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Becoming Sacred

An evening walk reveals the origins of sacred space, sacrifice, sanctuary, a universal god, and the timeless spirituality of “paying it forward.”

Illustration Credit: Song of Poseidon by Richard Sheppard

Greece is a country of sacred places. I don’t mean the tens of thousands of little Orthodox chapels scattered over the landscape—though you will find one of those chapels on or near any sacred place you reach. Rather, places like a hidden shelf on the mountainside I climbed up to one recent sunset on the island of Paros. I was alone, with no one to mind my frequent backtrackings or the apologies I muttered to the spiders across my path.

I was looking for the remains of an ancient sanctuary of Eileithyuia, a Greek goddess of childbirth. And indeed, she was where I expected her, lodged against a sheer rock face, now adorned with a whitewashed stone chapel (the key waiting trustfully in the door). From the adjoining terrace opened a cave, blocked by a water-loving fig tree too dense for me to pass. But the heart of the shrine was a smaller dark hole in the rock, just wide enough for me to enter, with three beautifully cut limestone steps down to a still pool. There a steady drip-drip from a mossy crack whispered that here on this parched hillside was living water for body and soul.

Most such springs now are dedicated to the Virgin Mary in her avatar of Zoodochos Pigi, the life-receiving spring. They were sacred, however, from the beginnings of human piety, at least ten thousand years before early Christians first wrapped the Mother of God in the blue mantle they borrowed from a long lineage of Middle Eastern virgin goddesses. Such springs may have given birth to piety.

Sacrifice

I climbed back up into the sunset and saw the Aegean spread out: Seriphos, Kythnos, Syros, Rheneia, and finally holy Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Any of these islands is an easy, half-day’s sail from Paros for a pious skipper on whose vessel Zeus Ourios—literally the Zeus of the favorable breeze—happens to be smiling.

But Zeus Ourios seldom smiles for very long. The next stop on my little island pilgrimage is a rocky promontory jutting north toward Delos. With the midsummer meltemi howling I can barely stand up straight. My thoughts get blown away even as they take shape.

Who would set out into such a sea in an open wooden boat? And yet there is some faint glimmering of the answer about my promontory. On one side I see green/white crashing death against the rocks; on the other, flat water, a sandy beach, safe refuge. The promontory on which I stand was and remains a point of inflection on the chart of human destiny: claw windward a little to the east and live; drift leeward a little to the west and die. And like all such points of inflection, human lives and deaths have made it sacred.

There is no chapel here (the Venetian mariners built theirs instead at the first safe landfall down the coast), but there are the remains of something older and more practical—a platform of sturdy half-worked stones on the spot that best commands the sweep of the sea horizon. And around it a scattering of broken pottery, drinking cups and water jars from 2,500 years past. From these surface finds, leavings of ancient ritual meals, we can guess the purpose.

At the worst point in a rough crossing, with darkness falling and jagged rocks ahead, a sea captain makes a vow to all the gods he knows. These days it is usually to the Panagia—the All-Holy Virgin—or to Saint Nicholas, the sailors’ patron. Two thousand years ago the prayer might have been to Poseidon Savior, or to the foam-born Aphrodite of sailors, or especially to the named or nameless god that ruled this specific cape of hope and fear.

Sometimes the sailors drown, and their gods drown with them. More often they round the point and find flat water. Then a brief, ecstatic ejaculation of thanks goes up to heaven. But an ancient sailor’s gods are not our gods, easily satisfied with prayers and inward devotion. A vow has been made and it will be respected.

I can picture the scene at the sheltered cove below the promontory. There is always a shepherd nearby with a sheep or kid to sell if the price is right. During the sailing season there is also someone offering firewood, water, oil, and wine, and a man wearing some priestly token who knows by long inheritance the names and appetites of the local gods. After a quick negotiation, a little procession works its way to the promontory. There on the platform a knife flashes and a fire is kindled. The smoke of burning fat and bone and entrails goes up to the proper gods with the proper words. The captain and crew feast on the sacrificial meat and pour out from a decorated cup the gods’ share of the sacrificial wine.

The gods smile at their reward, and the priest smiles for the hide and leg of the beast that are his perquisite, but they are not the only beneficiaries. Five miles upwind with night falling, other desperate and devout sea captains see the smoke and flame of sacrifice on the promontory, discover their location, and shift their tiller in the direction of safety. They give thanks, as the ancient Israelites did in the desert, for this pillar of smoke by day or pillar of fire by night. And once safe in harbor, they make the same pilgrimage and the same fire is rekindled on the same promontory, a steady chain of vows and salvation and thanks and vows.

Sanctuary

Drowning, though, is scarcely the worst fate imaginable to a sailor. “Any port in a storm” is a maxim not of sublime indifference but rather of desperation. Circe and Cyclops aside, to seek refuge in an unknown harbor is to risk waking up to find your vessel moored with a notorious pirate on one side and a warship of your city’s deadliest rival on the other. Then you might well be fed to the hungry minnows, or be sold as a slave in underground mines, or be held for a ransom that will leave your clan indebted for eternity.

But where I stand now this will not happen. An ancient turning point in our evolution was the codification of rules to soften our endless, deadly game of paintball. One crucial innovation was the idea of “base,” a little neutral Switzerland or African water hole where we are briefly immune.

Etymology signals our debt to the ancient gods for the concept of asylum, from a, “not,” and syleo, “I plunder.” The original rule was that thou shalt not steal the property of the gods from their shrines. That ban evolved to include the god’s human subjects: if you drag a suppliant from my altar and cut his throat, I will make you pay. By the fifth century BC, a more generous concept of sacred asylum was solidly anchored in the Greek moral code. Sacred places were sanctuary, as we try to keep them even today.

Many of us prefer our pilgrimage sites abandoned, the way I found mine, without swarms of souvenir sellers, fast-food vendors, and beggars. I am being selfish or at least excessively modern. Without the sea god’s patronage and the obligation for passing ships to pay him their respects, there could be no permanent population on many desolate, strategic shores. For food, fire, water, and rescue the gods tend to work through human hands. Modern lighthouse keepers insist on being paid, and who could blame them?

A Universal God

A network of at least one hundred sailors’ sanctuaries—to Artemis, Apollo, the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), the Great Gods of Samothrace, and many other divinities—played a crucial role in transforming Greeks’ mental map of the ancient Mediterranean. The great Middle Sea was no longer a deadly barrier guarded by man-eating Cyclopes but a broad highway bringing goods and ideas from Egypt, Palestine, Persia, even Russia, all the way to the Sacred Promontory marking the dangerous Atlantic swell. A Portuguese town still named Sagres (Holy) reminds us of the awe attached to the gods’ designated launching point into the true unknown.

The explosion of Classical thought and art that became the core of Judaism, Christianity, and modern European philosophy owes more than a little to the brave, pious society of seafarers. Their many gods condensed and coalesced in step with their societies. How can one worship a universal god without a universalizing culture?

A sacred place is not a mere accident of geology, nor is it (as I and all lone wanderers need constantly to remind ourselves) our private channel to a slice of nirvana. Some fellow human left a worked stone or a hearth or a piece of cloth to signal his prior participation in the continuing chain of altruism that keeps our fellows alive and they us.

Just as the overwhelming spirituality of Chartres cathedral is a monument to the success of “paying forward” cooperation over centuries, so is every sacred place a storehouse of human capital to be lent out to others on no stronger security than our own faith.


ToposText: All the ancient Greek history, literature, and myth that matter.

One of my idols is Colonel William Leake (1777 to 1860), the British diplomat, spy, and antiquarian who crisscrossed Greece on Ottoman post-horses, managing King George III’s relations with Ali Pasha. To the mystification of his Albanian bodyguards, Leake detoured to every ancient ruin and pulled battered copies of Pausanias and Homer from his saddlebags to reconstruct the map of Greek antiquity.

Classical texts are weighty in more ways than one. Using them to strengthen our bond with the ancient landscape—finding the right page of Plutarch or Hesiod in the Apollo temple at Delphi in a howling gale—is a challenge we rarely rise to. Mythography websites like theoi.com are marvelous—at home with an Internet connection.

The solution I created is ToposText, a smartphone/tablet application that packs inside it 11 million words—all the ancient Greek history, literature, and myth that matter—tagged by place names, and linked to a map and database of Greek cities and sanctuaries. The map is the index. Three taps on the screen will lead you to the ancient sanctuary of the Mistress at Lykosoura in Arcadia, and, more importantly, teach you how to worship her when you get there. ToposText will be available at iTunes by December. An Android version will follow.

Brady Kiesling trained as an archaeologist and ancient historian, then was a U.S. Foreign Service officer from 1983 until his resignation in February 2003 to protest the Iraq war. He is the author of Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower and Greek Urban Warriors, a history of modern Greek terrorism.