Casting the almighty Goddess Athena in a supporting role (see The Acropolis of Athens), Cape Sounion, overlooking the Saronic Gulf, was officially Poseidon’s turf. Having lost the naming contest of the Greek capital to Athena, Poseidon finally found a place to call his own and his cult paid due diligence to his place of worship. The first archaic temple erected in his name was set ablaze by King Xerxes during the second Persian invasion. The colossal male statues (kouroi) erected on site were found buried near the temple, presumably by the Xerxes’ minions, and are now held by the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The much smaller sanctuary of the ever-present Goddess Athena, located below the summit, suffered its own share of damages. During Pericles’ “Golden Age”, between 461 and 429 BC, both sanctuaries were reconstructed during his legendary building program, but the Temple of Poseidon is the only one that stood the test of time.
Its stunning location, towering almost vertically above the waves, has always fired up people’s imaginations; it was first mentioned in Homer’s “Odysseus” and played a small but significant part in the “Theseus and the Minotaur” myth, which preceded the temple by 1,000 years. During that time, Athens suffered under the rule of the seafaring King Minos, based on the island of Crete, who required a blood-tax for the Minotaur, an insatiable beast that lived under his palace. Fed up, King Aegeas sent his son Theseus to face him, who eventually managed to kill the beast and relieve Athens from the terrible toll. But, unfortunately, on his way back he forgot to switch out his sails from black to white, signaling his father - who was looking out for his ship on Cape Sounion - that he was alive. Once Aegeas spotted the black sails he thought his son had died and hurled himself off the rocks into the sea. And that’s how, according to legend, the Aegean Sea got its name.
With the passage of time, Cape Sounion lost its strategic significance and became, in turn, a coastguard station, a pirate haven and a romantic stopover for passing adventurers, like Lord Byron, who carved his name into one of temple’s marble doorposts. True enough, Poseidon’s Temple is ideally positioned for a breathtaking view of the sunset, which instantly turns the surviving Doric colonnade into a time warp, sucking visitors right back to ancient Greece. If you peer at the east pediment really closely, you might even make out a seated woman, the only remainder of the sculptural decoration depicting the fabled fight between Poseidon and Athena for the domination of Attica. You’ll to have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps, which shouldn’t be too hard when the golden hour takes hold. All you have to do is wait.