Exploring Greek Mythology – Part 2 – Athens

When I was a boy, my school in Kitchener, Ontario, would occasionally send children on school trips to various places – conservation areas, Storybook Garden, dairy farms, and even a trip to the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. I loved those trips, not because of the learning opportunities, but because they got me out of the classroom. The classroom was predictable, but in the outer world, anything exciting could happen. It rarely did, though, except for the time at the conservation area when a couple of boys tossed a frog into the rat cage. It was very messy and the boys were punished. At the dairy farm, suffering from a cold, my biggest stress was whether or not to throw a used tissue on the ground, where a cow might eat it and get sick. I ended up stuffing the gooey mess in my pocket. As a boy, school trips were about freedom, not about learning.

I was thinking about this because as I climbed the stairs to the National Archeological Museum in Athens, Greece, I passed some ten-year-olds who were on a school trip. They were showing one another things on their phones, and the two speaking English were discussing music. When I was ten, I would have rather had my teeth pulled than sit with my friends and talk about archeology. Like me at that age, these were probably just happy to be out of the classroom.

But now I’m much older, and although I can’t say that I’ve developed a passion for visiting museums and studying archeology, I occasionally fork over hard-earned money to see something that interests me. To be truthful, I still find most museums to be boring. It just seems that there is a lot of technical detail and very little storytelling, which is really what interests me the most. The National Archeological Museum is no different – lots of technical detail, and no stories. On this museum visit, however, I thought I might try to read between the lines, so to speak, and see what I might discern about ancient Greece that isn’t stated explicitly. Here’s what I learned:

1. Most of what we know about Greek civilization from 15,000 BC to about 3,000 BC comes from gravesites – the things that people sacrificed (e.g. pottery and jewellery) and what they had made specifically for the gravesite (e.g. stones and statues). For example, we don’t really know what furniture looked like back then except for what was depicted in carvings on gravestones.
2. It’s amazing at how advanced humans seemed to have been so long ago, such as with the manipulation of bronze and with navigation over water. I also realize that my amazement is primarily the result of my lack of knowledge about these things. I may be more technically advanced by about 12,000 years, but I still don’t know how to manipulate bronze and I would likely die trying to navigate my way by boat across the Mediterranean.
3. There is still much controversy today over the meaning of many of the sculptures and even who some of the images represent.
4. Troy seems to have really existed and it looks like there really was a war at Troy.
5. We don’t really have any idea what day-to-day life was like for the common folk in ancient Greece.
6. Ancient Greeks really did believe in and worship their gods. We now know how silly they were to believe in such things and I wonder if in some distant future, people will knowingly smile at the silliness of mankind’s current religious beliefs.
7. Athens was once the centre of the known world, but, like Rome, it fell out of favour over time. The lesson is that change happens. What we glorify today will eventually fall. What will be the future of, say, the United States? Or Canada? Will we have our day and eventually fall out of favour? I think, yes, it’s likely. Perhaps not in our lifetimes, but eventually.

There was a point during my museum visit when I was reminded again of my boyhood school trips, particularly the idea that outside the classroom, anything exciting could happen. I was standing reading the placard by a large bronze statue of Poseidon, built about 460 BC and depicting the god in the motion of throwing his trident (the trident is missing, though), when the room was suddenly occupied by an armed security team. It seems that a dignitary from a foreign country, a president perhaps, was receiving a private tour from the museum director. The director took that particular moment to introduce the dignitary to the statue of Poseidon. I was caught in the vortex, standing shoulder to shoulder with the director as he explained the meaning of the statue to the dignitary and his staff. I felt invisible, but when I looked around the room at each of the security men in turn, they all made eye contact with me, their faces completely expressionless, neither trusting nor suspicious, but alert and obviously ready. The director finished his monologue, answered a question from the dignitary’s wife, and as quickly as they arrived, they moved off to another room and another artifact. I hadn’t moved an inch the entire time. I smiled to myself. How exciting!

Much like when I was a boy, remembering only the used tissue and forgetting everything else that was told to me about the dairy farm, at the National Archeological Museum, I remembered the security team and not a single word the director said about the statue of Poseidon. It’s just as well; his monologue would have been boring, talking only about the artifact and not about the story of Poseidon himself.

And Poseidon’s story is fascinating. But first, here’s a little background. The Greek gods were not omnipotent. They shared the same frailties, such as jealousy and vindictiveness, as humans and often interacted with them; children born of god-mortal relationships were common. For example, Heracles the hero was the son of the god, Zeus, and the mortal, Alcmene. As Greek mythology explains, the union between Gaea (Earth) and Uranus (Sky) produced a number of powerful offspring, including the twelve Titans and Titanides, and six monsters: the three Hecatonchires (hundred-hands) and the three Cyclops. The union of the Titan, Cronus, and the Titanide, Rhea, produced six gods, three of whom were Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. These six gods, plus six children of Zeus, became the Twelve Gods described in the Homer stories.

In time, Zeus challenged his father, Cronus, for control of the Cosmos (world). Zeus, the youngest and most powerful of Cronus’s children, recruited his brothers, as well as the Cyclops and the Hecatonchires, who had been imprisoned by Cronus in Tartarus, to battle his father, who was supported by the remainder of the Titans. As a gift of thanks for their release, the Cyclops gave Zeus the power to control lightning, thunder, and the thunderbolt. Poseidon was given the gift of the Trident, and Hades was given the “cynaean”, an invisibility hood made of dog’s skin.

The war between father and son lasted ten years. It was only after Zeus recruited the Hecatonchires that the tide began to turn; the Hecatonchires, with their combined 300 hands, were able to lift giant rocks to hurl at the Titans, thereby providing the critical advantage for their downfall. The defeated Titans were chained and guarded beneath the earth in Tartarus, except for the Titan Atlas, who was exiled to the edge of the world near the garden of the Hesperides, forever to hold the weight of the earth and sky on his shoulders.

After the victory, Zeus and his brothers divvied up the Cosmos; Zeus became ruler of the Sky, Poseidon ruled the Seas, and Hades controlled the Underworld. All three shared the Earth and were equals on Mount Olympus.

After seeing the statue of Poseidon at the museum, my interest in this god was piqued. Like all of the characters in Greek mythology, Poseidon suffers from all of the frailties of the mortals. Infidelity, in particular, was a problem. Although he was married to the gorgeous Nereid, Amphitrite, with whom he produced a child, Poseidon sired at least 70 other children with more than 45 women, both mortal and immortal. He would often disguise himself so that these women wouldn’t know who he was.

The most interesting extra-marital union was with a mortal. She was a beautiful young virgin working in the Temple of Athena. Poseidon entered the temple and raped the young virgin, and during the act, Athena discovered them. As punishment to the virgin for desecrating her temple, Athena turned her into Medusa and banished her. Poor Medusa; later she was killed by the hero Perseus, with the help of Athena herself, who helped him acquire several items, such as the invisibly hood, and directed him to cut off Medusa’s head with a diamond scythe, using the reflection of Medusa in the hero’s sword, so that he wouldn’t turn to stone by looking at Medusa directly. When Medusa’s head was severed from her body, out of her neck sprang the monster, Chrysaor, and the winged horse, Pegasus. These were the offspring of Poseidon. For Poseidon’s role in this fiasco that destroyed a young virgin’s life, Poseidon paid no penalty.

Like the other gods, Poseidon had a calm side and a fierce side. He provided the clean water that mortals needed to drink and to support their crops, and he was the god who provided mortals with their first horse. But when he was unhappy, he caused earthquakes and rough seas. Indeed, he was the father of many monsters and fierce creatures who were responsible for many evils, including theft, rape, and murder. During the Trojan War, Poseidon sided with the Hellenes (Greeks), primarily because the Trojans hadn’t been worshipping him to his satisfaction, but once Troy was finally captured after ten years, Poseidon became angry at how the Hellenes destroyed the city and killed its people. As punishment, many of the Hellenes returning home were drowned in raging seas. As for Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, Poseidon had a particular dislike, since Odysseus had blinded Poseidon’s son, Polyphemus, during the Trojan War. It took ten years for Odysseus to return home after the war, as described in Homer’s Odyssey, and Poseidon had a major role to play in that delay, stirring the sea with his trident and crashing waves down upon the king.

Poseidon eventually died, of course, not from old age or by being slain by another, but by man’s evolution in religion. He died because people stopped believing in him. Monotheistic religion, in time, took over the country of Greece, where now the vast majority of the population is Greek Orthodox, which is, by law, taught in the schools to all children, unless both parents object in writing. But in 2006, much to the chagrin of Greek Orthodox leaders, Ancient Greek religious practices were officially recognized by the government. This means that the 2,000 or so believers no longer have to conduct their ceremonies secretly. Perhaps Poseidon will be born again.

I left the National Archeological Museum with a spring in my step. The museum itself, with its artifacts and boring placards with technical information, wasn’t enough to excite me. But the artifacts, combined with my books describing the stories of the Greek gods, made for a storytelling combination that lifted my spirit. There is a temple of Poseidon in Sounion, on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea south of Athens. I won’t have time to visit it on this trip, but perhaps one day I will lay my hands on the temple stones.

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