Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Greek film: Spirtokouto

Above is a clip from Spirtokouto (2002) by Yiannis Economides, the whole of the film can be seen here at

Spirtokouto (Matchbox) is an emotionally uncompromising and brutal film depicting family – and by extension societal – breakdown and disintegration, in which Greek family and Greek society is no longer a realm of solidarity, love, self-realisation, trust, honesty and mutual support, but of tension, cruelty, loathing, self-loathing, alienation, conflict, mental torture, frustration, selfishness, repression, disappointment, lies, where there are no boundaries or rules, where we cannot make others conform to our desires, see our reason or pay attention to the flawed choices we know they are making.

An uncomfortable film about how life is and not how it should be, Spirtokouto rebukes the prevailing fatuous, sentimental trend in Greek film, fascinated by sex, lifestyle, hedonism and romance and the imitation of American formulas; and asserts that the most interesting thing about Greece remains the Greeks themselves.

Spirtokouto also suggests a way out of the lyrical tradition that has defined serious Greek film since the 1970s.

Spirtokouto is the antithesis of an Angelopoulos film. Spirtokouto takes place indoors, in a confined space, over a short space of time, with protagonists who aren’t afforded the luxury of an Odyssean journey to escape or work out their alienation but are forced to deal with it in the place where it was created and continues to exist, whose language and emotions are naturalistic, confrontational and raw, functioning on the borders of sanity. Unlike Angelopoulos, in Spirtokouto there are no visionary moments, no imaginative indulgences, no poetic, philosophical or political ideals to be considered or which can be said to shape or motivate consciousness, no poetic reveries, no time for contemplation; silence is not a period of peace or epiphany but tension and danger, and life is inevitably a social condition and event in which solitary experiences, where they exist, are not opportunities for self-becoming but extreme states of alienation.

In the clip, brothers-in-law Dimitris and Giorgos fall out over a proposed business venture and Dimitris’ tardiness in fixing the air-conditioning.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Radio Akritas: Vasillis Tsitsanis

Vasillis Tsitsanis was born on 18 January 1915 in Trikala and died on 18 January 1984 in London, and to commemorate his birth and death I’ve made available three of his songs on Radio Akritas. They are

1. Κάνε λιγάκι υπομονή (Have a little patience); sung by Sotiria Bellou;
2. Το βουνό (The mountain); sung by Marika Ninou; and
3. Σαν απόκληρος γυρίζω (I return like an outcast); sung by Bellou.

The video is of Anthipi, backed by the Rembetiko Synkrotima Thessalonikis, singing Tsitsanis’ Ξυπνώ και βλέπω σίδερα (I wake and see iron bars).

Here are the lyrics:

1. Σαν απόκληρος γυρίζω
Σαν απόκληρος γυρίζω στην κακούργα ξενιτιά
περιπλανώμενος, δυστυχισμένος
μακριά απ’ της μάνας μου την αγκαλιά

Κλαίνε τα πουλιά γι αέρα και τα δέντρα για νερό
Κλαίω μανούλα μου κι εγώ για σένα
που έχω χρόνια για να σε δω

Χάρε, πάρε την ψυχή μου, ησυχία για να βρω
Αφού το θέλησε η μαύρη μοίρα
μες στη ζωή μου να μη χαρώ

2. Ξυπνώ και βλέπω σίδερα
Ξυπνώ και βλέπω σίδερα στη γη στερεωμένα
και μ’ αλυσίδες σταυρωτές τα χέρια μου δεμένα

Πέσαν τα μάνταλα βαριά
και σκοτεινιάσαν τα κελιά!

Με δέσαν χειροπόδαρα σαν το εγκληματία,
στην καταδίκη μου αυτή γυναίκα είν’ αιτία

Πέσαν τα μάνταλα βαριά
και σκοτεινιάσαν τα κελιά!

Βροντούν οι αλυσίδες μου, ξυπνώ αλαφιασμένος
και μόλις πιάσω σίδερο χτυπιέμαι αλαφιασμένος.

Βροντούνε βέργες και κλειδιά
και σκοτεινιάζουν τα κελιά.

CORRECTION: It's been pointed out to me that the song To Vouno, even though it is often listed as a Tsitsanis song, is actually the work of Loukas Daralas, the father of George Dalaras. (The spelling of Daralas is right). A great song, regardless of who composed it.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Έξω οι Τούρκοι από την Κύπρο

Well done to Lleyton Hewitt who showed guts in deservedly beating Marcos Baghdatis in the third round of the Australian Open today in a five-set thriller.

I've always thought Australian Hewitt was a bit of a pipsqueak, but I was wrong. He won the match through mental strength alone; mental strength for me is the most compelling aspect of sport; the test of self-control it offers the opportunity to display. Self-control is one of the fundamental aspirations of Western ethical behaviour – facilitating what it is to be a virtuous and wise person – refusing the temptation to be ruled by our passions, desires, fears and superstitions.

Self-control is tested, Plato says, in extreme situations. Such situations are rare in the safe and secure societies we live in nowadays; so sport is often the only (inadequate) opportunity we get to see someone – or be that someone – battling with themselves, with their demons as the sporting cliché goes. (The word demon comes from the Greek δαίμων [daemon], and is most famously referred to by Socrates who claimed to have a small daemon, an inner voice that 'when it comes, always signals me to turn away from what I’m about to do, but never prescribes anything.')

Self-control is particularly important in sport because a lot of sport is played in a fit of anger, and of course if you can't control your anger – in any situation – then you are doomed.

In fact, the first word in Western literature is Menis (Rage); as in:

'Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds.' (Homer, The Iliad).

I recommend Baghdatis read The Iliad, and see how Achilles, the supreme warrior, the ultimate competitor, cold-bloodedly uses his emotions and does what he has to do to secure his glory; while others, notably Ajax the Great, are consumed by their feelings, driven to despair and, ultimately, kill themselves.

As for the phony storm kicked up by the Australian media regarding Marcos' patriotic sing-song with his Greek Australian supporters – see video above – and the ludicrous assertion that the chant ‘Έξω οι Τούρκοι από την Κύπρο’ (Turks out of Cyprus) amounts to an anti-Turkish rant, or refers to anything other than the 40,000 Turkish occupation troops and 120,000 Turkish settlers dumped on the island since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, let’s be generous and not accuse the Australians of ignorance or bigotry, but put their sudden interest in the Cyprus problem down to typical Aussie sledging – testing your opponent’s mental resolve through verbal abuse.

If the affair revealed anything, it wasn’t Marcos’ Greek Cypriot chauvinism but the bitterness, jealousy and resentment of Turkish Cypriots, whose representatives in Australia jumped on the media bandwagon and called for Baghdatis not only to be thrown out of the Australian Open but also to be deported. At no point, it should be stressed, did Marcos or anybody else sing: ‘Τουρκος καλος, Τουρκος νεκρος’ (The only good Turk is a dead Turk). Now that would have been controversial.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Black Orpheus

Here’s a clip from Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959), which relocates the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the madness of the Rio carnival and is an ecstatic, sensuous, feminine film celebrating Brazilian culture and black sexuality. Certainly, one of the most beautiful films ever made.

The Greek myth involves Orpheus – the progenitor of civilisation, the harbinger of music, poetry, writing, agriculture and medicine – descending into the underworld to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, having suffered a fatal snake bite, initially succeeding in his impossible task by winning over Persephone and Hades with his plaintive songs beautifully sung, but failing to heed the warning not to turn and look at Eurydice before they emerge into the light and consigning the poor woman to return to the land of the dead.

Orpheus continues to live his life, railing at the cruelty of the gods and vowing never to love another woman, and is eventually ripped to pieces by frenzied female devotees of the god Dionysus, furious at Orpheus’ repudiation of women and his disdain for their preferred deity, and in this way Orpheus is reunited with Eurydice, in death, for eternity in the Elysian Fields.

The Orpheus and Eurydice myth has become one of the most popular subjects in Western culture, inspiring novels, operas, films, songs, poems, paintings and so on.

Indeed, Andrew Motion, Britain’s poet laureate, has recently written that Orpheus is ‘the patron saint of artists’ and put the enduring fascination of the myth in the Western imagination down to its ‘astonishing creative powers, [its story of] perfect love, tragic loss, heroic bravery, recognisable human failure, noble grief, ignominious death, final union… a compelling tale of finding and losing, making and marring.’

Not that the Greeks would have shared Motion’s reading of the myth. Rather, they would have seen the myth as describing man’s encounter with death and destruction and as reinforcing the Greek view that life results from terror. Indeed, the Orpheus myth was the basis of the most enduring and death-obsessed mystery cult in the ancient world, Orphism.

In Orphism, life is preparation for death, one long process of purification and penitence for crimes committed against the gods – specifically the murder of Dionysus by the Titans, man’s ancestors – which saw the body as evil, a tomb for the soul, which is divine and immortal; and asserted that an initiate’s aim in life – using a variety of ascetic and ecstatic techniques, cleansings, baths and aspersions, following a strict set of rules in everyday life (such as, not poking the fire with a knife, not stepping over a broom, not looking into a mirror by light, not speaking without light) eschewing anything to do with birth or death, refusing to attend funerals and marriages, following a strict dress and dietary code (no meat, eggs, beans or wine), and practicing sexual restraint – was to liberate the soul from bodily taints, in this way facilitating the soul’s escape from constant reincarnation – from the ‘wheel of rebirth’ – and finding eternal blessedness.

Pythagoras was an Orphic initiate, and the Pythagoreans – with their insistence on the importance of mathematics in knowledge and ontology, their inclination towards the Apollonian over the Dionysian side of Orphism, their stress on ascetic over ecstatic practices – have been credited with turning Orphism into a form of logical mysticism; while Plato, though appalled by the wandering Orphic beggar priests who preyed on people’s fears and guilt and convinced them to engage in strange initiation ceremonies and services as a means to purify them of their misdeeds and save them from torment in the afterlife, was attracted to ideas of metempsychosis, the immortality of the soul, body-soul dualism, and even had Socrates in the Phaedo define the practice of philosophy in Pythagoro-Orphic terms, as a process of purging the soul in preparation for death, and had him reveal the core mission of the philosopher as the pursuit of death.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Makaronia tou fournou

Makaronia tou fournou (baked macaroni pie) – as it is known in Cyprus – or Pastitsio – as it is known in the rest of Greece – is the most delicious dish in Greek cuisine.

In her encyclopaedic book, The Olive and the Caper: Adventures in Greek Cooking, Susanna Hoffman says that: ‘Pastitsio… is the first word that springs to a Greek’s lips when discussing Greek food. The first dish that springs to mind when talking of home, the first dish that springs to heart when lonely. Pastitsio holds the Greek soul.’

Ms Hoffman is being hyperbolic, but her enthusiasm is admirable and not inappropriate.

Pastitsio obviously comes from the Italian word pasticcio (pastiche), which I always thought referred to the dish’s varied combination of ingredients – long macaroni, meat sauce, béchamel sauce – but Ms Hoffman reveals actually means ‘made from pasta’; adding that the dish probably came to Greece from Italy as Italian influence spread through the Greek islands following the dastardly Fourth Crusade (1204) and the dissolution of Byzantine sovereignty and hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean.

However, regarding the migration of pasta dishes to Greece from Italy, Ms Hoffman makes clear that the Italians in Greece were merely reintroducing food Greeks had passed to them centuries before.

For instance, lasagne – closely related to makaronia tou fourno/pastitsio – Ms Hoffman says, is a dish with Greek origins – mentioned by Homer no less – which Greek colonists (from 700BC onwards) took to southern Italy; while stuffed pasta – now known to us as ravioli – was another Greek invention.

‘By Byzantine times,’ Ms Hoffman says, ‘the Greeks had become great “stuffers”, and stuffing pasta is not something they missed. In particular the Pontians [Greeks from the Black Sea] created many sorts of stuffed pasta, their preferred shape being the crescent moon.’ (The crescent moon – now associated with Islam – was for centuries a state symbol of the Christian Byzantine Empire).

Makaronia tou fournou is simple enough, layers of long macaroni, meat sauce (minced pork or lamb, onion, parsley, cinnamon) and béchamel sauce; although what makes the Cypriot version superior to versions from elsewhere in Greece – the magic ingredient, if you like – is the Cypriot halloumi cheese used to sprinkle on the macaroni, meat sauce and, generously, grated and stirred into the béchamel sauce. Halloumi is unbelievably good with pasta, irresistible when melted, and an aphrodisiac, apparently.

Friday, 11 January 2008

A small victory over evil

The European Court of Human Rights yesterday found Turkey guilty of violating the rights of nine Greek Cypriot missing persons and their families.

Since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, 1,555 Greek Cypriots and 64 Greeks have been unaccounted for and, until recently, both Ankara and its puppet regime in occupied northern Cyprus have refused to cooperate with any investigation into the fate of the missing persons, claiming they were all killed in fighting.

However, in a case brought before it on behalf of nine of the missing and their relatives, the ECHR rejected Turkey’s claims that the missing – comprising 60 percent soldiers/reservists and 40 percent civilians, men, women and children, aged between seven months and 94 years old – were casualties of war; accepted evidence which showed that the missing were arrested, captured alive or had been in the custody of Turkish or Turkish Cypriot forces; and found that Turkey’s refusal to account for the missing persons violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including:

Article 2: Failing to ‘conduct an effective investigation aimed at clarifying the whereabouts and fate of the nine men [in the case before the court] who went missing in 1974’.

Article 3: Condemning relatives to ‘live in a prolonged state of acute anxiety [enduring] the agony of not knowing whether family members were killed in the conflict or were still in detention or, if detained, had since died. The silence of the Turkish authorities… attained a level of severity which could only be categorised as inhuman treatment’.

Article 5: Depriving the missing men of their liberty and security at the time of their disappearance.

The judgment took into account that last year the Turkish occupation authorities in cooperation with the UN Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus excavated the remains of 38 missing persons and returned them to their families for burial in the free areas of the island; but determined that Turkey was still obstructing the CMP’s work.

The court ruled that while the remains of one of the applicants Savvas Hadjipantelis have recently been discovered and returned to his family, ‘this does not demonstrate that the CMP has been able to take any meaningful investigative steps beyond the belated location and identification of remains’.

Hadjipantelis’ case is worth considering further because it illustrates the likely fate of many of the persons missing since 1974.

Hadjipantelis, a 36-year-old bank employee and father of three from the village of Yialousa in the Karpas peninsular, currently under Turkish occupation, was arrested by Turkish forces in the village cafe on 16 August 1974 (along with eight other men – Pavlos Hadjidemetris; Takis Hadjinicolaou; Michalis Paraschou; Stelios Savvides; Panayiotis Kemekis; Odysseas Elias; Christakis Cosmas; and Pieris Adamou) and turned over to Turkish Cypriot irregulars for ‘interrogation’, after which only his ‘interrogators’ know exactly what they did to Hadjipantelis and why they did it, what possessed them to hand down their perverse sentence to him, and his family, who for 33 years suffered the torture of not knowing his fate, at the mercy of their imaginations and the numerous rumours, false leads and reports.

Then last spring, following information passed to the CMP, a mass grave was excavated in the Turkish Cypriot village of Galatia in occupied Cyprus and the remains of Hadjipantelis and the eight other men from Yialousa (plus two men missing from the nearby village of Eptakomi – Modestos Petrou and Dimitris Koutras) were discovered. Hadjipantelis had been shot in the head, the arm and the thigh. The other murdered men had similar wounds.

In her book Oysters with the Missing Pearls: Untold stories about missing persons, mass graves and memories from the past of Cyprus, Turkish Cypriot journalist Sevgul Uludag suggests the massacre of the men from Yialousa took place two days after they were seized and was the work of three Turkish Cypriots, members of the terrorist organisation TMT, from the village of Agios Andronikos, just west of Yialousa.

Uludag also believes that the remains of another 80 Greek Cypriots – who she says were tortured before being killed – are buried in mass graves in Galatia.

The remains of Hadjipantelis and the others he shared a restless sleep with for 33 years were returned to relatives last July and buried with the dignity and propriety they deserved; vindicating the relatives’ lonely and arduous campaigning, rewarding family devotion and lives sacrificed to finding out the truth; a small victory over evil, though it was made clear by Hadjipantelis’ three sons at their father’s funeral in Nicosia that the evil would only be fully redeemed when Savvas Hadjipantelis’ remains are laid to rest in his native soil, in a liberated Yialousa.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Blog recommendations

There are a couple of blogs by fellow Cypriots I’d like to recommend.

Nostos: A Journey to Ithaca is a bi-lingual blog, which, though occasionally straying into the Arab and Iranian worlds, largely explores the history and folklore of Cyprus, providing fascinating accounts of the island’s culture and traditions.

(Nostos – a very important concept in Greek culture, the root of the word Nostalgia – refers to the journey of a returning hero or the returning hero himself, who leaves ‘behind the wondrous and terrible lands of the Beyond, unknown and unsought [to come] home to a familiar reality’.

The classic nostos is, of course, Odysseus; and his attempt to get home from Troy, to the ‘familiar reality’ of Ithaca, is the most well-known journey in the nostos tradition).

A recent post on the Nostos blog which I liked a lot tells the story of St George the Neo-Martyr, who started out as a tall, handsome, athletic Cypriot who emigrates to Palestine in the 1750s and finds himself accused by a malicious gang of Turkish women sexually attracted to him of trying to seduce a young Muslim woman. George is brutally assailed by the women before being brought before an Ottoman judge who demands George convert to Islam. George, a devout Christian, refuses to abandon his religion and is executed.

The story of St George the Neo-Martyr can be read as a straightforward tale of Christian fortitude in the face of Islamic intolerance and Ottoman depredation; or a tale of a physically and intellectually superior immigrant who, in the land of the barbarians, refuses to conform, to compromise his inherited culture and destroys himself in the process; and, in the story, there is even something of the sexual and religious mania evident in Euripides’ Bacchae, in which Pentheus, who refuses to acknowledge the god Dionysos, is ripped to pieces by the deity’s frenzied female devotees; although, actually, if anything, comparing Pentheus with St George the Neo-Martyr reveals the significant differences between Greek and Christian aesthetics, between Greek and Christian tragedy.

Whereas Christian tragedy insists on a simple distinction between good and evil, right and wrong belief; in Greek tragedy, good and evil, right and wrong belief are never clear cut, existing simultaneously not just in opposing consciousnesses and discourses but also in the same consciousness and discourse.

In the story of the martyr, George is good, the Turks evil, Christianity the right belief, Islam the wrong one; but in Greek tragedy, Pentheus is both good and evil – as are Dionysos and the Bacchic women – and those who believe in the god and those who don’t believe in him are neither entirely right nor entirely wrong, but right and wrong and everything in between.

In general, Greek culture thrives on ambiguity, whereas Christian and, to an even uglier and disastrous extent, Judaic and Islamic culture, deal in dogma, infallibility and certitude.

I’d also like to mention Constantine Markides’ blog, Fourth Night. Markides, despite some unacceptable political associations, is a talented writer and his post this month on Seeking the Eiffel Tower in London is extremely funny and deserving of a wider readership.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Radio Akritas: The Sovereign Sun

Πολλά δε θέλει ο άνθρωπος
να 'ν' ήμερος να 'ναι άκακος
λίγο φαΐ, λίγο κρασί
Χριστούγεννα κι Ανάσταση

There’s nothing much a man may want
but to be quiet and innocent
a little food, a little wine
at Christmas and at Easter time

(Odysseus Elytis: The Sovereign Sun)

In my post Nothing in Excess, I referred to Odysseus Elytis’ poem The Sovereign Sun (Ο Ήλιος ο Ηλιάτορας). The poem has in fact been set to music by Dimitris Layios (pictured) and in Radio Akritas I have made three songs available from the cycle. They are:

1. Κάμποι της Σαλονίκης (Wheat fields of Salonika) – sung by Nikos Dimitratos.
2. Πολλά δε θέλει ο άνθρωπος (There’s nothing much a man may want – the full translation of this song is in the Excess post). I dedicate the song, also sung by Nikos Dimitratos, to Stavros at My Greek Odyssey; and
3. Όμορφη και παράξενη πατρίδα (Beautiful and strange homeland) – sung by George Dalaras.

Beautiful and strange homeland
I’ve never seen a homeland more strange and beautiful
Than this one that fell to my lot
Throws a line to catch fish catches birds instead
Sets up a boat on land garden in the waters
Weeps kisses the ground emigrates
Becomes a pauper gets brave
Tries for a stone gives up
Tries to carve it works miracles
Goes into a boat reaches the ocean
Looks for revolutions wants tyrants

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Christians in Turkey

A recent article in the Economist reports on the continuing fear and oppression EU-candidate country Turkey inflicts on its Christian minorities.

The decline of Christian communities in Turkey is a result of genocide and ethnic cleansing while fear and oppression stem from Islamic religious intolerance and Turkey’s fascistic Kemalist national ideology, which is expressed both at the state-legal level and at the level of everyday Turkish individual consciousness.

The Economist article says that the Greek community of Constantinople/Istanbul amounts to ‘4,000 souls’. In 1923, when the Turkish republic was founded, this figure was 200,000, reduced – as a result of measures such as the Varlik Vergisi (wealth tax) and Amele Taburu (forced labour battalions) – to 120,000 by 1955, when it was virtually wiped out by the Istanbul pogrom.

The Istanbul pogrom was encouraged by Britain – to stress to Greece the disadvantages of agitating for the end of British colonial rule in Cyprus and union of the island with Greece – but the truth is that the Turkish government of Adnan Menderes did not need much prompting to initiate and organise what amounted to Turkey’s final solution to the 2,600-old Greek presence in Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantium.

John Phillips, writing in Harpers Magazine in June 1956, describes the nature of the pogrom:

‘Squads of marauders were driven to the shopping area in trucks and taxis, waving picks and crowbars, consulting lists of addresses, as the police stood by smiling. Greek priests were reported circumcised, scalped and burned alive; Greek women raped. The Greek Consulate was destroyed in Izmir. Just nine out of eighty Greek churches were left undesecrated, twenty nine were demolished. Ghouls invaded the huge cemetery where the Patriarchs of Constantinople are buried, opened mausoleums, dug up graves, and flung bones into the streets; corpses waiting burial were lanced with knives. There had been no comparable destruction of Greek sanctuaries since the fall of Constantinople.’

For more information on the Istanbul pogrom, read this: The Greek Kristallnacht.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Feast of the Circumcision

2008 Vasilopita, with a glass of wine for Agios Vasilios, to show hospitality, and a £20 note, in the hope that in the forthcoming year, with St Basil’s blessing, the money will multiply.

Καλή Χρονιά (Happy New Year) to everyone, and Χρονιά Πολλά (Best Wishes) to all Vasilides and Vassoules, since today is also the name day of Agios Vasilios o Megas/St Basil the Great (between 329 and 333 to 1 January, 379) bishop of Caesarea, theological genius; one of the three Cappadocian Fathers – the other two being Gregory Nazianzus and Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa; defender of the Nicene creed – the essential statement of Christian faith; liturgical innovator; delineator of monastic and ascetic life; and paradigmatic Christian, renowned for his charity and efforts to redeem sinners.

Indeed, Basil’s charitable nature, his eager disposal of his worldly goods, meant that – before the emergence and predomination of the northern European St Nicholas (Santa Claus) tradition – ironically, St Nicholas is another Greek saint from Cappadocia known for parting with his worldly goods – New Year and not Christmas used to be the pre-eminent Greek gift-giving festival.

(Still, the Greek tradition of the Vasilopita [the New Year’s or, literally, the Basil cake] continues, with the ritualised cutting of the cake – cross the cake three times with the knife, cut the first piece for Jesus, the second for St Basil, the third for lady of the house, the fourth for the youngest in the house, then the next youngest and so on; and the placing of a coin (flouri) in the cake prior to baking – the winner of which is granted good fortune for the forthcoming year – which apparently recalls the incident when Basil saved the church treasury from plunder by baking coins in small loaves and then distributing the bread to the congregation).

Today is also the Feast of the Circumcision, commemorating Jesus’ circumcision, the first occasion on which he shed his blood for humanity, performed, according to Jewish law, when a boy was eight days old.

Of course, circumcision did not catch on among early Christians, and for this we must thank the Greeks – first targets of the Jewish apostles and evangelisers – who regarded the ritual as barbaric, something akin to castration.

Indeed, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, when the Greek Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires flourished in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, circumcision became one of the symbolic issues which split the Jews, between the so-called Jewish Hellenisers – those Jews attracted to and influenced by the more prestigious and hegemonic culture of the Greeks – and the Jewish nationalists, resisters of the Greek way of life.

One of the most important components of Greek culture (which the Greeks took with them to the colonies and conquered territories) was the gymnasium, an open-air public arena that combined physical and intellectual training and, in later manifestations, came to resemble a gentleman’s or country club, where city elites gathered to relax, socialise and discuss politics and business.

During physical training, the Greeks, as is well known, liked to exercise gymnos (nude). As such, male gymnasts valued their foreskins – a long, tapered foreskin was regarded as the most attractive – and regarded exposure of the glans as obscene. Greeks, therefore, were offended or amused when Jewish gymnasts turned up in the gymnasium and exercised with their glans on display.

Ambitious Jews, to make their presence more acceptable in Greek gymnasia, would often undergo an epispasm, a surgical procedure that stretched the foreskin to cover the glans, a circumcision in reverse; proof to fundamentalist Jews of the erosion of adherence to Jewish law and the penetration of Greek cultural standards. Jewish reactionaries were also scandalised by the brazen nudity on show at Greek gymnasia, which they regarded as immoral and shameful.

The tension among Jews induced by contact with Greek culture reflected Jewish class conflict, between a Jewish urban elite – more attracted and susceptible to syncreticism and Greek culture – and the more fanatical anti-Greek Jewish masses and rural population.

Eventually, increasing resentment and agitation among the Jewish lower classes prompted a crackdown by the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, which led to even fiercer Jewish resistance to Hellenism and the Maccabean war – which has gone down in Jewish history as a triumph of Jewish purists over Jewish Hellenisers and is the basis of the annual Hanukah festival.

Anyway, in the early years of Christianity, this Greek aversion to circumcision – reflecting residual Greek sensuality and love of the human form, horror at bodily mutilation and concern that the practice was too Jewish – meant that some of the worst Jewish prejudices did not find their way into Christian ritual and thinking – if circumcision was an act of ritual cleansing, as the Jews maintained, then, according to Christian propagandists, such as St Paul, it is the heart not the penis or any other bodily appendage that should be circumcised/cleansed – of pride, vanity and all the rest of it.

Nevertheless, six centuries later, Jewish doctrine and practice found more fertile ground in the Arabian desert, among Mohammed and his followers, who accepted with a vengeance the Jewish repulsion for the human body and fear of human sexuality.