May 12, 2006

Pros Athene

I spent a measurable amount of my childhood on the rooftops of six-storey apartment buildings. Tonight I was sitting outside at that height again, at the rooftop bar of my hotel, facing the illuminated Acropolis. The broad yellow-lit mesa looked like the closeup moon does to an astronaut flying in, and it pleaded with us to restore not its columns but its spirit. Sitting drinking ice-clouded ouzo, I could not do anything for it.

We call it Athens, a name without emotional etymology, but its real name is Athene: the name of its goddess. The city and its goddess are one. If you were a youth from a tiny island, heading for the capital to apprentice in a sculptor's workshop, or a trader sailing from Ionia with your goods, you'd say "I'm going to Athene" -- "pros Athene" -- and when you arrived you'd make ceremonies to honor her and gain her favor, and walking in the Agora you'd be walking within her.

Looking at the high city (Acro-Polis) tonight, I could feel how you'd find a divinity watching over it. You could feel her knowing eyes, her discreet protective heart, hovering above the brilliant little human enclave. I felt the same thing some years back in a Berber desert town in Morocco. Looking above the red clay houses and the black rock peaks at the dusk-deepened blue and the scimitar moon, I could feel the presence of One who had breathed life into us and held us in his cupped hands. You couldn't not feel it there. I will lift mine eyes unto the hills.

The strangest thing so far on this trip is that I should find my own guiding figure, my archetype for a psychology I haven't even believed in: not clumsy blowhard bad-father Zeus, or cold sublime girl-tormenting Apollo, or mad inspired Dionysos with his drunken groupies, but gray-eyed Athene, bronze-helmeted Athene, Athene of the shining brow. (In Phiilip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, one's daimon is of the opposite sex.) With an owl on her shoulder and a snake at her feet, she teaches warcraft not as raging, foaming, indiscriminate Ares does, but judiciously to preserve her favorites, to keep Odysseus safe. She teaches wisdom not abstract and inhuman like Apollo, but pragmatic and social, to safeguard her city from the Persians.

I'm going to wake up someone who reminds me of her, and we're going to explore the town.