Epic Greece

We’ve been to other places that were hard to read–the Germans’ extensive use of the umlaut and the scharfes S (ß, the “spicy S”), the at-first-bewildering-but-then-totally-sensible use of diacritical marks in Slavic languages (seriously, why do we use “ch” or “sh” for sounds in words like “cheese” and “sheet?” Wouldn’t a little mark on the affected letter, like č or š, be clearer for everyone?), or even the dual signage of Montenegro, written often in both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets–but Greek was especially, well, Greek to us. We were already unfamiliar with their words, except for the easy and life-saving ones like retsina and baklava, so the addition of the Greek alphabet only complicated things further. It made all of their text look like algebra: as far as I could tell, Αθήνα might as well have been the formula for the volume of a sphere (4/3πr³, which I had to look up just now).

Still, we managed to navigate the streets of Athens, a city that our excellent AirBNB hosts admitted has little for visitors beyond the ancient stuff in and around the Acropolis (literally, “top of the city,” per a tour guide I overheard). Which, really, was more than plenty for us; as this recovering English major can attest, the various ruins on the site of the Acropolis–the inspiration for (or at least the referents of) thousands of poems and novels–and, tucked away in a nearby corner like a shy child, the birthplace of all Western drama as we know it (the Theater of Dionysus) comprised an improbably rich concentration of Important Things to See.

Similarly, the new and excellent Acropolis Museum provided a comprehensive but still comprehensible narrative for all of that historical stuff, giving us a clear sense of Ancient Greek culture and how the Acropolis’ fixtures–the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike, etc.–fit into it. If a museum is measured by the increase in its visitors’ understanding of history or art or whatever else the museum features, then the Acropolis Museum may be the best we’ve been to, in or out of Europe. For the first time, I began to intuitively grasp how the apparent contradictions in Ancient Greek religion could make sense, how the various gods interacted like a sprawling, dysfunctional family and how a single one, such as Athena, could be the goddess of so many things and have several aspects–Athena Nike (Athena of Victory), Athena Polias (Athena of the City), Athena Ergane (Athena of Artists and Craftsmen), Athena Promachos (Athena who Fights in the Front Line), etc., as if she were a prototypical Barbie, with a different outfit always ready for the mall, the beach, or, y’know, the moon–yet remain a distinct, recognizable goddess, smiling upon the city that incubated democracy and Western philosophy.

I used to think this conception of the universe must have been grim and unsettling; I expected it would be little solace to be told, if you were an Ancient Greek, that the vanity of these capricious gods could have a profound impact on your daily life–influencing whether you ate enough or starved, won in battle or lost, lived to be old or not–even if you didn’t knowingly do anything wrong. (Though, now that I think about it, how different is this, really, from the relationship most of us today have with the financial Masters of the Universe?) But at least these Greeks recognized their limits as mortals and that, often, the paths we take in life are shaped by forces beyond our control and, sometimes, our perception. If nothing else, they made good stories out of otherwise chaotic events.

Seeing the Acropolis also concluded a narrative we’d begun earlier in the trip when we visited the British Museum, the home, for the past two-hundred-odd years, of several major pieces of the Parthenon, the crown jewel of the Acropolis site. Lord Elgin took these items to London in the early 1800s, presumably with good intentions: Athens, at the time, was not an especially stable place, and the ruling Ottomans had allowed the Acropolis to decay for a few centuries, so housing these important relics in England, one of the world’s then-strongest empires and a country that valued the work of the ancients, probably seemed like a sensible move. The Greeks, of course, view the gesture as considerably less than generous and want the pieces back, seeing as they still have the majority of the ruins and have undertaken a painstaking, decades-long process of restoring the buildings on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, reassembling it like a jigsaw puzzle. Britain has, in response, stuck its fingers in its ears and pretended not to hear anything.

Outside the British Museum a few months ago, we met a Greek grad student named Antonia who very kindly asked us if we’d respond to a survey she was conducting as part of her thesis. She wanted to know how we felt about seeing the museum’s Greek spoils and whether we had a cohesive experience, if we really grasped the pieces’ significance without seeing them in their home, and she was (I think) making the case that, regardless of the political implications for the Greeks or the English, visitors would have a better experience if they could see the Parthenon as a complete and unified artifact, with everything in place more or less as it was 2300 years ago. She’s probably right. But I can’t deny there’s also value in the mystery of a fragment, of having to imagine how it might have looked originally and adjusting that image as you learn more (for example, it turns out that the Greeks painted their sculpture, so over the stark, white marble that survives in museums today were riotous patches of blue, red, yellow, etc.) and, eventually, assembling the puzzle yourself.

I mean, I recognize the privilege we’ve had–we’ve visited both London and Athens, plus many points in between, and seen most of the pieces of the Acropolis in one journey–and that most people in most situations couldn’t or wouldn’t even want to go to the trouble of going to separate museums to see different pieces of essentially the same building. Nobody should have to take, like the 18th century nobility, a Grand Tour through the European cultural capitols just to see this stuff. But the story of an artifact is as important as the artifact itself, and I hope that, if the British and the Greeks do ever work this out, they incorporate these pieces into the Parthenon in a way that highlights, rather than obscures, their cracks and breaks, casting Elgin as a sympathetic, if perhaps misguided, character and situating this episode in the overall story of the Parthenon’s shifting fortunes over the centuries. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt twice, converted into a church and then a mosque, looted repeatedly, and blown up by an unfortunately located gunpowder stockpile. The addition of a Prodigal Son chapter would only make the tale more epic and its resolution more triumphant.