Saturday, April 30, 2022



When I was young, Anzac Day barely rated a blip on the radar of my community consciousness. I was lucky enough to attend a private school but even there we received no instruction as to the importance of the day. Within the Greek community, the day barely received a mention. Sometimes as the day approached, I would catch snatches of conversation between members of the elder generation in which the words: “RSL,” “Shrine” and “racism” could be discerned. When I pressed them for an explanation, I was told that this was none of my business. 

Returning home from university on the tram one day, while reading Odysseas Elytis’ epic poem inspired by the Second World War «ΆξιονΕστί», I noticed an elderly, blue eyed gentleman stare intently at me. Then, he began, falteringly to read in a broad Australian accent: “A-xion E-sti.” Dumfounded, I asked him as to the source of his knowledge of things Hellenic and he replied that he had fought in Greece during World War II. He stated that whilst fighting there, he was impressed by the indomitability and generosity of the Greek people. “I’ve never met anyone like the Greeks,” he confided. “A noble and spirited people. Even here in Melbourne, I’ve always been drawn to my Greek friends. You are a very old but lively people. You are fighters. And you should be marching alongside us on ANZAC Day.” To my everlasting regret, I cannot recall his name. Yet this chance encounter made me reassess the importance of Anzac Day both to myself and the communities to which I belong. 

A few weeks ago, I was having coffee with some friends in South Melbourne. While volubly disputing the topics of the day in Greek, a lady approached us and asked us for change. Having received the object of her request, she walked off. A middle-aged lady seated at the table next to us, commented loudly: “How’s that for manners? Not even an ευχαριστώor a παρακαλώ!” Amused at our astonished expressions, she explained: “Yeah, I’m Aussie, but I went to Greek school. My dad fought in the war in Greece and he came back in love with the Greek people. He was full of admiration for the way they fought for their country and stuck their necks out for Australian soldiers. I grew up here in South Melbourne. So when all my Greek mates started going to Greek school, my dad thought it would be a good idea for me to go as well. I went for several years. I am a bit rusty, but I can still make myself understood.”  

In recent years there has been increased interest by members of the Greek community in Melbourne in participating in the Anzac Day March at the Shrine of Remembrance. This interest has been paralleled by an interest in military history, with special reference to the theatres of war in which Greece and Australia fought side by side, or as allies. The works of historians such as Jim Claven, Marina Hill and Martyn Brown among others have done much to elucidate the pivotal role Greece played in assisting the British imperial campaigns that Australia was a part of. As a result, the teleturgics of our community have changed. We now commemorate, among other events, the Battle of Kalamata and the retreat of Australian soldiers from Greece with a wreath laying ceremony at the Hellenic War Memorial, and there are many events which centre around the Epic Battle of Crete, one of the last events with a Greek flavour to be commemorated at the Shrine of Remembrance. T 

The emphasis on these military commemorations should not be seen as a glorification of war. Instead, what we are witnessing is a phenomenon whereby a “Greek” community feels excluded from a key mainstream “Australian” marker of identity and is seeking ways, founded upon historical experience, to be included within a national narrative which historically has not officially accommodated it. It is this need for inclusion that has proved the driving force for the erection of the Lemnos Gallipoli Memorial which firstly commemorates the nurses and soldiers who served on the Greek Island of Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 during World War One, and only then the role of Lemnos in the campaign. Similarly, the George Devine Treloar memorial which holds sacred the memory of a remarkable Australian soldier who saved Asia Minor Greeks from certain death in the aftermath of the Genocide, serves to remind the broader public that the Australian military discourse does not exist within a vacuum. It is multi-faceted and overlaps with our story, a story which we would submit, is just as Australian and deserves reception into the wider narrative. 

The Australian descendants of the villagers of Krithia and of the 15,000 Greeks who were ethnically cleansed from the Gallipoli peninsula by the Ottomans in order to fortify the area in anticipation of the Anzac landing also deserve to be honoured by the mainstream in recognition of the fact that wars, especially imperialist ones, result in collateral damage being inflicted upon the innocent and the vulnerable. The relatives of Hector Vasily, a ten year old Brisbane boy who while throwing gifts to soldiers returning from World War I was struck and killed by a vehicle carrying returned soldiers, also needs to be honoured. To banish their stories from the narrative, and indeed those of the many Greeks who fought as Allies or risked their lives to hide or assist Australian soldiers is to propagate a racially exclusive neo-colonialist discourse that while purporting to foster multiculturalism, in effect, creates two classes of people, whose participation in important civic events is determined largely by race, with a grudging acceptance of those few Greek-Australians who fought in the Australian armed forces. 


Smarting from the hurt of having our Greek national day celebrations banished from the Shrine of Remembrance, and our general exclusion from Anzac Day commemorations, our community this year was heartened by the news that the Evzones from the Presidential Guard would be “permitted” to participate in this year’s Anzac Day march, along with students from Greek community schools and organisations dressed in national costume. Yet just a few days before Anzac Day, prospective participants received the following email:  

“It is with great sadness that we have to inform you that your participation in this year's ANZAC Day parade has to be cancelled. Both the Victorian Returned Services League and the Hellenic RSL Sub Branch have officially written to us today clearly indicating that the youth are not allowed to Parade in Greek National Costume.  Furthermore, it was highlighted that unless students are direct descendants of our ANZAC soldiers, wearing their grandfather’s / grandmother’s medals they are not allowed to take part in the Anzac Day Parade.” 

In other words, to the powers that be, while descendants of enemy soldiers may march proudly beside the Anzacs, descendants of allies may not. Young Greek-Australians whose grandparents fought on the same side as the Anzacs in two World Wars and the Korean War are being told that their family history is irrelevant to the propagators of Australia’s national identity and that they have no place within it. While those Australians who fought in and for our motherland fully appreciated and cherished the sacrifices of the Greek people, those appointed to honour their memory, do not. In adopting such a policy, those arbiters of military identity dishonour the very legacy of those they purport to revere. They don’t have to follow such a policy. New South Wales veteran’s organisations are more than happy to allow descendants of Allied soldiers to march with them.  

I spent Anzac Day this year reading about the pogrom perpetrated by Australians against the Greeks of Kalgoorlie in 1916, as they were considered a subversive alien element. I read about Arthur Halkas, Edward Basil Makriyiannis and George Leonidas Paxin who died fighting in the Australian army in France during the First World War. I read about Angelo Barbouttis who destroyed two barges carrying Japanese soldiers in New Guinea before being killed in 1943. I read about Lela Karayianni of Athens, who was shot by the Nazis for saving the lives of dozens of Australian soldiers. 

I told my children about how their great grandfather along with other soldiers, having fought for the freedom of their country in the rugged mountains of Northern Epirus, decided to emigrate to Australia after the war because of the ties forged between the two nations on the battlefield. He, like so many others did not bring their medals with him. He sought no affirmation or reward for his service. His descendants and the descendants of all of the ancestors of Greek-Australians who fought in wars on the side of the Australians would most likely fill a football field. And then I told them why despite all this, they can never hope to participate in the Anzac Day parade.  

Our people don’t know of the Last Post, or of stultifying clichéd expressions of remembrance. Instead, as dusk fell over my grandfather’s grave, we recited these verses from Elytis’ “Axion Esti,” deeming them tribute enough: 

Those of us still left on hard soil 

will burn incense for the dead 

and when the caravan of Death, 

the great itinerant wrestler, 

is lost in the distance 

we’ll dance in their memory. 


Those of us still left in the morning 

will eat a slice of the loaf of sun 

and a bunch of grapes from the vineyard 

and without fear’s buzz anymore 

we’ll be moving ahead in life. 


Those of us still left in the night 

will go out in the desert to sow grass 

and before night takes us forever 

we’ll make of earth an icon stand 

and a cradle for unborn children. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 April 2022

Saturday, April 23, 2022



George is a second generation Thessalian and enjoys a respected position working within the realm of finance while also dabbling in the arcane world of computer programming on the side. We meet once a year, just before Easter, with the sole aim of setting siege to the ideological foundations of each other’s world view, a pre-Pascal tradition that commenced when, a few years ago, he related an anecdote to me whereby: 
Two non-Greek ladies whose partners are Greek get together to make koulouria for Easter. The older sister of one of the Greek partners enters the kitchen and the ladies proudly ask her: "Do we qualify as Greek women now?" To which the older sister responded: “Nah, if you were true blue Greek Australian women, you would get your petheres or mothers to make them.”  

By way of riposte, I tell him about the time the lady at an obscure delicatessen some distance from my place of habitation refused to charge my wife for her Easter purchases because she heard me speaking Greek to our progeny. “See, being Greek opens up doors,” I told her. “Not for you. Only for me,” came her response, in Assyrian. 

George spent years in bank limbo, otherwise known as being a loans officer. I inform him that the first century Greek writer Plutarch was the author of a treatise entitled: «Περὶ τοῦ μὴ δεῖν δανείζεσθαι», that is:  “That we ought not to borrow.”  

In it, he gives the following advice: «ἄξιον, ὅτι ἔχει, πιστεύεσθαι, δέον ἔχοντα μὴ δανείζεσθαι. Τί θεραπεύεις τὸν τραπεζίτην  πραγματευτήν;» (It is fitting to pawn one's goods rather than to borrow. Why do you pay court to the banker or money lender?) 

George wiggles uncomfortably, lamenting the fact that while the employees of the banks hailing from the fair isle of Cyprus used to receive invitations to a multitude of community events, Greek bankers floundering in the mainstream were more or less excluded. I ty to console him by pointing out that Plutarch also experienced exclusion, in his case, from giving evidence at the Royal Commission into Banking, which is kind of ironic when one considers that his name means: “Master of Wealth.” 

 George looks at me disconsolately and types something on his phone. I am convinced he is looking up my credit file and would deny me a loan at the slightest of pretexts. I try to imagine George assuming a smug air while refusing me a loan and I cannot, for George’s facial expression is perpetually one of anxiety. Attempting to conceive of ways of winning him over, I recall how the ancient writer Theopompus describes the manner in which Phillip II of Macedon won over the Thessalians: 

"Phillip, knowing that the Thessalians were licentious and wanton in their mode of life, organised parties for them and tried to amuse them in every way, dancing and rioting and submitting to every kind of licentiousness... and so he won over the Thessalians by parties rather than by presents.” 


Last time I saw George at a party was just after the 2019 “Macedonia Rally.” He arrived at the venue draped in the Sun of Vergina flag and wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo «Εὐχαριστῶ τοῖς θεοῖς ὅτι ἐγεννήθην Ἕλλην» which means "I thank the gods for being Greek.” As the men in the room whooped excitedly and the ladies moved away gingerly, I enquired as to the source of the quote, his bulging biceps a reproach to the flaccidity of my own sedentary torso. He told me that it can be found it in Arrian's Anabasis of Alexander. 


While expressing great admiration as to the convexity of his pectoral muscles, I hastened to infom him that having read the Anabasis in the original (I don’t get invited to too many parties), the purported quote does not exist. Moreover, the Greek used in the quote is anachronistic: εὐγνωμονῶ in Arrian's time meant to think good thought, not to be grateful. Similarly, the terms εὐχαριστῶ and ἐγεννήθην do not belong to the Greek of Arrian's time in that context and they can be found nowhere in his books. 

For good measure, I added that the first time the quote appears, is in an article by Greek teacher Ioannis Kholevas, who cites as his source, a book by the same Ioannis Kholevas, called "Αλέξανδρος ο Μέγιστος, ο Ένας." Scoffing my glass of coke triumphantly and feeling the ensuing sugar buzz, I declared that the quote is in fact, a hoax. There is plenty of evidence to support the fact that the Macedonians belonged to the Greek world without resorting to falsehood and spurious quotes. George has not held a birthday party since. I would have known if he had one, for he would have invited me. 


It is the anniversary of the hanging of Patriarch Gregory the V on 10 April 1821 that invariably prompts George’s annual text, first expressing his profound sorrow at such a heinous crime and second, attempting to arrange a catch up. I am always inordinately moved by George’s sentiments as he is a communist, who believes that religion is the opium of the people and has an autographed photograph of Aris Velouchiotis on his bedroom wall in his parent’s house, which I suspect he has signed himself.  


Despite his proclivities, George expresses great admiration for the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos and especially his stance on ecology. I on the other hand greatly admire our EP’s quirky sense of humour, informing George that when I first met the Patriarch, he spent the first ten minutes doing a particularly plausible imitation of an Australian accent. 

I then told him that his “φήμη" or ceremonial chanting of his title, should be changed to Var-tho-lo-meos, sung to the tune of Guantanamera. Without blinking an eyelid, he confided in me that he ordinarily would refer the matter to the Holy Synod, if it was not for his concern that a future successor with less syllables in his name would play merry hell with the rhythm. For this alone I will revere him to my dying day. 


George, on the other hand, has no sense of rhythm, but he is pretty handy with an app, being of an entrepreneurial bent, owning four investment properties, in his sister’s name, as his mother is adamant that should he ever find a partner, she will leave him and take the properties with her. He shows me an app entitled “Do my tama,” in which one can via direct debit, pay for dedicated personnel in the motherland to visit monasteries that house thaumaturgic icons and light candles before them on one’s behalf. George exhorts me to construct a concept of similar ingenuity that he can transform into an app and a few days later I message him with the fruits of my labours:  

“Want to get a blessing this Easter but still worried about COVID? 

Want to save time waiting in queues and avoid being elbowed by elderly or unwashed parishioners who don’t socially distance?  

Introducing Ev-log the unique app that allows you to get your bishop’s blessing without the risk of falling foul of the Health Department’s directives. 

Easy to install, Ev-log allows you to “log on” and obtain your bishop’s blessing via a personalized digital signature. 

It also logs how many blessings you have received and reminds you when it is time to go to confession. 

Just one touch of your lips on the virtual hand screen and ev-logeite! 

The Ev-log. Now in new incense flavour for extra holiness. 

*Heresies sold separately.” 


I am awaiting confirmation as to the registration of my Intellectual Property rights when I meet up with George, who arrives bearing, a week too soon, koulouria, red dyed eggs and a bent and battered monstrance. “Tenant left this behind in one of my properties, he mutters. “I thought you could give it to one of our churches, or something.” I explain to him that the monstrance, used to contain the consecrated eucharistic host, is a Catholic usage, though I marvel at how much the Sun of Vergina, his particular monstrance resembles. By this stage, George is scrolling through his phone, reading political commentary about the upcoming elections. Launching into an impassioned analysis of electoral boundaries and the preferential voting system, he laments: “the system is flawed. They are failing the people.” 

I explain to him that before Big Brother, the Athenians invented the concept of voting someone off the show. One wrote the desired exile's name on a piece of potsherd (ostrakon) and the person who received the most names would be exiled from Athens for ten years. 

According to legend, one day, a peasant asked the great politician Aristides the Just to write the name "Aristides" on an ostrakon. 

"Why? What has he ever done to you?" Aristides asked. 

"Nothing," the man replied. "I'm just sick of everyone referring to him as "the Just." 

Aristides duly helped him to write his own name and I suggest that this model be adopted not only in our Federal and State systems but also in all of our community organisations. 


By this stage, George is no longer interested. He has discovered the Greek Dating App, and having read glowing reviews on the internet posted by Ibraham Brissardyaong and Lando Benallackooyng, is pondering whether he can make it to and from Chicago in time for mageiritsa at Anastasi. He wishes me a satisfying Pascal Feast and walks away. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 April 2022

Saturday, April 16, 2022



From the outset one thing must be made abundantly clear: anyone visiting from the motherland should be welcomed with open arms by our community and treated to our famous Greek-Melburnian hospitality, including but limited to the compulsory foray to Oakleigh, so that they can establish for themselves that we too have the capacity for souvlaki production in this country, the desultory and melancholy pilgrimage to Lonsdale Street, there to be regaled with tales of what once was and the extended road trip to the Twelve Apostles in the hope that this will impress, given that there is a dearth of remotely interesting geographical features in Greece. 


When the euzones arrive on 21 April, I will take it that they are arriving to celebrate my daughter’s birthday and not the Junta’s seizure of power in Greece in 1967 and I will welcome them with enthusiasm, gusto a great deal of conviviality. Our boys in skirts after all, are burdened with the sacred task of protecting the President of the Greek Republic. Nobody, apart from the coterie of ladies that are responsible for donning drapery and lighting the Olympic Flame with the use of a parabolic mirror are more important in the hierarchy of living significant Greeks, not even Despina Vandi. 


Leaving aside the question as to who will guard the President while they are sojourning in our antipodean climes, a number of questions arise as to the suitability and appropriateness of the Evzones’ most welcome visit to our shores. 


Ostensibly, the Evzones will be here to participate in the Anzac Day celebrations. This means that they will participate in a march to the Shrine of Remembrance a mere month after we learned that the Greek community’s annual National Day march will be henceforth excluded from the same Shrine. Of course, those responsible for organising the visit to coincide with the two hundred anniversary celebrations of the Greek Revolution only to have this disrupted by COVID, were not to know then, just how poignantly timed the visit would turn out to be, coming to hammer as it were, the final nail in the coffin of a fifty-year old Greek-Australian institution. 


Before we laud ourselves on the inclusion of the Presidential Guard in the Anzac Parade, let us consider two more things: (a) that the Guard represents the Hellenic Republic, not the Greeks of Australia who have been written out of the Anzac narrative and (b) that the year before, another guest’s visit was also planned to coincide with the Anzac Day celebrations, that of Turkish President Erdogan, no doubt to pay homage to the many Greeks conscripted into the Ottoman Army who died at Gallipoli and the 15,000 Greeks who were ethnically cleansed from the peninsula when it was fortified against Allied attack. We can all thus be rightfully proud of the fact that while COVID thwarted the leader of Turkey, nothing can keep our boys from being treated as eye candy and causing Facebook to crash under the weight of the selfies that the Greeks of Melbourne will upload on that august network. I for one, will deliberately seek out the one wearing the Cretan traditional costume, with the hopes of keeping him hostage here until May, where he can be trundled out and used as a gargoyle during the commemorative events for the Battle of Crete ™.  


We love our euzones but it appears that every time there is an election, or every time we as a community experience a disappointment, the prospect of their visit is hailed as a consolation prize. The fact that our community possesses fine Greek-Australians and a multitude of costumes of their own that they would be more than willing to wear at official events and a miniscule fraction of the cost, seems to escape everyone. The fact that the participation of such locals would ground the Greek identity into its Australian context, in keeping with a true multicultural ethos escapes us. Instead, after almost two centuries in this country, we are supposed to identify with and be identified by a group of men wearing exotic clothing, thus retaining our role within the power paradigm of the dominant culture, of a quaint and distinct ethnic minority with easily defined and identifiable stereotypical features. 


In a community whose organisations spend a good deal of time celebrating women, holding forums and other discussions about the necessity of breaking down stereotypes, opposing gender discrimination and bias busting, it appears strange that the fact that the euzones are all men, that women are excluded from their ranks and that they thus embody prejudice in its most blatant form does not occupy our minds at all. Somehow, when it comes to the hunky men in the foustanella, our critical faculties are suspended and we forget that they owe their position not only to their prowess but also to them conforming to a predetermined stereotype as to a desired size and shape, again embodying forms of discrimination that are no longer acceptable to the country in which we reside. 


We learn that $100,000 is being set aside to finance the visit of the Euzones to Melbourne. Presumably, they will draw their Greek salaries while on tour. In the meantime, no funds exist for young Greek-Australians to travel to Greece as they used to, on government-subsidized tours that result in children, previously disconnected from their heritage, into passionate Hellenes. Similarly, while we have funds for euzones, we seem to lack funds to invest in proper programmes for bilingual education at the pre-school level, exactly the level in which our community is largely failing its children, in an era of steep language decline. At a time when our organisations are withering away and we are realising that the vast majority of Greek-Australia is totally disengaged and/or estranged from the organised community and Greece, are repetitive visits of this nature really a priority? 


Sadly, as a community, we seem more focused on hosting or participating in events that are designed to be eye-catching rather than carefully crafted to ensure creativity, longevity and relevance. Our evzones will arrive upon our shores They will be cheered and applauded, with myself being one of their most vociferous admirers. They will be photographed, lionised, wined and dined. And then they will go, having left nothing tangible on which we, whose identity has been grafted upon the vine of the broader Australian social fabric, can build, nothing with which our children can identify themselves with, nothing novel or creative that can be identified as having evolved organically out of our unique sense of being. Nothing would be more poignant, nothing more moving, than to see the Greek-Australian grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fought for Greece in the wars in which Greece and Australia were allies, proudly marching in national costume, alongside the Anglo-Celtic veterans and their descendants, of the same wars. Yet we are excluded both by the official Australian and the official Greek narrative, supplanted instead by our compatriots from the motherland who are considered more authentic, thus rendering more acute our cultural cringe and our sense of illegitimacy. This in turn inhibits our capacity for novel and creative self-expression and articulation of our own image, causing us to resort to the same stultifying clichés constructed by the dominant cultures of both of our homelands, in order to perpetuate our subservience to their discourse. 


All members of our community should have a say in which are the most appropriate ways to manifest our identity in the twenty first century. Such manifestations, while having regard to our histories, which are far from homogenous, also need to appropriately reflect the remarkable diversity and multi-faceted nature of the Greek-Australians, giving voice to a multiplicity of class, gender, linguistic and cultural narratives. The evzones, for all their appeal, do the opposite. They serve to silence such diverse narratives and instead, propagate a centralised, homogenised perspective that glosses over the historical experience of the Greeks in Australia, and indeed, of their ancestors in Greece. 


It remains to be seen how often the powers that be will purport to bring the evzones over to our shores every time there is a whiff of dissent before we grow disinterested. My guess is that this day will never come. It says much for the tenuousness of our roots in this country and our consciousness of exile that the arrival of the evzones is greeted (myself included) with universal joy. Instead, I would predict that over the years, rather than us grow weary of them, that the evzones will grow weary of us objectifying them and will stop coming. And then, faced with the prospect of no longer being able to conceive of any original content with which to celebrate ourselves, we will lament in the style of Cavafy: 


“Because night has fallen and the evzones haven't come. 

And some of our men just in from the border say 

there are no evzones any longer. 

Now what’s going to happen to us without evzones? 

Those people were a kind of solution.” 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 April 2022

Saturday, April 09, 2022



“Is praising enough? I also need to be praised in turn. No mortal shall scoff at my power unpunished.” 

Athena, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. 


I’ve always harboured a good deal of sympathy for Scylla, the Homeric monster that according to Virgil, inhabited a cave in the strait between Sicily and Calabria. According to Hyginus, she was fearful creature with four eyes and six long snaky necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp shark's teeth. Her body consisted of twelve tentacle-like legs and a cat's tail, while six dog's heads ringed her waist. Of all these ghastly accoutrements, it is the cat’s tail that sends shivers of fear down my spine. 


Odysseus is able to escape Scylla only with the loss of six men. That she is not whole monstrous and possesses a shred of humanity is evidenced by the fact that the sorceress Circe advises Odysseus to ask Scylla's mother, the river nymph Crataeis, to prevent her from pouncing more than once. Scylla is therefore not a beast. She is answerable to the matriarchy, can be restrained and is capable of reason. How is it then that she has come to be so monstrous? 


According to John Tzetzes and Servius, Scylla was once a beautiful naiad who was claimed by Poseidon. Jealous of Poseidon’s attention and ardour, the nereid Amphitrite turned her into the fearsome creature that she was by poisoning the water of the spring where Scylla would bathe. There is no evidence that Scylla committed any hostile act towards Amphitrite, or indeed sought the attentions of Poseidon. Instead, her crime was to be an object of lust by a male who in turn was wanted by a woman higher up in the pecking order. Scylla was thus divested of her humanity by a higher-ranking member of the sisterhood, for having the effrontery to be in the position Amphitrite wished to be in. In Ovid’s version of the myth, the punishment visited upon Scylla by the matriarchy places her in such anguish that it negates her sense of self altogether, causing her to attempt to flee from herself, in vain “In vain she offers from herself to run/ And drags about her what she strives to shun.” Hers, is now a lot of perpetual suffering. 


There are other ancient myths acting as cautionary tales warning against females threatening the interests or wounding the egos of more powerful members of the sisterhood. Among them is the myth of Arachne. In the age of the hashtag, where we are all called upon to break the bias and deal with all people on their merits, Arachne’s sorrowful plight serves as a reminder of the fate that was said to have befallen those who are competent, skilful and as a result, threaten the positions of their elite sisters. Arachne is not powerful. All that she possesses is her brilliance in the art of weaving, an art at which she outshines all others. Ovid describes there in the following terms: “Arachne’s distinction lay not in her birth, or the place that she hailed, but solely her art.” So adept at her art was she, that again according to Ovid, she drew the attention of the supernatural, as: “nymphs often used to leave their haunts… equally eager to watch her handiwork in progress.. as to view the finished product.” 


While the modern slogan proclaims, “Girls can do anything,” Arachne’s accomplishments and moreso her justifiable pride in them, led her into a weaving competition with the goddess Athena, who demanded that she tone her exuberance down and acknowledge the superiority of her senior sister. Arachne refused to be put down, or shunted into second place. Seeking full recognition of her professional competence, she accepted the challenge. Athena wove representations of the Olympians, the power-holding ruling class that ran Arachne’s world. By way of warning to those who would challenge that rule, she also wove representations of those strong high-ranking women who challenged the divine women that purported to rule over them by right of birth: the Queen of the Pygmies who challenged Hera and was turned into a crane, perpetually at war with her own tribe, the daughter of Trojan King Laomedon, who also offended Hera by “competing with great Jove’s consort” and was changed into a stork. The subtle warning: you can never be on the same level with the divine soul sisters or threaten the family business. Know your place and be at peace, a concept underlined by Athena “adding a border of olive branches, a symbol of peace.” 


Arachne on the other hand, has the honesty and the effrontery to look beyond the glass ceiling and portray those that would keep her from breaking it as they really are, divested of corporate slogans and HR buzzwords. She portrays serial rapist Zeus in the act of raping Europa, Leda, Antiope, Alcmene, Danae, Aegina, Mnymosyne, while also recording the similar deeds of Poseidon, Apollo and Dionysus. 


How does Athena respond to the revelations of her whistle-blower? Does she embrace her and lament the lot of vulnerable women everywhere? Does she invite her to an afternoon symposium at a suitable neoclassical edifice where they can discuss how to empower women and destroy gender stereotypes together, after first having paid homage to the native Pelasgians of Thebes? Hardly. Instead, she takes hold of the evidence both of her family’s crimes and of her underling’s greater skill at the loom and destroys it. “The fair-haired warrior goddess resented Arachne’s success and ripped up the picture of the gods’ misdemeanours.” Then comes the most harrowing part of the story. She begins to bully and harass Arachne incessantly, even resorting to physical violence. As Ovid relates: “She was still holding her shuttle of hard Cytorian boxwood/ And used it to strike Arachne a number of times on the forehead.” 


Harried and tormented, Arachne could no longer endure the treatment meted out to her by her less competent yet higher-ranking sister. In her desperation, she fashioned a noose and hanged herself, seeking escape in suicide. Yet even in death there was no escape from the wrath of the affronted matriarchy. Sprinkling her with the “magical juice of a baleful herb,” Athena sentences Arachne to a life of perpetual death: “You may live, you presumptuous creature… but you’ll hang suspended forever.” She is now a spider, no longer admired but shunned and reviled by mankind, her web weaving skills a parody of her former prowess. Most importantly, she is now no longer a threat to her more powerful sister. She no longer has a voice. 


In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne’s dolorous tale is related as in introduction to the story of Niobe, a privileged and wealthy woman who in keeping with Kirsten Riddle’s book, decided to variously be her own goddess, or unleash an inner goddess of her own. In particular, she took exception to the hype surrounding celebrating the motherhood of the divine Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis, (presumably with physical trainer, business advisor, social media expert and nanny in tow) while Niobe herself had to contend with raising seven girls and seven boys. According to Niobe, she is just as, if not more accomplished that Leto and is worthy of equal if not more recognition. 


What does Leto do upon hearing of Niobe’s arguments. Does she sigh in understanding, adding a qualifying: “yes, but you don’t know what it’s like being a divine celebrity, the pressure, the scrutiny, the paparazzi..?” Does she marvel at Niobe’s fecundity and ask her which IVF clinic she can refer her to? Does she acclaim Niobe for multitasking, ask her how on earth she is able to cope and suggest that she also set up a clothing and cosmetic range from her garage? Leto does none of these things. Instead, her own progeny are despatched upon a deadly assignment: Apollo to murder Niobe’s boys and Artemis to kill her girls. Divested of her children, Niobe is no longer a mother and cannot challenge Leto’s motherhood. Indeed, she is no longer a person. Shedding copious tears in her grief, Niobe becomes a petrified water feature on Mount Sipylus in Asia Minor where she continues to weep to the present day. 


As we resolve in these times to ensure that gender discrimination becomes ancient history, let us also be sensitive to the complex manner in which intraphyletic imbalances of power, education, class and economic distinctions, as well as entrenched cultural memory can serve to disenfranchise women and deprive them of a voice, even as they purport to empower them. Let us sympathise with and be mouthpieces of those such as Io who, deprived of humanity and turned into a cow, are beleaguered by the vengeful Heras of this world, who, her power and privilege threatened through no fault of Io’s sent a gadfly to sting her continuously, driving her to wander the world without rest. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 April 2022