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Where the Muses danced

One of the greatest poets of ancient Greece was Hesiod, who lived in the second half of the 8th century BCE.

Only three of his major works survive, namely “Theogony,” “Works and Days” and the “Shield of Heracles” (although the last one is probably not his).

According to the historian Herodotus, Hesiod and Homer were the two pillars of Greek theology. In “Theogony,” Hesiod describes how the world was created, how the gods were born, and describes their loves and struggles.

General view of the Valley of the Muses.

In “Works and Days,” Hesiod praises the power and justice of Zeus, while at the same time giving advice to his brother, Perses, with whom he seems to have had disputes over property. This work is also peppered with myths, such as the one of Pandora, as well as the myth of the Five Ages, narrating the gradual decline of mankind, from the blissful Golden Age to his current Iron Age, which he describes as full of toil and hardship.

“Works and Days” is the first work of Greek poetry where a poet narrates incidents from his own life and presents his own worldview. As a source of information about the daily life of farmers it is unparalleled.

Hesiod was born in the small town of Ascra, which is in the area of Boeotia, Greece. Archaeologists have identified the remains of the small settlement, in a valley at the foot of Mt. Helicon, not far from the modern villages of Ascre and Thespies.

On the western end of the valley, a small sanctuary devoted to the muses has been discovered. It was excavated in the 19th century and, again, recently. The sanctuary had been founded in the 6th century BCE and flourished in the 3rd century BCE. The nearby Thespians, who controlled the area, made it famous and organized grand events with musical competitions, called the Musaea. These took place every five years and attracted musicians and poets from all the Greek-speaking world.

Ruins of a square tower made of stone. It stands on a naked hilltop. On its left, ruins of a wall. In the background a valley.
Classical tower (4th century BCE) at the peak of Pyrgaki. It was probably part of the wall around the Acropolis of Ascra.

In Roman times the events were upgraded and connected to the cult of the Roman Emperor. It was renamed and, besides the existing contests of music and poetry, a new prize category was established, for hymns to the emperor.

A sanctuary to the Muses must have existed in Hesiod’s time, because there is a reference that the poet dedicated there a tripod he had won as a prize in a poetic contest.

The existence of the sanctuary reflects a long connection of the area of Mt. Helicon with the Muses, the 9 daughters of Zeus with Mnemosyne. Hesiod himself describes that the Muses -after bathing in the springs of river Permessos or the fountain of Hippocrene- dance on the peaks of the mountain, singing hymns in honor of Zeus and the other gods.

From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing,
who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon,
and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring
and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos,
and, when they have washed their tender bodies
in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius,
make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon
and move with vigorous feet.

Hesiod claims that it is there where the Muses came across him and they gave him the gift of poetry so that he would praise the gods.

And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song
while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon,
and this word first the goddesses said to me
the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis: “Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies,
we know how to speak many false things as though they were true;
but we know, when we will, to utter true things.”

So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus,
and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel,
a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice
to celebrate things that shall be and things that were aforetime;
and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally,
but ever to sing of themselves both first and last.

The peaks of Helicon where the Muses danced and the valley where they inspired Hesiod still exist. We may still walk among its trees and vineyards, we may sit on the banks of Permessos, gaze at the slopes of holy Mt. Helicon and hear the song of the Muses.

The valley where Hesiod was born and lived, has changed little since he and many others after him, sang of the gods and the beauty of the countryside, surrounding the altar of the muses.

Yet this hallowed landscape is in danger of imminent destruction. In the name of Renewable Energy, a firm pushes for license to install wind turbines on the peaks surrounding the valley. A wide road to carry the enormous equipment will have to be carved right through the historic valley.

The locals protest and the Boeotian Ephorate of Antiquities has expressed its opposition to the scheme. Nevertheless, the Ministry for the Environment pushed through for the approval of the scheme and, somehow (on grounds not entirely clear to this archaeologist), the Central Board of Archaelogists gave it.

Leveling the peaks to set up 300 ft turbines all around the valley will forever change the landscape of the area. The roads carved along the valley and through the wooded slopes, the huge pits for the foundations and the tons of earth and debris scattered all around will be wounds that will take a long time to heal, if ever. Considering that the lifespan of a wind turbine is estimated at a maximum of 25 years, I cannot help thinking that the damage is not justified by the expected benefits.

An archaeological site is more than the stones of the monuments it is made of. It is the surrounding landscape, especially if it was an integral part of the myth, the history and the identity of the site.

It is with the deepest foreboding that I see preparations to desecrate an area of such significance that has remained unchanged for centuries. I foresee the Muses fleeing their mountain, evicted by bulldozers and backhoes, while we will be left without their music, gazing at the red lights of the turbines, flicking on and off in the midnight darkness.

English translation: Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Retrieved Sept. 24th 2020, from Perseus Digital Library.

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