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The Heights of Athens

Athens is not only the capital of Greece, it is also considered to be the cradle of democracy. But what is less known is that Athens, as a city, has its own sacred geography, echoing the Greek philosophy for which it would become famous.

Philip Coppens



What we see today on the Acropolis is relatively recent. The earliest artefacts that have been recovered date from the Middle Neolithic era, although there have been documented habitations in Attica from the Early Neolithic (6000 BC). There is little doubt that a Mycenaean megaron must have stood on top of the hill in the Bronze Age, housing the local potentate and his household. The compound was surrounded by a thick Cyclopean circuit wall. Homer in the Odyssey (7,81) referred to this site as the “strong-built House of Erechtheus”. It was during that time that an earthquake caused a fissure near the northeastern edge, one that ran all the way down to the marl layer and in which water duly collected. An elaborate set of stairs was built and the well was used as a protected source of drinking water.
Two large temples were built on top of the Acropolis during the 6th century BC. The Hekatompedon, ca. 566 BC, was under the present Parthenon and seems to have had a number of treasures grouped around it. From ca. 529 to 515 BC, a temple of Athena Polias was built, occupying the presumed site of the palace of Erechtheus. It was oriented towards the horns of Mt. Hymettos, with the cones of Mt. Kaisariani also in view.
The first Parthenon was begun in 490 BC, on the site of the Hekatompedon; neither seem to have contained a holy image. In 480 BC, the Parthenon and the temple of Athena Polias were burnt by the Persians while the Parthenon was still under construction. Its placement was the location of the present building. It is believed that the Temple was dismantled by the Athenians themselves, with the sacred image rehoused in a temporary shrine on the site of the later Erechtheion. The Greeks then pledged the so-called Oath of Plataia, which stated that Greeks would leave as untouched memorials the ruins of all the temples that the Persians had destroyed. But this was soon abandoned.
Today, huge cranes and scaffolding try to maintain what was rebuilt under the leadership of Pericles, during the Golden Age of Athens (460–430 BC). The new Parthenon got underway in 452 BC, to be followed by the Propylaia and the Erechtheion. What we see is largely the work of Phidias, a great Athenian sculptor, and Ictinus and Callicrates, two famous architects. But in their time, they were just one of a line of people that had built and rebuilt the sacred precinct of Athens – it is only the work of these 5th century scholars that has remained – barely.

The blue-grey limestone of the Acropolis rises sharply from the plain of Attica, with steep cliffs on three sides. It is accessible by foot to the west, where it is linked by a low ridge to the hill of the Areopagus, which sits, when facing the acropolis, to your left. Beneath that rock sits the Agora. Together, these three structures form the sacred landscape of Athens – the centre of democracy, the centre of the Greek world and everything it stood for.
The Acropolis of Athens is the Greek capital’s best known feature – though few people know that it isn’t actually Athens’ highest point. It is however very distinct and the Parthenon on top has made it into one of the world’s most recognisable sites. Though today known as “the acropolis”, this is in essence just a generic term; many Greek cities have an acropolis. The “Acropolis of Athens” was in ancient times known as the Cecropia, in honour of the legendary serpent-man, Cecrops, the founder and first Athenian king. Cecrops means “face with a tail”, and though often said to have the bottom half of a serpent, some sources say it was a fish-tail – thus bearing some resemblance to Oannes of Babylonian fame. Like Oannes, Cecrops was identified as a bringer of culture, teaching the Athenians marriage, reading and writing, and ceremonial burial.
So why is Athens called Athens, not Cecropia? During his reign as king of the city, Athena became the patron goddess after winning a competition with Poseidon, a contest which Cecrops judged. They would each give the people of the city one gift. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a spring sprang up; the water was salty and hence not very useful. No-one seemed to realise that Poseidon used the spring symbolically, representing sea power for Athens over neighbouring states. Athena struck the rock with her lance and an olive tree sprung up. Cecrops judged in favour of Athena, for the olive tree brought wood, oil and food.

The centre of the Greek world was carefully constructed, with eye for symbolism. It followed the composition of what the Greeks saw a human to be: body, mind (reason), and soul (spirit). The Agora represented the mind and body; the Acropolis the soul, the highest we could attain and a sacred precinct, set aside from the mundane and commercial heart of the city, which was the Agora. As to the Aeropagus Rock, this was the “hill of the supreme court” and matters of state, where judgments were held – a task that exceeded the mundane world below, as it judged it; but at the same time, this was the judgment of men, not the divine judgment, which was still higher – literally, on the nearby Acropolis.
The sacred layout of Athens was not purely static – if anything, life was a process. The Greeks saw life as a road, in which man had to try to attain “Mind”, which was to live a life according to the divine principles. For those who took up this challenge, it involved initiations, which for Athens was closely linked with the Mysteries of Eleusis. The Eleusinian Mysteries were annual initiation ceremonies for the cult of Demeter and Persephone. Details of the mysteries were kept secret, though it is known that the initiation rites united the worshipper with god, and included promises of divine power and rewards in life after death. But though secret in many regards, the mysteries did include public events, such as ritual processions. These occurred within the sacred landscape of Athens and were there to portray the path the initiate walked – which is what a procession is – towards Mind, the world of the gods.

There were four categories of people who participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries: the priests, priestesses and hierophants; the initiates, undergoing the ceremony for the first time; those who had already participated at least once; those who had attained “epopteia”, who had learned the secrets of the greatest mysteries of Demeter. For the procession, the priests walked from Eleusis to Athens, where the sacred objects were placed in the Eleusinion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis. This occurred on the first day of a nine-day long event (on the 14th day of Boedromion, the first month of the Attic calendar, which corresponds in our calendar to July).
On 15th Boedromion, the hierophantes (priests) declared “prorrhesis”, the start of the rites, with ceremonies commencing in Athens the following day and the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron, sacrificing a young pig at the Eleusinion the following day (4th day of the festival). The procession to Eleusis began at Kerameikos (the Athenian cemetery) on the 19th Boedromion, from where the people walked to Eleusis, along what was called the "Sacred Way", which ended Athens’ involvement with the Greater Mysteries.

This annual spectacle was not the only religious festival that occurred at the start of the Greek calendar. The Panathenaia celebrated the birth of Athena Polias, “Athena of the city”, the patron goddess. The calendar was therefore aligned with this saint’s birth and the festival was their New Year. In 566 BC, at the initiative of Peisistratus, the festival was extended every four years over a number of days with many public events and is now known as the Great Panathenaea. This involved Panathenean Games, similar to the other games that were held elsewhere in Greece, such as at Delphi and Olympia.
The central part of the festival was a procession, which assembled before dawn at the Dipylon gate, in the northern sector of the city. The procession then moved through Athens on the Panathenaic Way, through the Agora. Some sacrifices were made on the Areopagus and in front of the temple of Athena Nikê, next to the Propylaea that mark the access to the Acropolis. The procession then mounted under the cave of Apollo, from which the priests watched for the lightning flash of Zeus upon the long summit of the Attic Harma, to the north. On the rear wall of the cave of Apollo were attached votive plaques dedicated to Apollo Hypo Makrais (Under the Long Rocks) or Hyp' Akrais (Under the Heights). Only Athenian citizens were allowed to pass through the Propylaea. The procession passed the Parthenon on the right and stopped at the great altar of Athena, in front of the Erechtheum. Every four years, a newly woven “peplos” – a woven wool robe – was dedicated to Athena, the work of sacred weavers, whose sole task seemed to be the weaving of this ritual, sacred garb which would clothe Phidias' massive ivory and gold statue of Athena in the Parthenon.

The Parthenon is the best known monument on the Acropolis. But even though it is impressive and the most popular, the nearby Erechtheion is definitely as intriguing – and identified as such by tour guides and art experts. Why? Because whereas the Parthenon seemed to be the place to idol-worship Athena, the Erechtheion was the “treasure trove” of Athens and may have been the true “heart” of the limestone plateau. For one, the temple itself was dedicated to Athena and Poseidon Erechtheus, the two deities that were instrumental in the wager – won by Athena. The structure contained the Palladion, which was a “xoanon” – defined as a wooden effigy fallen from heaven and thus not man-made – of Athena Polias. What this artefact precisely is, is unknown. It could be a meteorite, others have argued it may have been a very ancient statue of Athena; most likely, it sits within the category of sacred stones, which in many early cultures was said to allow for communication with the deity.
The Erechteion also contained the tomb of Cecrops and the tomb of Erechtheus, both kings of Athens. But it also showed the marks of Poseidon's trident and was the location of the salt water well that resulted from Poseidon's strike. The sacred olive tree planted by Athena stood right outside the building. As such, it seems to have been the true heart of the Acropolis – rather than the Parthenon.

The Acropolis and its surrounding area is but one aspect of a larger sacred landscape in which the Greek capital sat. The highest point of Athens is the Likavittos Hill, 277 metres above sea level. Today it sits within the city centre, but in Antiquity, it was outside the polis. The hill looks like a pyramid and it received its name from the belief that there were once wolves there. The Athenians had a legend of how Athena had dropped it there by accident upon hearing of the fatal disobedience of the Cecropidae. She had been intending to add her load to the Acropolis hill. It is described as “a naked force, especially as seen from the southwest, and it is as such that it appears from the Acropolis.” The myth indicates an intimate bond between the Acropolis and this hill. Francis Penrose, a British archaeologist studying the Parthenon in 1891, suggested that the site is oriented towards the rising of the Pleiades in the constellation of Taurus. But Vincent Scully added that the Parthenon was also aligned to Likavittos Hill. An inspection on site makes it clear that some alignment can be in evidence.
Scully added that directly opposite the korai was the spot in the rock of the Acropolis in which the image of Gaia was placed, as if she were rising out of her own earth. This location is on line between the cone of Likavittos Hill and the Parthenon’s northwest corner, thus tying the Hill into the sacred plan of Athens’ sacred layout.
But this suggestion becomes a likelihood when we note that there is a further alignment to another hill, situated behind Likavittos Hill. This is Mount Pentelikon, known to have produced the white marble used exclusively for the construction of the Parthenon and its accompanying sculptural components. It shows that there is a divine link between that hill – its “divine body”, the hill identified with a specific deity – via Likavittos Hill, and finally the Acropolis. In later centuries, no less than 160 pits would be opened on the slopes of the mountain and the Romans would export its marble throughout their empire. By then, the sacredness of the mountain and hence the reason why its body – its marble – symbolising the body of the mountain god, which melted with the highest abode the Greeks could attain to (the Acropolis), had long diminished.

With the Acropolis largely synonymous with Athena (wisdom), few have paid much attention to the nearby Aeropagos. Pagos means rock, Areios is thought to be Ares, the Greek god of war (equivalent to the Roman Mars), hence the “Rock of Ares”. It was also the site of the caves of the earth goddesses, the Eumenides. Ares was supposed to have been tried here by the Gods for the murder of Poseidon's son Alirrothios. But he was not alone: in The Eumenides of Aeschylus (458), the Areopagus is the site of the trial of Orestes for killing his mother and her lover, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Before the 5th century BC, the Areopagos was where the council of elders of the city held session. Its membership was restricted to those who had held high public office, in this case that of Archon. In 462 BC, Ephialtes put through reforms which deprived the Areopagos of almost all of its functions, in favour of another court, Heliaia. It thus became the site for murder tribunals only, though later, it was also the location where the Apostle Paul delivered the famous “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” speech, after seeing an altar “to the Unknown God”.
As to the agora… this was “The City”, the commercial heart, but like London’s City, it was not void of temples. It was reorganized by Pisistratus in the 6th century BC, which resulted in the removal of several houses, the closing of wells, making it the centre of Athenian government. Pisistratus also built a drainage system, fountains and a temple to the Olympian gods. Cimon later improved the agora by constructing new buildings and planting trees. In the 5th century BC, temples to Hephaestos, Zeus and Apollo were added to the complex, nestled beneath the acropolis that somehow seems quite distant, almost unattainable, but in reality merely a few minutes’ walk away. But it is the visual impression that makes it seem as if the world of body and mind and that of soul are far apart… whereas in reality, they are just next door. That was the message that the Greek philosophers tried to portray in the reorganisation of their capital: a divine structure projected onto the landscape of Athens, the cradle of “democracy”, but which in truth could seldom aspire to attain the heights of Mind which the Acropolis symbolised. Climbing a mountain was one thing, climbing the Mind another.