Monday, January 31, 2005


If you went to see the movies to see the whole history of Alexander the Great unfold before your eyes, you would have been disappointed in Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Though for the most part (with a few notable exceptions and much artistic license) historically correct, this was not an action blockbuster, detailing the subjugation of the Persian Empire and the lands beyond in blow-by-blow, chronological detail.
As such, Stone’s Alexander was refreshing in its approach. At the film’s opening, all of Asia has been conquered and Alexander deceased. Sitting in the great library at Alexandria, one of the epigonoi, Ptolemy of Egypt dictates to his scribes, not the chronicle of Alexander’s demented search for lebensraum but a deep analysis of his character. This sets the tone for the movie to follow. There will be much cut and thrust, plenty of pitched battles but when all is said and done, this movie’s sole focus is Alexander.
Therein lies the difference between Hollywood blockbuster and art. Those who are unaware of Alexander’s story will leave the movie theatre confused as to the events that transpired during his life. To those however who have been enthralled by him and have studied him at length, Stone offers a personal, artistic interpretation of Alexander’s character. Stone’s offering therefore, is his personal conclusion as to who Alexander really was, as well as the how and why of his achievements. It is in this context that the movie should then be viewed, as an analysis of the psychological dimension of absolute power.
The sub-themes that seem to concern Stone are interwoven within the movie with mixed success. Particularly skilled is his treatment of Alexander’s relationship with his parents and how this haunted him all his life. Olympias, the scheming and insecure Epirot princess, proud of her Achillean ancestry, selflessly devoted to her son, is portrayed masterfully by Angelina Jolie. We are drawn deep into the fearful and dark world of a paranoid and proud woman, despised by her boorish husband, insecure in a world of Byzantine complexity, where the wrong alliance with a dominant family can cost you your life, placing all her dreams, not only of security but also of creating something worthwhile in a barren, relatively uncivilised world, in her young son. Olympias’ love and ambition for her son is all-consuming. Alexander despises her for her overbearing love but cannot extricate himself from her. In a particularly emotionally charged scene, Olympias tells him “ I am your soul,” and in effect she is right. In this film, it is difficult to distinguish where Olympias ends and Alexander begins. She constantly torments his thoughts, to the end of his days. Jolie’s portrayal of Olympias is only ruined by her thick Balkan accent, which obscures her lines. It is however kind of sexy and adds the perfect dimension to the passionate love-hate relationship between her and her troubled offspring, an example of the devastating effects of love going too far. There is a parallel made between Medusa the Gorgon and Olympias, who is always depicted playing with snakes. She is entrancing, but deadly. In a scene key to understanding the film’s purpose, Hephaestion asks Alexander “Have you come so far for glory, or because you are running away from your mother?” Interesting Doktor Freud no?
Philip II is also portrayed in an interesting light. Our first glimpse of him is at a drunken party where he storms into his Olympia’s quarters and tries to rape her in front of the infant Alexander. Another indicative scene is where Phillip leads Alexander, to whom he has difficulties relating, seeing him as an extension of his mother and an unwitting agent of her schemes, to a grotto, where primitive mythological scenes, strangely reminiscent of Lascaux cave paintings, depict human suffering, especially at the motivation of women. Philip’s world-view is one of paranoid suffering. Everyone is out to get you, especially women. While Philip is grudgingly proud of Alexander, his Macedonian upbringing has taught him to trust no one, and his overriding concern is that Alexander does not usurp his throne.
Alexander’s relationship with his parents overshadows all of his conquests. His army constantly compares him with his father and so obsessed is he with not only to emulating but surpassing his father and obtaining his approval long after he is gone, that he sees him in the crowd at his entry into Babylon, as well as in Taxila, while fighting King Porus. Stone highlights this tortured love-hate relationship in a scene where Alexander, like Philip before him attempts to rape his wife. He sees Philip’s face as his own reflection.
Great emphasis seems also to be given to Alexander’s sexuality. Though not graphically depicted, Stone implies that the relationship between Alexander and his companion Hephaestion was that of lovers. This has incensed many in the Greek community throughout the world, who have their own ideas about what virtues and vices a “hero” should possess, homosexuality not being among them. Yet it is myopic to take the view that Stone, in choosing to view Alexander as bisexual, (something for which there is no conclusive proof but plenty of contemporary gossip, especially by the Cynic philosophers, exists) is doing so either to denigrate him or in search of sensationalism. Instead, it is a logical conclusion of his relationship with his parents. There seems to be only room for one woman in the life of Stone’s Alexander, that of his mother and it is significant that Stone has his Alexander remark to his wife how much like Olympias she actually is. In a world where trust is fatal, flatterers and sycophants hide daggers under their smiles and the people who are supposed to love Alexander urge him to greater heights for their own purposes, Alexander relies on Hephaestion’s love for the sole reason that as he says: “He is the only one who loves me for what I am.” It can be quite lonely at the top.
One of the later historical narratives to be included within Greek national myth-making is that of Alexander’s civilising mission. Here Stone really excels in subtly expressing the attitudes of the conqueror towards himself and the Other. Upon entering Babylon for instance, and experiencing the opulent Assyrian culture, a thousand times older and sophisticated than that of northern Greece, Alexander expounds his dream of introducing civilisation to “barbarians” and bringing them freedom through Greek occupation, in tones reminiscent of President George Bush’s inauguration speech where he too, a pale reflection of Alexander, proclaimed his desire to “liberate the world.” Later we see Alexander, unlike George Bush, almost obtaining the sophistication of respecting the importance of traditional culture though this brings him into conflict with his virile generals, exponents of the superiority of the civilization of the conqueror. Whether that is consequent to the centralising tendencies of tyranny or deep understanding is sadly not explored. There is a cleverly woven sub-theme here, that of the eternal attraction of the west to the east, the Drag nach Ost of the Germanic tribes, their desire to dominate it and their inability to understand it. This theme in particular is quite pertinent in our times, considering the policies of the latest superpower in the same region.
While Stone effectively identifies Alexander’s demons, he doesn’t always clearly show how these are manifested. The omission of Alexander’s burning of Persepolis and his acclamation as a god at the Siwa Oasis are serious defects in that they inhibit our understanding of this most complex character. Persian scholars are also justified in their criticism of the way Persians are one-dimensionally portrayed and how their influence on Alexander is merely stated, rather than shown.
Despite the movie being difficult to understand at times due to the heavy accents of its players, it is refreshing to see a film with so much meaningful dialogue. As such it is worth seeing several times, in order to pick out the subtle nuances. Though amusing in parts, such as the inclusion of a Northern Epirot folksong during the battle of Gaugamela (Angelina Jolie seems to think that Epirus was an Albanian kingdom and she states in an interview that she had to learn an ‘Albanian’ accent), Stone’s Alexander is a powerful and meaningful attempt to understand this historically important personality. Whether or not one agrees with his analysis is a separate issue to be coloured by one’s own understanding of how and what of historical figures should be interpreted. At any rate, Stone foreshadows this by including a scene where the Epigonoi fight over Alexander’s corpse and legacy. The fight continues today. Undoubtedly though, Stone’s is an interpretation worthy of consideration, and respect.
First published in NKEE on 31 January 2005

Monday, January 24, 2005


The Cat: “She was licking/The opened tin/For hours and hours/without realising/ that she was drinking/her own blood.” This poem, written by Spyros Kyriazopoulos, opens Louis De Bernieres’ latest offering, Birds Without Wings. In contrast to the relative light-heartedness of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which saw De Bernieres receive the criticism of old Greek resistance fighters who did not enjoy being represented as incompetent and ineffectual, Birds Without Wings deals with heavier, more tragic material – the final traumatic act in the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire with its “salade macedoine” mix of ethnicities and religions and its replacement with a bland, homogenous nationalistic potato salad, shorn of the romanticism of wonder and of the Other.
The nostalgia for the exotic time of the Pashas and Beys is well documented in English literature, prompting Lawrence Durrell to write The Alexandria Quartet of 1957-60, in which a brilliant and overdue Levantine society worked out its destiny in prose as honeyed and indigestible as Oriental confectionery. De Bernieres however, chose to view the destruction of the Ottoman Empire through the lives of the people of Eskibahce, on the ancient Lycian coast, now just another ghost town on Turkey's southern shore but once a place where Christians and Muslims lived in friendly intimacy, illiterate in both Greek and Turkish, and more alike than they knew. A beautiful Christian girl makes veiling all the rage, while the village mullah halts the stoning of an adulteress by appealing not merely to Islamic but to the doctrines of Jesus, son of Mary. It is a place that is supranatural, capricious, sentimental, superstitious, good-hearted and brutal in the extreme.
In place of a single complex life story or family narrative, De Bernieres introduces and sets in motion a mob of characters restricted, necessarily as in Dickens, to a single salient characteristic. There is the beautiful Philothei, a Greek girl betrothed since infancy to Ibrahim the Goatherd; two boys who play at birds nicknamed Karatavuk (Blackbird) and Mehmetcik (Robin); Father Christoforos with his religious doubts and Abdulhamid Hodja with his beloved mare; the greasy Greek schoolteacher who is a social misfit and stays up all night corresponding with irredentist secret societies; the landlord Rustem Aga, who locks his unfaithful wife in a brothel and his Circassian mistress who is actually a professional harem girl from Corfu; and Ibrahim the Potter, who has a talent for such leaden aphorisms as “If the cat's in a hurry, she has peculiar kittens.”
In Eskibahce, the boundaries between Christian and Muslim are ill-defined, the fringes melding into an uneasy whole through superstition, shared customs and the fatalism that has hitherto ensured that each person has known their place within society and has not challenged it for centuries. Bernieres challenges typical Balkan myths of definable nationalism. The Christians of Eskibahce, save Father Christoforos do not speak Greek, though they write Turkish in Greek letters and are more at home with their Turkish neighbours than with their eccentric Smyrna-educated teacher who despairs of inflaming them with the zeal he feels for the ancients and with the hatred he feels for the Turks. For the Christians of Eskibahce, identity has to do with their surroundings, the trees, the mysterious Lycian ruins that dot the landscape and age-old friendships. The fabric of pre-Kemalist society is convincingly portrayed by a master story-teller. If you have ever had the privilege of speaking to a survivor of the 1922 massacres, you would note that their narrative has more lyricism and exoticism through the fractious symbiosis of cultures and less nationalism and “labels” than we would expect. How fractious and superficial, fragile and subject to the depravities of the age this simple society actually is, will be seen at the ease in which people who have hitherto been respected, such as the Armenian tooth-puller, are denigrated and finally expelled, though in Bernieres’ version of the Catastrophe, evil usually comes from the outside, while the inhabitants, “birds without wings,” are powerless to avoid it.
As he tells their stories with remarkable wit and lyricism, De Bernieres interleaves a biography of Mustafa Kemal, ‘founder’ of ‘modern’ Turkey. This introduces a 19th-century solemnity which jars with the genre scenes in Eskibahce, and seems to be a throwback to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where a similar device is employed to describe Napoleon. As the novel develops, the chapters on Kemal become darker and more ominous. Interestingly enough, Philothei’s birth at the dawn of the new century is juxtaposed with Kemal’s nine years earlier. In one section, he is actually referred to as “Destiny’s Child.” Give us Beyonce any day.
As the old order begins to disintegrate, the Muslim boys of the town are called up to do their religious duty and fight for the Sultan. They are surprised to find they are fighting one set of infidels (Australian Franks, British Franks, even French Franks) while allied with another set of infidels (German Franks). Mehmetcik, who despite his name is a Christian, is shipped off to a labour battalion. The Armenians are told to collect their belongings and, in a scene kept scrupulously free of hindsight, marched out of the town.
Karatavuk finds himself at Gallipoli. De Bernieres’ masterly pen recreates the battlefield as he fights his way through the Allied invasion and defeat. The story winds its way through the Greek liberation of the Asia Minor, the Turkish defence under Ataturk, the mass departure behind their icons of the Christians from Eskibahce to mainland Greece, and the burning of the Christian quarters of Smyrna, as told by the foul-mouthed corpse of a drowned Greek merchant who denounces the Greek and Allied leaders as he sinks to the floor of Smyrna harbour.
For De Bernieres, “history is nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas". His historical bugbears are religious absolutism and "the devilish false idols of nationalism”. Yet in the saintly village mullah, Abdulhamid Hodja or Karatavuk and his comrades at Gallipoli, De Bernieres the novelist shows that religion and patriotism can also produce acts of heroism and generosity. Those sections are a reminder that a book doesn't have to have complex characterisation to convey the less obvious truths of life.
There will be those who will seek to impose their own definitions on the events described in the book. While western critics dispassionately compare Birds Without Wings to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and discuss technique (by the way, Drosoula, Mandras’ mother who curses him in Corelli, appears in Birds, cursing a murderer, providing interesting linkage) I found it tugging at my heartstrings as I compared it to the accounts of the lost Paradise my grandfather described to me, fleeing the mania of the chetes of Aydin as an eleven year old boy. Bernieres’ rendition of the humanitarian disaster that was the cleansing of Anatolia, is exactly what he pre-empts in his provision of Kyriazopoulos’ poem – an attempt to finally dress a festering wound that we have been licking for decades and which, until it heals, will continue to inflict pain upon our souls.


First published in NKEE on 24 January 2005

Monday, January 17, 2005


Recently, the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini published new statistical information according to which 90% of all Greek students are proficient in the English language by the time they finish school. Further, 80% of the population under the age of 50 has a working knowledge of the language. This may seem surprising to us, given that we are a community of which a large proportion of its first generation struggles with the English language. Further, we live in a country that is strictly monolingual in outlook and whose culture has always been so, even prior its arrival here on the First Fleet.
Greece on the other hand has always been multilingual, with a variety of languages being spoken by members of various ethnic groups. Within Asia Minor until 1922, it was not uncommon for example, to find a Greek proficient in Armenian, Turkish and the then languages of trade and commerce, Italian and French. Many villages in mainland Greece mixed Greek with Slavonic, Vlach or Arvanite idioms with ease. While nationalism and the creation of the nation state caused this free use of language and mixing of peoples to stall in the last century, the flood of migrants to Greece is once more adding strands of linguistic angel hair to the nourishing soup of ethnic diversity.
Unlike Australia, however, where lip-service has traditionally been paid to "community languages" it is the considered policy of Greece to favour the learning of European languages, especially those that are considered to be of some use, such as English or French. As a result, Greek students tend to be more outward looking, more able to relate to various global trends and events than Australian students or even their Greek-Australian cousins, and, are generally better informed. The all-pervasive culture in Greece is one where it is considered necessary to one's education to learn foreign languages well and structures are put in place to ensure that such languages are learnt well.
Multilingualism, or even bilingualism in Australia is relatively rare among those whose ancestors are not recent migrants from overseas. This seems somehow to be linked to facets of the wider Anglo-Saxon culture as both Britain, and the USA share a similar slight regard for language learning. Canada, another 'Anglo' country, seems to be the exception that proves the rule given that it is only by deliberate government policy, instigated by the large French community that students are encouraged to be bilingual in English and French. The prevailing attitude seems to be one of faith in the Anglo-Saxon culture and language as a superior one, therefore negating the need to have to communicate with others in their own tongue. This general attitude has not left the Greek community unscathed. The standard of Greek spoken by Australian-born Greeks is generally so poor as to be, apart from when communicating basic concepts, almost unintelligible to a native speaker. This is in inverse proportion to the standard of English spoken by our Greek cousins, which is generally quite good.
A diminishing capability in language use results in an estrangement from the cultural context in which that language exists and we should all be extremely concerned at this. The recent screening of the Sydney Fame Story auditions on ANT1 is a case in point. Most of the contestants had such poor Greek that they were not even able to understand the cultural norms and modes of behaviour necessary to permit them to relate to their 'examiner.' As a result, they did themselves a disservice, coming across as clumsy, immature and of less than average intelligence. It is a savage indictment upon us and our supposed "proud Hellenism" that a Greek from Greece visits us here and speaks to us in English on par with our own, because we cannot make ourselves understood in Greek.
In part, fault lies with our governments. In their stated quest to educate us and our children as to "diversity" and "tolerance" they are steamrolling those traits that distinguish us from each other and dissolving all our cultural particularities in a bubbling hybrid cultural broth that is yet to emerge as something recognisable, let alone palatable. Decreases in language funding in this State are a case in point. Even where languages are taught, can it seriously be expected that a student will obtain a good working knowledge of a language with classes of only two to four hours per week? Evidently, in this country, the need to communicate with others in their tongue, thus understanding concepts and ideas specific to their culture, is of low priority. As a result, all Australian children, regardless of their cultural identity, are shortchanged. There is no organic use for a dreaded" Language Other than English" in our society except as a sop and gag for those who would request further privileges, for migrant cultures. That second and third generation Greek-Australians converse with each other in English even when they are quite capable of doing so in Greek proves this.
In the case of Greek language learning, fault also lies with us. We cannot depend upon the whims of government policy to safeguard what in effect is, our own inheritance and responsibility. There is no justification for the continuous "dumbing down," of Greek language classes in order to make Greek learning "fun and easy." Learning a language requires effort and dedication and it is not enough to assuage one's conscience by paying fees and sending their children to weekly language classes, taught in some cases by underqualified teachers who barely speak the language themselves and are not teaching out of love, but in order to obtain some decent pocket money. The general apathy and negativity surrounding Greek language learning is so great that even teachers and principals of Greek schools have been known to remark to parents concerned at the low standard of Greek being taught that: "it doesn't matter, we have to accept that the Greek language is going to die here anyway." As a community, we need to ask more of our 'educators' and our children. And the only way we can do that is by re-inculcating in them a sense of why it is so vitally important that the Greek language survives, that is, if we ourselves remember.
That the Greek language does not have to die here given a fresh approach that will re-instill a sense of purpose within students and teachers alike can be evidenced in many ways. Firstly, one must finally explode the myth that Greek is a "hard" language to learn. It is no harder than any other language. We must also explode myths relating to finding enough time in one's schedule to learn the language and its general utility. It should be enough to a Greek-Australian that the first word before the hyphen of his composite identity is dependant largely upon how he is able to communicate and move within the context of that first component. If he neglects and/or refuses to do so, then that component is relegated to meaningless garbage. What meaning is given to it therefore depends on us and our determination to keep our language alive.
Following Patriarch Bartholomaios' visit to Cuba last year, 200 or so Cubans have converted to Orthodoxy. One of these, Arturo a 40-year-old high school teacher from Havana, taught himself Greek out of a 30-year old manual that he found in the Havana public library. Speaking remarkably good Greek, he now conducts weekly language classes for friends and parishioners. During a recent visit to Cuba, Archbishop Athenagoras of Panama was delighted at being approached by a 75 year old Cuban lady who told him: "Με λένε Μαρία και μαθαίνω ελληνικά." In such remote and far-flung places as Haiti and Tanzania, admirers of Greek culture and adherents of the Orthodox faith are slowly and painfully learning Greek. These dedicated people prove that age, distance or social conditions are no boundary to firmness of will. Their stated reason for learning Greek is to get closer to the culture that brought forth such great giants of learning and faith as St John Chrysostom. We on the other hand, seem, like spoiled and bankrupt lordlings of yesteryear, only to boast about empty titles and long-gone estates belonging to our forefathers, which we have squandered through our negligence, or arrogance.
It was rumoured last week, that Finger Wharf on Station Pier was in danger of collapse owing to the unaccustomed weight of so many Greeks on it, present for the Theofaneia celebrations. Our identity is also so collapsing, from the weight of an illustrious past, mixed with apathy and indolence about the future. It is incumbent upon us not to let it be so. As one grandmother explained to her five year old granddaughter at Theofaneia: "We cuming here to watch the stavro kanei bloum!" One can only speculate in what language the noise of our particular descent will be transcribed, if our cathodic progress towards monolingualism, with all of its bland and mind-numbing repercussions, is not soon arrested.

First published in NKEE on 17 January 2005

Monday, January 10, 2005


Just before Christmas, Enceladus struck and the after-effects of his wrath not only swept away the works and doings of mankind, but also caused hundreds of thousands of them to lose their lives as well. While the western media, in typical neo-colonial style emphasizes the enormity of the tragedy of hard-working Australians saving up enough money to go on holidays in a country where everything is so cheap and where you can buy cheap pirate DVD’s and all other sorts of consumer goods intrinsic to one’s existence in the world of global consumerism, losing their lives and having their holidays spoiled, the pathetic and precarious lives of a multitude of the impoverished and downtrodden has also been ended. With them, Enceladus has washed away the infrastructure that guaranteed the poor of South East Asia some type of livelihood, even if that livelihood consisted of being a servant to the whims of the Western proletariat and pandering to their deeply ingrained subconscious desire to ascend the class structure. While the families of Western victims will mourn and bury their dead, their tragedy is limited. In the case of the afflicted South East Asians, Enceladus has ensured that the survivors will live in misery for years to come, while pleasure-seeking Westerners seek pleasure pots elsewhere.
The ancient Greeks knew well to fear Enceladus, for he was diametrically opposed to the natural order imposed upon their world by the Olympian Gods. Born the son of Tartarus, the place in Hades where the damned were eternally tortured for their sins and Earth, he was the father of such unpleasant mythological and malevolent characters as the Gorgons, the Sphinx, the Lernaean Hydra, Geryones and Cerberus. The ancient jury was out on as to whose character this monstrous brood inherited, with Calchas insisting they took after their father and Teiresias claiming they were the spitting image of their mother, the fearsome Echidna – no relation to our spiny and now redundant denizen of the 1 cent coin.
Enceladus was the leader of the Giants and as such led the great war against the Gods, in an attempt, in true ‘Get Smart’ fashion, to impose the earthy forces of Chaos upon the divine forces of natural order and control. Unfortunately for him, the goddess Athena was able at some stage in the battle to corner him and then immobilise him by throwing the entire island of Sicily on top of him, burying him underneath the volcano of Mt Aetna. Symbolising the fact that true evil usually lurks just beneath the surface of things, Enceladus remains under Sicily today, periodically trying to free himself from the asphyxiating weight of that island. It is said that it is his thrashing and heaving about that causes the earth to quake, bringing so much misery to the world, even from the confines of his infernal prison. In the most recent case, this thrashing and heaving took place under water, causing the frightening tidal waves that washed away the hopes and dreams of the hapless and fragile multitudes.
Interestingly enough, this terrifying event took place only a short while before another important event that is linked to water, that of the Θεοφάνεια, the Baptism of Christ, which is celebrated by the Orthodox Church on 6 January every year. In contrast however to the case of Enceladus, the Baptism of Christ marks for the Christians, one of the first stages in the redemption of mankind and thus brings hope to all. It is a festival not only of purification but also one where God himself became manifest in all three of his forms.
The concept of redemption through baptism is most certainly a powerful one. It proves that nothing is ever too late and that a second chance always exists, even for mankind, who exists in a ‘fallen state.’ St Nicodemos the Hagiorite for example says that in order to reshape a vessel, the potter needs two elements: water for moulding the earth and fire to burn and cast the moulded clay. God, the great potter of our own mould does just the same thing. Wanting to reshape our nature, which was crushed by evil, God used fire and water. He takes the fire from himself, for as God, he is a “consuming Fire” which consumes wickedness and he borrows water from the River Jordan. With Christ’s baptism, the perfect model for our own, we are freed from the stains of the past, through the power of the incarnate Word of God and are offered the opportunity for deification.
The Church teaches that at the baptism of Christ, the Holy Trinity appeared, hence the meaning of the word «Θεοφάνεια», the manifestation of God. God made himself manifest through his voice in saying: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Son was baptised and the Holy Spirit manifested itself in the form of a dove. This condescension of the Trinitarian God to appear to us in a form intelligible to us is to be marveled at. According to St Gregory Palamas, the Trinity appeared because the shaping of mankind is a common energy of the Trinitarian God, since the “Father, through the Son in the Holy Spirit makes all things.” Moreover, the Trinitarian God decided to create man “in our own image and likeness.” The Father made man in the image of the Word of God and breathed life into him through the Holy Spirit. And since the energy of the Trinitarian God is common to the three, the Holy Trinity took part in man’s creation. The Trinitarian God therefore had to be manifested in the re-shaping and re-creation of man that would culminate in Christ’s Resurrection.
St Nicholas Kavasilas regards baptism as a birth. Christ had said that: “Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The Christian’s baptism is thus connected with illumination and purification. Christ however, was pure and perfect. St John of Damascus teaches that he was not baptized because he had need of purification “but to identify himself with our purification.” In condescending to be so baptised, Christ blessed the waters of the River Jordan as well. That is why even today at the service of the blessing of the waters we call upon the Holy Spirit to bless the waters. Thus, after the blessing, it ceases to be water of the fall and becomes the water of renewal, as it is united with the Grace of God.
This year, as is the custom, thousands of members of the Greek community will have flocked to Station Pier and/or Frankston to take part in this most ancient of ceremonies. It will have been, as always of especial significance to many, as Station Pier marks for them, a parallel symbol of renewal, the end of an old life, a dead end filled with underserved anguish, suffering and fear, and the beginning of the new life, full of hope and the promise of happiness. Interestingly enough, it was through a passage through water that this renewed life was obtained and for most, there have been few regrets. It is touching therefore that we should seek through the Bishop to bless the water that brought us here, for us and for all of our co-habitants. What is not touching is the hard line the authorities are taking against the festival, regarding the blessing as a mere “event” and exiling it to a corner of the Port on the pretext that “it does not promote tourism.” Next year, think twice about supporting ungrateful businessmen in that region and most importantly, remember this heinous attack against Orthodoxy, the Greek community, freedom of religious expression and multiculturalism come local and state election time. We cannot tolerate authorities who do not respect us and deal with us in such an off-hand and contemptuous manner.
In Constantinople, the blessing of the waters by the Oecumenical Patriarch is an event of immense importance even to its Muslim inhabitants who depend it to bring them good luck and protect them from harm. Being present at the 1998 blessing, I could not help but be struck at the fervour and delight of the Muslim bystanders. This was a ceremony of hope, renewal and rebirth, proving that it is never too late to start again. Let us hope that this year’s blessing of the Bosphorus will bring about a re-birth in the relations between Turkey and its Christian minorities and a renewal of the bonds which they hold in common, for the mutual benefit of all. It is at least a sign of the times that the Turkish government respects Theofaneia more than some of our supposedly more enlightened Australian authorities.
Finally, in blessing the waters, let us hope that the terrible tribulation visited upon the innocent from the sea in the form of the tsunami, never again occurs and that if it does, that we will stand at the ready, as Greece, to its eternal credit did in the past weeks, to provide humanitarian aid to our afflicted brothers. For we are but fragile shadows and in whatever form, there will always be an Enceladus to afflict us. In the words of Maxwell Smart, how wondrous it would be, if such power could be used for good rather than evil. But try telling that to our chthonic despots of the world…..

first published in NKEE on 10 January 2005

Monday, January 03, 2005


A Happy New Year to all of you. May the traditional Greek symbol of the New Year, the boat, convey us safely and trouble-free through the murky waters of the unknown for the next 365 days. For those who are lacking in love, may it be a Love Boat for them, for those who are concerned at the latest manifestations of Encheladus and his accompanying tsunamis, may it be a Noah’s Ark to shield them from worry (and seal in the rustic animal smells) and lastly, for those who are still in party mode, may it be a funky European speedboat, conveying them to shore after shore of European beach party, the type where men can where pink shirts and white pants and shoes without socks, without having their masculinity challenged.
The celebration of New Year’s Day is arguably as old as the Greek people themselves. For the ancient Greeks, New Year’s Day, the «Ανθεστήρια» was celebrated on the first day of spring, when the first snows were beginning to melt and nature was slowly waking up from its torpid wintry slumber. Inextricably linked with this concept of nature’s awakening within the ancient mind was the dichotomy between life and death. For in celebrating New Year’s Day, the ancient Greek commemorated the plight of Persephone, doomed to spend six months with her husband Hades in the underworld and six months with her mother Dimitra in the living world. In Cyprus and Phoenicia opposite, New Year’s day commemorated the rebirth of the most beautiful youth Adonis, who would be torn apart every winter, only to reappear in spring, bringing new life. The New Year was therefore looked upon as a harbinger of hope.
Traditionally, Greeks exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day. This custom, instituted by the Roman Emperor Tiberius who forbade his subjects from exchanging gifts on any other day than the first of the month dedicated to the god Janus is only now receding in the face of the aggressive western commercialisation of the Festive Season in Greece. Traditionally, people would give each other simple gifts of figs, flowers or honey. As time passed and people became acquisitive, money would be gifted, using as a pretext, the old adage that money is sweeter than honey! In Roman times, the ancient Greeks would decorate their homes with laurel, olive or pine branches in anticipation of the New Year. As soon as the sun rose, they would go outdoors, holding lighted torches and go from house to house, solemnly but joyfully chanting «κάλανδα» songs welcoming the Calends of January (ie. the first day of the month.) The Romans on the other hand, welcomed in the New Year with masked dances, gambling and orgies. In time, the Greeks also adopted these.
Try as it might, the Church could not entirely stamp out the pagan undertones and customs pertaining to the first of January. So much so that in the fourth century, St John Chrysostom lamented that «αι παννυχίδαι, τα σκώμματα, αι λοιδορίαι και οι ακολασίαι» had enslaved the entire population of Antioch. In order to combat what it termed to be “demonic behaviour,” the Church imposed a fast between 31 December and 3 January. However, it proved impossible to enforce this, to the extent that even priests were caught wearing masks and joining in the revelry.
The Byzantines really “got into” their New Year’s Day celebrations. Court and subjects alike enjoyed playing the latest fad to be cheaply imported from China, cards, on New Year’s Eve. This is a custom that has remained with us to the present day. Masked parties, the wearing of animal skins or parading around nude in public like yobbos shouting Hoorah! was the order of the day. The more rowdy and drunken of the revellers would break doors open, beat up passers-by and rob them. Perhaps the greatest devotee of the revels was the Emperor Michael III, who would dress himself up as the patriarch and his attendants as bishops and would walk the streets receiving the homage of the populace. In 847, along with his disguised attendants, he started to conduct a liturgy in the Forum of the Bull. Suddenly, he threw off robes and began to dance and sing, to the wild acclamation of his subjects and the despair of his mother, Theodora, the restorer of Orthodoxy, whose face Michael secretly painted red and paraded her through the streets to show the populace that even his prudish mother was joining in the festivities. This would probably account for her overthrowing him and assuming power herself, proving that one should never upset their mother on New Year’s Eve.
January 1 commemorates in the Christian calendar, the circumcision of Christ. The troparion of that day is significant: “The Saviour, condescending to the race of men, in swaddling clothes accepted circumcision, He did not abhor the cutting of His flesh..” Just as, out of love and charity Christ accepted to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and have a humble birth, so he accepted painful circumcision, just like all men of the time. This extreme condescension and self-emptying of Christ is thus regarded as a great feast.
January 1 also commemorates St Basil the Great, one of the Orthodox Church’s most important theologians. He was a gifted philosopher, writer of church services, outspoken moral spokesman and a great humanitarian who built hospitals and orphanages and interceded for his parishioners in his see of Caesarea in Asia Minor against the rapacity of the Imperial bureaucrats. So inextricably linked was he to the welfare of his people, that during Turkish occupation, the Caesareans still believed that St Basil continued to intercede for them. He was said to have played cards with the Turkish Pasha in order to win back all the taxes exacted from the Christians on New Year’s Eve and the Caesareans commemorated this by playing cards on New Year’s Eve as well.
Of course this is but a slightly different version of the traditional St Basil legend of the «Βασιλόπιττα.» St Basil was able after vigorous representations to have the Caesareans’ taxes returned to them by the Byzantines. But who could redistribute vast quantities of goods to their rightful owners? St Basil commanded that a huge pie be made and all the taxes included into it. Then each family was invited to take a piece. Upon eating it, each family discovered that their taxes had miraculously been included in their own piece. We commemorate this ever since, by including a gold piece in our own Vasilopittes. The first piece we cut belongs to Christ and the second to St Basil. In Epirus, the Vasilopitta traditionally took the form of a chicken and rice pie and instead of a gold coin, beans were included within it. Whoever found the bean would be blessed with a good harvest.
In rural Greece, particular attention was given to animals on New Year’s Eve, in the hope that they would multiply and be healthy. The great theologian and iconographer Photios Kontoglou tells a heart-warming story where a shepherd chanced to entertain St Basil unawares on New Year’s Eve and found his flocks blessed as a result of his hospitality. In many villages, people would leave gifts at springs or wells in order to propitiate the water and ensure that it would continue to flow throughout the year. In modern times, many Greeks let their taps run on New Year’s Eve to stimulate a “flow” of luck. The first water to be obtained on New Year’s Day is used to wash the grief of the old year away.
In Samos, as in many other parts of Greece, great attention is paid to the «ποδαρικό,» ie. who will first enter one’s house. My grandmother for example, would insist that my sister enter her house first because she was supposed to be lucky. We would enter last, after the good luck had entered first. Upon entering the house, one had to step on a key or another metallic object on the ground saying the following: «Σίδερο πατώ και σιδερένιος νά’μαι,» so as to ensure good health and an iron physique, only to be negated by the vast feast and expanding stomach that followed. Fruit and a glass of water were also placed at the doorway to encourage fruitfulness and purity. In Athens, a pomegranate is smashed in the house and its seeds scattered in order to ensure exactly the same thing. Some argue that this is a custom that has survived through ancient times, commemorating the pomegranate seeds eaten by Persephone in Hades but there seems to be no connection.
Finally, it is well-established superstition that whatever the New Year finds you doing, you can be certain that you will be doing that all year long. In this diatribist’s case, it found me spewing forth this diatribe, so expect many more to come! Καλή Χρονιά και χρόνια πολλά!

First published in NKEE on 3 January 2005