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Greek Pilgrimage: In Search of the Foundations of the West

Greek Pilgrimage: In Search of the Foundations of the West

4.4 10
by John Carroll

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This is a travel book in the grand sense. The horizons it explores are of land and sea, and of the mind.
Greek Pilgrimage is a meditation on classical Greece, journeying through its great sites, monuments, and cultural works. On the way, it examines the country’s pivotal role in the foundation of the modern world. We who are born into the


This is a travel book in the grand sense. The horizons it explores are of land and sea, and of the mind.
Greek Pilgrimage is a meditation on classical Greece, journeying through its great sites, monuments, and cultural works. On the way, it examines the country’s pivotal role in the foundation of the modern world. We who are born into the West are all Greeks. Here lie our roots.
The ancient Greeks invite us to think about who we are, and the best ways to organize ourselves, to build institutions, and to make our cities beautiful. They lead us into a skeptical orientation to ourselves and the world we inhabit, questioning the meaning of it all. They have bequeathed to us science and philosophy, drama and sport, our engagement with nature, and much else that graces our modern world.
In Greece, our metaphysical perspective was set. We were introduced to the mystery — an abiding sense that there is a deep secret, one which somehow holds the key to the big questions about life. An aura lives on, a mysterious vitality, among the ruins that remain today — in Delphi, at Olympia, and on the Acropolis.
Greek Pilgrimage is also designed to serve as a practical guide for the modern traveller to Greece. Two itineraries are recommended at the end, with maps and illustrations.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A very good introduction to classical Greece.”  —Sydney Morning Herald

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Scribe Publications Party Limited
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

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Greek Pilgrimage

In Search of the Foundations of the West

By John Carroll

Scribe Publications Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2010 John Carroll
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-921753-49-7



The past is a mysterious land that pipes an alluring tune. By night, we dream; by day, we sleepwalk along our life-path; and, all the while, our inner ear strains to pick up a distant, faint rhythm from a long time ago, playing somewhere beyond.

It may be the song of the Sirens serenading the long-voyaging Odysseus. If he were to act on what he hears, bound to the mast of his ship as he is, his rowers' ears sealed with wax; if he were free to follow what rouses him to an ecstatic swoon, his journey would be dashed to pieces on a rocky shore. By all means listen, his story instructs us, but don't sail too close to the enchantment! Or, it may be the voice of the goddess Athena that is heard, as she sings the foundation story in Western culture, the Iliad, through the voice of the poet Homer. Her story tells of the wonder and the tragedy, of what it was like, once upon a time, to live in the age of heroes. Her song implies that, ever since, things have been lesser, but that we lesser mortals may aspire to rise above our ordinariness.

Of course, it is not just any past that breathes a mystery call.

Is it that we are after some metaphysical homecoming — or nostos, as it is named in Greek by Homer in his second work, the Odyssey? Nostalgia is a perpetual longing for some idyllic past, a feeling something akin to mellow grief over distant loss. And, indeed, the English word 'nostalgia' is a Greek derivative — from nostos algos — meaning literally pain for home, or grief, or suffering.

It is as if our perpetual, cursed condition is to have awoken one day after a long sleep to find ourselves in an alien place, removed from our primal home: a home of which we can conjure up no conscious picture, however hard we try; a home that we know only by some sixth sense, and a deep instinctual longing. It is as if, to continue, our other home and its family, the well-known one, the haven in which we grew up, is just a substitute attempt by loving parents to console us for our loss. They, too, those parents, built their nest, a cosy security of sought-for belonging, in an attempt to console themselves for the same loss.

So it is that we are enthralled by origins. We are pitched at birth into a life-long quest to find our primordial spiritual home, the place where it truly began. So we travel, and not only on foot. We travel in our teeming imagination, pressured with fantasies of where it might be better, with whom it might be right. But aren't those particular fantasies mere displacements, substitutes supplying goals that seem more achievable? Where were we in the beginning? How are we to find our way back? How are we to discover the clues that matter?

Even the ultra-rational Socrates had a dream, just before his death, of meeting a stunningly beautiful woman dressed in white robes, who told him that he was about to undertake a three-day voyage to Phthia. The association is with Book 9 of the Iliad, in which Achilles anticipates leaving Troy the next day, and taking the three-day voyage back to his beloved home, which is Phthia. Socrates is dreaming, as he departs from life, of joining the legendary hero on a journey to his true home. Wherever that may be, it is far from Athens, the actual place in which Socrates has always lived.

There are more straightforward answers to why we travel, or at least travel to other countries and remote places. There is curiosity — we humans seem to be born with some restlessness of spirit, and a hankering for difference and change. We are curious to see differences of place (both landscape and human settlement), of people, of customs, of food, and, in general, of taste and ethos. A good part of this is to test our own home — suburb, city, and nation, by means of comparison, and with it our own habits, beliefs, and what we think we know.

To go further, we travel in order to find clues about how to live. This may turn into a search for exemplary ancestors — for lessons about what they were like, and how they lived. This blurs into the quest for central truths — which we imagine, if only we could find them, would explain things. It blurs into the quest for the homecoming to where we were in the beginning.

Ambitious travelling over unfamiliar territory involves many petty challenges beyond charting an itinerary: from booking flights, to finding and managing airports; from finding out how to hire cars, to learning unfamiliar highway codes; from locating train and bus timetables, to buying tickets and finding departure points. Then there are the constant decisions that need to be made about where to sleep, where and what to eat, and, above all, what to see, where it is, and when it is open. Much of this process is fraught with tension, with a background worry about all the things that might go wrong — especially the prospect of being stranded in some alien place where one doesn't speak the language.

Travelling is, typically, gruelling and nerve-wracking hard work, a tense ordeal that can turn to nightmare. Why, then, do so many pitch themselves into it, and do so with high expectation and hope? True, travelling is saved, in part, by seeing and experiencing things that are impressive and edifying. There is the grandeur of Cologne Cathedral, the idyllic rural beauty of a Cotswold village, the charm of a Paris café, the gentle warmth of Thai manners.

Once in a while, the traveller is inspired; but, in my experience this does not happen very often. At one level, the traveller may be regularly struck by admiration — nodding the head in acknowledgement that what I am looking at is impressive, recognising that these people do this well. At a quite different level, there is inspiration. A chasm separates the two reactions. Being inspired, one is taken out of oneself: there is a sense of awe; there is the breathtaking feeling that one is in the presence of something that is timeless, and greater than human. For me, this has happened when walking in central Rome (predominantly seventeenth-century Rome); inside Bourges Cathedral, and to a lesser degree inside Amiens and Salisbury Cathedrals; at the north end of the Sea of Galilee; in the Alhambra in Granada; and, I should say, in Australia, along some coastlines and on Mt Buffalo. The experience is more common in engagement with rare works of art, literature, music, and film — but that is a different story.

Greece has been like no other place. There, I have found frequent inspiration. Certainly, this sensation has been linked to specific sites. But there is also something cumulative, an aura that is panHellenic, to use the ancient term. It may be to do with some spirit of the place, anchored in half-a-dozen specially charged locations.

Here I have never felt let down. It is as if that tune of eternal homecoming pipes through this land. Instinctively, I respond. Indeed, I am writing this book in an attempt to fathom what is going on, in search of those things that, in Shakespeare's words in his farewell play, 'doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange'. I can only hope that my perplexity is a fertile one.

I have always been drawn to this journey. On my first visit to Europe from Australia, aged twenty-two, I insisted on travelling by Greek ship, rather than flying, so that my first sight of land should be Piraeus, the port of Athens.

What follows is then both a personal story and a reflection on the nature of culture — what we think we know and value. I am representative, responding in more than a subjective way, for I carry within me the general Western disposition. I carry within the same cultural baggage as everyone who has been born into the modern West.

The heritage from ancient Greece, and especially Athens, directly to us is overwhelming. Although elusive to chart in its entirety, it includes some more obvious traditions. There is a fundamental individualism — a belief in a human dignity centred on individuals being free and independent. This feeds into the democratic political mode. There is a spirit of free enquiry, and a curiosity about the world in which we live, including about our own natures as human beings, the way our communities function, the plants and other creatures that inhabit the earth, and the constitution of that earth, other planets, and the universe. This comes with a rugged scepticism, a need to question inherited belief and custom, and to reflect on life. Our scientific tradition derives from here; this is illustrated by our mathematics continuing to use Greek symbols, and our medicine, Greek words. There is, further, the belief that the good life needs to be surrounded by beauty: elegant buildings and gardens; fine works of art; graceful and brilliant performances in sport, drama, and public speech; and courteous etiquette among people.

In my case, there have been particular influences. My mother was a passionate lover of things Greek — especially early-Greek sculpture. I discovered Plato when I was sixteen, and would try to engage a few of my schoolmates in discussion of Platonic ideas. (They didn't always roll their eyes.) Later, my principal academic interest gelled: the nature of culture — that is, the stories and images through which people try to understand their lives, and to find meaning in what they do. The three most significant influences on me outside classical Greece itself have been the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and especially his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, which is itself inspired by ancient Greece; the neoclassical painter Nicolas Poussin; and, in later years, Mark's Life of Jesus, with its own deep affinity with Greek tragedy.

I can give rational explanations for why I am drawn to Greece — I have just done so — but the reality is more mysterious. I am somehow outside the realm of the normal here. What I shall try to evoke in what is to follow is not the typical travelling experience, even at its best.

Illustrious others have passed here before. This is a well-travelled road. There was Alexander the Great, sleeping every night with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow, as he restlessly conquered distant regions, from the Danube in the north, to Egypt in the south, and India in the far east — building Greek cities wherever he went based on the Athenian ideal, as taught him by his personal tutor, Aristotle. There was Plutarch, once priest of Apollo at Delphi, reflecting timelessly in his Lives on the nature of character and power. There were the Lords Elgin and Byron. There was Thomas Arnold, through his school, Rugby, establishing the educational ideal that governed the English Public Schools; Arnold became the inspiration for the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge designed their original curriculum on a Greek model. In Germany, there was a procession of Hellenophile poets and philosophers — Winckelmann, Goethe, Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. And in the Renaissance Florence of Lorenzo de Medici, what was being reborn were classical ideals, led by neo-Platonic philosophy. Even the four writers of the Life of Jesus chose Greek as the language in which to craft their story. Luke ends his Life with two men on the road to Emmaus: they are joined by Jesus, who is fleeing Jerusalem, heading north-west, in the direction of Athens.

* * *

We were born in ancient Greece, we of the West. This is my working hypothesis. There, in ancient Greece, was our arche: our foundation, our genesis, the seed out of which our generic self would grow. It made archaeologists of us all, in the quest to know ourselves — not, of course, archaeologists in the narrow sense, limited to old fragments of stone, bronze, and pottery. This has almost become a truism, given that so many have said it, and over so many generations.

It has induced us into eternal returns, home, to Greece. What were, until the twentieth century, mainly journeys of the mind have become increasingly easy to enact on the ground. I made one of these eternal returns in January 2007 — my fifth. Once there, one feels compelled to travel, or more portentously to 'journey', then as now. And, in journeying, we look, and we reflect, in awe of this land where pagan deities still seem to reign. Looking at the country from this perspective makes the Greek Orthodox Church of later, and modern, times seem like some barbarian mollusc clinging on to a benignly indifferent crag.

And, in reflecting on where the goddess sings, to echo Homer's opening line, it struck me, this time, that five sites preside over our collective Greek past. A journey of this type becomes, inevitably, a type of pilgrimage, in search of an elusive sacred source — as it did for Byron, and for many others. As such, it turns into a narrative with its own anchoring climaxes — just like any one of the big stories, which hinge on 'impression points', nodes of concentrated drama, vectors of subtextual intensity. These five sites may map the culture, at least as it continues to resonate today.

There was the Acropolis in Athens, to which I shall turn later, as I will to the second site, Delphi. There was, thirdly, Mt Olympus. On previous visits, I had not realised the degree to which it dominates northern Greece. It can be seen from a great distance from all directions — the more imposing in January for being capped in snow . There is a majestic, timeless grandeur to its presence, a lofty serenity seen through the crisp, blue winter air. One can hardly move in northern Greece, from Larissa in the south, to Thessaloniki in the north-east, without sensing the epic authority of this dozing giant. For the first time, I understood why the ancient Greeks imagined their gods dwelling here.

Fourthly, there was Olympia. Aptly sited in the Peloponnese near the fabled Arcadia, what strikes one first is the contrast with the harshness of most Greek landscapes. Indeed the later European idyll about arcadia as an earthly paradise might well take Olympia as its model — the ancient travel writer Pausanias described his visit in the second century AD with similar touches of lyricism. Founded in a vale where two rivers met, it is lush, green, fertile, and generously treed . Its mood is soft. For the traveller who arrives from Delphi, it is like a descent from the barren, austere, and vaguely intimidating mountain, to enter a pastoral haven. Even the ruins, set on flat land, have a relaxed, park-like quality to them, inducing a desire to stroll casually among them. The stadium echoes with a leisurely informality, surrounded as it is on three sides by gently rising grassed banks, for spectators — tens of thousands of them. This ease must have contrasted with the scorching ferocity of the athletic competition, where glories of Homeric magnitude might be won.

On the other hand, strolling here, one could be anywhere and nowhere — there is no particular logic as to why this particular, if pleasant, stretch of low land should be of significance. It is not near a port, it is not a great intersection of travel or trade, and there is no city nearby. Indeed the choice is odd, unlike Delphi — which is also remote, but whose site is so arresting that it is easy to believe that the god Apollo, in ancient times, as the Homeric Hymn to Apollo attests, should have chosen it as the centre of the world, and the site for his Oracle.

The guidebooks entertain us with the story of the Roman emperor Nero, decamping to Olympia for the Games in AD 67, building a villa for himself, and then competing in the chariot race. He insisted that no other competitor have more than four horses, while he had ten. Nero fell during the race, but nevertheless was declared the winner. I am intrigued by the fact of the most powerful man in the world removing himself from mighty Rome to come to this obscure, green, pastured river-land, just in order to declare himself, fraudulently, the winner of a prize. Even this boorish Roman was in thrall to Greek culture, enchanted by its elusive tune.

The resonances are powerful and strange. Nero prefigures our world, in which the modern Olympics have become by far the most successful global celebration. In terms of the number of participating countries and individuals, the levels of funding it attracts, and the global interest in it, as measured by television ratings, no gathering or event compares with it. The Soccer World Cup runs a very poor second, and no meeting of international leaders ranks on the same scale. The modern Olympics are truly pan-national, in the same way that the ancient games were panHellenic. Global institutions such as the United Nations can only look on in astonishment and envy at the international goodwill that the Olympics manage to inspire every four years.

Our Games, in spite of regular corruption and drug scandals, have succeeded in combining athletics with a higher ideal. In the great performances it ushers forth, there is a kind of secular or pagan transcendence. The Games' founder, Pierre de Coubertin, sought to bring back 'athletic religion' — and he succeeded. Strolling around the ruins of Olympia (as he did in the late nineteenth century), it feels like the ancient mysteries that dwell here are eternally ready to be kindled back to life. The West responds instantly to their charm.


Excerpted from Greek Pilgrimage by John Carroll. Copyright © 2010 John Carroll. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Carroll is professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne. His books include The Western Dreaming, Terror: a meditation on the meaning of September 11, The Existential Jesus, Ego and Soul: the modern west in search of meaning, and Greek Pilgrimage.

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Greek Pilgrimage: In Search of the Foundations of the West 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sorry 'party for the gods' first through third result. Sex allowed in other res. No foul language.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She walked in. "I heard there was a party here!" (Hia Pierce!)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*watches everyone*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*sighs and sits down and starts drawing magic symbols*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wakes up screaming
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"OK im going home." He said.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago