Where Theseus sailed

One of the first Greek myths to made a deep impression on me as a child was the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, son of King Aegeus, left Athens to defeat the Cretan monster and secure the supremacy of his home state. He succeeded with the help of Ariadne, princess of Crete, who gave him a thread to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Theseus brought her away with him to sail home in triumph. But he forgot his father’s bidding to raise white sails if all was well. When Aegeus saw black sails approaching, he threw himself to his death from the cliffs into the sea now named after him.

This evening our friends Brian and Aliki Williams drove us out along the Aegean coast past the miles of beaches that are one of Athens’ best-kept secrets, to a bay they love where we swam and ate fresh fish in a simple taverna where Jackie Onassis used to come on Aristotle’s yacht. They’d told us there was a temple to Poseidon on the cliffs where we should watch the sun go down – but only as we arrived did they reveal that this was the spot where Aegeus is said to have watched and died.

The place is known today as Sounion and it gave us the most magical experience we’ve had here apart from the Acropolis. We clambered up to the clifftop temple ruins along with dozens of others – Greeks, Germans, Italians, Mexicans. As the sun began to set a hush fell over the crowd. Couples, families and groups of friends took seats on the rocks around the site to watch the colours change over sea and shore, and the red orb sink below the hills on the opposite side of the bay. Each of us thinking, in our own way, of the tragedy of two generations millennia ago.


In ancient times Athenian women, along with people of no property, were excluded from citizenship. Greek women only got the vote in 1952, almost 60 years after New Zealand showed the way (although Greece wasn’t the last – Switzerland, disgracefully, held out until 1971).

But were there things the ancients knew that we don’t? The Athenians worshipped a female deity first and foremost. Athena was all-powerful. She was the goddess of war and of wisdom and philosophy, the protector of Athens and the patron of the domestic arts; and according to legend it was with the gift of the olive tree that she beat the god Poseidon to the top position.

In an age when people had to have a deity, they could have done a lot worse.


The summer exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum here is the Antikythera – items salvaged from the 1st century BC shipwreck off the coast of the southern island of Kythera. First found in 1900, its most significant objects were recovered in 1976 by Greek archaeologists with the assistance of underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau. The find includes many luxury items destined for wealthy citizens of colonies. But the outstanding display is of the Antikythera Mechanism, the most brilliant astronomical calculating device of ancient times – a reminder of how closely science, art and trade were connected in classical Greece.


Good to see Michael Brand, the new director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, being so open about the provenance of objects in the collection. Questions have been raised about six items of Indian art since the detention in India of antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, from whom they were acquired. There is no suggestion so far that the NSW items were looted, but Brand says that should any work prove to have been, it would certainly be returned.

Brand, an expert in Indian art, has a good track record on matters of cultural heritage, having guided the Getty Museum in Los Angeles through difficult issues of repatriation to Greece and Italy. There’s an interesting piece about his problems there in The Art Newspaper, which you can find online.


Australia and the world have lost one of the great voices of our times. Robert Hughes opened the eyes of his generation to the art of Europe and the Shock of the New. He wrote with wit and irreverence about the artificiality of the art market and debunked the posings of pretentious critics; but he had undying loyalty to the artists whose work he valued, like our mutual friend Colin Lanceley, and wrote the best appreciations of them. And he tore away the mask of self-congratulatory history from Australia’s past in The Fatal Shore. He was never less than impassioned, always a great communicator, and all too often disparaged by compatriots waiting to cut him down.

Despite the terrible press he received in Australia, especially after his near-fatal car crash in 1999, he remained a citizen to the end. When I interviewed him for The Sun-Herald in 1987, he told me: “Unlike some press barons and bankers, I’ve never renounced my citizenship and never will.”

There’s an excellent piece about him by Peter Craven on the website of The Monthly, written in 2006 when Hughes published Things I Didn’t Know, which was intended as only the first volume of his memoirs. A pity we shan’t get to read the rest – but his books and films remain with us to tell the story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *