Saturday, June 04, 2022



The wild olive wreath is said to have been introduced to the Olympic Games by demi-god Heracles as a prize for the victor of the running race to honour Zeus. Just how coveted the wreath became is evidenced by Herodotus who relates how Persian king Xerxes was interrogating some Arcadians after the Battle of Thermopylae. When being informed in answer to his inquiry as to why so few men defended Thermopylae, that they were all participating in the Olympics, and that the prize was a wreath,  one of his generals exclaimed: "Good heavens! What kind of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight? Men who do not compete for possessions, but for virtue." 

The laurel wreath on the other hand, sacred to Apollo, was awarded to winners of musical and poetic competitions. The Romans adopted it as an emblem of military victory. In Christian times, the sporting metaphor was retained. Martyrs were said to have “competed” for their wreaths of victory, this being martyrdom. 

Of late, a wave of wreath-laying is sweeping our community. It seems that every other week, our media are crammed with photographs of solemn community leaders and sundry dignitaries laying wreaths at various monuments around Melbourne. The wreath-laying ceremony is generally the coda of an event which commences with a church service and is intended to honour those have died a violent death in the service of that particular part of Greece whence the organisers derive their origins. I have attended four such events this year representing my own organisation. To the first event, I arrived sans wreath. “Where is your wreath?” the organiser snarled sotto voce, in church. “I didn’t bring one,” I responded. “I’m attending in support. I didn’t know that the wreath-laying was mandatory.” “Well, I’m striking your name of the list of dignitaries. Your name will NOT be read out,” the organiser snapped. He stormed off down the aisle of the church and returned soon after, brandishing a clipboard. Taking his pen in hand, he proceeded to vigorously scratch out my name from the page. Inexplicably, half an hour later, as community leader upon community leader was called upon to lay a wreath beneath a votive monument with faded and largely illegible inscriptions, he called upon me to lay a wreath on behalf of a completely alien organisation, thus ensuring the apokatastasis of my wreathless hypostasis. I remained in situ. 

At the second wreath laying ceremony I attended, I observed young children garbed in national dress swelter under the hot sun as dignitary after dignitary lay wreath after wreath, one by one. I counted thirty of them during this gruelling ordeal. At the conclusion of the event, the children were unceremoniously dismissed, as their elders retired to partake of a commemorative meal. “So, what was today’s special occasion?” I asked the exhausted children. They shrugged their shoulders: “We don’t know, but mum said we could go to McDonalds if we do this.” No one had given them any information whatsoever as to the significance of the event they were participating in. No one spoke to them save to order them into position for the photographs and no one thanked them when their trials were over. Inside, one of the dignitaries complained to me that the organising committee did not allow you to bring your own wreaths. Instead, you had to order through them and they would arrange it. During the president’s welcome, the dignitary calculated the approximate cost of the wreaths, the amount of discount received from the florist for bulk wreath purchases and the amount that the organising committee overcharged participants in order to arrive at an estimation of their final profit. I began to muse that behind this wreath-laying mania, there must lie a secret cabal of Melbourne florists, eager to take advantage of our propensity for ancestor worship. 

The third wreath laying ceremony was my fault. A year earlier, I received a phone call from an interlocutor who wanted to know what battles had been fought in the vicinity of his village. When asked the reason why, he responded: “We want to “do” a wreath-laying ceremony. Everyone else is doing it. The club is stagnant. We have to do something γιανα φανούμε.” To my question as to how the memory of an obscure battle of no real historical significance would revitalise his organisation, considering that it was primarily comprised of octogenarian members who do not really wish to be reminded of death, he merely hung up the phone. Nonetheless, I was invited to the event, noting the organiser’s consternation in having forgotten a sound system to play the Greek National Anthem. Instead, he piped it in through his telephone, which means that we also got to listen to an advertisement for Grammarly, as he had utilised Youtube. As our ancestors invented grammar, I considered this eminently acceptable. 

As leader after leader divested themselves of their wreaths, one of them caught my eye. The leaves were slightly more faded, displaying a yellow tinge and they were beginning to curl upwards. In the ribbon upon which the name of the wreath-laying organisation was emblazoned, I spied a palimpsest. Moving in for a closer inspection, I made out the letters “BΑΣΙΛΙΚΗ Μ.” It emerged after lengthy interrogation, that the wreath-layer, rather new at this pursuit, in his delight at being called upon to join the ranks of the dignitaries, who are the crème de la crème of our community and exist in a lofty rarified plane far above us mere mortals, had forgotten to order a wreath and terrified of missing out, had purloined one from the nearest convenient grave at Fawkner cemetery. 

At any given community wreath-laying ceremony, there are always in attendance what I call “Wreath wraiths,” past or former presidents who having fallen from power, turn up uninvited and linger like phantasms, unable to move on. The fourth ceremony I attended was bursting at the seams with such ghosts of elections past. Some important dignitaries have letters at the end of their name that they insist upon being read out and on this particular occasion, the master of ceremonies, who was from Greece and unversed in the arcane matters of Australian honours, pronounced OAM as EAM, infusing a revolutionary feeling to the proceedings and intimating that the South will rise again. This wreath-laying ceremony was engrossing because along with the invitations for dignitaries to attend, some members of the community received disinvitations, pointedly asking them not to attend. I counted thirty wreaths on this occasion. Exasperated upon having trod pon a piece of refuse and seeking a patch of United Australia Party election paraphernalia upon which to wipe my shoe, I commented to one of the organisers that the constant barrage of wreath-laying was tedious. Perhaps, I suggested, a single wreath could be lain on behalf of everyone by the organising committee. My interlocutor clapped his hands onto his face in horror: “But then no one would turn up,” he gasped. 

My fifth wreath laying ceremony was not supposed to be such. It was a funeral at the conclusion of which a community organisation president walked down the aisle of the church and taking hold of a wreath which had been placed at the foot of the iconostasis, dumped it unceremoniously at the foot of the coffin, no less than a metre away. Mystified, I sought clarification from one of the chanters. “Isn’t it customary to lay the wreaths on the person’s grave after they are buried?” I asked. Sagely, the chanter nodded: “Indeed. But if he did that, who would see him?” The story that after the burial, said community leader approached me to ask how to edit the coffin out of the photo the organisation’s treasurer took at the time, is purely apocryphal. 

It is proper that as a community should honour our dead, for it is to them we owe our freedom and the ability to celebrate our national identity. Yet the current flood of wreath-laying ceremonies which all adopt the same format and are all largely attended by the same people surely do our community damage. They are unimaginative, dry and derivative. They do not inform, inspire or create culture. They instil nothing in our youth except the ability to stand still and suffer in silence. They do not honour any of the Greek-Australians who created our community but rather, are focused on Greece. Instead of fostering a vibrant cultural exchange of ideas and facilitating a means for people to get together, they present an image of the Greek community as a militaristic death cult, obsessed on laying wreaths for ancestors twenty years ago they had no idea existed. 

 Granted, such ceremonies are easy to organise. They require little thought or creativity and the presence of other community leaders legitimise the organisers and their committees. Yet they do nothing to entrench and perpetuate the Greek identity within the broader context of Australian society. No attempt to engage and educate the youth or to create cultural resources is made. And because they are multiplying exponentially, at the expense of other, richer, more relevant community events, they are transforming our cultural calendar into an arid wasteland. As most of these events are region specific, they also serve to alienate or cultivate the indifference of the rest of the community, which remains unengaged. 

While wreath wraiths may be disappointed, there are only four occasions in which wreath laying should take place: On 25 March in honour of the Revolution, 28 October in honour of OXI, both of which are events that are relevant to the entire Greek community and not just a part, the Battle of Crete, which although region specific is also locally important given that it is here that the historical narratives of Greece and Australia become entwined and the EOKA Commemorations for the Independence of Cyprus. The proliferation of other derivative events serves merely to lessen the poignancy and cheapens the effect of these four abovementioned commemorations. 

Considering that  in times ancient, the Greek war dead were honoured by the holding of funeral games in their honour, I am firmly of the belief that in sporting Australia, this is a custom that should be revived among Greek organisations in lieu of the wreath-laying craze. Nothing would please me more than cheering on podgy presidents or wreath wraiths as they sprint past the Consul General in pursuit of their ancestors’ glory. For those unable to participate for health reasons, the perpendicularity of the Hellenic Memorial’s columns could serve as inspiration for emulation in another locale, so that unused wreaths could be better employed in a ring toss competition. The annual Hellenic Ring Toss-Off could even become a spectator sport and a betting sensation, capitalising on what we do best. Just a thought. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 June 2022