Holocaust is a Greek word. It is comprised of two constituent parts: “Holos” and “Kaustos,” meaning ‘completely burnt.’ Originally, this referred to a religious animal sacrifice that is completely consumed by fire. In ancient Greek and Roman pagan rites, gods of the earth and underworld received dark or golden animals, which were offered by night and burnt in full. So pervasive was the use of the term that when the Jewish elders of Alexandria translated the Septuagint from the Hebrew into the Greek, they employed it to denote the ‘olah’, those of the sacrifices that the Torah specified, had to be completely burnt.
The concept of burning and catharsis is one that crops up time and time again in ancient Greek and Middle Eastern literature. The Greeks had an especially ambivalent attitude towards it, which is interesting, as it is the gift of fire, which was withheld from mankind by the Olympian gods and which Prometheus the Titan had to steal, that symbolically marks the genesis of human consciousness and civilisation. Similarly the two Greek fire gods, Hephaestus, god of the forges and infernal powers in general and Hestia, the goddess of the hearth fire and family life, are guardians of human existence and protectors against accidental fires in cities. In both the myth and the Euripidean play of Medea, Jason’s betrayal of his ‘barbarian’ wife, by marrying the princess Glauce is avenged and appeased through Glauce being used as a burnt sacrifice. The enraged Medea bewitched a robe with magic herbs and sent it to the princess as a gift. When Glauce put it on, the garment immediately caught fire and burned her to death. Medea then killed her own children by Jason and escaped in a chariot sent by either Helios, the fiery god of the sun or Hecate.
In Vedic religion and Zoroastrianism, fire is a central element in the Yajna ceremony, with “Agni,” fire playing the role as mediator between the worshipper and the other gods. A related concept is the Agnihotra ritual, the invocation of the healing properties of fire and it is fascinating to note that there is enough linguistic eveidence to suggest that our own word «Αγνός» meaning pure, is derived from the Indo-Aryan word for fire, proving how closely interlinked the concepts of fire and catharsis that leads to purity actually are. As can be seen by the opening quote above from the Psalms of David, this imagery survives in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, where fire is variously seen also as an element of theophany, especially in the form of the Burning Bush and the Pillar of Fire that accompanied the Jews during the Exodus. Additionally, the Biblical Hebrew language is sometimes referred to as “the flame alphabet” because many devout Jews believe that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is the literal word of God written in fire.
This theophanic tradition is encapsulated by the Holy Spirit in Christianity, where it is described as “tongues of flame.” The relationship between the Diety and divine retribution that will bring about an ultimate cleansing is signified by Psalm 11:6 thus: “Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and a horrible tempest, this shall be the portion of their cup.” In Genesis 19, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah via a rain of fire and brimstone, and in Deuteronomy 29, the Israelites are threatened with the same punishment should they abandon their covenant with God. Elsewhere, divine judgments involving fire and sulphur are prophesied against Assyria (Isaiah 30), Edom (Isaiah 34), Gog (Ezekiel 38), and all the wicked (Psalm 11). Fire and brimstone frequently appear finally as agents of divine wrath throughout the Book of Revelation, culminating in chapters 19–21, wherein the devil and the ungodly are cast into a lake of fire and brimstone as an eternal punishment. In Orthodox theology, though this is qualified by writings of several Church Fathers, this fire is merely a symbol of the anguish of the sinner in refusing the love of God. In the Orthodox view, sin is a sickness to be healed and not a crime to be punished. In contrast, in Catholic theology, the fire, known as purgatory, is a real one, where sinners undergo roasting to the extent that is required for purification or eternally, when they are beyond redemption.
If the terrible fires that have blighted Greece recently have come as a consequence of the need for ritual cleansing, then the iniquities that brought them about must have been immense, for such cleansing is too much for anyone to bear. Thousands of hectares of forest and cultivated land have been transformed into a blazing inferno, thousands have lost their homes and face the prospect of a bleak winter without shelter and the heart-wrenching task of rebuilding their shattered lives. Moreover, some sixty-four people have lost their lives. Amid accusations that the arson that is said to have been deliberately committed was politically motivated, the attempts by opposition parties to capitalise upon the tragedy in order to score points from the government in the upcoming elections, the government’s ineptitude in responding quickly and effectively in order to prevent, manage and fight the outbreak of the fires, an enduring image remains: That of the hapless mother immolated by the merciless rage of the fire, surrounded by her four young children, also sacrificed to its pitiless fury.
It is difficult to see how this is not a holocaust in its original sense - defenceless victims sacrificed on the altar of a society so dislocated, so ill-fitting and dissociated from itself, that its members turn on it and seek to totally destroy it. There are some 61 people that have been arrested on suspicion of having deliberately lit the fires that have caused so much devastation and misery. Though it remains to be seen how the criminals will be sorted from the scapegoats, it is interesting that in true struthocamilic fashion, the Greek people hesitate to take the opportunity to take a close look at themselves and their society and bravely identify the social dysfunction that is the catalyst for the commission of such heinous crimes of destruction against themselves.
Notably and in Orwellian fashion, the Minister for Public Order, Vyron Polydoras, raised the spectre of foreign complicity in the fires, stating that they may be a result of terrorist attacks, as many of the fires started simultaneously and in places where an arsonist could not be seen. In doing so, he clumsily coined an interesting Newspeak term: “asymmetric threat” which instead of ‘terrorist’ and all its connotations of horror, connotes someone whose physical properitons are unbalanced and challnge our aesthetic.
In a shocking display of navel-gazing, George Papandreou, the leader of PASOK, accused the government of insinuating that his party is involved in the fires and called on Prime Minister Kostas Karamnlis to produce any evidence that would support there was such an organized plan, proving that this is as good a time as any for the people’s representatives to play politics amidst catastrophe.
Similarly, an ANT1 journalist the other day opined that: “There is absolutely no way that this fire was started by Greeks. Why would Greeks do this to each other?” If the contextual background behind the making of such a naïve remark, which flies in the face of three thousand years of recorded incidents of internecine strife was not so tragic, this remark could be considered to be a sick joke. The vast majority of those arrested upon suspicion of arson are of Greek descent. It is time we understood that acts of wanton barbarity and destruction defy nationality.
If anything heartwarming is to arise from the ashes of our charred, blackened and ravaged country of origin it is this: That the response and offers of help from other nations were immediate and overwhelming, proving that in times of crisis, it is the human rather than the political element that redeems our faith in ourselves. Some 22 European countries offered their resources in the form of aeroplanes and expertise, though Finland’s offer of three helicopters and twenty five firefighters was declined. (With good reason, for what would the sub-Arctic Finns know of fire-fighting?) Many other countries have pledged monetary assistance including Australia. The Prime Minister’s pledge of three million dollars, coupled with that of $100,000 by the Premier of South Australia and the sensitivity and interest shown by local media, especially the ABC network, which conducted a reilef appeal, is not surprising. Australians, a people that are perennially afflicted by bushfires, are also immensely compassionate and it is at moments like these, when the concept of ‘mateship’ transcends national boundaries and a helping hand is offered to fellow sufferers that we are so very proud to call ourselves Australian.
In many respects, in relation to the crisis and despite the horror, the Greek people have been at their finest hour. The brave rescue stories, the compassion and solidarity displayed by people towards the afflicted, indeed the exorbitantly large donations offered by prominent Greek families and insitutions (the Latsis’ family aid package of 100 million Euro could purchase a small equatorial country) assist us in our resolve that out of the ashes of sorrow and catastrophe, out of this great holocaust of hubris, the phoenix of a new, regenerated Greece will emerge.
This must be a Greece of compassion, of civic pride, where all citizens have a stake in the progress of the country and are not disenfranchised. Instead, they must work together to create a cohesive, all-inclusive society and not one where the prevailing attitude is one of self-interested, devil-may-care individualism. Most notably, this must be a Greece whose inhabitants realise that they have a vested interest in preserving and restoring the unique Greek ecosystem and environment and will not wantonly destroy it for the purposes of financial gain, or any other reason. The president of SAE Oceania, Mr Angelopoulos tells the cautionary tale of him recently castigating the head of a Greek prefecture for not attending to the cutting of grass and ther bush-fire prevention techniques. “What are you talking about?” the ebullient politician exclaimed indignantly. “Do you know how much that costs?” Consequently, the new Greece must be one where human lives and property are rated higher than the mismanagment of the local treasury. For we no longer have dark gods to appease, only dark consciences.
For the Greek community in Australia, this too is one of our finest hours. We may be fragmented, at each other’s throats and sundered into a mosaic of opposable and ill-fitting parts but in times of crisis, all that is swept aside and the main aim, that of assisting our afflicted compatriots, overrides all other considerations. The swift conducting of an appeal by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the raising of $200,000 in just one day by the Greeks of Melbourne via the 3XY radiomarathon, (with the notable donation by Mr Salim Guzel Ahmet, originally of Komitini «για την Ελλάδα μας,») and the spirited gift of 100,000 Euro by businessman and community doyen Athanasios Tsouhandaris, are an enduring testament to just what can we can achieve when our motives are pure and our hearts stalwart. Hopefully, out of this crisis, an analogous re-generation of our community will also take place, without the further need for catastrophe.
To the victims of the tragedy, to all those who assisted in ameliorating the plight of the afflicted, these final enduring words from Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha: “Neither fire, nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds.”
First published in NKEE on 3 September 2007