Ancient Grecian tourism is a little bit like a giant, bronze-age scavenger hunt.
First, you take a bus out of Athens to see the sites themselves, and then you go back to town and visit the museums to see the artifacts that once stood in them.
This week took me to Mycenae — as in, the seat of the first “advanced” civilization in mainland Greece, which figures prominently in Homer and dates to the 2nd millennium BCE — and then to the National Archeological Museum to see its treasures.
If you go to Athens, no matter what else you do, go to this museum. The Acropolis Museum is also wonderful, but it’s got nothing on the National.
There was so much to see and everything was so unfathomably old I was actually, physically affected. After three hours I just had to get out of there, even though I really probably only really saw about 30% of the collection.
I put my hands on the altar of Aphrodite, which was sitting there in the middle of a hall without even a plaque, like an ordinary piece of furniture. I had to ask the guard what it was, and he had to come and read the ancient Greek inscription on it to recall. Aphrodeet, he pronounced her.
I learned, too, that the ancients had clothing logos just like our obnoxious Polo ponies and Lacoste alligators; cases are filled with endless rows of tiny gold pins in the shapes of flying fish, octopuses, helmets. And the second day of one of their annual festivals, the Anthesteria, was literally celebrated with a game of slap-the-bag: whoever could drain a 3-liter wineskin quickest was the winner. (The prize? Why, another full wineskin, of course.)
All the recurring themes, the way in which it becomes so clear what our history is made of — the cyclical and connected nature of our myths. Hemingway’s toreadors are Picasso’s “Bull” is the Minotaur of Crete. The ancient Greeks depicted bulls surmounted by acrobats, who leapt over them and took them literally by the horns. It’s all just human; it’s all just us. It’s all conquest and power and anxiety, the movement of the world.
I guess, really, it’s what we’re pointing at when we talk about canon: the particular way western civilization happened to play out. And to be sure, that particular history, the best-known and most-often-prescribed one, is short-sighted and overwhelmingly white and male and oppressive. An interesting for instance that probably doesn’t have anything to do with high heels, but gave me pause: Even in the case of ancient Cycladic figurines, the female sculptures are made standing on their toes while the men are rendered comfortably flat-footed.
But still, there’s a power in connecting over the space of eons through objects, of seeing your own reflection in a 3,000-year-old clay pot’s glass case or the tiny crosshatch of your handprint on its surface. There was a pair of skeletons on the second floor whose plaques revealed they showed signs of arthritis and repetitive motion injuries; one had some ailment that fused and warped his spinal column. It looked like molten wax.
These were people, like you and me, who lived and worked and suffered and experienced pain. And now they’re laid there on display, if not bodily then in their objects: cups and pots and weapons and jewelry, the vases they were buried with. Those vessels like the cups in the hands of beggars on the street in the city today, open and out and upturned even while they lie asleep on the sidewalk.
“Circles,” my mother said when I sent her a text message that night, waxing a little lyrical about it. And she’s right: all things round and around again, and no such thing as new or alone, either.