The hulking, fortified city walls and buildings of Medieval Rhodes shelter fragile remnants of ancient Greece, still hauntingly evocative after thousands of years.
NOTE: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gives an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.
After returning from our excursion to the acropolis of ancient Lindos on the east coast (Part 9), Thor and I were eager to visit the Archeological Museum in Rhodos Old City. It houses artifacts from many of the Classical and Hellenic sites on the islands, as well as from later periods. The museum is housed in the Medieval Hospital built by those busy Knights of St. John who erected the Palace of the Grand Master (Part 8) and the city walls.
Lawrence Durrell, in his memoir Reflections on a Marine Venus about his post-World War II years on Rhodes, wrote of the hospital: “The physicians were bound by order to visit their patients not less than twice a day. Two surgeons were standing by under their orders to perform whatever operations were found necessary. A large store of herbs and drugs was maintained as part of the charges of the establishment, while the patients were fed upon all kinds of nourishing food. But dicing, chess, and the reading of chronicles, histories, romances or other light fiction of the kind was strictly forbidden.” Those Knights were, indeed, strict about their vows of purity!
My first priority at the museum was to see the statue of Aphrodite (Roman Venus) that inspired Durrell’s musings. The marble statue of the bathing goddess, carved in the 2nd-century AD, lay for centuries at the bottom of the Rhodes harbor, until fishermen snagged her in their net and hauled in an unexpected catch:
The reason why permitted areas for scuba diving are strictly controlled in Greek waters is the many statues and other artifacts still being found in the seas. When Durrell was posted by the British to Rhodes to run a newspaper in the post-war years, he witnessed the second “rising” of the statue from a cellar where she had been stored for protection:
“When the pulleys finally raised her out of the darkness, slowly twisting on the end of her cable–why, which of us could fail to recognise the presiding genius of the place…? She rose as if foamborn, turning that elegant body slowly from side to side, as if bowing to her audience. The sea-water had sucked at her for centuries till she was like some white stone jujube, with hardly a feature sharp as the burin must originally have left it. Yet such was the grace of her composition–the slender neck and breasts on that richly modelled torso, the supple line of arm and thigh–that the absence of firm outline only lent her a soft and confusing grace…. She sits in the Museum of the island now, focused intently upon her own inner life, gravely meditating upon the works of time. So long as we are in this place we shall not be free from her; it is as if our thoughts must be forever stained by some of her own dark illumination–the preoccupation of a stone woman inherited from a past whose greatest hopes and ideals fell to ruins. Behind and through her the whole idea of Greece glows sadly, like some broken capital, like the shattered pieces of a graceful jar, like the torso of a statue to hope.”
Durrell’s melancholy, witnessing the damage of the war years both physically and emotionally to his beloved Greece and, indeed, all of Europe, is understandable. I had a very different reaction to the glowing presence of this Aphrodite, marveling at the echoes of beauty and grace enduring down the centuries.
Another Greek deity, Dionysos, shares affinity with Aphrodite in matters of sensuality and pleasure. I’m particularly interested in the different representations of this god of the vine, intoxicating wine, and passionate abandon, since he figures prominently as mythic underlay in my second “Ariadne” novel underway. The Rhodos museum offers several fascinating images of the god who inspired ecstatic rituals that challenged rigid societal controls and embraced those who lived on the margins of power, such as women, slaves, outlaws, and non-citizens.
Early images of fertility-god Dionysos depict him as bearded and clearly masculine, usually holding his sacred thyrsos (a staff topped by a phallic pine cone) and a drinking vessel, either a rhyton or a kantharos, for wine.
Later depictions tended to make the god more androgynous–male but with softer, “feminized” features, like this statue from the Athens Archeological Museum, of Dionysos hanging out with his satyr companion:
Dionysos was associated with dolphins, panthers, and serpents, the latter representing the Chthonic (earth) powers of mystery and irrational, generative forces. He’s also sometimes pictured with wings, as in this Hellenistic mosaic from the museum, in which he’s riding a dolphin:
Another mosaic shows him with wings, dolphins, and also serpents in his hair (a la Medusa?):
Another deity I’ve encountered at sites such as the mainland Greek center of ancient healing at Epidauros is the patron deity of healing himself, Aesculapios. His sacred serpents aided in healing, and physicians still take the oath penned by his devotee, the physician Hippocrates, to “Do no harm.” The image of those serpents twining around a staff still signifies healing services. My modern Ariadne unwittingly channels the healing energy of those chthonic serpents, which can be dangerous if not handled correctly. The Rhodos museum houses this Hellenistic statue of Aesculapios with his serpent staff:
And a lovely statue of his daughter Hygeia, goddess of health, cleanliness, and sanitation. Here she’s giving a sacred serpent a drink from her cup:
The museum also offers a fascinating collection of everyday household items from ancient life such as decorated ceramic cups and bowls, sewing thimbles, and utensils. Unfortunately, my camera decided to lose my photos of those exhibits! It did preserve this image of Muslim grave markers from the Ottoman occupation of the island. From what I’ve read, I believe that the taller markers were for men, and the lower, rounded markers for women:
Also on display: what Thor calls a “Lego” building-block, with the connecting knobs found in all the ancient marble buildings, including the Parthenon in Athens:
The Hospital of the Knights offered a peaceful garden area for the recovery of its patients, and Thor and I were grateful for the cool shade and greenery in the midst of the heat wave the area was experiencing.
And, of course, one of the vapa fountains that funneled pure spring water, though unfortunately now it is dry:
If I close my eyes, I can hear the timeless echoes of water filling the basin.
Next week: Quench your thirst and cool off with Thor and me as we plunge into the sea at fabulous beaches on Rhodos.
You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com