The Temple of Artemis
May 25, 2011 § 1 Comment
On the road to the temple, you drive past the new airport, where the haphazard fields and insufficient cities of Attica lie tumbled as if dropped by a giant who meant to come back and tidy it up eventually. The cars stream through marble hills strewn in dark green herb except where that titan came for his slice of cake, scooping a side of mountain off to whittle into bathroom counters and slick staircases and churches far away, leaving the earth’s ragged, biscuit-colored insides to weather in the sun. Then you turn left into Markopoulo, a modern city with modern shops, of shoes and shirts and frocks, or a clean butcher with a spotless window as big as a theater, showing three stripped lambs dangling from their ankles like the tarot’s Hanged Man, a mute and blind chorus. You follow the signs to Vravron, ancient Brauron, which lead left and left and right, past homes and narrow shop-filled streets, till you are out of town, into gorgeous farmland blighted by human signatures: power wires, square walls always at the wrong angle, graffitied dumpsters, these monsters squatting obstinately out of place through vines and figs, meditative miles of tender new leaves fluttering their pale green flags. You drive much farther than any tourist guide implies. At last when you think you’re lost, great planes of stone begin to tip out of the earth, and soon one towering ramp leads dizzyingly up to drain the goodwill of the gods to a sacred spring, where stand a few buff stones and columns of the temple of Artemis.
Even here, the traffic roars past relentlessly, bent on the eastern beaches of Attica beyond.
Chain link fence surrounds the site. In the shade of trees, a shuttered and locked-up ticket booth stays mum. A metal plaque announces that the site is open every day until 3. It is noon. The gate is bound with padlock and chain.
A group of well-groomed Greek adults, casing the joint, observe these facts without undue reverence. One is trying to break the lock. Another is judging the possibility of lifting the entire gate along its hinges. Another is testing whether the same gate can hold his weight.
Soon they are all on the other side. More cars arrive. A troop of little girls swarm behind their leaders. Then they are over the fence too, running through the gaps and over the ruins, heedless of history or any proffered future, just chasing each other like cubs.
There are cathedrals where God visits as a courtesy but doesn’t stay long—only to check the flicker of the candles and tut at the quality of the art. There are small churches and big, there are sites of great disasters, there are graveyards and temples and monuments where some fragile skin was punctured long ago and the soul has all hissed out, leaving nothing but the marks of having been there once.
But here at this ruin, steadfastly refreshed by a clear burble of water from an unseen source, the stone crags shelter the temple from the wind; the sun warms the stones; the columns frame a sacred stage, and behind each stone trunk you almost hear the giggle of a girl, one of the little bears of Artemis. The soft spring grass seems to unbend as if just released from the tyranny of a barbaric little foot. And perhaps nearby lie the bones of Iphigenia—dead of a happy old age, freed from her father’s care, not sacrificed as in the common tale but in the temple’s legend merely committed to service of the goddess—the girl that got away. The stones are worn and most are gone, and a small clumsy church has tried to set up shop, but the site’s soul refuses to run out.
A camera posted to a pole in a thick stand of oleander records all these trespasses, but has the nation got the money to round up all the parents of these little wild girls?
If I had the cheek to trespass, I would have gotten down on my knees among the purple flowers to peer into that cool green water. Once there, I’d have seen the small black bugs skate on their stretched glass sheet. I would have heard the girls scrambling up a rough cut marble wall. And I, who could not convincingly light a candle in an Italian duomo or revere the altar of an English cathedral and balked when asked to wave smoking joss sticks at a painted statue, would have put my palms into that spring and felt a prayer arrive, to a goddess still at the ready, to grant me one of her daughters, and soon.