Imagine you are in the Aegean Sea on the small Greek island of Samothrace. You are at the Sanctuary of The Great Gods, a temple complex dedicated to various gods.
The faithful took these places seriously and with great devotion, but I also can imagine a theme park-like atmosphere at this site and the many others that dotted the Mediterranean at the time. There was reverence, yes. But the gods were alive, the stories we now call myths were real in their daily experience. There was a great suspension of disbelief among the faithful, such as there is today. The rites and initiations to the gods performed here brought you closer to them and in so being you shared in their mysteries.
You're walking south, past the great temple dedicated to the Great Mother, through the amphitheater and up to the reflecting pool. There, jutting out from the far end is a dramatic figure. It is the Winged Goddess of Victory, Nike, poised lightly on the stone prow. She is a stunning figure, life-like with almost fluid motion, as if she has just descending for the sky proclaiming triumph. The statue commemorates a sea battle, you forget which one. It is more interesting watching Nike's reflection in the mirror-smooth pool in the fading light of day.
Winged Victory is in the Louvre. It has aged now, and is incomplete, missing her arms and that exquisite face. But it is no less splendid. The graceful curves and clinging folds of her dress bare witness to the strong headwind she plunged into to lead her devotees to victory. It is still stunning.
The Greeks lived with idea of arête—the concept that people could live good, decent lives and strive toward excellence. As one would expect, they personified this ideal in a goddess. But theology aside, the idea that life should be lived not in an ordinary way, but as an inspired action, is sublime and timely. I am reminded often that the word inspiration means the very act of breathing in, literally taking in the world, to be alive in it. What is it in our stories, beliefs, our hopes and fears for this time and place that can be beautiful, good, excellent? What will we make of our situation?
Thanks for reading.