I made it all the way through college without learning a thing about the ancient Greeks. It wasn't because nobody was trying to teach me, and I did learn a few things here and there. But the people telling me that Greece was the high point of civilization, that Greece should somehow matter to me as a 20th-century American well, they seemed a bit out of touch to me, even if they may have been right. They were almost as bad as the English department asses who insisted I memorize the opening to The Canterbury Tales. I refused, flunked the class, and became a history major.
But after college I went on a trip that included Egypt and Greece. And while I admit that the first lines I wrote in my journal in Athens were about how good-looking the women were, I wound up thinking the ancient Greeks were onto something.
It certainly wasn't the kind of crap that was in my guidebook, which read, in part, "There's a message whistling 'round the ancient stones of Greece. Prepare for it, listen for it. Once you hear it, you are changed forever. In days to come, whenever petty, temporal irritations enter your life, you need only think of the stones of Greece to dispel them forthwith."
These days, when I read those lines, I have to admire the hustler who got paid to write them. But when I was 23, my reaction was, "Why do people feel compelled to write like that?" Besides, I had just come from Egypt, and the ruins there make the ones in Greece look like well, my fellow travelers in the Athens hostel disparagingly called them "broken stuff."
It's funny, in fact, to go back and read what I wrote all those years ago. I described the Parthenon in my journal as "pretty impressive -- plus the historical significance, I guess." I also gave it credit for apparently having straight columns. No person can be as jaded as a young international traveler: "Parthenon? Did it."
But what hit that earlier version of me, wandering 20-something that I was, were the caryatids. The caryatids were originally columns on a porch, but now they're in the Acropolis Museum, which I recall otherwise as being one seriously dull place. And what is a caryatid? Well, it's a woman. And that's why they were so different from what I had seen.
Check out ancient Egyptian art sometime. Do the people even look like people? They're tall and stiff, with their arms folded in front of them and one foot slightly ahead of the other, and the women basically look like the men.
But the caryatids are women. They've got long hair, robes, and breasts. They have curves. They look like real women, with feelings and grace and sexuality. In all my time in Greece, I didn't see one painting of somebody singlehandedly squashing a horde of Hittites.
Looking at these women, I sensed that a light of understanding had come on. I looked around the Parthenon, and it all started to make sense to me. It's about humanity. Egypt was all about the afterlife and power and the divinity of the ruler. The Greeks built theaters and had government-funded plays -- for the public.
The Greeks built libraries and bathhouses, which I had already visited and dismissed as "broken stuff." But they were places of leisure and pleasure, two words not associated with ancient Egypt.
Just down the hill from the Parthenon is the 17,000-seat Theater of Dionysus -- Dionysus being the god of wine, whom the Greeks, according to my guidebook, celebrated with "ritual celebrations which included intoxication, orgies, human and animal sacrifices, and hysterical rampages by women called maenads. The most controversial practice involved uninhibited dancing and emotional displays that created an altered mental state known as ecstasis."
To a 23-year-old who had, by this time, seen a few Grateful Dead shows, this was speaking my language. I had to wonder, though, why uninhibited dancing and emotional displays would be more controversial than human sacrifices.
Still, I couldn't imagine the pharaoh sitting down for the latest exploration of human drama by some local playwright, much less an orgy and perhaps a hysterical rampage. It was obvious to me -- as obvious as the Parthenon looming above me -- that somewhere between ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, people had figured out that life, in large part, is about kicks.
I thought back to my college days and wondered why my haughty professors couldn't have explained this to me. But they were outmatched by my indifference, and besides, some things you have to see for yourself. And I don't mean see the Parthenon; I mean see the culture. I didn't care anything about ancient Greek culture, even when I stood among its ruins and read about it in guidebooks -- until I saw its curves.