Monday, January 25, 2010


I was fifteen when I first returned to the home country. Stepping of the plane and travelling to meet my aunts for the first time, I was replete in the expectation of an expression of bittersweet gushing sentiments about the tyranny of distance that sunders familial ties and inexorable determinations of unity based on the fact the blood is of greater viscosity than water. What I received in its stead, was the following question: "What star sign are you?" My star sign is ambiguous as I was born on the 21st of May, something which is known as the "cusp,' whereupon depending upon which reading one adopts, I am either Taurus or Gemini and depending upon which facet of my character one has the misfortune to be exposed to, I display facets of both.
The Greeks of Greece are absorbed by astrology and the horoscope. The reading and ensuing discussion of the horoscope forms a significant segment of daily morning shows and plays an important consideration in matchmaking. On my first trip to Greece, I entered a taxi driven by a huge, hairy bear of a man with a lilting lisp. «Κούκλε μου, τι ζώδιο είσαι;» he asked, as I fastened my seat-belt, the primary give-away sign of the foreigner. Taken aback not only by his unsolicited display of camaraderie but also by my wonderment as to how a man of such mythical proportions could conflate them into the limited space of a vehicular exoskeleton and indeed, how this could possibly impinge upon my innocence, I decided not to antagonize the beast, stammering: Ταύρος.» «Τάυρος στον έρωτα;» he wheezed, in his impossibly high, insinuating voice, placing his hand on my knee. As I imagined myself disappearing slowly down the back of his cigarette-tarred throat, having first been immobilized by a crushed knee-cap, I hastily alighted. Relating my ordeal to my aunts hours later, they thought for a while and then pronounced: "He must have been a Virgo. All Virgan taxi drivers are perverted." After casting my horoscope through the use of a do it yourself astrological chart to be found on the back cover of «ΚΛΙΚ» magazine, sporting a particularly pneumatic semi-clad goddess, which at the time I found infinitely more absorbing, my aunts predicted that the people that will entrance, captivate and otherwise scratch indelible grooves upon the turntable of my psyche throughout the course of my life will be of the Scorpian persuasion. In this at least, they were uncannily correct.
Despite the threadbare mantra that would hold our race to be, at its best, a most dispassionate and logical one, we seem to be engrossed by the supernatural and this is a thread that transcends the ages of our sojourn as a collective identity upon this earth. After all, the term astrology is a Greek one, signifying the study of the stars, though it seems that
the origins of much of the astrological doctrine and method that would later develop in Eurasia are to be found among the ancient Babylonians and their system of celestial omens that began to be compiled around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. Before Alexander's conquest, the practice of astronomy and astrology in Babylon flourished but was not yet of much interest to the Greek thinkers. Babylonian priests/astrologers, notably Berossus, who settled on the island of Cos, are thought to be responsible for introducing astrology to Greece and the surrounding area. Plato mentions those who seek celestial portents in the Timaeus while the student of Plato who authored the Epinomis paved the way for application of astronomical studies to astral piety.
Epinomis, most likely written by Phillip of Opus, demonstrates a transformation of the view of the heaven that soon paved the "western way" for astrology. This dialogue shows the transformation of the planets into visible representations of the Olympian gods, just as the Babylonian planets were images of their pantheon. The older names of the planets encountered in Homer and Hesiod designated their appearance rather than divine personification. Jupiter was shining (Phaithon), Mercury was twinkling (Stilbon), Mars was fiery (Pureos) and Venus was the bright morning star and evening star (Phosphoros and Vesperos). In the Epinomis, the planets are given proper names for Greek gods, though the author leaves open the question of whether the celestial beings are the gods themselves or likenesses fashioned by the gods. The author of Epinomis extends the sentiment of astral piety evident in the Laws, and goes so far as to say that the highest virtue is piety, and that astronomy is the art/science that leads to this virtue- for it teaches the orderliness of the celestial gods, harmony, and number. While Plato himself would never place the heavenly gods in direct control of a person's destiny, the distinction between the fatalism of such a control measured by astrology and an astral piety that permitted some intervention of gods in human affairs was not sharply drawn. Does the care of the gods for "all things great and small" mean that it is through their activities or motions they control, guide or occasionally intervene in human matters? While a clear distinction between astral piety and practical astrology is not apparent, later texts on mystery cults, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and magic demonstrate that someone who either worships stars, or is concerned with their ontological status, need not be technically proficient in astronomy. Nor must they believe that life is fated by astrally determined necessity. Likewise, the technical Hellenistic astrologers who calculated birth charts and made predictions did not necessarily practice rituals in reverence to planetary gods.
As the intellectual centre in Egypt, Alexandria oversaw major developments in Hellenistic astrology. Surviving Greek astrological writings, catalogued over a period of fifty years in a work called the Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, reveal that for the sake of credibility, many of the Hellenistic astrologers attributed the earliest astrological works to historical or mythologized figures such as the pharaoh Nechepso, an Egyptian priest associated with Petosiris. Hermes is a legendary figure credited with the invention of astrology. Some fragments attributed to Hermes survive while some of the Nechepso/Petosiris work from the mid-second century B.C.E. survives in quotes by later authors. Asclepius, Anubio, Zoroaster, Abraham, Pythagoras, and Orpheus are additional figures having astrological works penned in their names. There are late Hellenistic references to three Babylonian astronomers/astrologers, Kidenas, Soudines and Naburianos. The rivalry between the Hellenistic Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms may be reflected in the astrologers' varying attributions of the origins of astrology to Egyptians or Babylonians (called the Chaldaeans). By the second century B.C Babylonian astrology techniques were combined with Egyptian calendars and religious practices, Hermeticism, the Pythagorean sacred mathematics, and the philosophies of the Stoics and middle Platonists.
After a system or systems of Hellenistic astrology quickly developed, the later practitioners and writers did not follow any one philosophical influence as a whole. In fact, the surviving instructional texts only scantily betray the philosophical positions of the authors. Vettius Valens, whose Anthologiarum is one of the most valuable sources for historians of this subject, indicates Stoic leanings. The astrologer, astronomer, and geographer whose work greatly influenced later development of astrology, Claudius Ptolemy using Aristotelian influenced manners of argumentation that had been absorbed by other Hellenistic schools such as the Middle Platonists and the Academic Sceptics, sought to portray astrology as a natural science, while dismissing a good portion of doctrine due to lack of systematic rigor. The later Platonic Academy had its fair share of astrological interest - head of the academy in the first century, Thrasyllus, for example, acted as an astrologer to Emperor Tiberius and is credited for works on astrology and numerology. He also predicted his own death. Neoplatonists Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus all practiced or accepted some form of astrology conforming to their unique contributions to Neoplatonism. It is thus difficult to imagine that the practice of astrology would have been divorced from philosophy by philosophers who were also astrologers. The idea of astrology, as a systematic account of fate, had a pervasive impact on the influential thinkers of the time who helped to shape the theoretical and cosmological understanding of the practice. Thinkers in the skeptical Academy and Pyrrhonic schools sought to attack the theoretical underpinnings of the practice of astrology, using a variety of arguments centering around freedom, the ontological status of the stars and planets, and the logical or practical limitations of astrological claims.
Horsocopes too can be attributed to us and continued the debate about fate. Technical manuals by Greek-speaking astrologers used for casting and interpreting horoscopic charts date as early as the late second century B.C. Many surviving scrolls exemplify the practice of katarchical astrology, or the selection of the most auspicious moment for a given activity. Katarkhe was also used to ascertain events that had already happened, to view the course of an illness, or track down thieves, lost objects, and runaway slaves. This use of astrology implies that the astrologers themselves did not prescribe to strict fatalism, at least the kind that dictates that knowledge from signs of the heavens cannot influence events. Such fascination with either the fate or predisposition of individuals reflects a stronger concern in the late Hellenistic world for the life of the individual in a period of rapid political and social change.
Hermes Trismegistus, not a form of a venereal disease but a syncretic deity combining the Egyptian Thoth and Hermes, inspired the study of Hermetica, secret knowledge based on astrology, throughout the Middle Ages. Quite frankly, the whole thing makes the uninitiated see stars. The other day, an associate of mine confided in me that he will not do business with someone until he had cast their astrological chart, as this gives him unique insight into their psyche. He also advised that a knowledge of astrology is particularly useful in engaging otherwise disinterested females in conversation and determining which ones to pursue. In riposte to my incredulity and question as to what transpires should the charts fail, he came up with the following Cretan folksong: «Άστρα μη με μαλώνετε που τραγουδώ τη νύχτα,/ Ω, γιατί 'χα πόνο στη καρδιά και βγήκα και τον είπα.»
Until next week then, the diatribe horoscope leaves you with the following prediction: «ΤΑΥΡΟΙ ΣΤΟΝ ΕΡΩΤΑ!»


First published in NKEE on 25 January 2010

Monday, January 11, 2010


It was an old, rickety divan whose embroidered upholstery was unravelled to the extent where it had formed its own natural patterns of the disparate and chaotic strands of time, the type one looks up uncomprehending, contriving to read within the loose threads, a possibility of a destiny. As I sunk myself upon it, the seat gave way like quicksand, causing the divan to shudder and wheeze like an asthmatic time lord.
"That's actually quite a historic divan," she said. "My father and Esat Pasha would sit upon it and discuss the affairs of Yiannena. Have you noticed the silver tray that I used to serve you coffee? It's exactly the same tray that we used to serve coffee for Esat Pasha." Rummaging through some drawers, she limped over to me, dog-eared postcard photograph in hand. "So you can see them there," she indicated, caressing the figures with a gnarled, trembling finger. "That's my father right there. And there's the bishop. And that sad looking man with the sensitive eyes is Esat Pasha. This was taken a few years or so before liberation. You would know of course how that was brought about...."
Once a teacher, always a teacher. During the week I stayed with Dorothea, one of the first female teachers of Epirus, it was not just an extensive course of lectures upon the general history of Yiannena that I was treated to, but also family history. For long before I had ever met her, she was conceptually for the family, the image-definition of a teacher, having taught all my great-grandmother's children, save my grandmother, who attended a Vlach school, and my mother.
I knew Dorothea years before I met her. I could picture her mounting her bicycle in Yiannena and riding to the village school, to the astonishment of the conservative villagers. This was due to the fact that as a child, I was difficult to feed, and the only way I would open my mouth was when my long-suffering mother would distract me by relating stories about her teacher.
Invariably, every three months, for over twenty years, a letter, written by a heavy hand in spidery writing, as complicated as a piece of lace woven by a blind woman would arrive in our letter box and I would set myself to the arduous task of attempting, mostly in vain, to decipher her handwriting. In doing so, I learned how to spell in the old way, differentiating which verbs were to be ended with an H and a subscript iota, as opposed to the general EI. I also learned that the correct way to begin a letter was in the way she began every single one of her letters, never deviating from her constancy: «Αγαπημένοι μου, σας φιλώ με πόνο πολύ.»
When my mother was young, the divan was aged but not unraveled. It stood in the parlour and was sat upon by such dignitaries as the town mayor, the bishop, and the local member of Parliament. Seated inconspicuously in the corner, my mother would watch diligently, noting how dessert spoons were utilized and gazing in wondernment as such unheard of condiments as freshly made mayonnaise. "What is this Vlach-child doing here?" her sister-in-law would snap, brushing past her. "She is fine. Leave her alone," Dorothea would reply. And my mother would sit motionlessly and listen as an entire world would unfold before her, one that was not based on the inevitability of farm animals, soil, chores and subsistence, but on music, literature, imagination, aesthetics and the conviction that people were indeed, masters of their own destiny. Ensconced in her kitchen in Melbourne decades later, my mother, hard at work straining yogurt in order to make tzatziki would muse: "Do you know where I first found out what tzatziki was? At Dorothea's house when I was a girl. But they had a different name for it. They called it 'talatori.'" Again, on New Years Eve, while making the traditional, swoonworthy rice and chicken pita, my mother would again fall into the same reverie: "I remember Dorothea and her sister-in-law making this. Of course they made it a bit differently. I've added more cheeses."
It was while listening to the unself-conscious discussions of the well to do Yianniotes at Dorothea's house that my mother learned of the existence of Hector Malot's "Sans Famille," and plucking up courage, wrote to my hard-pressed for cash grandmother in Athens, begging that she purchase it for her. This request was only fulfilled when, twenty years later, my grandmother sent the book to me for my tenth birthday. Somehow, all the books that my mother had seen on the shelves of Dorothea's house, or had heard mention of from her, invariably found their way into my room, where I devoured them eagerly.
Upon starting school, and mastering English, I was invariably disappointed. Having been reared upon stories of an amazingly inspired woman, who could construct the map of Greece out of coloured sand, kept jars of preserved reptiles in her classroom in order to teach her pupils natural history and in an age of rural class stratification, where if you could dress your child in shoes, you thought you were somebody and didn't have to consort with peasants, would take an individual interest in each child, trying to show them a way out of poverty through education, I assumed all teachers were like that. They weren't. Or were they? Looking back at the various multicultural and underprivileged programmes my mother instituted at the school in which she taught in the eighties, I can perceive the vague shades of a kindly though crusty old Epirot school-teacher, with immense love for her pupils, determined to make a difference.
Dorothea never had a family of her own. Instead, she transposed all her love upon her nephew, a talented but terribly conflicted artist and journalist, who was to eventually commit suicide. Heartbroken, she turned for solace to a young girl she had befriended and who was now living on the other side of the world. When I went to stay with her for the first time, at the age of twenty, it was as if I had known her all my life. I could remember most of her letters by heart and would ask questions about events as if I had experienced them. Dorothea would proudly show me photographs of her trip to Australia, before my parents were married, Paris and other exotic locations, mixed with historical artifacts from Yiannena. She would also rummage through her drawers, to extract pictures of my aunts, photographed with King Paul on the occasion of his visit to the village. Further, she had kept photographs of almost every single class she had ever taught, a veritable family tree for me. On that first stay, she would wake me up at the crack of dawn on Sundays and send me off to church. Upon my return, a breakfast consisting of mouth-watering pita would ensue and a lengthy lecture in her heavily accented didactic tone, about Bishop Seraphim's time as minister in the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus, because of course, she knew him. He was a friend of her father's.
The last time I saw Dorothea, I was in Greece with my mother. She was by now 92 and in a very poor way. Paying an impromptu visit to her house, we were shocked. Walking in unannounced, we saw none of the antique furnishings, Byzantine icons, books, or photographs. Albanian families were living in each room and she was alone, in a room bereft of any furnishings save a bed and a tabled, a shriveled, emaciated caricature of her former self. "She probably won't recognize you," her Albanian carer lisped. "Most of the time she is unconscious." As my mother leaned over her bed, tears in her eyes, and whispered: "Dorothea, it's me, and Kosta," I noticed my first two poetry collections on her bedside table. "Are you Kosta?" Dorothea's carer asked. "I've been wondering who you were. Until a month ago, she would make us read from these books every day and tell us all about you."
Dorothea, lying on her deathbed, stirred and opened her hollow eyes. She blinked twice as she looked at us. "Eleni, Kosta," she whispered, "I love you." And that was it. She lapsed into unconsciousness once more, sinking lower and lower into the mattress as if into oblivion and we took our leave, too distraught to be thankful for the opportunity to have bid her farewell.
Three months later, Dorothea died. The night before, my mother dreamt that someone had taken the divan out of her house and was chopping it to pieces. In it, were the multitude of letters that she had written to us over the years and they flew into the air, where they caught fire, spreading ash over the road. If you are ever in Yiannena, go to the mosque in the citadel, which is now a museum and seek out an exquisitely worked silver tray displayed in a cabinet near the window. It is of great historical significance. For it was at one time, used to serve Esat Pasha, the last pasha of Yiannena coffee and at another, the last person that Dorothea ever spoke to.

First published in NKEE on 11 January 2010