The Weeks of July 3rd - August 2nd, 2006

Swimming in a
Sea of Symbolism

Columns Archive


  "The sun rose on the flawless brimming sea
into a sky all brazen- all one brightening
for immortal gods and mortal men
on plowlands blessed with grain."

  Homer's Odyssey, Chap. III, 1-4

  While reflecting on the journey so far, the ocean beats outs its timeless rhythm right outside our door, lapping the shores on an island whose history is known and yet lost. It is early morning and Lisa sleeps on, wrapped in the hypnotic spell of Poseidon's percussive song, content to dream, deep in the land of history, myth and fable.

  Before leaving San Francisco, I had decided to re-read Homer's Odyssey as a part of this journey, not only because we would be traveling in the lands once visited by this ancient mariner, but also because Neptune would be re-crossing my Ascendant during the voyage. During the first pass, I found myself in Florida, a Piscean state, offering the core of my mythic presentations for academic credit at the Avalon School, but also as part of a series building to a crescendo in Atlanta, Orlando, Miami and Nashville. Under the retrograde pass Lisa and I are now traveling from site to site, from mountain to museum, gathering images and stories of gods, myths and legends in lands united by the Mediterranean in an underlying common cause. The sea here is both food and highway, blessing and curse, past and future. The sea is life itself.

San Francisco International Airport

The beginning...

  July 19-22, 2006

  As I write this, we are currently in Santorini, the most popular of all the tourist destinations among the Greek islands, and the southernmost of the Cyclades. It was here between 1650 and 1600 (or 1500 and 1450 BC), that one of the greatest explosions of antiquity took place, possibly ending the heyday of Minoan civilization. Radiocarbon dating yields the former, while archaeological evidence yields the later. Some scholars believe that the radiocarbon dates are wrong and suggest that this cataclysmic event might be used to re-calibrate the archaeological chronologies for the entire Mediterranean, but this naturally stirs up a great deal of controversy and would change much of what is already established. We know that the eruption took place, and we can assume that many of the people knew about the event ahead of time, as, unlike Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius, few bodies and little in the way of personal valuables have been left behind, suggesting that the people had time to leave before the eruption. However, the resulting tidal wave may have been so large that it also swept away an integral portion of the Minoan civilization of Crete, not to mention many of the surrounding islands. More questions remain unanswered than are answered about this destructive cataclysmic event.

  Monday and Tuesday, July 3-4, 2006

World Cup 2006

World Cup 2006

  But our journey began in Rome. It wasn't until we were flying from San Francisco to Amsterdam that I realized that the quarter final of the World Cup was going to be played in Germany between Germany and Italy on the evening we arrived. We landed about 5 PM, took the train to the Rome's Termini Centrale, and walked to the Ricasoli Guest house with our two back packs, perhaps a quarter mile from the train station. After settling in, we stepped back outside onto the street, and simply followed the crowd roar to a park filled with flag waving Italians cheering before a huge screen of the World Cup. Although we had been traveling for the previous 24 hours, we stood and watched the game, and then watched the entire city erupt in euphoria as people drove around in their cars, mopeds and motorbikes, waving flags, honking horns, drinking and cheering to the chorus of 'Viva Italia' the whole night through. Returning to the guest house, we were awoken several times through the course of the evening to these surges of the celebration.

Temple of Vesta

Temple of Vesta

  Wednesday, July 5, 2006

  The next day we traveled to the Roman forum and visited the heart of ancient Rome, saying a special prayer at the Temple of Vesta, the seat of the sacred flame, presided over in the past by the Vestal Virgins. From there we walked up the hill to the Capitoline Museum and saw many of the statues I have known from studying photographs for my entire adult life. Some of the best of classical sculpture from Rome and Italy are gathered here, with images of gods, heroes and myths from the last great bastion of the mythological tradition, including the dying Celt wearing a torc and leaning on his broken sword. Catching a bus to St. Peter's Bascilica we then walked back to the Tiber where I disrobed and swam across Rome's river while Lisa crossed the bridge with our single backpack and my clothes and met me on the other side. She later related there was a guy on the bridge looking down at me laughing as I climbed out on the eastern bank. It was a short swim, the river was very dirty (I took a hit of echinacia before attempting it) and its current swift, but I simply did the breaststroke and kept my head above water and have obviously lived to tell about it. Don't try this at home. That evening we walked to the Piazza Navona amidst all the street vendors and merchants and had a delicious meal (Lisa said it was the best fettucine she'd had in her life) as we watched France defeat Portugal under the cool night air of an outdoor café.

  Thursday, July 6, 2006

  Early the next morning
Lisa on the Tiber

Lisa bringing the backpack on the Tiber

we left and caught the train to Naples from the Termini Centrale. As we watched the Italian countryside peel away, we marveled at the level of sophistication of the Eurostar. As it turns out, we had boarded the wrong train. There were two to Naples leaving within five minutes of each other, and we had mistakenly chosen the luxury ride. When the conductor came by to check our tickets, he explained our mishap and said that we owed another 39 Euros, or just under another fifty bucks. The Eurostar rode straight through to Naples. The train we should have taken made stops all along the way. Sensing our confusion to be genuine, the conductor said that he would be back to collect the money later, but never did.

  We arrived in Paestum, the site of the best preserved Greek temples in the Mediterranean a little before 10 PM, and had a late supper at the Hotel della Rosa, where Lisa had arranged for a room, just across the street from the ruins. Having left Rome early that morning, it had been a long day and she retired right after that, while I went off to view the flood-lit temples under the gibbous Moon, with a few light clouds floating together as a part of her entourage. It was one of the most memorable images I think I will ever see, the temples being lit both by heavenly and earthly light at night. Having originally been built on the edge of the sea, the water levels had receded and the area had become something of a swamp or marsh, with the malaria carrying mosquitoes becoming the guardians of the pagan gods, keeping man out and their existence a secret until the early nineteenth century. That is why they are in the state of preservation they are today.

  Friday, July 7, 2006

  The next day we slept on,
Temple of Neptune (?), Italy

One of several temples at Paestum, this one is
thought to be dedicated to Poseidon (Neptune).

exhausted until the innskeeper's voice came through the door letting us know it was 11 AM, checkout time. We hurriedly jumped up, showered and went downstairs to a light breakfast, and then left our main backpacks in their office while we explored the site. I packed away a second, empty backpack which I pulled out and used for local visits like this, carrying our water, digital and video cameras, and a little food. Unfortunately, as we set out to see the ruins it began to rain, and rain hard. The clouds from the previous evening had called in their buddies. Using our towels as cover, it was too wet to even begin to pull the cameras out, and we cut short our stay and headed back to the train station (a ten minute walk) like two little wet rats. The towels worked well as cover, but unfortunately, their job is to soak up water and under the heavy rain, adding considerably to the weight of our backpacks. Hitchiker's Guide states that you should never be without your towel, and the wisdom of this logic was to come through time and time again.

  Our next stop was Agrigento, another site of some excellent temple ruins to Concordia, Hera, the Dioscuri (the twins) and Hephastus. Both Paestum and Agrigento had been Greek colonies settled in the early days before Rome came to her full power. According to the schedule, it was to be an eleven and a half hour train ride down the western coast and across to Sicily.

  Saturday, July 8, 2006

  Unfortunately, once we stopped at Sapri,
Lisa in Sapri

Lisa attempting to sleep on a marble bench
in a train station at Sapri at 3 AM

we learned that rather than having to wait for a two hour connection from midnight until two, the train was late, and would not arrive until 5:55 AM, or a six hour wait through the middle of the night. Lisa went in to talk to the station-master, who took his time explaining that we could take an alternate train at 4 in the morning, and then make a connection in Messina to Sicily. All of this took about 15 minutes for him to explain. Later in the evening, when some guy asked him the same question, he took about 15 seconds to say the same thing. As the evening wore on, we noticed the same pattern. Cute young lady, fifteen minutes. Guy, any age, 15 seconds. Once on the train, we asked at what time we would arrive in Messina, and were told 7 AM. Unfortunately, this answer was off by more than a half hour and after climbing under our now dry towels (we had been airing them out all night at the train station) to sleep on the seats, we were awakened by the conductor to be told that we were at the end of the line, and that Messina had been a stop a half hour earlier. We missed it. Adding to the ambience of the scene, in the background we could hear some Italian screaming at a number of people in a diatribe which went on for as long as we remained within earshot until we disembarked and figured out how to get back to Messina. It became increasingly apparent that we had started this journey just as Mercury went retrograde, and the Italian transportation system was doing its part to honor the god in an appropriate fashion. Fortunately, Regio Calabria, the end of the line, was only just past Messina and so we did not have far to return.

Italian train schedule

Italian train schedule.
'RIT' means how late each train is.

  After a short hop back to Messina, we finally caught the correct train in Messina, over to Sicily and on to Agrigento. Our eleven and a half hour train ride had turned into a twenty-four hour train ride. Upon our arrival in Agrigento in the late afternoon, we stepped out of the train station and into a square which was reverberating with both sound and volume. Crossing the square we happened upon a church whose entry steps dropped down into a bowl before the huge double doors of a church where there was about seven or eight drummers, using the natural amphitheater like cut of the stones and rocks to form a natural megaphone during a Catholic feast day celebration. It was almost as is they were they to welcome us. At the end of this fanfare, one of the them broke their drum stick, they were playing so hard (and loud). Apparently, the evening was the beginning of the feast day celebrations, because it continued into the next day,

Feast Day in Argigento, Sicily

The Feast Day service in Agrigento

  Sunday, July 9, 2006

  with the church service being blasted over the PA system, which had speakers up on poles throughout the entire town. Apparently the 'Black Saint', as he was known, was responsible for bringing both spirituality and education to the people of Agrigento, and after the service they took this very heavy and somewhat larger than life size image of him on a bier and carried it through the streets with the full accompaniment of a marching band following now far behind. Every time the band would play, all of these young teenage boys would really strain under lifting the carrying poles about 20 or 25 yards while the band playing. When the band stopped, they would put him down and these youths would climb up onto the saint, wipe his face off with a cloth, and then kiss him on the cheek. What seemed to be the whole town would follow this procession around while it lasted, while someone on the loudspeakers kept repeating the same lines over and over again about how much this 'Black Saint' had done for the local people.

  During the afternoon, we journeyed to the Valli des Templi, or Valley of the Temples, which again had some wonderfully preserved Greek temples (Sicily, like Italy, had been settled early by the Greek colonies), with the best preserved being a temple to Juno and Concordia, but there was also an unfinished temple to Zeus (construction stopped when the Phoenicians made an appearance on the island), and fractions of the temples to the Dioscuri (Gemini, the twins), and Haepaestus.

Temple to the Dioscuri, Agrigento

Temple to the Dioscuri (Twins), Agrigento, Sicily

  That evening, upon we again dined at a table at an outdoor café and watched the World Cup being played between Italy and France. There were perhaps between twenty and twenty-five people there watching it with us. When Italy won, the town went nuts. As in Rome, not only did people jump into their cars honking their horns and waving flags, but the band came back out, cannons started going off, and, as we climbed the hill back to our hotel, they had a fireworks display that rivaled anything I've ever seen, right against the face of the Moon. Children, grandmothers, wives and naturally the entire male population turned out for this. When it was all over (the fireworks display. The celebration went on into the light long after we had retired), I mustered my very best Italian (I had been studying for weeks), and in a clear voice proclaimed to the group that had been watching the display with us, "La luna boom-ba boom-ba!" Everyone laughed.

  I feel as though we have been riding a wave while on this trip, as though we were being watched over and smiled upon. Other than the Italians, no one could have predicted that Italy would win the World Cup. On the night we arrived in Rome, they beat Germany on their own soil. On our final evening in Italy (Sicily), they defeated France. It was simply amazing. Not so much the games themselves, but watching and being a part of the celebratory spirit of the people.

  Monday, July 10, 2006

  The next day Lisa went on-line and determined that we could catch a ferry from Licarta to Malta, the next stop on our voyage. So, we returned to the train station, which was also the bus stop, and caught a bus. It dropped us off in the Licarta, and with our full backpacks (we leave these behind in the hotels or special lockers with a smaller backpack when we day-trip), we set out to find the ferry port.

  After about a half mile walk and upon arriving at the port in Licarta, we stopped in at the Coast Guard station in an effort to find out where ferry left from. It turns out the ferry no longer made that run and the information acquired off the internet just that morning, was outdated. We would have to continue to Pozallo and make the ferry there. So, after making our way back to the bus station, we caught another bus which deposited us in Gela where we had to wait a couple of hours for the connection to Pozallo. While in Gela, there was this amazing thunderstorm that came in and passed right over us. I swear that by the sound of some of them, they hit the ground somewhere close to where we were. One young girl was actually in tears, holding onto her Dad, and I don't blame her. It was strong stuff, and dumped an incredible volume of rain in its wake. After it passed I watched another young girl, perhaps seven or eight years of age, cross the road, hiking up her bloomers as she danced through the current of water running along the curbstones on either side of the street. As she walked right towards where we were sitting in a outside convenience-store café (we had been under a protruding balcony throughout the thunderstorm), she walked right up to me as I was sitting there and starting talking to me. I let her know through hand gestures that I had no idea what she was saying. She stood there, looking intently at me, and continued to speak, unphased. I continued to let her know, again through hand gestures, that I had watched her, and some of her antics, as she had crossed the street. Her grandmother came across the street after her and gave me the same steady stare, and when I let her know that I couldn't speak any Italian, she said something to the others assembled around us at the cafe, pulled up a chair and sat down with us.

Thunderstorm in Gela

The thunderstorm and bus stop in Gela

  It turns out the little girl's name was Natasha. We sat there for perhaps forty-five minutes with these two while we waited, and in broken English (it turns out she was studying it in school), we compared notes on the economy, politics, and the state of the world. At one point in the middle of this conversation the grandma said something to the shop-keeper and those others listening during which she wagged her finger at them and kept saying sentences over and over again which end in the same phrase. She was driving a point home. Whatever it was, the others listened attentively and respectfully, nodding their heads slowly. No one was arguing with grandma. Having finished putting some order back into creation, she began to open the packages she was carrying and produced a loaf of break and some ham, and told her grand-daughter to go inside the store and get a knife, which she did. Grandma then proceeding to cut up the bread, place the ham on it, and handed it out to Natasha, myself and Lisa, eating some herself. Although Lisa and I generally don't eat ham, we weren't arguing with grandma either, and we graciously accepted and enjoyed our communal meal. Afterwards, Natasha proceeded to count for me in English from one to ten and show me the contents of her backpack, one of whose items was a purse. After she had put it away, I gestured to get her to bring it back out again, which she did, and I reached in a pulled out a US dollar from my wallet and give it to her. She looked it over carefully, and obviously delighted with her acquistion, then put her new treasure away in her purse, together with the memory. I didn't see it, but Lisa later told me that grandma had a real look of satisfaction on her face when I did this. Shortly thereafter, our bus came, we said our goodbyes and took off. Although the Malta ferry didn't take off until 10 at night, it had taken us the entire day to get there from Agrigento and we arrived in Pozallo around 9 PM and still had some distance to walk to get there. Lisa asked about a taxi, but apparently this town didn't have any. She was starting to fell as though we might not make it.

  Nevertheless, we did manage to catch what turned out to be an English (Maltize?) ferry for the short, hour and a half trip to Malta. The accommodations were a huge step forward from what we were used to with the Italian transportation system, but so was the price. We paid about three to four times the price for anything we had taken in Italy, and many of them much longer than an hour and a half.


Malta at night

  Arriving in Malta, we were met by Marie Mifsud, a woman who could trace her ancestry back to the early 18th century in Malta and who was the head of the Neolithica Foundation ( http//www.neolithiafoundation.org ). She is a long time friend of Willow LaMonte, an herbalist and Goddess lecturer from Florida/Massachusetts whom I have known for years. Beginning at midnight, Marie (pronounced Mar-ee, like the Latin name for the sea) took us to the very heart of the city, where the ancient gates opened to an amazing view from atop a hill...

  (to be continued)


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