The Acropolis, or the Holy Rock of Athens, isn’t the highest hill in Athens – that honour goes to the Filopappos Hill, on which the grave of the Athenian benefactor of the same name sits – but the Acropolis is certainly the most famous hill in Athens. The Acropolis itself is a large fortress filled with the remains of many ancient buildings, the most famous of which is the Parthenon.
I was excited to be on what I consider to be holy ground. Not all of the buildings have religious significance, of course, but the temples on this rocky outcrop are numerous, and some of them honour the goddess, Athena. The route from the gate to the top of the Acropolis is a long dirt and rock path, which winds its way past ruins with sculptures and artifacts that are only partially recognizable, past the Theatre of Dionysus, around the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, up the stairs to the Propylaea, and finally to the summit. It can be hot and dusty, with only a few places to hide in the shade, and water is scarce. It was the off-season, but lordy was it ever busy with tourists. I can’t imagine what this place would be like in the heat of the summer and at the height of the tourist season.
Like the other historical sites and museums in Athens, most of the ruins and temples on the Acropolis have placards describing the structures, but these are always technical. For example, The Theatre of Dionysus – Dionysus was the god of plays – can sit 17,000 people and was the birthplace of Greek tragedy. It was certainly exciting to sit on the stone benches and imagine what it would have been like to watch an outdoor play eight thousand years ago. But here’s how the Theatre of Dionysus is described on a placard. “The archaic temple of Dionysus, which was erected in the middle of the 6th century B.C., was of the Doric order, distyle in antis (with two columns between the antae). Today only part of the foundation and the krepis (stepped platform) of the temple have survived.” And then it goes on and on with more technical detail about the foundation and peribolos wall and gateway. Pretty humdrum stuff, I thought. I was more interested in who might have attended these plays. Was it only for the wealthy, or could anyone attend? And how long were the plays? Did people suffer sitting on the hard benches in the hot sun? Was there an intermission? Were there refreshments, with vendors wandering up and down the tiers, like at a modern baseball game? Did people really enjoy the plays, or did they attend out of social duty? Did the audience members cheer when they were happy, or boo when they were displeased? I guess we’ll never know.
The story of the birth of the god, Dionysus, is an interesting one. Zeus looked down from the sky and fell in love with Semele, the daughter of the King of Thebes, Cadmus. Of course, Zeus was able to seduce Semele, partly by granting her any wish, but they were caught by Zeus’s wife, Hera. Hera convinced Semele to ask as her wish that Zeus reveal himself to Semele in all his glory. He didn’t want to, of course, but a promise is a promise. So he presented himself to her in her chambers, driving a golden chariot amidst thunder and lightning. The chamber caught fire and Semele was burned to death, but not before Zeus saved her fetus and sewed it into his thigh so that Hera wouldn’t see it. Later, Zeus cut the stitches, revealing a full-grown boy, Dionysus. I also like that Dionysus is the god of wine. I shall toast him often.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a newer theatre, built of marble in 161 AD. It only sits 5,000 people, much fewer than the Theatre of Dionysus, but it is still in use today. Tourists can’t access the seating area, so you would need to buy a ticket to the Athens Festival in order to sit on the marble benches. The theatre was destroyed in the third century by the Herules barbarians, but the restoration has been nothing less than impressive.
Above the Odeon of Herodes Atticus is the Propylaea, or the gateway into the Acropolis. It requires a great deal of patience to climb the stairs to the Propylaea, which is a bottleneck for the hordes of tourists, some of whom were complaining about the heat and lack of shade, and others who were stopping to take selfies, either oblivious to the people they kept waiting behind them on the stairs, or simply uncaring.
The ruins are roped off, but many are still within reach, although there are signs all along telling visitors that they are not allowed to touch the ruins. Guards are numerous, and the near constant sound of their whistles as they alert visitors to their rule infractions can be quite annoying. It seems that many of us, despite the signs imploring us not to do so, simply cannot resist the urge to reach across the ropes and touch the ruins. I didn’t do it myself, but might have if I was alone. Looking at these sacred stones is lovely, but to touch them is a whole different experience. I can see why people do it.
As soon as you step through the Propylaea, you can see the temples at the top of the Acropolis. Of interest to me were the Old Temple of Athena and the Parthenon, both built to honour what has become my favourite goddess, Athena, and built as thanks to her for the Hellenic victory over the Persians. It’s called the Old Temple of Athena, so I think of the Parthenon as the new temple of Athena, but they were constructed only a hundred years apart, sometime around 500-400 B.C. The Parthenon is the more famous of the two, and because of its massive size, takes centre stage on the Acropolis.
I really enjoy the stories about Athena. She was known as Athena Parthenos, or Athena the virgin. Indeed, the Parthenon was named to celebrate her celibacy.
Like Dionysus, Athena also had a strange birth. She is also a daughter of Zeus, but her mother is the Oceanid, Metis, the goddess of prudence. Uranus and Gaia told Zeus that Metis would give birth to a son who would be more powerful than Zeus and eventually displace him. In fear, Zeus swallowed the pregnant Metis. Later, Zeus developed an insufferable headache. Out of desperation from the pain, he had Prometheus split his head open with an axe to relieve the pressure, and, voila, out popped Athena, fully grown and clad in armor ready for battle. It is suggested that Athena’s virginity is associated with her bond to Zeus, a daughter born directly from a man.
Athena played a part in many of the stories of the Greek gods. She helped Perseus kill Medusa, helped Heracles in his twelve labours, helped her father defeat the Giants, helped Bellerophon tame the winged horse, Pegasus, helped heal wounds, and acted as advisor in many battle plans. She was a warrior, a defender, a saviour, and was respected as the goddess of wisdom.
One of my favourite stories about Athena, which I first read about while I suffered through the Iliad, was called the Judgement of Paris. It seems that Zeus held a banquet to celebrate the marriage of the parents of Achilles, but Eris, the goddess of discord, did not receive an invitation. As revenge, into the midst of the party, she tossed a golden apple inscribed with the words “to the fairest one”.
Hera, the Queen of the Gods, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Athena all claimed the apple. But as there was only one apple, the goddesses asked Zeus to decide who should receive the apple as the fairest goddess. Zeus was intelligent enough to avoid that decision, so he passed it on to the mortal, Paris, son of the King Priam of Troy, to decide. Paris also couldn’t decide because each of the goddesses was a beautiful as the next. So to win the prize, the goddesses resorted to nudity and bribery. Hera offered Paris the kingdom of Europe and Asia; Athena offered him wisdom and skill in battle; and Aphrodite offered to let him marry the most beautiful woman in the world. That woman was Helen of Sparta, who was already married to Menelaus, the Greek king. Well, we know what happened next. Paris chose the bride, Helen, and a thousand ships were launched to recover her from Troy.
Athena and Hera were quite upset by Paris’s decision, so they sided with the Greeks during the Trojan War. It was Athena’s ingenious idea to have Epeius create the Trojan Horse in order to gain access to the city of Troy, which was the key strategy that allowed the Greeks to win the war.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Acropolis, despite that it was so busy with tourists. From the summit, I had a 360-degree view over Athens, with the mountains to the east and the Saronic Gulf to the west. I took my time walking back down to the exit gates, savouring every moment among the ruins, imagining what it would have been like to participate in temple rituals, to sit among the benches to watch Greek tragedies, and to look out over the ancient city.
The Acropolis was the highlight of my Athens visit. Now, it was time to move on to another of the Athena temples, up the coast in the mountains, to the ancient city of Delphi. My bus ticket in hand, I headed through the bustling and congested city to the station.