Ancient soap operas
Put twelve Gods on top of a mountain in Greece and see what happens. What nowadays sounds like a boring scenario for yet another real-life soap was an everyday reality for many Greeks in ancient times. Before Christianity was imposed and all the ancient temples were burnt, a small cast of twelve managed to keep a whole civilisation busy. Welcome to Greek mythology, where every single story seems to have 1001 different versions.
The inspiring Chief Executive of Olympus Inc. was a man by the name of Zeus. He often descended from the top of his mountain to seduce ordinary humans from the work floor. He could present himself in any way he wanted, and his success rates with the ladies ? also with the boys for that matter ? was very high. Beside being at the top of the organigram, he was also the father of some half gods, and even some of the divine characters on Mount Olympus could be counted as his offspring. When Zeus was angry, he sent thunderstorms across the land, which led many people to make him sacrifices to save themselves from his frequent mood swings.
..shows to be a mythology expert
The Greek Gods
Leftheris (27) helps me also identify the other actors in the plot. Zeus had a wife called Hera who was quite bitchy and not always very faithful. She was moreover jealous at humans because they only had one life, which made everything they did special.
Some gods were born out of body parts of other Gods. One from Zeus`s head, another one from another god`s leg. Aphrodite, the Goddess of love and beauty was born out of foam of the sea. Anyway, the list of Greek Gods and their occupations back then reads: Zeus (main god), Hera (wife of Zeus), Hestia (goddess for the family), Artemis (hunting), Dionissos (wine), Ares (war), Poseidon (sea), Aphrodite (love), Ifestos (weapons), Apollo (science and arts), Athens (Greece and the city of Athens). Finally, a guy by the name of Hermes served as their messenger.
Giorgos (23) tells me that the system of Greek gods stayed around until the introduction of Christianity. `But most of the stories still make sense today`, he says: `And even though Christianity officially has one god, I still think that the sphere of influence of that one god largely resembles the combination of the twelve Greek gods.`
Giorgos tells me that most of the gods can easily be recognised in paintings or sculptures. By the face, or by the different artifacts or pets they hold. Giorgos apologises for remembering few of the details of ancient Greek history: `We learn this stuff in school, but it was a long time ago. Most Greeks will be able to tell you some parts of stories, but they may attribute stories to the wrong names or missing out essential parts. There are so many different stories from different sources and featuring different characters, that is almost impossible for people to exactly remember what actually happened and what is fiction. Or how they are mixed.`
Giorgos still wants to give it a try and he is telling me the story of the Minotaurus, the son of the Cretan king Minos and the Goddess Hera ? some affairs going on again. Minotaurus had the body of a man, but the head of a bull. He lived at the centre of a labyrinth that his father had built around him. Every month, two virgin girls would be fed to Minotaurus to satisfy the gods. Then it was the turn of some man`s girlfriend and the man went in to search for his girlfriend. He used a red rope to make sure he could find the way back. When he made it to the centre of the labyrinth, he killed the Minotaurus and found the way back out. Then he became the new king of Crete, or the leader of some village on the island.`
Macedonia and the Trojan Horse
Nikos (20) is willing to tell me his favourite story from Greek mythology, but insists that I first write about something else: `The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the country North of Greece, wants to call itself Macedonia, which they should not be allowed to. Macedonia has always been a part of Greece. The people who live in the country that wants to call itself Macedonia come from everywhere but Greece. Most of them have Slavic origins. So they should call themselves Slavo-Macedonia or something, and for sure, not pretend that they have anything to do with Greek history ? or with the Greek province of Macedonia which borders their country.`
Nikos then tells me the story of Troje and advises me to read Homer`s Iliad for more similar material: `Greece used to be made up of many small kingdoms. There were often wars with Persians and Romans, but this time, the Greek kings and the Persian kings united to celebrate a peace deal they had closed. During this event, a Trojan prince named Paris fell in love with Helena, the wife of king Menelaos of Sparta. Paris kidnapped her and took her to Troje, which was a city that was particularly difficult to get into. Menelaos obviously wanted his wife back and started a war against Troje. Several years of war were not sufficient to conquer the city, until the king of Ithaka, one of the Greek islands, came up with a smart idea. They would build a giant wooden horse to make the Trojans believe they had received a big present. The inside of the construction however, would be filled with Spartan soldiers who would take over the place as soon as the horse was taken into the city.`
`And so it happened. The Trojans saw the horse as a gift from the gods, rewarding them for sending the Spartans home with nothing. They pulled the horse into the city and celebrated. During the night, the Spartan soldiers crept out of the horse and opened the gates, so their fellow soldiers could march in and take over the city. Helena was taken back to Sparta and whatever happens after that ? I don`t know. I like the story because it shows that if something seems impossible, some smart strategy may still help you to get it done.`
More about the Spartans
Constantinos (22, photo) tells me about another Greek-Persian war which took place around 300 BC. `Zerxes, the king of Persia, came up with the idea to create the world`s largest army then known. It would be made up out of five million soldiers from all of Asia, and its plan: take over Greece. And so Zerxes sent his messenger to Athens to give the king of Athens two options: surrender or be conquered. The king of Athens told him off and the messenger continued his trip to Sparta.`
`The Spartan king had a reputation to protect. At the time, Spartan kids were separated from their parents at the age of seven, then sent to the mountains to survive on their own. If they managed to survive for three years, they were elegible to become king. Abiding to the Spartan law never to surrender, the Spartan king turned down the proposal made by Zerxes`s messenger. Unlike the king of Athens, the Spartan king had the messenger killed and prepared his men for war.`
`The king recruited 300 fighters, which one by one had to have a son to continue their names. He had just one problem. On the moment he expected the Persian army to arrive, his citizens were supposed to celebrate Carnea to honour the gods. The king chose to skip the Carnea celebrations, only finding out later that the priests advising him to take the other option had been bribed by the local population. And so they went to war at Thermopiles, a narrow passage between two rocks rising from the sea. Mission: kill as many of Zerxes`s men to demotivate them to continue the war`
`During the first eight days of ceaseless fighting, no less than 300 000 Persian soldiers had been killed, with zero casualties on the Spartan side. More than a million Persians had abandoned the army and the road to victory seemed paved. But then, a shipper living in the mountains accepted money to lead the Persians around the Spartan front. This guy called Efialtis, which is now the Greek word for nightmare, helped 10 000 Persian soldiers to the back side of the Spartan front line and all 300 Spartans were killed.`
That sad news reached Sparta and Athens and the Greek kingdoms united to defeat the Persians. A tough battle North of Athens killed all the Persians, except Zerxes, his wife and a guy with only one eye. They did not remember the way back to Persia, and I do not know what happened to them afterwards.`
`The story shows the complicated Greek dynamics that still live on today. Betraying somebody somehow pays off, but at the same time, it allows other people to be more of a hero than they already were. Even if they die in the process. Also, the story shows that there is honour in fighting, something which seems to have been forgotten over time. People have a duty to protect their land, families, wives and laws. There may still be a faint ideal for Greek people to be like the Spartans, but something went wrong somewhere. Even the people who live in current day Sparta are in no way similar to the renowned Spartans from the past.`
Greek ancient history is a mixture of religious stories, literature, mythology and fairytales. Some of them, despite their cruelty, are told to children as bedtime stories, while others are transmitted by the education system. Hollywood also helps to keep a number of selected stories alive, proving that the ancient history of Greece has universal and timeless value. What do the Greeks themselves think about that? Dimitris (20) says: `It`s like a coin. It has two sides. We are not particularly proud of what happened in all the stories. Many events that were celebrated at the time are actually pitiful if seen in today`s light. The best reason to like the rich cultural past of our country is to see that many of the ideas described in ancient Greek writings are just as true today as they were back in those days.
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