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Vergina

Roumeli Greece:2013 Vergina is a single work art-show, for the present. The Royal Palace, extensive and tantalising, is closed for refurbishment. All you can see is the tombs. The museum, what a brilliant idea, has been built on site, and a Tumulus mound raised over it: so that you enter, as the funeral processions would have done, via a sloping tunnel; into darkness, glimpsing the ghostly white sunken doors of the houses of the dead.

There are just three royal tombs: the untouched one identified as Philip's, where a woman, possibly one of his wives was also buried, in an antechamber. The one called "the Prince's tomb" (possibly Alexander's son, Alexander IV, who died young), and the so-called "box-shaped grave", where the bones of a man, a woman and a newborn child were found in the plundered chamber. This is the one with the wall-painting I had come to see, a lifesized "Rape of Persephone". There's one more monument, down here in the dark, a massive thing called a Heroon, the shrine of a hero awarded divine status. Presumably Heracles, the legendary ancestor of this royal line.

Wonderful things, wonderful things , as Carter said: and though not on the same scale, more impressive to me than Tutankhamun, because this is a window into a deep past I thought I'd never see, and of a culture closer to home.

It didn't take long to walk around. Here are the famous, fabulously delicate gold wreaths, oak and myrtle. The silver and bronze vessels; the outsize bathing utensils for the funerary rites of a king. The metal parts of a king's dress armour (Philip wasn't a big man, apparently). A solid gold larnax ; funerary container, in which they found the charred fragments of a middle aged man's bones, wrapped in purple. A "queen's diadem". The tiny ivory portrait heads, recognisable as Philip and his son, from a chryselephantine dining couch. The tombs themselves, Philip's with the Doric facade, and the wonderful painted hunting scene above the door. The fascinating doll's house reconstructions: showing exactly what Manolis and his team saw, when they broke in, thirty years ago. The treasure of massive metal, jumbled anyhow; the imperishable gleam of gold.

The Rape of Persephone is a true fresco, executed swiftly on wet plaster, with great freedom and virtuoso skill. The colours seem to be intact, and used sparingly. On the eastern wall, Demeter sits on a rock, as she is described in the Mysteries of Eleusis, exhausted and desolate. To her left, there's the abduction itself. It made the hairs stand on the back of my neck. There is nothing else like this. No other greek painting of this quality and completeness has survived, and yet I've seen that attendant nymph, looking so bewildered and dumbfounded, clutching the veil. She's in the young Cézanne's energetic version of this scene. See her there, off to the left, standing in the water? But why am I amazed? Dynasties rise and fall. A story, an insight as powerful as the Persephone and Demeter myth can leap over dark ages, the smallest detail mysteriously intact.

The video presentation at the end of the tour (not that anyone was guiding us: we were very early, the hall under the tumulus was empty) is a work of art in itself: an account of Manolis and the discovery, and a meditation on the meaning of these secular icons I had just been venerating. Death and memory and forgetting are intimately linked forces. We bury the dead with honour because we love them and fear them; and then later, patiently and lovingly, we dig them up again because we need them. . .

You will find a spring on the left of the halls of Hades, and beside it a white cypress growing. Do not even go near this spring. And you will find another, from the Lake of Memory, flowing forth with cold water. In front of it are guards. You must say, 'I am the child of Gê (Earth) and of starry Ouranos (Heaven); this you yourselves also know. I am dry with thirst and am perishing. Come, give me at once cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.' And they themselves will give you to drink from the divine spring, and then thereafter you will reign with the other heroes From the Orphics, Petelia text, fourth-third century BCE

I'm not really up on Orphic mysteries, but I suppose the first spring is the waters of Lethe & of forgetting.



In the afternoon we walked around the fields, inspected the fatal theatre (all grass grown) and viewed the huge area of the Palace, closed off until at least 2017. Goats rambled, scarlet-skirted grasshoppers leapt onto us. We discussed the Pausanius story, the smoking gun and the grassy knoll and the obvious conclusion one must draw. There was a lot of handwaving at the time, about this poor disturbed young man, unjustly treated by his powerful lover; Philip's bad habit of playing his gorgeous bodyguards off against each other, etc etc. But there was CSI evidence that Pausanius had expected to get away with his crime of passion. That just doesn't make sense. Unless somebody (and there's really only one person who could have done this) had convinced him he'd survive. . . Peter spotted a wayside shrub bearing woody fruits; exactly the same little etched, ochre roundels we'd seen featuring in the funeral wreaths worn by the living, some of them found intact in 2,500 year old funeral debris. I looked it up, later. It's called the Jerusalem Thorn.

The tour buses were arriving as we left.

The next day we took a minor road trip, to ramble around the baked remains of ancient Pella, where Aristotle taught the young Alexander, and see a different range of finds, prosperous everyday luxuries, the people's treasures. Signs are that a very ambitious archaeological reconstruction was planned for this site, but it's all frozen in place now. Sparrows chatter, the shrikes lie in wait for them, blue borage flowers cluster over fallen stone. Closed for refurbishment. And then Edessa, up on the escarpment, the town with the waterfalls running through it. We had a good time there, a very nice lunch at the restaurant under the plane trees, in the sound of the roaring water. It was after dark when we got back to the guesthouse Euridiki. The dogs hurried to check us out: decided we were okay, and licked my hands. We went to Elia's Corner for a tsipouro mezzes supper(a generous tumbler of clear grape brandy, flavoured with anise at your choice, and accompanied by hearty nibbles), and watched the night-time town en fete for the eve of St Paraskevi. Very popular around here, she's depicted with her eyes on a plate (my greek teacher says) because she grants enlightenment; her name means "Friday"*. Later, I lay awake for a long time and listened to the dogs of the plain barking to each other, near and far, around and around; into the endless distance.


*Obscure footnote, I'm certain that this woman called Friday, because she was born on a Friday, (apparently a real and formidable person, even allowing for the fact she probably couldn't do magic and one hopes she didn't have to survive gruesome torture quite so often as reported); whose eyes seemed to follow us around the whole time we were in Greece, is one and the same as the Catholic church's St Lucy, who also lived in the 1st century CE, and also carries her eyes about on a plate, "about whom little is known".


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Dave on :

Lovely posts about your trip, very enjoyable and informative; they are making me want to visit. Thank you for sharing.


>> don't post this - small typo I believe in penultimate para "she's depicted with her eyes of a plate " - maybe "on a plate" ????

Gwyneth Jones on :

Thanks for your comment and you're absolutely right about the correction. Both sets of eyes are now on plates.

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