Saturday, February 10, 2018


“If you chance to be pinch'd with the colic, you make faces like mummers, set up the bloody flag against all patience, and, in roaring for a chamber-pot, dismiss the controversy bleeding, the more entangled by your hearing.” William Shakespeare, Coriolanus.

 Of all the Greek gods, my undoubted favourite would have to be Momus, the spirit of unfair criticism and irony. The son of Night (Nyx) via an immaculate conception, according to Hesiod, and twin of the misery goddess Oizys, his name is derived from the greek word μομφή, meaning 'blame', 'reproach', or 'disgrace.' Momus’ caustic wit proved to be too much for the Olympians. They decided to expel him from their company and Greeks have lacked irony ever since. Since the devil finds work for idle hands, according to the seventh century BC epic Cypria, Momus applied himself to fomenting the Trojan War in order to reduce the human population.

 A deity that has nothing good to say about anyone is one that should be feared. According to Aesop, while giving the breathtakingly beautiful Aphrodite a visual appraisal, Momus noted that he could not find anything about her to fault except that her sandals squeaked. In Lucian’s “The Gods in Council”, Momus takes a leading role in a discussion on how to purge Olympus of foreign gods and barbarian demi-gods who are lowering its heavenly tone, thus providing a perfect role model for Australian immigration minister, Peter Dutton.

 As a result of his outspokenness, from a mean, curmudgeonly figure, Momus gradually became a symbol of social criticism. During the Renaissance, Erasmus presented Momus as a champion of earnest criticism of power and authority, admitting that the god was “not quite as popular as others, because few people freely admit criticism, yet I dare say of the whole crowd of gods celebrated by the poets, none was more useful.” In Giordano Bruno's philosophical treatise The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, Momus plays an integral part in a series of dialogues conducted by the Olympian deities, as Jupiter seeks to purge the universe of evil.

 In England, a renewed interest in the classics saw Momus in Thomas Carew’s masque Coelum Britannicum of 1634, which was acted before King Charles I and his court. There, Momus and Mercury draw up a plan to reform the ‘Star Chamber’ of Heaven. The famous saying: “Tis better to laugh than to cry,” is attributed to Momus in John Dryden’s satire on sports, “Secular Masque.” Two centuries on, it was to influence Henry David Thoreau as he was preparing to write his seminal work ‘Walden.’

Over the passage of time, in popular culture, Momus became softened into a figure of light-hearted and sentimental comedy. Momus slowly took the place of the Fool on the French playing-card pack. The mummers, who are still to be found in England, France and Germany, so-called after the ancient Greek momos, a word derived from the god Momus, meaning mask, assumed the guise of masked or black-faced men, who between Christmas and Epiphany, enact, a set number of humorous or satirical plays, usually where two actors engage in a combat, and the loser is revived by a doctor-type character. Often, these mummers are associated with sword dances.

 Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, far from the world of masques, literary criticism and mummers, the Pontian Greeks also developed a Momaic custom surprisingly akin to that of the western mummers; the Momogeroi. Like the mummers, the momogeroi emerge between Christmas and Epiphany. Like their western counterparts, they are generally masked, wearing animal costumes, or as elderly soldiers bearing weapons. Momus-like, they are tasked with spreading humour and sarcasm, enacting a set play whose origins appear to lie in a fertility ritual that marks the passage of the seasons. The set play revolves around the story of Kiti Goja, (a corruption of the Turkish for old codger), an elderly gentleman, possibly a personification of the god Momus himself, who assists an “Arab,” (in black-face) to claim his beloved as his bride, only to attempt to substitute himself as the bridegroom. The actors cover themselves in garlands of dried fruit, symbolizing the bounty of creation and of course, poke fun at old man Kiti Gotsa, the interloper who seeks to fertilise, when his realm is properly that of decay. The themes of life, fertility, decay and death, are all encompassed in the ritual, which views the cyclical nature of life as the sick joke of the gods, a gesture that the old god Momus, would undoubtedly approve of.

 The rituals of the momogeroi have not taken place in their land of origin, Pontus, since the Pontian Genocide. In Thrylorion, the village founded for Pontian refugees by the great Ballarat hero, George Divine Treloar, the ritual, transposed to the Greek mainland, began to die out in the fifties. However, it has of late, enjoyed a revival in the Pontian-settled villages of Northern Greece, to the extent where in 2016, a successful application was made to register the Momogeroi ritual with UNESCO as a part of the world’s cultural heritage.

 The old god Momus would find irony in the fact that in a far off continent which we call the Antipodes, but should actually be called Antioecia, because according to second century geographer Crates of Mallus, that is the proper name for the land mass presumed to exist in Australia’s position, while the Antipodes instead, denote South America, Pontian Greeks continue to enact his ritual, with the vibrant youth of the Central Pontian Association: Pontiaki Estia devotedly indulging in much mummery as they celebrate and vivify a heritage that was almost entirely lost, owing to human intolerance and humanity. Only Momus would appreciate the irony of the fact that despite their best efforts, the perpetrators of genocide not only did not succeed in effacing the descendants of Momus from the face of the earth but merely, served to egg them on to further mummery.

 At this year’s Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, Momus will make his presence known through the participation of Momogeroi from Kozani, Greece. These easternmost mummers, who are being brought to the festival at the expense and instigation of Pontiaki Estia and its sponsors, will indulge in momentous mummery, momogery and more besides as they munificently attempt to spread mirth and merriment among sundry Melburnians. Performing on stage, mingling with an unsuspecting crowd, they will invite us to seek enlightenment in futility, and in the tragic ironies, the bile and sarcasm of the human condition. Sir Francis Bacon knew this well when he observed: “Truth is a naked and open daylight, that doth not shew the masks and mummeries and triumphs of the world, half so stately and daintily as candlelights.” Let us therefore set forth to receive Momus and his devotees on Lonsdale Street, this Festival, with irreverence but plenty of awe, in the spirit of the great Anna Akhamtova:

“From childhood I have been afraid /of mummers. It always seemed / an extra shadow / without face or name / had slipped among them...”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 February 2018