According to the tribes of North Auckland and the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand, a mythological figure named Kupe sailed to New Zealand from Hawaiki, after murdering his cousin Hoturapa during a fishing expedition, and making off with his wife, Kuramarotini, fleeing with her in a great canoe, Matawhourua. During their epic sea journeys, they overcame numerous monsters and sea demons, including the great octopus named as Te Wheke-a-Muturangi. Arriving in New Zealand, Kupe returned home, recounted his adventures to his tribesmen and induced them to follow in his footsteps, in order to settle New Zealand.
The Pontic Greeks also preserve the outline of a founding myth that broadly involves a great sea journey. Jason of Iolcus in Thessaly, after some familial strife, commissions the building of a great boat, the Argo and along with a number of famous heroes of the day, set off on a quest to find the Golden Fleece. Along the way, like Kupe, Jason was compelled to confront various monstrosities, such as the smelly women of Lemnos, the six armed Gegeneis, whose name in Greek is now used to describe someone who is “native,” the Harpies, the Symplegades and even, possibly the first robot in mythological history, the bronzed Cretan Talos. Unlike Kupe, whose wife was indirect cause of his journey, Jason meets his wife Medea, at his destination, Colchis, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Having defeated the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece and the Colchian king, Jason, like Kupe, leaves the newly discovered land and returns home, there to cheat on Medea and have her in turn exact revenge by killing his children and escaping home on a chariot, drawn by dragons, neatly closing a circle of motif. The Greeks, having learned of the new lands to the east through saga and song, slowly began to found colonies in the Black Sea region, which is why Pontic Greeks consider the trailblazing Argonauts to be their ancestors.
Both Pontians and Maoris, cultural entities that have a proud warrior tradition, are widely considered, to use the Argonautic term, to be γηγενείς, or natives to the regions where they historically resided. Yet their foundation myths suggest that purporting to claim “earth-born” status is elusive: our ancestors invariably, have always come from somewhere else and though we may pride ourselves by our connection with a particular location, we are in fact, as our own myths tell us, a conglomerate of the sum total of our collective experiences.
It is for this reason that the melding together of two distinct cultural traditions that have hitherto never been in contact, differ from each other greatly and yet share surprising points of commonality makes sense and is in fact, a masterstroke, in a country the vast majority of whose inhabitants derive their ancestry from somewhere else. Using the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival as a melting pot is even more apt because this is a Festival that is staged every year with the sole purpose of celebrating diversity, exemplifying how, when one appreciates and is able to look past the colours, smells and movements and reduces them to their original elements, we are all united by our surprisingly similar (and gloriously mundane) humanity.
Local Pontian dance Group “Akrites tou Pontou” is perhaps best placed to view Pontian culture in this light, because its very name Akrites, means those who occupy the uttermost edge, the margins. Local Maori group “Te Whare Tutaua O Te Ara Hononga Ki Wikitoria” on the other hand, translates as “The Maori House of Weaponry and joining pathway of Victoria.” Custodians of a proud warrior culture, it is their capacity to form “joining pathways” with Pontians who are able to view their culture from fresh and ever changing perspectives that permitted us to view something extremely special and of inordinate historical importance during this year’s Lonsdale Street Greek Festival: the forging of these two diverse groups on the stage, through dance, song, music and shared stories, into something entirely novel, harmonious and gracefully coherent.
In sharing the stage and their lyrical and dance lineage, two heretofore completely isolated traditions, united in their cohabitation in our city, were able to provide an awe-struck audience with a multiplicity of narratives that though complex, exuded simplicity: the journey of the migrant, the imperative to stand up for one’s culture and protect it, the dignity of those who have suffered unspeakable loss and tragedy but abide regardless and the nobility that comes with welcoming all who would partake of a very human ritual of brotherhood. In order to collaborate with the Akrites of Pontus, their Maori counterparts insisted upon inviting them to a traditional tribal ceremony of welcome, inducting them into their hearths and hearts, not as Pontic Greeks but, as family. On stage, our cultural hearth, they welcomed the entire Greek community into their hearts, and we reciprocated with gusto, proving that filoxenia and filotimo are concepts common to all peoples.
It is not the first time that the “Akrites of Pontus” have reached out to extrapolate and transform the basis behind their unique tradition of folklore. Past performances at the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival include collaborations with Australian Aboriginal groups and closer to the cultural home, Georgian choirs, a particularly fitting choice, since Georgia is the modern descendant of the ancient state of Colchis. Yet their perspective, offers something new to a Greek community that here in Melbourne has largely been so overwhelmed by the corpus of the Greek historical and folkloric legacy to be able to interpret it and place it into the context of our antipodean existence.
Up until now, we have employed ourselves mainly with rediscovering our traditions, which are so multifaceted and venerable that it is easy to become lost in such a weighty task, and attempting to reproduce them as authentically as possible. Consequently, we run the risk of ossifying or seeking to cryogenically freeze what we understand to be our ‘culture’ for the sake of avoiding contamination, a symptom of a deeper-felt identity crisis and cultural cringe. Nonetheless, by only re-enacting a rediscovered litany of unadulterated rituals that have their origins in rural Greece and have little to say by way of context to our urban existence in our multicultural metropolis, we run the risk of, like Poseidonians, retarding the evolution of our own distinct cultural tradition as Greeks in Melbourne and like them, through slavish repetition, driving that tradition to the point of irrelevance and extinction.
It is in the interpretation of culture, its extrapolation to inform and enhance our everyday lives that the strength of our community lays and this is where the Akrites of Pontus are forging a new and exciting path for us to follow. Recording and maintaining knowledge of our past is vital, as it informs the foundation of our existence in this country. Yet unless we are able to also make use of that vast corpus of ancestral lore in order to contextualize our presence in a country that differs greatly from that of our ancestors, we will never be able to form strong cultural roots in Melbourne. Instead we will remain dependent for cultural sustenance upon an increasingly remote and alien Greece, a country with diverging and distinct cultural dietary requirements of its own, neglecting the creative forces of our own unique and precious, version of Hellenism.
If Greek civilization has been able to survive and inspire throughout the millennia it is due to its singular capacity for openness, its almost post-modern multiplicity of perspectives and versions and its ability to embrace and assimilate the cultures of its neighbours. Rather than obsessing over the correct way to wear a zoumbouni, the Akrites of Pontus have understood that, as its director, Peter Stefanides observes: “living culture evolves. Art is freedom of expression and culture is the result of that development….our culture is not a a Mona Lisa that must be replicated.”
Had Socrates been present at their remarkable performance, he surely would have remarked: «Οὐκ Ἀθηναῖος οὐδὲ Ἕλλην, ἀλλὰ Μελβουρνιώτης», the first small, but unimaginably significant step, in the coming of age of our own Greek-Melbournian culture.