were thankful that we were not out in the Aegean, tossing among the islands. We simply crossed the channel, and anchored all night under the shelter of Eubcea. A brilliant moon silvered the waters, and our sleep was as sweet as if Athene herself had poured out the gift of slumber.

There is a figure in the Iliad (II. 395) which might apply to more than one cape or promontory of Greece, but which, from personal experience, I have come, with a certain qualm of gastric reproach, to apply to Cape Sunium, the southern point of Attica. The figure is that of a lofty, projecting cliff, which the waves, driven here and there by the winds from every quarter, never leave, but continually roar against its rocky side. It is a fine description and pleasant to read, when one is sitting in his study and there are no earthquakes in the basement. But to sail round Cape Sunium generally takes the poetry all out of it for me, and leaves me a gastric wreck, with the undigested memory of my last dinner. I have sailed round Sunium seven times, and five times out of seven have been treated in this way. I do not wonder, there-fore, that a temple was early built upon this spot to propitiate Poseidon. The sea is a beautiful picture; it is a rhythmic poem. I am fond of the poem, but not of the swelling rhythm. It is strange that such majestic waves can produce such contemptible feelings; strange that aesthetics and physiology should be in such sad contradiction. Who of his own ac-cord,” says Hermes, after he has been on a divine mission to the island of Calypso, ” would cross such interminable stretches of salt sea?” And Laodamas says to Odysseus, “Nothing, I believe, is worse than sea life for taking the strength out of a man, however strong be he.”

Athene afterwards obtained possession of this promontory, and the temple whose columns give to it the modern name of Cape Colonna was erected for her worship. Once as I rounded it the sea was calm, the sky clear, the sun brilliant. The Attic peninsula could not have had a nobler termination than this lofty headland washed by the sea and crowned by a majestic temple. Eleven columns only are standing, but they are heroic in dignity and constancy, as if they meant to hold the headland to the last. No other temple or shrine, Christian or pagan, disputes possession of this site.

If the view of Sunium from the sea is imposing, it is well worth while to go there by land, to see the ruins of the temple and get the view of the sea from the cliff. The walls which once fortified this extreme headland have fallen into ruins, and the goats are the only guardians. After weathering the gales of centuries these massive columns are still intensely white. What a glorious site for a shrine! To the seaman who sailed by it was an altar set upon a rock, while the islands and the sea from whencesoever it was visible were all included in its sacred precincts, were all a part of the holy temple. One of the most beautiful views I had in Greece was the vista through these stately columns, with the sea beyond, the nearer islands set in lapis lazuli and the farther isles veiled in mist. The shrine and the isles were all of the same poem.

Looking out on the water and remembering how much of Greece is island and peninsula, it is not surprising that so much of the sea washed the pages of the old epic. A single salty word, a happy epithet, a rhythmic line often brought it into the picture with more effect than a page of watery description. This is all that Homer tries to do; but he does it in a variety of ways, and so effectively that one who plunges into the Odyssey is soon conscious of taking a sea-bath. Sometimes he thinks of its vast extent, and calls it the “boundless sea;” sometimes he sees it as a path-way of fleets, and calls it the ” watery way.” Then he is touched by its varying hues or the clouds that play on its surface. It is the ” cloud streaked,” the “murky,” the ” misty sea.” Or he sees its gray foam, and calls it the “hoary sea.” In storm or night, it is the “black sea.” There is another epithet of Homer which first became real to me on the beach of our own Newport; it is the “wine-dark sea.” He was not color blind; the waves as they broke on the shore on that stormy day were claret till they burst in foam. Two other terms show the fisherman’s heart in the ancient poet. It is the ” barren,” the unharvested sea;” and we know that one had toiled all the night and had caught nothing. But when he has come in with a draught so large that the net would scarce hold it, we read fisherman’s luck in the “teeming,” fishy sea.”

Laurium, the seat of one of the oldest and most valuable mining districts of Greece, is but a short distance from Sunium. Externally, this part of the Attic peninsula is barren enough; but it is rich beneath the surface. Five hundred years before Christ these mines were profitably worked for their silver, as to-day they are profitably worked for their lead. One who views near Athens the scarred sides of Mount Pentelicus may see little connection between these old mines and the marble quarry; but some of the wealth which the slaves drew from the mines was coined into the marble grandeur of Propykea and Parthenon, and the statues which bloomed from the art of Phidias and Praxiteles. Deep shafts and radiating galleries are the silent and hollow monuments of this early industry; but not far away great furnaces are blazing, and men are toiling as they toiled of yore. But slavery has gone, and we have one re-minder, at least, of the superiority of modern civilization to that of the ancient world.

It was the remains of the old theatre that drew us to Thoricus. Simple and primitive in form, only a small part was visible until it was excavated by the American School. The orchestra has not been completely uncovered ; but it is seen to be elliptical in form. The auditorium seats were built at different times. It is not easy to determine with exactness the date of this theatre ; but it is assigned by Dr. Dorpfeld to the fifth century before Christ. A small temple stood near the theatre ; in fact, the orchestra lay just before it. The theatre at Thoricus pales into insignificance compared with the beauty of Epidaurus, but like the latter it commanded a charming and extensive view. The play might be stupid; but, sitting in the open air, in this delightful climate, with the blue sea before them, the spectators could enjoy scenery more real and more beautiful than the canvas fictions which in modern times often impose so great a strain upon the imagination.