Saturday, January 13, 2018


“The ancient Greeks,” my blonde and blue eyed Greek teacher from Thessaly, informed us in Year Nine, “were all blonde and blue eyed, like the Germans. The reason why most Greeks are not, is because they have been forced to mix with barbarous races like the Turks and the Slavs.”
“But aren’t there large numbers of blonde, blue-eyed people among the Slavs?” I had asked.
“Where do you think they got that from?” my teacher replied, without batting an eyelid.
The ancient Greeks on the other hand, rarely portrayed themselves with the tawny locks of Brad Pitt. From the time of the Minoans, to the Mycenaean period and beyond, Greeks have generally rendered their own images in paintings, in swarthy tones, with some famous painters, such as Exekias, portraying Brad Pitt’s alter ego, Achilles in the act of slaying the Amazon Queen Penthesilea (and apparently falling in love with her corpse) in ebony hues, though this was a convention of Attic back figure pottery painting.
Nonetheless, the concept of the blonde has always been present in hallowed Greek antiquity. The ancestor of both the Ionian and Achaean nations was said to be Xouthos, whose name is considered a variant of Xanthos, meaning blonde, though according to Liddell and Scott, as a colour, xouthos describes a tone as "between xanthos and pyrros" (i.e. between yellow and red), which means "tawny", or "dusky". This can suggest that his name can refer to either to his skin, his complexion, his hair - or all three characteristics.
No less a personage than the hyper-rational Aristotle extolled the virtues of blondeness, with reference to the animal kingdom: “Those with tawny coloured hair are brave; witness the lions. [But those with] reddish [hair] are of bad character; witness the foxes." The equation of blondeness with goodness or bravery is an enduring one. The many Greeks who believe in the prophecy of Agathengelos are still awaiting salvation at the hands of the “blonde race.”
When it comes to Homer, Gods and heroes are generally, but not consistently portrayed as golden and blonde-like. Thus, while Poseidon was described as having a blue-black beard and Zeus blue-black eyebrows, (with Homer attention to detail is everything), Aphrodite is described as golden haired (χρυσή), Menelaos, the king of the Spartans is, together with some other Achaean leaders, portrayed as blondies, as are Peleus, Achilles, Agamede and Rhadamanthys, while the blonde Odysseus is at some stage, transformed by Athena so that his beard becomes blue-black.
In the Hymn to Demeter, the goddess (or her hair) is twice described as “ξανθή”. Leto in the Hymn to Apollo is described as χρυσοπλόκαμη, or “golden-locked,” while Apollo himself and Hera are also occasionally described as blondes in the ancient texts.
According to D Pontikos, perhaps only 2% of Greek statuary provides evidence for blondness among the Greeks. Taking the genetic identity of Greeks to be fairly consistent over time, Pontikos argues that while there was a minority recessive trait for blondness present among the Greeks, the usage of terms such as ξανθή or χρυσή are more likely to have represented a darker pigmentation that is suggested by the modern term blonde. Nonetheless, it can be taken as accepted that for the ancient Greeks, as well as for a large proportion of modern Greeks believing in the goldenness of the Greeks, being blonde is being special, though in the moderns’ case, it is probably their imbibing of the orientalist, western propagated myth of the debased swarthy Middle Eastern Greek, fallen genetically far below their flaxen-haired ancestors (while the suitably fair-haired westerners are manifestly genetically worthier heirs to their civilization), that has led to the mass revival of platinum blondes via means chemical in the Republic of Greece.
 Given the above, it is unsurprising that sundry diasporan Greeks are up in arms, at the news that Netflix and the BBC are attempting to tackle the Iliad by means of a series entitled: “Troy: Fall of a City.” The reason for their outrage is the use of black actors in this attempt for a remake of a remake of a film based on the Homeric epic, including David Gyasi as Achilles and Hakeem Kae Kazim, as Zeus. For them, this is an insult and a criminal misinterpretation of what they deem to be “their culture,” for it implies that the ancient Greeks were black, this apparently being offensive to those aggrieved. One of the aggrieved even went so far as to assure me that “the Greeks were and always will be part of the Caucasian race.” The Caucasian race of course, is a biological taxon, which, depending on which classification is used, has usually included some or all of the ancient and modern populations of Europe, the Caucasus, Asia Minor, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.
The presence of black actors in Greek-themed epic films based on mythology is thus considered by the aggrieved as a historical distortion, even though we are dealing with fantasy. The ensuing hysteria is related to the fact that while the rest of the world watches for the sake of entertainment and not information, we Greeks expect to derive from such offerings, a statement about who we are, one that must conform to the manner in which we have been told, since the Enlightenment, who we and our ancestors must be. When what we see upon the screen does not conform to the stereotype of the glorious, sagacious, blonde and beautiful Greek to whose civilisation one must pay the requisite homage, we tend to become a little distressed at the real blondes calling us out for our lack of blondeness.
Interestingly enough, the manner in which Greek-themed myth Hollywood fantasies have of late, increasingly assumed the form of Viking sagas, with the Olympians assuming the form of the denizens of Asgard and all Greek warriors looking disconcertingly like Thor, seems to cause our righteously angered historians no distress at all, possibly because their Nordic appearance makes them qualify as Aryans, underlying a stereotype of genetic superiority of which we are the chief exemplars, and which, as the present controversy proves, harbours inordinately repellent racist undertones.
We should have no problem with the use of actors of any or all backgrounds in remakes or “interpretations” of this ilk. The brilliant manner in which actors "of colour" have portrayed characters in the Shakespearean dramas on film, most recently Sophie Okonedo as Margaret  of Anjou, is a case in point. For in Shakespeare, and the same applies in Homer, it is not the appearance of the actor that is the primary consideration but rather the work’s words and what the actor does to vivify them, that is paramount. Having any actor, of whatever sex or background immerse themselves in Homer and entice us, by the skill of their art, into his world, is the ultimate compliment that could be paid to our tribe, much greater than any that could be paid by obtaining players who assuage our deep-seated phyletic insecurities and mask our western-imposed self-loathing.
What we should mercilessly object to however, where these exist,  are inane film scripts, replete with wooden, poorly delivered dialogue, implausible and ridiculous panderings to modern mores, blatantly bad acting, and gross disrespect towards our chief Bard.

As for our incensed compatriots, instead of lamenting how the West does not portray our classics faithfully, (and it is true that they do not), let us consider that it is he who articulates the work, that determines the discourse. In this case, elements of an ancient Greek epic are being adapted for entry into an English-speaking globalised culture. It follows logically that any such interpretation will have as its primary reference point, the contemporary culture of its viewers juxtaposed against but ultimately reconciled with views of the ancient world that were crystallised in the West at the time of the Enlightenment.
We on the other hand, the Aryan, Caucasian, pure-blooded descendants of Homer have never produced a film via which to assert a uniquely Hellenic perspective of Homer. The fact that we have not done so is paradoxical for Homer was revered and formed the core of Greek education from times ancient right up until the fall of Constantinople. Somewhere along the line, we have lost and no longer know how to articulate what Homer means to us, without having someone else articulate it for us. Instead, like Cavafy’s Poseidonians, we focus inanely on homage rituals, or the lack thereof, no longer understanding or being able to express their significance, or parroting the orientalist ideologies of the imperialists. And this, vis a vis the Bard who was arguably, the greatest of his craft, is criminal indeed.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 January 2018