Saturday, April 25, 2020


My family icon of Saint George has a legend attached to it. According to tribal lore, it hung in an ancestral home and I owe more existence to it, for it predicted imminent Ottoman reprisals during the 1878 Epirus uprising and apparently fell off the wall sufficient times for my ancestors to come to the conclusion that disaster was nigh and that it was time to flee. The fact that a cursory inspection of the inscription on the icon reveals that it is actually of Russian provenance, and probably of later acquisition, does nothing to diminish the intensity of the myth.
It is an icon that has fascinated me since my youth since its story, like that of the legend of Saint George depicted depends on an anachronistic interpolation: the earliest recorded hagiography of the Saint, a Syriac translation of a Greek original, dated 600AD, merely states that Saint George was martyred. The first mention of the dragon, appears in the eleventh century, in a Georgian source, when dragons had, to all intents and purposes, departed from this earth.
For me, the ancestral icon is absorbing because of the human protagonists’ body language: they all seem to avoid each other’s gaze. The princess, at the gate of the castle awaiting her deliverance stares at a point behind Saint George. She looks weary and impatient, as if he is one of a stream of would be knights in shining armour, yet to deliver on endless promises. The Saint himself stares not at the dragon he has managed to spear, nor at the princess, the object of his salvific endeavours but a point beyond the scene, if already envisaging his next damsel in distress. In contrast however with the humans, the gaze of animals in the icon is locked together, perhaps suggesting that the world of absolutes, that of the white horse and the dark dragon, lies beyond the understanding of mere mortals. The beasts look upon each other with gravity and a sense of camaraderie. They possess the knowledge of dialectic and discourse that defines the narrative and as such, become the narrative in exactly the same manner in which the human protagonists divest themselves of it. In only one other Orthodox icon I have seen, do beasts upstage the main protagonists in such a profound way.

I am equally enthralled by the fifteenth century Russian icon Saint George, pictured herein, of the Novgorod School. Infinitely more complex than my ancestral icon, this icon inducts us into a diagrammatic view of the cosmos in the form of a ladder ranging from heaven to hell. Between these two cosmic opposites, the drama is enacted: Saint George, mounted on a white destrier, impales the dragon. In the background, a mountainous, desert landscape is depicted, an almost surreal setting far removed from reality, suggesting there is nothing in the parastasis that can be taken as literal or natural. The figures, casting no shadows and set in a lunar  landscape, grant the scene an unearthly quality. There is however, nothing absurd about the picture. Our eyes readily accept its beauty and the unnatural juxtaposition between the figures and the landscape. There are no laws here of the art of recreating natural effects, no perspective, no chiaroscuro, no anatomy. The scale, including heaven and hell, is logically inconceivable. Instead, the viewer is invited by the iconographer to enter another world, not one of realities that may be perceived by the senses, but instead, a world of cosmic and spiritual hyperreality: the unseen world of conflict within a person's inner life.

A horse depicted represents strength and power, but a man riding a horse represents strength and power harnessed and controlled. Saint George is the figure to whom we are drawn and invited to identify with. He is the man ideal, struggling for supremacy over chthonic forces and seeking to vanquish them by means of a lance. The lance itself, cutting the icon in two diagonally, plays the role of the Ladder in the icons of Saint John Climacus: it provides a means of providing and measuring ascent and descent. Straddling, transcending and seemingly controlling this grand polarity is Saint George who belongs neither to the higher world, nor the lower, but who appears to be tasked with maintaining an equilibrium between the two. Viewed from this perspective, the icon is not simply a pictorial representation of a man killing a beast, but rather  a discourse in symbolic implication on the dialectic between the celestial and infernal within a person’s psyche and as such, a metaphor on the human psychological condition.
How is this dialectic played out? Could it not merely be designated as  a conflict between good and evil? This engrossing icon suggests how subtle and profound the iconographer's understanding of the interplay moral absolutes actually is. A western approach would label the horse as good and the dragon as evil. Yet the iconographer places both the horse and the dragon on the same plane, beneath the saint. Furthermore, the dragon is not given an 'evil' countenance.  Rather, he appears to look lovingly at the saint as though acknowledging him, and what he is about to do. This dragon evidently has a relationship with the Saint. Thus, subversively, delineation of concepts of good or evil for this iconographer, are less important than their interplay: their gradations must be in a correct relationship with each other in order to maintain equilibrium within the cosmos. Thus, in the icon, Saint George does not kill the dragon, but instead merely pins his head to the ground, demonstrating his mastery the beast, just as he masters his horse. There is something Mithraic about the scene, a suggestion that this is a sacrifice that must be completed again and again, ad infinitum, if harmony within the universe is to be maintained.

Saint George, in performing this act of cosmic maintenance, is, in turn, depicted below the influences and powers guiding his hand. The lance delineates an iconic hierarchy  of seven distinct stages: God’s hand and the heavenly realm, the cloak of protection, the saint, the destrier, the dragon, the earth and the subterranean depths of Hell.

The three central stages are of direct significance for humanity and the icon draws them at “eye level.” Humans are born at ‘earth level’ and are called upon to ascend, by subduing and mastering both dragon and horse, to the level where each of us can begin their ideal work. Significantly, there is no violence in the action as it is portrayed in the icon, no hatred or rancour. The proper equilibrium having been achieved, each protagonist expresses only his acceptance, as if performing a recurring ritual.

The concept of cosmic harmony and balance, is also reflected with perfection in both colour and design choices of the iconographer. The rearing horse’s leap fills the ascending diagonal from left to right, but all movement is immediately arrested by the opposing diagonal of the lance. The delicate curves of the horse’s hindquarters and neck are balanced by those of the dragon, the saint’s halo by that of the saddle. Wherever one looks at the icon, one is able to observe that each line has its own unique corresponding echo.
The iconographer has thus transformed a scene of slaughter, removing us from a world of anguish, enmity and hatred, enveloping us instead within a feeling of love, silence and serenity. Saint George’s face is not contorted with fury or hubristic triumph. He is not plotting or considering his next move, but instead, radiates light, timelessness and spiritual joy.

The most endearing feature of both icons is held in common. Though the lance denotes a cosmic hierarch, its highest point, though at the same level as the Creator, appears not to emanate from Him or lead to Him. Instead, it exists opposite from Him, possibly suggesting that all of us need to use our own agency in order to transcend ourselves to the point where we may truly understand the nature of ourselves as icons of He who made us. Viewed from this perspective, as icons gazing at icons, as if in mutual recognition, both the naïve family icon and the complex Novgorod icon of one of Greece’s most iconic saints, assumes immense poignancy.


First published in NKEE on 25 April 2020

Saturday, April 18, 2020


“Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon a Tree,
He who is King of the Angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in mocking purple.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan receives a blow on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a lance,.
We worship your Sufferings, O Christ
Show us also your glorious Resurrection.”

The hymnographers of the Orthodox church revelled in contradictions and juxtapositions and the above hymn, chanted during the Matins for Good Friday, is no exception. It invites the listener to ponder the enormity of the event of the Crucifixion: how signs and events can signify their complete opposite. The hymn suggests to us that in the “Death” of He who for the faithful is Life, the entire natural order of things has been upset.

My first inkling that things were not “normal” in the lead up to Holy Week was when my four year old daughter, came to the kitchen to make Lazarakia, the traditional sweetbreads made to commemorate Lazarus’ return from the dead, wearing a crown she had fashioned for herself out of paper.
  • Κοίτα μπαμπάφοράω κορώνα, she pronounced triumphantly.
  • Μπράβο, είσαι πριγκίπισσα; I asked.
  • Όχι μπαμπά, είμαι ο κορωνοϊός, came the response.

Every year at Eastermy parish priest always thanks God, «που αξιωθήκαμε και φέτος να κάνουμε Πάσχα». This is a profound statement. As the key verb in the phrase indicates, in our tradition, ones does not merely celebrate Easter. One does Easter, denoting the fact that rather than being an event of passive participation, it is a hands on enterprise that requires one’s full engagement. For most of us, it took the advent of a deadly virus that caused most public spaces, churches included, to close in order for us to realise just how central the public ceremonies and traditions of Easter are to our identity.

As a chanter, I was permitted to go to my parish church, for services continued unabated. Yet to chant the Akathist Hymn to row after row of empty pews, in complete silence, was an unnerving experience, for people are at the centre and are the focus of all of our ceremonies. To chant the “Ypermakho” Hymn, and to see a tear flow down the cheek of our otherwise gruff, no nonsense, nonagenarian priest as his voice wavered, was to ponder the manner in which the hymns of Holy Week indicate, that all our expectations have become confounded. We carried on regardless, unable to stifle a laugh at the end of each liturgy, as our priest addressed the empty church: “Now I want you to all come up one by one to obtain your antidoron, quietly and without pushing.”

“What do you mean we can’t go to church?” my eldest daughter asked. “What are we going to do?” With the help of her siblings, we set up an iconostasis before which we could at least chant vespers before bed time. Offering the same prayers with children is fraught with danger, for in repetition, they became adept at picking which parts I had left out for brevity. I was thus compelled to treat with a four year old who would refuse to go to bed unless we chanted «Κύριεεκέκραξα» again, this time, as she demanded, “properly.” It is to this experience that I ascribe her continuing propensity, at odd moments of the day, to break out into a stream of Kyrie Eleison’s especially while persecuting her younger brother and divesting him of his toys.

During the Last Supper, Christ broke bread, and poured wine, commanding: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Most of our culinary preparations undertaken in our household are in remembrance of my grandmother. Over the years, I have taken great pains to reconstruct her secret koulourakia recipe and will only make them in the shapes that she employed, leaving my wife and children to freestyle as they see fit. I will go to my grave refusing to admit that their efforts are far superior, for my grandmother would recognise no rival. Yiayia, a master baker, was not a tsoureki maker, yet she would never deign to purchase something that she could conceivably make herself and getting one’s offspring to pummel dough is an ideal way to channel their lockdown energies. This year, owing to social distancing, I received no panettone from culturally aware Greek-Australians, nor will I receive other koulouraia in order for me to perform the tried and true Australo-Hellenic custom of koulourakia exchange and re-gifting. Such sharing has already taken place in the social media, with friends proudly posting photographs of their efforts, not a few of which originally feature in  I eagerly await the Feast of the Resurrection so I may sample my own provender, my grandmother’s voice echoing from within my memories: “Too much yeast. You want it rise, not to achieve the Ascension.”

Not being able to visit the graves of your loved ones is particularly trying at a time of a celebration of a Feast that commemorates the harrowing of Hades and prefigures their eventual resurrection. Every year on Holy Saturday, we visit a veritable necropolis, leaving a red egg and a koulouraki on the legion of graves of our departed loved ones, a calling card and a promise. This year, owing to government restrictions, this was at first not permitted and we were left scratching our heads as to how to include our dead within our Easter celebrations, until a petition from one of our parishioners caused the government to announce it would not fine people engaged in cemetery visits. One thing is for certain however. Once all this is over, they would rather be caught dead then vote for said pollies ever again.

There was no public Epitaphios procession this year either. Accordingly, we were not able to participate in the burial of Christ, an event which in Australia is one of the most visible expressions of Greek identity. Instead, most of us watched live-streamed services online, social media applications permitting comments and emoticons to take the place of gossip during the service. However, the prospect of not taking part in the procession left my children distraught. They resolved to construct their own Epitaphios, out of archive boxes and Australia Post tubes. As they cut out the various shapes, painted and assembled them, my eldest daughter began to describe the sufferings of Christ to her siblings. Soon tears began to appear in her eyes. I remembered the Synaxarion for the Matins of Good Friday: “…We observe…the spittings, the scourgings, the buffetings, the scorn, the mocking, the purple robe, the reed, the sponge, the vinegar, the nails, the spear and above all the Cross and Death, which he willingly suffered for us,” marvelling at how immensely confronting and moving these things, which to those infused in western culture are considered trite, are to the innocent.

In the evening of Good Friday, we set forth in the darkness, my son holding a cross, preceding my daughters bearing their cardboard epitaphios on their shoulders with gravitas, in measured step. Solemnly, we chanted the Holy Friday Lamentations into the empty street, the eastern elegiac modes permeating our predominantly Catholic neighbourhood. Upon our return home, it was relatively quick and easy to have all of the members of our family pass under our epitaphios and reunite on the other side, without getting lost in the crowd.
My children are preparing for a churchless Anastasis by making their own Resurrection labarum. What they have not come to terms with yet however, is that this will be their first ever Easter without their grandparents, whose proximity to our abode can be measured by means of the fact that whenever I call my mother to ask a question, she always invariably responds: «Έλαεδώναμερωτήσεις.» Since I have not yet come to terms with Easter being yiayia free for me for the past ten years, I feel my offspring’s loss keenly, one that no amount of Skype, Facetime or Zoom can assuage and am consoled that at least, their loss is a temporary one.
There is a jaw droppingly vivid troparion chanted on Holy Saturday which personifies Hades and has him vocally regret his decision to admit Christ within his realm:
“Today Hades cries our groaning:
“I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary.
He came and destroyed my power.
He shattered the gates of brass.”
We too will regret it if we allow despondency and fear to enter the realm of our festivities, instead of Him whose rising we celebrate as a people. Coronavirus or no, we eagerly anticipate the Resurrection, in the sure knowledge that all these things will pass, and we will emerge triumphant and more united than ever, perhaps with a deeper appreciation of how precious and how instrinsic to our lives, the Greek community actually is. Καλή Ανάσταση.


First published in NKEE on 18 April 2020

Saturday, April 11, 2020


«Φόρα και μια χάντρα θαλασσιά, να μη σε ματιάσουν τα νησιά,» Yiannis Kalatzis.
“Of course your sister is sick,” my grandmother pronounced, dismissing my assertion that she was merely suffering from a bad cold. “Someone put the evil eye on her at church. I told your mother not to take her to church on Ψυχοσάββατο, but she thinks she knows better. Look at her now. Θέλει ξεμάτιασμα το μωρό.
I was eleven and my baby sister’s rasping cough wracked her whole body. She was running a fever and her eyes were watery. Taking my grandmother’s words literally, I imagined my sister as an infirm Argo of myth, covered in eyes that needed removal, one by one.
“I suspect I know who it was too. She’d better watch herself,” my grandmother muttered as she fumbled with some bottles. Then, approaching my sister, she began to intone incomprehensible syllables under her breath.
“What are you saying, yiayia?” I asked.
“Shut up, these are not things for boys to know,” my grandmother snapped and began to mumble again. This time, leaning forward, I managed to decipher the words: “Panagia Theotokos, release this girl from the evil eye.” After praying for some time, my grandmother began to yawn. Almost immediately, my baby sister yawned as well.
“See,” my grandmother crowed triumphantly, “That’s a sign. They have definitely put the eye on her. Now, it’s time to get rid of it.” She made the sign of the cross over my sister three times and spat in her face, also three times. Looking at her handiwork appraisingly, she frowned. “This eye is very evil. It is beyond my capabilities. I need to call Thekla.”
Unlike my grandmother, θεία Θέκλα, was possessed of powers so supernatural that she could, in those heady days before skype and video calls, remove the evil eye via the ordinary household telephone. Departing this earth just after the introduction of optic fibre cables to telecommunications, her powers managed to transcend even that medium of conduction, so attending to my sister should have been a piece of cake. Holding my sister in one am, my grandmother described her symptoms to theia Thekla over the olive green telephone in the hallway in painstaking detail. I could hear nasal grunts of «Χμχμ,» emanating from the handset, a prelude to an intensely devout bout of incantation.
Απαπα,” theia Thekla exclaimed at last. “This is too much. The girl is badly eyed. This is not just any ordinary eye. This is the type of evil eye that needs to be named so that it can be removed. This is what you do: Get together a few cloves and pierce each one with a pin. Then, you need to light a candle and take a pinned clove with a pair of scissors. This you have to use to make the cross over the poor girl, while you ask her to think of a person who may have given her the eye. Once you do this, you must hold the clove over the flame. If the clove burns silently, there is no evil eye present and there is some other problem we need to look at.  However, if the clove explodes or burns noisily, that means the person in her thoughts is the one who has cast the evil eye. Remember, as the clove explodes, the evil eye will be released. Also note that cloves that burn with some noise are λόγια, someone foul-mouthing the girl, who we should be wary of. Be sure to take the burned cloves and extinguish them in a glass of water. Then bury them in the garden along with the pins. You don’t want to be contaminated by the evil.”
Καλάμαρή συ Θέκλα,” my grandmother asked indignantly. “The girl is a baby. She barely knows the difference between day and night. How is she supposed to think of who gave her the evil eye? And why would I bury the eye in my garden and curse my produce forever? Are you serious?”
“Fine, don’t listen to me,” theia Thekla puffed and promptly hung up the telephone.
“Stupid old bag,” yiayia spat, in execration. “We will try the oil. There are three types: We can place a drop of oil in holy water.  If the drop floats, there is no evil eye involved. If the drop sinks, then we will know she is afflicted and we can get rid of it. Otherwise, we can place two drops of olive oil into a glass of water. If the drops merge, we will again know that she has the evil eye. Failing that, there is the method that Soumela, that Pontian woman, told me about. She should know. All Pontians transmit the evil eye. It’s true. From ancient times. They get a plate full of water, and place nine drops of oil. If the oil drops become larger and eventually dissolve in the water then definitely she has the evil eye. It is the first drops are the most important and the number of drops that will dissolve in water will indicate the strength of the evil eye.”
“You know, yiayia, apparently only priests are allowed to pray against the evil eye.”
“Garbage, who told you that?”
“There was a priest who came to visit us from Greece the other week. He said it.”
“Nonsense, they just want money, that’s all. It’s like saying only priests are allowed to pray. And what would they know about healing. They are men after all.”
“But yiayia, mum says this is just a folk superstition from Islamic times.”
“Rot. Now leave the room.”
“Leave the room.”
Fifteen minutes later, my grandmother opened the door and handed me a cup. Her brow was dripping with sweat and she reeked of burnt garlic. “It was as I thought,” she panted. “A very bad case. Only one person is that malicious so as to inflict this μάτι on a baby, that pernicious Maritsa who lives two streets down and is jealous because her daughter just left her husband for another man. Καλύτερα να σου βγει το μάτι παρά το όνομα. Now take this cup, go outside and empty it over the neighbour’s fence, where the gum tree is.”
The gum tree is question was a perennial bone of contention between my grandmother and her neighbour. Its roots extended under the side fence into my grandmother’s garden, blighting her cucumbers and rendering them bitter. No amount of inducement could persuade the neighbour to remove the tree, causing my grandmother to invoke a vast array of curses of immense lexical diversity and complex imagery every time she went out into the garden. Obedient to her commands, I emptied the contents in the spot indicated.
A week later, something remarkable happened. My sister, after a course of antibiotics, made a full if not totally unexpected recovery. “Did you know that the idea of the evil eye is an old as the ancient Greeks?” I asked my grandmother while telling her the news. “The ancient Greeks would drink their wine out of kylixes that had eyes painted on them to ward off evil as far back as the sixth century. And Plutarch believed that the eyes were the chief source of the deadly rays that were supposed to spring up like poisoned darts from the inner recesses of a person possessing the evil eye. And it’s also true that in Roman times, it was widely held that the Pontian and Scythian tribes were considered to be transmitters of the evil eye. I read it in the Καζαμία.
“You sound pretty proud of yourself,” my grandmother winked. “It is technically possible to give yourself the evil eye, so remember to remain humble. In the meantime maybe we should have drawn the eye on your grandfather’s wine glass, though why anyone would want to put the eye in him is beyond me. Take this pair of secateurs. We are going outside.”
I followed her to the backyard. There, on the side fence, the overhanging gum leaves of the neighbour’s tree had taken a pallid, yellowish brown hue as they clung limply to brittle branches. A month later, the entire tree was dead. My grandmother looked up and cackled with glee. “Your sister is a blessed child. She will always be lucky. Everything she plants will bear fruit. Remember that. And no evil eye will ever touch her again.”
Three months later, when the stump remover came and removed a few palings from the fence in order to extract as many roots as possible, I observed the muddy crater he left behind. There, behind a large clod of clay, indolently lay, a blackened, undecomposed, malevolent clove of garlic.
Three decades have passed, as have my grandmother and her neighbour and nothing has grown in that spot since. And every morning, as I drive down that street to take my daughter to school, playing “I spy,” to pass the time, I stop her just before she says the words “with my little eye.” You just never know.
First published in NKEE on 11 April 2020

Saturday, April 04, 2020


I’ve always been troubled by the myth of Daphne and Apollo. A story of pride, lust and loss, it seeks to explain how the laurel tree came into being. Pursued by an infatuated Apollo, Daphne, a river nymph who, in contrast to the mores of the time embraced chastity and thus a single life, is transformed into a laurel tree, so as to safeguard her virginity.

A feminist icon, falling victim to the patriarchy? Perhaps. For Apollo’s infatuation isn’t even real. Instead, it comes as a result of a blokey stoush between him and the god Eros, when Apollo insulted his equipment. The aggrieved Eros shot Apollo with a gold arrow, instilling in him a passionate love for Daphne. Eros in turn shot Daphne with a lead arrow, instilling in her, a hatred for Apollo and the chase began.

Not only does Apollo, labouring under the spell of Eros and consumed with lust, ignore Daphne’s continuous rejection of him, but Eros himself intervenes to assist Apollo to catch up with and corner his quarry. While for Apollo, Daphne is an object of desire, something to possess, for Eros, she is nothing more than a mere instrument of his own revenge, a foil for his own feelings of inadequacy.

Daphne’s “salvation,” also lies in the gift of the patriarchy. She does not choose to be transformed and possesses no power to do so. Instead, just as she originally petitioned her father, the river god Peneus to sanction her life of chastity, she must again seek her deliverance from him. "Help me, Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger! Let me be free of this man from this moment forward!"

Thus, it is not she who elects to be transformed into a laurel tree. That form is predetermined for her, by her father. It is the price she must pay for insisting on retaining her virginity and not being possessed by a man. Daphne may not have been physically raped, but her act of resistance has stripped her of her humanity. She is no longer Daphne.

Apollo, of course, being a god, suffers no punishment for his transgression Instead, not able to physically possess Daphne, he appropriates the symbolism of her sacrifice and transformation, thus concealing the enormity of his crime. Thus, he employs his powers of eternal youth and immortality to render Daphne evergreen stating, according to Ovid: "you also, wear always the perpetual honours of your foliage!" Daphne’s form is thus determined by her would-be rapist, forever.

Furthermore, while Apollo may not possess Daphne sexually, he will still employ her for his own ends, using her branches to adorn his hair, using her wood to make his arrows and his lyres. Even in her transformed state, he is able to violate her perennially and she is powerless to stop him. Eros, of course, the catalyst and instigator of this sexual assault, is nowhere to be seen.

The manner in which the myth has historically been depicted in art highlights its patriarchal aspects and the “ungendering” of the victim. All artists emphasise Daphne’s sexual allure. Bernini’s remarkable statue: “Apollo and Daphne” depicts Apollo clutching a nubile Daphne's hip, pursuing her as she vainly tries to escape him. Apollo, prefiguring his dominance over her, already wears a laurel crown, and Daphne is portrayed halfway through her metamorphosis into the laurel tree. No one is coming to her aid. In that statue, as well as Tiepolo’s famous baroque painting of the myth, Apollo is portrayed as youthful and naïve, ‘a good lad, who has just gotten a bit carried away.’ Significantly, in Tiepolo’s portrayal, Eros is also holding lasciviously rendered Daphne down to arrest her escape, even as her father rises to assert his rights over her. This then, is various an attempted gang-rape, or a dispute between men, about a woman.

In Gustav Klimt’s famous painting: “The Kiss,” a laurel-wreathed Apollo is portrayed in the act of taking possession: kissing an attractive, yet lifeless-like Daphne, whose feet seem to be bound by golden leaves. In an inversion of the myth, the scene is one of surrender. Here, everything revolves upon Apollo, in conversation with Ovid who, has Daphne, in her final form of the tree, observe "refugit tamen oscula lignum,"  “the wood flees the kisses again."

Enter local Greek-Australian artist Katrina Ginis, who, in her acrylic and metal leaf on paper painting: “Daphne,” provides a stark and thought-provoking retelling of the traditional myth. Firstly, what is noticeable is the absence of any male figure, protector or violator whatsoever. The male element of the myth is completely removed. This is deliberate. The artist is consciously inverting the myth in order, as she maintains: “to explore contemporary feminist concerns encompassing sexual harassment, objectification and oppression.”

Katrina Ginis’ Daphne does not need the protection of a man. The pater familias Peneus is replaced here by Gaea, the primeval Earth goddess and mother of all. She extends her hands, not to shield, or hide, or transform Daphne, but rather to support her. Daphne, not anyone else, is the agent of her own metamorphosis, determining the form and manner it will take. This is evidenced by the fact that Gaea does not touch Daphne. Instead, Gaea’s hands enclose rocks and a root ball, creating a heart shape. Here then, in pain, is life, and Daphne’s roots enclose it and encompass it. Unlike the outcome of the original myth, there is no male appropriation here. Even in her metamorphosed state, she, not anyone else, is empowered to be the master of her own foundation and is more than capable of defending it. Gaea’s act must thus be understood, in the artist’s words, as “a powerful act of inter-generational female solidarity.” It should not escape our attention that two more powerful women are present during her transformation: Νύξ, the primordial Night goddess, of whom Homer tells us in the Iliad, even the mighty Zeus was afraid, and Σελήνη, the lunar goddess and in some ways, the inverse of Apollo, since she was consumed with a mad passion for the eternally slumbering Endymion.

Daphne, as depicted by the artist, is saturated in femininity. The emphasis here is not on Daphne’s sexual choices or the concept of virginity  but rather, her role as an archetypal woman, in and of herself, a person, rather than an object, within an ultimately extraneous (because it is not depicted) patriarchal system. Katrina Ginis does not shy away from portraying Daphne as an erotic figure. Yet that eroticism is steeped in anguish. Indeed, possibly nowhere in the history of art, has there ever been a Daphne depicted with so much grief, a grief borne of being compelled to lose her own hypostasis and womanhood. As the artist explains:  “I feel it metaphorically exemplifies the manner in which women often feel forced to suppress or alter aspects of their identities to gain acceptance or ensure their safety within patriarchal societies.”

Yet there is another possible variant interpretation of Daphne’s transformation at the hands of Katrina Ginis. Rather than a grieving woman in the process of turning into a tree, it is plausible that what we are actually witnessing is Daphne the laurel tree, in the very process, after much suffering, but also with support from generations of other women, of triumphantly reclaiming her original womanhood. The expertly rendered expression on her countenance is thus not just one of despair for all she has endured and the forms the patriarchy have compelled her to conform to and to define herself by, but also, most tellingly, one of victory and achievement. This Daphne has, in transcending the patriarchy, managed to reclaim her identity. The entire composition is pervaded by a sense of immense immanent power. This is the reason why none of the offending or controlling male figures are depicted. In the very act of reversing the original metamorphosis, she has not just rendered these males redundant, but through her emancipation, an achievement all of her own, has set them at nought, creating in the process, an interesting dialogue with another work of art on the same theme, Audrey Flack’s sculpture: “Daphne: Earth goddess” at the University of North Dakota, where the deified Daphne’s branches actually bear fruit. In Ginis’ world however, this is not merely Spring. It is the Revolution.

A finalist in the 2015 Manning Art Prize, recipient of the Tolarno Hotels’ annual acquisitive prize and having exhibited her work at the Manning Regional Gallery, The Gallery Voltaire, The Black Cat Gallery and The Linden Gallery, Katrina Ginis’ close reading of the myth of Apollo and Daphne, has resulted in a considered and polysemic work of iconoclastic brilliance that defies clichés and opens new pathways for exploring and expressing all that is signified in one of the most disturbing but also most absorbing, myths of classical mythology.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 April 2020