Friday, October 08, 2010
Athos 2: Leaving Aphroditi
I departed for Athos from a village east of Lamia with my two companions, Ilias and Vangelis, who had invited me to join them on their visit. Ilias is the father of my Greek daughter-in-law; Vangelis is the father of her sister's husband. Vangelis is a classical scholar and expert on Orthodox liturgy. Neither spoke much English, and I speak little Greek, but language proved to be little problem.
Ilias and Vangelis had visited Athos before, so were familiar with routes and procedures. The motor journey on the afternoon of our first day lasted some 5 hours.
A new motorway is mostly complete. From Athens it runs north past Lamia and Larissa; then, with the impressive massif of Olympos to the west, to Thessaloniki. From there the new Egnatia Odos runs east, passing two large freshwater lakes, Koronia and Volvi, the land becoming increasingly fertile and forested. After Volvi we turned off to the sea at Stauros, then south through beautiful forested hills, passing Stageira, the birthplace of Aristotle, and Nea Roda, the site of Xerxes' canal.
The road ends at Ouranopolis, Sky Town, a pleasant seaside resort, where small hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops cater to the Athos pilgrims. Prominent in Ouranopolis are shops selling icons, prayer beads, religious books and other items for the Orthodox.
Further travel into Athos is by boat.
Next morning at 0830 we were here, in the Grapheion Proskunyton, the Pilgrim's Office, with passport and 30 euros to collect the Diamonytyrion, the necessary permission to stay 4 days on Athos: an A4 sheet with the double headed eagle of Byzantium at the top left-hand.
An hour later we were on the ferry, the Agios Pantaleimon, a large landing craft. It has a vehicle deck and passenger superstructure reached across a bow ramp, lifted at sea, and dropped when the ship is brought bow first against a quay.
The sun was warm, the sea was blue, with white-crested waves whipped up by a brisk southerly. I watched monks, pilgrims and workmen coming aboard, while on the narrow quay maybe a dozen cars and small trucks queued for their turn to negotiate the ramp.
I noticed an old monk with a long white beard climbing the steps of the companion-way with difficulty, carrying two heavy plastic carriers labelled Lidl. A small group of young men were dressed for the beach - T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops: they proved to be Romanians, and they did not arrive at the monastery so clad.
Then I noticed her, an image which I shall not easily forget.
She was young mother with a child in a push-chair. She stood quite still, on the seaward end of the quay, watching the loading. She was tall and beautiful, with her dark hair carefully tied back. A phrase from Virgil came into my head - his Copa Syrisca has caput Graeca redimita mitella: 'hair dressed back with a ribbon in the Greek fashion'.
[In museums you can see classical Greek statues with the same hair style.]
She wore a fitted 3/4 length sleeved dress of grey and light blue gingham. The gusty wind alternately ballooned her dress, then blew it against her body.
Standing there, Aphroditi incarnate, she seemed to challenge us.
'O what is a woman, that you forsake her?'
What drives a man to forsake the real world and bury himself in a monastery? Is he seeking or fleeing?
Why were we turning away from her into the monks' world of Athos, dedicated to a legendary virgin who became mother of God?
Questions which the learned Professor Jung may be best placed to answer. The virgin goddess is an important archetype of the collective unconscious, well known in Greek and Middle-Eastern myth long before Christianity: Artemis, for example, and Athena, to whom was built the Parthenon: Mary moved onto ground well prepared.
Or perhaps Professor Freud or one of his disciples can explain how the male libido may be obstructed, and diverted or repelled from Aphroditi.
I have heard that feminists have demonstrated on the quay at Ouranopolis. Was she there that morning by chance or design - that young woman whose questions demand an answer?
I hope it was by design.