Two towering figures face each other on the foot of the Acropolis – a woman clad in an armour of the fiercest bronze, her shield bearing the snarling head of a Gorgon, her radiant spear held high; and a man, swirling a mighty trident, glistening in the waves that slowly rose all around him, his eyes gleaming blue with the power of the deepest of oceans.
It’s a contest between the Gods – Athena and Poseidon – both desiring to be Protector of the jewel among all of the Greek cities. There would have been war between them to settle this – one that would have consumed all of humanity – were it not for Athena’s wisdom in choosing a less destructive match. Both the Gods were to give the city a gift each – a gift to be judged by the King Cecrops and his citizens. The God that gave the better gift, would win the love of the city’s people and become it’s protector for the years to come.
And so it was that both Gods met to settle this at the foot of the Acropolis, while the King Cecrops and his citizens waited with bated breath for the contest to begin …
Poseidon strikes his trident into the Earth, and out gushes a spring of water – his gift to the people of the city. The citizens cry out in joy, for there would never be a drought again! They hail the God Poseidon and run ahead to drink the water – but return dismayed, for it is water from the mighty seas, and is salty to drink.
Athena then smiled and bends down to the Earth, planting a seed. Out springs a splendid Olive tree that spreads its branches far and wide – her generous gift to the people. The citizens weep with happiness, for the tree bears fruit for them to eat, gives them oil for their lamps and for them to cook, and provides them wood to build their houses and boats. A truly remarkable gift!
King Cecrops gets up, his eyes stained with tears. He walks up to Athena and bows down at her feet, swearing his allegiance to her. The people have decided – Athena has won!
Poseidon’s fury knows no bounds, and he jumps back into the Aegean from whence he came – ordering his pet, the Kraken, to forever disrupt the peace at Athens. Athens – yes, that’s what the city is to be called now – the city that is now under the protection of Goddess Athena and her Olive tree!
I blinked, and the grinning image of a burly Englishman came swirling back into my head. “So that’s the story behind the city of Athens, and the Acropolis”, said our guide, who had momentarily stopped at the Acropolis, and again resumed his tour. The motley group that was gathered around him for the free walking tour at Athens, followed suit. As we made our way up the winding cobblestone paths surrounding the Acropolis, we couldn’t help but be overcome by an inexplicable sense of awe that was commanded by the ancient ruins all around us.
The Parthenon, a temple built atop the Acropolis in honour of Athena, was quite majestic – with large imposing Doric columns surrounding the remains of the Naos (the inner room, housing the idol of Athena) and the Opisthodomos (the outer treasury room).
We made our way to the Parthenon Museum, situated in plain sight of the Parthenon Temple, at the foot Acropolis. This museum housed the remains of numerous sculptures that were excavated from the archaeological site of the Parthenon. As we walked through the museum corridors, lined with the intricately carved remains of the temple’s Metopes, I could discern violent scenes of battle that were depicted on the marble sculptures there. They all showed various renditions of the Gigantomachy – a mythical war between the fierce titans and the Olympian gods, for the right to reign over the entire cosmos.
The battle is everywhere – and yet, nowhere. The bloody plains of Phlegra and Pallene echo the sounds of war, with Kronos leading his terrible Titan forces against his son Zeus and the divine Olympians. The volcanic island of Ischia spews fire and ash, as Typhon the Titan launches a furious attack against the Olympians along with Kronos – while Zeus and his siblings struggle to hold their ground. The plains of Megalopolis crumbles as the Hundred-Handed ones (Hekatonkheires), led by Briareus, pelt rocks at Kronos’s massive army. Phanagoria and Tartessus, both see Kronos grappling with his three sons – Zeus, Poseidon and Hades – locked in an epic battle for universal supremacy.
Zeus suddenly roars in agony in the middle of the war, and the Gods all look towards him. Zeus has his head in both hands – a splitting headache has him incapacitated. Hephaestus comes to his aid with his hammer. He puts Zeus’s head upon a wedge, and with one stroke of his hammer, cleaves his head in two. To everyone’s surprise, out comes a beautiful yet terrible maiden, donning full battle armour – replete with a bronze shield and a spear more fearsome than the Gorgon-head resting on her shield. Zeus gets up and claims this child as his daughter – born out of his earlier lust for the Oceanid titan, Metis.
Athena, for that’s who this child is, immediately jumps into battle alongside her father’s forces – forever known as the Goddess of intelligence and wisdom, for reasons more than just the way she was born.
Athena. The patron Goddess that went on to give her name to the city of Athens.
I blinked again, and rubbed these images from my eyes, returning to present-day Athens. I found that we had made our way to the ruins of an ancient Agora, an old Greek marketplace. These Agora’s used to be the hub of commercial activity in almost all of the ancient Greek cities. Though nothing much remained of the structure itself at the Athens Agora, I got the eerie feeling that one could still hear the silent hubbub of ancient Greeks busily going about their business at the Agora.
Walking a few hundred metres from the ancient Agora, we found the temple of Hephaestus, the Greek Blacksmith-God. Although quite pedestrian in comparison to the Parthenon, the Temple of Hephaestus was reclaimed in prime condition from its ruins – and now stands rather proudly near the Plaka (the old-town area of modern Athens).
Fast forward a day. We step off a bus, only to see a heavy mist hanging upon the mountains all around us, creating a soothing yet eerie sensation that pervaded the town. Delphi, yes. We were at Delphi, the home of the famed Oracles of Apollo. I fondly recalled my childhood obsession with Delphi – the nexus of spiritual energies in ancient Greece.
The ancient Greeks believed that Delphi was the ‘navel’ or the center of the Earth. The story ran that Zeus had released two eagles from opposite ends of the Earth in search of its centre, and they had met at Delphi – a spot that Zeus marked with an Omphalos, an egg-shaped black stone signifying a ‘navel’. True enough, later at the Temple of Apollo, we found a large egg-shaped rock that was believed to have been revered as the Omphalos in the prime of the ancient Greek civilization.
As we were walking towards the Temple of Apollo, myths about the place slowly started to come back to me: Delphi was very unique in Greek mythology – it was one of the few places in Greece that had associations with Gaia (the Goddess Earth personified as a Titan).
Amidst the mist, a great serpent – the Python – lay curled up in between the Delphic mountains, resting in Gaia’s lap. Son of the Earth herself, a sentry for any that challenged the chthonic power that lay dormant there at Delphi…
We found that the entire side of a mountain had been dedicated solely to the priestesses of Apollo. The Temple of Apollo itself was at the center of this compound, though little but its foundation remained then. However, it still seemed to imbue in the air a mystical serenity that inspired awe in all of us.
On the island of Delos, two beautiful Gods are born, twins born of Zeus’s illicit pursuit of the tree-nymph Leto – much against the wishes of a Goddess whose rage could consume worlds in its wake. And so it comes to be that Apollo and Artemis are born, while Hera, the terrible and jealous wife of Zeus, bears witness to yet another of Zeus’s transgressions.
Angered with Leto, Hera orders the mighty Python of Gaia to hunt her down and kill her. Merely a child of four, Apollo runs to his mother’s aid. He begs Hephaestus for a bow and a quiver of arrows, and the kind-hearted Blacksmith-Lord complies.
As the mighty Delphic serpent leaves its home beside the Castalian Spring to begin the hunt for Leto, Apollo finds him and corners him in a cave. God-child and the Python battle for days, until finally the serpent is slain, and Apollo emerges victorious.
However, an injustice has been done – Apollo had slain a dear child of Gaia – and for that he has to repent. And repent he does, for eight years, before being forgiven.
And thereon began the Pythian Games, in honour of Apollo’s victory over the Python; and thereon were instituted the Pythian Oracles of Apollo at Delphi, which drew their prophetic powers from the Castalian Springs.
I blinked my eyes again, pulling myself back to the present, barely able to shake the montage of images in my head. Delphi truly seemed like a magical place – there was something in the air that was different from other tourist sites that we had been to in other countries. We decided to simply spend the rest of the day sitting near the ruins, soaking in as much of ancient Greece and Delphic history as we could!
Fast forward two days. We’re about to board a Ryan-air flight, and get stopped by a few cops (racial profiling I tell you!). The Greek policeman looks at my passport and then at me. He pauses for a while and then asks – “Why are you looking so serious?”
“Because we’re leaving Greece!”
Pitty is a member of LSD. He wrote this article on an exchange programme, soon after making a trip to Greece. He liked the place so much that he actually spent money to buy a Greek souvenir.