The di­as­pora was at the root of the ‘Greek mir­a­cle’

In­flu­en­tial Clas­si­cal stud­ies pro­fes­sor and writer Edith Hall talks about some of the les­sons she has learned in her many years of travel

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY GE­OR­GIA NAKOU

Pro­fes­sor Edith Hall, an in­flu­en­tial scholar of Clas­sics and in­vet­er­ate trav­eler, shares her in­sights on the an­cient Greek world, her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of Greece, and the links be­tween the Greek land­scape and myth. She was in­ter­viewed on the oc­ca­sion of the pub­li­ca­tion in Greek trans­la­tion (by Diop­tra) of “Introducing the An­cient Greeks,” first pub­lished in June 2014. You have in­tro­duced a fresh ap­proach to the study of an­cient Greek cul­ture. What was your eureka mo­ment – the event that made you want to study an­cient Greece?

I cer­tainly can, be­cause it was very mem­o­rable. It was my first visit to Olympia when I was 19. I had stud­ied the lyric poet Pin­dar in school, and found his po­ems very hard go­ing, very dif­fi­culty to study. When I saw the land­scape of an­cient Olympia, it was like a rev­e­la­tion, be­cause sud­denly it all made sense: This was the to­pog­ra­phy that the po­etry was writ­ten for, this was the very river that Pin­dar men­tions in his odes, the light and the moun­tains. And it all started to make sense, the jour­ney through Ar­ca­dia to get there was the ar­du­ous jour­ney that the ath­letes would have taken to com­pete in the Olympic Games. That was when I de­cided to study Clas­sics at uni­ver­sity. Is Olympia still your favorite place in Greece?

I still think Olympia is spe­cial, but there are other places that I find even more evoca­tive. One is the tem­ple of Artemis at Brau­ron, where Athe­nian girls were brought in Clas­si­cal times to be ded­i­cated to the god­dess. When you are in the cen­ter of Athens it is easy to for­get how ru­ral large parts of At­tica still are. Here you have green marsh­land, full of birds and wildlife. I even have a pho­to­graph of a sign on the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal grounds that reads “No Hunt­ing” – in the sa­cred precinct of Artemis the Hun­tress! When you see the site, with its wildlife, you can see why the Athe­ni­ans ded­i­cated it to her, just like hill­tops were ded­i­cated to Apollo. It is the spirit of the place. I brought both my daugh­ters here when they were 10 or 11, ap­proach­ing pu­berty, and it felt very spe­cial.

I also love the tem­ple of Hera at Per­a­chora on the Corinthian Gulf. This is also a spec­tac­u­lar nat­u­ral setting. You re­mem­ber that in the myth Medea brought her mur­dered chil­dren to be buried here, at the sanc­tu­ary of Hera Akraia, and the lit­tle cove that the tem­ple is built in is very shel­tered, like a mother’s em­brace. It feels like a safe place. Do you think that vis­it­ing the lo­ca­tions of an­cient Greek myth and rit­ual can help us un­der­stand the an­cient Greek mind-set?

The land­scapes in Greek myths are rooted in real Greek to­pog­ra­phy, that is why I find it so re­ward­ing to visit the places. My aim is to visit ev­ery lo­ca­tion men­tioned in Greek mythol­ogy. I have writ­ten about Euripi­des’ tragedy “Iphi­ge­nia in Tau­ris,” and have traced the lo­ca­tions in the plot all the way from Aulis (mod­ern Avl­ida) in Boeo­tia (Vi­o­tia), where she was taken to be sac­ri­ficed, to Tau­ris, where she was spir­ited away. Tau­ris is lo­cated near mod­ern Se­bastopol, in the Crimea. This is fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause the Black Sea was part of the Greek world un­til very re­cently, in fact un­til 1922, when the pop­u­la­tion ex­change ended the Greek pres­ence there. The Black Sea is of great emo­tional and cul­tural im­por­tance to both an­cient and mod­ern Greeks. Your book which has just been pub­lished in Greek is about the char­ac­ter of the an­cient Greeks and how that shaped their con­tri­bu­tion to global civ­i­liza­tion. How would you ex­plain the “Greek mir­a­cle”? How is it that such a small place gave birth to such im­por­tant con­cepts as democ­racy, free think­ing, phi­los­o­phy, ra­tio­nal sci­ence and em­pir­i­cal medicine?

I make it clear in my book that this amaz­ing de­vel­op­ment has noth­ing to do with racial su­pe­ri­or­ity, in­deed the Greeks them­selves did not de­fine their iden­tity through blood. Herodotus de­fines it as shared ances­try, rit­u­als, way of life and lan­guage. In the book I tried to de­fine 10 as­pects of that cul­tural “per­son­al­ity.” It is not an or­tho­dox way to write an­cient his­tory, but I have found peo­ple en­joy it and I hope it makes them feel closer to the an­cient Greek mind-set.

The “Greek mir­a­cle” has a lot to do with be­ing in the right place at the right time – to trans­form the achieve­ments of other cul­tures in the sur­round­ing re­gions, North Africa, the Le­vant and an­cient Near East, into some­thing rad­i­cally new. Cu­rios­ity and love of in­no­va­tion are two of the fea­tures that I high­light as be­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of an­cient Greek cul­ture, along with love of travel and ex­plo­ration. These char­ac­ter­is­tics were born out of harsh ne­ces­sity. The poverty of the Greek en­vi­ron­ment forced the an- cient Greeks to travel and col­o­nize not only the Mediter­ranean but also the Black Sea. Be­cause they did not have huge fer­tile flood plains to cul­ti­vate as the Egyp­tians and the Me­sopotamian civ­i­liza­tions did, they had to leave home, and that di­as­pora was at the root of the “Greek mir­a­cle.”

In their ex­pan­sion, Greeks found them­selves in new en­vi­ron­ments and had to adapt to them, and that is how sci­ence was born. The nat­u­ral philoso­pher Thales, half-Greek and half-Phoeni­cian, living in Mile­tus on the mouth of the Me­an­der River on the western coast of mod­ern Turkey, had to find a way to stop the es­tu­ary from silt­ing up and sep­a­rat­ing the city from the sea. The Greek speak­ers living in Ana­to­lia stopped ex­plain­ing nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena by di­vine in­ter­ven­tion, and looked for ma­te­rial causes. They were prac­ti­cal. The Greeks who col­o­nized Ol­bia in the mod­ern Ukraine had to de­velop so­phis­ti­cated viti­cul­ture, in­clud­ing graft­ing, and ge­netic ma­nip­u­la­tion, in or­der to grow grapes and make wine in the colder cli­mate, be­cause they con­sid­ered wine so es­sen­tial to their way of life. Some re­view­ers have crit­i­cized me for ig­nor­ing Athens and the po­lis (the city-state) in fa­vor of the sea and the hori­zon, but that is pre­cisely my point. The sea is cen­tral to the idea of “Greek­ness” as you present it. Why is that?

My per­spec­tive on the an­cient Greeks is in­tended to em­pha­size the ge­o­graph­i­cal and chrono­log­i­cal spread of the an­cient Greeks and their com­mu­ni­ties. Tra­di­tional Clas­si­cal schol­ar­ship puts the in­di­vid­ual po­lis – usu­ally Athens, or Athens in com­par­i­son with Sparta or Syra­cuse – at the cen­ter of the radar. In­stead I put the sea at the cen­ter of the radar, the sea as the meet­ing place across which Greeks con­stantly trav­eled to talk to their fel­low Greeks in other com­mu­ni­ties – Plato’s “frogs croak­ing at each other around the pond.”

It is in­ter­est­ing that Greeks who col­o­nized land­locked ar­eas, such as Alexan­der’s con­quests in Bac­tria, be­tween mod­ern Afghanistan and In­dia, lost their lan­guage much quicker than coastal Greeks who kept it for mil­len­nia, not only un­der Mace­do­nian and Ro­man rule but also un­der the Ot­tomans and the Ital­ians. Who is your favorite an­cient Greek?

Def­i­nitely Aristo­phanes! His wit is so sharp and his satire is mer­ci­less. The idea that satire is im­por­tant in a democ­racy, the abil­ity to poke fun at those in power, is in­cred­i­bly rel­e­vant to our present day. One of the things I have no­ticed about Greeks is that they are able to laugh even in the dark­est hours. This is very psy­cho­log­i­cally sus­tain­ing. And you get the sense that Aristo­phanes as a per­son was great com­pany, too. In Plato’s Sym­po­sium he is the last per­son to stay up drink­ing with Socrates, talk­ing into the night. In the Sym­po­sium he also says some beau­ti­ful things about love, about how peo­ple are in­com­plete when they are sev­ered from their other half, no mat­ter what their gen­der is. Do you have a favorite bit of Greek trivia?

Pen­telic mar­ble is twice-baked seashells. Did you know that? The stone that the Parthenon is made of is such pure white be­cause when it was formed it went through two vol­canic events, not just one. It’s funny to think that all of At­tica was at the bot­tom of the sea once, when these rocks started to form. I wanted to see where the mar­ble came from, so I vis­ited the quar­ries at Dionysos. I was given a tour by the work­men, all hard­work­ing men, do­ing a dan­ger­ous job, and the fore­man told me this. It is stag­ger­ing to think of the hu­man la­bor that went into cut­ting the stone out and trans­port­ing it to the top of the hill in Athens, be­fore the age of steam. That is one rea­son why I think all the sculp­tures should be re­stored there, as a trib­ute to that ef­fort.

‘My aim is to visit ev­ery lo­ca­tion men­tioned in Greek mythol­ogy,’ says Edith Hall.

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