At the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, one of my most favorite museums in the world, I wander into the temporary exhibit “Odysseys.”
The overall concept was muddy – how life is a kind of odyssey – but the exhibit itself was embracing, seductive. In the first rooms, the walls were black and the pieces bathed in deep blue light.
In the ceiling were small points of white light arranged like constellations above a seafarer navigating the Greek islands, and all around was the sound of waves and the creaking of heavy ropes on a ship under sail.
The sum was intended to carry you with Odysseus from Kalypso to his home island of Ithaca, and you could almost feel the old boat around you, plowing steadily ahead on a dark night in the Mediterranean Sea, with the old man using the stars as a guide.
In the central cases are pots and sculptures illustrating his trials on the journey. A pot depicts the witch Circe trying to enchant Ulysses with a magic potion. His companion behind him has already been turned to swine.
In another, Ulysses is tied to the mast of his boat to resist the call of the sirens. Argonauts, sirens, dolphins, and the clever octopus are depicted throughout the popular exhibit that raised museum attendance last year by roughly a quarter.
A label below a bronze octopus notes the creatures is both a symbol of the sea as well as a representation of flexibility and shrewdness – “characterized as cunning, exactly as the well-traveled and ingenious hero Odysseus is.”
One reason I love the museum so much is that it not only displays the remarkable artistic expression of the Greek civilization but it also serves as a refresher course on the origins of our own democracy, telling us that 2,500 years ago the citizens of Athens cast their votes with pieces of clay and with sufficient power to send a king into exile.
From the expansive labels on the museum walls, I read again that Athens was both the cradle of democracy and the military behemoth of its time. Its strength gave it the role leading the city-states of the Delian League, established in 477 B.C. to protect the Aegean islands against the Persians.
“The establishment of democracy in Athens eased off social opposition and balanced individual political powers, thanks to the enforcement of various measures aimed at the common good and the prosperity of the city,” said one of the long labels explaining the classical period of Greek civilization.
“The free participation of citizens in the handling of communal affairs fostered the sense of personal responsibility. At the same time, it led to the realization of human limits and man’s place relative to the gods. The dramatic works of the great poets – Aeschylos, Sophokles, Euripides – expressed the tragic character of human nature as it strives to overcome its prescribed course and reach eternity.”
I could not help but roll around in my mind the notion of a civilization that is more than ten times older than ours and yet has such familiar characteristics. Our nation is built on democracy and is supposed to pursue the common good. It is the strongest military power anchoring a regional alliance, and among a proliferation of enemies, it confronts the Persians.
But recognition of our heritage from the Greeks also brought forth a dark thought that between the current nuclear confrontation and the ongoing damage to the planet, we could in our relatively brief tenure as leader of the western world smash the whole thing to pieces, leaving behind something like pottery shards of a civilization 2,500 years in the making.
But it was a beautiful, sunny day. After spending a good part of the afternoon in this under-funded but truly remarkable museum, we walked through a good part of central Athens on the way back to the Acropolis Select hotel.
Along the way we wandered through a set of walking streets set at all angles, the signature of old neighborhoods that evolved long before street grids. We stop for a beer and gyros at a café set among small trees in the center of a wide walking street next to a white-stone, stately public building of which there are so many in Athens.
For the life of me, I cannot now find the route we took nor the cafe, but that is the nature of the center of Athens. You can wind around little cafes and public buildings and stores for hours, and at any point stop for a bite to eat, talk to a friendly waiter and drink a libation that brings to mind the Odyssey’s phrase, “sailing over the wine-dark sea.”