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Keepers of the Faith June 30, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life.
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PORTRAIT OF A PRIESTESS > Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece.
By Joan Breton Connelly. Illustrated. 415 pp. Princeton University Press.

In the summer of 423 B.C., Chrysis, the priestess of Hera at Argos, fell asleep inside the goddess’s great temple, and a torch she had left ablaze set fire to the sacred garlands there, burning the building to the ground. This spectacular case of custodial negligence drew the attention of the historian Thucydides, a man with scant interest in religion or women. But he had mentioned Chrysis once before: the official lists of Hera’s priestesses at Argos provided a way of dating historical events in the Greek world, and Thucydides formally marked the beginning of the Peloponnesian War with Chrysis’ name and year of tenure, together with the names of consequential male officeholders from Athens and Sparta.

During the same upheaval, in 411, Thucydides’ fellow Athenian Aristophanes staged his comedy “Lysistrata,” with a heroine who tries to bring the war to an end by leading a sex strike. There is reason to believe that Lysistrata herself is drawn in part from a contemporary historical figure, Lysimache, the priestess of Athena Polias on the Acropolis. If so, she joins such pre-eminent Athenians as Pericles, Euripides and Socrates as an object of Aristophanes’ lampoons. On a much bigger stage in 480 B.C., before the battle of Salamis, one of Lysimache’s predecessors helped persuade the Athenians to take to their ships and evacuate the city ahead of the Persian invaders, a policy that very likely saved Greece, announcing that Athena’s sacred snake had failed to eat its honey cake, a sign that the goddess had already departed.

These are just some of the influential women visible through the cracks of conventional history in Joan Breton Connelly’s eye-opening “Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece.” Her portrait is not in fact that of an individual priestess, but of a formidable class of women scattered over the Greek world and across a thousand years of history, down to the day in A.D. 393 when the Christian emperor Theodosius banned the polytheistic cults. It is remarkable, in this age of gender studies, that this is the first comprehensive treatment of the subject, especially since, as Connelly persuasively argues, religious office was, exceptionally, an “arena in which Greek women assumed roles equal … to those of men.” Roman society could make no such boast, nor can ours.

Despite powerful but ambiguous depictions in Greek tragedy, no single ancient source extensively documents priestesses, and Connelly, a professor at New York University, builds her canvas from material gleaned from scattered literary references, ancient artifacts and inscriptions, and representations in sculpture and vase painting. Her book shows generations of women enjoying all the influence, prestige, honor and respect that ancient priesthoods entailed. Few were as exalted as the Pythia, who sat entranced on a tripod at Delphi and revealed the oracular will of Apollo, in hexameter verse, to individuals and to states. But Connelly finds priestesses who were paid for cult services, awarded public portrait statues, given elaborate state funerals, consulted on political matters and acknowledged as sources of cultural wisdom and authority by open-minded men like the historian Herodotus. With separation of church and state an inconceivable notion in the world’s first democracy, all priesthoods, including those held by women, were essentially political offices, Connelly maintains. Nor did sacred service mean self-abnegation. “Virgin” priestesses like Rome’s Vestals were alien to the Greek conception. Few cults called for permanent sexual abstinence, and those that did tended to appoint women already beyond childbearing age; some of the most powerful priesthoods were held by married women with children, leading “normal” lives.

The Greeks don’t deserve their reputation as rationalists. Religion and ritual permeated the world of the city-states, where, Connelly notes, “there was no area of life that lacked a religious aspect.” She cites one estimate that 2,000 cults operated during the classical period in the territory of Athens alone; the city’s roughly 170 festival days would have brought women out in public in great numbers and in conspicuous roles. “Ritual fueled the visibility of Greek women within this system,” Connelly writes, sending them across their cities to sanctuaries, shrines and cemeteries, so that the picture that emerges “is one of far-ranging mobility for women across the polis landscape.”

These aspects of Connelly’s well-documented, meticulously assembled portrait may not seem that remarkable on the surface, but they largely contradict what has long been the most broadly accepted vision of the women of ancient Greece, particularly Athens, as dependent, cloistered, invisible and mute, relegated almost exclusively to housekeeping and child rearing, a view that at its most extreme maintains that the names of respectable Athenian women were not spoken aloud in public or that women were essentially housebound.

Connelly traces the tenacity of this idea to several sources, including the paradoxically convergent ideologies of Victorian gentlemen scholars and 20th-century feminists and a modern tendency to discount the real-world force of religion, a notion now under powerful empirical adjustment. But another cause is a professional divide between classicists and archaeologists. In their consideration of a woman’s place, classicists emphasize certain well-known texts, the most notorious being Thucydides’ rendition of Pericles’ great oration over the first Athenian dead of the Peloponnesian War, which had this terse advice for their widows: “If I must say anything on the subject of female excellence, … greatest will be her glory who is least talked of among men, whether in praise or in criticism.” Connelly, though, is an archaeologist, and she insists that her evidence be allowed to speak for itself, something it does with forceful eloquence. Far from the names of respectable women being suppressed, it seems clear that great effort was made to ensure that the names of many of these women would never be forgotten: Connelly can cite more than 150 historical Greek priestesses by name. Archaeology also speaks through beauty: “Portrait of a Priestess” is an excellent thematic case study in vase painting and sculpture, with striking images of spirited women, at altars or leading men in procession, many marked as priestesses by the great metal temple key they carry, signifying not admission to heaven but the pragmatic responsibility that Chrysis so notoriously betrayed in Argos.

Greek religion is a vast and complex subject, and “Portrait of a Priestess,” by concentrating on one of its most concretely human aspects, offers an engrossing point of entry. It’s not clear how far this lavishly produced book was intended for general audiences; a map, a glossary and expanded captions would surely have been welcome. But Connelly’s style is clear, often elegant and occasionally stirring. And while she shows a fertile disregard for received wisdom, her astonishingly radical reinterpretation of the Parthenon’s sculptural frieze, conceived in the early 1990s while she was researching this book, helped her win a MacArthur fellowship, she is no polemicist, a fact that has the effect of strengthening her more provocative points. Polytheism’s presumed spiritual failures may eventually have led to the Christian ascendancy, but Connelly shows that the system long sustained and nourished Greek women and their communities. In turn, women habituated to religious privilege and influence in the pre-Christian era eagerly lent their expertise and energy to the early church. But with one male god in sole reign in heaven, women’s direct connection with deity became suspect, and they were methodically edged out of formal religious power.

“There may be no finer tribute to the potency of the Greek priestess than the discomfort that her position caused the church fathers,” Connelly writes in her understated way. Her priestesses may be ancient history, but the consequences of the discomfort they caused endure to this day.


What life was like in 5th-century Greece June 30, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life.
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Dump The Da Vinci Code and grab copies of Mary Renault’s historical fiction.

Serendipity is the reader’s great ally. Chance discovery is one of the finest ways to make the acquaintance of an unfamiliar author or book. Ideally this happens in a place like a library, where towering wooden shelves lined with dusty spines allow the visitor to wander and agonise, waiting for his eye, like a net cast wide, to snag on something tasty. But one could really be anywhere, bookstore, pavement bookstall, in conversation. And one of the easiest paths to discovery is to read a book about books. Just one such, a collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens called Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, gave me a number of leads. 

A passing mention led me to a novelist named Mary Renault. Renault set her best-known novels in ancient Greece, from the semi-mythological time of Theseus to the fragmentation of Alexander the Great’s empire. All the familiar themes are there: democracy, tyranny, philosophy, war and civil war, politics, athletics, drama, homosexuality, pan-Greek social networks and myth, above all myth, are explored on the stage of the Greek world, from Magna Graecia to the borders of India. 

In The Last of the Wine (1956), her first historical novel, Renault looks at 5th-century Athens and the Aegean through the eyes of an Athenian aristocrat who comes of age as his city is losing its war in Sicily. There is no need for the novelist to invent a narrative, contemporary historical events were of such pace and scope that they provide all the momentum the story needs, and merely by participating in them the protagonists face the complexity of circumstance that makes the actors in a good novel change, and thus ring true. 

Indeed, because she must keep to the path laid out by known events, Renault is free to bring in and give voice to historical characters. Socrates, Plato, Alcibiades, Critias and many others known from Plato and ancient historians are in this book. It is an achievement to have successfully fictionalised these individuals, that is, been able to invent their thoughts, actions and motives, and imagined convincingly why and how they did what we know they did. Meeting such characters in the flesh in her words, as it were, is to me a great attraction of Renault’s books. 

What any historical novelist needs in order to pull off things like this, and what Renault clearly has, is a complete mastery of the sources. This requires her to have read everything a professional historian of the period has, and much more. A professional historian has a beat, so to speak, and spends so much time following it and cultivating his favourite sources that he has little time for material not related to his work. Yet, without the work of the professionals, no “big picture”of history can be drawn, not even by a novelist. 

A professional historian, for instance, would be terrified of approaching a big question such as “What was life like in 5th-century Greece?” head on. There is too much he knows he doesn’t know and much that he is not sure about, and he is not trained to use imagination or leaps of intuition to fill the gaps. Which is not to say that many excellent historians have not done this. A novelist like Renault has to have answers to this question in her head, as well as the confidence and logical vigour to use them where required. 

As a result, while historians dispute some of Renault’s characterisation, especially her somewhat romanticised portrait of Alexander in her three books on him, collectively a very good fictionalised biography, incorporating all the known facts, of a suprisingly little-known titan of history, they rarely fault her on her recreation of life in the period. Having read Renault, then, perhaps one can enjoy Plato or Euripides more. 

In The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, her retellings of the story of Theseus, Renault does something almost more interesting. She gives us a picture of how history becomes myth, and vice versa. Although scholars point out that her tale in this case has scant historical basis, it is nevertheless a highly intelligent, and quite thrilling, exercise in breaking a myth into its elements and putting it together again into a credible story, which retains somehow the power of the myth. 

Part of a myth’s power is the power that comes from foreknowledge. You already know how it is going to turn out. What makes Renault a great novelist and a respectable guide to the inner and outer worlds of ancient Greece is that, as a reader, you know what she must do, eventually. It is the doing that takes one’s breath away.

Simply, deliciously Greek food June 30, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greek Taste World.
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There are good reasons for its popularity. At Yannis, those reasons include fresh seafood from next door and light, crispy fried vegetables

I booked a terrasse table at Yannis, the popular Greek restaurant on Victoria Ave. next door to that piscine palace, New Victoria Fish. The Yannis in question is Yannis Papageorgiou, son of Frank Papageorgiou, who owns New Victoria, where you’ll find some of the best smoked salmon in town.

Stepping into the beige and baby-blue dining room, I was intercepted by the most genial maitre d’, a fellow named Jimmy Baloukas, who showed me a menu and led me to the refrigerator case filled with clear-eyed and red-gilled snapper, pompano and Greek sardines. His enthusiasm was infectious and I quickly booked a terrasse table while eyeing the thick slabs of swordfish and tuna next to the whole specimens on ice.

The cooking relies on simple seasonings and fresh meat, fish, seafood and vegetables. It’s healthy and flavourful, and the platter-style presentation offers a convivial dining experience. Montreal counts several excellent Greek restaurants, including the elegant Vegera, the tiny Delfino, Trinity, the new Drummond St. restaurant opened by restaurateur Peter Morentzos, which has everyone buzzing, and the mighty Milos, the restaurant that introduced Montrealers to the fine-dining possibilities of a cuisine that had long been relegated to cafes and brochetteries.

Yannis ranks highly also, partly because the next-door fishmonger connection means the fish is gorgeous, but also because of the incredible service we enjoyed at the hands of Mr. Baloukas, a former owner of both Faros and Angus Noir who joined the Yannis team as a partner a month ago. His greeting couldn’t have been friendlier, his menu descriptions were mouth-watering, and he allowed us to taste two wines before settling on Ambelon, a food-friendly white made with the robola grape. Hovering waiters can be a pain, but Mr. Baloukas knew when and how to interject and when to keep his distance. His food recommendations were also spot-on.

To begin, that classic Greek appetizer trio: grilled octopus, Greek salad and jumbo shrimp. The octopus was a fine rendition of this summertime favourite, with thick slices of charred, tentacle-laden flesh tumbled in a mix of capers and red onion. Delish.

Filled with olives, green peppers, tomatoes and feta, Yannis’s “salade grecque” is a winner that could only be improved upon with local tomatoes at their peak. Yet the jumbo grilled shrimp couldn’t be much better. Our plate consisted of three Ecuadorian wild sea shrimp, jumbo in size, weighing in at under six specimens per pound. Juicy and resilient, these toothsome babies needed only a squirt of lemon to enhance their slightly sweet flavour. Awesome.

Papa Frank’s smoked salmon is indeed as good as local foodies claim. Silky and delicate in flavour, the salmon slices literally melted in the mouth, and there was a lot of melting going on as the portion is more than generous. When available, don’t miss the grilled sardines, which are moist, meaty and served solo to better appreciate the fresh taste of this usually fishy fish.

The Yannis special, fried eggplant and zucchini slices served with tzatziki and fried saganaki cheese alongside, is another must. I’ve had this dish at many an estiatoria, but no one does it better than Yannis. Why? Because not only are the vegetables utterly grease-free, but each slice is also puffed, which makes them impossibly light and crisp. A triumph!

Main-course options include a few meats, but why pass on the fish when it’s this fresh and appealing? We chose a red snapper for two and a swordfish steak. Before each was grilled, Mr. Baloukas arrived tableside to show off the whole snapper and later the slab of swordfish. Boy, did they ever look good! All the dishes were served with generous portions of baked fava beans, rice pilaf and grilled peppers and oyster mushrooms, all delicious.

Come dessert time, we were holding our sides and waving white flags in surrender. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying a complimentary platter of fresh fruit and thick Greek yogurt topped with cherry preserves.

Yannis, 6045 Victoria Avenue, near Linton St., Phone: 514-737-9384.

St Paul’s Greek Church celebrates 100th anniversary June 30, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greek Diaspora.
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Members of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church honor the 100th anniversary this week of their parish and the “koinonia”, community, that has held it together.

The Savannah  Saint Paul’s Greek Orthodox church is having an anniversary. It opened it’s doors 100 years ago,  back in 1907. Generations of families working hard and working together to build the community and that community is coming together all weekend long.

“It’s a great celebration for us and a joyous occasion because we have former parishioners coming back to celebrate for these three days and we are grateful to the city and the community here,” said Father Vasile Mihai.

The celebrations continue through the weekend with masses in the church and special events celebrating the century.

Regular worship services at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church include 9 a.m. Orthros and 10 a.m. Divine Liturgy on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with Archbishop Alexios presiding. The public is invited. Events at which a meal is served are by registration only.

For information, go to www.stpaul.ga.goarch.org, or call 912-236-8256.

More flights means more opportunities in Greece June 30, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in News Flights, Tourism.
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GB Airlines has increased the number of its weekly flights during the summer to the Greek islands of Crete (five), Corfu (four) Rhodes (two) and Mykonos (two).

These additional flights avoid the need for ferry transfers and so will cut down journey times. This in turn makes these destinations more attractive for short break holidays.

The extra flights are also expected to lead to an increase in development. Piraeus Bank, one of Greece’s top banks, is making it easier for overseas investors to purchase property. The bank is offering mortgages to British and Irish citizens of up to 80% on residential property and 70% on land.

In the past Crete, Corfu and Rhodes have been among the favourite places for UK investors, but the smaller islands of Santorini, Skiathos, Skopelos, Zakynthos and Kefalonia are growing in popularity.

Old Acropolis Museum to close June 30, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Museums, Vote For Return Greek Marbles.
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Artifacts to be transported to the new Acropolis Museum

The Museum on the Acropolis Hill will close Monday so that ancient sculptures and other artifacts can be moved to the new Museum, the Culture Ministry announced.

Some 300 marble sculptures, weighing up to 2.5 tons each, will me moved using cranes to a new glass and concrete Museum at the foot of the hill which is due to open in early 2008.

The sculptures will be stored in foam-packed metal boxes, while the cranes are designed to absorb shocks that could damage the precious works.

At the new Museum, blank spaces will be left for the Parthenon Marbles, which are sculptures stolen from the Parthenon two centuries ago by British diplomat Lord Elgin, which are now in the British Museum in London. Greece has campaigned long for their return.

A traveling exhibition’s ongoing success June 30, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Hellenic Light Europe.
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st_nicholas.jpg  St Nicholas by Emmanouil Tzannes, 1683, part of the Velimezi Collection currently on tour around the world.

Tomorrow, July 1, Lisbon assumes the European Union Presidency, and the curtain falls on the events held in Berlin. Over the past six months, alongside the political projects, there was a series of cultural events.

Among the highlights was the Greek participation in the Bode-Pergamon Museums Exhibition: «The Brilliance of the Sun: Icons from the Velimezi Collection» organized jointly by the Byzantine Art Museum of Berlin and the Benaki Museum of Athens, with the support of Greece’s Tourism Development Ministry. The exhibition of 48 icons attracted 92,684 visitors from March 15 to June 10.

It was the 17th exhibition of the icons during an international tour that started 10 years ago in Thessaloniki. Since then the collection has been enriched with ecclesiastical objects that give visitors a more comprehensive picture of Byzantine religious art. The tour continues and the next stop is Cracow.