Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome
Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome
By Nadiya Shah
On recent trips to bother Italy and Greece, I was struck by the contrast of these places, considering their shared connection to ancient religions, religions that are still invoked, albeit on very covert and sometimes unconscious levels, within the spiritual practice of astrology. Both places have connections to gods and goddesses that are still named when we speak of the planets, deities that are still invoked every time we consider the sacredness of the sky. This is perhaps one of the uneasy places of compromise that astrology has found itself in, a compromise that has allowed it to survive to this day within largely monotheistic cultures. The acceptance of a prime mover, or a singular guiding principal, has allowed the reconciliation of astrology to the present day.
I think that when I travel, my senses are heightened. There is so much to see. Everything is new and available to be explored. I notice in the external environment what is already in me asking to be considered and explored. What I noticed most was the physical strength displayed in the images of the Gods and Goddesses. Sculptures and statures carried symbols sacred to that particular deity, but at the same time, muscular strength was displayed regardless of gender. Where the artwork represented a particular challenge or right of passage that defined that god was represented, the deity “Nikh” was also present in the palm of their hand. Usually brightly painted with bright eyes, she came to be known as Victoria, or Victory, as she was assimilated from the Greek into the Roman culture.
But it is not just the gods, in their anthropomorphised exemplification, or to put it another way, in their human form, that brought crowds and adoration even now, centuries since their worship ended. It was the unnamed anonymous person, artwork simply titled ‘An Athlete’, that radiate how these cultures believed in the connection between the physical and the sacred. These bodies sculpted with such care spoke to how these cultures held that all matter is permeated with and infused with spirit. These cultures existed in the time before the Cartesian split that created the mind/ body, or spirit/ matter duality. Though a polytheistic paradigm held, there was at its base a fundamental unity between what we saw and what was going on in more spiritual realms. Though these sculptures were at times over 2000 years old, we also see a return to these ideas, particularly during the renaissance period that dominated Italy. In the work of Michael Angelo we see bodies that are sculpted and muscular, bodies that speak back to the artwork of ancient times, representing the awareness of the connection between physical strength and spiritual beauty.
I wondered how aware of this infusion of spirit and matter the people of the time where aware of. If you look at the art, you would think that at least some of the population did consider this, in the pieces that were created and commissioned, the evidence is there. But how a religion is lived and how it is epitomized can sometimes be two very different things, as we can see in our culture to this day.
Which brings me back to the contrast of these two places to this present day. Perhaps it is because the renaissance was much sooner, which was characterized as a rebirth of Greek ideals, but it seemed to me that the people of Italy had an intimate awareness of this connection between the spirit and the body. It wasn’t anything that was spoken of; actually it was something that you felt. Constantly being surrounded by images that are bright, bold, and appreciated as sacred could play a role in this. The images are newer and more vivid. The bodies are more detailed as art had begun to evolve since ancient Greek times.
In contrast, once I left the tourist archaeological sites of ancient Greece, which at one time were places of worship and the birthplace of western philosophy, I felt that I was in just another modern city. Though the people of Greece are beautiful, were kind wherever I went, and were very proud of their history, that sense of connection to it was lacking.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare. These two places, though very close together, have a separate history and their own charisma. It was interesting to see how two religions, though both no longer considered living except by a few, were being lived and experienced today by the masses. In Italy, these deities have been assimilated. Though the church still is a very strong force in the lives of people, being surrounded by art influenced by ancient times has allowed an awareness of the sacredness of these energies to be felt to this day. In Greece, with a historical development of its own, has relegated these gods to museums and archaeological sites only, for the contemplation of tourists. There is less conscious awareness of the sacredness of the everyday, and perhaps the sacred within the physical body. But I wonder if this connection is completely lost or still felt, just deeper within than the Italian psyche.
Visiting these places was significant in many respects. It allows for a deeper appreciation of what we have experienced as a human community. It allows for an understanding that we are all part of a lineage of our own. We have our physical ancestry that we know through our families. There is our emotional ancestry, as in everything that we have ever felt has been felt by other people the world over. We are common in our human emotions, and the ancient gods and goddesses indicate this as well. We also have a shared intellectual heritage. The thoughts and intellectual considerations we have hold a history and a line of development that can be traced back. Both these places are special and sacred, and speak to the ancestry that we all have, that shape and guide who we choose to become today.