Mythic Wisdom: A Greek Author’s Perspective

Connecting the past with the present has always been a powerful experience for me, maybe because I live in a land rich in history. In this blog I am going to explore a variety of topics, which I find deeply meaningful: women’s roles, gender and sexuality issues, activism, goddesses and gods, etc. By examining myths, symbols, and archetypal figures, I feel that we gain a fresh perspective on our lives and society. Ancient history, art, and literature can become amazing sources of inspiration. By learning from the wisdom of the past, we can transform ourselves and the world we live in.

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Lessons from the Dead

The three skulls seem to be staring at me through their empty sockets. In times past I would have felt profoundly unsettled, but now these ancestral skulls seem vaguely familiar. It makes me wonder who these people were and what caused their deaths. I turn my eyes towards the woman lying in the middle of the hall.

 Quite an unusual find: an intact Neolithic skeleton, buried in the position of the fetus--a symbolic return to the Earth Mother. Once it would have felt uncomfortable to look at her, but now I find myself admiring her peaceful air: she maintains her calmness beyond the grave, having become the centerpiece in the Diros Neolithic Museum.

This small museum, located in Mani, in southern Greece, is quite powerful. It takes us on a journey to the depths of time since its exhibits date from 5300-3200 BCE. A large and dynamic community of people once flourished there. They used one of the Diros caves, called Alepotrypa (“foxhole”), as their home and storehouse, and at the same time as their worship site and burial place. I observe the well-crafted pottery and jewelry, the tools and the weaving equipment—everyday objects that indicate a highly developed civilization.

I’m hoping to get a glimpse of that mysterious world: a culture of people that hunted and fished, traded by sea, grew crops, and made beautiful artifacts. Depictions of violence and war, so prevalent in later eras, are absent here. However, we have those enigmatic figurines that we dare call goddesses—or perhaps even the Great Goddess.

A small figurine, made of white marble, takes me by surprise. A full female body, with protruding buttocks. Her hands are holding her breasts. Close to her is an even smaller object: a neck and head in a phallic shape. Could this be the personification of the gynandrous (androgynous) Nature? The museum label identifies the artifacts in this window as objects related to worship, without any details. One way or another, these images bespeak the power of life, in stark contrast with the human remains nearby.

I wonder what those early societies must have been like. It’s not easy to reconstruct the past, yet sciences like archaeology and social anthropology have given us a fairly clear image: in Paleolithic tribes of hunter-gatherers, there were no social classes, no exploitation or oppression. That’s why scientists have named such societies egalitarian, to emphasize that they were based on equality. In order to survive in the wild, human beings cultivated team spirit, relying heavily on partnership and cooperation. Such features continued to prevail, up to a point, in the Neolithic Era, as well.

Interestingly, certain things that most people consider unavoidable didn’t even exist during the longest part of human history. Social phenomena such as the accumulation of wealth, competition, war, sexual oppression, and gender discrimination may appear today as if they’re part of human nature—yet once they were unheard of. 

One can hardly avoid the comparisons between the past and the present. Peaceful eras have long been lost in the maze of time and we need to deal with the harsh reality of today’s world. I live in Greece, a country whose economy has taken serious blows. The consequences have sometimes been deadly: a sharp rise in suicide, premature deaths from lack of medication and health care, and lethal attacks.

Let’s talk more about those attacks, in particular about the ones carried out by gangs bearing, ironically, swastikas and meanders. Most Pagans realize that these symbols, before they were adopted by Nazis, had never been harbingers of death. On the contrary, they were associated with the water, the sun, and the concept of continuous flow. Perhaps the frequent presence of these shapes in ancient art was a reminder that everything is in a process of change: life, nature, society, and human beings. Festivals like the Eleusinian Mysteries, which took place in September, honored the change of seasons and the alternation between life and death. It was definitely not a coincidence that the great procession to Eleusis began at the ancient Athenian cemetery of Kerameikos.

Yet this September a different kind of procession is going to take place, originating again in death: a year has passed since the murder of Pavlos Fyssas by a member of the Golden Dawn, the Greek Neo-Nazi party. An antifascist march will honor his memory. Pavlos was a 34-year-old rap musician, singer, and human rights activist. His death spurred a wave of activism as thousands of people took to the streets to protest.

The antifascist movement has already proven its power, yet the battle is far from over. As the Nazi ghosts of the past are coming back to haunt us, our place is in the streets. We owe it to ourselves and to our dead--to all those women and men who fought for dignity and freedom through the centuries. We owe it to all those who labored to build civilization from the Stone Age up to this day.  

We have a lot to learn from the dead, both ancient and contemporary. Our prehistoric ancestors keep whispering in our ear that we can create a world free from violence, exploitation and oppression. We badly need that world. More and more, we realize that it’s not just the dream of a few romantic souls—it’s actually a matter of life and death!

Further reading:

Gray, Peter, “How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways”, Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201105/how-hunter-gatherers-maintained-their-egalitarian-ways  

Harman, Chris, A People’s History of the World, Bookmarks, London 2002

Lowen, Mark, “Greece's Golden Dawn: 'Don't say a word or I'll burn you alive'”, BBC News Europe, October 2, 2013, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24363776 [Trigger warning: graphic images and descriptions of violence.]

Meenee, Harita, “Dionysus, the Bearded Goddess, and the Pride Festival,” Witches & Pagans, http://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-culture-blogs/mythic-wisdom/dionysus-the-bearded-goddess-and-the-pride-festival.html

 

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Harita Meenee is a Greek independent scholar of classical studies and women’s history. Her graduate studies were in the field of archetypal and women’s psychology. She works as a writer, translator and editor while also being a human rights activist. Harita has presented cultural TV programs and has lectured at universities in Greece and the US. She is the author of five books, as well as of numerous articles and essays published in Hellenic and international anthologies and magazines.

Comments

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Sunday, 14 September 2014

    I agree with what you say and the connections you make, wish I could be with you in Athens.

  • Harita Meenee
    Harita Meenee Monday, 15 September 2014

    Thanks, Carol! It's time for all of us to take action, any way we can.

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