Monday, July 6, 2015

St George, the Dragon Tamer

Today is my last day in Greece.  I fly out tomorrow morning.  It's also the first day I've set out on my own, instead of with the group.  It's been an amazing trip; I'll write you all about it over the next week or so.  Right now, however, I want to write to you about this monring while it's still fresh in my head.  Just after a lovely breakfast (fried egg, kalamata olives, feta, fresh tomatoes (the tomatoes in Greece are fabulous right now!), and water melon), I set out for Mt Lycabettus, and the Chapel of St George.

Mt Lykabettus, the "mountain of the wolves" is one of the "seven hills of Athens".  The legend goes that the mountain was brought to Athens by Athena, who dropped it from the sky when Ercthonius was released.  

What was on the hill in ancient days seems to be a matter of some debate.  Some sources say that there was a temple to Zeus, the "Dios Oros or Mountain of Jove, which was the ancient Mount Anchesmus as mentioned by Pausanias". Some say it was empty until the Byzantine era, when a church dedicated to St. Elias was built there.

Rather than climb the mountain on my injured knee, I took a taxi to the base, and then the incline to the peak. While it was much hyped, I found the incline quite unimpressive.   The Lykabettus furnicular is not nearly so long as  the Duquesne or Monongahela inclines, and it is entirely enclosed in a tunnel.  However, the few other tourists on the ride seemed much impressed with it, so I suspect if you're not from Pittsburgh, it's awesome.

When you reach the top, you walk out onto a garden path, and from there can make your way to a rather hidden observation platform, with astounding views of downtown Athens, and of the chapel above.

Making your way back to the path, which is full of white and pink azaleas in full blossom, you come next to a small cafe, playing lounge music.  It was only 9:30 am when I got there, so the cafe, which has amazing views, was quite empty.  Continuing up another flight of the brightest white marble stairs, you come to the chapel itself, and the bell tower.  

The chapel is quite small, and completely covered in Byzantine-style iconography.  Most prominent are Xristos, Theotokos, and, of course, St. George.  Now St. George is an awesome fellow.  He is most well known as a dragon slayer, but, in the oldest stories, he is a dragon tamer..

In days long past, St. George was traveling through a far off land (some say Libya, some Egypt, some other places).  He came upon a city (some say the city was Silene) draped in the black of mourning.  Inquiring as to the cause, he was told that a dragon had been terrorizing the land.  In order to appease the dragon, it was decided to offer it a young maiden as a bride.  Lots had been cast, and it came to pass that the unlucky duty fell on the king's own daughter, the much beloved princess Sabra.  Fortifying himself with the sign of the cross, Saint George set off on his horse to kill the dragon and rescue the princess.  Soon, St. George came upon a wizardly hermit, who led him to a magical orange tree, whose fruits were proof against poison.  After harvesting some oranges, St. George set off for the lake where the dragon resided.

Coming to the lake, St. George found the princess Sabra dressed in a flowing bridal robe of white silks, chained to a rock, terrified, awaiting her draconian groom.  The dragon, its scales shedding water, was slinking up out of the lake.  It's head was immense, its venomous breath foul, and tail was fifty feet long!  Quickly, St. George freed the princess, and gave her one of the magical oranges.  St George struck the dragon with his spear, but the scales were so hard that the spear broke in half, and the dragon began to hiss and splutter, a horrible serpentine laugh.  Venom dripped onto St. George and the princess, but they were safe, thanks to the magical oranges.

St George threw himself at the dragon, but this time his sword broke.  He fell to his knees between the dragon and the princess, ready to give his life to save her.  Then, the princess, having recovered her wits, stepped around George, and threw her girdle over the dragon's head, like a leash.  At this, the dragon followed the girl, as meek as a lamb, back to the village, where it was set to work heating the smith's furnaces.

(several more versions of this story can be found here)

Now, as you might have noticed, this story has very little to do with Christianity, and almost all sources agree that it predates the church.  Some believe St. George to be an avatar of Sabazious, some of Zeus.

After taking many photos of the stunning views, I entered into the beautiful chapel.  

After the brilliant sunlight, is was cool and dark, and very welcoming and powerful.  I began to weep.  I can't really say why, the feeling of wonder and love was breathtaking.  The little old lady who was sweeping the stairs offered me her handkerchief to wipe away my tears.  I made a small donation, and took a beeswax candle, to light.  Setting the taper in the sand, I prayed for my ancestors and for peace and freedom for Greece.  I am so worried about the Greek people; things are beginning to unravel here, and yet everyone is so friendly and warm and wonderful.

While I was praying, several obnoxious Australian teenagers came in, and began talking loudly, and snapping photos.  One of them said "Look!  She's actually praying here!" (which seemed like rather an absurd thing to say in a church).  My concentration broken, I went back outside, pulled myself together, and played tourist a bit more.

After about half an hour in the sun, with temperatures climbing into the 90s, I retreated to the cafe, drank an very sweet iced cappuccino made with evaporated milk (a Nescafe Frappe; this is apparently how Greeks drink their coffee in the summer.  quite good.).  I took a few more photos (see facebook for ALL the photos, including numerous selfies), and read for about 2 hours.  While in Greece, I have been rereading Nikos Kazantzakis' masterwork, Report to Greco.  This is my 5th or 6th time through the book; I never tire of it.  The semi-biographical novel is addressed to the Cretan painter El Greco, here understood to be an ancestor of Kazantzakis.  Written on his deathbed, Report to Greco is, in many ways, Kazantzakis's ode to Greek-ness, to the life of the spirit, and to his beloved Greece, and his Cretan homeland.  Kazantzakis's voice is my constant companion here in Greece.

"I LOOK DOWN into myself and shudder. On my father’s side my ancestors were bloodthirsty pirates on water, warrior chieftains on land, fearing neither God nor man; on my mother’s, drab , goodly peasants who bowed trustfully over the soil the entire day, sowed, waited with confidence for rain and sun, reaped, and in the evening seated themselves on the stone bench in front of their homes, folded their arms, and placed their hopes in God. Fire and soil. How could I harmonize these two militant ancestors inside me? ... Without knowing it, the entire universe follows this method. Every living thing is a workshop where God, in hiding , processes and transubstantiates clay. This is why trees flower and fruit, why animals multiply, why the monkey managed to exceed its destiny and stand upright on its two feet. Now, for the first time since the world was made, man has been enabled to enter God’s workshop and labor with Him...The age-old paternal ancestors are thrust deep within me; they keep fluctuating, and it is very difficult for me to discern their faces in the fathomless darkness. The more I proceed in my search for the first terrifying ancestor inside me, piercing through the heaped up layers of my soul— individual, nationality, human species— the more I am overcome by sacred horror. At first the faces seem like a brother’s or father’s; then, as I proceed to the roots, out of my loins bounds a hairy, heavy -jawed ancestor who hungers, thirsts, bellows, and whose eyes are filled with blood. This ancestor is the bulky, unwrought beast given me to transubstantiate into man— and to raise even higher than man if I can manage in the time allotted me. What a fearful ascent from monkey to man, from man to God!"

Eventually, around midday, my frappe long gone, the sun and heat became oppressive, even in the cool shade of the azaleas surrounding the cafe.  I rode the incline back to the bottom, and, despairing of finding a taxi, I began to walk down the great hill.  I walked down a narrow alley, with orange trees along both side.  Oranges, in various states of decay, lay in the gutters and along the sidewalks.  I, of course, ate one.  It was somewhat mealy and not very sweet.  I assume, however, that I am now immune to dragon venom, so all is well.  An occasional motorbike rushed past, far too fast for reason.  After several blocks, one a staircase, I came into a sort of town square, full of phenomenal street art I wish I'd photographed.  I caught a taxi back to the hotel.  After a soak in the jacuzzi (from which you can see the parthenon; be jealous!), I retired to the hotel bar to write this.  Finding myself now at the present, I bid you farewell from Athens!  

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