Sunday, 15 September 2019

Isaac Asimov on the Spartans

Sparta was the dominant land power in Greece for two centuries, not that Isaac Asimov, in The Greeks: A Great Adventure, thought much of the Lacedaemonians: 

‘Sparta was never really suited to the task of leading Greece. The Greeks were at home on the sea and Sparta was not. The Greeks had interests from end to end of the Mediterranean and Sparta was interested, in her heart, only in the Peloponnese. The Greeks were quick, artistic and free and Spartans were slow-moving, dull and enslaved either to each other or to the military way of life. 

‘In later years, the Greeks of other city-states sometimes admired the Spartan way of life because it seemed so virtuous and seemed to lead Sparta to such military glory. However, they were wrong to do so. In art, literature, music, love of life, all that makes it worthwhile to be on the earth, Sparta contributed nothing. She had only a cruel, inhuman way of life to offer, dependent on a brutal slavery of most of her population, with only a kind of blind animal courage as a virtue and her way of life soon became more show than substance. It was her reputation that saved her for a while when her core was rotten. She seemed strong as long as she won victories but whereas other states could withstand defeats and rise again, Sparta lost her domination of Greece after a single defeat. The loss of one major battle [at Leuctra, 371 BC] was to expose her and dispose of her.’

Monday, 2 September 2019

Lament From Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Folk Music

Above is a talk by Christopher C. King on his book, Lament From Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Folk Music

King, a record collector and audio engineer, grew up in Faber, south west Virginia, and was travelling in Turkey in 2009 when he snapped up a stack of 78 rpm discs, as much for the ‘rare musk of shellac’ as for what was on the records. Except that when he got back to America and played what turned out to be Epirotic music from the 1920s and 1930s, King was stunned by what he heard and soon realised he was listening to the oldest musical tradition in Europe and one which went to the heart of the meaning of music. 

In particular, he deciphered that Epirotic laments (mirologoi) and early American blues were ‘spiritual twin brothers’

To demonstrate this, in the above talk, King plays Blind Willie Johnson’s classic Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground with Alexis Zoumbas’ Mirologoi – recorded as it happened (of course, in complete ignorance of each other) in 1927. King describes the coincidence as ‘beyond serendipity’, reflecting, in  the music, ‘something deeply human’ and ‘the best part of humanity’.

Read a review of Lament From Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Folk Music here.

Amanda Petrusich, a music journalist turned on to Epirotic music by King, has also written amount Epirotic music. She describes Zoumbas’ Mirologoi as one of ‘the most devastating bits of music I’ve ever encountered’, adding: ‘There is a palpable hysteria to [Zoumbas’) playing; each note trembles, as if he has recently suffered an emotional collapse of unknowable magnitude’.  

*Mirologoi have been played for thousands of years in Epiros, for the departed – for the dead or those condemned to emigration or even at weddings, where there is a lament for the bride, for the daughter who has left one family for another, the latter reflecting themes from ancient Greece where the marriage ceremony was, in part, a death ceremony, symbolising, particularly for the bride, not the beginning of a new life, but the death of a previous one – and therefore a reason for sadness and mourning. Read more on marriage as a form of death here.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Isocrates on Greek culture and race

In an exchange between an anonymous commenter and Hermes on my post More nonsense about Cleopatra’s ‘black ancestry’, the issue of Isocrates famous statement on Greek culture and race came up.

Anonymous wrote: ‘The Ancient Greeks (or at least the Athenians), as Isocrates famously proclaimed, came to consider Greeks those who partook of Greek education and culture irrespective of ancestry.’

Hermes responded: ‘This inference is absolutely incorrect and is a favourite of those forces of multiculturalism that want to foist on the Greek people their culture-destroying religion. Isocrates, not the Athenians, made this statement, and we cannot know for sure whether the majority of Athenians believed what Isocrates stated. We do know for sure that the Athenians had strict laws of citizenship which made it difficult for even a Greek of another city-state with one Athenian parent to claim citizenship. Also, Athenians were obsessed with the concept of autochthony which again runs counter to Isocrates.’

I want to add a couple of points.

Here’s what Isocrates actually said:

‘Athens has so far outrun the rest of mankind in thought and speech that her disciples are the masters of the rest, and it is due to her that the word “Greek” is not so much a term of birth as of mentality, and is applied to a common culture rather than a common descent.’

The statement appears in The Panegyricus, written in about 380 BC, seven years after the infamous King’s Peace, formulated by Sparta and Persia, had returned rebellious Cyprus and Ionia to Persian control and imposed Spartan hegemony throughout Greece. The Panegyricus is a passionate appeal for pan-Hellenic unity, a call to arms against Persia and a eulogy of Athens, which Isocrates believed the only Greek power capable of leading an expedition against Persia.

Isocrates advocates attacking Persia because it would: ‘exchange internal disputes for external war’, i.e. solve the problem of internal conflict (stasis) that plagued individual Greek states and Greece in general by directing Greek energies against a common enemy and opening the way for ambitious or disgruntled Greeks to colonise the east; ‘transfer the wealth of Asia to Europe’; be revenge for the Persian invasions of Greece in the previous century – ‘exact retribution for the insult done to the Greek race’, as the Greeks had previously accomplished when they destroyed Troy in retaliation for the kidnap of Helen of Sparta; liberate once and for all from Persian authority and menace the Greek states in Asia Minor; and fulfil the destiny of Greeks, which was to subjugate foreigners, who were racially and culturally inferior to Greeks. Greeks were free, belligerent and tough, while Persians were soft, effeminate and servile, according to Isocrates.

Isocrates goes on to argue that his native Athens is the city best placed to achieve pan-Hellenic unity and lead the campaign against Persia. Athens, Isocrates, says, is ‘the most ancient, the greatest and the most universally famed of all cities… But distinguished as is the basis which underlies it, there is closely connected with it an even clearer ground for honour. [Athens’] title to possession is not based upon the eviction of others or the acquisition of an untenanted wilderness, nor on forming a mixed collection of races. The distinction and purity of our line has enabled us to remain in unaltered possession of the land of our birth. We sprang from its soil, and can use the same names for it as for our own blood. We are the only Greek state which can properly call our land by the names of nurse, fatherland and mother. Any justifiable pride, any reasonable claim to leadership, any memories of ancestral greatness, must show some such racial origins to support it.’

Athens, therefore, is the most suitable leader of Greece because of its previous contributions to Greek freedom in wars fought against Persia; its cultural influence on the rest of Greece – here Isocrates echoes Pericles, who asserted Athens’ right to hegemony over Greece since ‘Athens is an education to Greece’; and, most significantly for Isocrates, because Athens’ citizens were, of all the Greeks, the most racially pure and homogeneous – the most Greek in blood. (This last point reveals the importance Greeks attached to parentage and descent).

Bearing all this in mind, Isocrates’ statement on the inclusiveness of Greek culture no longer appears so liberal; instead it becomes a radical assertion of Greek cultural superiority; a call to traditional Greek powers – identified by Isocrates as Athens, Sparta, Argos and Thebes – to recognise that the Greek world – those who share Greek culture and mentality – is much larger than Greece and consists of Greek cities and kingdoms that exist from the Pillars of Hercules in the west to Sinope on the Black Sea and Cyprus in the east; and a plea for this Greek world to be united under Athenian leadership, and such unity would not just be an end in itself but a means to successfully wage war against non-Greeks.

■ In 346 BC, Isocrates wrote another essay – To Philip – reaffirming his belief in pan-Hellenic unity and war against Persia. Spartan and then Theban hegemony had proved disastrous for Greece and disillusioned with the prospect of his native Athens leading a pan-Hellenic crusade against Persia, Isocrates urged Philip II of Macedonia to unite the Greek states and attack Persia. Of course, Philip did unite the Greek states – brutally and causing much resentment – but it was left to his son, Alexander, to fulfil Isocrates’ vision of a Greek expedition to destroy the Persian empire.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Robin Lane Fox on whether Alexander the Great thought he was a god

Robin Lane Fox gave an interesting talk recently to the Hellenic Society (video above) on the religious cults that developed in Hellenistic times associated with Alexander the Great and argues that these were not advanced by Alexander nor were they a product of Alexander’s pretensions to divinity – there is a widespread assumption that Alexander was driven mad by a belief in his own divinity and that he insisted he should be worshipped as a god. Rather, Lane Fox says, the cults associated with Alexander emerged as ‘tactical’ honours, in specific cities, for specific political and cultural reasons. In other words, Alexander did not think of himself as a god and did nothing to encourage such beliefs.

While watching Lane Fox’s lecture on youtube, I also came across this video clip in which Lane Fox says that the two things that made him want to devote a considerable part of his intellectual life to the career and character of the Macedonian king were: 1. Alexander’s fearlessness; and 2. Alexander’s ‘rivalry’ (as Lane Fox puts it) with Homer and the values of the Homeric world.

I also watched the interview below from Skopjan TV with its former prime minister Ljubco Georgievski, who seems to be inching towards accepting that the ancient Macedonians were Greeks and that the claims being made by the Slav inhabitants of Fyromia are ridiculous. However, Georgievski’s attempt to tell Skopjan viewers a few home truths is met by anger and incredulity from his interviewer, who disputes that the ancient Macedonians were Greeks on the following grounds:

1. If the Macedonians were Greeks, they would not have fought other Greeks.

2. The ancient Macedonians did not speak Greek.

3. Greece only began to take an interest in Alexander the Great and assert the Greekness of Macedonia in the 1990s.

What can one say?

As this piece (in Greek) reporting on a pro-Erdogan demonstration in Tirana indicates, the Skopjans, rather than engaging in embarrassing efforts to understand the ancient world, should be more worried about Albanian nationalism and its idea of incorporating Fyromia into a neo-Ottoman Balkan commonwealth, led by Turkey, and also consisting of Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. Or maybe some Skopjans think that if they too align themselves with Turkey, this might be a way to fulfil their nationalist fantasies against Greece.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Comparing Alcibiades and Plato

'Comparing Alcibiades and Plato, one could say that in a sense… Plato is a sort of inverted Alcibiades. Considerably younger than Alcibiades, undoubtedly thirty years his junior, Plato sublimates this passion for power that Alcibiades couldn’t master and that led him to do what he did in the history of Athens; Plato transposes it onto another level, the level of writing, of schooling, of counsel given to the powerful and to tyrants. This is what he did, it seems, in Sicily with Dionysius and then with Dion.’ (Cornelius Castoriadis: On Plato's Statesman).

Sunday, 28 July 2019

What Sikelianos said to Gatsos about Amorgos

If you know Greek, then someone has put together this youtube channel largely consisting of Greek TV documentaries on some of Greece’s best poets, including Cavafy, Sikelianos, Engonopoulos, Andreas Embirikos, Nikos Gatsos, Kiki Dimoula and so on, which are well worth watching.

Above are a couple of clips from the documentary on the poet and lyricist Nikos Gatsos. The clips are of nice anecdotes, which I’ve recapitulated in English below. See the entire documentary here. Gatsos’ masterpiece Amorgos is available in Greek with facing English translation.

1. The poet Nanos Valaoritis recalls in 1943, after Gatsos had just published Amorgos, that he and Gatsos were walking and talking in central Athens when they ran into an animated Angelos Sikelianos, who said to Gatsos: ‘I was reading your Amorgos on the boat on my way back from Aegina and I said to myself like Homer, like Homer.’

Valaoritis says he was surprised by Gatsos’ apparent indifference to receiving such praise from this most important and prestigious poet, and when asked about his reaction, Gatsos replied. ‘He hasn’t even read it. He’s just saying he has.’

 2. And then, Haris Vlavianos recalls an exchange he had with Gatsos regarding Gatsos’ great friend, Odysseas Elytis. Gatsos asked Vlavianos if he liked Elytis’ poetry. Yes, said Vlavianos. Which of his poems do you like, Gatsos went on rather insistently. The Light Tree and Six Plus One Remorses. Good, you’re on the right path; thank God, you didn’t say Axion Esti.

Vlavianos explains this unusual for Gatsos expression of malice, particularly aimed at his close friend Elytis, as reflecting Gatsos’ slight annoyance with Elytis and his tendency, as Gatsos saw it, to write certain poems that were consciously designed to establish him as the poet of the nation.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy on civilisation, tragedy and the end of the world

Good discussion in the above video on the links between art and science, the origins of civilisation and the end of the universe, involving Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy, during which the American writer responds to the charge that he depicts the world as ‘grim’ by saying: 
‘If you look at classical literature, the core of literature is the idea of tragedy. You don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you. Tragedy is at the core of human experience. It’s what we have to deal with. That’s what makes life difficult and that’s what we want to know about, what we want to know how to deal with. It’s unavoidable. There’s nothing you can do to forestall it; so how do you deal with it? All classical literature has to do with things that happen to people they really rather hadn’t.’

Sunday, 7 July 2019

The Beatles sing Theodorakis

In 1958, Mikis Theodorakis recorded a song for Michael Powell’s Spanish/flamenco dance film Honeymoon – Theodorakis had worked with Powell on Ill Met By Moonlight in 1957. The song was sung by Gloria Lasso and set to the poetry of Rafael de Penagos and was called Luna de Miel. In 1963, the Beatles recorded the song as the Honeymoon Song. In the meantime, a Greek version was made with lyrics by Nikos Gatsos, Αν θυμηθείς τ' όνειρό μου (If you remember my dream), sung, first, by Giovanna and then by Mary Linda. Linda’s is the most famous version, though it has been sung and recorded by many, many Greek singers since – everyone from Marios Frangoulis to Anna Vissi. Above is the Beatles’ version, below is the Mary Linda version, followed by the Spanish version, a video with an excellent version by Photini Darra and Gatsos’ lyrics for the Greek song.

Αν θυμηθείς τ' όνειρό μου
Στην αγκαλιά μου κι απόψε σαν άστρο κοιμήσου
δεν απομένει στον κόσμο ελπίδα καμιά
τώρα που η νύχτα κεντά με φιλιά το κορμί σου
μέτρα τον πόνο κι άσε με μόνο στην ερημιά

Αν θυμηθείς τ' όνειρό μου
σε περιμένω να 'ρθεις
μ' ένα τραγούδι του δρόμου να ρθεις όνειρό μου
το καλοκαίρι που λάμπει τ' αστέρι με φως να ντυθείς

In my arms tonight once more sleep like a star
There’s no hope left in the world
Now that the night is knitting your body with kisses
Measure the pain and leave me alone in the wilderness.

If you my remember my dream
I’ll wait for your return
With a song from the street, come, my dream
In summer, as a shining star clothes you in light.