Saturday, August 27, 2022


If you want to really roast someone these days, social media offers ample opportunity to do so in a multitude of ways. If you want to do so without the recipient necessarily knowing that you are doing so, you could excoriate the object of your derision in a private group, or under an assumed profile, a decidedly unhellenic act for it is the clash and conflict over the ether that satiates the keyboard warriors of our clan’s thirst for lectical combat. 

If on the other hand, you are living in the Soviet bloc during the time of Stalin, an epoch when one incorrect word could grant one a one-way ticket to the depths of Siberia, where there is definitely no wifi and the only influencers carry truncheons, ways to register one’s scorn are few and far between. Osip Mandelstam, the famous Russian poet, found this out the hard way, when in 1933, he bravely penned as part of his “Stalin Epigram” the following lines: 

“Thick fingers, fat like worms, greasy, 

Words solid as iron weights, 

Huge cockroach whiskers laughing….” 


Mandelstam died on the way to the Gulag, but as the research of scholar Han Baltussen in “A Homeric Hymn to Stalin” reveals, Czech author Vaclav Pinkava, who also expressed his contempt of Stalin in lyrical form, survived, mainly because he wrote his satirical piece in Homeric Greek. Choosing such an archaic form was a stroke of genius, considering the esteem in which European civilisation holds Homer, even when few havethe facility to read him in the original. Thus, Pinkava was able, through the adoption of Homeric language, to parody the hagiographic hymns prevalent in Stalin’s day and beyond, in relative safety, satirising the mythological proportions afforded to Stalin by Communist idolatry. Most importantly, he managed, through Homeric Greek, to develop a remarkably subversive vocabulary of criticism and resistance. 


First penned in 1948, the poem ended up in Pinkava’s novel “Gravelarks,” set towards the end of the Stalin era, where the main protagonist, Zderad, who studies ancient Greek, pens the poem in a moment of drunken daring, only to be blackmailed about it years later. 


From the outset, we are presented with an omnipotent figure, who, if not for the fact that he is identified by name, place and nationality, could easily be mistaken for Homer: 


Στᾶλινἄναξἄγαμαί σε· σὺ λευκολίθῳἐνὶ Κρέμλῳ 

ἑζόμενος κρατέεις πάντων Ῥώσσων Τατάρων τε 

καὶ πολλῶν ἐθνῶν ἀμενηνῶν κράτων. 

Ἕρποντες κονίῃ σε θεὸν ὣς εἰσορόωσιν. 


Hans Baltussen offers the following translation: 


Stalin, lord, I revere you: you, seated in the white-stoned Kremlin, 

Rule over all Russians and Tartars 

and many powerless peoples,  

who drag their feet in the dust and gaze upon you as a god. 


It thus becomes apparent that “Homer” is in fact, through exaggerated praise, parodying and ultimately subverting the cult of personality developed around Stalin, even as it purports to celebrate his almost divine authority. This ostensible praise of his power will continue in the next verses where the rhapsode will indicate the effects that the emanation of Stalin’s might have on others:  


Σοὶ δὲ μέγας στρατός ἐστι  βροτοκτόνοςὃς τ’ ἐνὶ χώραις 

ἀλλοδαπῶν φορέει γοἰζὺν καὶ κῆρα μέλαιναν· 

Ἄνδρας συλεύουσι βιάζουσι τε γυναῖκας, 

ὡρολόγους γὰρ κλέπτουσιν τοὺς ἄνδρες ἀγαυοί 

ἐν καρποῖς φορέουσι·τὸ γὰρ μέγα θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι. 

Ἄλλοι γὰρ ῥ’ ἐκάμοντο ἰδυίῃσι πραπίδεσσιν, 

σὺ δ’ ἐλθὼν αἱρεῖς, ὅτι τοι κράτος ἐστὶ μέγιστον· 


You have a great man-murdering army, which conveys 

into alien lands, misery and the plague. 

Men they kill and women they rape, 

Watches they steal from the wrists  

of valiant men; truly marvellous to behold. 

For others have toiled with great ingenuity, 

But you appear and take them for your power is immense. 


While there is no word for wrist-watch in Homer, Pinkava’s suggestion, ὡρολόγουςis inspired, being close to the Hellenistic Greek ὡρολόγιονfor clock and while lauding the acquisitive might of Stalin, he is actually drawing attention to the occupying Soviet army’s soldiers propensity to steal wristwatches from vanquished Germans. Phrases such as μέγαθαῦμα, also appear in Byzantine Orthodox hymnology, with the “miraculous” nature of Stalin, juxtaposed against the grubby depredations of his minions. The fact that Stalin began his career as a seminary student renders the use of such polyvalent phrases downright cheeky. 


Timepieces are important in the poem with the Homeric rhapsode proceeding to portray an almost Titanic Stalin with absolute sway over creation. Surrounded by watches and chronometers, both symbolic of loot, poor taste and of order and control, could the poet be paralleling Stalin with Kronos, the primeval god who swallows his own children and keeps the rest of the world in quailing subjugation? Or is he slyly hinting that even as he is at the apex of his powers, the Master Timekeeper’s time is limited, especially since according to variants of the ancient myth, Kronos was relegated to his own special type of gulag, Tartarus? 


Χεῖρας βεβριθὼς παμπόλλοις ὡρολόγοισιν 

ἑζόμενος γ’ ὁράας χρονοδείγματα κύδει γαίων. 

Πάντες δειδιότες κυνέουσι πόδας πυγήν τε, 

Αὐτὸς γὰρ κρατέεις καὶ γ’ οὕστίνας οὐκ ἐφίλησας, 

Πέμψας Σειβιρίνηδ’ εἰς λάγερα, ᾗ ψύχωνται 

δεσμοῖσι στυγεροῖσι δεδημένοι ἠὲ θάνωσιν. 


With your many watch-laden hands 

You sit and watch your time-measurers, elated in your pre-eminence

All kiss your feet and arse, 

For you rule and whoever you don’t like, 

you send to Siberia to a camp, here they freeze 

bound in loathful chains or die. 


In the last lines of the Ode, we learn just what type of effect such omnipotence has on those who are compelled to worship him and upon whom his will is absolute: 


Ῥωσσιακῆς γαίης πάντες ῥ’ ἄνδρες τε γυναῖκες, 

εὐχόμενοι στυγέουσιν, ἐπεὶ θεὸς μέγιστος· 

Ἠέλιον δ’αὐτὸν φασιν σόν τ’ ἔμμεναι ὄμμα 

καὶ Στάλινος πόρδην φασι ψολόεντα κεραυνόν. 


All men and women of the Russian land 

Pray to you even as they detest you for you are the greatest god. 

They say the sun itself is your eye 

and that Stalin’s fart is a smoking thunderbolt. 


The idea of a god so terrible and mighty that it is agony to even worship him under duress is here linked the Sun, an entity that gives us life and presumably can take it away, and which we cannot behold or approach without incurring harm. Here the poet is slyly commenting on the extent to which the sun became a central image in Stalinist propaganda, with Stalin unambiguously equated with the sun in Soviet poetry and song, not only because in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the Sun is held to be the only entity that has borne witness to the abduction of Persephone but also because the imagery of the Sun of Righteousness offering vindication and healing would have been all pervasive in the pre-revolutionary Orthodox culture, permitting the reader to compare that sun of vindication with Stalin’s sun of destruction and death. 

The equating of Zeus’s main attribute with Stalin also serves to parody, in bawdy Aristophanian fashion, the self-importance of the man and the powers attributed to him. Whereas a thunderbolt cast by the hand of Zeus may be a fearsome prospect, Stalin’s thunderbolt, though equally as dangerous, is illegitimate, coming as it does as a product not of his mightiness but rather, his flatulence, that is, his inability to control himself. The fart joke employed here as a chief expression of derision can be compared with a similar expression, in lyrical form, in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, 16:11: “Wherefore my bowels shall sound like a harp for Moab, and mine inward parts for Kirharesh.”  


The poet’s attempt to encode criticism in the Greek language in order to render it safe has cultural precedents in antiquity, with Cicero employing Greek when seeking to make jokes that only the initiated could understand. There are concordances in Stalin’s Hymn to Homer’s verses that can only truly be appreciated by those who are fully conversant with the Homeric epic and are across its nuances. The ensuing “in-jokes” are reminiscent of the intertextual banter between Byzantine scholars, the classical allusions of whom are often lost upon us, employed to undermine each other and to criticise their rulers, again underlying just how safety may seem to lie in the classics. 


Ultimately, in the novel, Homeric Greek fails to provide the main protagonist with the security he seeks, the prospect of his exposure culminating in a murder. Yet as an exercise in highlighting how subversive criticism can be encoded within a linguistic medium that has been the chief bearer of Greek mythology to the western world, Pinkava’s whimsical Homeric Hymn to Stalin remains a testament to the role of the Greek language as a form of resistance against oppression, and its ability to give nuanced voice to the suffering of millions. And the irony does not end there. In January 1913, a man whose passport bore the name Stavros Papadopoulos disembarked from the Krakow train at Vienna's North Terminal station. 

That man, was Joseph Stalin, using a fake Greek name. 




First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 August 2022

Saturday, August 20, 2022



Ignatios, who goes among the populace under the soubriquet of Nate, is a proud Peloponnesian. His ancestors hail, has he tells me, from one of the many villages in which, the claim goes, the Greek Revolution first commenced. The other four villages are fine as villages go, but only his wins the coveted title of authenticity.  

Proof of this is the magnificent upper lip coverings the menfolk of the village traditionally cultivate. Ignatios too is given of late to cultivating a revolutionary Peloponnesian moustache. It is as astoundingly long as that of Lebanese seventies sensation Tony Hanna and its precise curvature can be predicted via the use of quadratic equations, which Ignatios is adamant, were invented by ancient Greeks, most likely somewhere on the road to Patra. 

I dispute his contention. After all, there is evidence that the Babylonians were performing quadratic equations as early as 2000BC, and that the Arabs… 

“Don’t get me started on the Arabs,” Ignatios interjects. He harbours the conviction that since the ancient Greeks are the source of all mathematics, it is presumptuous of the Arab world to seek to bask in our reflected glory. I cajole him to reconsider, for the Arabs are a most absorbing civilisation, who have fascinated our tribe for centuries. For instance, I inform him, Greek was the second ever language the Quran was translated into, the first being Persian, by Nicetas Byzantius, a scholar from Constantinople, in his Refutation of the Quran written between 855 and 870. Nicetas’ translation notably employed the spoken Greek of the time rather than the Atticised Greek used for works of scholarship. He renders the Arabic word ʻQuranʼ in Greek as «ἀνάγνωσμα» which is the word for reading in the Orthodox liturgy, and translates the word ʻSuraʼ (chapter) as «δή» (ʻodeʼ) in the style of an Orthodox hymn. 

Ignatios twirls his moustache indignantly. He has recently oiled it with “Morning Wood” moustache oil by the Groomed Man. It is so symmetrical that I am reminded that when the New Scientist magazine debated in 1975 how to quantify beauty, it was suggested that the unit of measure be called the millihelen after Helen of Troy. I suggest instead that the unit of measure that quantifies Balkan male beauty should be called the millistache. He dismisses this derisively and I go on to inform him that the Albanian language has twenty seven words to describe the shape of moustaches, and thirty for eyebrows, thus: gjata, te dredhura, me bishta perpjete, si shuka, mustaqe varur, mustaqe zi, mustaqe madh, mustaqe fryre, etj. Ignatius was proud of his Peloponnesian eyebrow in the nineties, after Nick Giannopoulos declared it to be all the rage, but has since given thought to their tone and delineation, a task diligently performed by his partner, for he is a man most hirsute. 

“Not a hair out of place,” I observe his eyebrows appraisingly. 

“Well you know what Greek women are like,” he generalises. 

I do know. My mother is one. I muse that well into the 20th century, Western writers had no problems in considering Greek women as part of the western world, usually as classical damsels in distress, in need of rescue. These women would invariably marry their captors and live in the West. Greek men on the other hand, were tacitly kept out of the European family. 

Thus, near the end of Dora Bradford's novel "Greek Fire" (1935), the English heroine enjoys the following exchange with a young compatriot: 

- But, my dear child, you can't possibly marry a Greek. 

- Why not? 

-It absolutely isn't done. 

- Dr Cameron is doing it anyway. He's going to marry Haidee. 

- That's quite different. 


Ancient Greeks on the other hand could be quite brutal when it came to stereotypes about women. Take the loveless Hesiod for instance, who offered his ancient contemporaries, this advice: “Don't let a woman, wriggling her behind, and flattering and coaxing, take you in.” “She wants your barn: woman is just a cheat” and “The greedy wife will roast her man alive without the aid of fire, and though he is quite tough, she will bring him to a raw old age.” 

He also taught that if men bathed with women, they would start menstruating. 

The poet Semonides was more blunt, even than Hesiod, stating: “Women are the greatest evil Zeus has created.” 


Ignatios’ partner is none of these things. Even while in the notes to the second canto of 'Childe Harold' Lord Byron wrote of the modern Greeks that: 

"they suffer all the moral and physical ills that afflict humanity... They are so unused to kindness that when they occasionally meet it they look upon it with suspicion, as a dog often beaten snaps at your fingers if you attempt to caress him," she is wise, benign, omniscient and indulgent of his eyebrow insecurities. According to Ignatios, she holds the purse strings in family and I take great delight in informing him that the word purse is derived through Latin, from the Greek βύρσα meaning oxhide. It is proper and right that she does so. Were it up to him, Ignatios would spend his fortune on hair care products. After all, as his partner freely admits, Ignatios super power is that he never thinks things through. 

A fly buzzes past and we marvel at the portents a fly seen in Winter may signify. Ignatios swats it away indifferently and I marvel that the best insect repellent in ancient Greece was divine. The Elians prayed to Zeus Apomyios, also known as Zeus the Fly Shooer. Outside the window of Ignatios’ bayside apartment, grey waves are crashing along the shore as the light fades. There were two Greek goddesses said to control the waves. Benthesikyme, known as the “Wave of the Deep”, was the daughter of Poseidon and Amphitrite and ended up in Ethiopia. The other was Kymopoleia, known literally as “wave-walker,” the goddess of violent storms. We only know of her through a singular mention in Hesiod’s Theogony, though she also had a killer (literally line) in the Percy Jackson epic: “The Blood of Olympus,” where she tells the hero: “I’m sorry I won’t be able to see you die.” 



A light is switched on and all of a sudden all I can see on the glass is the reflection of a painting of Leonidas of Sparta hanging on the wall opposite.  

“How much more effective would have the Greek campaign been, if Leonidas had performed a strategic retreat?” I ask. 

Ignatios spits derisively. “That’s tantamount to heresy. That’s even worse than the time you claimed Kolokotronis was an Epirot. Seriously, when was the last time you ever said anything useful you silly bugger? 

Instantly, recall a delightful exchange recorded by Theocritus in the Idylls between a goatherd, Lacon and a shepherd, Comatas: 

Lacon: Remind me, when did I learn any useful lesson from you? 

Comatas: When I buggered you, I taught you to moan and groan like a nanny goat bleating when the billy goat shoves it in. 

Lacon: May you be buried no deeper than you bugger, you cripple! 


The revelation of my recollection causes Ignatios to raise one perfectly sculpted eyebrow quizzically in my direction. “You know”, he says, “In a 1974 meeting Henry Kissinger told Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus: “Your Beatitude, when I’m with you, I really feel that I like you.” Archbishop Makarios of course replied: “Dr Kissinger it lasts for just about five minutes after we’ve parted, doesn’t it?” 

“So am I Makarios, or Kissinger in this paradigm,” I ask. 

“I don’t know,” Ignatios strokes his moustache and gazes dolefully at the sea. “I haven’t thought it through. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 August 2022

Saturday, August 13, 2022



It is that time of year when an icy wind blasts itself through Oakleigh, hurtling tumbleweeds down a desolate Eaton Mall. On the other side of Melbourne, a few lonely patrons of Northcote Plaza shiver as they slouch into Degani’s, and slump into their seats, desperate to escape the cold. Across the city, all is bleak and barren, for in a mirror image of the migratory swallows of the motherland, our people have flown north for the winter en masse, there to resume peregrinations cut short by the ravages of the pandemic. 

While most of our tribe will apply themselves to making their neglected properties habitable, pestering their villagers with stories of how we do things better in Australia or photographing their souvlaki, which they consume while dressed in the latest summer fashions as purveyed in the souvenir shops of Mykonos, there exists another sub-group whose aims are higher and infinitely more lofty than mere gratification. 

These are the Greek-Australians, generally office holders in sundry suburban brotherhoods or associations (not to be confused with the representatives of some of our major organisations such as the GOCMV, who actually represent us on important issues and achieve significant results such as agreements to avoid double-taxation and the grant of tourist working visas to Greek-Australians) who travel to the motherland with the sole purpose of disturbing the public servants of the Hellenic Republic, its politicians, municipal officers, policemen, soldiers and other people they, in their abslute discretion consider to may be important, during their summer leave. In so doing, a form of ritual observance has evolved, whereby, after the meeting, it is considered  of paramount importance to take a photograph with them in order their peers back in Australia may think that they are important, enacting in this way a unique Greek-Australian rite of passage. 

A long time ago, so long ago in fact that Facebook had not been invented yet, (and this is important, for if the photograph referred to in the preceding paragraph is not posted in Facebook, there is plausible deniability as to whether the high level encounter actually took place), I was treated to one such dignitary call. Visiting the motherland in the height of summer for a conference, I ran into one one the delegates , a rather senior gentleman, who happened to be a compatriot from our common place of exile. “Come and meet the local Member of Parliament,” he gushed. “I’m about to pay him a visit. You come too!” 

I lowered my frappe slowly, for I was trying to blend in with the locals, and asked: “Why? What is he to me? For that matter, why on earth would you want to waste your time, when you can sit here and drink frappe with me and ruminate over finding your own internal equilibrium?” The look of shock and bewilderment on my interlocutors face has henceforth been indelibly etched upon my memory. “Are you serious?” Drawing himself up to his full height of five feet, three inches, he pointed his finger at me and waved it didactically. “First of all,  you NEVER pass up on an opportunity to meet a politician. You never know what it can lead to. Secondly, the photo opportunity is priceless. It is the ticket that ensures that you will be voted in at the next brotherhood election.” 

I sought further clarification. “How does that work?” to which my interlocutor snorted derisively. “Do I have to explain the obvious to you? If the local MP has condescended to meet with you and take a photo with you, then obviously, it means, to all the voters back home who come from the same district, that he endorses you. It means that you have connections, that you are a person of influence.” Puffing out his chest and placing a hand on the lapel of his jacket, he asked rhetorically: “Who would you vote for? Someone with access to the echelons of power, or a nobody?” 

“Someone who knows how to run the club,” I murmured. “You are an idiot,” my senior advisor snapped. “Watch and learn.” 

When we were ushered in to the local MP’s office, I marvelled at how pristine his bookshelf was, laden with leather bound tomes that glistened in the artificial light, exuded an aura of never-readness. The parliamentarian was jovial, grasping our hands warmly while taking furtive periodic glances at the tanned, excessively long legs of my interlocutor’s daughter. We sat down and the local member of parliament enlightened to us as to how indispensable he was to the region, how much money would be available from Europe, how many development programmes were to be initiated, and what a corrupt and thoroughly incompetent parliamentarian his predecessor was. 

To each of his points, my interlocutor, smiled ecstatically, enmeshed as he was, in the luminous aura of celebrity. Muttering a few promises to encourage his members to vote for him at the next election, he stood up when the member of parliament rose to terminate the discussion after ten minutes and was about to sail beatifically out of the room when he remembered. “Oh, we need to take a photograph. Just me and the MP of you please.” 

His daughter yawned and gazed out the window, as my interlocutor looked at me pointedly. I took a number of shots but when I showed them to him, they did not pass muster. “I look too small here. Don’t you know how to take photographs?” Eventually, the MP’s watch consulting became so frequent that even my interlocutor took a hint and took his leave. 

“Now, tomorrow we will meet with the nomarch, the head of the prefecture.” I began to make my excuses, citing a prior engagement, but he would have none of it. “Don’t be anti-social,” he commanded. “Furthermore, my daughter is going to the beach so I need someone to take a photo.” The nomarch was an immensely portly and jolly individual who showed good-natured if somewhat detached interest in my interlocutor’s detailed description of the barbeques and dinner dances his brotherhood organised, even if he would constantly check his diary, pick up his phone to text someone or interrupt to ask: “Would you like some books?” or “I’ll tell you what, I’ll organise for them here to send you some dancing costumes.” I took the obligatory photograph but as we left the nomarch’s office, my interlocutor began to panic. “We are seeing the mayor this afternoon. Should we send these photographs to Neos Kosmos now or shall we wait? Do you know how to get them off my phone? And of course a press release. I need you to write me a press release. Something about how the meeting was at the nomarch’s request to discuss the affairs of the Greeks of Melbourne and strategically plan for the future…” 

“What plan? You talked about the road that was supposed to but isn’t being constructed to your village?” 

“Well there is one now. Hurry up. I need you at the mayor’s office in the afternoon.” 

I didn’t make it to the mayor’s office on time. Interposed between the meeting with the nomarch and the meeting with the mayor, my interlocutor was supposed to participate in a parade to commemorate the liberation of that part of Greece, holding a revolutionary flag from that time. The trouble was, that the president of the Australian Federation of all the brotherhoods of that region was also holidaying and claimed the right of seniority. Harsh words and many jostlings ensued, causing the mayor to intervene to suggest that one leader hold one end of the flag, and the other do the same. As they marched down the town’s main drag, I took generous photographs of the resulting tug of war, which by the way, my interlocutor won, as he ended up taking the flag home with him, using it as a prop for his re-election campaign, after which time, it mysteriously went missing. 

Upon his return to Australia, he found the dance costumes waiting for him, which was a cause of some embarrassment as the brotherhood did not have a dance group. One was formed, with the sole purpose of taking a photograph to send to the nomarch as proof of the thoughtfulness of his present and was dissolved soon after, the costumes still slumbering in their packaging, decades later.   

When we did see the mayor, he was emotional. “All you guys need to return here. This is your home. We need you. Especially, young, bright, skilled people with ideas like you,” the mayor exclaimed wrapping his arm around my waist rather tightly and pulling me towards him. My interlocutor shot be a venomous look and spat. “You don’t need him. He wasn’t even born here.” The mayor smiled and began to pat my thigh. “There is room for everyone, you know.” My interlocutor did not speak to me for days. 

Brotherhood officials may take photographs with dignitaries in Greece to enhance their status and we can rejoice in their need to do so, but in actual fact, this need betrays a complex psychological phenomenon. By seeking out people of influence in the motherland to photograph themselves with, they are in actual fact seeking to show something else: that they have the means to navigate modern day Greece. That they are possessed of the networks that are so necessary for making a viable living in Greece. And if they cannot convince themselves that they never left, then surely that at a drop of a hat, they could go back and fit seamlessly into the zeitgeist of the society which passed them by. Viewed from this perspective, we can only view them with immense affection and sympathy. 

When I returned to the hotel, I was met with a surprise. Former Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, father of the current incumbent, was sitting alone in the foyer and we struck up a memorable conversation, at the conclusion of which I sought to be photographed with him.  

“Why the hell would you want to be photographed with him?” my KKE-voting grandmother in Athens wailed in exasperation when she found out. I recall that it was only after I managed to secure a photograph with Effie Thodi on a subsequent trip, that my grandmother finally acknowledged that I am to some degree, a man of influence. From that time onwards, I have concerned myself only with the pursuit of being photographed with Greek dignitaries visiting Melbourne. One day, I will convince my Greek relatives, that I am important. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 August 2022