Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Smitten with the Sea Gods

Trevi Fountain, Rome (Wikimedia Commons)

When I was small and just learning to read, my family had a set of old encyclopedia-like books called the How and Why Series. There must have been thirty or more books in the set, each with its own theme. I spent hours lying on the braided rug in front of the bookcase in our living room flipping through each one, looking at the pictures and, when I was old enough, consuming every word. After my older sister started school and I was home alone playing school, I often fell asleep in the afternoon with one of these books in my hands. An hour or two later, I would wake to find that Mom had covered me with a blanket and placed a bookmark at the page where I stopped reading. It was pleasurable to open my eyes, refreshed from a nap, and find one of my treasured books beside me with a place marker.

There were titles such as Insects, Amphibians, Planets, Famous People, Ships, Seashells, Oceans, Stars, Lost Cities, Air & Water, and Weather. The titles about the sea and sky were my favorites; they took me on imaginary journeys on and under the sea and into the air and beyond to outer space. I had the travel bug even then! From these books I also learned of the fantastic characters from Greek and Roman mythology. I still love them today, and enjoy telling about their exploits—a lore than gets woven in small colored threads into most everything I write.

I admit I am shamelessly in love with Poseidon, a.k.a. King Neptune! His undersea palace, his chariot pulled by fishtailed horses, his salty wife, Amphitrite, and his retinue of Nereids, sea nymphs and sirens, and fantastical monsters like Hydra and the Kraken captivate me. This fascination began more than fifty years ago and remains so strong in adulthood that when I visited Greece a few years ago to do research for The Lighthouses of Greece, I became fixated with the many statues and friezes I saw with sea themes. Greece’s history is so intimately tied to the sea that briny denizens are everywhere. A row of Poseidon-like statues stands off to the side of The Forum (one is pictured below), and fountains abound with old Oceanus bathing himself and entourage of his many children alongside, some spitting water. Indeed, Athens itself was founded on the gift of water, given by Athena herself.

When my host in Athens, Dolores Pergioudakis, told me about the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, I simply had to see it.

The temple sits on the southernmost tip of the Attic Peninsula near the ruins of an old Greek lighthouse at Fonias and another well-kept sentinel at Vrisaki. (In a nation of islands and seas, Greece has an abundance of lighthouses!) The cape has been documented as the site of a fire beacon for ancient sailors, probably inside the temple itself. Standing among the ruins, I could easily picture the huge statue of Poseidon with a fire burning at his feet, a light to signal a welcome and a warning to ships miles at sea. The cape overlooks the Saronic Gulf to the southwest, the great Aegean Sea directly south and southeast, and the Makronisi Channel directly east. The great city of Athens is visible on the hills to the west.

Aegeus, the king of Athens for whom the unbelievably blue Aegean Sea is named, leapt to his death here when he thought his son Theseus had died in a battle with the Minotaur. The view from the temple is indescribable on a clear day, with islands floating magically on the horizon in every direction and the insistent warm wind carving the rocks and columns particle by particle. Sailors of all eras journeyed to the temple and have carved their names and the names of their ships into the columns. On one column of the temple Lord Byron inscribed his name. I so wanted to touch his signature, but there was a fence....

 That's me, hot and dusty and tired from my trek up to the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion. Except for the tacky gift shop down the hill from the temple, and that fence that prevented a closer inspection, it's an amazing place. Photo by Derith Bennett.

Tainaro Lighthouse, also in Greece, is steeped in sea god lore: Legend tells how Zeus gave this part of the ocean to Poseidon's worshippers and how a cult to honor the sea god arose here. The cult followers were called the Tainariste, a name drawn from the sea god Tainaro, the son of Poseidon. Sailors came here to worship Tainaro and Poseidon and to give offerings to them for safe travels asea. Long before the lighthouse was built in 1882, a fire burned in the temple at Tainaro. Shipwrecks were many at this point, and most of them were considered to be the work of Poseidon. A well-known wreck was the Mentor, ship of Lord Elgin, who removed the ornate friezes from the top of the Parthenon, had loaded them onto a ship bound for England, but as it passed Cape Tainaro, Poseidon grew angry at the theft and blew up a nasty storm that sank the ship. The wealthy Lord Elgin paid handsomely to have the friezes salvaged from the wreck. They were loaded onto another ship and taken to England where today they are on display at the British Museum.

 Tainaro Lighthouse, photographed by my co-author of The Lighthouses of Greece, Dolores Pergioudakis.

The Greek sea god, Poseidon, and his briny cohorts have left their mark on lighthouse history in other places. Poseidon was immortalized two millennium ago in a statue on top of the world's oldest recorded lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt—the Pharos Lighthouse. Modern marine archaeologists estimate the statue was about 12-feet tall, atop a near-5000 foot tall tower. Around Poseidon was probably an allegorical arrangement of nymphs and merfolk and Tritons. Several of these have been recovered from the harbor at an archaeological dive site.

Australia has its own sea god tribute with two aptly-named lighthouses: the Neptune Island Light, a red metal framework tower, and South Neptune Island Lighthouse, a cylindrical brownstone lighthouse. Both mark the sea road to Adelaide. (Someday, I’ll take my youngest granddaughter there; her name is Adelaide.) Like its motherland, Great Britain, Down Under loves a good mythological soap opera.

Amphitrite is remembered at Amphitrite Point  and Amphitrite Point Lighthouse on the western shore of Vancouver Island at Ucluelet in British Columbia. The wrath of Poseidon’s consort can be felt every winter as huge Pacific storms pound the rocky coastline here. Winds easily gust above hurricane force and waves crash ashore violently in an area that is part of the grisly Graveyard of the Pacific. Amphitrite’s personal attendants sound their horns during bouts of fog; the lighthouse foghorn operates many hours a year. This is one of the rainiest, stormiest places on the Pacific NW coast. The weather station at the lighthouse is critical to navigation, both by sea and air. The point takes its name directly from the British ship HMS Amphitrite, herself named for the stormy wife of Poseidon.

 Amphitrite Point Lighthouse in British Columbia as it appears on Wikimedia Commons. Triton's foghorns are on the opposite side of the lighthouse facing seaward.

One of my favorite stories from lighthouse lore took place at Northern California's Battery Point Lighthouse years ago, where one of the lightkeepers went a little daft. Who wouldn't go mad penned up on a tiny isle close to shore but  separated by a narrow stream of fickle tides. As usual, this is more the stuff of legend than fact, but it's fun to tell.

Apparently this lonely man of solitude met a few members of King Neptune's following one morning as he walked the narrow apron of his littoral home. A gam of pretty Nereids swam to the rocks at Battery Point, perched on them with fishtails dangling, and began to do up their seaweed hair with pearl and shell-encrusted combs. The keeper claimed he befriended these tiny mermaids and that they sang to him (all mermaids do this, don't they?) and brought him delicious treasures from the sea for his dinner plate.He described them in great detail as the lighthouse inspector came to fetch him one day and gently took him aboard the district's supply ship. He was taken to San Francisco and given a much needed vacation at a mental hospital....


'Thou rememberest
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a Dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music.' 

-- Shakespeare --
A Midsummer Night's Dream

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