Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Trident and the Spear

Every city which rises to greatness does so from humble beginnings. So high can a nation rise that so mythic can her origins seem. Every great thing, be it a nation, a person, even an idea, has to start somewhere. To our ancestors of old, greatness was a sure sign of favour from on high. For the hand of a god must surely have been at work when one of the most influential cities in human history, for better or worse, was born.

2nd century AD Roman bust  from Velletri
The Olympians had fought a terrible fight for mastery of the Cosmos. Their forefathers and creators of the Universe, the Titans had not yielded their divine grip easily. After so great a struggle, the harmony of the World was worth more than anything to the gods, even to Zeus the Thunderer, King of the gods and Lord of the Sky. Now fidelity was one thing that Zeus the Thunderer knew not, and many a hero of the ancient world owed his existence to the philandering adventures of the god of gods. It was little surprise therefore, when Zeus undertook a clandestine affair with the beautiful Titaness Metis. However, when the Fates prophesied that the child of Metis would be mightier in spirit and wiser in understanding than its father, Zeus the father of gods and men was convulsed with fear. Long ago, his father Kronos had heard similar words, with dire consequences. The Heavens had groaned under the Titanomachy, and could ill afford so ruinous a war for a second time. So Zeus the Thunderer decided on a little evil for a greater good. Weaving his divine powers of transfiguration, the shape of Metis he shifted to that of a common fly, and the god swallowed her whole, so that she may never give birth to this legendary child.

Time passed, but troubles did not for the Lord of Olympus. As the days grew late, a terrible pain struck the god inside. What began as an ache inside his royal head, soon swelled to a pounding agony that would not die. Time soon came when even the Thunder himself, conqueror of Typhon and Heaven could bear the torment no more, and summoned to his side Hephaestus, the god of the forge and weaver of fire. "Take up thy hammer and rend asunder this head that pains me so, lest this torture afflict me for all the ages to come", said Zeus. The lame god of the smith stood dumbstruck by this command - split open the head of Zeus? But the father of gods and men was inexorable, and irresistible. So Hephaestus took up his hammer and tongs, and with a mighty strike, he breached the Divine Crown. A roar of thunder and a flash of light rolled over the skies. Then, in a blur of speed an apparition appeared. From the fissures in the skull of Zeus there leapt a figure, strongly built yet distinctly feminine, agile yet fully armed, wise yet ready for war, a new goddess entered the cosmos. Athena, goddess of wisdom, mistress of stratagem, lady of the spear and patron of heroes.

Around this time, far below on the mortal plain, the tribes of Attica came together under their King, Cecrops. Born of Mother Earth herself, Cecrops taught the Atticans the still young arts of reading and writing, of literature, of burial and brought the institution of marriage to the tribesmen. Civilisation as we know it, was being born. Soon, however, the simple villages of Attica groaned under the advance of the people, and a new home was needed. Under the leadership of their vibrant King, the Atticans set off through the harsh landscape of Attica, where open plains give way to beaten rock. After a time they came to a place in the West, largely flat yet punctuated by towering pinnacles of rock. The sea lay yonder, yet wise Cecrops knew that to build their new city on the shore itself was too dangerous in an era of rampant piracy on the high seas. Away from the shore then, yet near enough for trade, the people set foot upon a mount with a commanding position over the plain and the sea. Here would be founded their new city, and grandiose would it be. But every new city needed a patron god, but who?

The Artemision Bronze
Word reached Olympus of the gathering under Cecrops upon the Mount. Just then,  the Fates declared that the city that would be founded upon that place would rise to a greatness rivalling the best of all Greece. Glory and honour would walk hand in hand to whomsoever should become her patron. A frenzy gripped Mount Olympus, and the all the divine array wondered. Two among them immediately took the floor. Athena, ever ready with sharpened word and thought, leapt to her newborn feet. But Poseidon, god of the sea, shaker of the earth and lord of horses, bowed to few. Even Zeus himself, King of all gods kept a close eye on his ambitious younger brother, for most vexed was Poseidon when he lost the Heavens in the division of the cosmos. Torn between loyalty to his brother, however unruly, and care for his daughter, despite the danger she posed as his successor, Zeus decreed that the people should decide the patron of their city. Immediately, the two deities spirited down from Olympus and made landfall upon the mountain. With a blinding flash and a roar of thunder, the people cowered at the sight of the divine array. Fearful lest they choose one over the other, the people knew not what to do. Cecrops their King, however, decided. Turning to his gods, he declared that the patronage of the new city would belong to the one who presented the greatest gift to it. Poseidon and Athena, uncle and niece, eyed each other, and readied their contest.

The Sea of Olives, Delphi
Photograph taken by the author
Both god and goddess, stood aside the towering pinnacles of the Acropolis, poised for the prize of glory. Poseidon, shaker of the Earth, took the first move. Raising his mighty Trident high into the air, with a rush of godly strength he plunged the three blades into the mountain side. A deafening rumble rippled across the Earth, and the people were thrown to the ground, terrified. There, where the central prong penetrated the summit (a place today commemorated by the Erechtheion), the wounded rock spat forth a spring of water thick with brine. The Emperor of all Oceans granted to the people the gift of the sea itself, and the assurance that one day they would master it. A fabulous gift indeed. Next the virgin goddess stepped forth. The eyes of Athena looked into the souls of all mortals present, and she senses their hopes and fears. Confident, and unyielding, the daughter of Zeus took up her spear and flung it into the mount. The people watched, entranced, for before their eyes the lance began to shift. The wooden shaft lengthened and broadened, from the blade branches sprang forth, rich with the bounty of its dark fruit. To the people Athena gave the gift of the humble olive tree. Poseidon looked on, bemused and anxious.

Athens at her height
Painting by Leo von Klenze
The primordial Athenians looked on the lowly sprig with wonder and amazement, as the goddess instilled some of her divine wisdom in their minds. Cecrops beckoned his people round to cast their vote. Poseidon's gift was mighty indeed, as was his promise. Mastery of the Ocean? 'Tis the dream of empires! A great destiny had been given to them. But that all looked a long way off to the primitive people, as they looked to and fro, and saw naught but barren rock. One citizen splashed some of the water over his face, and recoiled at its salty taste. The people turned to the sapling, Athena's gift. One fellow took a blackened grape from its boughs, and crushed it in his hands, and oil splashed across his palm. Into his mouth he tossed the olive and pleasing was its taste. Seeing the thick and robust trunk too, he saw the greatness of Athena's gift. Poseidon had given them a taste of great nations, but Athena had given them a source of food, of wood and oil, and something they could trade with others. The people sank to their knees with joy, and hurled themselves at the foot of Athena, daughter of Zeus and maiden of Olympus. Poseidon, god of the seas, was infuriated, but his niece had won the day. Cecrops declared Athena the one true patron of their new city. He declared that this place, the Acropolis, would ever be sacred to her. He declared too, that in her honour the city would be named. To the roar of approval from the first Athenians, he named the city. Athens, the glory of Athena...

United Kingdom

The Library of Mythology:
Library of Mythology
(A vast collection of the myths of old Greece, written in ancient times, and a great intro)

United States

The Library of Mythology:
Library of Mythology
(A vast collection of the myths of old Greece, written in ancient times, and a great intro)

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