My three-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s favourite bedtime story goes something like this: There was once a little girl, paradoxically enough sharing the same name as her, who, in contravention of her father’s instructions, ventured into a deep, dark wood. As she inched further and further into the wood, it became progressively darker. The boughs of the trees bent lower and lower, the ivy grew thicker and more tangled, the wind picked up, becoming ever the more forceful and icy, strange sounds could be heard emanating from the gaping hollows of the gnarled tree-trunks … “και μετά, ήρθε ο μπαμπάς και πήρε το κοριτσάκι από το χέρι, και το πήγε σπίτι του,” my daughter invariably interjects after about five minutes.
On the odd occasion, I tell her “όχι ακόμη“, continuing my narration of an ever-darkening, ever-cooling, increasingly claustrophobic and lonely world. This rarely lasts for more than a minute before she interjects repeatedly and with increasing urgency, insisting: “και μετά, ήρθε ο μπαμπάς”. At this stage in her development, it is vital for her to know that μπαμπά will always be there, to clasp her hand and lead her out of the dark. This is how she consoles herself. It is also why her favourite story is a παραμύθι.
In modern times, the words ‘fairy story’ and παραμύθι are considered to be synonymous, yet in antiquity, the Greek term had decidedly different connotations. Used as a verb by Plato, (παραμυθησόμεθα) it meant to encourage or exhort, while in Herodotus and Thucydides, (παραμυθοῦμαι) it has the meaning that has persisted among traditional communities until now: to console, or to relieve, or to abate. Thus in the Deipnosophistae, Theophrastus, was held to have said that: “Παραμυθεῖται γὰρ ὁ οἶνος καὶ τὴν τοῦ γήρως δυσθυμίαν“, meaning that wine relieves or consoles the melancholy of old age.
Similarly, the city of Paramythia, in Epirus, is, at least according to some, named thus, not because its inhabitants are particularly adept storytellers (though I consider Paramythia to be a perfect name to give a Greek equivalent of Disneyland), but rather because its towers provided aid and safety to the local inhabitants from marauding barbarians of diverse descriptions, throughout its war-blighted history.
In his melancholy 1847 painting, also entitled Παραμυθιά, Greek painter Theodoros Vryzakis depicts a mother consoling her daughter on the loss of her beloved, against a backdrop of the Acropolis. The luminous folk costume of the grief-stricken women far outshines that of the ancient marbles, which loom above them, distant and disconnected, and is juxtaposed against the darkness of their mourning. It is almost as if Vryzakis is insinuating that the old myths that supposedly exist to offer us guidance and consolation are too remote and peripheral to provide us with anything remotely relevant or useful to apply to our contemporary predicament, which eerily enough, is perennially the same, throughout the ages.
Though I have been fascinated by Vryzakis’ painting from a very young age, I harbour vague childhood memories of the first time I learned of the connotation of solace to the term paramythi. These involve black-clad, harsh-browed, windswept old women visiting relatives during a time of loss and overtly handing over packages of coffee, “για παραμυθιά”, as they would say. Between the weeping, the lamenting of their fate and the inevitable gossiping that would ensue, I was incensed to come to the realisation that no fairy story was forthcoming, save maybe those myths that we weave about ourselves to convince, or rather console us, that our lives have especial meaning. Perhaps I unwittingly understood Vryzakis after all.
It was my daughter’s favourite παραμύθι as well as Vryzakis’ painting that came to mind during an exchange over coffee with a couple of friends who revel in the newfound Hellenism of their ethnicity.
“We are a race of warriors,” one proclaimed proudly, extending his inordinately muscular forearm, upon which the Star of Vergina was painstakingly tattooed, in order to place his short black into his custody. “Look at the Spartans. They are an enduring example for all Greeks.”
“Why?” I asked. We were at Degani, specifically chosen by my friends, because, as they advised, Oakleigh excepting, Degani is where they go when they want to “get their Greek fix”. This particular Degani was in a ‘white’ neighbourhood. It did not purvey Greek coffee, which is my beverage of choice, and as a result I was compelled to do penance via the sipping of a soy latte, because, as I opined, we are all σόι. This remark received the scant attention it deserved.
“Re, the Spartans are the bodyguards of the Greek nation,” the Spartan-lover with the corrugated iron abdominal muscles responded, with an immediacy that implied that the events he was recalling had transpired just a few days previously. “They fought for the safety of all the Greeks and got rid of the Persians. They were a lean, mean fighting machine who stood up against tyranny and gave freedom to all of us.”
“You think?” I replied. Having downed my soy latte, I proceeded to turn the glass upside down, distributing the coffee dregs around it in an anti-clockwise fashion until they had dried along the sides. Picking it up, I scrutinised it carefully, for within lay my future. I was, after all, at Degani. “Except that Sparta, if you believe the stories, was run as a military camp. Weak babies were killed, and really, save for a few key battles, history teaches us that Sparta was mostly interested in preserving its own freedom rather than that of Greece and indeed, during the Peloponnesian War, sought to enlist the assistance or arbitration of Persia against Athens.
“As for them fighting against tyranny, it was the Spartans who removed democratic regimes from Greek city states and imposed oligarchies, in order to make the Greek world safe for aristocracy. They even hired themselves out as mercenaries for a Persian contender to the throne during the time of Xenophon. Furthermore,” I continued, gasping as I noted the design of a stunted, chromosome-missing, double-headed eagle in my latte glass, “the whole of Spartan society was based on their subjugation of the Messenians, who they enslaved and used like animals. So much for freedom fighters.”
My interlocutor’s biceps twinged nervously as he considered the implication of my words. Briefly, we mooted what would happen if the Laconian Brotherhood of Melbourne, inspired by the historical precedent of its ancestors, decided to conquer the nearby Pan-Messenians, seizing their clubhouse and subordinating its committee and members to the status of B-class members, the ones who constitutionally may join and pay a fee, but have strictly no voting rights.
“Anyway, we are the greatest people that has ever walked this earth,” our second companion interjected. Besuited in one of those bespoke, ultra-slim fit, cuffs above the ankles numbers that masquerade as serious men’s fashion these days, resplendent with thick black-rimmed glasses, immaculately spiked hair reminiscent of Superman’s polar hiding place and possessed of a dazzling smile, he was the intellectual of our parea, having read all the important Positive Thinking books, such as Rewire Your Brain, Think and Grow Rich and the classic As a Man Thinketh, which he derides as modish and outdated.
“Look at Alexander the Great. At such a young age, he created the greatest empire in history. He willed it and it happened. He united all the Greeks. Now that’s the power of positive thinking. Now there is a model for modern Greece to follow.”
This white Degani did not serve chips with oregano and feta cheese and I felt dirty as I ordered a calamari salad. As I relinquished hold of the menu, I mentioned how Alexander, who he idolised, was paranoid to the extent that he felt it necessary to murder his friends and star employees. Far from uniting the Greeks, he not only destroyed the city of Thebes, but also ordered the deaths of Greeks whose ancestors had colonised a city in central Asia a century prior to his arrival. By most Greek city-states, used as they were to running their own affairs themselves, Alexander was a tyrant, not a liberator or a leader.
Furthermore, Alexander’s empire was slightly smaller than that of the Persians, whose empire he basically appropriated, and nowhere near as large or as organised as that of the Romans, or indeed the Mongols, whose empire was not only the largest, but also, when they weren’t killing those who resisted them, the most religiously tolerant. And why, I asked, in these times, was it necessary not just to idolise a person, but consider him worthy of emulation, simply on the basis that he took over more of other people’s homelands than any one else?
“No, no, no!!!” my friends cried in unison. “How can you say that about Alexander? He is the last pure-blood Greek king!”
“Really? I asked. “Then why is it that both Plutarch and Libanius mention that his grandmother, Eurydice, was actually Illyrian?”
“No! Lies!” they pleaded.
“And why is it so important that he be a pure-blood Greek anyway?” I asked. The answer, of course, was that everything in Greek culture was pure and existed ab initio. We owed nothing to anyone and we, the pure-bloods, maintain the same germs of genius within our DNA today.
In the heated exchange that followed, which took the form equivalent of that extended dark forest path which my daughter traverses in her own paramythi, I showed my friends how archaic Greek sculpture had its origins in that of the Egyptians and the Assyrians, how Persian religion was just as rich and possibly more theologically sophisticated than that of the contemporary Greeks and, of course, how a good sprinkling of both ancient Greek deities and ancient Greek heroes were, even in their own time, considered to have been of foreign origin. The more I delved, the more violent the reaction came until such time as I felt it was time we were out of the forest.
“Re, that was funny, you being the devil’s advocate and all that,” Spartan-lover patted me on the back as I paid the bill. “You had me going there with that Eurydice thing,” Positive Thinker guffawed. “But everyone knows that Eurydice is a modern name. Couldn’t have been Alexander’s grandmother. Imagine what we would do if we had a modern equivalent today. A corporate takeover giant. There is one in all of us. The Greek business genius is second to none …”
“What an empire needs is muscle,” Spartan-lover mused. “That’s why within the DNA of every Greek lies the discipline of the Spartans. This is why neither the Germans, nor the Turks will keep us down … But wait till we get access to those pools of oil under Thasos. We are sitting on the largest oilfield in the world. Then they will see.”
“Και μετά, ήρθε ο μπαμπάς …” I whispered as I walked away, lamenting that for my people, there is no Balm in Gilead, merely coffee, in diverse cups, by way of παρηγοριά.