Monday, June 28, 2004


Recently, the various ‘neopaganist’ groups that exist throughout the world met in Greece for a conference. At that conference, a major topic of discussion was the push to have the various neo-pagan movements that exist within Greece, be recognised as a religion.
Such a move is interesting and if successful, of historic importance. A ‘religion’ that died out almost one and a half thousand years ago will be resuscitated. The resuscitation of religions is not altogether without historical precedent. The Sassanian kings of Persia were able to restore Zoroastrian as the chief organised religion of the Persian State and transform it into a formidable rival of the Christian Byzantine Empire. However, that religion had not completely become extinct at the time of resuscitation and in fact, still exists today. Therefore, recognition of the Olympian ‘religion,’ will be a world first.
Such recognition is fraught with problems. For it is one thing to parade underneath the Attic sunlight resplendent in winding sheet, sonorously pronounced ancient and impressive mantras and pouring libations onto the ruins of archaeological monuments and it is another thing to truly belong to a religion. If one defines a religion as a common set of values and beliefs of the supernatural held by a group of people, then an impasse is reached. How does one codify, one thousand and five hundred years after the death of the Olympians, a belief system that existed for approximately 2,000 years?
Take Christianity for example, a religion that has developed slowly over two thousand years. Early Christianity, whether manifested through writings, practice and liturgy is in many respects vastly different than its later development. Herein lies the problem. Religion is never static, it grows in accordance to the needs and feelings of its adherents. If we were to resuscitate an ancient belief system, who would arbitrarily take the snapshot in time that would ‘re-create’ that system of beliefs? Would one include the primitive mother-goddess worship of the Pelasgians, the Minoan cult of the Bull, or the worship of Cybele, Serapis, Isis or Mithras, worshipped by Greeks of the pre-Christian era within other syncretic religions? Is the worship of any one of these ‘deities’ more important or ‘correct’ than any other?
Even if one would be a ‘purist’ and argue a religion based on the twelve gods of Olympus, further problems are encountered. In the case of the Olympians, all we have surviving are myths as they appear in plays and epic poetry, such of which are written by later, Latin authors. A religion that has pretensions to resuscitate their worship could not have the ability to re-create a belief system whose exact practice and form is not completely known to us, owing to our still imperfect archaeological knowledge of the period.
This is especially so in the practice of the religion. Events such as the Eleusinian mysteries, of vital importance to the ancient Greeks in their religious worship are still obscured by secrecy. One cannot ever hope to re-create these. Again, owing to the multitude of diverse religious practices throughout ancient Greece, someone again must arbitrarily pick and choose a set of ‘desirable’ practices and forms of worship to adopt. This is a subjective process and by its very personal subjectivity, belies the very object of the exercise.
A religion must have doctrine, a moral teaching that is the purpose for its existence. It would be interesting to see what ‘Olympian-worshippers’ will come up with. The whole corpus of the ancient Greek’s experience of the ancient gods is primarily one where mankind must know his place and never challenge the gods, though they be capricious, malicious and cruel. Can adherents of the resuscitation of the ancient religion honestly say that they are guided by Zeus, when the said gentleman is guilty (if we examine mythology) guilty of pederasty (abduction of Ganymede) and rape (rape of Europa)? It is obvious that already a spiritual crisis exists.
The neo-pagan conception of religion seems wrongly to be centred on the glories of ancient Greek philosophy. Indeed Plato and the neo-Platonists inspired Christian thinkers, as did Aristotle and it cannot be doubted that the vast majority of philosophers, from Epicurus to Iamblichus concerned themselves with human morality and the ‘correct’ way to life one’s life. It is incumbent upon all of us to feel proud of our ancestor’s achievements and to study them at length. It is also important however, that we do not confuse philosophy with religion. Socrates himself was caused to drink the hemlock on trumped up charges of blasphemy and it can safely be said that the ancient Greek thinkers were so revolutionary because their moral teaching was the first to largely be produced out of the sphere of religion. What spiritual or moral guidance was provided to believers by ancient priests is unknown to us.
At the end of the day, much of the supernatural would be gone from a resuscitated Olympian religion. One can prove that the Olympians do not reside in Olympus and much of the ancient belief system is embarrassing. While the same could be said about other religions, the fact remains that once the ancient religion became irrelevant (admittedly official persecution and sanction had a hand in that) it died a natural death. It is no longer necessary to our lives.
Neo-pagans therefore or just history boffins who take an eclectic like to all things ancient, love dressing up in chitons and himatia and re-enacting ancient ceremonies while chafing at the dominance of Christianity in Greek culture which they blame for the ‘chosen people’s’ (that’s us) fall from grace? I should hope the latter. A bit of colour and theatre is instrumental in keeping the ancient world at our fingertips and we do well to celebrate it. An attempt to imperfectly revive an ancient belief system that was never uniform simply for aesthetic reasons is quite sad, though amusing. Given the Greek people’s love of dwelling in the past, one wonders what will be next: investiture of the president of the republic on raised shield as in Byzantium or better still….Disney’s Byzantium on Ice!


First published in NKEE on 28 June 2004

Monday, June 21, 2004


It can safely be said that the Sea forms an inextricable part of the Greek identity. Our earliest literature, in Homer deals with the epic sea-voyage of Odysseus, while other myths, such as Jason and the Argonauts also reveal the early Greeks fascination with ships and the sea. This is hardly surprising, given Greece's geographical position, which is such as to have the SBS World Guide refer to "the maritime republic of Greece." The sea of course also plays an intrinsic role as part of the founding myth of western civilization. It has long been held that the two naval battles of Salamis and Mycale 'saved' western (here read Greek and democratic) civilization from the barbarous, tyrannical Persian landlubbers. In modern times, the sea has assumed diverse significance for the Greeks. For some, such as my grandfather, looking across the straits of Mycale to the vanished homeland in Asia Minor had the sea assume the role of a barrier, sundering people from their roots forever. For others though, the sea was the final heart-wrenching solution to poverty, destruction and despondency. It was an eternal avenue of escape. It is no wonder then that Station Pier still evokes emotive responses among Melbournian Greek-Australians. The sea is also part of our own founding myth.
Dionysios Paraskevatos, like the famous author Andreas Karkavitsas knows the sea and loves it. The whispering allure of the briny, whether that be found in shells, paintings, the sea breeze whipping at his face or the memories of his time in the navy find him eternally enslaved to it. He is also a remarkable man, a true polymath, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things nautical, Hellenic and besides.
Two years ago, Dionysios Paraskevatos saw the unveiling to the public of the apogee of his love for the sea: an exhibition of miniature replica ships in the Victorian Parliament House. Painstakingly and lovingly constructed as close as possible to the original, Paraskevatos does not merely construct models. He lives history and the human condition in general. His construction of a model trireme for example, the revolutionary ancient Greek transporter and pirate vessel, had him trawling through the history books for clues as to seating, rowing customs, the social and industrial organization of Athenian shipyards, ways and methods of construction as well as the technical engineering details of buoyancy and related forces. His conclusions were remarkable. The institution of shipbuilding in Athens was one of the first examples of co-operative enterprise, organized labour relations and the welfare state. His construction of the Mississippi Queen, the river boat that trawled the vast river system of the southern United States and gave Mark Twain the valuable formative experiences that enabled him to obtain unique insights on society and become the classic writer and journalist the world pays respects to today, had him delve deep into the race relations and customs of the South. Of especial interest is Paraskevatos' replica of the Wasa, a Swedish galleon, so unwieldy, though it was the most expensive ship of its time, that it sank on its maiden voyage, which lasted only for a kilometre.
Paraskevatos is a remarkable man on a remarkable intellectual journey that few can rival. In his romantic surrender to the mystique of the sea, he communes directly with those Greek writers who shaped our corpus of literature such as Cavafy, Kazantzakis, Seferis and Ritsos (who he knew personally) but also with the rest of the oikoumene. For Paraskevatos' relationship with the sea is inimical to his existence and identity. For him, it is the sole facilitator of human civilization, the element which permitted mankind to communicate, share ideas and technologies, create nation states, literature and common identities. In short, the current skewed and flawed 'globalisation' doctrine of the post-Cold-War era is but a mutation of the slow and benevolent process of facilitating the free exchange of knowledge, the development of competition and the incentive for improvement and striving for excellence. Of special pride to him is that from the dawn of ship-building to the present, the Greek people have never forgotten their symbiosis with the sea. They have never tamed it but they have been 'brought-up' by it in a unique contract between a nation and nature.
On the same token, Paraskevatos acknowledges that the sea can also bring about despair. His animated face visibly changes as he describes the environmental degradation that shipbuilding has wreaked throughout the ages, the degrading conditions about western ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the vast array of naval battles and unholy slave cargoes that blight the world's conscience forever. The sea is a double-edged sword then. Temperamental always and demanding of respect and the admission that mankind is impotent before it, (think of the Greek expression "η θάλασσα τα τρώει") it can also be diverted to more malevolent purposes. As symbiotic stewards of natures' bounty, our task is to revel in the opportunities that the sea provides us, protect it from harm and perpetuate the benevolent tradition of using it for the betterment of the world.
Paraskevatos' world view is a profound and serious one, gleaned from years of study and his replicas are both a testament to his passion and his slow, labourious but rewarding search among the annals of the ages for the single uniting feature that can grant the world an identity and explain the place of the Greeks within it. He is an intellectual fishing trawler whose journey is not undertaken lightly but when is so undertaken, brings light into the world.
Dionysios Paraskevatos' replicas are to be displayed in the coming months in the Melbourne Town Hall after efforts by the Cultural Division of SAE to hold yet another exhibition of this man's masterpieces. Watch this space. It is admirable that such an exhibition be held. Lord Mayor John So's attachment to Greeks and the Sea is well known, as is his assistance to rowing clubs in Thessaloniki. Miss this exhibition at your own peril and while perusing the ships ruminate a while over the following lines from Seferis: «τη θάλασσα, τη θάλασσα, ποιος θα την εξαντλήσει;»

first published in NKEE on 21 June 2004

Monday, June 14, 2004


A trawl through the musty and dark pages of history can often offer the reader with unexpected surprises. In the realm of Greek history, this is ever more so true. Used as we are, to proclaiming the 'effects of Greek civilisation' on the world, it is fascinating as well as refreshing to learn the individual stories of emigrant Greeks of antiquity, who made a difference to the places they adopted as home.
An unlikely candidate for this category just happens to be the seventh Archbishop of Canterbury, Canterbury being the traditional ecclesiastical seat of the English Church. Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, was a Greek, born at Tarsus in Cilicia Asia Minor)about 602AD. As a monk of the Basilian Order, he seems to have been consumed with a peripatetic spirit uncommon to those used to living in the monasteries of the East. Thus, in 667 we find him living in Rome. His personal charisma and fervent evangelism seem to have attracted the attention of the Pope Vitalian, who chose him as Archbishop for the See of Canterbury in place of Wighard, who had died before consecration. After receiving holy orders, Theodore was consecrated by the Pope himself, on 26 March, 668, and set out for England, but did not reach Canterbury until May, 669.
The new primate found the English Church still suffering from the jealousies and bitterness engendered by the long Paschal controversy, only lately settled, in which the church was divided between those who supported the traditional Celtic way of calculating the date of Easter and those who supported the revised Alexandrine method of calculation. The ensuing chaos brought forth a church lacking in order and organization. The dioceses, coterminous with the divisions of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms comprising England, were of unwieldy size, and many of then were vacant. Theodore, says the Venerable Bede, the most eminent historian of the English Dark Ages at once "visited all the island, wherever the tribes of the Angles inhabited", and was everywhere received with respect and welcome. He made appointments to the vacant bishoprics, corrected all that was faulty in the practice of the liturgy, instituted the teaching of music and of sacred and secular learning, throughout the country, and had the distinction through his electrifying personality of being, as Bede specifically mentions, "the first archbishop whom all the English obeyed". His contribution to English letters by the bringing of valuable texts from the East is immeasurable.
In 673, Theodore convoked at Hertford the first synod of the whole province, an assembly of great importance as the forerunner and prototype of future English witenagemotes and parliaments. Going later to the court of the King of Northumbria, which country was entirely under the jurisdiction of St. Wilfrid, he divided it into four dioceses against the will of Wilfrid, who appealed to Pope Agatho, another Greek, against what he considered to be a dictatorial action. The pope's decision did not acquit Theodore of arbitrary and irregular action, although his plan for the subdivision of the Northumbrian diocese was carried out and in the 686 he was fully reconciled to Wilfrid, who was restored to his See of York, having previously been removed by Theodore, angry that he had been dobbed on to the Pope. Thus, before his death, which occurred five years later, Theodore saw the diocesan system of the English Church fully organized under his primatical and metropolitical authority. The immensely important work done by Theodore not only in developing a single united ecclesiastical body out of the heterogeneous Churches of the several English kingdoms, but in thus realizing a national unity which was not to be attained in secular matters for nearly three centuries cannot be emphasized.
Theodore died at Canterbury on 19 September 690 and was buried in St. Augustine's Monastery, Canterbury, a long poetical epitaph, of which Bede has preserved only eight verses, being inscribed upon his tomb.

Apart from the epoch-making character of his twenty-one years' episcopate, Theodore was a man of commanding personality: inclined to be autocratic, but possessed of great ideas, remarkable powers of administration, and intellectual gifts of a high order, carefully cultivated. Practically his only literary remains are the collected decisions in disciplinary matters, well known as "The Penitential of Theodore". It was first published complete by Wasserschleben in 1851, and several editions of it have been printed during the past sixty years. Truly a great man, his obscure historical presence, unnoticed largely by Greek historiography begs the question as to which other eminent Greeks, such as Maxim of Russia have made lasting contributions to their country of sojourn and how forgotten they really are.

first published in NKEE on 14 June 2004

Monday, June 07, 2004


One of the elements that link ancient Greeks with modern Greeks is a love of voting. The Athenians loved to vote about everything, whether that be as to whether to convict Socrates for blaspheming against the Gods or which undesirables would be exiled from the city. Modern Greeks vote for their governments and as to whether Savvina or Kalomoira should be evicted from Fame Story. Love of voting in Greece has reached epidemic proportions, with Greek schoolchildren voting for PASOK, New Democracy of KKE class presidents. It is truly admirable that we follow in our illustrious forefather's footsteps, especially since the democratic tradition, is proportionally slighter than that of oligarchy, in years.
Only this historical background can place the Greek Government's decision to allow Greek nationals in Australia to vote in Greek elections in context. For it appears to be a most paradoxical decision. It seems strange that a government would allow persons who reside permanently in another country and whose, by consequence, interests lie in that country, to vote on elections that do not affect them in any way. It is evident that a Greek-Australian living in Australia would not have the level of understanding of Greek political or domestic issues as those residing in Greece would. What the Greek government is basically doing, is opening the floodgates for a class of persons, far removed from Greek everyday life, to influence and unfairly skew Greek politics. If I were a Greek resident, I would be concerned at the potentiality of an unknown quantity to vote based on its own minority agenda.
It is interesting to note whether the Greek government has thought of the Australian repercussions of such a decision. For given the level of xenophobia that exists in this country of late, coupled with the virulent attacks upon Greece by the Australian media and the unparalleled in sincerity travel warnings issued by the Australian government, it is questionable whether Australia would be prepared to accept its nationals actively participating in another country's interests to the level that Greece is encouraging them to do. No doubt the loyalty of many to this country will be openly questioned. We must come to terms with the fact that we are Australians and that our primarily duty of political participation rests here.
Why then, at this late stage, when the vast majority of Greek-Australians eligible to vote are either dead or disinterested, does the Greek government chance upon the novel idea of providing voting rights? Granted, Greek-Australians love voting as much as their Greek cousins. So much so that various Greek brotherhoods have held elections twice or thrice to determine outcomes and in fact, brotherhood buildings tend only to fill up when it is time to cast a ballot, or in true Survivor tradition, when it is time to throw someone off the island.
The granting of Greek voting rights is guaranteed to re-polarise our already fragmented and decaying community. Most of our regional organisations have over time splintered off into rival groups, through a mixture of personality clash and clash of political beliefs. While in Greece, the Civil War is well and truly relegated to the past, in this country, many of the first generation still judge others by their ideological affiliations and this is the source of much tension and hostility. A glance at the Greek section of this paper, where apologists for Stalinism or its fascist counterpart express views that were relevant forty years ago is indicative of how the running sore of political polarisation still runs deep. I remember asking the president of one community organisation what was the difference between his organisation and its rival, identical in aims. "Well," he said, "we are democrats and they are all fascists, German collaborators." The rival members of course, were babies during the War.
While it would be horrid to expect that a cynical Greek government could ever deliberately exploit or create divisions within their newly created Australian electorate, the potentiality is there. We are a highly polarised community and it will not take much for political finger-pointing and skulduggery to take a more virulent form. Anecdotal evidence from those involved seems to suggest that on many occasions, Greek governments through their representatives here have deliberately caused the splitting of 'ideologically incorrect' community organisations or otherwise trampled upon Greek-Australian's rights. The most blatant example of this was during the Junta, when Consular authorities spied and engaged members of the Greek community to report on their fellows' activities. We definitely do not want a repeat of these events here. Nor do we want to have our community serving the interests of Greek politics. Already, the existence here of local branches of Greek political parties is an aberration. Our task is to lobby the Greek government effectively on issue that concern us directly. Costas Karamanlis is at least right when he identifies education as our primary concern, though at a recent meeting with the deputy mayor of an island, certain Greek-Australian members of the older generation advised him "the only thing that the Greek-Australian cares about is his κληρονιμικά."
Having left Greece, we must resign ourselves to the fact that we are not entitled to play an effective role in Greek domestic affairs unless we return and they affect us in general. If the Greek government wants to ensure that the Greek diaspora retains its Greek identity, it can do so by liasing closely with it in order to develop a concrete and clear strategy to educate our youth within the Greek tradition and encourage the retention of close ties by upgrading the services of the Greek Consulates in the diaspora. Nothing more is necessary and if these two key concepts had been grasped twenty years earlier, perhaps our decline would not be so great.
Nor would it be so great to allow the first generation, architects of the various 'schisms' that exist within our communities with the opportunity to create further mischief. Their track record in this regard is not impressive and we should take active steps to prevent our fractures from turning into chasms. But try telling that to our amateur politicians in their mini-parliaments and councils.

First published in NKEE on 7 June 2004