Saturday, September 26, 2020



As Greek-Australians, we seldom relate Greek fairy tales to our children. Such tales as are recounted, generally derive from the approved canon of the Grimm compendium, with a dash of Hans Christian Andersen, as interpreted by Disney. When it comes to Greek tales, these are invariably derived from the corpus of ancient Greek mythology, as presented by generations of western classical scholars. Of the fairy stories our grandparents were told on those long cold winter nights in the ancestral village, most of us know nothing, for these stories were simply not passed down. 

Many of these stories are quite dark, reflecting a harsh reality, where the soppy sentimentality of the Disneyfied tales would have been incomprehensible. In the traditional Greek tale of the “Wild Man”, for example, the hero of the story, unlike the noble protagonists of many a western tale who remain steadfast and true in their pursuit of ‘true love,’ is instead advised to promise marriage to a succession of isolated and rather desperate Nereids (the ancient Greek term surviving to denote a fairy), in order to gain gifts from them, such as an understanding of philosophy.  

Similarly, in the story of “the King of the Birds,” the heroine has absolutely no compunction in killing baby snakes, pigeons and eagles when she hears their mothers tell their offspring that by their murder, the heroine will acquire magical powers that will assist her in her quest.  

In “The Mother of the Sea,” a son backs out of his promised marriage, incurring the wrath of the Sea, personified as a female, which makes sense considering that in Greek, the word for that element takes the feminine gender. Rather than seek to make amends, the son’s wife is enlisted to resort to a number of stratagems to further deprive the Sea of what is hers.  

Likewise, in the story of the “Nereid,” the heroine, in managing to break the spell that holds her unresponsive prince in thrall to a fairy, she causes him to abandon his wife and child, as if this is the most natural thing in the world, while in the story of the “Stringla Princess,” a prince attempts to kill his baby sister, convinced that she is a man devouring monster in human form. Eventually, after exile and many vicissitudes befalling him along the way, he manages to kill her. So much for happy ever after. 

This then is a largely, but not entirely, world of survival of the fittest, or wiliest, where there is no room for arcane codes of chivalry, where loyalty is subjective and restricted according to a specific moral code, where the destination, not the journey counts, and where success is everything. As such it is completely alien to the prim and proper fairyland our children currently inhabit. It also however, provides valuable insight into the formation of the psychology of their ancestors and illuminates the value systems that informed the actions and thoughts of first-generation Greek migrants in Australia. In absence of a knowledge of these tales, we approach these value systems and the cultural lore they encode, not as lineal descendants, but as foreign entities. 

Significantly, in a society that traditionally silenced or at least minimised the female voice, it is important to note that these tales were composed, related and passed on by matriarchal figures. It was a desire to allow those voices to be heard beyond the confines of the hearth that led English folklorist Lucy Mary Jane Garnett to learn Greek in Smyrna and, towards the end of the nineteenth century, to embark upon extensive fieldwork, travelling throughout Greece and Asia Minor, recording folk songs and folk tales. Quoting Henry Fanshawe Tozer who, after visiting the Ottoman Empire, observed “throughout our journey, the female sex may be said not to have existed for us at all,” Garnett resolved not just to record the folklore of Greece but also to specifically  emphasise the life and status of Greek women in a number of publications, one of which was a magisterial translation of fourteen traditional Greek folk tales in 1913, on the eve of a World War that would cause western civilisation to question the myths underpinning its foundations, entitled: “Greek Wonder Tales.” 

A hundred years later, the distillation of Garnett’s academic work, transposed to a child’s register, emerges fresh from the page and thoroughly compelling. In her introduction to the collection, she states that she translated the stories from various dialects, choosing to retain traditional names for such monsters as the, nereid, the stringla, the lamia, the stoicheio and the dhrakos, tracing their evolution from antiquity, often into completely different beings, the dhrakos, for example, coming to signify not a dragon, but a giant, and highlighting the manner in which the ancient Fates gradually through the ages transform into fairy godmothers. In order to reinforce her argument that despite millennia of Christianity, many pagan motifs and practices persist among the Greeks the object of her study, Garnett also provides valuable anthropological evidence in her discussion, outlining how propitiatory offerings of honey, cakes and milks would be left for Nereids at locations they were believed to frequent and how shepherds avoided sleeping below poplars and plane trees at midday, lest they offend the stoicheia, descendants of the mythical hamadryads. 

In the process however, she chooses to include literal translations of Greek expressions that mean that not only the plot but also the colourful idiomatic way in which it was originally conveyed by the Greek women from whom the stories are derived, is reproduced and thus saved. Thus, Garnett manages not only to give voice to these women but also, to allow the cadences of that voice full appreciation. Expressions such as “and if you saw him, so did I,” a literal rendering of «αν τον είδες εσύ, τονείδακιεγώ», “and they lived happily and we more happily still,” (και ζήσαμε αυτοί καλά κι εμείς καλύτερα) and “Scarlett thread, spun on the wheel, twisting on the twirling reel,” which expertly translates the traditional verses recited at the beginning of all Greek fairy tales: «Κόκκινη κλωστή, δεμένη, στην ανέμη τυλιγμένη…» revivify the ancient matriarchs beyond the grave and afford them an immediate connection to the reader. They form the tissue of meanings that sustain their common discourse. 

Some of the tales forming the collection are eerily reminiscent of western tales. The “Snake-Prince” is exactly the same story as Beauty and the Beast, save that the Beast is a snake. Given that this story is said to have originated in France in the sixteenth century, it would be fascinating to attempt to trace the reception of the story in the Balkans and the route of its travel.  Other stories, such as the “Tower of the Forty Dhrakos and the King of the Golden Apples,” appear to be an amalgam of the western tale of the Valiant Tailor, mixed in with the ancient myth of the apples of the Hesperides, and the Ottoman lore about the “Red Apple Tree.” “The Sugar Man,” seems to be a retelling of the myth of Pygmalion from a female perspective, with elements of the “Gingerbread Man,” thrown in for good measure.  One of the tales, that of the “Quest of the Golden Wand,” contains embedded within it, a retelling of the blinding of the Cyclops in the cave, with the hero escaping, like Odysseus, clinging to the underbelly of a sheep, a testament to how narrative elements endure, or how rapidly rediscovered elements are ingeniously woven into the discourse, thought and tension, made flesh. 

The subversive subtext of many of the tales is one that I have also been able to identify in many first generation Greek-Australian women writers, notable the late Katerina Baloukas, who while ostensibly adhering to a ‘canon’ of subject matter and of expression, resourcefully manipulate those very elements in order to provide nuances that tell create a parallel narrative with a completely different message. Such writers, many of whom were brought up on the same fairy tales Garnett salvaged in her book, are the authentic descendants of that tradition and we cannot fully understand them or appreciate the manner in which they wield their tools unless we appreciate their unique narrative background. Considering that the act of writing negotiates an agreement between what we see and what we know, between memory and impulse, this makes a study of traditional Greek fairy tales all the more urgent, given that increasingly, first generation Greek-Australian migrant authors’ voices are being stilled and there is a linguistic and cultural discontinuity between them and the latter generations.  

English translations such as Garnett’s, which despite being a century old, are readily available, do much to assist to bridge the gap and rather than impose upon us, an aesthetic imperium, provide us with the ability to gain a new perspective on the corpus of literature produced in the Greek language in Australia, by first generation female writers and its place within Greek literature as a whole, even as the irony that it is through the inspired intervention of a westerner that our quest for authenticity is mediated, is not lost upon us. May we too, vicariously through Garnett’s work, symbolically send for our grandmothers from Syra, as in the story of the “Talking Wand,” and in the place of the boiled beans she had formerly eaten, offer her roast partridge, of the literary variety, instead. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 September 2020

Saturday, September 19, 2020


«Σήκου γιόκα μ’ κι βάλ’ του στου ιννιά. Aρχίζου Ντέμπρας my grandfather would say, patting me on the head. You knew you were lowest in the family pecking order when you were called upon to change the channel on the television.  As was the case for most Greek-Australian families before the invention of the remote control, for my grandparents, switching channels was a matter of great import. One did not do so whimsically or lightly, for in order to do so, one had to place one’s face in close proximity to the glass, the protracted recurrence of which would, as everybody knew, result in the acquisition of square eyes. Furthermore, arbitrary channel switching led to wear and tear on the apparatus, and the survival of so many forty and fifty year-old television sets in Greek-Australian homes and garages attests to the frugal prudence of that generation.  

As such, my grandparents would only authorise a change of channel when “Sale of the Century” was on, «Ντέμπρας» being my grandfather’s ingenious conflation of the surnames of Tony Barber and Delvine Delaney, decades before Brangelina or Bennifer became a thing.  

My first experience with a remote control was at an aged aunt’s house. She was in the process of introducing us to her brand-new Rank Arena television, covered with a doily upon which stood a bowl of fruit, when I noticed a perpendicular, button covered item connected to the television with a wire.   

-Τι είναι αυτό θεία; I askedentranced 

-Αυτό είναι το μαραφέτι, she answered, providing me with no further explanation and allowing me to bask in its mystery, for back in those days, for bashful boys of bourgeois upbringing, it was not permissible to touch another’s electronic equipment, even when bidden to do so, while on a βίζιτα 

Slowly but surely however, as our community came into its own, more and more homes acquired remote controls. Ours was one of the last to do so, because my father, whose first job was as a television repairer, and whose early claim to fame was that he repaired the great Philip Adam’s colour apparatus in the seventies, could not see the point of labour-saving devices that led to laxity.  

My grandparents could however, and their remote control was lovingly swathed in clear plastic, held together with sticky tape, forming a barrier to corruption so impermeable that it rivalled the ancient Egyptian mummification process in its aspirations to immortality. My friend’s grandfather’s remote control actually resembled a mummy. Eschewing the clear plastic protective film, he had covered his in white paper, cutting holes only for those buttons deemed strictly necessary and inscribing instructive captions indicating their use. Sticky tape was then painstakingly wrapped and re-wrapped around the whole device. As the tape yellowed with age, it assumed a jaundiced, antiquated look which was aesthetically pleasing but inhibited legibility of the script embedded underneath. At the bottom end of the scale of course, those like my grandmother’s neighbour, would merely wrap “Gladstone Park” (for that is how she pronounced Glad Wrap) around their remote control, but one did not consort with such people for prolonged periods of time, as sloth was contagious.  

Being a phallic object, the remote control soon became the repository of domestic power within the Greek-Australian home, with family patriarchs claiming dominion of it and wielding it as if a sceptre. Once video cassette recorders became widespread, those patriarchs possessed of imperial predilections would even go so far as to tape the two rods of fiefdom together with black gaffer tape, so concentrating all power in the same set of hands. Some of those mega-remotes still exist, even with the advent of cable television. In one visit to an aged Greek-Australian’s home, I found the Foxtel remote control taped over the defunct VCR remote control. Thus enveloped, yet shorn of its temporal power, it consolidates and commemorates a history of power past, just as the Spanish monarchs still style themselves Kings of Jerusalem.  

In my family, my father wielded the remote control and his mastery of it was unquestioned. No matter what my sister and I would be watching, or how engrossed we would be in it, at his approach, the remote control would be silently relinquished, invariably, in the early years of this century, so that he could watch Greek reality television. Once, as an experiment in weaning him off poorly produced Greek programming, I hid the remote control and made him watch the Australian version of Big Brother.   

“How can you watch this? It is excremental,” my father protested.  

“Why is it any worse than the Greek Big Brother?” I asked.  

“That’s different,” he remarked. “I want to see how Greeks behave.”  


Having arrived in Australia at an early age and growing up away from his homeland, for my father, the remote control was an anthropological tool, the equivalent of an archaeologist’s trowel, enabling him to sweep away the detritus of distance and time, allowing him to understand and evaluate, the social and psychological evolution those who he left behind. Accordingly, the remote control was duly produced from under the couch and delivered to its rightful owner. My father has since had his interest in Greek television satiated, yet he still claims absolute sovereignty over his various remotes, ceding them to no one, except that is, for his grandchildren.  


This Promethean battle for emancipation had unforeseen side effects upon my development. Upon marrying and moving into my own home, I delighted so much in my new found uncontested mastery of the remote control that I failed to appreciate just how terrible television actually is, and how paranoid it had caused me to become. At even the slightest sound of my wife approaching, I would instinctively clutch at the remote control and clasp it to me tightly as she would exclaim in astonishment, before continuing her way: “Relax. I’m not going to take it away from you. I have absolutely no interest in Doctor Who.”   


So she said, but how could one ever really know when one is about to be dethroned? I learned this the hard way one year, when my wife surprised me for my name day by having a satellite dish installed so I could watch ERT TV directly from the source. I rejoiced too hard and too soon at the expansion of my sceptered domain, for not long after, the Greek government discontinued the service and I was left clutching a long, smooth article of no potency whatsoever.  


These days, when most people are deserting television for iphones and other devices that require not the use of a remote control, the numerous words Greek-Australians use to signify a remote control are under threat, endangered, yet still not perched upon the brink of extinction. In Greece «τηλεκοντρόλ» is the most common word used, which is also employed by new arrivals here, in order to engage in «ζάπινγκ» which has nothing to do with electrocution but instead refers to channel surfing. Other “Greek” words used are «το κομπιουτεράκι», or if you happen to hail from Crete, «οκομπιουτεράκης», for as locals will strenuously maintain, the remote was invented by Σήφης Κομπιουτεράκης from Lasithi.  


While the proper Modern Greek term «τηλεχειριστήριο» is never used and probably not known outside the arcane cabal of dictionary compilers, this is probably a good thing, as in Australia, its’ literal meaning “manipulator from afar,” is better suited to denote daily zoom meetings with one’s boss during lockdown, when, with a chorus of young children variously screaming or being home schools in the background, polite enquiries are made of one, as to why one has not achieved their KPI’s.  


In contrast, most elderly Greek-Australians I know and their children, use the word «το ρημότι», which takes the neuter and conforms with Greek grammatical rules. Apart from «μαραφέτι»,  I have also encountered «μαντζαφλάρι», and in some households, who adhere to Saint Kosmas’ prophecy that one day we will all be controlled by the nefarious deaf and dumb «ταάλαλα και τα μπάλαλα», euphemistically as «το τέτοιο», for it does not do to identify the tools of He Who Must Not Be Named. For those concerned about their carbon footprint, there is even the vegan biodegradable option: «το κολοκύθι». In my home, we use the term «μπιχλιμπίδι» and when in polite company, refer to it in full, as «το μπιχλιμπίδι της τηλεοράσεως,» with conscious use of the archaic genitive. Accordingly, the Apple TV remote, much smaller in size, is referred to as «το ασημένιο μπιχλιμπίδιον», deploying the ancient diminutive.  


And it is this diminutive remote control that has in the end ensured my downfall from the summit of power. For not one week ago, my equally diminutive two year-old son saw fit to usurp the instrument of my dominance and immerse it in a glass of water, rendering all of its properties void. As my illusions of omnipotence dripped from the glass onto the table, in the same way that the castrated Ouranos’ μπιχλιμπίδιαdripped blood into the sea,  my son, the new Cronus, smiled sweetly and pointing to me, lisped: «Χάλασε μπιχλιμπίδι». I am bereft.  



First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 September 2020

Saturday, September 12, 2020


“She thought: sometime soon she’s going to remember what happened and realise that she’s lost everyone. And then what? Her mind moved over different possibilities… moving laboriously westwards in the hope of refuge, hungry, cold, robbed of little she had… Or being turned away from house after house, begging for shelter on a winter night. But people were better than that, surely? Wasn’t the human race better than that?” 

Philip Pullman, “The Secret Commonwealth.” 

It was the extent of human suffering and the callous manner in which little was done to alleviate it, that preoccupied western modernist authors such as Hemingway, Dos Passos and Miller in their roughly contemporary accounts of the burning of Smyrna. For them, the incendiary material that caused the conflagration was the rotting corpse of western civilization.  

Accounts of agents of western powers observing the death and destruction from the safety of their ships, doing nothing to save lives and indeed, hacking at the limbs of refugees desperate to climb aboard, or pouring hot oil over them, have become enshrined in the Smyrna Holocaust narrative, signifying the moral bankruptcy of the international system. As Arthur Miller wrote: “The peculiar horror which clings to this catastrophe is due not alone to the savagery and barbarism of the Turks but to the supine acquiescence of the big powers… And as long as human beings can sit and watch with hands folded while their fellow-men are tortured and butchered so long will civilisation be a hollow mockery, a wordy phantom suspended like a mirage above a sea of murdered carcasses.” 

This form of detachment, which is tantamount to complicity in the crime itself, would be repeated time and time again, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Burma and elsewhere undermining the discourse of social evolution and indeed of the superiority of “Western” civilization and it is probably for this reason that a “blame the victim” attitude towards Smyrna has been adopted by many western countries, in which the genocide of the native Greeks of Asia Minor and the destruction of Smyrna was somehow justified because the Greek army “invaded” Turkey. Such a misrepresentation of the history thus serves to exculpate those Powers for their cynical apathy and indifference to human suffering, for, in adopting such a perspective, the victims are dehumanized. It permits them once more to assert their dubious moral credentials. 

What if we could go back and remove the Western World’s original sin however? What if, instead of standing idly by, the western powers, moved by the horrific distress of those fleeing Smyrna, made a concerted effort to save the lives of refugees? How different would the world have been in the aftermath of the implementation of such a moral imperative? 

It is this question which Philip Pullman considers in his fantasy novel ‘The Secret Commonwealth,” in which recounts the further adventures and evolving maturity of Lyra, heroine of “The Golden Compass.”  In the chapter “The Smyrna Ferry,” Lyra is travelling to Smyrna on a ferry at a time when religious fanatics are indulging in full scale genocide of the Anatolian hinterland, driving desperate people to the coast. Suddenly the ferry collides with a boat of refugees fleeing the city. Pullman’s recounting of his alternate reality is eerily identical to contemporary accounts of the Smyrna Catastrophe: 

“And Lyra, looking down where the last speaker was pointing, saw planks, broken wood, a lifebelt, other unidentifiable detritus from a shattered boat. And people –bodies in the water – heads, faces, arms, screaming, waving, sinking and struggling up again… it became clear that the ferry had run down this smaller boat.. and that the boat was carrying a large number of passengers…. The whole side of the boat has now drifted into view, lying dead in the water, with a dozen or so men and women clinging to it.” 

Whereas in his famous short story “On the Quai at Smyrna,” Ernest Hemingway provides a harrowing account of how desperate mothers strove to keep their babies alive and refused to accept their death, Philip Pullman has Lyra witness the following: 

“A woman kept trying to push a baby up onto [the boat], herself sinking below the water every time she tried, and the baby was screaming and struggling, and no one helped...” 

At this stage in her life, Lyra is experiencing a spiritual crisis. She has subscribed to the belief that rationality is the only proper way to understand the universe, this putting her at odds with her soul/conscience, which in her world, takes the form of an animal familiar. From a rational point of view, she could turn a blind eye, consider that it is logically impossible to save so many drowning people, or conclude that the calamity unfolding around her is none of her business and that it is not her place to becoming involved in it. Instead, witnessing the woman sink under the surface, “leaving the baby still struggling, its little voice choked with water,” Lyra cannot stop herself from crying out: “Help her! Help her!” 

Rather than being ineffectual, Lyra’s principled intervention is of great consequence. Deckhands scramble to lower lifeboats into the water to save the drowning refugees. Lyra unconsciously takes control of the operation, directing the sailors to various locations where the refugees were floundering.  

In one poignant scene, Lyra does not hesitate to take on a person of authority, an office, yelling: “Look! More people on this side! They need a lifeboat here too!” Pullman describes how the officer gives her “a look of revulsion…[saying]…something angry,” but nonetheless, he acquiesces in her request, instructing his deckhands to continue the rescue operation. 

Having rescued the survivors, Lyra now has the opportunity to assess them: “They were mostly young men, but there were women and children too, people of every age. Their clothes were poor and thin, and though one or two clung to rucksacks… they had no possessions at all… Was this happening all over Europe?” 

In contrast to Dos Passos and Hemingway’s emphasis on the inhumanity of the indifferent bystander, Pullman peoples his work with passionate, empathetic people of conviction, who by will alone can make a difference: 

“Alison was everywhere, calling instructions to the crew, comforting a frightened mother, enfolding a baby in a blanket snatched from a passenger, calling for the ship’s cook and demanding hot drinks, hot soup, bread   and cheese for the  survivors, some of whom seemed to be near to starvation. Lyra followed and helped carry out her instructions, giving out blankets, picking up a baby that seemed to belong to no one and was too frightened or too shocked even to cry, and rocking it on her breast.” 

In contrast with the real world of Machiavellian realpolitik, in Pullman’s world, compassion and basic humanity is the foundation of reason:  

“Well it’s common sense. Work it out. Get the child dry and clean and warm before you do anything else.” 

As is the case with the original Smyrnan refugees, Pullman’s refugees, even though they are “Anatolian” find safety in Greece: “The refugees will go ashore here, no doubt. I don’t expect the Greeks will refuse to let them land. They’ll take them to the mainland eventually and they’ll settle somewhere.” 

The failure of the venal European powers to act and come to the aid the Smyrnan refugees created a moral vacuum that arguably led to the rise of totalitarianism and undermined any concerted effort to create a concert of nations that could impartially implement International Law. A by-product of this cynical self-interest is those powers’ refusal to take the perpetrator to task or even recognize the enormity of its crime, allowing its successors to threaten to commit the same crimes again in the present, with impunity. 

Pullman, on the other hand, has constructed an alternate world in which individuals are responsible for moral choices that empower them in ways unforeseen and ultimately, redeem all of humanity. In this way, they subvert the “powers that be” and become powers themselves: 

“I’ve decided I should go ashore to see that they’re looked after properly. I’ve got no authority; all I can do is boss people, but it seems to work.” 

In Lyra’s world, the fate of Smyrna remains unknown and Lyra, who is comforted in ways unforeseen by those she set out to save and comfort, continues her mission. Yet Pullman’s inspired re-imagining of the great humanitarian and moral catastrophe of Smyrna, unique in world literature, is a cry of protest against all those who remain indifferent to the plight of fellow humans and do nothing to alleviate their suffering. Where the western sailors of 1922 pushed refugees into the sea, a Hungarian camerawoman of 2017 kicked a young refugee girl and tripped a man running with a child in his arms. 

Ever in the face of carnage, and while confronting the depths of human depravity, Pullman, through Lyra in “The Secret Commonwealth,” offers a salvific path that juxtaposes the historical alienation of the modern man from his ethical palette in 1922, against the regaining of a moral compass in these simple words towards the end of the “Ferry at Smyrna” chapter:  

“Can I do anything to help?” 

A Golden Compass indeed. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 September 2020

Saturday, September 05, 2020


“What are you doing,”
 my wife asked me.  

Making myself a coffee,” I responded, stirring the briki vigorously and with a debonair flourish. 

“That’s the fifth one you’ve made today,” she observed.” 

“This one is different,” I riposted. “I’ve made it with ground pistachio and cardamom infused sugar.” 

It was the beginning of week three of the lockdown and I had exhausted all combinations and permutations of the brewing of Greek coffee. Venturing out of the house for my allotted single shopping trip, I determined, though I seldom imbibe anything else except the Greek version of the beverage, to support my local barrista, by ordering a latte. As the waitress carefully handed me the coffee, I was slipped a small, parchment coloured piece of paper, covered in ornate script, entitled "Cupping Notes." While reading it, I was astounded to discover that the beverage I was consuming was a generous, almost whimsical, full flavoured, ethically cultivated, minimal carbon-footprinted, Guatemalan single origin bean, with overtones of chocolate and afterthoughts of vanilla. 

All I could taste on the other hand, was bitterness and burn. 

"Cupping notes?" I asked the waitress, eyebrows raised. 

"Yeah I know right?" she responded. "At first I thought it had something to do with bra sizes." 


My next port of call was the hot bread shop, or as I like to call it, the purveyor of cold tasteless parody of bread that exudes no smell and tastes like grated cardboard. Standing in line at the demarcated, appropriately socially distant interval, I observed a dishevelled man in what appeared to be a state of intoxication, approach the counter and slur: 

“Have youse got any f…n breadsticks?” 

“No,” we are all out of breadsticks,” the young lady at the cash register remarked nonchalantly. 

“Well you can shove them old breadsticks up ya….” the man shouted and lurched off. 


Reflecting upon breadsticks of yore and how the inebriated gentleman envisaged their use, I recalled the λισβοκόλλιξ, reputedly an object of sensory pleasure prepared using bread, allegedly made in the Greco-Roman era around 2,000 years ago, which may or may not actually be a metaphorical joke based on the shape of a breadstick, because none of the said articles have survived. A compound word, the olisbokollix, who was a candidate for inclusion as a character in “Asterix and the Olympic Games,” is comprised of the ancient Greek term kollix referring to bread, and olisbos referring to the article of gratification. The olisbokollix is found as a hapax legomenon, that is, only ever mentioned once, in the ancient Greek lexicon of Hesychius written in the fifth century. We are able to envisage what the said comestible may have looked like, because of the existence of an amphora painting by the  so-called Flying Angel Painter, depicting a woman holding a "phallos-bird" and uncovering a jar or basket of phalli, which, scholars contend, are actually cunningly fashioned of bread. Lugging my wholemeal loaf back to the car, I considered that say what you will about our glorious ancient ancestors, they truly were good at multi-tasking, albeit in ways that, considering that even the thought of edible underwear makes me gag, are eminently emetic. For as Bias of Priene may have said,”One must never mix their pleasures,” even as his students debated his level of bias. 

Working from home whilst home-schooling and entertaining three young children is a task that would confound even the most ambidextrous of olisbokollic ancient Greek philosophers, which is why every so often, my stomach begins to rumble and I venture down to the kitchen and ask my wife: “What do you think we should cook today?” 


“You just asked me that an hour ago,” she whispers, covering her microphone, as she is convening an inordinately important Zoom meeting. 


“How about I try to make that Byzantine soufflé I am always going on about?” I mumble in plagal undertones, hoping that her auditory nerves will not be attuned to the frequency of my voice and thus she will make no attempt to hinder me in my chosen task. 


The Byzantine food writer Anthemius, in his “Letter on Diet,” provides the following recipe for soufflé: “In Greek the name φράτον is used to describe that which is called spueum in latin. It is made from chicken and white of egg. You must take a lot of egg-white  so that your aphraton becomes foamy. It should be arranged in a mound on a shallow casserole with a previously prepared sauce, based on fish sauce, underneath. Then the casserole is set over the coals and the aphraton is cooked in the steam of the sauce. The casserole is then placed in the middle of a serving tray, and a little wine or honey poured over it. It is eaten with a spoon or small ladle. We often add fine fish or scallops to this dish, because they are very good and also common at home.” 


It is at the point where, having boiled the chicken, I have enthusiastically whipped the egg whites to the consistency of a meringue, which is surprising given that they have curdled, as the pungent aroma of the heated Chinese fish sauce wafts from a pan below, that I feel an iron grip arresting my stirring hand. Holding her nose, a pained expression engraved on her face, my wife gasps: “I’m not going to eat that. I don’t feel so well. You really need to open a window now.” 


Whenever I am confined for a period of time, for reasons that are not immediately apparent, I invariably begin salivating over thoughts of roast pork. Having prepared roast pork in various ways, usually in the Italian or Serbian styles, my thoughts turned the other day to Byzantine pork. 

On this delectable subject, the inimitable Anthemius, opines: 

"Sucking pigs are very good and suitable stewed. Or, served in sauce after roasting in an oven (so long as the heat is not high enough to burn them: they should be as if baked); the sauce is a simple honey vinegar, made on the spot, two parts honey to one-part vinegar. Or, cooked in an earthenware pot; in that case, meat is dipped in this sauce as it is eaten...” 

The honey vinegar creates a most piquant sweet and sour taste that is quite breathtaking, though my earthernware pots, souvenirs purchased by an aged relative on a trip to Greece in the eighties, prove unequal to the task of withstanding the heat of the oven and emerge, cleft in twain, the sauce dripping ponderously within the stove’s interior. 

Defeated at pork, I try my hand at game. After mastering λαγό στιφάδο, I turn once more to Anthemius for guidance: 

“Hares, if they are quite young, can be taken with a sweet sauce including pepper, a little cloves and ginger, seasoned with putchuk and spikenard or tejpat leaf. Hare is an excellent food, good in cases of dysentery, and its bile can be taken, mixed with pepper, for earache.” 

Having removed every single spice bottle from the cupboard, and discovering several displaying livid shades of colours hitherto unknown to the spectrum, I ask of my wife:  

“Where is the putchuk?” 

“What did you just call me?” 

“Tejpat leaf. Is that near the bay leaves?” 

“Tell me in Greek.” 


“Ok, no need to swear. Seriously….” 


Exhausted after my intricate endeavours, I resolve to make a light salad for dinner. As we consume it, I regale my spouse with tales of Simeon Seth, the eleventh century Byzantine doctor, scholar, and grand Chamberlain under Emperor Michael VII Doukas, a noted foodie. In revising scholar Michael Psellos's “On the properties of foods”, Seth wrote that lettuce was soporific and an aphrodisiac. Munching on mixed greens, I inform her that Seth held celery to be “useful”, because it made women more uninhibited in their sexual behaviour, even though it was to be avoided by nursing mothers. Turning to the subject of rocket, I quoted Seth’s opinion that it: "Is very heating. It produces semen and awakens the appetite for sex. It causes headache." My impromptu lecture being met with studied silence, I proceed to wash the dishes. 


A few hours later, as I prepare for my evening ablutions, I find this handwritten message on my bedside table: 

“A recipe by Hierophilus the Sophist: 

Four baths in the course of the month; soap with sodium carbonate diluted in wine. Make a compound skin lotion by mixing 3 lb. weight aloes, I lb. myrrh, 2 egg yolks; combine these and apply to the skin. This is the quantity per person. Apply it before you enter the bath and have three bucketfuls of water poured over you, then sweat, then go into the open air and sponge the ointment off thoroughly. After washing the ointment off, rub down with cooling wine and egg yolks mixed with hot rose oil, then make love." 


And that doctor, explains why I display the flu-like symptoms that are definitely not coronavirus, but which have caused me to self- isolate, for the past week. 




         First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 September 2020