Monday, March 12, 2007

SINGING OF ATALANTA, DAPHNE AND ORPHEUS


Of the fact that my meeting with Doctor Evangelia Anagnostou-Laoutides was pre-ordained by Byblos, the Phoenician god of weighty scholarly tomes, I have absolutely no doubt. For I had believed in her without seeing. Early last year, I obtained for myself a copy of a book entitled: Eros and Ritual in Ancient Literature: Singing of Atalanta, Daphnis and Orpheus. In doing so, I freely admit that I made such a choice by judging its front cover; a pleasing composition of a Greek temple portico sheltering a mysterious looking-rhombus, as I always wanted to possess a book that proudly displayed this much maligned and misunderstood geometrical shape.
Over the ensuing summer, I proceeded to ruminate through the pages of the said book, only to discover a plethora of insights, ethnographic and literary that challenge the way Greeks see themselves and their history. I particularly let forth a triumphant gasp upon reading the following, as it echoed some of my own conclusions, gleaned from various readings over the years and my interest in Semitic cultures in general: “For many years, the study of Greek mythology as a major aspect of Greek culture was haunted by the aura of a superlative society that almost stood alone among the other peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean and had practically invented every value related to human development. As a result of this view, our appreciation of Greek myths was doomed to remain limited and our understanding of their social function could not proceed further than the safe speculation that they must have played a significant role in ancient social structure either by reflecting it or by interpreting it.' In more recent days the rising of comparative studies which coincided with the discovery and examination of more Near Eastern texts has led to the appreciation of the similarities that Greek myths exhibit in comparison with Eastern mythic specimens.” In the engrossing and challenging pages that followed, the author examined the myths of Atalanta, Daphnis and Orpheus in a wide variety of literary texts throughout the Greco-Roman world and compared the cultic practices and religious ideas of the Greeks and the Romans with those of the Near Eastern cultures. The author then focused upon the survival of these ideas in erotic mythology that became particularly popular during the Hellenistic and the later Augustan period and analysed how Eastern ideas might have shaped literary genres like Latin elegy and pastoral poetry. Ground-breaking stuff.
Given the above, it is fitting that my first experience of the physical manifestation of Dr Evangelia Anagnostou-Laoutidou was at the launch of Dr Kostas Vitkos’ second anthology of newspaper columns «Διάφορα» wherein I was introduced to her as “a lecturer at Monash Uni and a person I should definitely ‘do a Diatribe about.’” I shook her hand, exchanged pleasantries and, being possessed of a memory that a sieve would not at all be envious of, I promptly forgot all about her.
It was only when, earlier this year I was browsing through a catalogue of books, looking for something as obscure as The Anti-Chalcedonian world-view of John Rufus to sink my teeth into, that all the cogs in my frontal lobes finally began to grind against each other and I let out a gasp of surprise. There, on the page was a photograph of “Eros and Ritual in Ancient Literature,” and though my much-thumbed volume had enjoyed pride of place on my shelf for a year, it was only now that I made the connection. Its author, whose subtle erudition and sophisticated arguments had informed and enthralled my summer, was none other than the said Dr Evangelia Anagnostou-Laoutides!
To fate can also be ascribed my pilgrimage to her office for the purpose of homage paying as she left nothing to chance: I received in my email in-box from her, a lengthy description of the best route to her place of honest toil from my office, complete with Melway map reference, distance to the nearest metre and contingency plan if, failing all that, I should still get lost, the thoroughness of which would make a GPS blush in shame.
Dr Eva Anagnostou-Laoutidou’s office is as sparse as she is unaffected in manner by her prodigious learning. A warm-hearted, friendly lecturer in Classical Studies, she is also a polyglot, having delved not only in her native Greek and English, but possessed of lashings of German, Italian and Spanish, with sprinklings of Italian, Persian, Welsh and Hebrew to boot. The second Greek academic after Stathis Gauntlett to speak Welsh in this country, owing to her tenure at Aberystwyth University, she will sure to become, in years to come, a historical, or dare we say, mythological figure.
Dr Eva is also unique as a relative newcomer to the ranks of the Greek-Australian. Obtaining her Bachelor of Arts in Classical Philology at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, she went on to obtain her Masters in Latin literature at the University of Leeds and a PhD in Classics at the University of Kent. In fact, the book that so enchanted me was her doctoral thesis. Her comparison of the education cultures in England and Greece is a fascinating one, as is her telling remark that because of the manner in which Helladic academics often conduct themselves, it is difficult for a Greek academic to be awarded legitimacy in the field of Classical Studies by their international peers, as the slur of nationalistic bias is invariably leveled at them. She chose to teach in Australia, not through any reference to the Greek community here but because a university position was open to her here in Classical Studies that she did not want to pass up.
The fragmentation of areas as vast as Classical Studies into specialized topics is something that finds Dr Eva unmoved. She rails against prevailing views among some scholars that their job is that of museum curator, preserving past knowledge throughout the ages. She also rails against the view that would narrow the focus of knowledge taught of our ancient world, and which would, in Gnostic-fashion, reveal its secrets only to those select few who would prove themselves worthy of being initiated into the higher mysteries of Classical scholarship.
Instead, Dr Eva seeks to revive interest in a subject that is both chronically underfunded and undervalued by making by placing the ancient past in context and challenging her students to see just how of our modern world has its cultural precedents in our ancient past. Further to that, Dr Eva’s conception of the role of the lecturer transcends the traditional exposition of revealed truth. Instead, she adopts the guise of a guide, leading students through their own inquiries, impressing upon them the knowledge that there is so much of our past that we do not know.
With the satisfaction of a mother whose children have long passed the potty stage and have finally learned to put the toilet seat down after use, Dr Eva humourously relates the instances of students of Greek background who join her class, fore-armed with often erroneous assertions as to the ancient Greeks’ natural superiority and who are then compelled to assess and analyse such pre-conceptions. My uneasy grin at this point was occasioned by my own memories of myself making similar assertions at a Classical Studies tutorial aptly named: Myth and Reality, where I discovered just how much of what we held to be gospel about our forefathers hovered tantalizingly between the two terms, casing me to discard my adherence to Phrenology in order to explain the innate superiority of the Ancient Greek, just as I had finally mastered how to spell that word. In particular, students have trouble dealing with issues such as homosexuality and cultural borrowings from other races. In this regard, Dr Eva’s work in pointing to areas where it is quite possible that Semitic religious practices and poetic motifs inform ancient Greek religion and literature, will make a lasting contribution to permitting modern scholarship, but also the layperson to view the corpus of ancient Greek culture holistically and in its proper context. It is this commitment that has seen her public presentations over the community radio on topics such as the Ancient Greek Mythology of the Underworld and Afterlife become widely appreciated, though her pious hope and generous offer to various Greek schools for them to make use of her knowledge and proffered time in order to introduce young students to the classical world, a much needed tool for their own understanding of their cultural heritage, has criminally not been taken up.
So how does Dr Eva find our community as a recent arrival, and how does she view the second and third generation as compared to their counterparts in Greece. It is here that Dr Eva makes a pertinent observation. While she still sees Australia as a land of opportunity and admires our achievements, she says the following: “In Greece, there is a vast gap between the generations. Children tend to reject their parents’ values wholesale. In Australia on the other hand, the second generation seems to have adopted almost wholesale, the entire corpus of their parents’ values, especially when it comes to the work ethic. Without criticizing these values, it appears that this adoption has been made without question or analysis in many cases and it presents as an interesting phenomenon.”
Among the various projects that the prolific Dr Eva is working on, which include battling to convince University management of the intrinsic importance of Classics to a tertiary institution, and working on publications with titles as diverse as: “Acontius and Cydippe: a Hellenistic oath or a Near Eastern Spell?” “Meleager and Propertius: Eastern sensibility and Augustan Rome,” “The Princeps and the Sun” and “Persephone and Cybele” she is also preparing to add yet another member, of her own manufacture, to our community. When questioned as to how she feels about the topos of her offspring’s birth, she replies: “I could think of no better place.”
Hours fly past like minutes with Dr Eva. Her enthusiasm and passion for her work is infectious, her conversation incisive and witty. Having circumambulated her office the prescribed number of times, after which my Hellenism restored albeit in a hybrid Commagenian way, I wound my way through the labyrinthine corridors, proudly clutching my now autographed copy of her thesis, murmuring the words of the immortal Cavafy: “We also are Greeks- what else are we?- but with the loves and passions of Asia with loves and emotions sometimes strange to the Greeks..” We have a lot to learn.

DEAN KALIMNNIOU


First published in NKEE on 12 March 2007

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