I recently fulfilled a dream of mine to visit some of the sacred sites of ancient Greece, the land of the Hellenes. Hellas has been for me a sustaining source of inspiration. I am a naturalistic, pantheistic Pagan. I do not believe goddesses and gods exist in any literal sense, as a species of individual, autonomous, immortal super-beings. I don’t think the deities need to exist in that way to have great meaning and significance. To me the goddesses and gods are the embodiment of the sacredness that is Nature, both the Nature inside and outside of us. My own engagement with the ancient Hellenic tradition has led me to this view. In many ways, the religion of ancient Hellas is a sophisticated Nature religion, not nature in the abstract, but of the particular Nature experienced by the ancient Hellenes. I wanted to visit Greece to be in that Nature, to experience a little bit of the places that the ancients found sacred.
My husband, Matthew, and I spent three weeks in Greece in May. For Matthew this was a special painting trip to launch his new career as a full time landscape painter, and for me it was a sacred pilgrimage, a journey to my Mecca. As I communed with the old stones, Matthew captured a little bit of its magic on canvas. May is a wonderful time of year to visit Greece when Gaia shows her most gentle face and wears all her lovely flowers. We visited archeological sites in Attica, eastern Peloponnese, central Greece and Crete. We went to the places on most people’s itinerary like the Athenian Acropolis, Epidaurus, Delphi, Knossos, but we also went to some of the less visited sites, like the temple of Artemis at Vravrona, Eleusis, Argive Heraion and the Korykeon Cave above Delphi. Of course the ruins that draw the most attention are the most spectacular, but it was the places off the beaten path and the often overlooked places on the major sites that were the most meaningful to me.
At the archeological sites, the first thing I would do is run around with my Oxford archaeological guide book and try to figure out just what is what and where. I read all the signage and tried to photographically document the salient details. Most books as well as the on-site information focus your attention downward onto the details of the site, but I also brought with me Vincent Scully’s book, The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture, which draws your attention outward to the landscape. Scully believed that the ancient Greeks selected temple sites based on specific landscape features that emanated the presence of the deity:
All Greek sacred architecture explores and praises the character of a god or a group of gods in a specific place. That place is itself holy and, before the temple was built upon it, embodied the whole of the deity as a recognized natural force. With the coming of the temple, housing its image within it, and itself developed as a sculptural embodiment of the god’s presence and character, the meaning becomes double, both of the deity as in nature and the god as imagined by men. Therefore, the formal elements of any Greek sanctuary are, first, the specifically sacred landscape in which it is set and, second, the buildings that are placed within it. (Scully, Kindle locations 739-743).
According to Scully many sites are positioned in relationship to either mountain cones and/or clefts flanked by twin peaks. These are equated with a single or double breast or horns, symbols of the ancient Goddess and sacred bull, which go back to Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. So orientating myself on the site also involved finding the landscape features of which Scully speaks.
Once I finished my intellectual exploration of the site, I liked to go back and walk through the site the way an ancient pilgrim might have, imagining what they might have seen and just being present with the site. Where possible I would start on the ancient sacred path to the proplyaea (monumental gateway), stopping at the site of the fountain or spring used for purification, walking the path where once stood the gifts, statues, and small treasury buildings to the deity, paying my respects at the various altars along the way to the main temple. All of these elements were present at the ancient pilgrimage sites Eleusis, Epidaurus and Delphi, which I found particularly moving.
There are so many wonderful details to pick up among the old stones, but by far the most powerful element for me was the surrounding landscape especially at the mountainous sites like Delphi and Phaistos. At Delphi, east of the temple of Apollo, is a stark cleft flanked by twin horns, which Scully calls the “terrible cliff”, and another cleft with twin peaks, this one more rounded and breast like, lies south of the two temple remains to Athena Pronaia. While the altar to Athena Pronaia faced east as is customary for ouranic altars, the temples and all accompanying buildings faced southward toward the “shining cliffs of Phaedriades.” Pronaia here means before, that is before Apollo, likely both geographically, as most pilgrims first came here before reaching the shrine of Apollo, and temporally, as the old earth goddess worshiped here by the Mycenaean, the Potnia of this place. I don’t know how much credence Scully’s theories about landscape are given by most classical scholars today, but I found this connection between landscape and temple to be so powerful that I think there must be some truth in it. The specific landforms associated with the sacred sites are recognizable often from a great distance, a visible connection to the Holy place. For me this was even more true for the horns of Mount Ida which rise above the Palace of Phaistos in Crete.
One of my favorite sites was the Argive Heraion, located about a 15 minute drive south of Mycenae. This sacred site dedicated to Hera sits on a high terrace just below a great cleft in the mountain and provides spectacular views of the surrounding olive groves and distant mountains. There are no impressive buildings left on the site, just the foundation stones remain, but it is a very peaceful and beautiful place of great importance to the ancients. Scully believes the Heraion is aligned in reference to the cone of Argos found to the southwest of the site, but another hill not mentioned by Scully impressed me. The site contains the foundations of two temples to Hera constructed in different periods, both of which, as well as the ancient altar, face eastward toward another conical hill which to me looks very breast like. We might suspect that the priest making the sacrifice would face the cult statue in the temple, but no, according to Jon Mikalson, the priest stood to the west of the altar of ouranic deities and faced outward to the rising sun. I find this of tremendous significance. Not much is left of most of the sacred sites, often just a footprint on the ground, but the landscape is still here and to look out from the place is to see what the ancient saw, which I believe was just as sacred as the ground on which the altar stood.
It was a wonderful trip. The archeological sites and the museums are incredible. The land and the waters are so beautiful. It was also wonderful experiencing modern Greece. We mostly got around with buses, only renting a car a couple of times, and we made a lot of our accommodations through Airbnb staying with local folks. I also loved seeing the modern religious landscape of Greece, the little roadside shrines that seemed to be everywhere and the many small chapels and churches so full of golden images and the glow of candles. To me the sacred architecture of the Greek Orthodox tradition creates a very inward focused heart space, like a mother’s sheltering embrace, so different from the ancient religious expression which is focused outward.
At the conclusion of my journey through one of the ancient sacred sites, I liked to either stand near the altar or find a quiet shady spot nearby and read the Orphic Hymns to the deity of the place. While I don’t share the Orphic theology that desires life after death over life here and now, I do really like the Orphic Hymns, and I really like the translation by Athanassakis and Wolkow. The hymns present a soft polytheistic perspective, full of syncretism, and here the goddesses and gods are the forces of Nature. I’d like to close with one of my favorites, the Hymn to Earth:
Divine Earth, mother of men
and of the blessed gods,
you nourish all, you give all,
you bring all to fruition, you destroy all.
When the season is fair, you teem
with fruit and growing blossoms,
O multi-formed maiden,
seat of the immortal cosmos,
in the pains of labor
you bring forth all fruit.
deep-bosomed and blessed,
your joy is the sweet breath of grass,
O goddess bedecked with flowers,
yours is the joy of the rain, the intricate realm of the stars
revolves in endless and awesome flow.
O blessed goddess,
may you multiply the delicious fruits,
and may you and the beautiful Seasons grant me kindly favor.