Hubris

Living Dangerously: Chapter 5, The Goddess and The Knight

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“Thalia began by pointing out the general geography of Athens and proceeded to speak about the history of the small church, whose exterior walls gleamed white and whose bright blue painted dome was crowned by an ornate gold cross. The blue of the dome blended into the color of the cloudless sky. It’s a Greek blue, I mused, made by this light. Affected by the surrounding Mediterranean, no doubt, my art historian’s logic concluded. Greek light, my questing self interrupted. I’m standing in it at last—Greek light—beautiful and dangerous.”—Helen Noakes

Waking Point

By Helen Noakes

Pallas Athena with her spear, against the “dangerous blue light” of Greece. (Photo: Pinterest/Facts.net.)
Pallas Athena with her spear, against the “dangerous blue light” of Greece. (Photo: Pinterest/Facts.net.)

2022-HNoakes-Pic-Framed

SAN FRANCISO California—(Hubris)—June & July 2024—Editor’s Note: I have known Helen Noakes, in most of her iterations (art historian, interior designer of immense and luxurious Middle Eastern spaces, sculptor, photographer, painter, Reiki Master and, more recently, playwright and gardener) since the 1980s and early 1990s in Athens, Greece and London, England. She has been writing for Hubris since the very beginning of the magazine. Living Dangerously—both book and analog, San Francisco life; όνομα και πράγμα—are Noakes’ works in progress. As I edited this excerpt for publication, I was struck by the fact that my own first visit to the Acropolis, in 1961, included refreshments at Dionysos/Zonar’s. I have Kodachrome images from that day which captured my mother and her friend, Grace, a regal, mysterious woman over six feet tall, whom I imagined, at ten, to be, in fact, Pallas Athena. Author’s Note: Living Dangerously is a work of autofiction inspired by a tour of Greece which I took in 1979, sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley. The people, the country, and the myths are real. The characters’ names have been changed. The novel is in its first rewrite.

From Lycabettus, the second hill at Athens’ center, the view of the Acropolis is unobstructed. Crowning this promontory is a Christian church dedicated to St. George, The Dragon-Slayer and protector of virgins threatened by them. The virgin represented the church and the dragon, paganism.

George, like Athena, to whom the Parthenon was dedicated, is depicted carrying a spear. An obedient knight, he used his in service of others, while Athena, an independent goddess, wielded hers as a symbol of her own power—the power of reason to slice through subterfuge.

She was the goddess of wisdom and just war. And while the two, at first glance, seemed incompatible, it occurred to me, as I stood staring at her gleaming temple, that to achieve wisdom I had to wage war against my fears and the lies I told myself. The goddess whispered to me then, across the expanse of traffic-harried streets, the clamor of the city: Pay attention. Examine yourself without the muddle of self-pity.

This dialog with the gods was not new. As a child, I found myself alone most of the time. Whenever I could, I would escape into our rambling garden, there to imagine I was running through forests with Artemis, or riding Helios’ chariot across the sky; being taught to sing by Apollo. Often, I begged Hades for his helmet of invisibility, to hide me from my mother’s frequent rage. Sometimes, it seemed to me, my prayers were answered. Not often, but often enough for me to believe I was heard.

In my teens, I abandoned my faith in the miraculous, in magical interventions. But here, gazing at the sunlit Parthenon, the presence of the gods was remarkably real, and dialog with the Olympian deities, who were my childhood companions, came easily. Athena, I intreated, teach me to use a spear.

The Parthenon, with Lycabettus Hill in the background.
The Parthenon, with Lycabettus Hill in the background.

I didn’t hear Karen approach. “I hate to pull you out of your communion with Athens, but Thalia is about to begin her talk.”

“Thanks,” I said and walked towards the group gathered around Thalia Kanelidis, who was standing in the little square in front of the church.

Mrs. Kanelidis was a short, plump lady in her mid-60s and the wife of the gentleman who owned the touring company retained for this tour by the University of California. She was to be our guide at the museums and archaeological sites we were to visit on the mainland. Thalia explained that Greek law prohibited foreigners from lecturing at sites. Therefore, Professor Kearny would deliver his lectures at our hotels in the evenings, while she would address us in situ.

Thalia began by pointing out the general geography of Athens and proceeded to speak about the history of the small church, whose exterior walls gleamed white and whose bright blue painted dome was crowned by an ornate gold cross. The blue of the dome blended into the color of the cloudless sky.

It’s a Greek blue, I mused, made by this light. Affected by the surrounding Mediterranean, no doubt, my art historian’s logic concluded. Greek light, my questing self interrupted. I’m standing in it at lastGreek lightbeautiful and dangerous. Dangerous? The word that unexpectedly popped into my mind startled me, but I had no time to consider why, as we were ushered into the church.

When we entered the surprisingly cool interior with silver and gold-clad icons arranged along its walls, I remembered my father telling me that when he served in the Greek army, he was one of the military men selected to stand guard at the “Tomb of Christ,” The Epitaphios, here, on Easter Saturday. A great honor of which he was so proud.

Interior, Holy Church of St. George Lycabettus. (Photo: Go Explore Greece.)
Interior, Holy Church of St. George Lycabettus. (Photo: Go Explore Greece.)

I pictured him—no more than a boy; he was 19—in his full-dress regalia, keeping vigil in the night-silent church, eyes forward and at attention. The face I conjured was in a photo I had seen of him in his discharge papers. When I first saw the image, I stared at it for a very long time, searching for a hint of who he was then. A fresh-faced lad, curly-haired and grey-eyed, peered back at me. Those eyes revealed nothing of the world of pain he had already endured.

My father was a Greek born in Odessa and was eight when the Russian Revolution broke out. He had six brothers, two of whom saw what others refused to acknowledge, that the revolutionaries would spare none of them because they were foreigners and because they were well-to-do. The Bolsheviks reached Odessa sooner than expected and, in the ensuing chaos, my father’s two older brothers booked passage for him on a Greek freighter headed for Piraeus. They gave him money and a letter addressed to their extended family members there asking that they take care of him. It was easier to get a child out of the terrorized city than adults. The captain insisted to the revolutionary authorities that my dad was his own son.

The care my father’s uncles provided amounted to their placing him in a military school where, when he was nine, he was informed that his entire family had been wiped out by the Bolsheviks. “I did not cry in front of my superiors,” my dad explained, “because, according to them, it was unseemly for a man to show emotion. But when I left their offices, I ran to a secluded place by the stables and howled.” I remember his face as he told me the story. It was placid but his eyes expressed an enduring grief. “It’s best not to let people see how you really feel,” he said. “Deep feelings are private.”

When I tell him that I was here and thinking of him, will he say anything? Or will he walk away; seek privacy, as he always does when deep emotions are stirred?

St. George & The Dragon, by Gillis Coignet, oil on panel, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. (Photo: Medieval History.)
St. George & The Dragon, by Gillis Coignet. (Photo: Medieval History.)

In the little church, I surprised myself when I bought a pair of candles and lit them: one at an icon of The Virgin and one at an icon of Christ. “For my father, Theodoros,” I whispered as I stood at the altar. And then, on impulse, “For his mother, Athena, and my grandfather, Achilleas.” I wanted St. George to know that we still honored our pagan past by keeping the ancient names alive. I lit no candle to St. George. But when we left the church, I recalled that my paternal grandfather’s name was George and felt a pang of guilt.

Thalia was a fine speaker. Her mastery of Greek history, literature, and mythology was evident and fascinating. But while Thalia pointed out the interesting coexistence of Christianity and paganism in the Greek psyche, evident in the juxtaposition of the Church of St. George and The Parthenon, she did not go further.

I had been on guided tours before and often found the data in these tours to be generic and boring. Thalia’s tour was far from that. I made a point of complimenting Karen on UC’s selection of Mrs. Kanelidis.

For lunch, we were to be driven to a large restaurant called Dionysus. It was located across the street from the Acropolis. Lunch was to be followed by a tour of the Acropolis and its museum. When we left Lycabettus, I rushed to the bus to get a window seat and watched for glimpses of the Parthenon during the drive.

As we approached the cliff face rising to the temple precinct, my heart raced. What was it about this ancient site that evoked such emotion? Was it only its iconic power or did it speak to something deeper?

View of Lycabettus Hill from the Parthenon. (Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Jebulon.)
View of Lycabettus Hill from the Parthenon. (Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jebulon.)

Wide, tree-lined Areopaghitou Avenue separated the Acropolis from the Dionysus. Gazing up at the Parthenon as I was getting off the bus, I almost fell. Taki caught my arm when I stumbled. “Hey!” he chuckled. “This is me doing my job. So, please! No guns and no brothers. OK?”

“OK, but just remember, they’re always lurking.” I laughed and, noticing the tell-tale eye contact between him and Carol, said, “Ah! Great Aphrodite is generous!” 

Laughing, he replied, “You never know, she just might melt your heart when some Adonis comes along.”

Sitting under a well-trimmed arbor on the upper terrace of the restaurant, I continued staring at the temple site, with the Herodes Atticus’s Odeon at the foot of the cliffs.

“It is incredible isn’t it,” Henry, who sat across from me, said. I nodded. “You’re mesmerized by it.”

Thalia, who sat next to Henry, said, “Many people are. Even I, who see it every day.”

 “To Greeks of the diaspora, it is a symbol of our heritage. A source of pride, a beacon of our real home.” My voice trembled a little.

“I know.” Thalia smiled. “My husband is from Alexandria. He says much the same thing.”

“Such wonderful poets from Alexandria,” I commented.

 “Yes. They kept our language alive. Here, during the Turkish occupation, we were not allowed to learn our own language, to acknowledge our history.” Thalia gazed at me for a long moment. “You’ve read Cavafy?”

“Oh, yes. And Seferis. He’s my favorite.”

View of the Parthenon from Dionysos/Zonar’s Restaurant. (Photo: Athens 24.)
View of the Parthenon from Dionysos/Zonar’s Restaurant. (Photo: Athens 24.)

Thalia nodded her approval, and we were silent for a moment.

 “I liked your insight about the balance of Christianity and Paganism in the Greek psyche,” Henry addressed Thalia.

 “It’s difficult for non-Greeks to comprehend how deeply this influences all we do. What we are,” Thalia replied.

“Athena, for example.” Speaking to Henry, I gestured towards the Acropolis. “She was a virgin goddess. One of her names is Parthena, which means virgin in Greek. The Parthenon is a temple dedicated to The Virgin of antiquity, just as churches are dedicated to another Holy Virgin. We Greeks call her Parthena, too. But Athena embodied power—real physical and intellectual power. She didn’t acquire it by giving birth to a divine being. She was divine in her own right.”

Thalia eyed me for a moment, clearly assessing. I wondered if I had gone too far and regretted having said so much. “What do you do for a living?” she asked.

As uncomfortable as I was, I felt a determination to stand behind my observation. Despite the trembling I felt deep inside, I said, “That’s irrelevant. What I think you want to know is how I’ve arrived at my conclusions.” Not sure if my hands were betraying my inner quivering, I clasped them tightly together under the table. That trembling was old, familiar, and I knew that it was totally illogical. Thalia was not my mother or my husband. She would neither lash out with her fists nor lay me low with a withering remark. “I’m working on a paper about the influence of mythology on pragmatic social structures: political, philosophical, and economic,” I continued and felt the quaking subside.

“Ah!” Thalia gathered her purse, “We should chat. I’d be interested in talking to you.”

She would? “And I . . . to you,” I stammered, completely taken by surprise.

“I have to make arrangements for the group’s access to the site.” She rose to leave. “See you in a few minutes.”

“Pallas Athene,” (c. 1657) by Rembrandt. (Photo: Wikipedia.)
Pallas Athene,” (c. 1657) by Rembrandt. (Photo: Wikipedia.)

“I’d be interested in hearing some of your conclusions too,” Henry said after Thalia left.

I examined him to see if he really meant what he said and, deciding that he was in earnest, nodded. “I . . . I have to . . . .” I rose, waving towards the exit. Henry smiled as if he understood. Quickly, I walked towards the bus, where I knew that the group would gather in a few minutes.

Two people were interested in what I had to say. How extraordinary!

 A warm breeze, redolent with the scent of oleanders that grew profusely along the avenue, ruffled the brim of my straw hat. In placing my hand on the crown of the hat to keep it from flying away, I looked up and caught sight of the Parthenon and realized that it was placed in such a way as to be visible from all sides of the city center.

A reminder of the goddess’s constant vigil and protection. How will it feel to be up there, walking through her sacred precinct?  Will I feel her presence?

As we made our way towards the Acropolis, it occurred to me that if I were to choose my favorite Olympian deity it would be Athena. She was complete unto herself, strong, decisive. She detached herself from physical hungers. The realization made me stop in my tracks. I idolized Athena because I wanted to be left alone to live in my mind. Living in my body was too painful.

Noticing the stares of some of my group members, I started up the walkway leading to the ticketing booth and wondered if Athena had more to say.

Helen Noakes is a playwright, novelist, writer, art historian, linguist, and Traditional Reiki Master, who was brought up in and derives richness from several of the world’s great traditions and philosophies. She believes that writing should engage and entertain, but also inform and inspire. She also believes that because the human race expresses itself in words, it is words, in the end, that will show us how very similar we are and how foolish it is to think otherwise. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)

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