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The Ottoman Parthenon

Hans Christian Andersen visited Athens in late March 1841. The famous Danish fairy-tale writer walked up the Acropolis on a daily basis; he enjoyed the superb view and considered the place “a ruined fairy world”. There were wild cucumbers growing over the steps of the Parthenon, while unburied Turkish and Greek skulls were scattered about, a vivid vestige of the recent war of independence. There were Venetian bombs and lots of shuttered pieces of marble and ancient statues. And in the very center of the Parthenon Andersen was able to inspect an unlikely remnant of the city’s Ottoman past; a mosque.

A sultan in Athens

The Ottomans captured the Acropolis in 1458. Sultan Mehmed II was there to witness the capitulation of the last Duke of Athens. According to tradition, Mehmed greatly admired the city’s classical past and issued an imperial edict to protect its remnants. The destruction or looting of classical monuments would be punished by death. The Parthenon, which had served as the Church of the Virgin Mary for almost eight centuries, was converted into a mosque. 

The Parthenon becomes a mosque

The exact date of the conversion is unknown (in 1466 the Parthenon was still a church) but the process was easy enough. The apse became a mihrab to indicate the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, while a minbar was added to allow the imam to deliver his sermons. The paintings on the walls were whitewashed and the iconostasis was removed. The most obvious change concerned the exterior; the old tower at the southwest corner of the cella [i.e. the right corner of the temple as one sees it from the Propylaea] that served as a bell tower (or a watchtower) was extended upwards and became a minaret. 

The Parthenon marbles

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi visited Athens and wondered at the marvelous Parthenon mosque. As far as Çelebi was concerned, this building could not have been the work of a human agency. The four columns of red marble that supported the baldachin shone so brightly that he could see his reflection on them. There were also four columns of emerald green carved with amazing flowers near the minbar. The white marble blocks of the floor and the walls were massive (some as big as an elephant according to the astonished traveler) and so closely fitted that you couldn’t detect the joins. The whole building seemed translucent, as light filtered through the marble walls at the east end. The Ottoman visitor was also very much impressed by the sculptures whose subject he determined to be “all the creatures fashioned by the Creator of the Universe, from Adam to the Second Coming”.

The Christian past

The Christian past of the mosque was also readily observable. The coating of whitewash applied on the walls was not particularly thick. Çelebi was able to discern an exciting painting of the Last Judgment in the porch, with the gardens of Paradise on one side (where much merry drinking and dancing was taking place near the Throne of God and the bridge of a hair’s breadth) and Hell on the other (full of demons, dragons, one-eyed monsters, crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceroses, and satans). But the most spectacular evidence of the Christian Parthenon was the gold and colored glass mosaic of the Holy Virgin that covered the apse. A Turk once took a potshot at it, but his arm soon shriveled, a punishment that convinced the other Turks to leave the mosaic intact (or so the story goes). 

Plato and the Parthenon

Outside the mosque, Evliya noticed a cistern big enough to accommodate five men. He claims that during the temple’s construction, the architect filled it with wine to serve the needs of the workers. He is adamant that the great throne in the apse was used by Plato to teach the people of Athens. Çelebi also attributed those marvelous translucent panels in the east wall to the philosopher’s ingenuity. 

An explosive end

The mosque that Çelebi described as one of the finest in the world was completely shattered in September 1687, when a Venetian mortar round penetrated the roof of the Parthenon and ignited the gunpowder stored inside. The destruction was complete. The marvelous columns and the mysterious wall paintings and the miraculous mosaic of the Virgin collapsed in a heap of rubble and broken pieces of marble. Colored glass tesserae were scattered all over the place, among the bodies of hundreds of Ottomans who perished in the catastrophic explosion.  

The second mosque

In the 18th century, the Ottomans built a new mosque in the center of the cella to replace the one lost in the great explosion. This edifice could not even remotely compare in size or splendor to its predecessor. Andersen described it simply as a “whitewashed, quadrangular building with a dome”. The only visible connection to the past was the still-standing minaret. 

When Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, the section of the minaret that protruded from the architrave was demolished. The mosque served as storage for artifacts discovered on the Acropolis. According to Andersen “in the altar there now stood a torso of an Apollo statue”.

A section of the walls collapsed in 1842 and soon after the whole building was removed. Today only the base of the minaret and the lower section of the spiral staircase remain in situ. A keen observer can still see its wall (punctuated by the small openings that served as windows) among the columns in the southwest corner of the Parthenon.

Hans Christian Andersen in Athens – Mentor in Greece
Link to Hans Christian Andersen in Athens – Mentor in Greece

Hans Christian Andersen in Athens – Mentor in Greece

The famous fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen visited Athens in the spring of 1841 and recorded his impressions of the Greek capital and its people. Follow in the footsteps of the prolific Danish author and uncover a city that doesn’t have snow queens or little mermaids but it sure abounds in incredible true stories.

Athens in the time of cholera

Ioannis Benizelos must have spent many sleepless nights pacing up and down the hayat (open hall) on the upper story of his mansion in the late winter of 1789. He could feel a menacing presence making its way along the muddy streets of Ottoman Athens. This invisible visitor felt like an old, albeit unsought, acquaintance, who tended to arrive every so often accompanied by some formidable friends i.e. hunger, captivity, and fire. The plague was a great evil whose rampages had claimed countless victims in the past. Benizelos was well aware of the disease’s symptoms and terrible consequences, but he had no answer to the most pertinent question: should he panic?

The calm before the storm

At the time, Athens was a fairly prosperous provincial town. It was divided into 36 quarters (enories), each centered around a church or a mosque. The population consisted of 1500 Christian and 400 Ottoman households. A handful of aristocratic families (proestotes) played a crucial role in town administration, alongside the Ottoman authorities. Benizelos belonged to one of the oldest and most respected proestotes families. There were also a few dozen wealthy land and property owners or merchants. The majority of the Athenians earned a living as craftsmen and farmers. The poorest Ottomans labored as cobblers, tanners, barbers or tailors, but most Muslims were affluent landowners who enjoyed a luxurious and peaceful life. 

Patient zero

On the evening of 30 January 1789, one of Constantine Ademakes’ children fell ill and died within a few hours. The proestotes ordered Ademakes to remove himself and his family from the city. There was no proof that the child had succumbed to the plague, but the family had recently arrived from Livadeia, where the disease was known to be present. Ademakes pleaded with the authorities to allow his family to stay in the city since it was winter and the conditions in the countryside would be too harsh. 

When he failed to sway the proestotes, Ademakes took his family to a property north of Athens. In less than a month, Ademakes’ wife, father, mother, mother-in-law, his remaining children and a woman who had taken care of the deceased child had succumbed to the plague. He buried them all…and then died himself. Three days later, a passing woodcutter discovered his body and quickly buried it in a shallow grave.

Give us this day our daily bread

In the meantime, the proestotes congratulated themselves on their prompt response. There was no further evidence of the plague in Athens, but now they faced another serious problem. Last year’s poor harvest meant that there was not enough food; grain had to be imported from the neighboring communities of Livadeia and Thebes. The plague was raging there and the authorities had forbidden the entry into Athens of travelers or traders from that area. For some bizarre reason, though, they allowed Athenians to travel back and forth in order to bring the necessary foodstuffs. 

As soon as a supply of flour reached Athenian bakeries, throngs of starving people gathered outside the stores and fought each other for bread. The bakers were so terrified of the crowds that they sold their goods from the windows and kept their doors shut, lest the mob ransack the store. As winter came to a close, people were so hungry that they set upon the dwellings of the proestotes and the Ottoman authorities and demanded permission to go wherever they desired in search of food. They deemed it was better to die once from the plague (should God will it) than die every day from starvation.

The cluster

Their wish was soon granted. On March 9, a monk at the church of Megali Panagia in the middle of the market (present-day Hadrian’s Library) fell ill and a widow was called in to rub him down. That same night, the monk died. The proestotes visited the widow and asked her if she had noticed any boils or rashes on the monk’s body. She had not, but then she told them that the monk had vomited blood. That was more than enough for the proestotes, who sealed the church and the widow’s house. Within a week everyone at the church (a priest, a monk, and four children) was dead. 

The widow and her three daughters showed no signs of the disease and survived on food sent to them by the authorities. On the 16th day of their quarantine, though, the smallest child came down with the plague. The mother took her family to an orchard outside the city, where the two youngest children died. The neighbors forced the mother (who was by now also sick) and the surviving daughter to flee, but the woman was too sick to walk. The grave-digger who had buried her children loaded her on his mule and took her to the chapel of Saint Marina, where she died (taking another old woman with her).   

The best-laid plans

The disease made a mockery of the proestotes’ containment plans. It spread rapidly and afflicted one or two houses per day. The residents tried to flee to the countryside, where they mixed with refugees from the plague in Thebes and Livadeia. Those who remained in Athens celebrated Easter in a climate of fear and anxiety. They were terrified of approaching each other and did not perform the traditional embrace when the priests proclaimed that “Christ is risen”. Every orchard, monastery, farm, and village around Athens was full of scared people, while downtown streets and marketplaces were empty.


But it was of no avail. The plague followed the hordes of refugees wherever they went. Men, women, children and the elderly suffered in the open air and died in droves. Most of the dead remained unburied for days since the two public grave-diggers could not keep up with the demand for their services. 

While the Christians perished in the countryside, the Muslims suffered within the town walls. They refused to abandon Athens, but they also failed to take any measures to protect themselves. Benizelos claims that this attitude was born out of their belief that whatever happened was God’s will, and he mocked the fatalism that sent them “to enjoy, according to the teachings of Muhammad, piles of pilaff and rivers flowing with milk and honey”. 

The survivors

The disease devastated Athens. At its height, it carried off 30 to 40 people per day, with almost 500 people dying in a single day. It raged until the 20th of June, at which point mortality rates fell to one or two per day, before fizzling out in early August. By then, 1200 Christians and 500 Muslims were dead, and the survivors faced the renewed prospect of famine. Benizelos survived the plague and his urban house survived the ravages of time. It still stands on Adrianou Street in Plaka, a magnificent and extremely rare example of an Athenian mansion from the Ottoman period.

The Survivor – Mentor in Greece
Link to The Survivor – Mentor in Greece

The Survivor – Mentor in Greece

In Athens every corner holds a surprise! In this two-hour walking tour, you will explore an off the beaten track trail in the heart of the city and discover a neighborhood inspired by the architecture of the Cyclades, imperial churches, ancient ruins, and countless spots totally suited to that perfect Instagram picture.

The best art gallery of Athens

By all accounts, Michael Choniates was a remarkable individual. He was born in the town of Chonai in western Asia Minor. His family may have been important locally, but his rise in the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy was mostly due to his personal ability. He studied in Constantinople and Thessaloniki, and in 1182 (while he was in his early forties) he was selected as the new metropolitan bishop of Athens. 

Michael was a gifted and versatile writer of homilies, speeches, poems, and letters, as well as an ardent bibliophile who brought his voluminous library from Constantinople to Athens at a time when no moving companies even existed.  As a pupil of the famous classical scholar Eustathius of Thessalonica, Choniates was influenced by ancient Greek literature and frequently expressed his admiration for the cultural accomplishment of classical Greece. The first speech he addressed to the assembled Athenians was in a classicizing and sophisticated language his flock could not understand. The disjunction between the classical descriptions of the city and the reality he encountered must have been shocking; his correspondence is full of derogatory remarks (“everything from Athens is meager and cheap”). And yet, he considered the Athenians as direct descendants of their famous ancestors and was truly sad when he was forced to flee the town in the wake of the Latin conquest in 1204. 

Choniates’ Athens is now long gone. Four centuries of Ottoman rule and a few post-independence decades of frantic classical idealism resulted in the almost complete eradication of the city’ medieval past…with one notable exception.  

The Little Metropolis

The Little Metropolis (also known as Panagia Gorgoepikoos and Agios Eleutherios) is a small cross-in-square church next to the much more imposing modern cathedral of Athens. Even a casual perusal reveals something quite extraordinary about this building. Most medieval churches in Athens were built with stone, lined with bricks (when funding was available), or rubble (when money was scarce). The Little Metropolis, though, is constructed almost entirely of finely dressed blocks of white Pentelic or bluish Hymettus marble laid in neat courses of the same height. This expensive material was recycled from one or more unknown derelict building(s), which served as a convenient quarry. But even more astonishing is the upper part of the exterior walls, since it is composed of approximately ninety spolia (figural reliefs). There is simply no other building (secular or sacred) anywhere in the world with such a massive use of reused pieces of sculpture.   

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The spolia consist of classical Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sculpture. The wealth of imagery is truly fascinating. There are architectural elements (pilaster capitals, coffers); figural reliefs depicting animals (lions, peacocks, an eagle with a hare), a tree of life, fantastic creatures (sphinxes, lions with human heads), a woman riding on a swan, a naked satyr, a seated Cybele (i.e. an Anatolian mother goddess), Nikes; ornamental reliefs (rosettes, leaves, four or six-petalled roses, laurel wreaths); and epigraphical blocks. There is also a stunning frieze above the main entrance representing the months of the Attic calendar with some of the Athenian festivals that took place during each month alongside the signs of the zodiac. Interspersed among all these beasts, gods, and mortals are crosses; these were added at different times during the Christian era (as evidenced by the diverse types used) to neutralize the evil forces that supposedly resided in the sculptures.

The secret of the arrangement

Whoever designed this church took some care into arranging the spolia in such a manner that they would be as visible as possible. They selected pieces of roughly similar size and made sure to adorn the doors in the most splendid manner; the main entrance is crowned with the spectacular calendar frieze. The two pieces were placed in reverse order though, as evidenced by the rough surface in the middle; in antiquity, the frieze would have begun with the current right-hand block. Most of the ancient blocks were placed along the edges on the upper part of the walls. This arrangement may hold an (unknown) signification, but it is also possible that the placement was determined by structural reasons; the ancient blocks are much sturdier than the later Byzantine slabs, so they were ideal for the structure’s weakest points.  

The tell-tale inscription

When was the church built and who was the commissioner? For the longest time researchers assumed that the building belonged to the period of Michael Choniates’ stay in Athens (ca. 1182-1204), on the assumption that the extensive use of spolia reflected the metropolitan’s interest in classical Greece. In 2005, though, professor Bente Kiilerich noticed a two-line inscription on a large block inserted in the upper western half of the south wall. The inscription consists of a handful of nondescript names (ΗΡΑΚΛΕΩΝ ΗΡΑΚΛΕΩΝΑΣ ΚΗΦΕΙΣΙΕΥΣ. ΔΩΡΟΘΕΑ ΙΣΙΓΕΝΟΥΣ ΜΥΡΡΙΝΟΥΣΙΟΥ ΘΥΓΑΤΗΡ) and is hardly visible to the untrained eye. In 1436 Cyriacus of Ancona copied this very same inscription during his first visit to Athens. Only he did not find it embedded on the walls of the Little Metropolis but lying about somewhere in the vicinity of the classical agora, hundreds of meters to the west of the church. The conclusion seems inevitable: there was no Little Metropolis before 1436.  

So who built the church? It is possible that the Little Metropolis was commissioned by a member of the Florentine family of Acciaioli, who ruled Athens at the height of the Renaissance. It is also possible that the church was built after the Ottoman conquest of Athens in 1456 to serve as a refuge for the icon of the Virgin Mary from the church of Panagia Atheniotissa (i.e. the Parthenon that was converted into a mosque). The answer may remain elusive, but the little church will long remain a marvelous blend of works of art that encapsulate the city’s long and turbulent past.

King Otto’s Athens - Mentor in Greece - Cultural Routes in Greece
Link to King Otto’s Athens – Mentor in Greece – Cultural Routes in Greece

King Otto’s Athens – Mentor in Greece – Cultural Routes in Greece

In 1834 King Otto decided to move the capital of his newly acquired kingdom from Nafplio to Athens. His selection was based on emotion instead of reason.

The parrots of Athens

The polykatoikia is the quintessential housing solution in Athens. The term is derived from poly (multiple) and oikia (dwelling). These five-to-seven story buildings seem ubiquitous and serve the housing needs of millions of people who moved into the city between 1950 and 1970. The basic format is a reinforced concrete frame with masonry infill that contains a microcosm of Greek society since its apartments were open and accessible to residents with differing social status. Despite an abundance of negative comments regarding its aesthetics and disastrous impact on the city’s old neoclassical housing stock, the polykatoikia defines the contemporary urban landscape of Athens to such an extent that it has been adopted as a housing ideal by the city’s most exotic newcomers, the feral parakeets of the National Garden.

The parrot of Ctesias

The 5th-century BCE physician and historian Ctesias of Cnidus was the first Greek to describe a parrot: “it has a human voice and language, and is about the size of a hawk; it has a purple head and a black beard. Its body is dark blue, but it is the color of red cinnabar round the neck. It speaks Indian like a human being, but if it learns Greek then it also speaks Greek.” The average ancient Athenian, of course, would not have been familiar with parakeets; the last European species disappeared during the Miocene. But contemporary Athenians are becoming increasingly familiar with their raucous squawking.  

The two species

The first parakeets in downtown Athens appeared in the late 1980s. Two medium-sized species have established breeding colonies: the ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri) and the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus). The former is native in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, while the latter originates from the temperate to subtropical areas of South America. The ring-necked parakeet is green with a red and black neck ring, as well as long tail feathers. It is very noisy and can be taught to speak. The monk parakeet is also bright green with a greyish forehead and breast, almost as noisy as the ring-necked parakeet and equally adept at developing a large vocabulary.

Plumed fugitives

The origin of the parakeets’ breeding colonies in Athens is obscure. These are not typical migratory birds, so the first individuals probably escaped from the sanitary quarantine in Ellinikon, the old international airport west of Glyfada, in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Their territory gradually expanded as they occupied green spaces in densely populated areas across Athens. Their exemplary Mediterranean diet is based on trees that grow all over the city: cypress cones, palm tree dates, almonds, the fruit of the ash tree, and the seeds of the bitter oranges. The climatic conditions are perfectly suited to their needs and the noticeable lack of natural predators only makes their lives that much easier.

Polykatoikia for parakeets

According to the census of the Hellenic Ornithological Society, the Athenian parakeet population consists of more than 1500 individuals. All these birds must find shelter. The ring-necked parakeet is an avid searcher of suitable nesting sites, occupying temporary stations until it finds a permanent home. The monk parakeet is more ambitious. This bird actually builds stick nests in a mature tree (or a man-made structure). The nest (which can reach the size of a small automobile) is occupied by multiple pairs, each of which has its own “apartment”, much like the typical Athenian polykatoikia. 

True Athenians

In late 2018, the Greek authorities removed the nests from the National Garden. They had grown so large that their weight posed a danger to pedestrians and the stability of the trees. But the monk parakeets, ever industrious and ever-persistent, are gradually rebuilding their polykatoikia on the pine trees in the middle of the National Garden (near the small zoo). In their diet and nesting habits, these exotic newcomers prove themselves 100% Athenian.

The Secrets of the National Garden - Mentor in Greece - Cultural Routes in Greece
Link to The Secrets of the National Garden – Mentor in Greece – Cultural Routes in Greece

The Secrets of the National Garden – Mentor in Greece – Cultural Routes in Greece

The National Garden, is the preeminent green space in downtown Athens. It was designed as the palace garden and occupied an empty field of the city.

Ancient Greek drinking games

Kottabos: the drinking game of ancient Greece

The ancient Greek symposium was primarily a drinking party. Kings and heroes had often enjoyed each other’s company over a few cups of wine during the time of Homer (8th century BCE) but it was only in the 600s BCE that the symposium acquired the form and context we now consider typical. It was the aristocratic event par excellence; it consisted of groups of men who came together in specially designated rooms on the host’s house to participate in an evening of drinking and intellectual discussion. Young male slaves attended the guests and served the wine; there were also female prostitutes or hetairai (courtesans), who danced, played music or offered sexual favors. 

Games and singing

Despite its tendency to grow wild as more and more wine was served, early in the evening, the symposium was governed by rules. One of the drinkers was appointed symposiast (master of ceremonies) and decided on the sequence of activities. The guests reclined on couches (there could be as many as fifteen couches and thirty guests) and received their drink from the slaves; a large kratēr in the middle of the room was used to dilute the wine with water (one part wine to two or three parts water). As the night progressed, the mixture became stronger (less water, more wine) and the guests less reserved (eventually the female attendants ended up climbing on the couches). The philosophical and political discussions then gave way to competitive singing and drinking games. 

The kottabos

The most popular game was kottabos. According to Athenaeus, the game originated in Sicily and the name (which roughly translates to “wine-dregs”) is itself a Sicilian word. At its most basic form, the purpose of the game was to take the wet substance left behind from the drained drinking cup and fling it into a basin or onto a target. It may sound simple, but it was a game that demanded both skill and elegance; the symposiast required a steady hand and a fine sense of touch, much like a “good flute player”. The successful competitor was more likely to be the one who could bend his wrist with the most elegance.

Depending on the target, kottabos had many variations. One version required small saucers floating in a basin of water that was set between the symposiasts; the goal was to use the wine dregs to sink the saucers. Another target could be a disk balanced flat atop a tall pole; much like in a modern Greek taverna, the disk would be knocked off by the wine and fall with a crash (OPA!). Other targets could be truly elaborate constructions; according to a red-figure cup by Apollodoros (ca. 490 BCE), the target consisted of a flat pan, on which stood a tripod that balanced a phallus-headed bird!

Sexual prizes

The phallus-headed bird highlights a crucial aspect of the game, its erotic nature. The wine dregs flying through the air were described as “Cyprian” or “Aphrodisiac”. The players declared for whom they were playing and claimed sexual favors as a reward for a successful cast. A symposiast in Sophocles’ Salmoneus established tickling and the peck of kisses as prizes of victory for the man who cast the kottabos most pleasingly. A successful cast also signaled success in love. The hetairai were also allowed to participate in the game. Sometimes they were free to choose their partner and they often cast their wine dregs directly at the men, rather than at the inanimate target. A red-figured psykter by Euphronios (ca. 520 BCE) depicts a naked woman named Smikra (The Little One) in the process of throwing her wine in honor of a man called Leagros. 

Juggling act

There were also some drinking games that required the physical engagement of the symposiasts. During the evening, guests endeavored to perform various types of exercises that involved all parts of their bodies and a range of cups and vases. A drinker may squat and balance a cup in the crook of his elbow, while holding a pitcher with his other hand, with the purpose of pouring its contents into the cup. Another may try to carry his cloak and an amphora with his foot. A red-figure cup (from the 510s BCE) has a young man in a state of erection attempting to carry a krater on his belly. Thirty years later, another young man tried to hold his cup in his teeth while keeping his arms and legs extended. 

Conservative choices

All this wine-dregs tossing and bizarre juggling were not to everyone’s taste, of course. Many intellectuals rejected these drinking games as coarse and tasteless, preferring to entertain themselves with “challenges”. The premise of this pastime was that any symposiast could issue a challenge such as riddles or singing songs. Elegiac poetry was closely associated with the symposium; the guests would compose songs on the spot in elegiac meter (often using a stock of themes and phrases that circulated widely) and sing it in the accompanied of an aulos. Another challenge involved round of speeches on a selected topic (the most famous being the debate on the nature of love in Plato’s Symposium).

A symposium, therefore, offered a range of entertainment options, which made the role of the symposiarch even more important. According to Plutarch, his aim should be “to preserve an atmosphere of cheerfulness” and to “sponsor a mixture of serious and playful events suited to the individual characters of those present”. The frivolous guests would thus receive some much-needed education, while the more serious and reserved symposiasts would relax and forget their worries. And at the end of the night, if all went well, everyone would stumble home content and blissful.

The art of the ancient Greek penis

The quest for youth and beauty is as old as time, and the ancient Greeks had a few things to say on the matter. In the Clouds, Aristophanes has the young Pheidippides visit the school of Socrates in search of an education that will enable him to maintain his extravagant lifestyle. As he enters the school, he encounters two associates of Socrates, Superior and Inferior Argument, who debate with each other over which of them can offer the best education. Superior Argument claims that Pheidippides should spend his time in the gymnasium, running races beneath the olive trees and the white poplars. If he follows his recommendations, he will always have “a rippling chest, radiant skin, broad shoulders, a wee tongue, a grand bottom, and a petite posthē”. 

It is fairly easy to understand the attraction of most of these physical characteristics. But a diminutive posthē is a bit more baffling, for in this context the word posthē refers to the penis. Ancient Greek art is full of attractive and heroic men endowed with male members we would not really consider “impressive”. Why would the Greeks depict their gods and heroes with small manhoods and why would an associate of Socrates (imaginative though he may be) argue in favor of a tiny penis?

The beauty of the foreskin

A word of caution is necessary at this point. The Greeks did not necessarily value a small penis per se; it was rather the prepuce (i.e. the foreskin) that was of particular importance to them and there was a dedicated vocabulary to describe all the important structures of the male organ. The part of the skin that covers the glans of the penis was called the posthē, while the tapered extremity of the foreskin that extends beyond the glans was known as the akroposthion. The prepuce was considered among the most beautiful parts of the male anatomy, as evidenced by the words of the Greek physician Galen (ca. 129 – 210 CE), who noted that “nature, out of her abundance, ornaments all the members, especially in man…the ears show obvious ornamentation, and so, I suppose, does the skin called the prepuce at the end of the penis and the flesh of the buttocks”. 

Large-foreskinned one

The sexually attractive ancient Greek male had a well-formed and long prepuce. Ancient writers often refer to it and highlight its function as a visual stimulant. Dion was a “lusty, low-scrotumed, cuntish, and mastic-chewing young” who masturbated and groped whenever he saw someone with a long prepuce (or so Lucian informs us in his satire Lexiphanes). Mnesilochus, an ordinary Athenian, did not hesitate to press his face against a garment worn by the youthful and handsome poet Agathon and express his pleasure at the “pleasant smell of prepuce” (according to the Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes). “Large foreskinned one” [posthōn] was a term of endearment for young boys. 

The morality of skin

The evidence from ancient Greek art is overwhelming; the Greeks valued the longer over the shorter foreskin and the smaller over the larger penis. Divine and heroic males are depicted with prepuces that comprise up to three-quarters the entire length of the penis. Even when the latter is erect, the foreskin remains unretracted and tapers off gracefully. Moderation and modesty required that the glans of the penis should remain hidden under an abundant cocoon of skin; an externalized glans was considered shameless and dishonorable, synonymous with lewdness and wantonness. 

Even worse, an exposed glans could serve as an association with barbarity and slavery. A sixth-century Corinthian terracotta plaque depicts four slaves working in a quarry; one of them wields a pickax, but what truly captures our attention is the impressive male organ that swings between his legs. The glans is painted black and there is no foreskin; two white lines indicate the scars from the circumcision that clearly defines this individual as non-Greek (or at least like someone who does not live up to the Greek ideal of male beauty).  


The exposure of the glans was, therefore, a serious no-no in ancient Greek society. The desire for a well-formed prepuce was so strong that the Greeks developed a tool to ensure a generously proportioned foreskin. The kynodēsmē (dog leash) was a thin leather thong would around the akroposthion and tied around the waist. Its purpose was to pull the penis upwards and apply continuous (and long-term) traction to secure the elongation of the foreskin. 

According to the grammarian Phrynichus Arabius, the Athenians were notorious users of the kynodēsmē and would often call their penis kyon(dog). Participants at symposia would employ the kynodēsmē to maintain their modesty and decency even when inebriated. Athletes would use it to prevent their glans from protruding while training naked. The vase painter and potter Euphronius (ca. 535 – after 470 CE) created a magnificent calyx-krater with palestra scenes; among the youths depicted is a young athlete in the process of employing a kyn to pull the prepuce taut. 

Even in erotic scenes, the foreskin remains neatly tapered and unretracted; there are only a handful of cases when a young and attractive male youth will be shown with an exposed glans. Such imagery was reserved for slaves, barbarians, lecherous old men and satyrs. The proper penis of a moral, virtuous, and attractive Greek male required an abundant supply of foreskin.

Ancient Greek pet names

photo credit: – G Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images

Animals were essential to the ancient Greeks. On a practical level, they were crucial to farm work and food production; they served their masters at war or carried them from place to place. They assisted them in the hunt or played a crucial role in ostentatious public sacrifices and in prophecy. Finally, they were companions and mentors. Such a close relationship left abundant traces in the literature and archaeological monuments of archaic, classical and Hellenistic Greece. Ancient myths, fables, epic poems, histories, and funerary monuments record the bond between animals (ranging from dogs to elephants) and their owners. But what names did the ancient Greeks select for their four-legged companions?

Cow names

Cattle husbandry was a cornerstone of ancient Greek society. The epic poet Hesiod listed ox as one of the three essentials for anyone (the other two being a house and a wife). The heroes of Homer ate lots of beef and used the leather for their armor and shields. The average person, of course, would not have been able to consume so much meat, but oxen provided draft and sacrificial animals. This intimate relationship is reflected in the tendency to name the cows and the bulls. It was a tradition that originated in Minoan Crete, since the tablets of Knossos record the names of cattle: Black, Red, Dapple, Red-rump, Dusky, etc. The bucolic poet Theocritus in the 3rd century BCE recorded the efforts of a herdsman to gather his wayward cows, Lepargos (“whitecoat”) and Kymaitha (“chubby”).

What a man will do for his horses

Horses were another valuable and beloved possession, especially among the aristocrats. They provided essential service in battle and bequeathed eternal glory to their owners with their victories at equestrian competitions (especially at the Olympic Games). Cimon “Coalemos” (6th century BCE) was the proud owner of mares which won the Olympic chariot race three times. He had been banned from Athens for political reasons, but when he dedicated his second victory to the tyrant Peisistratus he was allowed to return. Four years later he won his third victory, only this time the sons of Peisistratus became envious of him and murdered him. His mares were buried in a tomb opposite his own, perhaps as part of the funerary rites.

We do not know the names of Cimon’s mares, but those of other famous ancient Greek horses have been recorded. Homer informs us that Achilles had three horses called Xanthus (“blonde”), Balius (“dappled”), and Pedasos (“jumper” or “captive”); the first two were divine, while Pedasos was mortal. Alexander the Great managed to impress his father and the Macedonian court by taming Bucephalus (“ox-head”), an imposing black animal who was named after a branding mark on his haunch depicting a bull’s head. The horse was said to have died in Punjab at the age of thirty. Alexander mourned his death and celebrated his life by founding the city of Alexandria Bucephalous in his memory.

The desire to commemorate a faithful and beloved horse was not restricted to the powerful. Even private citizens felt the need to erect a memorial or compose an epigram. This was the case with the wind-footed Aethyia (“seagull”), a mare who was as fast as a bird; during her illustrious career as a racing horse, she as far as a ship. Less fortunate was Aetos (“eagle”); in his youth, he had “outshone all fleet-footed horses” at the Panhellenic Games but when he grew old he was fettered by a collar and grinded corn by turning a rough stone.

Canine friends

Dogs played a significant role in ancient Greek society. There were hunting dogs, guard dogs, sheepdogs, performing dogs, and pet dogs. In Homer’s Odyssey, the noble hound Argos lies on a pile of cow manure. He is infested with fleas and can no longer assist his owner with his tracking skills. And yet, Argos is the first living creature to recognize Odysseus when the latter finally returns to Ithaca after twenty years overseas. When his master entered the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus, Argos was seized by “the darkness of death”.

Many centuries later (2nd century CE), Anaxeos from Mytilene bade a last farewell to Parthenope (“maiden-voiced”), his beloved and kind dog with whom he used to play throughout her life. Another man from Pergamon lamented the loss of his dog in the 3rd century BCE; Philokynegos (“chasseur”) was swift-footed and had spent his life chasing after ferocious beasts. Other canine names include Lampourgos (“fire tail”) for a sheepdog and Taurus (“bull”) for a swift-footed Maltese dog, who once guarded his master Eumelos, but is now prevented from barking by the silent streets of the eternal night. Anyte of Tegea commemorated the loss of Maira, a female hound that loved to make lots of noise; unfortunately, she was bitten by a spotted-throated viper near her home at Locri and perished.

Pet elephants

King Antiochus III the Great was a big fan of elephants and made a point of receiving as many of these beasts as possible as a gift from Sophagasenus, a minor king who ruled the lands around Kabul. Antiochus was particularly fond of two of these elephants, to which he had given the names of famous ancient Greek heroes. During a campaign, though, the first of these elephants (Ajax) refused to enter a stream, while the other (Patroclus) made the attempt and was rewarded with silver pendants. Ajax felt degraded and refused to eat, preferring “death to ignominy”.

Walking dead

photo credit: Wikipedia

Ancient Greek parents had the right to expose a newborn child. Poor families with too many children, parents who only wanted sons, or girls who had been raped may not have been inclined to raise the child. Rather than killing the hapless newborn, they opted to expose it in a much-frequented place, in the hope that someone else would find it and protect it. The story of Oedipus is perhaps the most famous example of this mentality.

But there were also cases of abnormal children whose birth affected the entire community. A teras (monster) constituted an ominous sign from the gods. The state would attempt to eject it from the city territory, but without killing or burying it. A murdered teras could become a harmful and angry spirit eager to avenge its violent death. If the abnormal child was buried, it would return to the earth intact and might be reborn in the same form. The solution to the problem of an unnatural birth required much careful thinking, as evidenced by a report provided by Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of Emperor Hadrian who wrote On Marvels, a compilation of sensational (and supposedly true) stories.

The hermaphrodite

Polycritus was a citizen of Aetolia and was elected aetolarch for a period of three years by the people on account of his virtue. During his time in office, he married a woman from Locris, a region to the east of Aetolia. Unfortunately, the couple only got to spend three nights together, for on the fourth night Polycritus died. Nine months later the widow gave birth to a child who had two sets of genitals; the upper portion was hard and masculine, whereas the lower part was soft and feminine. The child was a hermaphrodite, a deviation from nature that ushered into a whole series of bizarre events.

When public opinion runs wild

The relatives of Polycritus brought the child to the agora and called a general assembly of the people. They also summoned sacrificers and diviners to deliberate on what they should do. The astonishment was general and the offered opinions differed wildly. Some claimed that the child was a portent of war to come among the Aetolians and the Locrians since the infant was descendant from two different lineages. Others argued that both mother and child should be taken beyond the frontiers of Aetolia and burned to death, supposedly on the assumption that being consumed by flames while still alive is not really murder and therefore there is no chance that the child will come back furious and vindictive.

Zombie in a hurry

In the midst of these deliberations, Polycritus suddenly appeared. He had been dead for nine months and yet there he was, standing before the assembly, dressed in black. Many people tried to flee, while others were stricken with amazement and terror. The specter approached the child and addressed the citizens of Aetolia with a weak voice, informing them that the gods of the underworld had listened to his pleas and had allowed him to return among the living to save his child.

He called upon them to hand over to him the infant in order “that no violence takes place as a result of [their] reaching some other decision and that [their] hostility towards [him] not be the beginning of difficult and harsh troubles”. If the diviners were mad and wanted to burn the child, he would not allow them to do so. He also asked his compatriots to hurry up and make a decision for “those who rule beneath the earth” would not permit him to linger much longer.

Nutritious meal

When Polycritus was finished, the citizens were even more baffled than before. Some wanted to hand the baby over, while others were reluctant to do so and called for more deliberations. Polycritus, pressed for time, threatened them with serious trouble on account of their procrastination and their willingness to harm his child. Despite these direct threats from a zombie, the people continued arguing, at which point Polycritus decided he had had enough. He took hold of the infant, pushed the men back and tore it hastily limb from limb. Then he devoured the body of his child except for the head. The Aetolians threw stones at him, but to no avail. When the ghastly meal was over, Polycritus disappeared, leaving the child’s head lying on the ground.

Talking head

This series of unfortunate and bizarre events was obviously far too baffling for the good people of Aetolia. Divine help was in order, so they decided to send a delegation to Delphi. But the head of the child decided to spare them the trouble of an arduous journey and began to foretell the future. He told them not to visit the sanctuary of Phoebus for their hands were unclean from the blood. Death had been ordained for all of them and a bloody drizzle was going to be poured on their heads; women would grieve forever and no children would grow in the houses where their fathers were mourned. They should expose the head of the child to the rising dawn and then abandon their land.

The Aetolians headed the advice of the talking head and sent their wives, children and the elderly away. But the men stayed behind and awaited the impending disaster. Which begs the question of why a group of supposedly rational adults would refuse to listen to the words of a talking head that survived being consumed by a man who came back from the dead. In any case, the prophecy was soon fulfilled. The Aetolians went to war with the Acarnanians (their neighbors to the west) and suffered great destruction.

Why Mentor? | Who was Mentor?

In Homer‘s classic epic poem, The Odyssey, Mentor (Greek: Μέντωρ, gen.: Μέντορος), was both friend and counsellor to Odysseus (also known by the Latin name Ulysses). Odysseus, king of Ithaca, fights in the Trojan War and entrusts the care of his household to Mentor, who serves as teacher and overseer of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.

After the war, Odysseus is condemned to wander vainly for ten years in his attempt to return home. In time, Telemachus, now grown, ventures in search of his father. Athena, goddess of War and patroness of the arts and industry, assumes the form of Mentor and accompanies Telemachus on his quest. Father and son reunite and cast down would-be usurpers of Odysseus’ throne and Telemachus’s birthright.

The word Mentor evolved to mean trusted advisor, friend, teacher and wise person. The first recorded modern usage of the term can be traced to a 1699 book entitled The adventures of Telemachus, by the French writer Francois Fenelon. In the book the lead character is that of Mentor. The slender plot fills out a gap in Homer’s Odyssey, recounting the educational travels of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, accompanied by his tutor, Mentor, who is revealed at the end of the story to be Athena, goddess of wisdom, in disguise.

History offers many examples of helpful mentoring relationships: Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great, Hayden and Beethoven, Freud and Jung. Mentoring is a fundamental form of human development where one person invests time, energy and personal know-how in assisting the growth and ability of another person.

All the above have been a powerful inspiration behind the creation of Mentor.

Home is where the heart is. It may be as humble as a shepherd’s hut or as stately as a Bronze Age palace in Greece. Sometimes, though, it can be packed with greedy suitors keen on squandering someone else’s fortune. What is a young man or woman supposed to do then? Go abroad in search of knowledge and wisdom!

The voyage may be long but full of palaces, old temples, new friends, and a country you thought you knew but had never truly experienced with your own senses. And since you may feel lost or timid or unsure as to your itinerary and destination, why not place your trust in a mentor who can support, teach, and inspire you? After all, Telemachus, the son of King Odysseus, did it and had by his side the invaluable assistance of Athena (yes, it’s her in our homepage), the goddess of wisdom, in the form of Mentor.

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From infanticide to Mount Olympus: Disability in ancient Greece

Mount Taygetus dominated the skyline of ancient Sparta and inspired fear to any newborn male Spartan. Soon after the birth, the father brought the infant before a group of elders, who closely examined the child. If he was strong and healthy, the judges allowed his father to raise him. If he was misshapen, though, they took him to Mount Taygetus and threw him into a pit. They believed it was better for a sickly child to perish immediately than to remain alive and be unable to offer his military services to the city.

This popular story (which is almost certainly a myth) was narrated by Plutarch (c. 46 CE-120 CE), a Greek essayist who is known primarily for his Parallel Lives, a masterful series of biographies of famous men. He lived at a time when infanticide was a fairly common practice throughout the Greek world. Potentially disabled or deformed children were often abandoned or killed since congenital physical deviations were considered a mark of divine disfavor. An Athenian father had ten days to decide whether he wanted to raise the infant. Plutarch argued that citizens suffering from an impairment or a serious illness should not participate in public affairs as politicians or soldiers.    

This grim picture of exclusion, physical violence, and neglect does not do justice to the reality faced by people with disabilities in ancient Greece. They were mocked by Aristophanes, but they also received maintenance assistance from the Athenian state. They married the goddess of beauty; composed the greatest epics; and died fighting the armies of King Xerxes alongside King Leonidas.

It’s a hard life

An ancient Greek polis was inhabited by people with a wide range of visible physical disabilities. Eupolis, a 5th century BCE Athenian comic poet, described his spectators as blind, hunchbacked, red-headed etc. Aristotle claimed that “biped” is not truly a human property, because not every human possesses two feet. Some disabilities were congenital, while others were acquired through warfare, accident, or disease. Aristotle argued that many birth defects were the result of an improper “setting” during the gestation process, leaving people with too many or too few parts. The absence of an arm or a leg at a newborn child was considered the result of an abortion of the missing extremity.

Clubfoot, tuberculosis, epidemic diseases, or cerebral palsy could have lifelong consequences. The loss of limbs or arthritis could result in permanent disability, while infections could prevent bones from healing properly. Protein and vitamin deficiencies left many children suffering from rickets. On the other hand, disabilities that are fairly common today (paralysis as a result of spinal cord injuries), were absent in antiquity for the simple reason that people who suffered such catastrophic accidents or birth defects did not survive.

On visibility

People with disabilities were ubiquitous in ancient Greece. Their participation in economic activities was viewed as commonplace. There were lame slaves, tailors who limped, people with withered arms who used saws and spades, lame peddlers, and injured metalworkers or miners. According to a popular myth, the fearless Amazons dislocated their sons’ joints at the hip and then employed them as coppersmiths and leatherworkers. As for the Spartans, most of them did not recognize physical disability as a reason for exemption from military duties. Among the 300 who stood with Leonidas at Thermopylae was Eurytus, who suffered from a severe inflammation of the eyes, and yet fought and died. Aristodemus, who suffered from the same condition, returned home and was ridiculed by his compatriots for surviving when everyone else perished.

Much depended on mobility. There were no wheelchairs, so people used crutches, staffs, or canes. Others had to crawl about on their sound leg, supporting themselves with a hand on the ground. Donkeys, carts or litters could assist those who were unable to walk, provided they had the means to finance them. Prosthetic devices were individually crafted. Hegesistratus was the diviner of the Persian general Mardonius. When he was thrown into jail by the Spartans, he cut off his foot in order to escape and then fashioned a prosthetic foot out of wood. Eventually, doctors were able to employ corrective boots and shoes as an aid to people who had difficulty walking. The music master Damonidas lost his boots, so he prayed to the gods that these specially made items would find their way back to his crippled feet.   

Medicaid in antiquity

The state in ancient Athens had provisions in place for people who were poor and physically impaired. A law commanded that those who were poor, incapacitated, and unable to work were to be given food at the public expense. Responsibility for inspecting eligible applicants rested with the Council. This was not a purely altruistic policy, though, since its main purpose was to prevent the destitute from becoming clients of wealthy politicians.

Physical care was the responsibility of the family. Handicapped people depended on their relatives, friends, or slaves for assistance. Life could be hard for those who were alone, or abroad when disability struck them. More often than not, it was women who were entrusted with the role of taking care of the disabled, since the home was their particular sphere of action. Aristotle believed that women were actually deformed males, but physical disabilities did not preclude them from fulfilling their most important task: childbearing. Plato claimed that a deformed spouse may make life unbearable, but such marriages clearly did take place. The historian Herodotus admired the Babylonian system for marrying off all the females. All the marriageable women were gathered in one place and were auctioned off to the men, beginning with the fairest and concluding with the “misshapen ones”. To entice the groom, these “deformed” women received dowries from the revenue raised from the sale of the beautiful women.   

See no evil, hear no evil

Statistically speaking, it is very probable that only a handful of people suffered from hereditary deafness in an ancient Greek city. Athens, being the largest one, probably had a population of only 240 or so congenitally deaf people; smaller cities may only have had four or five. There is no proof as to the existence or absence of a sign language, but there are some references to the use of gestures for communication purposes.

A far worse condition was muteness. Ancient Greeks equated the inability to speak with an inability to reason, so mute people were considered stupid. Muteness is the pinnacle of divine punishment for terrible acts. Hesiod, in his Theogony, tells us that treacherous gods were punished by being forced to lie for one year without a voice. Speechlessness was also an appropriate curse aimed at your political opponents…or those who were simply annoying! Many curse tablets request that someone be afflicted with muteness.

Blindness was perhaps the most common disability in ancient Greece, with Galen mentioning 124 pathological conditions of the eye. Cataract and glaucoma were probably as prevalent back then as they are today. Nutritional deficiencies were also to blame. Priests at the sanctuaries of healing gods would invite patients to partake of animal sacrifices and thus (unknowingly but beneficially) ingest Vitamin A. Other doctors prescribed the daily consumption of beef liver as a cure for night blindness. Many people lost their sight as a result of accidents; masons, miners, and smiths often suffered grievous eye injuries.

As with muteness, the loss of eyesight could be considered a divine punishment; the Muses blinded the musician Thamyris when he dared to rival their musical skills. But for whatever the gods took, they gave something back. Tiresias lost his sight either for revealing the secrets of the gods to the mortals or for chancing upon a naked Athena. In any case, he was compensated with an exceptional sense of hearing that enabled him to understand the language of birds.

Blindness was no obstacle to a successful career. Homer was blind. Eratosthenes, a mathematician, and geographer who calculated the circumference of the Earth and became the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria, had dulling vision. Even Polyphemus, the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus, continued to work as a shepherd by running his hands over the back of his sheep. Blindness was not even an obstacle at war. In warfare, hand-to-hand combat was obviously out of the question, but blind Athenians were able to row a trireme.

Homer, imagined likeness (© footageisland)
Ascending to Olympus

The world of disability in ancient Greece incorporated a wide range of experiences. There was no a priori exclusion from social, military, and economic life; each case was dealt with according to its particular circumstances. Some people with physical impairments were ridiculed; others were considered the “teachers of Greece”. Men and women with disabilities were integrated into their communities and contributed to the best of their abilities. Perhaps there is no finer expression of ancient Greek attitudes towards disabilities than the inclusion of the lame god Hephaestus to their pantheon.

Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, artisans, and fire, was “shriveled of foot”. His life mirrors many of the daily experiences of mortals with disabilities. He was actively engaged in artisanal endeavors and had no trouble securing Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, as a consort. Plutarch accounts for the god’s association with fire by claiming that fire makes no progress without wood, and neither do lame people without a cane. Despite his physical deformity, Hephaestus took his place among the other gods in the feast-hall on Mount Olympus. He just had to ride a donkey to get there.