Monday, May 28, 2007



You have a Mr Kalymnakis (no relation or associate to any employees, assigns, agents, contractors or sub-contractors to the Diatribe) for this week’s column. His main concern, as expressed to me, is that in the conscious re-casting of the Greek identity so as to conform to western stereotypes and conceptions, the city of Constantinople, a true successor to the multi-ethnic and multicultural Hellenistic kingdoms, which for over a thousand years moulded and shaped Greek cultural identity and is a vital link of continuity between the ancient and modern worlds, a valuable repository and disseminator of world civilisation, is largely overlooked, except within the hypernationalistic circles of the fringe dwellers of our ever unravelling intellectual carpet. Its fall, a traumatic event, altered the course of history.
In the final years leading up to the decline and eventual fall of Constantinople, the last Emperor ruling at this time was Constantine XI, who inherited a remnant of an Empire of past glories, surrounded on all sides by Ottoman Turks. In spite of Constantine continuing with his predecessor’s policy of trying to force religious Union with Rome in exchange for military support, the West never sent any help. Constantine was left to rule over a deserted city protected only by five thousand citizens, and a small army of Genoese mercenaries. Against this backdrop, the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II began planning for the siege of the City. Almost a year before the attack, Mehmet slowly went about controlling and restricting all trade routes around Constantinople. From his new naval forts, he maintained a strict blockade of the City and built earthworks to surround the city and support the establishment of heavy artillery. With the help of the Hungarians, he built the largest canon in the world. With 150,000 troops at his disposal, Mehmet began his siege of Constantinople in April 1453, which would last for 54 days. The walled city was attacked almost constantly from Ottoman canons on both land and sea, until a part of the walls was finally breached under the constant bombardment.
Constantine rushed to the breach in the walls, and supported by his Varangian Guard, facing an enemy a thousand-fold their size, fought valiantly to the very end, his body lost, amidst the general slaughter. Following the fall of the city, Mehmet allowed three days and nights of murder, rape and pillage to his Turkish soldiers. No one was spared. Priests, monks, women and children sheltering in churches were attacked and killed in the onslaught. Mehmet then entered the city, and rode into the great Cathedral of Agia Sophia on a horse, trampling over the dead bodies of those who had sought sanctuary inside. Even he could not believe the extent of the desolation of a beautiful city, once known as the Queen of all. Roaming through the empty, deserted and decayed City that was for hundreds of years the wonder of the world, Mehmet, visibly moved by what he saw, was caused to mutter a famous Persian couplet: “The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Kings, the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.”
It is high time that attention was drawn to this significant but oft-neglected event in the Greek calendar. For some inexplicable reason, heavy emphasis tends to be placed by modern Greeks on their glorious ancient past and their cultural and political regenesis after the 1821 Revolution
but the whole thousand year history of Byzantium, in which Greek civilization achieved nadirs and zeniths of cultural, political and economic attainments in dizzying succession and was almost able to conceive of an ideology of globalism akin to that prevalent today (οικουμένη), is glossed
over. So too is the 29 May 1453, the day Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, after an epic struggle, even more heroic that the battle of Thermopylae. The chronicles read like a decent action movie script and it is a wonder no one has picked this up yet.
Yet far from being an obscure historical event of limited relevance to the modern world, the Fall, much lamented in Greek folk songs, influenced the Greek people to a vast degree. Firstly, for the first time in about two thousand years, they were on their own, not an intrinsic part of another Empire, nor lording it over other subject peoples. It was a time for recrimination and insularity, trying to take stock of what went wrong for an Empire that was supposed to re-create God's kingdom on earth and which consequently enjoyed divine sanction. As the first Orthodox Patriarch after the Fall, Gennadios Scholarios lamented in his eloquent tribute:
“O city, even if you were poor in your final years and uninhabited for the most part and living each day in fear and stripped in all respects of your celebrated wealth, you were free nonetheless, and you gave those who dwelled within you the nourishment of Christ abundantly, City, by the reputation of your ancient eminence and the ruins of your former prosperity you earned yourself the fitting and singular reverence of all… You were the sweetest city to the foreigners who came to you and enjoyed strange, unfamiliar wonders, as though they had been brought up into heaven… You cannot explain to those who did not see you even once, and, even to those who visited you often, you raised a spectacle always stranger still than any verbal account. I will now abandon the task of trying to explain your splendour, because it is impossible.”
The Fall also united the Greek people, given that while they tended to identify with their birthplace, Constantinople somehow was the capital and homeland of all. The single event of the Fall of Constantinople was also able to sustain Greek dreams of a time when the Empire would be restored. This was a major driving force behind Greeks retaining their religion and culture under the often extreme pressures of the Ottoman period. The Fall of Constantinople also influenced Greek politics. Catherine the Great used the re-establishment of a Greek empire in Constantinople with her grandson, fittingly named Constantine as Emperor, as a carrot on the end of the stick for Greeks to revolt against the ottomans in the Peloponnese.
According to the revolutionary luminary and thinker, Rhigas Pheraios, Constantinople retaken would comprise the capital of a great commonwealth of Orthodox nations that would be ruled in accordance with the principles of the enlightenment and liberalism. Ioannis Kolettis, the Epirot physician of Ali Pasha and later Prime Minister of Greece was able to afford a central role to Constantinople in his political manifesto, the Great Idea (Μεγάλη Ιδέα) in which Greeks would eventually re-extend their sway over the lands
formerly comprising the Byzantine Empire.
This 'Idea', achieved an almost mystical reverence, especially during the times of foreign intervention in Greece during the rule of Otto I, given that is was already reinforced by popular myth and prophecies stemming back from the time of Byzantium. St Kosmas the Aetolian prophecised the vanquishing of the Ottomans while the of spurious authenticity prophecy of Agathaggelos, foresaw that the 'blond race' (ξανθόν γένος) would deliver the Greeks from bondage and that the Ottoman oppressors would be thrown back to their legendary homeland near the 'Red Apple Tree' somewhere in the depths of Asia. Alternatively, Constantine, the last Emperor, in true Arthurian fashion, would arise from his marbled state hidden in either a monastery, city wall or a column in Agia Sophia, re-establish control of the Imperial City and expel the hated oppressors.
The eschatological part of the myth, propagated during Byzantium, that the Emperor's rule would precede the rise of Satan and the Apocalypse was conveniently ignored. The myth was so attractive, that it fuelled Greek foreign policy for the next hundred years. It underpinned the invasion of Thessaly in 1897, which almost resulted in the Ottoman capture of Athens, the Cretan Revolt, the Samian Revolt, the Cheimarriot Revolt, the reconquista of northern Greece during the Balkan Wars and culminated in the disastrous Asia Minor campaign, where in 1922, the entire Greek population of Anatolia was extirpated. The Megali Idea is now dead. Yet if Athens is the political capital of Greece, Constantinople, the seat of the Oecumenical Patriarchate, appears still to be the Greeks’ cultural and spiritual capital and continues to exercise an immense fascination over them.
It is therefore inconceivable that except for the Church, no one has sought to mark the importance of this event, arguably even more significant to the Greek people than 25 March 1821.For the Greeks therefore, the Fall of Constantinople is a day of memory and onsolidation. That day marked the beginning of the end for Hellenism in Anatolia. Though the Greeks clung tenaciously and lovingly to their city, the combined effects of nationalism and hysterical racism, culminating in the 1955 pogrom and other repressive and racist policies against Christian minorities in ‘democratic’ Turkey, have seen the Greek population fall in Constantinople from 500,000 in 1922 to approximately 3,000 elderly and fearful citizens today.
In remembering the fall of Constantinople, we remember also the enlightenment of the west. For it was the Constantinopolitan scholars, who, fleeing from their lost city, and bringing their cultural knowledge with them, as well as valuable manuscripts of the Greek classics, were able to cause the Renaissance and an increased admiration for Greek culture. This cultural tradition has not diminished over time. Until the thirties, more Greek books had been printed in Constantinople than Athens. As the apogee and personification of Greek cultural refinement, the city shines still as a beacon still and it is perhaps the deep knowledge of the legacy of this pained city that prompted national poet Kostis Palamas to pen the following immortal lines which are perhaps the personification of the redemptive way Hellenism views the fall of Constantinople and the Greek renascence:
«και μην έχοντας πιο κάτου άλλο σκαλί/ να κατρακυλήσεις πιο βαθιά/ στου Κακού τη σκάλα,/ για τ’ ανέβασμα ξανά που σε καλεί/ θα αιστανθείς να σου φυτρώσουν, ω χαρά!/ Τα φτερά,/ τα φτερά τα πρωτινά σου τα μεγάλα!»



First published in NKEE on 28 May 2007

Monday, May 21, 2007


Pamvotis has no mythology because it exists of itself, prior to the creation of the cosmos. As such, it has no need for any justification. For when God conceived the creation of the world and realized the suffering that would ensue, He knelt down on one knee and shed bitter tears. Those tears filled the depression His knee made upon the ground. That conceptual ground was given the name Άπειρος, meaning boundless in the Doric tongue and as soon as it was named, it came into existence. Today, in its finite and truncated manifestation, that ground is Ήπειρος and the divine tears that fell upon it pooled together to form a lake that is called Pamvotis.
Most of the time, the inhabitants of the Lake refuse to call it by its name, as if fearful to summon its energies through evocation. Instead, they attach it to the city of Ioannina that straddles its western shore, as an article of its possession, «η λίμνη των Ιωαννίνων,» even though it is the Lake, not the city, that is the repository of the collected suffering of the Epirots throughout the aeons. The Lake is their mother and its silt, metres deep, is a conglomeration of doom, disappointment and nothingness. If the parting of the Red Sea was a type prefiguring the baptism at the Jordan, then the Lake is an inverted type of the Pool of Siloam, a stagnant sedimentation of hurt and grievance that cannot flow away. When its waters are stirred by the dark angel, the blind feel their darkness more acute and the lame stumble in their despair.
The immortal lake-dwellers know this well. For it was a foreigner, Eustathios of Thessaloniki, who in his infinite ignorance coined the name Pamvotis in the twelve century, deluded as he was by the fertility of the basin and its apparent good fortune to be used for cattle raising. Pan means everything, and Votis derives from the word Votor, meaning the husbander, the sustainer. A Panvotor, then, is a sustainer of all. In this, Eustathios was correct. For the Lake does provide its people with a living, whether through animal husbandry or fishing, just enough to sustain them and keep them in its thrall. He would have been better advised to emulate his predecessor by half a millenium, the historian Procopius, who described the founding of Ioannina by Justinian, but refused to give the lake a name.
There is an island in the Lake, the only inhabited island in any European lake. It emerges broodingly from the tears, as if it were the apogee of an immense outpouring of grief from the gloom of the silt hidden below in the murk. Some say that the Lake is the final repository of the waters that caused the primeval flood and that Deucalion and Pyrrha emerged from their ark on this island to repopulate the world. There are monasteries on this island and forests. These monasteries house icons of ancient Greek philosophers who presumed to glance unaided, at ultimate truths, though they had never pierced the Lake’s dark looking-glass. They also cynically nurtured the plans, megalomania and final downfall of the most infamous Epirot of them all, Ali Pasha, who though he commanded his men to row him across the Divine Tears was never able to tame it. Though he extended his domain throughout Greece, it was to the protection of the Lake that he returned in supplication, fleeing the armies of Hurshid Pasha. Such supplicants are rejected and the Lake did not protect him, but instead, claimed him as its own. Some say that Ali Pasha’s treasure is hidden in the island, others in the depths of the Lake but we shall never know for sure, as the Lake will not give up its secrets. Others say that the island is placed upon the primeval abyss, that on the second coming, it will be lifted, that all the waters of the Lake will drain away and all the poisons that have lurked in the mud for centuries will hatch out. To these people, the Lake is merciful for it is synonymous with secrets and silence. One thing is certain: the island is in the Lake but not of the Lake for it has no name and instead is referred to as the island of Ioannina, «το νησί των Ιωαννίνων.»
There is bitterness to be tasted in the sweet waters of the Lake that abound in eel, trout and freshwater crustaceans. For among the lake dwellers, there are those who have tasted its death and like the dead who have come back to life, they hanker eternally after the sweetness they will never again be able to taste. They mourn eternally at the fate of Kyra Frosyni and the other seventeen lissome maidens who had the misfortune to be the objects of the perverted lust of Ali Pasha. Not content with their ravishing, he threw them in the Lake and drowned them. It is because of this outrage, that the Lake did not draw its waters back in horror and refuse to accept the unnatural sacrifice of such youth and beauty that caused the final breach between the lake-dwellers and the Lake itself. For the Lake will have its due. Our ladies of the Lake provide swords in parallel to those of the Arthurian legend. The swords of this Lake however are wielded only against one’s own heart. As late as the sixties, children wading along its shores, my mother among them, would emerge with their legs encrusted with blood-sucking leeches. There can be no parley, no poetry with such a Lake. As the lake-dwellers’ demotic song declares: «Χίλια καντάρια ζάχαρη να ρίξουμε στη λίμνη, για να γλυκάνει το νερό να πιει η κυρά Φροσύνη.» Even so much sugar cannot sweeten the repository of the grief of mankind and Kyra Frosyni will thirst forever in her watery grave.
There are more mute evidences of suffering here. Half-way up the mountains that brood over the Lake and seem to lean over it to the extent that they are about to hurl themselves in it lies the village of Lyngiades, which was totally destroyed by the Nazis during the war. The blood of those innocents streamed down the mountain and was sopped up noiselessly by the dense waters of the Lake. Whenever a fish is eaten, the lake-dwellers remember them. Further down, along the mouldering walls of Ioannina castle, there are reminders of the long-lost Jewish population, forcibly rounded up by the Nazis and deported to their deaths. In one of the castle’s recesses, within full view of the Lake, lies the prison of the 17th century rebel bishop Dionysios the “Skylosopher” who was flayed alive by the Turks for his patriotism. It is no small wonder that his prison was chosen in such a location. To view the mercury waters of the Lake is to imbibe the poison of futility and that sight alone is enough to drive men mad. Surely enough, when lake-dwellers can no longer cope with a land that stagnates hurt and circulates it within their arteries, they do go mad and the incidences of them attempting or successfully throwing themselves into the Lake are not few.
That Pamvotis is a lake of miracles is attributed only to surprise that in a few situations, it has not been malevolent, though this has required the miraculous intervention of supernatural beings. In 1434 for example, the beylerbey of Rumeli, Durahan Pasha crossed into Epirus from Thessaly in order to put down a local uprising. Riding with his soldiers late at night, he was mortified the next morning to find that in the darkness, he had ridden across the whole expanse of the Lake, which had frozen over and was covered in snow. In his immense relief at escaping a certain death, he ordered the monastery of Panayia Durahan to be built, which still stands proudly, a solitary reminder of one who successfully defied the Lake and lived to tell the tale. Since that time, the Lake has at least partially frozen over only seven times in recorded history.
Pamvotis once had a sister, Lapsista, which was drained in order to make way for farmland. No one would even dream to advance such a plan for Pamvotis, which laps at the shores of men’s silted up minds continuously. When one listens to a moiroloi from an Epirotic clarinet, they may either be transported by the variable cadences or bored to pieces. It is only to the one who has lived along the Lake and heard the wind rustling through its rushes, variously seducing or menacing the auditory nerves, that is granted the power to unencrypt its message. For the clarinet is the mouthpiece of the Lake, a descendant of the rushes that speak its language and the language of the Lake is that of sobbing. It is no coincidence that there is no such thing as a joyful Epirotic folksong. They, like the Lake from which they derive, are tinged always with irony and the foreknowledge that while happiness is transitory, evil and the Lake are omnipresent and will never relinquish their trove of iniquities.
Walking alone on the shores of the Lake at Christmas, I chanced upon the most incongruous sight. There, poking out of the water like a skeletal hand raised in a final appeal for succour was a metal scaffold upon which water-birds were perched. It was almost as if these mediators between the earthly and the celestial could not bear the touch of that which sustains them. The same could be said of the immense water snake that lay curled at my feet and refused to be disturbed as I pushed through the rushes, seeking the origin of aethereal mordentation. I found it in the generations of women who have toiled to collect these rushes, weaving the sorrows of the ages tightly together and strewing their earthen floors with them.
Let land think that it is having its revenge. Many of the small rivulets that fed into the Lake have been concreted over or filled in and the level of the Lake has fallen dramatically. There are concerns about the Lake’s dwindling fish population though it has managed to stay safe from the heavy pollution that has blighted other similar lakes. It remains at the epicentre of Epirus and of the lake-dwellers’ gravity, as the patron saint of inevitability. It haunts them all, even here in the land girt by sea as the full stop to which everything returns, the waters upon which the Spirit brooded in the book of Genesis. I see its antediluvian antiquity in the creases of my great-grandmother’s face, its thick, stoic reeds in my grandmother’s clumpy fingers, its stern determination in my mother’s memories. And every morning, as I wake up and frown at myself in front of the mirror, I know I am Pamvotis.

First published in NKEE on 21 May 2007

Monday, May 14, 2007


“The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road; and it was trampled under foot, and the birds of the air ate it up. And other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it, and choked it out. And other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” Luke 8:4-21
This parable is ended by the injunction: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The idea of a seed symbolizing immortality and re-growth is also encapsulated in the Greek proverb: «Το μήλο κάτω από την μηλιά θα πέσει,» and it is no wonder that the Syrian Greeks offered grains and other seeds to the god Adonis when celebrating the feast of his supposed rebirth. Pontian Hellenes, lamenting the loss of Constantinople and facing the prospect of losing their identity applied the symbolism of the seed as a symbol of regeneration when stating in a famous folk-song: «Η Ρωμανία κι αν πέρασεν, ανθεί και φέρει άλλο.» Similarly, it is a motif often employed to express the pious hopes of antipodean Greeks, of cultural, linguistic and racial perpetuation. According to this motif, the first migrants are the sowers of the seed of our identity. Ignoring Darwinian theories of evolution and adaptation, the expectation is that the seed that they sow in the furrows of their toil, which are watered by the tears of their anguish and pain for their ancestral homeland, will bear the same, unchangeable fruit, in perpetuity.
Reality however, has deemed otherwise. Quite apart from the vicissitudes of nature outlined in the biblical parable that may prevent a seed from germinating, there are also other factors that may pervert the expected natural order of things. There is such a vast linguistic and cultural gap between the generations that we can safely speak, if not of disparate species, then surely of sub-species. Some of these proverbial fruit of the sowers’ loins have reacted to the alkalinity of the soil of their birth to produce fruit of remarkable colours and shapes and others still, have grafted themselves onto other varieties, either as a result of natural selection or a considered wish to produce hardier, more prolific plants. Monocotyledons find themselves producing dicotyledonic offspring and then shake their heads in disbelief as their offsprings’ offspring in turn, espouse the genetic ideology of a fungus. However, despite the evidence to the contrary, the fact that we are just as much a product of our environment as of our genetics is something too beastly for us who have been brought up upon and conditioned by absolutes, to contemplate.
Another factor that we seldom take into account when taking stock of the seed of our own cultural perpetuation is the competence and character of the sower. Some of the sowers in this land have been benign and well-meaning and their seed had germinated and borne fruit. Too often though, the first generation sowers have been motivated by egotism, malevolence and ignorance while paying lip service to their self-appointed task of cultivating young Greek shoots. As a result, their crop is one of bitterness, paranoia and indifference, culminating in assimilation.
The legacy of those anti-sowers was brought subtly into question by the Workshop of Pontian Continuity in the Antipodes, in their magnificent exploration of Pontian heritage through song, dance and historical footage, aptly entitled “Seed,” on 6 May 2007. Indeed, they begin their program with these words: “If it is time to depart from this world and our children have no recognition of the past, what have we gained in this life?” This is a savage indictment upon the numerous Pontian organizations who, under the pretext of promoting their unique culture and raising awareness about the tragic fate of their ancestors, have instead misused these to play politics of ascendancy with each other and in the process, have short-sightedly failed to realize the germination of their seed.
Divine Providence is perhaps to be thanked that these seeds of internecine strife and soul-knawing hatred have not sprouted. Instead, the organizers of Seed, a group of young Pontian and non-Pontian members of the Greek community have disrupted the preconceived order of things whereby the first generation sees itself as the sole repository and disseminator of culture and have abrogated that right to themselves. They deserve it, for they are steeped in the minutae of Pontian lore and what is more, they love it selflessly, with a passion pure and unsullied by self-interest.
Seed, a folkloric concert is the first of its kind here in Australia. Presented at the state of the art Clocktower Centre in Essendon to a packed, largely non-Pontian and tremendously enthusiastic crowd, it was the brainchild of Nick Krikelis, who has been at the forefront of Pontian dance for years. Under his direction, Seed guided the audience through a journey beginning at Kerasounta of eastern Pontos. The sonorous, awe-inspiring narration of Katina Stehpanidou transported everyone back in time as they listened, saw and felt a lost culture not only being brought back to life through the use of archival footage, archeological remains and cultural artifacts displayed on a video screen but also through the efforts of young musicians such as Harry Parharidis and George Sevastopoulos and many others who through their expert playing of the kemenche, the kemane, the angion, a type of droneless bagpipe and the daouli, have taken the heritage of their ancestors, studied it lovingly, preserved it and adapted it as a part of their own individual identity.
Then of course, there were the Pontiaki Estia dancers, a more dedicated to the cultural heritage of their art performers as can ever be seen. Under the initial direction of the multifaceted Pontic guru Ioannis Pilalidis and Penny Tsombanopoulos and Tasos Athanasiadis, his worthy successors (and seedlings), these talented youth have delved deeply within themselves and history in order to understand what it is that makes the dances of their people a primary expression of their souls. Upon seeing them stop, heave, quiver and shake while performing the war-dance, the ‘Serra’ the ghostly visions of a century ago take blood and flesh, they come alive and sit among us to tell us that as long as we remember them, they are not truly gone, that as long as we consider them our own, we will preserve our sense of family. As they twirled and gyrated their way through the Pontic regions of Trapezounta, Matsouka, Nicopolis, Argyroupolis and Kars, the Pontiaki Estia dancers granted us a most precious gift: that of the ability to see living history.
Sometimes seeds may lay dormant upon the ground during a drought and germinate only when the rains come. This seems to have been the case here. As the Workshop Committee stated: “The Hellenes that came from Pontus and all of Asia Minor, brought with them very few belongings, but a plethora of traditions and customs. They spoke of their homelands, their villages and friends so that their motherland would never be forgotten. Most importantly, they reminded us of our dead, those who never made it, remaining unburied somewhere across the Aegean. Many died in Anatolia; men women and children. Those innocent children, those Pontian Seeds had no chance of survival. Their parents weren’t permitted to watch them grow and pass down the cultural values they loved and knew from a young age. Continuity was not an option for them as they died taking with them knowledge and customs that are only now being rediscovered.”
The generative and ultimately redemptive power then seems to come not from the fractious and incestuous organized Greek community but through knowledge of the thread of history that binds the spinal cord of consciousness of all Greeks, regardless of where they live. It is because of this, that a tired, ravaged and apprehensive Greek community were able to catch a glimpse of a vibrant, emancipated and vigorous youth reveling in displaying their OWN labours, their OWN understanding of the meaning of their cultural heritage to them and in doing so, offer consolation and hope for the future, that most of them left the performance in tears.
The Workshop Committee is generous in its wisdom and bold in its aspiration: “Today, the Seeds born here can survive freely, ensuring a haven for Pontian culture in the Antipodes. We are now witnessing the rebirth of an ancient Hellenic culture, in Australia, on safe ground where continuity is an option. Seed are the generations that will follow and it is the cultural ethos that we will hand over to our children... Three thousand years of culture will not cease to exist in our hands. This way, when it is time to close our eyes and depart, we can do so peacefully, knowing that our children are aware of the past. When that time comes, they too will replant and nurture our Pontian heirlooms amongst the future generations.”
The concepts to note here two: that continuity is an option, not something imposed from above and that the Workshop Committee is well aware that to not deal with continuity responsibility is to see it perish in their hands. Ultimately, we, not our parents are responsible for just how far down the generations we will pass on our identity and whether, in Cavafian fashion, as expressed in his poem ‘Poseidoniatae’ this identity will take the form of some mantras and customs to be performed mechanically and with no intrinsic meaning, or whether following the example of the mega-gardeners and Seedmeisters, we shall enjoy a bounteous harvest for aeons, now and forever. For, to paraphrase the song “Spare me the Details,” by the fittingly-named ‘Offspring,’ we are the ones who must act like hoes (to till the soil and plant seed, not the other variety,) we are the ones who have to know. We are the ones who cannot mess up big time, so give is the details, if you don’t mind.”

First published in NKEE on 14 May 2007

Monday, May 07, 2007


In the 1930’s, the curators of the Parthenon Marbles in the British museum decided that the Ancient Athenians erected their edifices in glorious monocolour, in keeping with their own neo-classical conceptions of taste, considering that the Greeks could not have been so barbarous as to paint their glorious Pentelic marble facades in the manner of the effete easterners. As a result, they scraped the original pigment with abrasives, altering their appearance and damaging their surface. Similarly, upon entering Greece during the time of the revolution and witnessing its foustanella-clad inhabitants engaged in a desperate battle for their very survival, they formed the opinion that these strange people with their Byzantine superstitions and adherence to Eastern Orthodoxy could not have been descendants of their mythological cultural ancestors.
What is it about Westerners not being able to deal with Greeks on their own terms and having to skew their portrayal of them in order to fit their own preconceived ideas? This was the first question I asked myself as I saw the muscle-bound, semi-naked simian Spartans lurch about the latest Hollywood attempt to identify with the Greek cultural identity: “300.” The impossibly buff Spartans, engaged in nothing more than killing and grunting looked and behaved more like Vikings or lost members from the set of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.” These were certainly not the well combed and groomed Spartans of the 1962 Hollywood rendition, not the armoured, helmeted human tanks of Herodotus’ histories. Then again, cast a glance at the painting accompanying this Diatribe. It is by the architect of the neo-classical revival in France, Jacques-Louis David and is entitled “Leonidas at Thermopylae.” Here we see the origin of Frank Miller’s idealized conception of Spartans. Two hundred years prior to the screening of the film adaptation of his graphic novel, David depicts them as muscle-bound, red-cloaked precursors of the Chippendales. It is no wonder then that in the ubiquitous Youtube, clips of the Spartans marching and fighting have been set to the tune of “It’s raining men.”
For some reason, there is something paradoxically liberating for Westerners, in the context of their puritan past, to seek affinity with scantily clad, nay, nude pretended ancestors, preferably male because while male nudity is considered ennobling, female nudity is depraved and corrupting. This is well attested in “300” by the earnest nude Spartans chivalrously treating their noble, graceful and clothed females. It is interesting that the only clothed male Spartan in the film is the villain in the pay of Persia, while the only nude female is a young priestess on drugs, a topic to which we shall return. The Persians on the other hand, are portrayed Sahrawi Arab style, clad from head to toe, except for Xerxes, who is clad in glo-mesh speedos. In his tent, nubile and sinuous succubi simulate lesbian acts (see how we exported our culture to the barbarous Persians?) juxtaposing the empowering masculinity of the Spartans against the emasculating femininity of the morally corrupt Persians.
As if the viewer didn’t get it earlier, Leonidas cements his butchness by referring to the boy-loving Athenians, a favourite butt (excuse the pun) of western jokes. This comes despite the fact that Xenophon writes that Lycurgus efficiently managed to cultivate chaste pederasty in the Spartan society. Cicero furthermore asserts that, "The Lacedaemonians, while they permit all things except outrage in the love of youths, certainly distinguish the forbidden by a thin wall of partition from the sanctioned, for they allow embraces and a common couch to lovers.' The latent homophobia has a purpose. When we want to denigrate Greeks, we call them poofs. When we want to identify with them, we need them to be real men.
Jacques-Louis David, used elements of ancient Greek and Roman history, ostensibly in order to glorify the triumph of the human spirit and civic pride. In actual fact, he was a propagandist for Napoleon’s imperialist march across Europe and it is evident that like its predecessor, the current “300” movie displays many of the social prejudices and perceptions of our times. One of these is a decidedly anti-religious bias. There is an inescapable feeling that the viewer is observing our boys defend freedom, democracy, (though Sparta was the first fascist state and Napoleon’s France the third after Rome,) and the foundations of western culture against a barbarian horde of crypto-Muslims who come in a combination of recognisable groups: whirling dervishes, suicide bombers and devil-worship-invoking goats (and other antlered) heads. And though the Spartans obviously are not Christian, they seem to have rejected the old (pagan) gods, considering that seeking the mediation of the gods through nude virgins high on drugs and monstrous, leprosy-ridden priests subject to bribery is decidedly uncivilized. Instead they talk about 'god' in the singular, simultaneously disparaging religion and placating the Bible-belt.
Such sentiment is apparent throughout the film, but only hits home right at the end, when David Wenham’s character, the narrator Dilias makes a statement about ushering in a new age of reason and banishing the old ways of mysticism. Combine that with the aforementioned rejection of the pagan gods, and the fact that Xerxes shares various epithets with God (‘Lord of Lords’) and the anti-religious bent is apparent, as well as historically incorrect since it was the Spartan adherence to religion that did not permit them to send their entire army to Thermopylae and further, it was Alexander, not Xerxes, who demanded of his subjects to worship him as a god.
The racist undertones of the movie are even more concerning. They reek of Orientalism of the most crass kind. Herodotus and the movie directors paint a picture of a ‘free’ Greece (west) united against an oppressive ‘Asia.’ But that is a naïve simplification. The fact is, Persia and the Greek city-states were all slave-based societies whose notions of ‘freedom’ had little in common with our modern conception. In Sparta’s case, the entire prefecture of Messenia was subjugated forcibly to its will. Nonetheless, though a myth, it is a noble and inspiring one.
One would be hard pressed to understand why no effort was made to accurately portray the Persians. Instead, we are treated to an ingenious Barnum & Barnum display of freaks that even Lord of the Rings would envy. Indeed, most of the Persian soldiers seem to be disfigured Orcs that were too ugly even for the head of casting for that aforementioned movie. Of course one is less inclined to sympathise with one’s fellow man when that fellow man is actually a hideous beast who serves Sauron.
Given such an unjustifiably silly depiction of the Persians, it is difficult not to at least consider the view propounded by Iranian newspaper Ayander, that: the film “seeks to tell people that Iran, which is in the Axis of Evil now, has long been the source of evil and modern Iranians’ ancestors are the dumb, murderous savages you see in ‘300’.” Iran's UN mission has stated that the film is “so overtly racist, so overflowing with vicious stereotyping of Persians as a dangerous, bestial force fatally threatening the civilised ‘free world”, that it encourages “contemporary discourses of hatred ... [and] a clash of civilizations.” Almost to a man, Greek film critics have echoed Iranian objections. Dimitris Danikas notes that ‘300’ depicts Persians as “bloodthirsty, underdeveloped zombies” and feeds “racist instincts in Europe and America.”
On the other hand Stanford history professor Victor Davis Hanson, reportedly admired by US Vice-President Cheney posits: "We rightly consider the ancient Greeks the founders of our present western civilisation and, as millions of movie-goers seem to sense, far more like us than the [Iranian] enemy who ultimately failed to conquer them.”
The truth is that we are as much victims of western Occidentalism as our Iranian counterparts are of Orientalism. Greece has tantalisingly stood on the crossroads of diverse cultures, resisting classification and taxonomy, lending and borrowing from all. Now it appears, our values and legacy are being selectively appropriated and we are being used as pawns for a nefarious, more insidious purpose than the mere paying of homage to those who fought selflessly at Thermopylae. Unlike the Manichaean, absolutist west, Greece was able to resist Persia, but also to come to some sort of concord with her. Herodotus for one, depicted the Persian ruler positively enough: “Among all this multitude of [Persian] men, there was not one who, for beauty and stature, deserved more than Xerxes himself to wield so vast a power.” However, the ‘300’ Xerxes is not even an Iranian-looking man but like some other Persians in the film, a distinctly African figure, who happens to be effeminate and wholly vicious. Leonidas in contrast is white and manly and wholly heroic in his fight for ‘freedom.’
As if to highlight the difference between the sophisticated Greek approach to her eastern neighbours that the clumsy, absolutist approach of the west, colour is kept to a minimum in the film; the warriors appear in shades of black and white, with the Greeks' red cloaks standing out provocatively around the uniformly chiseled abs of the heroes. The Persians in contrast are ugly or deformed.
“The Greeks will know that free men stood against tyrants,” barks the cartoonish Leonidas in Scottish brogue, preparing for his suicidal defense against the evil Persians. Greece is the “world's one hope for reason and justice” versus the “dark will of the Persian kings.” “We rescue the world from mysticism and tyranny,” (here read Muslim fundamentalism) he declares. “No retreat, no surrender. That is Spartan law. A new age has dawned, an age of freedom, and all will know that Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.” Actually, this reads as if the scriptwriters amassed the slogans from Hollywood action movies where the main character, an outcast with a high sense of justice and honour, shoots, maims and kills his way back into legitimacy, were sewn together. It is just unfortunate that the mantra of the US as defender of democracy is wearing decidedly thin.
I found the film engrossing and am agog with anticipation for the sequel: “10,000” the story of how Spartan Xenophon and his army went over to Mesopotamia to intervene in Persian politics and not being able to hold the country against insurgents, had to beat a hasty retreat to Trapezounta. Until next time, an abounding in butchness ‘300’ Spartan salute: “Urrrrrgh!”


First published in NKEE on 7 May 2007