The long read: why the Greek crisis has revived a pantheon of toiling heroes and reckless immortals
Are you puzzled by Promethean parallels? Surprised by Sisyphean allusions? Perhaps you’re exhausted by Xerxes? No explanation of the Greek crisis these days is complete without a reference or two to Greek mythology, which appears to be an even more popular way of explaining the hellishly complex calamity than dipping into real history for illumination. Just as Athens is peppered with ancient ruins, from the peerless Acropolis to the classical Agora, so comment pieces are littered with vignettes about the capricious Greek gods, long-suffering heroes, sacrificial victims and half-human monsters bent on human destruction. Sometimes you wonder whether there is any relevance in all these tall tales to the prosaic human suffering and economic woes besieging Greece today. Can they tell us anything meaningful about the predicament the country now finds itself in, 3,000 years after the stories were written? Is it worth consulting the Delphic Oracle for an answer? And what, if anything, does Greek history have to say about it all?
To begin with fiction. The first observation to make is that, like today’s crisis, the Greek myths themselves can be difficult to navigate. It’s rather like picking one’s way through a labyrinth, and we all know – don’t we? – where that led. Like so many of the first things in history, the inaugural labyrinth was Greek (as was the word itself, of course, labyrinthos). According to legend, it was the Athenian artist and craftsman Daedalus who designed the labyrinth for King Minos of Knossos to contain the fierce Minotaur – the half-human, half-bull monster – only to be imprisoned by the king in a tower with his son Icarus to stop Daedalus from giving away the maze’s secrets. The subsequent father-and-son escape on cunningly fashioned wings of feathers and wax went fatally wrong when Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wings melted and he plummeted to his briny death. Of the minotaur, more later.
If you find the vast pantheon of gods, heroes and luckless mortals and the many stories in which they wreak havoc slightly bewildering, rest easy, say the experts. You’re in good company. “There are so many myths to choose from,” says Paul Cartledge, Emeritus A G Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University. One could suggest, for example, that prime minister Alexis Tsipras has been condemned, like Hercules, to clear out the Augean Stables, ridding Greece of the stinking corruption and bribery that have long bedevilled it.
“Myths are interesting because the most difficult questions that don’t admit of an easy answer, you puzzle out by creating stories and they can have different endings and developments,” says Cartledge. “They’re all capable of being twisted and modified – a characteristic ancient mode of thought. There are some Greeks who really believe in the old gods, but these days mythology is probably more a learned pursuit than something that crops up spontaneously in conversation.” In other words, for many ordinary Greeks, it’s all Greek.
Harnessing the imaginative force of Greek mythology to explain a complex crisis is by no means the exclusive prerogative of foreign classicists shut away in their ivory towers. High-minded Greeks do it, too. Writing in the Financial Times, George Pagoulatos, professor of European politics and economy at Athens University of Economics, cited the myth of the Greek king Agamemnon sacrificing his eldest daughter Iphigenia so his warships could receive a fair wind to Troy. Likening the sacrificial victim to a Greece bundled out of the euro, the professor noted that: “The sacrifice of Iphigenia would turn out to be the ritual beginning of a collective suicide for the euro. As her sacrifice led to a decade-long Trojan War, a ‘Grexit’ could bring years of horror to the eurozone.”
The article prompted a return letter suggesting a more apt myth might have been that of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind. Zeus subjected him to the excruciatingly painful punishment of being bound to a rock, where an eagle devoured his regenerating liver on a daily basis. In the same way, “Greece is now bound to the euro and has the troika administer to it daily punishment through excessively severe budget austerity that has already plunged the Greek economy into a depression of epic proportions.” You get the picture.
Greek politicians have got in on the mythology act as well. Before he roared off into the sunset on his 1,300cc Yamaha earlier this month, to the palpable relief of his European counterparts, Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister, dabbled in the genre in his provocative book The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy.
Just as the Athenians used to send a steady flow of young men and women to be wolfed down by the voracious beast, the Marxist economist and heartthrob wrote that from the 1970s, Europe and the rest of the world started sending huge amounts of capital to the bloodsucking US and Wall Street. Varoufakis admits he was struck by “the irony of using a Greek metaphor (that of the Minoan Minotaur) by which to account for an international catastrophe of which Greece would be the worst hit victim”. That said, likening the international financial system on which Greece now depends for its survival to a bloodthirsty monster may not have been the smartest diplomacy. It may even have had something to do with his “resignation”.
Not wanting to be outdone on matters classical, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, predicted – almost certainly incorrectly – that “unlike in Sophocles’s tragedies, this Greek story will have a happy ending”.
The focus on Greek mythology during the crisis has been so relentless that perhaps it was only to be expected that it would find itself open to parody. Finding the appropriate vocabulary and parallels to describe the crisis has been a constant – one could almost say Herculean – trial, according to the Indian journalist Manas Chakravarty in the Hindustan Times.
“The obvious one was to call it a Greek tragedy. I said it was a Greek myth that Greeks weren’t hard-working. I mentioned the Trojan horse in 23 headlines, varying it with ‘Greeks bearing gifts’. I wove in Delphic utterances and Stoic calm. I wrote they should come down from their Olympian heights. I said they should adopt a more Spartan lifestyle. I told them debt was their Achilles’ heel. But the crisis went on and on. I understood then that an agreement would be both an Odyssey and a Sisyphean task.” That’s the Sisyphus who was condemned to an eternity in Hades of rolling an enormous boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down and start again.
Alexandra Melista, an Aristotelian and philologist in Athens, says she has been surprised to hear Greeks and foreigners alike referring to and quoting Ancient Greek and Roman writers and reinterpreting them in a modern context. “Maybe that’s because in times of crisis, people always go back to their roots to seek authority, unity or coherence,” she suggests.
If mythology offers an untold variety of pick-and-mix, make-of-it-what-you-will crisis metaphors, Greece’s long history offers no shortage of less fantastical parallels. Much of the commentary in Greece has, understandably, focused on the Second World War, the brutal Nazi occupation and Germany’s subsequent failure to pay war reparations.
Last February, Tsipras said Greece had a moral obligation “to our people, to history, to all European peoples who fought and gave their blood against Nazism” to seek billions of euros from Germany. It has not been lost on commentators that Greece helped forgive German debt in 1953.
Greece has historically derived considerable national pride and identity from its self-portrait as a courageous little democracy standing up to big foreign bullies, hence the less-than-diplomatic Greek references to Nazi atrocities and newspaper mock-ups of German chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform.
The writer and journalist Iason Athanasiadis says he doesn’t detect too much falling back among Greeks on their “glorious” past. The single exception is the Second World War, he argues, which is both recent and relevant enough to “weigh heavily on everyone’s mind”. Otherwise, Greeks are too preoccupied with surviving the here and now to indulge in historical modelling. “Ultimately, Greece’s clash with Germany would make a playground for a social psychologist,” he says. “The one historical parallel with which I agree is that the treaty we were coerced to sign is the Versailles of Greece.”
For a less contentious, but highly relevant, historical parallel put the Second World War aside for a moment and go back two-and-a-half millennia. The date is 480 BC. Having amassed one of the largest armies the world had ever witnessed, the Persian king Xerxes the Great, King of Kings, Lord of Light, invaded Greece, only to find his route south into Thessaly blocked at the narrow pass of Thermopylae by the Spartan king Leonidas. The Greeks numbered about 7,000, the Persians perhaps 150,000. A message was sent to Leonidas: surrender your arms. “Molon labe!” Leonidas replied with a swagger. “Come and get them!” Xerxes couldn’t believe it. How could the Greeks choose certain death over an honoured place in his god-given empire, just for some flaky concept of freedom? The great historian Herodotus described how the Spartans were gloriously unperturbed by their impending doom. The Spartan warrior Dieneces was warned that Xerxes had so many archers in his army that when they shot their arrows, they eclipsed the sun. “This is pleasant news,” the magnificently unruffled Dieneces is believed to have replied. “If the Persians hide the sun, we shall have our battle in the shade.”
To cut a long story short, the valiant Greeks lost at Thermopylae, but ultimately triumphed a year later: freedom was won and democracy was born.
Greeks naturally take pride in this history. “Among the arguments against Grexit propaganda are that democracy was born here and Europe is a Greek concept,” says Melista, referring to mythological Europa, a noble Phoenician woman abducted by Zeus, first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad around the eighth century BC. “Of course, these are clearly elements of the national Greek identity and they define, among other things, how we perceive our position in Europe.” In other words, no Europe (or euro) without Greece and no Greece without Europe (or euro). At least that was the plan.
The classicist Harry Mount, author of the riveting Harry Mount’s Odyssey, published this month, points out that when discussing contemporary Greece, foreigners refer almost by reflex to Ancient Greece. “However great the chasm between ancient and modern Greece, the modern country is still largely defined, in foreign eyes, by its ancient inheritance,” he says. It is surely worth noting that historically this has worked distinctly to the country’s advantage. At the Potsdam Conference in Berlin in 1945, Winston Churchill claimed to have rescued Greece from disappearing behind Stalin’s Iron Curtain. Unlike the other countries of eastern Europe, he said during his Iron Curtain Speech of 1946, “Athens alone – Greece with its immortal glories – is free to decide its future at an election under British, American and French observation”. Decades later, when it came to joining first the European Economic Community and later the euro, the Germans and French respectively were adamant that Greece, the inventor both of Europe and democracy, had to be admitted. As the former British prime minister John Major recalled, his European counterparts insisted: “You cannot say no to the country of Plato.”
Greeks can play up to this misty-eyed foreign swooning. Mount notes that when, in 2014, the British Museum loaned the Elgin Marbles statue of the river god Ilissos to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Antonis Samaras, the then Greek prime minister, was ostentatiously livid. “We Greeks are at one with our history and civilisation, which cannot be broken up, loaned out, or conceded,” he said.
What Samaras did not question, but many more thoughtful Greeks do, is the relationship between Ancient Greeks and their counterparts today. This is something that has also exercised English romantics and philhellenes, from Lord Byron to the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor: to what extent are modern Greeks the genuine ethnic descendants of those exquisitely sculpted, noble democrats and freedom fighters from the pages of Homer, Herodotus and Thucydides? There is the small matter of 2,500 years of genetic dilution, migration, Ottomanising and Balkanising to consider, after all.
“Greeks enjoy saying all the time that when they were building Parthenons, the rest of the Europeans were hanging from the trees,” says the actor, playwright and director Evdokimos Tsolakidis. “My question is, what is the relation of the modern Greeks with the ones that built the Parthenon? It’s hard to find a serious answer.”
Tsolakidis looks askance at his compatriots’ tendency to identify themselves with ancient heroes and tragic figures such as Antigone, Electra and even Oedipus. The preoccupation with a glorious past distracts from attending to the failures of the present. He calls it “a huge trap for the Greeks”. Instead of trying to find a realistic solution to the problems, many politicians have preferred to emulate the heroics of their imagined ancestors by “committing a glorious suicide. It could be naive if it wasn’t ridiculous.” Tsolakidis is no less scathing about the lazy, irresistible urge on the part of foreigners to idealise Greeks and Greek culture.
“A friend from the UK told me a couple of weeks ago: ‘You may collapse financially, but you will never collapse culturally’. When I asked him: ‘Why are you saying this? What relation do you believe we modern Greeks have with culture and civilisation? Look around you, see the way we build our towns and villages, see the way we drive our cars, the way we park our cars, culture is not something we put in the museums, culture is everyday life,’ he didn’t have much to answer me.”
For me, the writer and philosopher who best expresses the national character is Nikos Kazantzakis, the lion of 20th- century Greek literature. Famous the world over for his novel Zorba the Greek, he is also cherished by Greeks for a body of exquisite travel writing. The epitaph on his simple stone tomb in Heraklion harks back to the defiantly Greek spirit that runs through the pages of Herodotus’s Histories: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
The tragedy today is that many Greeks hope for nothing, fear everything and have lost their freedom. They have been shipwrecked by a ferocious combination of – forgive the mythological allusion – the Scylla of endemic political corruption and the Charybdis of bullying by Brussels and Berlin. Let us apportion the blame fairly, in the spirit of Dike, goddess of justice, who took her leave of Earth in disgust at our mortal failings, as imagined by the third-century BC poet, Aratus.
“Behold what manner of race the fathers of the Golden Age left behind them! Far meaner than themselves! But you will breed a viler progeny! Verily wars and cruel bloodshed shall be unto men and grievous woe shall be laid upon them.”
Mythology, however entertaining it undoubtedly is, can only go so far in terms of its explanatory power. If I had to choose just one Greek writer to read on the current crisis it would be Herodotus, as sure a guide as any to international affairs and the follies and vanities of the human condition. Had he been alive today, one suspects he might have had a lot to say about Greek and German hubris leading to collective European nemesis. As his wise man Solon warns the prodigiously rich Lydian king Croesus shortly before his catastrophic fall: “Look to the end, no matter what it is you are considering. Often enough, God gives man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him.”
Justin Marozzi spent a few years travelling in the footsteps of Herodotus. His latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, winner of the 2015 Ondaatje Prize.
Updated: July 23, 2015 04:00 AM