Tuesday, September 25, 2007


“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

Lawrence of Arabia

As usual, it was the Greeks who were the instigators of speculation and desire. For it was they who first postulated the existence of a vast land far to the north of the globe, Hyperborea. That land, in defiance of all empirical climatic evidence, whose name denoted “Beyond the North Wind,” was supposed to be perfect, and it is fascinating that, considering the well known phenomenon of the Midnight Sun during the Polar Summer, the sun was said to shine in Hyperborea, twenty-four hours a day. As Pindar gushed in his Tenth Ode, it was a veritable musical Paradise:
“Never the Muse is absent/ from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry/ and everywhere maiden choruses whirling./ Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed/ in their sacred blood; far from labor and battle they live.”
In light of future developments, it was also interesting that the ancient Greeks held Hyperborea to be a land in which gold existed in large quantities. As such, the exact situation of the country was of some concern to ancients and moderns alike.
Since Herodotus places the Hyperboreans beyond the Massageate and Issedones, both Central Asian peoples, it appears that his Hyperboreans lived in Siberia. Heracles sought the golden antlered hind of Artemis in Hyperborea. As the reindeer is the only deer species of which females bear horns, this would suggest an arctic region. Following J.D.P. Bolton's location of the Issedones on the south-western slopes of the Altay mountains of Turkestan, Carl Ruck places Hyperborea beyond the Dzungarian into northern Xinjiang, noting that the Hyperboreans were probably Chinese. Hecataeus of Abdera however, clearly places the Hyperboreans in the British Isles.
It just may be though, that the Hyperboreans lived far more north and west than originally thought. Under the US Library of Congress classification system, the letter subclass PM includes “Hyperborean Languages”, a catch-all category that refers to all the linguistically unrelated languages of peoples living in Arctic regions, such as the Inuit, previously known as the Eskimaux.
Having this in mind, it is not without coincidence that the famed British sea-farer and explorer Sir Francis Drake sailed to America in 1579 on a ship whose name commemorated Heracles’ voyage ot the Hyperboreans, the “Golden Hind.” In years to come, the mythical land of Hyperborea would first become a hindrance and then would be wished out of existence all together by the acquisitive yearings of colonial powers, who sought away to circumvent its cumbersome legacy, in the quest for imperial and commercial gain.
Though in the vernacular of the Antipodes, the phrase “North-West Passage” ingeniously connotes fundamental orifices, variously anatomically situated, it also generally refers to the sea route through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America via the Candaian Arctic Archipelago, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Between the end of the fifteenth century and the twentieth century, various colonial powers, notably Britain, Spain, France and Russia dispatched explorers in an attempt to discover a commercial sea route north and west around North America. It was the British who first named the hypothetical route through the extreme North, the Northwest Passage, though it was also called the Strait of Anian. The desire to establish such a route motivated much of the European exploration of both coasts of North America. When it became apparent that there was no route through the heart of the continent, attention turned to the possibility of a passage through northern waters.
Over the years, while armchair navigators postulated theories as to an ice-free passage through a vast Hyperborea to the north of America (too much ice at the pole would cause the world to collapse otherwise) various explorers actually claimed to have found the coveted Passage. Their spurious stories served to inspire those who had a vested interest in the discovery of such a passage to agitate for further exploratory expeditions. One such agitator, for whom a nagotiated passage through Hyperborea verged upon obsession was British Member of Parliament Arthur Dobbs, who prevailed upon the House of Commons to finance a number of expeditions. In 1744, he published his “Account of Hudson’s Bay”, as part of his campaign to raise funds for a further discovery expedition. In it, he reproduced a report first published in Samuel Purchas’ Haklytus Posthumus, or Purchase Hils Pilgrimes (1625) describing the 1592 voyage of Juan de Fuca, also known as Ioannis Phocas or Apostolos Valerianos.

Today’s diatribe pays homage to his tale, and explains why ultimately, he was responsible for the death of an Australian hero, Captain Cook.
Ioannis Phocas, a ship’s captain was born in 1536 in Cephallonia, the son of refugees fleeing a beseiged Constantinople. In 1595, after forty years in the service of Spain in the West Indies and the South Sea, he met an English merchant and finanier of the Frobisher expedition to find the North West passage, Michael Lok, in Venice. Phocas has a dramatic story to tell Lok:
“He said, that he was the pilot of three small ships which the viceroy of Mexico, armed with oe hundred men, soldiers, under a captain, Spaniards, to discover the Straits of Anian and to fortify in that strait, to resist the passage through those straits into the South Sea. And that by reason of a munity which happened among the soldiers, for the sodomy of their captain, that voyage was overthrown, and the ships returned back from California coast to Nova Spania, without any effect of thing done in that voyage. ..
“Also he said, that shortly after the said voyage was so ill ended, the said viceroy of Mexico sent him out again anno 1592 with a small caravel.. for the discovery of the same Straits of Anian, and the passage thereof into the sea, which they call the North Sea. And that he followed his course in that voyage west and northwest in the South Sea, all alongst the coast of Nova Spania and California and the Indies, now called North America (all which voyage he signified to me in a great map, and a sea-card of my own, which ilay before him) until he came to the latitude of 47 degrees, and that there finding that the land trended north and northeast, with a broad inlet of sea, between 47 and 48 degrees of latitude, he entered thereinto, sailing therein more than twenty days, and found that land trending still sometime northwest and northeast, and north and also east and south-eastward, and very much broader sea than was at the said entrance, and that he passed diverse islands in that sailing. And that at the entrance of this said strait, there is on the northwest coast thereof, a great headland or land, with an exceeding high pinnacle, like a pillar thereon.
“Also he said, that he went on land in divers places, and that he saw some people on land, clad in beasts’ skins; and that the land is very fruitful, and rich of gold, silver, pearl and other things, like Nova Spania.
“And he also said, that having he bing entered thus far into the said strait and being come into the North Sea [Atlantic] already, and finding the sea wide enough anywhere, and to be about 30 or 40 leagues wide in the mouth of the straits, where he entered, he thought he had now well discharged his office, and done the thing which he was sent to do; and that he not being armed to resist the force of the savage people that might happen, he therefore set sail and returned homeward again towards Nova Spania, where he arrived at Acapulco, anno 1592, hoping to be rewarded greatly of the viceroy for this service done in this said voyage.”
The main thrust of the narrative is that Phocas did not get the reward he expected from the Spanish Crown and it was for this reason that he offered his services to Queen Elizabeth I, imploring Lok to obtain a ship for him, from her. The tale is undoubtedly tall; no record of any Spanish discovery expedition exits in the sixteenth century, which sailed as far north as Phocas claimed. Nor does Phocas’ description of the strait leading to countries ‘rich of gold, silver, pearl’ and then to the North Sea, correspond with reality. It is most intriguing that in the late eighteenth century, an opening near the latitude described by Phocas revived speculation that his account was true, and the channel between Vancouver Island (Canada) and the Olympic Peninsula (Washington State), is still named the Strait of Juan de Fuca in his honour. As if that was not enough, the Juan de Fuca Plate, a tectonic plate subducting under the northerly portion of the western side of the North American Plate along the coasts of Oregon and Washington, is also named in his honour.
The publication of Phocas’ account caused explorers, who had hitherto approached Hyberborean America from the Atlntic, to switch to the Pacific, thinking that a passage in temperate latitudes through America could be found. In 1776, Captain Cook was dispatched with orders to retrace Phocas’ supposed journey, on what would prove to be his last voyage.
When Cook arrived at the latitude of Phocas’ claimed North West Passage, it was not there: “It is in this very latitude where we now were, that geographers have placed the pretended Strait of Juan de Fuca. But we saw nothing like it; or is there the least probability that ever any such a thing existed.” As he sailed further north, he came upon various inlets around Anchorage and realised that a cursory exploration of them could be misleading and that if Phocas had in fact preceded him, he may have been the victim of a misapprehension:
“If I had not examined this considerable inlet, it would have been… assumed… as a fact that it communicated with Baffin’s and Hudson’s Bay to the east; and marked… with greater precision … than the invisible, because imaginary, Strait of de Fuca.”
Remarkably, Captain Cook’s wild goose chase after Phocas determined the Alaskan coastline as far North as Bering Strait. Instead of finding the pinnacle of rocks or the prosperous and temperate land (though gold was later to be found in Alaska in vast quantities) Phocas had described, Cook was forced to turn back owing to the massive, impassable ice floes he encountered. He turned back, only to be killed a few months later on the voyage home, in Hawaii, in February 1779 while attempting to recover a stolen ship’s cutter.
Ioannis Phocas, who also gave his name to the Juan de Fuca Ridge, teller of tall tales is if nothing else, an Odysseus of his time, whose story, though questionable, remains tantalizingly plausible and infinitely inspiring. Today, given that the Arctic ice is melting at a rapid rate and the North-West Passage seems to be commercially viable as a result, causing interested country's to scramble for sovereignty and sea rights, Fuca's legacy is more relevant than ever.
We leave you this week with Julien Green’s sensitive new age aphorism:
“The greatest explorer on this earth never takes voyages as long as those of the man who descends to the depth of his heart.” With a yo ho ho and a bottom of rum.


First published in NKEE on 24 September 2007

Thursday, September 20, 2007


“For what is wonderment but the mind gaping at the audacity of its own inadequacy?”
“The artist is what he says he is, not what he is.”

Jean Bernard Klus

What enables painting is the perception and representation of intensity. Every point in space has different intensity, which can be represented in painting by black and white and all the gray shades between. In practice, painters can articulate shapes by juxtaposing surfaces of different intensity; by using just color (of the same intensity) one can only represent symbolic shapes. Thus, the basic means of painting are distinct from ideological means, such as geometrical figures, various points of view and organization (perspective), and symbols. For example, a painter perceives that a particular white wall has different intensity at each point, due to shades and reflections from nearby objects, but ideally, a white wall is still a white wall in pitch darkness. In technical drawing, thickness of line is also ideal, demarcating ideal outlines of an object within a perceptual frame different from the one used by painters.
“Yes,” Beryl Georgakopoulos cuts short my lengthy exposition. “But remember that painting gives truth to the saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. For in painting, we are given the unique privelege, to emulate in our own small way, the energies of the Creator. Considering that we have been made in His image, is it not profound that we are given the gift of being able not only to interpret His world but to create our own, in its image? As soon as the brush comes into contact with the canvas, the subjective becomes an objective aboslute, without losing anything of its subjectivity. I think it was Pablo Picasso who said: “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.”
To paint, is to bare one’s thoughts, even one’s soul. If we consider Henry Ward Beecher’s musing that: “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures,” then painting is a most generous art, for it constitutes a public revelation of the painter’s innermost sanctum, a pursuit definitely not to be undertaken by the faint-hearted and it is for this reason, more than any other, that we owe painters a debt of gratitude.
Faint-hearted is something that Beryl Georgakopoulos definitely is not. An avid painter from her youth, since 1986, she has formed an integral part of the Moonee Valley visual arts community, painting intensively and inspiring a multitude of others to follow suit. Her recent exhibition at the Incinerator Theatre, entitled “The Three of Us and Friends” is a unique installation of canvases depicting still lives, scenes of Greece, unwitting snapshots of the more unsuspect moments of the human condition and, uniquely, icons.
The colour and tone are as much the essence of Beryl’s painting as pitch and rhythm are of music. The use of colour is highly subjective, but has observable psychological effects, upon the viewer. Her tempered use of colour, especially in vivid landscape scenes, invariably those of Greece and the more vibrant shades that illuminate and animate the people who inhabit her canvases, add to the potential, derived context of meanings, and because of this, the perception of her paintings are highly subjective in the manner in which they reproduce and/or reflect her reality. The analogy of her painting with music is quite clear; tones in music are analogous to "shades" in painting, and colouration in Beryl’s painting is the same as the specific colour of certain instrument - these do not form a melody, but can add different contexts to the whole piece.
Vincent Van Gogh once said: “I experience a period of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream.” Two elements of Beryl’s landscapes are noteworthy. The first is that whether the landscapes are painted with miniature precision or rendered with the broad, hasty brush strokes of the impressionist, they have an unearthly clarity that entrenches them in the viewer’s consciousness, causing him to be lost within them and granting to them, a profound dream-like quality. In the highly emotive and almost monochromatic “Panselinos,” we have a well-structured triangular composition in which the violets and the blues converge upon the boats in a subtly rendered unsettled sea to create a high dramatic pageant around the moon, which though miniscule in scale, dominates the entire composition. In contrast, in “Monastery on High” painted with painstaking precision, minute brushstrokes manipulate light in such a way as to pervade the painting with a sense of startling aloofness. Though relatively small in size, its majesty seems to loom large before the viewer’s gaze, diminishing him subconsciously.
The second noteworthy element of Beryl’s landscapes is that there appears to be slight difference and little distinction between those painted in Greece and those painted in Australia. This merging of the artistic perspective should not be overlooked: In tentatively tracing the melding of Greek and Australian understandings into a cohesive whole, in Beryl we witness the triumphant emergence of purely Greek-Australian Art. An intrepid traveler as well as an artist, much in the tradition of the Victorian poet Edward Lear who in the nineteenth century deliberately sought out the inaccessible mountains of Epirus and Albania, as the inspiration for his landscapes, the Indiana Jones-like Beryl relates some of the strange encounters she has had with people and places, while in search of the perfect landscape, including being advised at a particularly remote and disused church to stamp on the floorboards from time to time, in order to discourage the appearance of the snakes, who nested underneath.
“A good painter is to paint two things, men and the working of man’s mind,” the great master Leonardo da Vinci explained, and who are we to argue? Beryl’s propensity to deceptively portray her subjects in relatively mundane poses, only to, with her use of light, colour and masterly precision of poise, evoke strong emotions in remarkable. In “Waiting,” a young girl dressed in a traditional costume stands against a stone wall, with her arms crossed. The insularity and finality of the crossed arms is juxtaposed against an archway, leading into a realm of unknown possibilities. The girl’s gaze transcends that realm and the temporal existence of the arch, personifying the feeling of anticipation in all of its raw intensity. Considering that the poetry of this piece is inspired by a photograph of my sister at the 25th March National Day march to the Shrine years ago, in her simple rendering of such complexity, Beryl expertly proves da Vinci’s contention that: "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
Perhaps the most breathtaking and affectionate of the paintings in the exhibition is “Artiste at Work.” Here Beryl portrays the archetype of the Greek grandmother. Engrossed in her knitting and oblivious to everything else, the kerchief wearing grandmother encapsulates elements of every single Greek grandmother I have ever met, from the careworn, staid, stoic yet inexorably lively facial features to the most remarkably portrayed pair of hands. These hands form the centre of the composition: the subject’s gaze leads to them and they are imbued with such movement that they animate the whole piece. They are quintessential grandmotherly hands: wrinkled and wizened, toughened through years of toil and most importantly, ever moving. The intense sense of movement is heightened by the unfinished quality of the hands. Here Beryl finds her counterpart in Armenian-American artist Arshile Gorky’s portrait of his mother, where he deliberately chose not to complete the painting of her hands. In following suit, is Beryl subtly providing the viewer with her own visual commentary on the concept of continuity? The viewer is left with the expectation that other, younger hands, descended from those of the Master Knitter will be required to complete the work, which is so lovingly fashioned in the painting.
The iconographic dimension of Beryl’s attitude to her own painting is omnipresent in all of her works. No detail is left to chance and everything is rendered in accordance with a devoted conception of a predetermined totality. This is certainly true both of her landscapes and portraits, where the tendency towards cubist renditions of geographical and facial features is subtle but identifiable, almost as if Beryl is seeking to evoke in the viewer, a subconscious de-construction of the visual into its elemental forms. In “Blessing the Newlyweds,” she manages to capture the pageantry and the deep sense of mystery of the Orthodox Wedding Service. The sense of the ineffable is palpable.
St John of Damascus justified the use of icons in the worship of the Orthodox Church by seeing in them, the closest understanding that humans could have, of the Incarnation. Beryl complements her ostensibly western painting techniques with a homage to the iconographic tradition of her homeland. Her first ever icon, that of St Constantine and St Helen is written not only with the precision of a Persian miniature, requiring the use of a magnifying glass in its execution, but with loving attention to detail. St Constantine holds in his arms, the city he founded, Constantinople, centre of the Orthodox Faith and St Helen holds the Church of the Ascension, which she founded in Jerusalem. This icon is particularly notable in that while it faithfully maintains the canons and reproduces the saints in accordance with tradition, it is imbued with the icon-writer’s individual sense of piety and reverence, making it all the more awe inspiring.
“The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” Pablo Picasso once asked. In contrast, Beryl’s world does make sense, it being informed and delineated by doctrines human and divine and she moves comfortably within its parameters. Perhaps most impressive of all is her humility and drive towards her art. “Do you know the Parable of the Talents?” she asks. “We are all given certain gifts. This means that these are things which are Given, they are NOT ours. Our duty therefore, is to cultivate these gifts for all to enjoy.” This uniquely Greek-Australian conception of art will perhaps form in years to come, the manifesto of the “Greek-Australian school.”
With regards to Beryl, watch this space for assuredly there is more to come. But in the meantime, a parting shot by the loquacious and self-justifying Picasso: “Everyone wants to understand painting. Why is there no attempt to understand the song of birds?”


First published in NKEE on 18 September 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007


“The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election. Those who count the votes do.”
Joseph Stalin.

Ambrose Bierce is at his devastating best when he defines the process of voting as “the instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.” Montesqieu on the other hand, is at his most dangerous when he postulates in his “Spirit of Laws” that in the case of elections in either a republic or a democracy, voters alternate between being the rulers of the country as well as being the subjects of the government, with the act of voting being the sovereign capacity, in which the people act as “masters” selecting their government “servants.”
This should be contrasted with the voting archetype, Ancient Athens, where voting was primarily an oligarchic institution and where most political offices were filled using sortition, where officeholders are chosen by lot, thus demonstrating the touching faith the Athenians of old had in Divine Providence, rather than in people, to set things aright, though there is a considerable corpus of scholarship that has recently emerged, wielding the theory that the lot system was purposely devised for the placement of bets as to the winner, concurrently giving rise to the development of statistics, probability (though not the Venn diagram) and a rudimentary form of Tattslotto. Though the theory is yet to be substantiated considerably, it does account for the remarkable propensity of Greek-Australian pensioners to play Bingo, and other like games of chance, at suburban Pokies outlets right across our antipodean metropolis.
That the vote is intrinsic to the concept of modern citizenship, is rightly pointed out by Theodore Hesburgh, who considers that: “Voting is a civil sacrament.” Sacraments of course, are not to be participated in lightly. Theological principles hold that they should only be partaken of after a good deal of self-examination, spiritual preparation and cleansing, which would explain why Greek women only received the right to vote in 1956 (there were earlier proposals stemming back to the thirties but if you believe the monarchists, they simply did not have the time to examine them and if you believe the republicans, the monarchists stymied the women’s suffrage movement because they feared that all Greek women were enamoured of Venizelos’ beard, which was carefully groomed and would vote accordingly,) and the Australian Aborigines, in 1962. It is an inordinately moving experience to consider that such a selfless inclusion of all elements of society into the franchise, which marks the apogee of western civilisation, reflects Alexander Shapiro’s deeply held religious conviction that “the vote demonstrates that we accept the notion that all human beings are created in the image of God,” and not that of the tax bracket. Consequently, the science of psephology, a real term believe it or not, that concerns itself with the study of results and other statistics relating to elections, especially with a view to predicting future results, is founded on sound theological principles, and is no longer the preserve of Old Testament prophets but rather, that of Anthony Green of the ABC National Tally Room.
If we juxtapose the above with the knowledge that the vast majority of cases adjudicated in Australian courts pertaining to Greek community organisations concern themselves with irregularities in voting procedures, we can see just how central the process of voting is to our Greek-Australian hypostasis. A Greek-Australian who does not permit himself to be courted by ambitious would-be officeholders who will: pay off the mortgage over the brotherhood building, refurbish it with new tables and chairs, employ a better cook and publish part of the newsletter in English in the hope that this will attract the youth, is effectively disenfranchised, devoid of status in society.
It is meet and fitting then, that the Greek state extends the vote to Greek-Australians, though we are still unsure as to exactly how this is to work, for voting has been in our blood ever since the ancient Athenians in 427 BC voted to kill every single citizen (here read male voters) and enslave all women and children on the island of Lesbos, only to reverse this decision through a further vote, the very next day.
The idea that Greek-Australians, living thousands of kilometres away from their place of origin can have a say in the running of that country’s political affairs is heartening for those whose emotional attachment to that country is so strong, that it must assume the form of a physical bond as well. To be given the right to vote is to be recognised by those with whom we still wish to be kin, as one of them and as such, it is a profound and symbolic re-affirmation and acceptance of our own assertions about our cultural and ethnic identity. Indeed, it is an eerie contemporary parallel to another historical arbiter of Hellenism: the Olympic Games, where competitors’ admission depended upon their recognition as Greeks by their peers. The kingdoms of Epirus and Macedonia were originally suspect owing to their cultural distinctiveness, until their increasing power made it politically expedient to admit their entry without question and to create a mythological lineage for them to boot. That identity is a fluid construct that can be stretched and constricted arbitrarily to fit all circumstances may evidenced by the fact that in time, the Romans were permitted to participate in the Games and the last winner of the Games before their abolition by Theodosius was an Armenian boxer, Barasdates.
Greek people in this country have been living away from their homelands for at least half a century. During that time, they have maintained their love for their motherland but they have also put down roots in Australia and sired a generation of Australian born children. Why is it that only now, decades after receiving their gratuities and in the twilight of their years that the Greek state has decided to grant their lost sheep, the tacit recognition of a shepherd who can only look on as they graze placidly in pastures not under his control and possibly promise to spare them a place in the sheepfold, should they return (provided that they bring their feed with them and not graze upon the sparse Grecian paddock)?
If the granting of the vote was all part of a co-ordinated effort to facilitate closer ties between diaspora Greeks and their motherland, then this belated gesture becomes comprehensible. However, this does not appear to be so. The process for a second generation halt-tongued Greek-Australian to obtain a Greek passport, the first step to obtaining voting rights, far from being a streamlined, facile experience that fills one with pride, is a slow, bewildering and often traumatic process that is grudgingly undergone, primarily in order to travel without restrictions around Europe, more than anything else. The bureaucratic labyrinths that young Greek-Australians must traverse in order to have their often superior qualifications recognised by Greece (and often they are not) and the exclusionist and often xenophobic social prejudices they have to face at the hands of beleagured ‘native’ Greeks all scrambling for a share of the national pie belie any belief that there is anything more than a haphazard lip-service being paid to facilitating their intergration into the Greek state. Rather, it is the first-generation property holders, who speak Greek and gaze upon her idol adoringly who are the main focus here. And their sun will soon set upon the horizon of Lethe.
Perhaps the answer can be found in the reputed machinations of local Greek political party organisations in Australia, who are said to be offering generous subsidies to those Greek-Australian voters who would trouble themselves to vote for the subsidizing party. Viewed from this perspective, it no longer seems strange that a state would allow persons who reside permanently in another country and whose, by consequence, interests lie in that country, to vote in elections that do not affect them in any way. Though 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 state 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, in ways that it hopes will benefit the major parties.
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, the landmark Theophanous case wherein the legality of dual citizenship was arbitrated and mooted changes to electoral laws so as to not permit citizens to vote in two countries, 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 at least on a civic level, Australians and that our primarily duty of political participation rests here.
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 state 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, encourage the retention of close ties by upgrading the services of the Greek Consulates in the diaspora and developingg a program of intergration for diasporans choosing to re-settle in Greece. Nothing more is necessary and if these 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, the opportunity to create further mischief by dividing our already fragmented community along political lines. 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-councils and pseudo-parliaments.
It would be poetic justice to see Greek-Australian voters taking the Greek state to court in order to dispute electoral procedure and vote-counting, or to have them in a position where they hold the balance of power in Greek Parliament and legislate for the compulsory addition of nature strips to all footpaths and the domestic use of recycling bins. In so saying, this Diatribist takes this opportunity to announce his candidacy for the seat of Imia. Considering that this also forms part of the Turkish electorate of Kardak, the electorate is not without its challenges, though one would postulate that these are easier to surmount that the integration of persons who do not reside in Greece, into the Greek electoral system. Our party, the Antipodes Party, stands for the provision of free broadband to all constituents, the occupation of neighbouring Kalolimnos in order to make it safe for democracy and the mandatory detention of all illegal sheep on the island of Pharmakonisi. Further more, our annual party congress, the Antipodes Festival, will be a free and all inclusive event, featuring the best acts from Folegandros and plenty of faskomilo for all supporters, whereas wailing and gnashing of teeth is the only thing that awaits opponents and dissenters. As for your Greek-Australian voters girding your loins and preparing to do ballot-battle, a word from Jean-Bernard Klus: “What is the [Greek] electoral system than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner…"

First published in NKEE on 10 September 2007

Monday, September 03, 2007


«Tότε ευδοκήσεις θυσίαν δικαιοσύνης αναφοράν καί ολοκαυτώματα τότε ανοίσουσιν επί τό θυσιαστήριόν σου μόσχους.» Psalms of David

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