Arete students stood before the Parthenon for the first time in 1983. Since then, ten pilgrimages of young people have climbed up over the slippery marble to a glorious view of that timeless temple. And we make sure that we are first in line, first up on the Acropolis.
“Oh Athens, sing of man and his creativity.” Well, yes, such a romantic view has been compromised by greater familiarity with those ancient Greeks. But the fifth century B.C. was one hell of a creative one.
Arete Library --- “Athenian Odyssey” by William M. Taylor, “Report to Greco” by Nikos Kazantzakis At least four destinations are very special to us when we are in Athens --
One is that early morning encounter with the Parthenon, when we turn to Kazantzakis for his poetic description of the temple of Athena -- “each time I climbed the Acropolis again, the Parthenon seemed to be swaying slightly, as in a motionless dance – swaying and breathing.”
There is the visit below the Acropolis to a seldom witnessed stoa in the ancient marketplace. We sit down, escaping the hot summer sun, and ask Socrates and Plato to join us. A student reminds us that Socrates taught Plato within this portico, only thirty yards from another stoa of enormous significance. But it isn’t marked, identified for tourists. Just across the metro tracks is a smooth oblong block of marble that Socrates likely stood on when he was charged with a capital offense for corrupting the youth of the City. The oblong marble block is still in view. Yet thousands walk by on the street above and have no idea that one of the pivotal figures in history likely stood on that oath stone below them.
A favorite moment for Arete takes place within the ancient cemetery. It is there that some of the boys read portions of Pericles’ funeral speech within 200 meters or so of where the leader of the City delivered his message in the fifth century B.C. A view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon are in the background as the lads proudly read the passages from what has been described as “the greatest speech in history.” You find portions of this speech in “Athenian Odyssey,” and the complete text in “The History of the Peloponnesean War” by Thucydides.
Then there is a surprise on a special afternoon run when we race through the park near the president’s palace to an unannounced destination. Suddenly the students see before them the 1896 Olympic stadium. It was there that the games returned to life after 1500 years. On the earlier Arete trips the young would fly playfully into the stadium, celebrating their contact with their sport. But today a guard keeps a sharp eye on them and they are not even given a chance to run around the Olympic track. Even enter the stadium.
Arete library --- “A History of the Peloponnesean War” by Thucydides, “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles, “A History of Ancient Athletics” by Sansome , “The Republic” by Plato, “Thermopylae” by Ernle Bradford
A place called Nemea Before Arete was formed in 1978, our family become acquainted with the archaeologist, Dr. Stephen Miller. The University of California (Berkeley) professor was just beginning to excavate the ancient Pan-Hellenic track at Nemea then. The ancient Pan-Hellenic site is just below Corinth, to the northwest of Mycenae. Twenty years later Arete helped Dr. Miller stage the first track meet in the stadium in 2300 years. Our students ran against some local Greek youths. This simple event in 1993 has developed into the “New Nemean Games” where thousands come from all over the world every four years to touch the soil with their bare feet.
Arete lass in 1993 is seen after winning the first competition in the Nemea stadium in some 2300 years.
Archaeology The archaeological feasts took us to far more than track stadiums. Running on the ancient track early in the morning at Olympia and in Delphi always excite and complete the students. For they touch the soil of their sport. And sport is a powerful ritual. Speaking of rituals, and before we explore some different archaeological sites, I want to acknowledge how vital the book “Homo Necans” has been for Arete travelers. The anthropologist, Walter Burkert, isn’t cautious about sharing his opinions as he interprets the Greek ritual of the ancient world. His emphasis on blood and sacrifice, and the kill, is timeless. Timeless? Along with a book already mentioned, “A History of Ancient Athletics,” it has become clear to me that we continue to participate in the rituals. While their form has changed, the act itself is still with us.
So when Arete students enter St. Peters, or the chapel just a few meters from where Dante prayed in Florence, they have been exposed during their seminar preparation to the views of Burkert, (e.g., he sees the Roman Catholic mass with the sacrifice of Jesus as akin to the killing of a goat or camel and the sharing of the body in a communal meal). I see this sacrifice continuous in modern sports with the sacrifice of the athletes. He or she exists so that we can feel that tension that comes with the kill, the triumph or defeat. We even call some of the overtime periods, “sudden death.&rdquo And in volleyball the spike is called “a kill.”
We can bring these religious or sport rituals to higher levels than those of the superstitious Greeks or Romans in the ancient world, but don’t count on too much reflection. One of the more profane current exhibitions of a sacred ritual in our sport life is when the athlete points up at the sky after scoring a touchdown or a long three point basket. As if the god gave him a special favor in the religious feast. The winner survives, life continues. The loser, however momentarily, experiences nihilism, failure, symbolic of death itself.
Arete library --- “Homo Necans” by Walter Burkert, “A History of Ancient Athletics” by Sansome
Pre-Socratic philosophers Turkey for modern travelers provides a favorable impression of the people, the visit to the vast Greco/Roman archaeological site at Ephesis, and for those sailing along the coast, the inlets and remote beaches where they snorkel and swim in the beautiful sea. For Arete it is the coast of the philosophers who preceded Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Known as the “pre-Socratic” gang, it was these thinkers of the 6th and 5th Centuries B.C. who profoundly raised the questions of existence.
For Arete and its mobile classrooms this has been an unfolding exploration. Western existentialists look back to Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, however meager the fragments that hint of their thought. The most popular path to these early Greeks for the Arete students comes through Milan Kundera. In the “Unbearable Lightness of Being,” by book and motion picture, Kundera contrasts the heaviness of Being with the ethereal lightness of non-Being. It should not surprise Arete veterans that Martin Heidegger in “Early Greek Thinking” uses Nietzsche to introduce his exploration of Anaximander, Heraclitus and Parmenides. The hike along the Alpine trail and the journey down the Ionian coast are related.
Arete library --- “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera, “Voltaire’s Bastards” by John Ralson Saul, “Early Greek Thinking” by Martin Heidegger, “Report to Greco” by Nikos Kazantzakis, Nietzsche Chapter
What of Mycenae and ancient Argos? Where does one begin? Thank goodness for Irving Stone, his book titled “The Greek Treasure.” The classroom at Mycenae was richer for those who had read those pages before the trips. And bonus points for the mad business tycoon, Heinrich Schliemann, and what his egocentricity discovered. And what of Aeschylus, the source of it all?
We climbed again and again on Arete trips up the ramp and through the lion’s gate. Then to the throne room and that vast view of ancient Argos across the flat, sage filled plain. And where was the bath tub that brought death to Agamemnon?
The moment of moments at Mycenae did not take place within the official archaeological site. It was when we approached it at night, oh so cautiously by van. The tape deck contributed to the suspense as the composer Vengalis increased the tension. It was dark, yet the outline of the Mycenaean acropolis was not that many yards removed. There was no noise. Only silence.
Our classroom went back down the road to the small village of Mycenae. Maybe half a mile. And up to the roof over a restaurant where we slept on a thin mattress and a sheet. Ancient Argos was across the plain, the fortress of Tiryn near water’s edge. We were suspended above streets of a quiet village, slept with the scent of the brush of this sacred location. Then by dawn, hundreds and hundreds of birds sang to the new day. It was a chorus of wonder.
Arete library --- “The Greek Treasure” by Irving Stone, “Agammemnon” by Aeschylus, Vingalis’ CD
Aulis and the altar of sacrifice The search for the temple of Artemis at Aulis was a failure. Under a hot sun we climbed to the top of a thorn invested hill, but found no evidence of the Mycenaean remains that a BBC special had confirmed were at Aulis. Schliemann was beside himself when he looked down from some hill close to where we were searching to discover the cove where Greek ships had waited for the winds to take them to Troy. Irving Stone brought this all alive in “The Greek Treasure.” And it was with a sense of failure that I had us pile back in the van and head for Athens.
Well, at least we made it to Aulis. You will not find it on tourist maps. When we dropped down from the main highway between Athens and Thessaloniki, north of Marathon, it was with wonder when I read on a weathered sign across a thin inlet, “Aulis shipyard.” A rather meager sign. And only a few boats under repair. But this contact with history was worth the search, the drive off the freeway and the postponement of our entrance into Athens that summer day.
Wait, I noticed some workmen as we drove across the rail tracks. I turned the van around and pulled up close to them. Saying “where is Artemis” wasn’t difficult in Greek, except I don’t think I worked on the pronunciation of Artemis. It was when I pretended that I was slitting my throat that their facial expressions told of understanding and we were directed down a dirt road. For it was at the temple of Artemis at Aulis that Agamemnon offered his daughter Iphigenia in sacrifice. So that the winds might come and take his ships to far away Troy. So wrote Euripides in his play, “Iphigenia.”
It wasn’t too long down the dirt road before we came upon a wire fence with some paint slapped on it that included the name, “Artemis.” Was this raw history or was this raw history? No gate, no guard, just pull the wire back and walk into the 11th century B.C. temple. Oh, and stand over the altar!
“no gate, no guard, pull the wire back and walk into the 11th Century B.C. temple”
Arete library --- “The Greek Treasure” by Irving Stone, “Iphigenia” by Euripides, “The Iliad” by Homer, “The Odyssey” by Homer
The tracks of the gods Arete has the greatest tracks in the world. Olympia remains in its innocence, as does Delphi. Nemea, while not complete in length, offers all you need to be back in the 4th Century, B.C. We make sure we are the first ones on the dirt surface at both Olympia and Delphi. Like they belong to us. This is dramatically reflected upon the night before we run through the arch at Olympia and onto the sacred track. We climb up a steep, trail-less, heavily forested hill that hovers virtually over the ancient stadium. Then through the pine the runners look down upon those earlier youths who ran at Olympia, and think about their own deep involvement in the sport.
We schedule this hike for twilight, when the softness of early evening settles over the home of the Olympia games. It is told that the hill belonged to Kronos, the father of Zeus. The scattered columns of the temple of his son, Zeus, shaken down by earthquakes, lay next to the floor of the enormous sanctuary. A smaller, more complete temple for Hera is within view as well. As is the area where the altar once received the thigh bones of sacrifice. And the flame ignited for the modern games.
Yet all eyes are on the running surface, the memories of those dirt tracks back home where the Arete youth risked themselves in sport. Synthetic surfaces have covered the high school ovals back home, decorating them in technological splendor, but it is the sacred soil at Olympia that enriches their lives.
The Delphi track is up in the clouds with the gods. The crags reach down from Mt. Parnassas, giving the stadium a magnificent cathedral like face. Reds, copper, golden, orange colors come to life as Arete quickly hikes up, up and up, past the temple of the oracles, the theatre, then finally to the stadium. We are alone with time. But the impulse is to run. Reflection can come later. The youth want to run, race, bring the moment into their existence.
Thus the tracks of Greece are the classrooms, or field trips, for Arete West. And as said, we have the greatest ones in the world.