Cecrops, the half-snake king of Attica, presided over a contest of the gods to see which one would be patron of his vibrant, thriving city. Poseidon and Athena each wanted the prize, and it was decided that whoever bestowed the best gift upon the city would receive the gift of the citizens’ worship. Poseidon struck his mighty trident upon the ground, and from that spot flowed a spring. Cecrops’s people rejoiced until they discovered that the spring ran salty. As her gift, Athena planted a seed that grew into an olive tree, providing food, shade, and oil to burn. Cecrops chose Athena as the winner, and the city came to be known after her as Athens. Poseidon, a sore loser, flooded much of Attica under a sea now known as Erekhtheis.
My daughter Q, just a week from turning 12, tells me this story in front of what’s left of the Erectheum, a temple on the north side of the Acropolis in Athens dedicated to this mythical contest between Poseidon and Athena. An olive tree grows vigorously in front of the bright ruin, its leaves copious and narrow and sharp like a regiment’s spears. The Acropolis sits high up more or less in the center of Athens, and looking west we can see for miles, out to where the ocean meets the land and even further still to where the ocean meets the sky. I imagine the Greeks standing watch here for warships coming in for them, heavy with soldiers and ambition.
A sign informs in several languages that this particular olive tree was planted in 2010 in honor of the Athena winning the city. I find myself feeling a little disappointed that it wasn’t planted by a god 2500 years ago. Do olive trees live that long? Does anything?
Stories certainly do. Q’s older brother M passed through a phase of fascination with Greek myths — he read and reread the pages right out of all the Percy Jackson books — but he has since left it for music and its languages. These old stories have stuck with Q, though. She can tell you the origins and highlights of all the Olympic immortals, and she has her favorites. Last Halloween (and perhaps her last Halloween to dress up) she went as Artemis, fierce goddess of the hunt, protector of young women, and deep source of inspiration to strong girls who have to deal with the ragged fact of young boys.
Q appreciates Athena the most. Athena is the goddess of pretty much everything cool: wisdom, craft, mathematics, strategy, and victory in battle. (War might belong to Ares, but victory goes to Athena.) Her power doesn’t come from thrown lighting or brute strength or blood on a sword, but from outsmarting, from thinking and making. Poseidon strikes the ground with a weapon; Athena gently slips a seed into it.
I understand Q’s love of the ancient Greeks. Myths grip us so tenaciously because they offer explanations. The world was (and is) a difficult place, often senseless and cruel, and we are sense-making creatures. Why did the Attican plain flood? Poseidon was pissed off at not winning Athens. How did the world come to be as it is? Let’s tell the story about Gaia and Uranus and the titans. Where do our loved ones go when they die? Be comforted (somewhat) as they aren’t lost forever; they wait below for us to be ferried across the dark river to join them. Can women and girls be as powerful as men and boys? Check the name of that great city. Is it possible to inhabit a universe subject to powerful but petty deities who might end up on your side after some marble monuments and sacrifice? Hope so — the empty, meaningless alternative seems unbearable.
The world may still be difficult and our explanations have changed (most of us now think the universe exploded noisily into existence on its own) but the need to explain, to make sense through stories, hasn’t. We as storytellers and story consumers also love great characters, and the Greeks knew how to draw them: jealous, lusty, vain, in constant conflict, your usual family. We may no longer believe that Hades rules the underworld while Zeus rules Olympus, but we will always appreciate stories of brothers dealing with different levels of career success.
The next day, we find a taxi driver to take us to the Temple of Poseidon in a town called Sounion about a hour from Athens. The driver knows little English, and the ride is long and quiet, tracing the ancient cursive of the coastline through a series of small towns. It’s a cool day, and the beaches along the way lie empty. M listens to music. Q tries not to get carsick. Their mother sits between them ready to help or to entertain. I sit in front with the driver. He seems to think that the new gated resorts glistening on the coast will impress us, and he points out each one as we pass.
But we have come for the old things. The Temple of Poseidon sits on a bluff overlooking the Aegean Sea, and it’s nothing short of stunning. Since this isn’t America, we can walk right up to the edge of the cliff without a railing or rope to discourage us. (We could easily sacrifice ourselves to Poseidon if sufficiently moved or insufficiently careful.) The temple itself is now just a row of columns that no longer enclose anything, but enough of it remains for us to see that it was perfect meeting of story and place. If I were a god of the sea (or of anything really), I would demand that my stage be built right here, just like this. We walk the paths, pick some rocks for our pockets, and watch the ocean work tirelessly at carving the cliffs. M and Q climb what remains of a giant stone wall that made the edge of a small city here where over two thousand years ago trading ships were built and rebuilt. We joke that maybe Athena really didn’t beat Poseidon if this temple was the consolation prize.
I take a moment at the edge of the sea to be amazed that a line can be drawn from this place out over the years to the bottom bookshelf in Q’s room.
Or perhaps it’s not that amazing. Children, after all, begin as stories told by their parents — he tends to lose things, she has never met a battle she doesn’t want to fight and win — and to unfold as a person is either to live by these myths about oneself or to rewrite them, to explain oneself into full being. I’ve told Q’s story, like I’m doing now, many times. In my telling, Q truly is like Athena — strong, intelligent, focused, industrious, a little stubborn, self-possessed. I want this story to flourish, to be passed along and down over and over by those who encounter her. I want her to believe it, too, so that it will turn out to be true.
Parents end up as stories told by their children. I can’t help but wonder, when my wife and I have moved from truth to myth, what Q will say at our monuments.
The driver signals that it’s time to go, and we take a last long look so that our memories have something to save and shape. I’m thankful to have some quiet ahead of me. I want to think about how to tell you everything.