Arianna Huffington (née Stassinopoulos) was born in Athens, and in 1983 published a book titled “The Gods of Greece,” about how the ancient deities inspired and fertilized Western culture and imagination through the centuries.
Recently, over a cool glass of pomegranate juice at Arianna’s home in Brentwood, Calif., I asked her why there is such an interest, even today, with supernatural beings from the distant past ... we all know they are merely myths.
“Don’t be so sure, Richard,” she chastised. She went on to say that her sister Agapi had written two books on the gods and goddesses of Greece, and shared that she would be in Greece soon, and suggested I hook up with her. “She has fascinating insights into the personal natures of the gods. She might even help you discover a god who resonates with your interest in the environment and caring for the planet.”
So, shortly thereafter Agapi and I meet in Athens, and immediately she pulls me along like an earthbound kite on a journey to understand the impact of Greek mythology today.
“In modern religions it is said that god created man in his image,” Agapi explains. “In Greek mythology we say we created the gods in our image, so we can better understand ourselves. Each god exemplifies a particular human characteristic.”
Agapi first takes me to one of the most perfect poems in stone, the Acropolis, dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and reason. The morning light brings the sinuous roads of the city into high relief, and while my feet move forward, my senses embark on a dizzying journey backward in time.
Agapi shares that Athena was a gifted weaver who wove everything together — compassion, strength, discipline, intellect, the masculine and the feminine — all integrated to a complete whole, and as such is a role model for all time.
In the shop of a modern silversmith we find echoes of Hephaestus, the Olympian god of fire and the forge. The blacksmiths of ancient times crafted tools and jewelry from bronze and iron, and today’s metal workers continue that tradition creating intricate works by hand. Hephaestus was the embodiment of man’s unquenched creativity—the creativity that forged the bridge between primordial dependence on nature and our industrial world.
The day following we venture south of the city to explore the time-cracked hills and seaside cliffs of Cape Sounion, surrounded on three sides by an infinity of sea. This is a place of rarefied silence, broken by the powerful secret language of the winds, and the whispers of the waters. Even the Romantic poet Lord Bryon found inspiration in this sea-sprayed vista. He wrote:
“Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
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There, swan-like, let me sing and die.”
Lording over a sea that surges like ideas in turmoil, this temple was dedicated to Poseidon, god of the sea. Agapi elaborates: “Poseidon brings us unleashed feelings, emotions and sexuality. He represents what the Greeks called the power of the water, which is the unconscious. He was the source of life.”
When there were typhoons, storms or earthquakes, Poseidon was angry; when the sea was smooth, he was content. And fishermen, then and now, learned to read the moods of the trident-wielding god.
As Agapi talks about Poseidon as a paladin and life force, it seems impossible to ignore not just the immense power but the increasing vulnerability of today’s oceans; of how dependent we all are upon their good health for our own existence; and how, more than ever, we need a Great Water God to inspire our care and stewardship for perhaps our most vital resource.
Agapi: “He's the god of dance and singing and ecstasy. He is the liberator. And he exudes enthusiasm. You know, enthusiasm is the Greek word for within God. So, he helps us rediscover our enthusiasm, our celebration for life, the joy of the moment. He helps us break loose of our own rigidity, through our own walls. He's the one that the worst in civilization tries to suppress, but it can’t be done because Dionysus is insuppressible.”
The next day, after the hangovers clear, we head to Olympia. It’s said that Zeus himself organized the first Olympic Games here in 776 BC, in the aftermath of his victory over Chronos, his father, for the domination of the world. But it’s not Zeus Agapi wants to discuss ... rather it is Hermes, who is depicted in statue at the museum, seeming at the threshold of life. God of flight, commerce, and travelers, Hermes was the messenger of the gods. He was also a guide who showed the way for the dead souls to Hades' realm.
The statues and art of Greece’s golden era make clear that there were changes occurring within the Greek psyche. Earlier sculptors in places such as Egypt and Mesopotamia created images of gods and kings that were stiff and unapproachable. But the Greeks began transforming those intimidating images into something more human and accessible. The gods were portrayed in naturalistic poses, performing human activities. And on vases and pottery, artists showed not only divine beings, but ordinary people engaged in everyday tasks.
Slideshow: Glorious Greece What was happening here? Could it be that by endowing gods with human traits, the Greeks were also starting to change the way they viewed the world around them? There was a new thought process developing, one in which the gods weren’t quite so powerful as before, and humanity was becoming the measure of all things.
That evening we dine at the island home of a friend of mine, Kostas Mallios, and his mother cooks up an enormous traditional Greek meal. Agapi volunteers that mother Mallios is the modern Demeter, the goddess of plenty. “She is a caretaker, she's a nurturer, a great healer. And, at the core of her being sits a generous heart and an amazing powerful love. She's the goddess that gave us the sickle and the plow. And she tells us, “Go and plow the earth, and be fertile and harvest the good and be abundant.” And we dine in a profusion of bliss.
The next marker is Delphi, favorite site of the sun god Apollo. He was an illuminated god who promoted science, mathematics and music, as well as symmetry and balance in life. And Delphi was a living representation of that desired equilibrium, a place that fed in equal measure the body, mind and soul. They had a gymnasium for the body, a theater for the mind, and a temple for the soul, what all world cities offer today.
Top 10 ecotourist hot spotsAs dabblers in the narratives of mythology, many of us assume that the Greek myths emerged as full-blown, completely formed stories. But the truth is a bit more complex. The gods and myths of Greece evolved over a very long time incorporating elements from other cultures and earlier eras, a sort of mythological melting pot.
Many of the stories found their roots in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The ancient island culture of the Minoans had a sea god whom the Greeks later called Poseidon. And the conquering Indo-European warriors known as the Mycenaeans brought with them their ancient sky father, Zeus. We will never know the proportions of import and export in these stories because, often by design, the ancient Greeks were great storytellers. We try today to decipher the enduring statues, artwork, temples and ruins; to inhabit the past with meaning. One part of their history can be seen with the eyes; the other, only with the imagination.
In the north of Greece, at Litochoro, a small town at the foot of Mt. Olympus, Agapi introduces me to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. Resting between the soft soughs of the sea to the east and the thundering mountains to the west, Litochoro is a community that personifies the ancient Greek concept of Harmony — the interaction of conflicting parts that gives rise to a productive reconciliation. Here, even travelers from far off lands feel the warm breath of Hestia. “She is really about the homecoming,” Agapi tells me, “but the coming home to ourselves, returning to our own center. She protects us from the bustle and hustle of the outside world.”
From Litichoro, I head out to climb a peak long a dream of mine, Mt. Olympus, home to Zeus, god of sky and thunder, and the king of all the gods.
As I begin my ascent, I remember that Agapi told me to be on the lookout for the spirit of one more goddess: ‘Gaia,’ or Mother Earth. While hiking the muddy trail it’s easy to dial back to Gaia, who preceded even the Olympian gods. According to mythology, the primordial goddess emerged from chaos, the void. And it was from her that all the Olympian gods and all living things ultimately sprang.
Call of the wild: Best adventure tripsScientists in the 1960’s choose the name Gaia for a theory that argued that Earth and all its creatures and organisms are so closely intertwined that they form a single life form. This system works together to maintain the climate and other conditions on Earth in balance, if Man doesn’t get in the way.
On the climb up I get caught in a thunder and lightning storm, the type Zeus was so famous for. While huddling under a tree, two climbers pass on the way down carrying a third on stretcher, He has a broken leg. This is not a trivial mountain.
But after two days of stepping upwards, I cross a small plateau, and find myself standing on top of Mt. Olympus, the pantheon of the gods. I’m utterly overcome — not just from the heart-stopping views, but from admiration and gratitude for the curious minds that came before me. Those great, imaginative thinkers looked deeply into the natural world, toward the very essence of life. And with their myths, they built a bridge between human comprehension and the mysteries of eternity.
The ancient Greeks, with their artists, playwrights, philosophers and scientists, changed the basic relationship between humans and gods. It was as if a light bulb came on. By making the gods more human, humanity somehow became more divine.
And some Greeks actually began to give up the idea that gods — or their earthly representatives, the kings and pharaohs — controlled the universe. In a sense, the Greeks liberated us. Humans were no longer trapped helplessly in a world in which they existed only to serve divine beings. All of sudden it seemed reasonable that all men could participate in the running of society. And perhaps there were different explanations, even rational, scientific explanations, for the forces of nature that surround us.
It’s hard not to appreciate the glory that was ancient Greece. The culture that pushed the envelope of human reason instigated a revolution in perception and thought, laying the foundation for a system of values that respects equality, and balance.
And over two thousand years later, it’s time to push the stone of civilization even further: to honor the sacredness in all living things, and assume the responsibility to protect them.
Richard Bangs is author of 19 books, founder of several digital media properties, sits on the boards of several travel, technology and environmental boards, and is producer and host of the national public television series, “Richard Bangs’ Adventures With Purpose”.
Watch the high-definition television special, “Richard Bangs’ Adventures with Purpose — Greece: Quest for the Gods, with Agapi Stassinopoulos” on national PBS. Check your local listings.