Meeting the gods

Encountering the Temple of Apollo on Ortygia

On a cool spring night, an ancient historian found himself face-to-face with the gods whilst strolling Ortygia.

Joshua R. Hall

Beer should always be served by the litre. This may be seen as a controversial conclusion, but I know few people who would argue with it after joining me for an evening out in Syracuse. It simply saves time and energy; making it so your server doesn’t have to continually bring you smaller, inferior-sized, glasses of golden goodness.

It was after spending part of an evening advocating for this passion-project that I found myself smiling and telling the staff of a hundred-year old taverna “ciao” as I strode into one of the ancient strade of Ortygia. Of all the islands in the Mediterranean, this small, barely-there, island is probably my favourite. It used to be the seat of power, the fortified castle, of the powerful Syracusan state. This was, of course, a couple of millennia ago, but it is never far from your mind while you’re here.

Being fattened by my dinner, and floatingly aloof thanks to an almost free-flowing stream of blue ribbon pleasure, I ambled back towards the mainland. Stumbling only slightly, I found myself staring into an eternally deep chasm, though the water in the bottom was easily discernible. I had unmistakably found, by complete accident, Arethusa’s fountain. Only a few nymphs danced around its edge, though I imagine more had done so in the days of Dionysius.

I worked my way northward, winding through the Medieval buildings and lanes. It is an interesting feeling of very ancient and very modern all at the same time. At one moment I find myself ordering a pistachio gelato, and the next watching a folk-band lost in time immemorial play for wealthy tourists in a restaurant whose prices far exceeded me budget.

As the lane I found myself in opened up onto an intersection, a relieving opening from the oppressive blocks of my walk, I realized where I was…

There are few times that a person is awestruck. In an age of no gods, few heroes, and constant pessimism, I finally found somewhere that none of these horrors can intrude. With Peroni pulsing through my veins, I slowly found my way towards the obstacle that forced this new road to be less-than-straight.

I leaned lightly upon a wrought-iron fence, slightly reminiscent of a pastlove, and let the gods into my soul. I found myself looking out upon an ancient temple, one of the many hearts of Greek Syracusa, the Temple of Apollo. But however much I wished it, no Delphic presence inspired me, and I found myself very much in the realm of the mortal.

Many moments passed as I gazed longingly over what should have been one of the triumphant monuments to a killer of Titans, but I was no more a simple traveller than I had been in the hours prior.

As I glanced around at those who shared in my experience, it was clear that only I stood in awe. Most of the people near me chatted and smiled, gestured and flirted, as if they were nowhere more interesting than any other crossroad. It was only I who tried to summon the spirit of the polymath deity.

I smiled at one of them, a beautiful woman who I mistook for one of Apollo’s dear muses. But there was no mistaking it; the gods have left this place.

Apollo’s columns have fallen, his roof collapsed, and his priests are dead. But there is something still inspiring, a need for something else.

I wanted to touch it, I wanted to truly find a god. I’d watched too many documentaries where Mary Beard fondled artefacts, wishing it had been me actually touching antiquity. But there was nothing I could do.

After eating a very mortal snack, I wandered back to the holy ground, trying to find some sort of satisfaction. It couldn’t be found. I was only in this wonderful city for one more night, and I had yet to have my inspirational moment. I had hoped it would come whilst worshipping at the feet of Apollo in my own way, but it never really did.

I simply left as I had come, as a classicist. I had hoped to have experienced something new, something inspirational, something worthy of writing about. But I hadn’t. The old gods are dead, their temples surrounded by the uncaring masses. The only true inspiration I felt was to spread the word to as many people as I could of the glory of this humble place, with its bullet-riddled walls, collapsed columns, and an indifferent audience.

I realized as I walked away that perhaps the old gods were not dead, simply neglected.