For a supposedly untranslatable concept, the idea of «Φιλότιμο», something which is apparently encoded within the DNA of all people of Greek ancestry, haσ been around for an incredibly long time.

Literally meaning “love of honour,” in its original sense, it had derogatory connotations, signifying someone who sought the acclamation of others, much like a serial social media poster covets the likes of his peers. It is in this sense that the word is used in Plato’s Republic, where the question is asked: ἢ οὐκ οἶσθα ὅτι τὸ φιλότιμόν τε καὶ φιλάργυρον εἶναι ὄνειδος λέγεταί τε καὶ ἔστιν; (Don’t you know that to be covetous of honour and covetous of money is said to be and is a reproach?”)

In time, the word, as a verb φιλοτιμέομαι, comes to assume in writers such as Isocrates, the connotation of eagerly or zealously striving to do something in order to achieve honour, the ancient equivalent of tik tok. In Euripides and Aeschines, φιλοτιμία signifies ambition, whereas in Xenophon, it conveys the negative sense of presumption or obstinacy.

Context of course is key. One can be honourable and in its modern sense, φιλότιμο does relate to the sense of individual self-honour that leads one always to do the right thing and to attempt as much as is possible to go out of one’s way to assist people, but the ancients were perspicacious enough to question one’s motivation as well as one’s outward actions in adhering to any code of conduct that confers kudos.

READ MORE: ‘Filotimo to the Greeks is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it’

It is in times Biblical that φιλότιμο begins to come into its own, being used no less than three times by that master wordsmith of the Greek language, the Apostle Paul. Generally, he employs the term to convey his desire to act in a “good” way. In Romans 15:20, he uses the term φιλοτιμούμενον in the sense of make it his “ambition” to preach the gospel. By contrast, in Second Thessalonians 5:9, the verb «φιλοτιμούμεθα» is employed to denote the concept of “labouring,” so as to be pleasing to Christ. In First Thessalonians 4:11, the apostle goes further, using the word φιλότιμο to prescribe the sort of ambition believers should have by which to conduct their lives: a life above reproach, well regarded by the community for kindness. It is this emphasis on being conscious of the way that one lives one’s life, tempered by kindness that forms the basis behind the understanding of φιλότιμο Modern Greeks share today.

In the recently completed public mural celebrating the Greek migrants of Marrickville in Sydney, filotimo is not just considered as one of the key aspects symbolising the Greek migrant identity but is, in fact personified. The artist could have chosen a number of components of Greek identity, ranging from religion, the ancient past, art, architecture, tradition or the stereotypical rags to riches story to encapsulate the essence of the Greek Australian diasporic identity. Instead, there was a conscious decision, effectively to grant equivalency to the Greek migrant, to the concept of filotimo itself.

There is great power in such a poignant statement. When you lack materially, the only thing you can fall back on is your self-worth, the sense of which is to be gleaned from your loved ones, your community, your adherence to an honourable code of conduct and the esteem in which you are held as a result of that adherence. The artist appears to be suggesting that the first generation of Greek migrants may not have had material goods, but they possessed innate dignity in spades, and that it is that dignity that granted them an acceptance and appreciation of that dignity, within the mainstream culture of the country in which they have settled. The eternal flame quality of the fire burning in the bowl held by the personification of Filotimo, connote the immutable relevance of that quality to the Greek community for the future.

The personification of Filotimo is particularly inspired as it is grounded in the ancient tradition of deifying virtues. Viewed from this perspective, with the deification of victory as Nike, righteousness as Dikaeosyne and Dike and Justice, there is ample precedent for the deification of Philotimo, hence the nimbus that surrounds her head. Interestingly, whereas the ancient virtue goddesses are all gendered female, in the mural, Φιλότιμο (as opposed to the female Φιλοτιμία, or Φιλοτίμω), while portrayed with all the rudiments that denote a classical goddess, takes the neuter form. It is unknown whether this is a conscious decision to portray gender ambivalency, asserting a discourse about the suppression of sexuality within Greek migrant women, or whether this is fact is due to a supposition that the target viewer would be more familiar with the word in the neuter. Regardless, the addition of a new virtue goddess to the traditional pantheon is of historical importance.

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At first glance the aesthetics of Filotimo are disconcerting. Rather than assuming the sparse, classical form ordinarily utilised to depict “Greek” personae, the artist has portrayed it in Pre-Raphaelite style, almost in the manner of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Even the Greek inscription «φιλότιμο» around the halo is rendered in uncial, almost Celtic style. Is the artist thus making a subtle point about the stereotypisation of our past, our values and our totality as a migrant community by the mainstream, implying that we are only comprehensible to them when viewed from their own tradition? Or, is the British born artist, Ox King, implying that the way we see and portray ourselves and render ourselves into palatable stereotypes within our multicultural paradigm, is a reflection of the manner in which we are defined by the dominant culture? In this case, are we ready for a debate as to how Greek and how exclusive “Filotimo” really is? The fact that Filotimo, a pale, pointy-nosed woman with Victorian features refuses to confront us and looks blankly away, into an undefined distance, provides more than a clue.

I am particularly taken with the depiction of the ship “Patris” as a hybrid ancient vessel with modern funnels in the upper right-hand side of the mural. By portraying this vessel, which now dominates the foundation myth of the Greeks of Australia, in the form of the mythological Argo, the artist is making a profound statement as to the manner in which myth becomes reality and pervades consciousness. One is compelled to consider the meaning of the archaically rendered word “Patris,” below the depiction. It was a ship called “Home Country,” that carried the Greek migrants away from their home country, delivering them to a foreign country, which they now call home. In one simple image and accompanying caption, the bitter-sweet irony of all the contradictions that comprise the Greek-Australian migrant identity are laid bare.

The other symbolic elements of the mural offer variant perspectives to the usual migrant narrative of acculturation and success, once decoded. On the left, we have, in ancient black-figure pottery painting style, portrayals of elements of sustenance: fish, an amphora presumably holding some sort of liquid and fruit-bearing olive branches. On the other, “Australian” side of the composition, separated by the goddess, so there is no communication between the two, there are merely gum leaves and gumnuts. There is no evolution here, no gradual morphing or grafting of the two worlds. Significantly, the new world provides no prospect of sustenance, subverting the primary raison d’être for the migration of the Greeks in the first place. Below the word “Lamia” whose meaning is obscure, unless it refers to Athanasios Diakos, tying in with the inscription at the top of the mural referencing the Greek revolution, the olive branch extends roots which do not seem to be anchored into the ground. It is almost as if the traumatic experience of uprooting implicit within the migrant experience is exposed for public view.

The balding hierarch saint holding prosphora in the top left-hand corner of the mural, the only other human in the composition, seems to be either attempting to bless Filotimo, a remarkable melding of divine disciplines, or engaged in the process of whispering into her ear. Does this account for her almost exasperated expression? Does she accept his blessing? Can she hear him? Most importantly, are we supposed to be privy to the blessing or the message he is trying to impart? And what is that message after all? The ambiguities inherent in the interplay between the two figures, both of whom transcend the corporeal world, are utterly absorbing.

There is much more than the viewer could glean from this thoroughly thought-provoking mural. The “Freedom 1821 or Death” caption emblazoned upon the top of the mural is Manichaean in its intensity. Save for its more obvious reference to the Greek revolution, it is worthwhile considering that in subjecting themselves to an often-exploitative labour market and a society which struggled to accept them, the migration experience for many of the first generation of Greek Australians entailed the giving up of many freedoms, in order to survive and settle. These Greek Australians who gave up those freedoms are going to experience Death in this country. Maybe it is for them and their inherent filotimo, that the saint in the mural is interceding. In this case, the black ship Patris ominously fulfils the role of Charon, ready to convey them to their final “home.”

Seldom in our self-congratulatory tradition do we come across sophisticated artwork purporting to celebrate us that is so polyvalent and so artfully conveys the wounds as well as the triumphs of our migrant story. Deserving of a visit in situ, in the historic heart of Sydney’s Hellenism, it is a worthy and stimulating addition to the other Greek-themed murals that have recently come to dot the urban streetscapes of Australia. After all, filotimo may be untranslatable, but we know it, when we see it.