Each city has its obvious, well-known places and landmarks. Athens, the capital of the Hellenic Republic of Greece, has the Acropolis Hill, Syntagma square, the Agora, and so many other historical sites and attractions. Today, we discover some hidden, secret stories that are tied to some of the most popular Athenian landmarks. These stories include creative assassination plans, ancient curses, and hidden rivers.
Stories Behind Popular Attractions in Athens:
- Monkey Attacks the King of Greece at the National Gardens
- The Magic Olive Tree on the Acropolis Hill
- Ancient Curses and “Voodoo” Objects in Kerameikos
- Tricking Ancient Athenians To Becoming Active Citizens… With A Rope
Tricking Ancient Athenians into Becoming Active Citizens… With A Rope
The first story behind a popular Athenian attraction takes place in the ancient Agora of Athens and the Pnyx; both places can be visited in the Greek capital. The Agora of Athens was a marketplace and meeting point for ancient Athenians. The Pnyx was a place designated for public speaking and hosting assemblies during the years of direct Athenian Democracy.
According to some historical records from Thucydides – but mostly from plays written by the ancient comedian Aristophanes – we get the impression that ancient Athenians loved to discuss politics but often despised attending the assemblies. Sometimes, when they were called to attend the ecclesia (the citizen’s assembly) at the Pnyx, they would stay at the agora, gossiping and engaging in casual conversations.
It is said that in order to encourage the citizens to engage in political conversations and vote on important subjects, certain people were assigned a peculiar task. They would grab a rope that was painted red that they called “μεμιλτωμένον σχοινίον” and start walking across the agora, forcing the crowd to follow them. They would basically herd the citizens towards Pnyx to attend the meetings.
Since we mostly know of the so-called “μεμιλτωμένον σχοινίον” from an ancient comedian, this story is often considered exaggerated. Some scholars believe that the red rope story was told by oligarchs who wanted to diminish the importance of the ecclesia. However, everyone agrees that there is… some truth to it.
Ancient Curses and “Voodoo” Objects in Kerameikos
Kerameikos neighborhood is known for an archaeological site that includes parts of the “Iear Odos, the Sacred Way, the led Athenian to Eleusis for the Eleusinian Mysteries. They were held by a cult dedicated to goddess Demeter and Persephone and its members believed that they could reveal secrets about the afterlife.
The archaeological site also includes the ancient necropolis of Athens. Necropolis means “city of the dead” in Greek. It used to be the cemetery of Athens from the 9th century BC till the Roman era. People can visit the area and observe the tombstones of that time.
Perhaps, the most interesting part of this site is the museum that preserves and showcases the artifacts that were found in the burial ground. Some of these artifacts reveal a secretive and lesser-known aspect of the daily lives of ancient Athenians. If you visit the museum, you will not only see pottery, jewelry, and offerings to the dead, but also some… stone tablets with curses that aimed to inflict harm on people.
Although witchcraft practices were banned in classical Athens, certain people would seek help from the paranormal to take revenge on those who wronged them or to cause harm to their political and legal opponents. In one of these tablets, for example, a man is requesting to have his opponent’s tongue tied during his speech in court.
The reason why the people buried these curse tablets in graves is related to the belief that the souls of the dead would carry them in the underworld. Hades was not just housing human souls. It was also the home of chthonic deities, such as Hecate. The latter is a goddess associated with the darkness and witchcraft. She would supposedly gather the tablets and she would then decide whether she would make them come true.
The Magic Olive Tree on the Acropolis Hill
If you visit the Acropolis Hill of Athens, the sacred hill of the Greek capital, you will not only the Parthenon, but also the Erectheion. It is a temple dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, the gods who competed against each other for the title of the protector of Athens.
As the name of the city suggests, Athena was the winner. That was because she made an offer Athenians couldn’t reject: the olive tree. According to the myth, the citizens saw a business opportunity in exporting olive oil all over the Mediterranean. They voted for Athena and she introduced the first olive tree in Athens.
Believe it or not, this olive tree can be found next to the Erectheion to this day. Of course, we do not know whether it was in fact created by an ancient Greek goddess. But we do know that it is somehow connected to the olive tree that ancient Athenians worshipped as such.
You may notice that this particular olive tree is quite slender and doesn’t look old enough. That’s because the tree reportedly spawned from a branch from the original sacred olive tree that was partly destroyed during World War II.
Monkey Attacks the King of Greece in Athens
Perhaps the most peculiar story that takes place in Athens is the factual monkey attack against King Alexander of Greece in 1920. King Alexander was a 27-year-old who was stripped of his powers by the liberal party of Greece and who was used as a “puppet-king”, according to historians.
One day, he decided to take one of his long walks with his dog in nature. Some say that he took his walk in the Royal Gardens of Athens that are now known as “National Gardens”. Others suggest that he took his walk in Tatoi Forest which surrounded the estate of the former Greek Royal Family.
During his walk, Alexander came face to face with two… monkeys that got scared by the barks of his dog. One of the monkeys tried to attack his dog, while the other ran towards the king and bit him on his leg. The wound didn’t seem serious at first. However, it soon got infected by bacteria, leading to sepsis. The doctors could save him by amputating his leg, however, this option was denied. An amputated king would give off a weak image of Greece, according to those in power.
The event was so peculiar that rumors started spreading. Some believed that the monkey attack was an assassination that was carefully planned by his opponents. Monkeys are not native in Greece after all. It is said that they belonged to the botanist who took care of the National Gardens and the Forest of Tatoi. He has imported them from Africa and kept them as pets.
The attack occurred during the years of the Greco-Turkish War which aimed at regaining regions in Asia Minor that were part of the Byzantine Empire. According to historians, this attack ended up creating a political turmoil that resulted in the Great Fire of Smyrna two years later. As well as the exchange of populations between the two countries, with the exodus of Greek refugees to mainland Greece. This is why Winston Churchill once wrote that: “it is perhaps no exaggeration to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey’s bite.”