Friday, March 28, 2008


The Greek Revolution of 1821 was a remarkable achievement. That it ever got off the ground was even more of a miracle, given that its inception lay in the nationalistic daydreams of three idealistic and inept Greek migrant businessmen with a penchant for parody of secret Masonic ceremonial. While more capable and pragmatic personages soon took control of the effort to construct the ideology of a Modern Greece and set about liberating the areas that conformed to this, the precedent set by the three founders of the Filiki Etaireia, Skoufas, Xanthos and Tsakaloff remains with us to the present day. Their spectre is particularly invoked in the secretive efforts of various deluded Greeks abroad to create organizations that they believe can influence events in the motherland and even ‘save’ her. When questioned as to extent of their folly, they inevitably cite the Filiki Etaireia as proof that Greeks abroad can bring about cataclysmic changes in fortune.
Of course this is true. Especially when said cataclysm is occasioned by the perpetration of what is one of the major contenders for the biggest scams in Greek history. Simply put, it is this: The founders of the Filiki Etaireia structured it along Masonic hierarchical lines so that one had to be initiated into its upper echelons. They propagated the idea that the highest link in the chain, the «Ανώτατη Αρχή» (Highest Power) was a world power directly interested in toppling the Ottomans and resuscitating the Byzantine Empire. Their not-too-subtle hints implied that this power was Holy Mother Russia, protectress of all Orthodox peoples. Through a brilliant public relations coup, this lie was cemented by the recruitment of the Russo-Phanariot Princes of Pontian extraction, Dimitrios and Alexandros Ypsilantis, who enjoyed commissions in the Tsar’s army and thus could be convincingly be held to be his agents. The Russian Imperial Foreign Minister Count Ioanni Capo d’ Istria, also a Greek, prudently declined to take part in what he considered to be a quixotic scheme, though his refusal was hushed up. A little less prudently, under the name and suitably hellenised style of Ioannis Kapodistrias, he agreed to rule over a free Greece and was subsequently assassinated by the Maniot Mavromichalis family, for impinging upon their family privileges.
Through its fallacious promise of foreign intervention (for Greeks seemed to have difficulty in believing that they could liberate themselves), the Filiki Etaireia managed to rally a good many fervent patriots to its standard. By the time it fumbled and stumbled its way into existence by such ingenious methods as attempting to liberate Greece by raising the standard of revolt in Moldavia, thus infuriating the natives’ own nationalistic aspirations and causing the flower of the Romano-Greek youth to perish miserably in Focşani, various world powers decided that they did have an interest in freeing Greece, even if that interest was strategic and not that of the Greek people.
This is just a well because in usual Greek fashion, exhilarated by their early successes in freeing Peloponnesus, the Greek kapetanaioi turned their weapons on each other and vied to secure their own power and sphere of influence within the projected new Greek state, even before it had come into existence. The ensuing Civil Wars left the Revolution in such a parlous state, that the Albano-Egyptian Crown Prince Ibrahim Pasha was able to reconquer most of the liberated territories through a campaign of extreme terror and brutality, and plan the genocide of the Greek people, who were to be replaced in the region with Egyptian fellahin.
Arguably, if it were not for the widespread public sympathy in European capitals for Greece, which stemmed not only from the valiant efforts of the Greek freedom fighters but also the influence of neo-classicism as a revisionist and reconstructionist intellectual movement – that caused the world powers to intervene on behalf of the Greeks and set up a state as a condominium of four protecting powers, it is quite possible that the Revolution would have been crushed, and we would now be just a quaint Christian people in dhimmitude, on the verge of extinction, like the Assyrians in Iraq and Turkey. Ultimately then, the scamsters of the Filiki Etaireia pulled through big time.
Yet this was not the first time that as a people, we contrived to cause Revolution and mayhem, something that seems to be a favourite pastime with us. As far back as the twilight of the Byzantine Empire, the precursor to the Filikoi scamsters was none other than the Emperor, Michael VIII Palaeologos, the primary plotter and instigator of the War of the Sicilian Vespers. In short, he caused a rebellion in Sicily in 1282 against the rule of the Angevin king Charles I of Naples, who had taken control of the island with Papal support in 1266. The rising ostensibly had its origin in the struggle between the Hohenstaufen-ruled Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy for control over Italy. When Hohenstaufen Manfred of Sicily was defeated in 1266, the Kingdom of Sicily was entrusted to the French Charles of Anjou by Pope Urban IV.
Charles regarded his Sicilian territories as a springboard for his Mediterranean ambitions, which included the overthrow of the Byzantine emperor Michael. His venal French officials mistreated native Sicilians, especially the significant Greek Orthodox minority, through the perpetration of rape, theft and murder.
There are two interpretations, not necessarily exclusive, of events. The one held by the late eminent Byzantine scholar and philhellene Sir Steven Runciman, stresses the weltpolitik of Michael Palaeologus and the Aragonese king Peter III, Manfred's son-in-law, in fomenting the revolt; the other concentrates on the unpopularity of Charles's rule among native Sicilians. However, there is no doubt as to what the Emperor Michael VIII thought about his complicity in the revolt. In his autobiography wrote: “Should I dare to claim that I was God's instrument to bring freedom to the Sicilians, then I should only be stating the truth.”
Michael’s primary motivation seems to have been merely self-protection. He wanted to divert the energies of the rapacious French to fighting the Germans rather than invading Byzantium. However, being conscious of the continued adherence and devotion of the persecuted Greeks of Sicily to him and to the Orthodox faith, he also contrived to render them free from persecution with an ultimate view of wresting control of the island himself. In the months leading up to the insurrection, numerous Byzantine spies were despatched to the Greek-populated areas of Sicily to forment revolt against the French.
The insurrection began at the start of vespers on Easter Monday, 30 March 1282, at the Church of the Holy Spirit, just outside Palermo, known to its Greek inhanitants by its ancient name of Panormos. Thousands of Sicily's French inhabitants were massacred over the next six weeks. The events that started the uprising are not known for certain, but the various retellings have common elements.
According to Steven Runciman, Sicilians at the church were engaged in holiday festivities and a group of French officials came by to join in and began to drink. A sergeant named Drouet dragged a young married woman from the crowd, pestering her with his advances. Her husband then attacked Drouet with a knife, killing him. When the other Frenchmen tried to avenge their comrade the Sicilian crowd fell upon them, killing them all. At that moment all the church bells in Palermo began to ring for Vespers.
According to Leonardo Bruni’s 1416 account, the Palermitans were holding a festival outside the city when the French came up to check for weapons and on that pretext began to fondle the breasts of their women. This then began a riot, the French were attacked first with rocks, then weapons, killing them all. The news spread to other cities leading to revolt throughout Sicily. “By the time the furious anger at their insolence had drunk its fill of blood, the French had given up to the Sicilians not only their ill-gotten riches but their lives as well.” Palaeologos’ agents thus seem to have done their work well, for the uprising was far from ‘spontaneous’ and had more of a nationalistic-religious character than the Italian historians of the Risorgimento care to admit.
Taking advantage of the revolt, King Peter III of Aragon launched a successful invasion, becoming also Peter I of Sicily, while Charles remain king of Naples. While Michael VIII was successful in keeping the French invading hounds at bay, he could also congratulate himself for forming not only a perfect scam, but also a secret society, a precursor of the Filike Etaireia, that still exists today.
Refugees fleeing the conflict in Sicily, crossed the straits of Messina to Calabria. There, in a region already heavily populated by Greeks, they determined not to bow down to French persecution. As a result, they formed a secret society devoted to permitting them to retain their reigious and cultural freedom. From the feats of strength that were required to maintain their rugged individualism, they named themselves «Ανδραγάθημα» (manly feat of strength). In time, as the Calabrians became latinised and found less and less to protest about, this organization, which still exists to the present day, became known as ‘Ndrangheta – the Griko version of the original name. It acquired a social character, especially after the unification of Italy, when the local populace was impoverished while squires from the north took over large southern estates and heavy taxation was imposed. In this situation ‘Ndrangheta became a vehicle of violence and retribution by Calabrians who wanted to resist all forms of authority.
It exists even today, as the Calabrian version of the mafia. It is believed that John Paul Getty III was one of their victims, though the kidnappers have never been caught. It possibly is one of the reasons why the Greek language is still still tentatively being spoken in ever diminishing pockets of Calabria. Who knows what Emperor Michael would have thought of the legacy of his War of Sicilin Vespers? It certaintly is a trans-Atlantic one. On 10 September 1931, mobster Lucky Luciano ordered the murders of the heads of the rival Maranzano and Masseria families. These murders, which marked the end of the Castellammarese War in New York, are known in mafia parlance as the Night of the Sicilian Vespers.
We should therefore celebrate our day of National Awakening, not only with pride, but also with the smug awareness that our own innate subversiveness has the ability to having lasting, if not wholesome, then certainly fascinating reverberations down the ages. Until next week, Ζήτω το (shifty) Έθνος.

First published in NKEE on 31 March 2008

Monday, March 24, 2008


I always knew that Easter was approaching when at Greek school, we would come to that section of our readers where mention of such mystical and magical terms as «Αποκριές» and «Καθαρή Δευτέρα» would be made. I would always marvel at the superiority of Hellenic civilization as evidenced by its institution of organized kite-flying and the construction of vegan condiments. Yet the period of Lent, at least in the Greek Orthodox tradition is an inseparable part of, as well as lead up to Easter, without which its context cannot be truly understood. More than just a period where one scours the packaging of Tim Tams in order to come up with a cogent argument as to why emulsifier (256) is actually fast-friendly, rendering the consumption of this delectable dessert permissible, Lent is a period of sobriety, introspection and self-assessment. Within its liturgies lie some of the most profound and lyrical poetical works ever to have been composed in the Greek language.
According to the Orthodox Church, Lent, or Σαρακοστή, the period in which we currently find ourselves in, is a time when people are called upon to be more conscious of their spiritual state. This is augmented by the choice of passages and readings from the Gospels and the Epistles, the hymnology and prayers of the Church, which all endeavor to help Christians cleanse themselves spiritually through repentance. This is because the word “Repent” (μετανοείτε) was the first word Jesus Christ spoke when he began His preaching and this is central to the Christian doctrine of Salvation. During the period of Lent the Christian is called to self-examination and self-control by the radiance of the Event of the Resurrection of Christ.
Fasting, abstinence from food, per se has no meaning in the Orthodox Church. Nonetheless, it is not to be accepted as a mere custom or tradition. Instead, fasting is understood as a means of temperance and sobriety, especially in relation to prayer, devotion and purity - all conditions precedent to true repetentance. The roots of fasting in Orthodoxy are to be found in the Old Testament, both for certain days and certain foods. As a general rule, fasting precedes a religious feast. Many verses in the Old Testament refer to this:
"Thus says the Lord of Hosts: the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore, love, truth and peace", Zechariah 8:18-19.
The prophet Jonah also is said to have fasted for three days in the belly of the fish - which is taken to be a powerful precursor/symbol of the Resurrection three days after Christ’s crucifixion. In the New Testament, we have a continuation of this practice Jesus’ forty day fast in the desert of Judea, prior to His being tempted by the devil. Jesus also spoke of fasting as a means of cleansing: “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:21) and also, in Matthew 6:16, warned against fasting in order to show off.
Sobriety aside, Lent is a period in which Greek cooks traditionally exercised great ingenuity in creating culinary masterpieces without the use of animal products. Nistisima koulourakia, yiaprakia, and in my house, halva, faki and fasolada, are the order of the day. Early on, I discovered that Vegemite is nistisimo and thus consume with relish this iconic Australian condiment, only during Lent. Also traditional but fast falling out of use, is the construction of the Kyra Sarakosti Doll, a doll with no mouth (symbolizing the fast) and seven legs, as many as there are weeks in Lent. Each week, you chop of one leg and that is how you know how long to go until Easter - an Eastern version of the advent calendar.
Following the services of Lent is an instructive experience. The First Sunday of Lent, is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, commemorating the restoration of the Icons into the churches, according to the decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod in 787. On this Sunday every year a procession with the Icon of Christ takes place around the inside of the church with pomp and reverence. With the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Orthodox Church calls upon its members to rededicate themselves to the deep meaning of their faith and to declare in unison, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
The second Sunday of Lent commemorates the remarkable life of St. Gregory Palamas. The Church celebrates his faith, theological knowledge, virtuous life, miracles and his efforts to clarify the orthodox teaching on the subject of Hesychasm, a system of mysticism propagated on Mt. Athos by 14th century monks who believed that man was able, through an elaborate system of ascetic practices based upon perfect quiet of body and mind, to arrive at the vision of the divine light, with the real distinction between the essence and the operations of God. Gregory became noted for his efforts to elucidate this theory. He was also dedicated to an ascetic life of prayer and fasting, which are practices of Lent and it is from him that the faithful are exhorted to take example from him.
The third Sunday of Lent commemorates the venerable Cross and the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Cross as such takes on meaning and adoration because of the Crucifixion of Christ upon it. Therefore, whether it be in hymns or prayers, it is understood that the Cross without Christ has no meaning or place in Christianity. The adoration of the Cross in the middle of Great Lent is to remind the faithful in advance of the Crucifixion of Christ. Therefore, the passages from the Bible and the hymnology of the service refer to the sufferings of Christ. They repeat the calling of the Christian by Christ to emulate Him, for “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” On this Sunday the Adoration of the Cross is commemorated with a special service following the Divine Liturgy in which the significance of the Cross is that it leads to the Resurrection of Christ.
The fourth Sunday of Lent commemorates St. John Climacus, the 6th century author of “The Ladder.” (climax). This book contains 30 chapters, with each chapter as a step leading up to a faithful and pious life as the climax of a Christian life. The spirit of repentance and devotion to Christ are the essence of this book. The steps of the ladder as set forth by St. John are to be especially practiced by Christians during Lent as steps of a ladder at whose climax is the Resurrection Feast.
The fifth Sunday of Lent commemorates the life of St. Mary of Egypt, a stark example of repentance from sin through prayer and fasting. Tradition holds that upon repenting her leading of a dissolute life, she went into the wilderness to live an ascetic life and remained here, praying and fasting until her death. St. Mary’s life exemplifies her conviction about Christ, as the prime motivation for her repentance. Her life is thus utilized by the Church as an example of how one can free oneself from the slavery and burden of wrongdoings. This is held to be imperative during Lent for the faithful as a means of self-examination and preparation for a more virtuous life in anticipation of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ.
The sixth Sunday commemorates the triumphant entrance of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. The people of Jerusalem received Christ as a king, and, therefore, took branches of palms and went out to meet Him, laying down the palms in His path. The people cried out the Old Testament prophecy of Zechariah: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel” The celebration of the Jewish Passover brought crowds of Jews and converted Jews to Jerusalem, who had heard of the works and words of Christ, especially about the resurrection of Lazarus. The tradition of the Church of distributing palms on this Sunday comes from the act of the people in placing the branches of palms in front of Christ, and henceforth symbolizes for the Christian the victory of Christ over evil forces and death. The seventh week of Lent is of course Holy Week.
The traditional fasting requirements for Lent are actually quite complex and bewildering. In the first week of Lent, only two full meals are eaten during the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday after the Presanctified Liturgy. Nothing is supposed to be eaten from Monday morning until Wednesday evening, the longest time without food in the Church year. For the Wednesday and Friday meals, as for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided. During weekdays in the second through to the sixth weeks of Lent, the strict fasting rule is kept every day: avoidance of meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil. During Saturdays and Sundays in the second through to the sixth weeks, wine and oil are permitted.
Finally, during Holy Week, the Thursday evening meal is held ideally to be the last meal taken until Pascha. At this meal, wine and oil are permitted. The Fast of Great and Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year in which the faithful are encouraged not to eat at all. After St. Basil's Liturgy on Holy Saturday, a little wine and fruit may be taken for sustenance. The fast is sometimes broken on Saturday night after Resurrection Matins, or, at the latest, after the Divine Liturgy at Easter.
To add insult to irony, temptation is compounded by the prevalence of Easter Eggs and Bunnies in stores during Lent. While chocolate animals generally do not appear in the writings of the Holy Fathers, abstinence from them is generally for the best, given the poor quality of the chocolate employed. My late grandmother had taught me a quote that, as she held, could excuse one’s wavering to the culinary demons during this time: «Ασθενής και οδοιπόρος κρίμα ουκ έχει.» “The ill and the travelers commit no sin [when they don’t fast.] It is particularly useful as it provides a multitude of interpretations that as teenagers, we attempted to employ in order to circumvent the fast. Do I qualify as ill if my stomach hurts from hunger? Am I a traveler while I am being driven to school? And come to think of it, what were Kit Kats doing in my grandmother’s fridge during Sarakosti anyway?
While the golgotha of the hungry Christian cannot be compared to that of the Golgotha of Christ, it cannot be doubted that the Lenten period does compel one to re-asses themselves and focus upon that which is important in their lives. The heightened sense of drama and mystery that it lends to Holy Week is unparalleled in its intensity and one cannot comprehend many of the cultural references of Modern Hellenism without it. To all and sundry, satiated and hungry then, Καλή Σαρακοστή.

First published in NKEE on 24 March 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008


“Women are meant to be loved, not understood”
Oscar Wilde

The primary event that established the cosmic order, according to ancient Greek thought, was the emasculation of Uranus by Cronus, at the instigation of his mother, Gaea. Since that time, though Greek males have come to love and honour their female counterparts, much mistrust remains, especially vis a vis, strong and powerful women, for to tolerate the existence of such a woman is tantamount to tacitly accepting that the cosmogonic emasculation is fated to recur. Thus in Greek mythology, the ‘good’ or at least ‘worthy of sympathy’ women tend to be either passive characters, like Heracles’ wife Deinareia and mother Alcmene, damsels in distress such as Alcestis, victims of men’s pigheadedness, like Iphigeneia or more heinously, victims of men’s lust, such as Leda, Danae, Helen and Oenoe, both entranced and then dumped by Paris or Daphne, who had to change herself into a laurel bush in order to escape the unwelcome advances of Apollo. Whereas male lust in ancient Greek thought was considered a natural phenomenon, just how natural its female counterpart was considered is evidenced by the fate of the hapless Pasiphae of Crete. Her divinely induced lust caused her to fall madly in love with Zeus in the guise of a bull. The monstrous outcome of this bestial lust was of course, the Minotaur.
Rarely do we find strong or powerful women portrayed in a non-malevolent light. Clytemnestra, the powerful wife of Agamemnon, is an adulterer and a regicide. Catharsis for her iniquities can only be achieved through death, at the hands of her son. Media, wife of Jason, is something worse than a woman. She is also a foreigner, providing Jason with license to freely exploit her sexually and emotionally, before wondering, as he sees his wife, having murdered her children in jealous rage, escaping to Colchis on a winged dragon, whether it truly is as Jules Michelet holds, that: “Woman is a miracle of divine contradictions.”
Not only does there appear to be a fear of dominant women in general, but also a specific fear of female sexuality. Teiresias, the famous blind prophet of Greece once had a debate with Zeus as to which of the sexes was able to enjoy the carnal act more. At Zeus’ instigation, the prophet was transformed into a woman and spent seven years in this guise. Having completed his inquiries, Teiresias reported to Zeus that women enjoy the act tenfold as compared to men, only to be struck blind by Hera, Queen of the Gods, who was incensed at the revelation of this trade secret. This is a telling symbol of the way the subjection of female sexuality has often traditionally been instigated by females themselves in Greece. Nonetheless, instances of strong, capable ancient Greek women who changed the course of world history abound: Aspasia, companion of Pericles, Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra, to name but a few. Further, the fact that the divinities who were considered to personify the two most precious gifts of human existence, love and wisdom, Aphrodite and Athena respectively, were women, should be overlooked only at one’s peril. As a parting shot to the ancient world of women, consider that the first women’s lib movement emerges out of Aristophanes’ comedy “Lysistrata.” The exasperated women of Athens, incensed at the senseless continuation of the Peloponnesian War, refuse to sleep with their menfolk until such time as they decided to down their weapons. On the flipside, modern scholarship inclines to the view that the comedic effect of the play for ancient Athenians lies in their conviction that women had no self-restraint, especially in wine and sex.
When we get to Byzantium, we find that despite the prevalent prejudice against the female sex, strong women are generally revered, though feared and quite often resented, as in the case of Theodora, the wife of emperor Justinian, the empress Zoë and the empress Irene, whose right to rule the most sophisticated multi-ethnic empire in the world was considered undisputed by their subjects, at a time when the west was only begin to understand that women could in certain circumstances, actually have rights. This was a world where women could be dangerous intellectuals and political subversives. For example, Cassiane, the famous poet, hymnographer and composer, whose troparion is sung in Orthodox churches during Holy Week on Great and Holy Wednesday was able during a beauty/bride contest, to retort to the Emperor Theophilus when he remarked to her that women were the source of all evil, that “But by the birth of a woman was the birth of a new nation,” referring to the blessings resulting from the Incarnation of Christ. Further, women, especially the Empress Theodora (who was the ultimate winner of the aforementioned beauty contest) were the main instigators of the campaign to abolish iconoclasm, thus ending a century old political and religious rift through Byzantium. Underlying the Byzantine attitude towards women, which was never able to rid itself of its ancient undertones, was the veneration, above all others, of the Theotokos, the Mother of God. Thus the ideal woman actually existed. She was ever pure and chaste and brought the Divine Logos into the world, the reason for our own existence. What then could be more symbolic of the paradoxical Byzantine conception of women than Mt Athos, the Orchard of the Panagia, a community dedicated to Panagia Theotokos, blessed and revered above all women, to which women are denied entry?
Modern Greek women also seem to be made of stuff as stern than as that of their progenitors. The valiant women of Souli, who fought alongside their menfolk and defied their would-be Turco-Albanian defilers by dancing off the cliff at Zalongo find their counterparts in our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ age: the superhuman women of Pindus, who scaled immense heights under appalling conditions, in order to convey provisions and ammunition to the soldiers combating the Italian invasion of 1940. Recently, a member of the Greek community suggested that funds should raised for the erection of a statue in Greece dedicated to the female migrant, or as he put it, the “migrant mother.” Surely we are in dire need of such a monument here, in the migrant female and/or mother’s natural habitat. What our historical experience tells us, is that though sexism, often in its most crass and derogatory form has historically formed part of our experience, this has always been coupled with the admission that women are remarkable, capable of things that far surpass the achievements of men.
Indeed, given the recent celebration of International Women’s Day in a year which also marks the centenary of women’s suffrage in Victoria, it is worthwhile to pause and consider not only how much of the complexity of our heritage of gender relations we have transported with us to this country, not only how this has defined and formed our community but also how this was for many the primary reason for migration to this country.
That being said, if there is one thing we can be proud of as a community, it is the fact that the ratio of female writers far exceeds that of men. In their mostly autobiographical works, time and time again they refer to the parlous state of gender relations in their villages as one of the major reasons for their emigration. They wanted to be free to fall in love and marry whoever they chose – not someone with whom their financial circumstances were commensurate. In the vast majority of cases, free and open socialising with members of the opposite sex was forbidden, flouters of these norms of social conformity having their morals questioned. Australia was for them then, not just an economic paradise, it was a social paradise whereby they could fulfil their social aspirations on an equal basis with men. This took a while and the works of these authors are replete with tales of repression of Greek females by their male counterparts in Australia, but as a whole, our community is well on the way to achieving the archetypal dream.
There have been hiccups. In a recent excellent speech at a Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria function to commemorate International Women’s Day, in which she summarised the progress and the importance of the Women’s movement, Jenny Mikakos, the State Member for the Northern Metropolitan Region gave an excellent speech, mentioned:
Even in voluntary community organisations, like the many in the Greek community, most of the leadership positions continue to be held by men. I encourage more women to step forward to these roles, as all organisations benefit from a wide range of skills and experiences.”
This is true. I have been to annual general meetings of organisations, where female board members have been subject to cat-calls, obscenities and down-right sexual harassment. Yet as far back as 1982, when the Panepirotic Federation of Australia consciously included women on its board, we can see that formidable and inspirational women have in many cases arrested what would have been the terminal decline of many a community organisation. During the 1990’s Dimitra Iatrou, a second-generation lawyer, presided over the golden years of the Pansamian Brotherhood. The remarkable achievements of single-minded in their determination to preserve Pontian Hellenism in Australia, Litsa Athanasiadis and Roma Siachou, for Pontiaki Estia and the Pontiaki Koinotita respectively, are an example to all those who would enter the communal domain. Varvara Ioannou, in thinking outside the square to form Food for Thought, a network that informs and empowers women on a multitude of subjects pertinent to life in the modern world is proof that our community is mature and resourced enough to support activism that breaks away from the traditional mould. This is because in Australia, the great social leveller, Greek women have been able to permeate all spheres of life. There are Greek journalists and newsreaders, Greek epistimones, (which in Greek tends to be anyone with a degree but notable such pioneers as Dr Vasso Apostolopoulos,) Greek businesswomen and of course Greek politicians, such as Jenny Mikakos and Maria Vamvakinou. What is remarkable about these MP’s is the manner in which, despite their heavy workloads, they remain committed to the interests of the Greek community. Jenny Mikakos unwavering defence of ‘Greek,’ essentially humanitarian issues, sometimes on the face of howling criticism, speak volumes for the pivotal role that powerful, determined and socially responsible women play in our community, often with us taking this for granted.
Jenny Mikakos went on to observe humbly: “For many of us, it is the women around us who support us daily – our mothers, our grandmothers and our sisters who are our biggest source of inspiration and encouragement, more so than the high profile women we read about or even see on television.” This I think, is the crux of the manner in which Greek-Australian women should be perceived. At a recent wedding of her fifth or six children, an acquaintance of mine clasped her hands above her head in the manner of a boxing champion. She had every right to. Arriving in this country at a young age and burying herself in the factories, she found the resources and the strength to bear six children and bring them up. In this, she is not alone. She is Everywoman – from the yiayia, steeped in fasoli-lore, to the modern mother struggling to juggle and reconcile a career with inherited, traditional conceptions of the Greek family, to the young third generation Greek student, approaching hybrid or synthesised stands of Greek-Australian culture with optimism and awe. And though Marcelene Cox may believe that “The quickest way to get to know a woman is to go shopping with her,” I would venture to paraphrase the words of Nancy Reagan, who wisely pointed out: “A [Greek] woman is like a tea bag. You never now just how strong she is until you have put her in hot water.” In our experience, there has been hot water enough.

First published in NKEE 0n 17 March 2008

Monday, March 10, 2008


Although there is still some debate, the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha himself are often considered a result of the Greco-Buddhist interaction. Before this innovation, Buddhist art was aniconic, the Buddha was only represented through his symbols (an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, the Buddha's footprints, and the prayer wheel).
This reluctance towards anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear), seem to be connected to one of the Buddha’s sayings, reported in the Digha Nikaya, that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body.
Probably not feeling bound by these restrictions, and because of their cult of form, the Greeks were the first to attempt a sculptural representation of the Buddha.” Given that in many parts of the Ancient World, the Greeks developed syncretic divinities, that could become a common religious focus for populations with different traditions such as the god Serapis, introduced by Ptolemy I in Egypt, which combined aspects of Greek and Egyptian gods. Thus in India, it was only natural for the Greeks to create a single common divinity by combining the image of a Greek God-King, most likely the Sun-God Apollo, or possibly the deified founder of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, Demetrius, with the traditional attributes of the Buddha.
Many of the stylistic elements in the representations of the Buddha point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders (more exactly, its lighter version, the Greek himation), the hellenistic stance of the upright figures, the stylicized Mediterranean curly hair and topknot (‘ushnisha’) apparently derived from the style of the Belvedere Apollo and the measured quality of the faces, all rendered with strong artistic realism. A large quantity of sculptures combining Buddhist and purely Hellenistic styles and iconography were excavated at the Gandharan site of Hadda. The 'curly hair' of Buddha is described in the famous list of 32 external characteristics of a Great Being (mahapurusa) that are to be found along the Buddhist sutras. The curly hair, with the curls turning to the right is first described in the Pali canon of the Smaller Vehicle of Buddhism.
Greek artists were most probably the authors of these early representations of the Buddha, in particular the standing statues, which display a realistic treatment of the folds and on some even a hint of modelled volume that characterizes the best Greek work. This is Classical or Hellenistic Greek, not archaizing Greek transmitted by Persia or Bactria. The Greek stylistic influence on the representation of the Buddha, through its idealistic realism, also permitted a very accessible, understandable and attractive visualization of the ultimate state of enlightenment described by Buddhism, allowing it reach a wider audience. As the Dalai Lama has commented: “One of the distinguishing features of the Gandharan school of art that emerged in north-west India is that it has been clearly influenced by the naturalism of the Classical Greek style. Thus, while these images still convey the inner peace that results from putting the Buddha's doctrine into practice, they also give us an impression of people who walked and talked, etc. and slept much as we do. I feel this is very important. These figures are inspiring because they do not only depict the goal, but also the sense that people like us can achieve it if we try.”
Several Buddhist deities may have been influenced by Greek gods. For example, Heraclles with a lion-skin, the protector deity of Demetrius I, served as an artistic model for Vajrapani, a protector of the Buddha. In Japan, this expression further translated into the wrath-filled and muscular Nio guardian gods of the Buddha, standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples.
According to Katsumi Tanabe, professor at Chuo University, Japan, besides Vajrapani, Greek influence also appears in several other gods of the Mahayana pantheon, such as the Japanese Wind God Fujin, inspired from the Greek Boreas through the Greco-Buddhist Wardo, or the mother deity Hariti, inspired by Tyche. In addition, forms such as garland-bearing cherubs, vine scrolls, and such semi-human creatures as the centaur and triton, are part of the repertory of Hellenistic art introduced by Greek artists in the service of Eastern courts.
The geographical, cultural and historical context of the rise of Mahayana Buddhism during the 1st century in northwestern India, all point to intense multi-cultural influences, especially those from popular Hindu devotional cults, Persian and Greek theologies which filtered into India from the northwest.
As such, Mahayana is an inclusive faith characterized by the adoption of new texts, in addition to the traditional Pali canon, and a shift in the understanding of Buddhism. It goes beyond the traditional Theravada ideal of the release from suffering and personal enlightenment of the arhats, to elevate the Buddha to a God-like status, and to create a pantheon of quasi-divine Bodhisattvas devoting themselves to personal excellence, ultimate knowledge and the salvation of humanity. These concepts, together with the sophisticated philosophical system of the Mahayana faith, may have been influenced by the interaction of Greek and Buddhist thought.
One might regard the classical influence as including the general idea of representing a man-god in this purely human form, which was of course well familiar in the Greece, and it is very likely that the example of Greek’s treatment of their gods was indeed an important factor in the innovation. The Buddha, the man-god, is in many ways far more like a Greek god than any other eastern deity, no less for the narrative cycle of his story and appearance of his standing figure than for his humanity. This supra-mundane understanding of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas may have been a consequence of the Greeks’ tendency to deify their rulers in the wake of Alexander’s reign.
Some scholars, notably Lamotte, controversially suggest that Greek influence was present in the definition of the Bodhisattva ideal in the oldest Mahayana text, the “Perfection of Wisdom” that developed between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. These texts in particular redefine Buddhism around the universal Bodhisattva ideal, and its six central virtues of generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation and, first and foremost, wisdom.
The close association between Greeks and Buddhism probably led to exchanges on the philosophical plane as well. Many of the early Mahayana theories of reality and knowledge can be related to Greek philosophical schools of thought. Mahayana Buddhism has been described as the form of Buddhism which, regardless of how Hinduized its later forms became) seems to have originated in the Greco-Buddhist communities of India, through a conflation of the Greek Democritean-Sophistic-Skeptical tradition with the rudimentary and unformalized empirical and skeptical elements already present in early Buddhism.
The Cynics denied the relevancy of human conventions and opinions (described as typhos, literally “smoke” a metaphor for “illusion” or “error”), including verbal expressions, in favor of the raw experience of reality. They stressed the independence from externals to achieve happiness: “Happiness is not pleasure, for which we need external, but virtue, which is complete without external” (3rd epistole of Crates). Similarly the Prajnaparamita, precursor of the Madhyamika, explained that all things are like foam, or bubbles, “empty, false, and fleeting,” and that “only the negation of all views can lead to enlightenment.” In order to evade the world of illusion, the Cynics recommended the discipline and struggle (“askisis kai machi”) of philosophy, the practice of “autarkia” (self-rule), and a lifestyle exemplified by Diogenes, which, like Buddhist monks, renounced earthly possessions. These conceptions, in combination with the idea of “philanthropia” (universal loving kindness), are strikingly reminiscent of Buddhist Prajna (wisdom) and Karuna (compassion).
Through art and religion, the influence of Greco-Buddhism on the cultural make-up of East Asian countries, especially China, Korea and Japan, may have extended further into the intellectual area. At the same time as Greco-Buddhist art and Mahayana schools of thought were transmitted to East Asia, central concepts of Hellenic culture such as virtue, excellence or quality were being adopted by the cultures of Korea and Japan after a long diffusion among the Hellenized cities of Central Asia, to become a key pa of their warrior and work ethics.
In suprising ways, Buddhism, symblic of Eastern religion and Christianity, symbolic of the West, share many resemblances. Although the philosophical systems of Buddhism and Christianity have evolved in rather different ways, the moral precepts advocated by Buddhism from the time of Ashoka through his edicts do have some similarities with the Christian moral precepts developed more than two centuries later: respect for life, respect for the weak, rejection of violence, pardon to sinners, tolerance. One theory holds that these similarities may indicate the propagation of Buddhist ideals into the Western World, with the Greeks acting as intermediaries and religious syncretists and indeed scholars have often considered the possibility that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity, drawing attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus.
Indeed, the story of the birth of the Buddha was well known in the West, and some parallel it with the story of the birth of Jesus: Saint Jerome (4th century) mentions the birth of the Buddha, who he says “was born from the side of a virgin.” Also a fragment of Archelaos of Carrhae in 278 mentions the Buddha's virgin-birth. Charming relief sculptures exist portraying the Buddha’s mother in a pose reminsicent of the Orthodox iconography of the Annunciation though at this late stage, it is difficult to tell which tradition influenced the other first and considering the early influx of the Syriac St Thomas Christians to India immediately after the resurrection of Christ, it is quite possible that it was the Hellenised Christian tradition that influenced Buddhist mythology once again, with the added admixture of elehpantine traditional Buddhist motifs, that the Buddha’s mother was said to have been impregnated in her side, by a white elephant.
Cultural exchanges persisted. Early 3rd-4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 AD from where he brought “the doctrine of the Two Principles.” According to Cyril of Jerusalem, Scythianus’ pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a “Buddha.” Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea where he met the Apostles (“becoming known and condemned”), and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to Mani, thereby creating the foundation of what could be called Persian syncretic Buddhism, Manicheism. One of the greatest thinkers and saints of western Christianity, Augustine of Hippo was originally a Manichean.
In a lasting testament to the admixture of cultures, in the 2nd century, St Clement of Alexandria recognized Bactrian Buddhists (Sramanas) and Indian Gymnosophists for their influence on Greek thought:
Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians. The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sramanas (Σαρμάναι), and others Brahmins (Βραφμάναι).”
Given then that East meets West, West meets East and Athens has been deluged by a plethora of Indian and even Tibetan restaurants, is it time then to discard the cardinal directions and the compass and embrace syncretism with the knowledge that no culture exists exclusively of others? Perhaps these words by Menander, the first Buddhist Greek King offer some insight:
“When the cause has been utterly destroyed, when there is no longer any cause, any basis left, then the divine eye cannot arise.”

First published in NKEE on 10 March 2008

Monday, March 03, 2008


“Everyone who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.” Oscar Wilde.

I come from a long line of female teachers, my mother being the first and at the time, the youngest Greek female to have ever become a principal in Victoria and her sisters in Greece being teachers of French and other obscure Eurozone tongues that need not offend our Anglo-Saxon sensibilities here. Growing up with your parent as a teacher is not easy. Whereas my classmates invariably could go home and explain to their non-English-speaking parents, their faces flushed with success, that a D or a C meant that they had topped their class, no advocacy skills could recast my reports in a similar, flattering light. Attending a school where one’s parent is the principal is even less facile, especially in my case, considering that said parent was even more omnipresent than the Eye of Horus and just as vengeful, at the instance of inevitable transgressions against the Pax Scholana.
Teaching is certainly not for the faint hearted. During the time my mother was a teacher at a school in a particularly disadvantaged area, she had everything from knives to excrement thrown at her. Despite this and the fact that the students of the school had been largely considered factory fodder at best and prison rookies at worst, she still managed to teach them basic literacy and organise cultural and other events that enriched their otherwise troubled lives, proving correct the old adage, that “Teachers who inspire know that teaching is like cultivating a garden and those who would have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather the flowers,” absolutely correct. She still runs into her old students at the supermarket from time to time. They rush at her, brandishing their children as trophies, yelling ‘Miss, miss’ as if they have just come first at the egg and spoon race in the Inter-School Sports and she beams with delight, recounting stories about the time she apprehended said child intent upon placing another child in a rubbish bin and stating in an off-hand and yet with bone chilling precision, my contemporaneous exact position in the playground, complete with co-ordinates. The sound of my mother’s boots thumping down the corridor was enough to strike terror in the heart of the most hardened miscreant, which is the reason why I insist she take them off before entering my home, these days.
Truth be told, inspired by my mother’s example, I toyed with becoming a teacher during my high school days. However, in those dark days of schoolicide Jeff Kennett sacrificing seats of learning in order to appease the Kirner polka-dot Furies and having been reliably advised by my peers that if I became a teacher I would be broke and more heinously, have to wear corduroy pants until the end of my days, thus rendering my chances of finding a suitable candidate for the perpetuation of my dubious in design genetic make-up, next to zilch, I embarked upon a less noble path of sorrow.
One could thus view as a realignment or reconciliation of the fates, the fact that this year finds the Diatribist in the classroom, teaching Saturday Greek to a composite class of grade threes and fours. On my first day, I was as nervous as any child, embarking upon their first school experience. Prior to arriving at the school, I stopped by my mother’s house in order to consult the Grand Teaching Oracle. Trying and failing dismally to assume the beatific omniscience of the Buddha, only because of the intensity of her eyes, my mother intoned her first mantra, first uttered by the great bodhisattva of education Elbert Hubbard: “The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher.” This was news to me. I had no idea the yin and yang principle could be applied to Greek school. The next mantra by teaching lama William Arthur Ward, would have been more inspiring had my mother been able to intone it in the manner of Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid. However, given that she is not proficient in accents, her: “Teaching is more than imparting knowledge, it is inspiring change. Learning is more than absorbing facts, it is acquiring understanding,” was profound and flat. Upon embarking upon her third mantra, the Yoda-like Latin maxim: “By learning you will teach. By teaching you will learn,” my father was forced to interject, admonishing my mother for showing off and observing that I was, characteristically, late for school.
It is a moving experience to stand before a line of students, nervously clutching their bags, muttering the Lord’s Prayer in koine Greek, as if masticating a King-size Mars Bar. I led my class into the classroom and standing before the classroom, attempted my first ‘break-the-ice’ gag: pretending to write my name on the whiteboard, with a defunct marker. Reassured and gratified that my class could appreciate Chaplinesque humour, I commenced the lesson. In doing so and later, in comparing notes with the other teachers, I was astounded at just how complex an issue the teaching of Greek is in the twenty-first century as compared to the eighties, when I was a student. Back then, the Greek community was a relatively homogenous group, with common values and ideals that had been imported wholesale and frozen from the mother country and were largely unquestioned. Our parents mostly spoke Greek at home and cultural references abounded.
The demographics of Greek school now are much more diverse and require a sophisticated analysis. Most students’ parents, having been born in Australia, do not have adequate fluency in Greek, and the students’ only contact with spoken Greek outside the classroom is with their grandparents. There are children of single parent families (at our school father’s day celebrations have been cancelled so as not to unduly exclude the significant proportion of children who are not in contact with their fathers), children of mixed descent, children who present learning difficulties – something unheard of in traditional Saturday Schools of yester-year, and others whose Greek is as good as that of native speakers. I found it particularly interesting that the best and most enthusiastic students in my class are a pair of siblings whose father is Greek and whose mother is Italian. Their committed parents have taken great pains to induct them equally in both cultures, with remarkable results. The worst student in the class paradoxically enough, has an excellent comprehension of spoken Greek. However, he can barely read and exhibits no desire to do so.
This student however, has been responsible in my mind at least, for the best ever ‘get out of doing homework’ operation, I have ever seen. Having been given an essay to write on the life and times of Alexander the Great, he ingeniously located a suitable text from the internet, highlighted it and changed it to symbol font, rendering it “Greek” in appearance. Top marks for the display of that fabled ‘Greek’ ingenuity.
Given the complexity of Greek community demographics, it is remarkable how a Greek teacher these days is compelled not only to teach Greek as a second language but also as a second culture. My students experience difficulty in recognising basic cultural concepts that would have seemed axiomatic just a decade ago, such as the identity of Panagia. This poses a pertinent dilemma for the would-be Greek teacher. In a post-modern world, in which there is a fragmentation and multiplicity of values, beliefs and lifestyles, is there any point in continuing to purvey the freeze-dried conception of Hellenism that has been handed down to us as a revealed truth? How Greek are we if we do not and are we best qualified to be the arbiters of what will be considered Greek for the purposes of instilling in our children, a ‘Greek’ identity – whatever that comes to be defined as being? I was surprised and touched to observe how the brilliant and passionate teachers at my school agonised over how to adapt and make relevant a culture to children who ‘should be Greek’ but have already traversed far down the path of assimilation. In preparing for a school play to mark the 25 March anniversary of the War of Independence, the irony of attempting to teach children who did not know the identity of the Mother of God, the troparion of the Annunciation is trite. And how do you teach the traditional nationalist poems that so form part of a traditional upbringing to children who have already had deeply instilled values about tolerance and the evils of racism? Ultimately then, the teaching of Greek does entail learning, for its would-be practitioners must be steeped in its mysteries and constantly reinterpret them to their students, in accordance with the perceived needs of the zeitgeist. My novel idea of assisting students to experience the tragedy of the Revolution by getting them to learn the song “Horos tou Zalongou” and have them jump off the stage one by one, I have been told, definitely is not in concordance with the present norms.
My mother’s parting shot at me was this, from Marva Collins: “The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another.” We need to find ways of allowing our children to discover the delights of Greek culture for themselves, within a structured environment that will ensure that students not just get a superficial splattering of Greek ‘colour’ but rather, a lasting world view that will ensure the continuity of our people in this country for years to come. This is not achievable by dumbing down lessons or underestimating the abilities of students to immerse themselves within learning what should have been their mother tongue. Nor is it achievable by self-righteously ignoring the increasingly heterogenous character of our community and identity. It is achieved by parents, teachers and the whole community working in concert to forge what is left of our community into a place that can embrace them and to which they can adapt comfortably, if it is to form an intrinsic part of their identity and not just a novelty. In the end, what we make of ourselves, will be what we make of our children, for our language can not be taught in isolation to what is transpiring already in the lives of students. If our attention was skewed more to the form and content of the latter generation’s Greek education, than to who will be president of a Greek organisation or whether paganism is superior to Christianity, then half the battle would be won.
Last week, in order to give my class a more hands-on approach to their ‘cultural legacy’ I brought in various Greek musical instruments, demonstrated their use and had each one of my students explore them and play with them. It was then, having asked the class to give me a sentence with the word μπαγλαμά, that one of the girls at the back, who had never before spoken Greek in my class, stuttered out: «Μου αρέσει να παίζω μπαγλαμά.» Unremarkable I know, but it is of these fragmented moments of triumph that a teacher’s resolve is stiffened and a child’s decision to persist with something that is still alien to them or to reject it wholesale is made.
If anything, the diatribist’s brief and extremely humbling, tentative foray into the world of Hellenic teaching merely validates, that which Lola May already observed and which so many of my erstwhile long-suffering Greek teachers were able to pull off in style: “There are three things to remember when teaching: know your stuff, know who you are stuffing; and then stuff them elegantly.” Until next week, study hard. There is so much to learn.


First published in NKEE on 3 March 2008