15 June 2018
Was this the necropolis
of the gods or a lost
As I wandered through the streets of Georgioupoli in the intermittent afternoon rain yesterday, I wondered whether I stumbled across the cave of the harpies or the necropolis of the gods of classical Greece.
Perhaps it was an abandoned set for Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans, perhaps even a lair of the maenads and the nymphs.
Had I approached this place from another side, I might have thought I had stumbled across an abandoned archaeological park, or a workshop where Sir Arthur Evans had slaved away at creating figures he thought were needed for never-existing gaps as he worked away in ruins of a Cretan palace not in Knossos but right here in Georgioupoli.
I could imagine some amateur antiquarian, following in the footsteps of Lord Elgin, thinking he had found his own equivalent of the Parthenon in Crete, chipping off the pieces he wanted only to abandon them as local residents stumbled upon his criminal folly.
But my imagination had run ahead of me. As I looked up at one harpy, perched on the wall that separated these premises from the next-door bank, I realised how incongruous the whole scene is.
I asked around, but few people could remember what this place had once been. Perhaps a jeweller’s shop, perhaps a bar that had been over-the-top in its decoration, perhaps a workshop owned by someone who had a vivid imagination but had over-estimated the market for works like these.
Many of the works are still unfinished, balanced and propped up by heavy wooden supports and cement bags or tied to the bare walls.
Scattered around in the open air are upturned urns, the heads of columns in various classical orders and solitary pillars as though they had been ripped from a stoa or the portico of a temple.
There are seated gods, semi-naked women lounging or standing around, as though they waiting for the Bacchanalia feast to begin tonight, and laurel wreathed women with cornucopias or lyres and varied musical instruments.
In mythology, the harpies were said to live in a cave in Crete. Could this have been their lair, for there are winged harpies in the most unexpected places, buxom and ready to pounce with their talons.
The most celebrated story in which the Harpies play a part is that of King Phineus of Thrace was given the gift of prophecy by Zeus. Angry that Phineus gave away the god’s secret plan, Zeus punished him by blinding him and putting him on an island with a buffet of food that he could never eat because the harpies always arrived to steal the food out of his hands before he could satisfy his hunger.
His plight continued until Jason arrived with the Argonauts. ‘The dogs of great Zeus’ returned to their cave in Minoan Crete, and in gratitude Phineus told the Argonauts how to pass the Symplegades, or clashing rocks.
Here too is Prometheus, bound to a rock, where each day an eagle is sent day-by-day by Zeus to feed on his liver, which then grows back overnight to be eaten again the next day, now waiting to be freed from his torture by Heracles.
Close by, Zeus sits on his throne but has his back turned on the plight of Prometheus.
Athena has lost her spear but still wears her helmet. In his Laws, Plato attributes the cult of Athena to the culture of Crete, introduced, he thought, from Libya at the dawn of Greek culture.
A young woman carrying a vase of water on her shoulder and another in her hand rises from what must have been planned as a fountain or a water feature. A similar figure has lost her head and one hand.
The front of the building is still covered in scaffolding, and a growling lion looks as though he is still prepared to protect the site.
But there is little risk that any tourist is going to pilfer the place, mistaking its value or significance. Even if someone wanted one of these pieces, many of them larger than life, it would never fit into cabin baggage on a Ryanair flight, and its weight would tip the scales for checked-in luggage.