This article was excerpted from Peter Fiennes’s new book A Thing of Beauty: Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece (Oneworld 2021).
The ruins of old Corinth are about five kilometres from the modern city, which is down the hill and on the coast in a scoop of a bay, close to the northern entrance of the canal; while up high, far above on a plateau of rock, where the buzzards call and soar, is the ancient acropolis and citadel known as the Acrocorinth. That is where I am heading next, just as soon as I have composed my question to the Oracle at Delphi and finished my seventeenth Greek salad of the trip. It is almost the end of October, but the sun is fierce and there has been no rain of note for many months. Our world is once again on course to endure one of its five hottest years since we started collecting the data, and new records are being made and surpassed at bewildering speed, like bales being tossed backwards by a runaway threshing machine. Brooding on this grim thought, I am whining up the hill in my small hire car, smacking through potholes, skidding on slews of gravel, chased by a whirligig of dust. The road is narrow and bent and drops like a stone to the right, and I am trying to hover close to the hillside, hoping without any real hope that no one comes around a corner too fast (although that is something you can more or less guarantee in Greece). The scrubby trees on either side of the road are burned and leafless and charcoal black.
It was decided long ago by Briareos, one of the monsters with a hundred hands who had helped Zeus in his wars of succession, that Acrocorinth should belong to the sun god, Helios, while the isthmus would be sacred to Poseidon, the god of the sea. The only other place that is claimed by Helios for his home is the island of Rhodes, another scorched rocky outcrop with blistering views. Human ownership of Acrocorinth has changed many times, which is surprising, given that it looks impregnable, and it is blessed with fresh spring water all the year round (despite being so high), thanks to King Sisyphus, who struck a bargain with the river god Asopus: ‘I’ll tell you who has abducted your daughter, if you’ll give my city a spring that never runs dry.’ He was a great one for a bargain, Sisyphus. You’d think that by now he would have been able to negotiate his way out from under his rock, but apparently not. Anyway, the answer that Sisyphus gave the river god Asopus was Zeus (hardly a surprise, given Zeus’ track record) and he got his spring, and ‘if you like to believe it,’ sniffs Pausanias, that is why ‘he pays the penalty of telling in Hades’. Neolithic and prehistoric peoples, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Frankish crusaders, Venetians and Ottomans have all settled here at some point, and reinforced the vertiginous walls and towers. And they have all since departed.
I have parked the suffering car at the entrance to the Byzantine-Venetian-Ottoman fortress and have walked, all alone, through the gates and up one of the hairpin paths that leads towards the top of the Acropolis. Should the sun really be this hot in October and so early in the day? That is one question, but a better one might be, did none of these people – ancient Greeks, neolithic farmers and Ottomans – ever suffer from vertigo? The views are bowel-loosening. The kingdom of Helios is hard and cracked, its soil thinned to the rock, feverishly worked over by rabbits and humans, lumped with ruins and outcrops, overgrown by dry tufted grasses parched a light brown, and everywhere strewn with small sharp white stones. There are a few trees, and I sit under the shade of a young olive and watch a man in the far distance walking around the Frankish tower with that bow-legged, cacked-pants shuffle that is familiar to all fellow vertigo sufferers. I decide to skip the Frankish tower. What’s in a view anyway?
The news this morning is that 100,000 people in southern California have just been ordered to evacuate their homes, after two more huge wildfires broke out in Orange County. Two firefighters are in hospital. The world is burning, and the sunny blue skies of California have turned scarlet and black. This is what Byron witnessed in the ‘year without a summer’ of 1816, twelve months after Mount Tambora had erupted in Indonesia, and he was holed up in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva with his friends the Shelleys, and his reluctant lover Claire Clairmont (well, the reluctance was his, or so he claimed) and the irritating Dr Polidori, who had followed him from Britain; and the sun never shone, and the rains fell, and harvests failed across east Asia, Europe, India and North America, and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and Byron produced his great apocalyptic poem Darkness:
Forests were set on fire – but hour by hour
They fell and faded – and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash – and all was black.
Of course, the volcano was unpredicted and devastating, most immediately to the people who lived close to its source, who died in their tens of thousands. The next year endless night and starvation came north. We are better at monitoring the activity of volcanoes these days, but the fires that are burning across the world are wholly predictable and anything but natural. California, Siberia, Australia, Indonesia and beyond are aflame because of out-of-control climate breakdown, ignorant forest management (or lack of any management at all) and fires that are being set deliberately to clear the last of the forests to meet the bottomless pit of our needs. Here in Greece there are 10,000 forest fires every year, some of them deadly (as they all will be soon enough), ninety percent of them started by arsonists.
The world has burned before. Long ago the god Helios was begged by his son, Phaeton, to let him drive the chariot of the sun. Just once, he pleaded, to prove to his friends that he really was Helios’ child, as his mother always said, and eventually the god relented, although he knew that the horses that pulled his chariot were too powerful and wild for any human. And so it proved. Phaeton stood tall, as Eos, the goddess of the dawn, ushered in his journey, but he lost control almost immediately and dropped the reins, the horses felt his weakness and fear and bolted across the heavens – the chariot of the sun, with Phaeton clinging to its sides, flailing behind them – soaring high, scorching the stars, and racing over the earth, where cities and mountain tops and whole nations were incinerated. Volcanoes erupted. Rivers boiled and disappeared into the cracked earth. Libya became a desert. The Ethiopians were burned black. The oceans shrank, sea creatures floated lifeless on the thick surface, and new islands were born as the waters drained away. Eventually, begged by Mother Earth, Zeus killed Phaeton with a single throw of a thunderbolt and Helios dragged his horses back under control. Phaeton’s sisters, inconsolable in their grief, weeping for their lost brother, were transformed into poplar trees and their tears mingled with the returning rivers to emerge as amber, which even now is worn by brides on their wedding days. Or so we’re told.
The Greeks liked to tell tales that set out the limits to human aspiration. Icarus is the more famous example, the wax on his wings melted by the sun for daring to fly too high. ‘Nothing in excess’ was written on the wall at holy Delphi. (Mind you, so was ‘Make use of experts.’) But even though the world they lived in was younger than ours, and emptier of humans, and fecund with other life – there were once lions on the shoreline at Corinth – they knew, even then, what would happen if we reached too far, or took too much.
Not that this knowledge always stopped them, and not even, I am afraid, that often. Plato wrote about the bare hills that surrounded Athens, that were covered in thick forest, rooted in a dense, fertile soil.
What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man, with all the fat and soft earth having wasted away and only the bare framework remaining.
There were remains of holy sites all over the hills, he wrote, shrines to the nymphs of the springs and streams, and now there was no water and there were no nymphs left for us to worship. Everything was barren, ever since the trees were felled. This is deep ecological wisdom, something that we are only now relearning, slowly (and the news is not travelling nearly fast enough). If you remove the forests, the rains will no longer fall and the springs will run dry.
The Greeks had other stories, though, about people who were compelled to reach beyond ordinary human limits. Had these people not lifted the stone to take the sword, or drained the swamps and diverted the rivers, then the world would still be haunted by monsters and furies. The Greeks worshipped their heroes for stepping over the line and doing what the rest of us could not. Heracles, the greatest of them all, was needed by Zeus to help him fight off giants. Perseus slew the Gorgon. And Prometheus, who was not even human, if he had not done what was expressly forbidden – and been punished by being chained to the Caucasus mountains so that an eagle, or vultures, could feed on his liver every day for evermore – if he had not disobeyed Zeus and taken heaven’s fires, then we would all still be grovelling in the mud.
So the Greeks understood that sometimes we have to strive and break things, much as they feared the idea. But they also knew that in their day (perhaps unlike ours) most change was not down to human agency. Volcanoes erupt. Mourning women are turned into trees. Hunters are torn apart by their own hounds. ‘It is no crime to lose yourself in a dark wood.’ Things happen, and change comes, because of the gods, who are angry with us, or playful, or in fact only doing what they would like to do without reference to us, uninterested in what we think or want. Often enough, we are superfluous, incidental bit players who might liven up their day, or are simply getting in the way. And beyond the gods there is something else, that is out of even their control, and most certainly ours. It is sheer hubris to think otherwise.
This extract from A Thing of Beauty: Travels in Mythical and Modern by Peter Fiennes is reproduced by kind permission of the author. The book is published by Oneworld Publications and available in bookstores and internet booksellers.