A TOUR OF ANCIENT ATHENS
Walking Athens through Myth
by Alternative Athens
Why a Mythological Tour of Athens? Endless are the proposals of walking tours in Athens: walk in the daylight, at night, try food, see alternative areas and even shoot graffiti. Yet, as someone who’s grown up listening to the stories of the Gods of the Olympus, I could not choose otherwise. So I got in touch with Alternative Athens and after going through their website, deciding was easy. Their mythological proposal was the one I wanted to experience… And it was a wise decision. Let me introduce you to the Athens mythological Tour:
At the beginning… Zeus
I arrive much ahead of schedule. It’s really early in the morning. I sit by the entrance of the Olympieion, take out my camera and start cleaning the lenses. The sun already burns. I put on some sunscreen, check for my hat and my tape recorder. Everything I need is in my bag. I now must wait… Dionysios, our guide, is on time. It’s easy to tell I’m eager, I’ve been waiting for this adventure too long. Almost 40 years.
Our tour begins where it should, where it all began. In the Temple of Olympian Zeus and with one of the many Greek myths of Cosmogony. With Zeus pouring heavy rains out of anger, and Deucalion and Pyrrha arriving at Mount Parnassus after drifting for nine days, to give origin to a new human race.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus was started by tyrant Peisistratus, around 520 BC, but works on the Temple were picked up and abandoned more than once. The Roman Emperor Hadrian (II cent. AD) decided on the completion of the temple, among other works he intended for Athens, yet it did not live long.
It is double the size of the Parthenon, there were originally 104 Corinthian columns but only 15 remain. One of them fell during a storm in 1852 and is still visible on the ground.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus also known as the Olympieion or Columns of the Olympian Zeus.
The Arch of Hadrian
The Arch of Hadrian (also Hadrian’s Gate) was erected in 132 AD as a gate between the ancient city and the Roman city of Athens. There are two inscriptions on the arch, facing opposite directions, designing both Theseus and Hadrian as founders of Athens. Towards the Acropolis it reads:
- ΑΙΔ’ ΕIΣΙΝ ΑΘΗΝΑΙ ΘΗΣΕΩΣ Η ΠΡΙΝ ΠΟΛΙΣ (This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus);
on the side facing the Temple of Olympian Zeus, it says:
- ΑΙΔE ΑΔΡΙΑΝΟΥ ΚΟΥΧI ΘΗΣΕΩΣ ΠΟΛΙΣ (This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus).
Our guide soothes the polemic explaining that the first inscription faces the Classical city, founded by Theseus, whereas the second looks at the Roman expansion of the city, designing Hadrian as second founder of Athens. Doubt remains. Both inscriptions certainly honor Hadrian, but do they refer to the city as a whole or to the city divided as the old and the new one?
The Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus
Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus.
Several myths explain the origins of Dionysus. We listen to the myth of Zeus and Semele under the shadows of an olive tree, in front of the Theater. The myth tells of Zeus falling in love with mortal Semele and about his wife, Hera, finding out that Semele is pregnant. Hera, angry at Zeus, decides to get her revenge.
Hera appears to Semele in disguise and, gaining her confidence, makes Semele doubtful of Zeus. Semele makes Zeus promise that he would give her anything and so she asks him to appear to her in all his glory. Little did she know that Gods appearing in their divine splendour were lethal to humans.
Zeus thus kills Semele with his burning flames but manages to save the unborn child by sewing him to his thigh. A few months later, god Dionysus is born from Zeus’s leg.
Mythology states that Dionysus lead a life of transformation, always escaping from the anger of Hera, forced to change his appearance all the time.
Therefore the god of metamorphosis, of change. Of wine and theater, since those also bring transformation, the first changes our mood, the latter brings catharsis. This is why Dionysus is also called Eleutherius (“the liberator”) as wine, music and ecstatic dance set free from fear.
There’s no need to say we are captured by our Dionysus (our guide) and his stories… He goes on talking about ancient plays, how they were represented, how the rituals started at sunrise and what a dithyramb was. He sets an example of how and why theater was an educational experience, he chooses Antigone. And we love it.
The Temple of Asclepius
According to mythology, Asclepius, son of Apollo, is the God of Medicine, through his studies he becomes so skillful in medicine as to resurrect the dead, thus receiving Zeus’ punishment.
The cult of Asclepius started about 350 BC, becoming very popular with pilgrims visiting the temples to be cured. A patient underwent two stages of healing, a purification stage or catharsis (including baths, diets and art therapies), and the incubation stage or dream therapy, when the patient slept overnight in the temple.
Sanctuary of Asclepius or Asclepieion.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus
We then move on to see the impressive remains of the Odeon, built in 161 AD by the Athenian Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife Regilla. We can hardly imagine how impressive it might have looked like with a roof made of cedar wood from Lebanon. Mostly used for musical festivals, it hosted up to 5,000 spectators.
The Odeon was destroyed in 267 BC and underwent restoration in the early 1950. Since that period there are concerts and drama performances, mostly during the Athens Festival.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
The Temple of Athena Nike, the Propylaea and the Erechtheion
In Greek Nike means victory, and goddess Athena was worshipped as a goddess of victory in wisdom and war. The Temple of Athena Nike is an Ionic temple with a colonnaded portico on the front and rear facades. They rebuilt and restored this little temple, on the right from the Propylaea, several times. Famous parts of its reliefs are now at the Acropolis Museum.
Temple of Athena Nike.
The Propylaea serves as the entrance to the Acropolis (and here you might get stuck in the crowd too!). The construction of this monumental gateway began around 437 BC. Its columns belong to the Doric order and have the same proportion (not the size) as the ones in the Parthenon.
The function of this gateway was to control the entrance into the Acropolis: people not ritually clean could not enter the sanctuary. The same applied to slaves. As the Acropolis was also the place where they kept the state treasury, the Propylaea played an important role in terms of security.
We spot the Erechtheion on the northern side of the Acropolis, erected in honor of both Athena and Poseidon. On one side there is a porch with six Ionic columns. On the southern part, the famous Porch of the Caryatids, six beautiful female figures as supporting columns.
The Erechtheion held a relation with the most ancient relics of the Athenians: the marks of Poseidon’s trident, the sacred olive tree of Athena, the supposed burial-place of the king Erechtheus, and more. Erechtheus, was one of the legendary kings of Athens worshipped together with the gods at the Erectheion.
The olive tree remains on the western side of the Erechtheion, very close to the Parthenon, though it is not the original one.
The wind blows with fury, giving us no break. Dust rises everywhere. Yet the skies cannot be any crisper behind its splendour. There it is, we don’t mind scaffolding or workers. We understand.
Over the years, the Parthenon has suffered from fire, revolution, war, misguided restoration and – of course – pollution. It was a church and later a mosque. Large chunks of it were removed by the British (1801).
Restoration goes on. They are now using titanium to tie blocks and columns together. They have crafted new marble to fill in some gaps. As experts say, you can see the new marble in a lighter color, yet one of the principles of this restoration is not to cheat the visitor. As for the color, they also say that in 10 years both colors will almost match.
We still do not care. I know I don’t. For me it remains an accomplished dream. And I keep looking at it. Between you and me, I have lots of pictures of Athens, but not so many of the Parthenon. I prefer to see it without the camera in between.
The Ancient Agora and the Temple of Hephaestus
Ancient Agora and Temple of Hephaestus.
We make a short stop near Plaka, a cold frappé and a quick rest. Tiredness shows, probably… Who cares? I am in Athens, walking down Ancient Athens. What if my feet hurt or if the sun gets too hot? I want to keep walking, listening and seeing it all.
Down the slippery slopes, we reach the Ancient Agora quite fast. Once inside, we are soon in front of the Stoa of Attalos, built and named after the King Attalos of Pergamon.
A Stoa was a covered portico, this one underwent an impressive work of restoration allowing us to see how porticos looked in the past. This stoa now hosts the Museum of the Ancient Agora.
We walk up for a while to reach the Temple of Hephaestus, with its impressive intact columns of Doric order. Its great state of conservation allows to perceive the structure and design of temples in Ancient Greece.
Several metal-working shops could be found nearby the temple, and being Hephaestus the god of fire, sculptors and blacksmiths, the relationship is easily established. The myths our Dionysios chooses for us tells the story of Hephaestus, son of Hera. Hera rejected him because of his deformity, throwing him off of Mount Olympus down to the Earth. Still, he remains the only Olympian to return to Olympus after being exiled.
The Cemetery of Kerameikos
Our last stage approaches with a visit to the ancient cemetery, Kerameikos. The church of Agia Triada stands in the background of this beautiful yet solitary area of the city, it remains an archaeological site not many people visit while in Athens.
There are two different ways to explain the name of the cemetery: some say that the area receives its name from the word keramos (Greek for pottery) because several pottery workshops populated the area before it became a cemetery. Others, instead, state that the name comes from the local hero Keramos, son of Ariadne and Dionysus.
As we see every burial monument, we learn about their symbolism and about the ancient mourning traditions, some of them are still maintained.
However, what leaves the greatest impression of all is not the cemetery, but Dionysus, our guide. He, in an attempt to convince the pride Athenians share about their city, their history and their legacy to the World, reads us part of a speech given by Pericles, close to the communal grave, after the burial of the first dead of the Peloponnesian Wars. And it goes like this:
Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. (…) The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty.
And there we stand, full of that mesmerizing spirit of the past, still so alive in modern Athens. There we stand, at the end of this incredible experience, under the burning sun of Athens.
As we say goodbye to each other, I wish I could start all over again. As I say goodbye to Dionysios, the words of Socrates come to my mind, only hoping that they could also work the other way around…
I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.
Athens Mythological Tour, and more!
Our guide, Dionysios. First picture in the Stoa of Attalos, second picture near the Kerameikos cemetery.
Alternative Athens proposes this “Mythological Tour of Athens“, a 4-hour walking tour that highlights the landmarks of the city, as well as the Architecture, Archaeology and Politics of Athens through Mythology and History. It is an excellent way to see Athens’ landmarks at a reasonable pace. Alternative Athens proposes this tour in English and French too. Follow Alternative Athens and see their pictures on Instagram.
Our guide, Dionysios, was extremely knowledgeable. He has a solid background and was available to give answer to all of our questions. I was deeply touched by the love he shows for his city, and the enthusiasm, patience and dedication he puts in what he does. I was also impressed by his young age and yet incredibly deep knowledge. If you want to know more about him, you can read here. If you speak Spanish or Portuguese, Dionysios can be your guide in Athens.
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