Monday, June 18, 2012

a short walk from the port

From the port of Korissia on the island of Kea I walked west along the unpaved road that climbed the hill behind the port and crossed into the wind blowing off the mainland of Attica.  The road from there ran south, just below the ridge, passing above small sand and pebbled crescent beaches between fingers of rocky land.  Save for the sea birds and the stray goat, I was alone in the early spring wind, wrapped in a corduroy windbreaker.

From the top of the hill I could look out over strait that I had crossed on the ferry from Lavrio, the ancient Laurion from whose mines the Athenians had gotten the silver for their heavy tetradrahms marked with Athena's owl.  The veins of silver were narrow and worked from tight, constricted crawlways hacked deep into the rock by slaves.  It was, in fact, the only really bad job a slave in Athens was likely get and most who were sent there were criminals.  Otherwise, slavery in Athens seems to have been an easy job, so much so that Spartans, for whom there was no such thing as an easy job  --  except perhaps dying in battle hip-deep in slaughtered Persians  --  complained that in Athens you couldn't tell a slave from a citizen.

The nearest coast across the strait was the long, rocky island of Makroniso  (whose name means simply "long island").  In the time of the Colonels it had been a prison for communists but was now said to be uninhabited, though when I was walking along the beach at Lavrio I had met a young man who told me that his family, who were ethnic Greeks, had fled from Turkey and were living as displaced persons on the island. I remember him as being quite optimistic about his prospects.

On the ferry crossing we had passed close by a wreck sitting upright on the shallow bottom, her hatches open and steel decks awash with water.  There was also a deeper channel: in 1916, the hospital ship Britannic had tried to pass through the straits and been sunk.  There was an explosion, though whether it was a mine or torpedo is unclear.  Britannic, a four-funneled leviathan built for the White Star Line, was the sister ship of Titanic.

I climbed down to a beach and walked along the edge of the glass-clear water.  I noticed a shoe had washed up.  I would, over the years, notice quite a few shoes washed up on Greek beaches, so many in fact as to call for some explanation.  I concluded eventually that there must be a tradition among Greek fishermen of throwing a shoe overboard, though whether this was done in joy or frustration or for some other reason I had no way of knowing.

There had been recent work on the road and in a fresh cut I noticed shards of pottery coming out of the earth.  I first thought it was just a modern trash dump but then I noticed that there were no bottles or cans or broken china or any of the debris you find in a modern midden, but all seemed to be pottery of the old sort, some painted, but most plain.  People don't carry trash far to dump, but there was nothing around that seemed to suggest this had been an ancient site.  No walls or foundations.  Just a few goats, grazing.  There had obvious been something there, or not far off, but it was now all gone.  The Past is thick around us in Greece.

I continued south along the road and saw stone work to my left on the hillside. It was the course of an ancient wall, most of it gone but there remained a short section of large, irregular, worked and fitted polygonal stones in place.  That the stones had been worked and fitted indicated that this was no farmer's wall  --  that there had been something of consequence here  --  but around it I saw nothing but pasture and stray sheep.  I found a place out of the wind and sat to write.  A large sheep dog appeared and inspected me, but decided I was no threat to his charges and went on his way.  (As Odysseus had done, I remained seated during his inspection.)

Farther south, I came upon a ruined tower built of rubble and cement, as the Byzantines had done.  I climbed to the top and looked around for Turks or pirates, but seeing none I climbed back down.  As I did so I noticed debris falling from the steps as they crumbled under my feet and thought I really ought to do something about getting medical insurance which, at the time, I did not have.


A short distance north of the port are the remains of a temple on which there had been some excavation.  It is odd  --  or at least I think it so  --  but some ruins leave me cold, as if I lack the imagination to raise fallen walls and span them with roofs and reassemble the shattered stones and fill the broken pavement with noisy ancients.  My romantic instincts seem to require a bit of surviving architecture to work with.  This temple, though, caught my attention because it has been determined that it is dedicated to Apollo Smintheus, that most curious of the god's epithets.

In the opening pages of The Iliad the Trojan priest Chryses, abused by Agamemnon, prays to Apollo by that name, Smintheus, which my translation rendered "Lord of Mice", and the god heard and clothed in darkness drew near the camp of the Greeks, the arrows rattling in his quiver like thunder, and set himself on his heel and rained arrows of plague into the camp of the long-haired Achaians and slew the men and the fast-running dogs.  What an odd thing that this beautiful, golden god should be praised as the Lord of Mice.

I have since read that "mice" might have been a mistranslation, though the ancients also thought that was what Homer meant and mice were kept in at least one of Apollo's temples.  But a god should have his mysteries and strangenesses and it pleases me that he of the golden lyre and gift of true prophesy, of whom even the swan sings with clear voice to the beating of his wings, should bear such a strange, mysterious title and that the ancient Greeks  --  such estimable people  --  should see fit to build a beautiful temple to him in that inscrutable name.

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