Reading Watching

Horse-people and Wine Gods

I want to be the blue one, she’s beautiful!
“No, I’m the one with flowers in her tail…”

“…but why, Emma, I called it first…”
“How ‘bout I be the blue horse-woman, and you can be the wine-guy on the donkey?”

“I’m not playing, then.”

“Fine, fine…why don’t you be the horse-girl, and I’ll be the beautiful flying horse mommy who’s taking care of all those baby colts!”

“No wait…I want to be the flying horse…”

And on and on my sister and I would debate, all through the fantastical musical sequence. This little argument would take place every single time we would watch the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence in Disney’s Fantasia (1940):

Fantasia, Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”

At a time when anything and everything colorful and sparkly caught our eye, it’s easy to see why a sequence involving baby cherubs, flying horses, lightning-hurling gods, and centaurs would demand our rapt attention (who am I kidding…colorful and sparkly things still catch my eye). Though I may not have recognized it for what it was(I didn’t know the drunk guy on the donkey represented the wine god Dionysus, didn’t know that the “horse people” were actually mythological creatures called centaurs, didn’t know that they “flying horses” were spinoffs of Pegasus), this Disney-commandeered version of Greek and Roman mythology may very well have been my first exposure to Greece and Greek culture.

Soon after, my best friends, sister and I were captivated by another Disney version of a Greek classic: HER-CU-LES!!! Here’s one of my favorite songs:

Hercules, The Gospel Truth

Granted, the religious hybridizations in the movie Hercules could be the topic of whole other conversations…so I’m just going to table that analysis in my post for now. But I know you all remember the movie; don’t be afraid to sing along 😉

I feel like there is something about learning in the form of stories that enables kids to become (and to stay!) enthralled with culture. Similar to Alyssa, my “Greek exposures” were almost always through the lens of mythology, which I think helped me to develop a sustained interest in culture in the long run.

In summation: my first exposure to Greece? The stories…those ancient stories that are still represented and held dear by so much of the world. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to go and tangibly experience the place where these mythologies originated. And that’s the “Gospel Truth!” haaa.



What’s the Story, Wishbone?

Wishbone. Yes, the tiny Jack-Russell Terrier on PBS
that captured the attention of American third graders from 1995-1998 . Every single day after school I watched joined Wishbone on his many journeys through literary “classics.”

Who else would come to mind but Wishbone when I was asked, “Where or from whom did you first learn or develop an idea about Greece?”

Every episode began with Wishbone and his human companions, Joe,Samantha and David facing an obstacle. This dilemma always reminded Wishbone of the time a character in a classic tale encountered the same type of problem, warranting a journey into Wishbone’s literary imagination where he played the lead character.

I recall the episode “Hercules Unleashed” in which Wishbone became Hercules in the story of The Golden Apples. I distinctly remember the spear-skirted, toga-like garb that Wishbone wore. He was defeating dragons, conquering Mt. Olympus, and as always, looking for his bone. Where did all of this take place? Ancient Greece of course! For a sound studio and stage some place in Texas, Wishbone didn’t do such a bad job of “imagining Greece,” or did he?

It wasn’t until the 2004 Summer Olympics that my interest in Greece developed and lead to countless hours researching and learning about Greece. I have always been fascinated with everything-Olympics: the history, the mascots, the athletes, the “whole world coming together” and so on.

“Welcome Home” was the official motto for that Olympiad, complete with mascots named Athena & Phevos and an incredible, breathtaking opening ceremony. The motto itself lead me to read about the history of the Olympics, resulting in a plethora of Greek knowledge.

The Olympic Games seek to bring about athletic-competition in a malice-free atmosphere. Participating countries sit aside their grievances and disputes in order to participate in world-class competitions to “Bring Home the Gold.”

Of course there are problems and issues surrounding the concept of  “the games.” Over the years, certain countries have been suspended from competition, or separated during the Parade of Nations because of international disputes. Just look at the official emblem of the 2004 Summer Olympics–a possible claim to authenticity about Greek attire? Maybe so.

Aside from the many complications of the Olympic Games and Wishbone’s staged perception of Ancient Greece, these are where my first impressions of Greece developed. Thankfully they have landed me two weeks out from a month-long excursion into today’s Greece. Or maybe it’s yesterday’s Greece…or tomorrow’s Greece.

Reading Watching

I’m Greek

I suppose when you are asked to remember the first time you realized you were of a certain nationality is not that easy. I’m Greek I was born in Athens and grew up in Thessaloniki and it sure fills me with pride when, as a local coordinator of this trip, I’m asked to show around and talk about my ancient Greek heritage, which I see is of great interest to my N. American friends.  Of course this pride has its ups and downs, especially when I’m asked about the current politico-economic situation in Greece…. Anyways!


Being Greek is many things but let us start from the beginning: it means that your ancestors (I won’t go as far as to say my great -great grandparents) were Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great, and many others of course.  You spend your entire school years learning about them. Now of course I could write all sorts of stories how, when I (and I’m sure others like me) was at school learning about my ancient history, I was with Spartans when we fought against the Persians in the battle of Thermopylae but I could easier identify myself with Athenians rather than Spartans, especially during the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE), besides the Golden Age of Pericles had a glamour of its own (no wonder why Athens came to be my scholarly interest)… And then finally Macedonians did what the egocentric Athenians failed to do: unite us all, unite the Greeks! The story of how the Roman Empire took over us was never my favorite, but Byzantium soon made things better and then came the Turks and the 1821 revolution against them and this is when the Modern Greek state emerged….


I can easily say I’m Greek but less to start explaining as to how I came about thinking I’m one. But luckily pictures (our modern artifacts) help towards that direction. So, the first recollection I have of how important it is to be Greek, goes back into my early days in school. I remember I was six years old and we celebrated in Kindergarten the 25th of March, which is Greece’s National Celebration of the 1821 revolution of the Greeks after 400 years of slavery under the Ottoman Empire. I was dressed with a foklore costume(pictures I have of the celebration make it easy for me to remember) holding in my hand the Greek flag and I had to recite the following poem:

I am a Greek
And like a Souliotopoula
I love with all my heart
My sweet country
And if an enemy comes again
With intention to attack her*
NO I will not let him*
And I will shout “Go Back”

*In Greek grammar Greece (the noun) is female and Enemy (the noun) is male.

I don’t really remember how reciting the poem made me feel (no picture for that), that is, whether I had a consciousness of my Greekness, but the reaction of my family that gathered for the Kindergarten’s celebration must have made me think that being Greek , whatever that means in the mentality of a 6 year old, and reciting a poem rather than reading it, was very important; but despite the picture I have of that day — much like artifacts found today in a site of archaeological interest – one should do well to question whether the recollection of my past is mine or that of my parents and extended family and how they thought I felt and repeatedly told me. But then again you have to learn of your past from somewhere, right? Whether it is your family, friends, archaeologists, songs, poems or even history books you learn it from; but now wait a minute whose past were we talking about, mine or theirs…?


The Mighty Hercules

I was born in 1961, the youngest of four (the oldest of whom was born immediately after Word War II), so that puts me at the tail end of the baby boom. Television predated me, of course, but I was a member of the first generation weaned on it; so there’s a good chance that it was on television, and specifically in cartoons, where people like me came across the things that later turned out to be so much more complicated.

Although all of us would be unwise to trust our memories as the basis for an accurate portrait of things past, if you were to ask me how I first learned about a place called Greece, and what that all signified for me, I’d have to say it was “The Mighty Hercules,” a US cartoon from the early 1960s. It was there that I learned that the signifier “Greece” meant something: columns and men in sandals and without pants; lightning bolts and forces of good and evil; magical things and people with strange names; horses with people for front ends. And all of this was ancient history, of course.

Luckily, television has been superseded by the web, producing youtube, the refuge of those with a nostalgia for such things long past.

I’m not sure whether it was his hands-on-hips and broad-shouldered, can-do stance, his Superman-like black hair (a little long in the back–it was the 1960s, after all), his centaur sidekick, Newton (who, for some puzzling reason, always repeated everything and, even as a child, struck me as a little dense), or his magical ring and that that big, matching belt buckle, but whatever it was, it stuck with me. I can still hear not only his shout of “Olympia…” as he would leap (or better, fly, though he didn’t have a cape, which made him all the more intriguing) into action but also that catchy theme song, (sung by the pop singer Johnny Nash) that opened and closed each episode. Looking back on it now, the plots were almost embarrassingly simple (but isn’t that what makes myths so memorable and helps them to do their work?), but it was here, I think, that I first learned that there was a mountain somewhere named Olympus, that there was a bearded fellow who lived up there named Zeus, and that certain heroic individuals could move back and forth between these two worlds.

Of course this is not the sort of tale that helps legitimize my eventually becoming a scholar of religion; so maybe I should reconsider my first post to this site and, instead, invent a story about smuggling a copy of, I don’t know, maybe Jane Harrison’s 1903 classic, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, into bed with me, and pouring over it with a flashlight under the covers, late at night, turning the clock back a little bit every night so that I could read longer, stealing time from sleep (as Mircea Eliade famously recounted doing in his autobiography). Yes…, how well I remember flipping through the pages of that old, curious volume….

No; that’s not the way it was.

I think we ought to be more than just a little suspicious of that sort of story of the past, for it helps to justify my present a little too well. It assumes too linear a line connecting a little boy in the early 1960s to the person that I happen to have become today. It misses all the bumps along the road, the accidents and happenstance.

So now I return to my earlier tale and say yes, it was in the cartoons that I first bumped into Greece–a place far far away, both in space and time. A place that remains just as elusive even when I’m actually in Greece today, since the place of my memory is with a little boy, in front of a TV, so many years ago.