Saturday, January 30, 2021


Every day, in order to catch the bus whenever I would stay with my grandmother in Athens, I would have to cross a busy road, the fringes of which were populated by strays. About fifteen or so dogs, of all hues, sizes, breeds, temperaments and degrees of mange, would variously laze or loll about on the footpath, waiting for a pedestrian to approach. Then, abruptly, they would start barking, some of them circling ominously close to one’s ankles, before using the pedestrian as a means of crossing the road safely. For the large part, these dogs were benign and friendly, having previously been household pets. On one particular occasion, I discovered my grandmother’s pampered bichon frise cavorting with wanton abandon with a particularly streetwise German shepherd who then proceeded to mark his territory on the local periptero. On my approach, she merely sniffed the air and turned her back on me with sublime indifference. Upon returning home and informing my grandmother of her pooch’s transgression, she curtly informed me that her beloved Carrie was of an aristocratic, high-minded disposition and would thus never be seen frolicking with the local common hounds. Carrie of course, was comfortable ensconced within my grandmother’s lap, leering at me with her contemptuous deranged eyes, from her throne of immunity. 

To my mind, there is only one noble Hellenic hound that deserves the chief place in the hierarchy of unfettered urban canines, and he is associated with the legendary Benji. In the movie “For the Love of Benji,” when Benji gets lost in downtown Athens, he is befriended by one of the dogs of Plaka, who snoozes away his siestas in the ancient agora. It is this virtuous creature, exhibiting the traits of loyalty and philoxenia that surely must be upheld as the paragon of all Hellenic pooches, and not the depraved Carrie, who finally fell pregnant to some sort of non-descript terrier from a questionable part of the neighbourhood and was last seen slinking along the side of the bus-stop seeking crumbs, and a little love, in the company of an elderly and sagacious golden retriever. 

In English, we refer to such dogs as strays, the connotation being that they have wandered from their appointed places and being lost, are desperately in need of being found. In Greek however, their appellation is much more subversive and dangerous: they are αδέσποτα, literally those who lack despots, that is, masters. Most of them have been cast out of their homes or refuse to return to them. They live their lives on the streets, sustained by the whims of the kind-hearted humans in the vicinity and vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and maltreatment. While this appellation causes one to imagine a horde of liberated Hellenic Hygenhunds taking to the streets, teeth bared and eyes flaring, ready to re-claim their canine kingdom, on the whole, these are dogs of dignity and distinction, whose presence around the neighbourhoods of Athens may be disconcerting, but who are in no way menacing, in their quest for a modus poochendi with the general populace. 

The Greek Democritus Worker’s League of Melbourne’s recent cartoon featuring a group of Greek stray dogs circling a woman clad in traditional garb suggestive of a feminised Greece is thus deeply disquieting. The caption reads: 1821-2021: 200 years of Strays. Each of the stray dogs are named for a particular evil that the artist claims is afflicting Greece: Capitalism, Corruption, Bribery, Tax Evasion, Ecological Degradation, Overabundance of Public Servants, Profligacy and Religious Obscurantism. There can be no doubt that an argument can be made that the country of Greece is beset by most of these problems and a debate as to what exactly there is to be celebrated at this particular juncture in our people’s history is sorely needed. Yet, why cast the long-suffering, down-trodden, exploited mass of proletarian pooches as the harbingers of plague and miasma? Hath Democritus no sympathy for the melancholy mongrels, who are themselves victims of Capitalism, given that they are, reduced to commodities that can be purchased upon a whim and then, when they are no longer cute or subservient to their captors, cast away to fend for themselves? And how does the canine underclass’s propensity to form mutually co-operative groups where decisions are made on a consensual basis and each contributes to the welfare of all, a paradigm of the ultimate communist society, where the state has withered away, come to be considered as something worthy of condemnation?


If one looks closely at the defamed doggies, one can see that though they have circled Greece, none of them are baring their teeth. Indeed, only one of them has been depicted with teeth. The others look as if they are merely nuzzling up to Greece, seeking affection. The stereotypicised figure of Greece, forming the threadbare anti-feminist trope of a vulnerable woman under attack, in need of assistance by the patriarchy however, looks on dispassionately. Rather than register fear or apprehension, she merely looks tired. Democritus’ Greece neither extends her hands in order to ward off the beasts and the danger they apparently represent, nor does she pat them. Instead, in a gesture of ultimate self-absorption, she merely clutches a flag to herself. It is as if she is incapable of or uninteresting in either defending herself, or nurturing those around her. And this, an inverse interpretation of the most obvious manner to read this ingenious and absorbing cartoon, seems to be its central message: Look within. 

When we apportion blame to extraneous factors for our woes, as the cartoon ostensibly does if one does not read it closely, then we overlook the fact that quite often the problem lies within the paradigm itself, not its periphery. Graft, corruption, social and gender inequality (unmentioned as an issue in the cartoon) and a host of other problems have afflicted Greece because the modern Greek state was set up as a colonial enterprise by World Powers that required its complete political and economic subservience. The tacit acceptance of this by those who purport to govern Greece and the dichotomy between the people’s aspirations and reality caused by the propagation of national myths that provide a fantastic impression of the modern state’s might interwoven with past glories, obscure the manner in which the state is actually administered and inscribe deeper fault lines within an already tenuously held together social construct. If anything, all the ills highlighted in the cartoon and placed within the hapless hounds as if they were Gadarene swine that could be cast into the Sea of Galilee, actually exist within the DNA of Greece. 

The challenge therefore, when seeking to gain perspective on the Modern Greek bicentenary, is not to idealistically view Greece as a pure, unadulterated essence befouled by the nefarious stench of infernal creatures but to pity those who for the last two hundred years, have had the misfortune to be reared by a fractious, petulant, dysfunctional, bi-polar mother, one beset by black dogs often of her own making, sometimes brilliant, other times terrifying and most of the time, cruelly indifferent. The estimated seven million diasporan Greeks around the world who love their troubled mother unconditionally, but who choose not to return to her embrace are a living testament of the polyvalency of all that she signifies. 

Alternatively, we can view the cartoon as a depiction of a modern day Hecate, goddess of crossroads, entrance-ways, night, light, magic, witchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, ghosts, necromancy, and sorcery. Just like Greece herself, she is intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, straddling conventional boundaries and eluding definition. Dogs were of course closely associated with Hecate in times ancient. Both in literature and art, the goddess was depicted as accompanied by a dog. Her very approach was heralded by the howling of dogs and the hapless hounds were Hecate's regular sacrificial animal, often eaten in solemn sacrificial rites. It is unknown where Democritus stands on pagan puppy immolation.
Whether Democritus’ cartoon is encouraging us to be in awe of the ambivalent goddess, to engage in a deeper analysis of the discourse that gives rise to a beleaguered polity or on a superficial basis, to blame various extraneous pathologies for Greece’s plight, its recently released cartoon is profound and multi-faceted, as all good cartoons should be: a perfect starting point for an extensive discussion of who we, how far we have come and where our future path lies, beyond our current dog days. Cane canem. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 January 2021