What words are these, far-travelling Jew:
‘I never am alone
But go beneath a deity,
The spirit of a god unknown’?
You do not really have that god
Whose face you do not see,
Who is to you a wisp of thought
Adrift upon the galaxy.
A Jew like you once called this cliff
His hidden Father’s heights:
But Æschylus had been here first
And hallowed it to older sprites:
And these are what you really dread,
These ghosts of gnawing Shame,
Whose haunt is here on Ares’ hill;
Erinyes their ancient name.
Pour out all your fountainous youth,
Burn up your fatty joys:
No offering can be dear enough
To still their shrill and shriller noise.
So think not to appease these three
Nor say they are unreal,
But if you can be pure from sin
You’ll blithely pass their grim ordeal.
Castaliâ mea jam lustravi tempora lymphâ
Corpore ne fanum squalidus ingrediar
Quod mæstens adeo, Musæ, peregrinus inopi
Pectore quæsitum id quo sine mox obeam.
Robore nam fruimur si nunc ridentibus horis,
Me juvenem tabes interitusque manent.
Jugem igitur peream noctem, nisi corpore eandem
Mentem mutato sidera solque hilarent.
Filius autem nec saliens penetralia nostra
Filia nec ridens tecta domûs reboat.
En! prolem ex uxore dii me gignere flavâ
Conjugii segnem si prohibent superi,
Dum ceu junior Her super infelicia germen
Immemor Hymenis saxa meum jacio
(Pectus imaginibus quaqua torquentibus omne
Sævi consiliis Alitis armigeri) :
Matrici mihi tum vel sit vestrum una feraci,
Clio seu memorem Melpomenamne juvet.
Charteus heredis pro carne liber tribuatur
Mensque pro Paphiæ muneribus vetitis.
Non tamen ingratus venio, sed libo juventæ
Dotes præteritæ sacrificoque decus.
Phœbe potens cui Parnasus dominæque novenæ !
Pandimur in vestrum funditus ingenium.
A temple of Neptune is an expression of terror, not love. Other Olympian gods, however awful they might be in their wrath, could at least usually be worshipped in a mood of holy adoration. Pallas Athena’s temple on the Acropolis was a glorification of human mind. Pythian Apollo’s shrine at Delphi was the sanctuary of spiritual grace. Even Bacchus and Venus, who drove men mad, could be adored for the violent glee they inspired.
But could never love Poseidon: he held no personal attractions to the human mind except hugeness and power. Still, he ruled over the sea, and since it had to be crossed from time to time, the Greek sailor did well to appease him. Worshippers of Poseidon did not mean to exalt any spiritual value – only to save poor sailors from annihilation. Shoreline temples, which stood between the gay earth and the barren sea, were pleas for mercy from the deep.
The Athenians built a temple to him at Sunium, a promontory that juts into the Mediterranean at the very tip of Attica. We don’t know when it was first dedicated to Poseidon, but there seems at any rate to have been some kind of shrine there by Homer’s lifetime (see Odyssey III.278). It is the boundary between human settlement and the uninhabited waste. If you stand on the promontory, the cheerful West is behind you, and the water in front of you is formless and void.
If you go to the temple today, you’ll see its walls covered with the carved names of nineteenth-century Europeans. Guidebooks proclaim that Lord Byron’s name is among them, and they’re right – but it’s doubtful whether Byron put it there. More interesting than Byron’s supposed signature are the dozens of ordinary names from the end of the nineteenth century. Kerrigan, Shields and Duff came in 1895. W. Jessiman, from Aberdeen, came with S. S., from Aberdour. There are dozens of signatures: Patterson, Williams, Clere, Le Prince, Morris…
These names call up a vanished domestic world. Here were little groups of Britons who had wandered together to the remotest outpost of Western civilization. They must have felt a strange comfort: far as they were from their hearths, they were surrounded by English-speaking friends. Foreigners and the sea loomed on all sides, but in their little groups, they were safe and at home. In that relaxed state, they could write their names at ease on the temple. It was only a tourist attraction after all, and both the temple and the sea were dreamlike and unreal in comparison to the reality of their social world. Great Britain was certainly real, but everything else was an exotic puppet show. I recommend you read E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, which is about this very superstition. No great ill or good, it’s tempting to think, can really happen across the channel. Westerners today do the same thing when we make fun of foreign countries – or even places like Nunavut or the Eurasian Steppe – which are only intellectual abstractions, after all. Safe with our friends in our hutches, we can giggle about the great world outside.
Poseidon, of course, laughs last. Long after the men and women who carved their names at Sunium have died, his temple is still there, and the sea is still there. The baleful reality is that it’s the dark night outside, not our light-filled feasts inside, that’s eternal.
Today, instead of wandering Britons, the temple’s grounds are a pasture for Chinese and American tourists who arrive in buses for the sunset. They pose solemnly on rocks for their boyfriends to take their photos, they do Acro Yoga in the twilight, and they nod along with their tour guides. They ‘do Sounio’.
Once day this mild globalist civilisation, which seems so firm to us now, will be gone, just like the Victorian and Classical Athenian civilisations are gone. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. You can only placate Neptune for a little while, because in the end his kingdom swallows up all earthly kingdoms; dirty flats and McMansions together.
But these are impious thoughts. Only a perverse soul can look at swimming monsters like these with dry eyes. It’s good to get out of the sea if you can, and hang up your wet clothing in thanks to the watery god who has spared you for now.