Saturday, July 02, 2016
It is perhaps trite to mention that Story-telling is just possibly, the most ancient of ancient Greek professions. Whereas in other cultures, the powerful or the violent may be glorified and thus lust after immortality, our heroes are characters that exist within a story expounded by story-tellers, so revered, that they assume a position of startling immediacy within the modern Greek consciousness. In the case of Homer and his near contemporary, Hesiod, the web of accounts woven in order to place accounts of the genesis of the world, the succession of divine rulers, the succession of human ages, the origin of human woes and the origin of sacrificial practices within a human context, could be said to constitute the foundation of the Greek identity. Indeed, such is the power of these story-telling archetypes, that their words have ever formed sacred texts for the Greek people, being continuously studied, critiqued, and routinely pillages for themes, characters and even words, throughout antiquity, the Byzantine period and beyond. When one considers that Herodotus, the compiler of stories with the aim of telling us who we are and why things came to be, put the story into Hi-story, only to be surpassed by Thucydides, who made sure it stayed there, and from there, to remember that in Athens, attendance at public story-telling by way of theatre, was compulsory, to contend that we are a nation reared upon stories and are natural story-tellers, is merely, to enunciate the painfully obvious.
That stories shape and mould our identity is beyond doubt. Within them are encoded a vast quantity of attitudes, values and unique thought processes and perspectives, all of which constitute culture and if passed down, ensure the continuity of that culture throughout the generations. This is never more so evident than in the works of the ancient historians. As they tell their tales, they try to define who the Greek people are. Some two and a half thousand years later, we are still trying to do the same, weaving our own strands upon the warp and the weft of the tapestry they so expertly began for us.
Here in our community, we have created a multiplicity of stories and narratives and actively create opportunities to tell them or to pass them on to others. Whether this takes place in the form of the written word through books and the print media, through theatre and traditional dance, education (which again provides a story within a story), or through religious observances, (which are after all the story not only of who we are but also of who we should be), we all generally have a highly developed sense of who we are based on the stories that have been passed down to us and to which we identify.
Given the above, it is thus mystifying that the basic formal art of Greek story-telling appears to be entering a decline within our community, with regard to the later generations. Gone are those halcyon multicultural days when a kindly Rena Frangioudaki could manifest her voice upon public radio and even on one memorable occasion, commercial Australian television to televisually tell stories to Greek-Australian children, in the Greek language. Nowadays, just a decade after our community reached its cultural peak, our children get their Greek stories, if at all, via an English-language filter, losing in the process, much of the linguistic context within which their true genius, and valuable codes of continuity, are encoded.
It comes as no surprise then, that the Olympian Society, (those of Olympia rather than Olympus) decided to commence their story-telling sessions for children last Saturday, with the story of Icarus, the boy who flew close too close to the sun. Alternately a cautionary tale about hubris or (I suspect in the Greek-Australian context), about the necessity of listening to one’s parents. Entering their premises in Thornbury, unsuspecting off-spring were immediately submerged within the Icarian Sea, via master story-teller and early learning specialist Konstantina Mastoropoulou’s dexterous arrangement of pillows and a cloth of blue velvet. A few minutes later, seated along the shores of that wide and tempestuous sea, the children were carried away by the sheer magic of Konstantina’s words. Their eyes were visibly uplifted as they followed Icarus’ heady self-confident ascent towards the heavens, the story-teller’s hands almost having grown the wings that withered and caused his terminal decline. As Konstantina’s words sent the tragic insubordinate youth hurtling to his death, the children unconsciously moved back along the velvet, almost as if in order to give Icarus the requisite room for him to plunge into the debts. Remarkably, though the story-telling took place in Greek, the children present who were not confident in that language, neither complained or lost their concentration. Later, while colouring in pictures of Icarus or reviewing the English version provided to them by Konstantina, one could hear such words as «Δαίδαλος» and «Λαβύρινθος» escape their lips, culminating in almighty «Ικάριο Πέλαγος,» as they bounced up and down upon the pillows comprising the virtual death sea, in order to check out its fatal propensities for themselves.
The brainchild of Olympian Society treasurer and educator John Vithoulkas, Saturday Story-telling has a two-fold purpose: firstly, to provide a facility in which the old and traditional stories can be passed on to the latter generations. Most importantly however, this is being done in the local, suburban, easily accessible, laid-back and friendly environment of a club building. While many Greek clubs jealously guard themselves from the egress of strangers and are thus sinking under the weight of their own introspection (one club in the vicinity, whose doors are never open bears a sign demanding: MEMBERS ONLY), the Olympian Society has realized that if suburban clubs are to remain relevant in the future, they will need to make themselves accessibly to local needs. Story-telling thus provides the glue that will permit these children to construct and give form to their own identities. The premises of the Olympian Society, will serve as the frame in which such a construction can take place.
In an increasingly diversified and fragmented Greek community, in which a considerable number of second and third generation Greek-Australians are disengaged from the organisations that purport to represent them, and in a zeitgeist within which collective and communal activity has been replaced by more individualistic pursuits, Saturday Story-telling provides a unique opportunity to re-establish a sense of community from the place it should always have been created: the grass-roots. It is hoped that while imbibing the stories that form the foundation of our ethno-linguistic consciousness, the story-hearers will develop social ties with each other, learn the value of associating with each other as Greeks and, as a result, project the ethos of mutual assistance and solidarity that characterises the Greek community when at its best, far into the future.
None of these considerations would have been at the forefront of the children’s minds as they waxed lyrical (if one pardon’s the pun) over Icarus’ questionable choice in waxed air gear. As they chased each other and delighted in each other’s company and their newly discovered world of Greek myths, they rolling their tongues over their newly found vocabulary, their Daedalus, the artful Konstantina was visibly moved, as she prepared for next month’s tale.
The final word to the story, if there ever is one, belongs to my three year old daughter, who arriving home from story-telling clutching a drawing of Icarus, proceeded to re-tell his tale to her non-Greek cousins in surprising detail. Upon being requested to furnish them with details of said hero’s provenance, she reflected for a moment and then stated with confidence: “From my father’s village, I think.” How is that then, for total and utter identification.
Saturday Story-Telling takes place one Saturday a month at the Olympic Society, 317 Victoria Road, Thornbury. Details can be found on the Olympic Society’s Facebook page.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 July 2016