The Sacred Rock of the Acropolis, Athens, Greece (© Mentor)
Land of the gods: polis and sanctuary in ancient Greece is a comprehensive 14-day Study Abroad program that serves as the quintessential introduction to the world of the ancient Greeks. The story of the great Panhellenic sanctuaries and city-states (poleis) reveals a world that is both familiar and utterly unexpected. This experiential program invites you on a grand tour of five evocative sites that represent all aspects of ancient Greek culture, society, religion, and mythology. The politics and art of Athens, the athletic spirit and search for glory in Olympia, the astounding luminescence of the sacred island of Delos, the mystifying aura surrounding the Great Mysteries in Eleusis, and the natural beauty and oracular history of Delphi, form a quintet of destinations where the quest for our identity is fulfilled.
Why was Athens important?
Athens was a cesspool of iniquity where the worst people were better off than the good. It was a city that preemptively expelled the honorable, and bequeathed tremendous power on demagogues and warmongers. Injustice, wantonness, ignorance, wickedness, and disorder reigned supreme. People could be put to death for placing a bough on an altar at the wrong time of the year. In times of war, pestilence and famine decimated the population. Charlatans and sophists bamboozled an illiterate public that was prone to unfathomable acts of violence towards friends and foes alike.
And yet this city was the envy of the ancient world. Its enemies were many but well aware of its strengths and qualities. The Corinthians, no friends of Athens for sure, did not mince their words. They described the Athenians as lovers of innovation, swift to devise and to execute what they resolved on, bold beyond their strength, and adventurous above their reason. They hoped the best even in the most extreme danger, loved to be abroad and to stir things up. Thus they were able to establish an incomparable city-state and adorn it with timeless masterpieces that preserve the memory of its greatness for more than 2500 years.
Demeter in Eleusis
Eleusis was a relatively insignificant polis located a few kilometers west of Athens. She controlled a fertile plain, where grains grew abundantly, watered by the mighty river Cephissus. According to tradition, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, ended up in Eleusis after her futile search for her daughter, Persephone. The young girl had been abducted by Pluto, the lord of the underworld, but her mother knew nothing about her fate, and despondently wandered the face of the Earth; nothing grew during this sad period and people faced a terrible famine.
Demeter was resting at a well in Eleusis when the daughters of King Keleus found her. They persuaded her to come to their father’s palace, where she found employment as a nurse to the infant son of the king. Demeter was in the guise of an old woman and spent her evenings placing the child in the ashes of the hearth to make him immortal. Obviously, the mother of the young prince made a scene when she discovered this; the goddess revealed her true identity and commanded the Eleusinians to build a sanctuary, where she taught them her sacred rites. Soon after, she also found her daughter; elated by her reunion with Persephone, she also taught the people of Eleusis the art of growing grain.
These priceless gifts turned Eleusis into a target and a destination. Athens, on its way to becoming a superpower among the Greek city-states, expended great effort and copious amounts of blood to incorporate the town to the Athenian state. Celebrated statesmen and architects erected majestic temples in honor of Demeter, while the annual festival of the Great Mysteries bestowed upon its participants’ confidence in the face of relentless death. Eleusis became a symbol of hope and attracted initiates from the far corners of the Mediterranean world. The archaeological site of the Telesterion remains an evocative destination and an invitation to reflect upon eternal questions regarding mortality and afterlife.
Mountain of ashes
Zeus, the mighty brother of Demeter, was also an ardent believer in the necessity of establishing a sanctuary. In his case, though, it was only fitting that the site he selected should become the greatest and most illustrious of all. After all, he was king of the gods. Olympia is a small plain bounded on the north and east by mountains, and on the south and west by rivers. The abundance of water and the lush vegetation is almost an otherworldly revelation in a land where rocks serve as forests and rain is absent for most of the year.
There was no polis here. The site was occupied by temples and public buildings that came alive every four years when Greeks gathered in Olympia to celebrate the Olympic Games. This was a populous festival that attracted artists, philosophers, musicians, historians, poets, innovators of all kinds; if you had something novel to present, if you wanted people to learn about your work and ideas, you came to Olympia every fourth summer. The heat was intolerable; space was at a premium; no lavatories were available. But in no other place could excellence shine with such marvelous brilliance as in the shadow of the temple and altar of Zeus.
The temple is a marvelous example of the Doric style. The pediments were created by Paeonius and Alcamenes; standing before these groups of statues, in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, feels like staring at the face of the gods. But the greatest masterpiece exists only as an illustration on ancient coins and as terracotta molds. The gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus was made by the sculptor Phidias; its height gave the visitors the impression that if the god were to stand up, he would unroof the temple. At least he approved of his statue, striking the floor with a thunderbolt to express his pleasure. He also used a lightning bolt to indicate the spot of his great altar; this grew to become a massive 22-foot (7-meters) conical heap of ashes, formed from the burnt offerings mixed with water from the river Alpheios.
Zeus was many things: king of the gods, cloud-gatherer, keeper of oaths, patron of hospitality. A masterful geographer, though, he was definitely not. When he wanted to determine the center of the world, he launched two eagles from the far corners of the world. They flew at equal speed and either crossed paths (or perhaps collided) at Delphi. To make his amateurish geolocating endeavor even worse, he threw a stone navel from the sky to mark the site and become the symbol of the sanctuary.
But who would run the oracle? Zeus was busy chasing women (and the occasional young prince), so Apollo stepped into the breach with divine determination. He swept aside lying nymphs and terrifying dragons to make a craggy mountainside safe for mortals; then he kidnapped the hapless crew of a Cretan ship and brought them in the middle of nowhere to establish his sanctuary. Finally, he secured the services of a sibyl (Pythia) that revealed the will of the gods. Here he made a mistake, for initially, she was always a young girl; this proved too much of a temptation for Echecrates of Thessaly, a man so consumed by his fiery passion for Pythia that he kidnapped her. The Delphians ordered all future prophetesses to be at least fifty years old.
The setting of Delphi is spectacular. Mountains, olive groves, rivers, plains, and the sea create a landscape of divine beauty that seems unchanged since the time of Apollo. Countless pilgrims flocked here to sacrifice a goat and listen to the rumblings of the Sibyl. Perched atop her cauldron, she answered the questions of the faithful in obscure and ambiguous hexameters that more often than not required the keenest of intellects, if they were to be understood properly. Empires were lost because supplicants failed to ask the right question…or interpreted the answer according to their wishes (and not the true intentions of the gods).
Something out of nothing
Delos is different. All other sanctuaries were selected by the gods to serve a purpose. This windswept island, though, became hallowed ground because it provided refuge to Apollo at the point of his most extreme vulnerability, namely the time of his birth. His mother, Leto, found herself in a pickle; she was pregnant by Zeus but Hera, his wife, would not allow her to settle down somewhere to give birth. In vain did she roam the land, feeling the terrible pains of labor. Finally, Zeus asked his brother Poseidon to assist the hapless goddess; the lord of the seas commanded a wandering island called Asteria to stand still in the middle of the Aegean Sea.
Here Leto gave birth to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis, as she leaned against a palm tree on the shores of a lake. The gods soon moved on, but Delos became a major cult center of panhellenic significance. And here we see history repeating itself, for just as the Athenians decided to incorporate Eleusis in their state when the latter grew in popularity, so did they resolve to control Delos, when her religious fame whetted their appetite. Athens executed numerous purifications; the graves were removed from the island, while laws (whose arrogance and aplomb remain startling to the present day) forbade anyone from being born or dying on the island.
Delos has no arable land, no forests, no water. It is a sun-drenched rock in the middle of the arid sea. And yet it was perfectly suited to the needs of traders and pirates, who turned this desolate island into a free port and commercial hub. Thousands of slaves were bought and sold here; the profits supported a thriving community of merchants and shipowners, who built splendid mansions, temples, public buildings, a marble theater, fountains, and marketplaces adorned with superb works of art. It was an impressive achievement, but much like ancient Greek civilization it came to an untimely end as a result of war and the expansion of the Roman Empire.
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Land of the gods: polis and sanctuary in ancient Greece – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece
This is the quintessential introduction to the world of the ancient Greeks and their major contributions to the development of western civilization.