“In that part of earth termed by the Greeks Hellas, and by the Romans Graecia, a small tract of land known by the name of Attica extends into the Aegean Sea…”
–Athens: Its Rise and Fall, vol. I, by Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1837)
The land of Attica has the fortune of being both the birthplace of democracy and the fulcrum of Western philosophy. For hundreds of years Athens, which was believed to have been founded by a snake-human hybrid named Cecrops, was the crème de la crème of Greek city-states. Mythologically linked with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, the god of the sea, Athens rose to become a true cosmopolis, which (with Attica’s wealth of resources) eventually acquired maritime dominance. The city’s atmosphere of relative prosperity also gave rise to a “who’s who” of inventors, artists, and statesmen who went on to change the world (for better or worse).
So much for Attica’s favourite son—but what about the region’s other, more peripheral underpinnings? This issue offers a glimpse into the sights and sounds of the country beyond the Acropolis.
Writing in The Atlantic, gastronomer Aglaia Kremezi tells us that contemporary “traditional” Greek cuisine was largely developed in the early twentieth century by a celebrity chef and Francophile named Nicholas Tselementes. This means that in Charles Godfrey Leland’s time, dishes such as moussaka and youvetsi had not yet been invented. In those days, restaurants in Athens (which generally catered to affluent tourists on The Grand Tour) offered menus that combined French and Turkish cuisine.
This leaves us with an interesting question: what were most people eating in nineteenth-century Attica? The answer lies in the diaries of observers who ventured off the beaten path. Edmond About in Greece and the Greeks of the Present Day (1855), mentions that many Athenians dined al fresco on “cold food which they eat anywhere”. He specifically lists olives, salted fish, “khalva” (cakes made from sesame and honey), and mizithra cheese as the most common foods. Elsewhere, in Ten Days in Athens (1862), another writer notes that each village outside Athens had a communal oven which was used to make simple bean and herb stews.
Definitely the most readily available eatables were honey and olives. These were cultivated near Mount Hymettus in the countryside around Athens. In A View of the Commerce of Greece (1800), Louis-Auguste Felix de Beaujour gives a description of the ingredients in Athenian picked olives:
The Cave of Pan on Mt Hymettus
- Claudius Aelian’s Historical Miscellany (third century CE) names this remote Attic cave as the site of a spectacle involving the infant Plato. According to Aelian, Plato’s mother witnessed a group of bees land on the future philosopher’s lips after she set him down on pile of myrtle plants. The cave, which dates to the fifth century BCE, was dedicated and decorated by Archedemos, a local nympholept (a person driven to ecstasy by the nymphs). Used as a shrine for Pan and other nature spirits for hundreds of years, the cave was rediscovered in the eighteenth century by Richard Chandler. Although its votive statues have been spirited away to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the cave is still very much intact.
The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
- Known in Leland’s times as “Sunium” or “Cape Colonna”, Cape Sounion is still a breathtaking sight to behold. It overlooks the glistening, Aegean sea. At sunset, the mythical words of Homer ring true, and the ultramarine waves appear to take on a wine-dark hue. Unsurprisingly, the temple’s visual charm was praised by Lord Byron, a staunch philhellene and aesthete. In the notes to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), he writes: “In all Attica, if we except Athens itself and Marathon, there is no scene more interesting than Cape Colonna.” According to legend, Byron carved his name into one of the temple’s outer columns.
The Sanctuary of Amphiaraos at Rhamnous
- Amphiaraos (pictured above) is a mythological prophet who was thought to have been swallowed by the earth after a battle with the Thebans. Zeus divinised the hero by transforming him into an iatros heros (“hero physician”). Like Asclepios the semi-divine son of Hermes, Amphiaraos gave oracles at incubation sanctuaries. Sick persons slept in these temples and were instructed by the god himself, who appeared in their dreams. At Rhamnous, Amphiaraos was also known as Aristomachos. Rhamnous was also home to an extensive temple complex that was dedicated to Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. Today, the remains of all former cult activity at Rhamnous can be seen northeast of Grammatiko, on a rugged hilltop that overlooks the Euboean Strait.
See what Thinker’s Garden Fantasts are doing this month and next year!
- CANTERBURY, UK: Writing Comes Alive Talk. Where: Sidney Cooper Gallery. When: 8 December. Who: Featuring Essie Fox.
- LONDON, UK: Portals and Pathways candlelit walk. Where: Brompton Cemetery. When: 10 December. Who: Featuring London Dreamtime.
- ROME, ITALY: Lecture on “Fantasmagoriana and others: enchanted books, compendiums of prodigies and sarabands of horrors in the shadow of the guillotine”. Where: The Academy of Enchantment. When: 11 December. Who: Produced by Ivan Cenzi.
- KIEV, UKRAINE: Pop-up tour of Kiev and Chernobyl. Where: Eight-day trip starts at Hotel Salut. When: 13-20 January. Who: Tour by Darmon Richter.
- BOISE, IDAHO: Lecture on Archetypal Panpsychism. Where: Idaho Friends of Jung. When: 20-21 January. Talk by Becca Tarnas.
- LOS ANGELES, CA, USA: Magic Performance. Where: The Magic Castle. When: 20 and 30 January. Who: Show by Ferdinando Buscema.
1. About, Edmond. Greece and the Greeks of the Present Day. Edinburgh: 1855.
2. Beaujour, Louis-Auguste. A View of the Commerce of Greece: Formed After an Annual Average, from 1787 to 1797. Translated by Thomas Hartwell Horne. London: 1800.
3. Byron, George Gordon. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: A Romaunt. London: 1812.
4. Corrigan, John. Ten Days in Athens. London: 1862.
5. Kremezi, Aglaia. “’Classic’ Greek Cuisine Not So Classic,” The Atlantic, July 13, 2010. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/07/classic-greek-cuisine-not-so-classic/59600.
6. Lytton, Edward-Bulwer. Athens: Its Rise and Fall. Vol 1. London: 1837.
7. Pache, Corinne. A Moment’s Ornament: The Poetics of Nympholepsy in Ancient Greece. New York: 2011.
8. Petridou, Georgia. Divine Epiphany in Greek Literature and Culture. New York: 2015.