Today it is Christmas and this is what I know–love came into the world and took the form of a babe. It is that love, that hope in swaddling clothes that has made all the difference. It is faith that the God-Man, the very embodiment of love, was born to live an earthly life with all its suffering and sorrow to make my life meaningful.
Athena is everyone’s favorite goddess: the guide of heroes, witty, creative, logical. She combines the best of the feminine with the best of the masculine. I identified with her the most growing up. Except, until I read the myth about what she did to Medusa. From then it was clear Athena, although female, was really a female embodiment of patriarchy. A male in woman’s clothes (and if that, as she was born in full panoply.). As a creation that came fully armored out of Zeus’ head, the ultra-masculine principle and alpha male, she is a direct idealization of what women should be as conceived by the patriarchy. Her very existence is a symbol of internalized oppression, an embodiment of how Greek women (and all women for that matter) oppress themselves in an effort to keep it good with all the good ol’ boys.
In case you forgot, here is the story. Medusa, whose name meant “protrectress”, was a beautiful maiden. Her most gorgeous features was her hair. Even though highly attractive, she swore chastity as a priestess in Athena’s temple. Some versions of the tale say she was a sworn priestess to Athena who had therefore vowed chastity; others say she was escaping the seductions of Poseidon and turned to Athena in her temple for protection. Nevertheless, through no fault of her own unless you blame her ravishing beauty, Medusa was raped in the temple by Poseidon. Yet, when Athena found out, she was outraged! Athena blamed Medusa, the victim, for the rape. She punished Medusa by transforming her into a hideous monster, stripping the beauty of her hair and replacing it with venomous snakes. She was banished to a solitary island at the edge of the Western sea, away from the known world. There Medusa turned toxic reaping and lashing out at men for her fate by killing them at first sight. In an ironic reversal, she who once attracted male gaze repelled it. She who was favored of Athena, was now hated. Until, of course, a hero, Perseus, appeared, helped by a magic shield given to him by Athena again, that he used as a mirror to decapitate her. And what does he do then? Why—he gifts the Gorgon’s head to the goddess responsible for her ruin! And she, the mighty goddess of war, places this head on her shield that she uses from that time forward to petrify enemies in battle. Medusa then in her sad death fulfills the terms of her oath– to protect Athena.
Medusa is a fit symbol of internalized oppression, in this case specifically internalized sexism. What is internalized sexism: a short definition: Internalized sexism is the involuntary internalization by women of the sexist messages that are present in their societies and culture. It also the way in which women reinforce sexism by utilizing and relaying sexist messages that they’ve internalized.
Athena, the goddess who leverages the male power structure to further herself, blames the victim for a hideous act of rape. Women who have internalized sexism side with the male establishment and blame the victim for their fate. Women who have internalized sexism seem like they are supporting other women but in reality do not trust them. What they are trying to do is garner status, privilege and benefits for themselves by cozying up to the male power hierarchy. (This is what Athena is doing). She shows what happens when the rage women feel is displaced on other women as they cannot or will not focus it on the real source of their anger, the male establishment. (Athena cannot punish Poseidon a male god so she turns the anger on a hapless victim, another woman, someone she can.) They have internalized the message that in order to be “successful,” “wanted,” “happy” they have to please men, cater to men, listen to men. Any woman that threatens their advancement with the good ol’ boys is not to be trusted. So instead of siding with the woman victim, they side with the male version of events. What is more they turn their female “opponents” into toxic monsters spilling venom. (Medusa sounds like a male-hating feminist if you ask me.)
I am sorry to say the insidiousness of internalized sexism is the reason I am queasy about being Greek. Greek women, like Latinas, have been raised in an environment that overtly and covertly socializes them to be feminine, not to feel whole without a man or a family. They define themselves only in relationship to men. In other words, their existence is created only through their relationships to men and their children, not in who they are in themselves. Many of the Greek women I have as role models in my family have no other identities apart from their role as wives and mothers. And yes, they are happy (I think) with the arrangement. But I wonder if that’s because they have internalized the message of their traditional societies that rewards them and makes them feel “whole” because they have fulfilled their societal role? Who are they without those roles? They will never know, or else they will never want to know. It’s easier that way.
Another thing I have noticed, Greek women fall over themselves to cater to men. I have seen this in action again and again. There is some sort of unwritten script that if a male member of the family walks in, the women are supposed to get up, start serving food, pick up after them, etc. The men are not expected to do anything by the way of housework or domestic duties. Men in Greece walk around like they are the better sex because the women crowd around them and cater to their every whim. It is sad to see this pattern repeated in the way Greek mothers raise their boys over their girls.
The Medusa-Athena-Poseidon triangle is a fit analogy for what happens over and over: women throw other women under the bus because they have internalized hatred of their own sex. I believe the fact that Donald Trump got elected by 53% of white women is indicative of internalized sexism. (Rather than vote for a woman candidate that threatens the male establishment, side with the oppressor, blatantly sexist opponent). There might be some research to back my hunch up. A University of Utah survey found that the higher young women scored on the internalized sexism scale the more likely they were to vote Republican. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1092&context=roch
What keeps the establishment going is that, like prisoners in a labor camp, the prisoners themselves seek favor with the guards instead of the victims like themselves and are rewarded for it. Women who fashion themselves to cater to men are rewarded by feeling “lovable, wanted, successful.” They are also taken care of (i.e. Melania Trump). Maybe the majority are even happy for it. It suits them as an arrangement.
But, there are those of us who have the capacity to do more, to think deeper, to aim higher than the adjuncts to male prerogative. Some of us will not be happy until we listen to the echo of our own souls; twist the strands out of our best potential. There are some of us who believe more deeply in our power, who wish to be on equal pairing with the other sex. Yes, some of us, might be different. Thanks to the benefit of living in another culture that gives us the ability to see the serpent and call it by its right name—internalized sexism (does such a phrase even exist in Greece?)
Athena is no longer my favorite Greek goddess. She is a symbol of internalized oppression and the patriarchy. She shows how loathing another woman, an innocent victim who called out to her for help, is an example of how much she must hate herself. Penny Rosenwasser, a researcher on internalized oppression, wrote: loathing women and blaming them for their oppression
“Internalized oppression is an involuntary reaction to oppression which originates outside one’s group and which results in group members loathing themselves, disliking others in their group, and blaming themselves for their oppression — rather than realizing that these beliefs are constructed in them by oppressive socio-economic political systems.
[Penny Rosenwasser (Proceedings of the 41st Annual Adult Education Research Conference, 2000): Tool for Transformation: Cooperative Inquiry as a Process for Healing from Internalized Oppression.]
I think Athena needs some therapy, or at least consciousness awakening. What do you think?
Everyone decorates a Christmas tree this time of year. It’s part of the Christian tradition. But if you are Greek, you really should be decking those flag poles on what other — your caique. A caique is a small sailing boat used for small-scale fishing around the islands and coasts. During the month of December, many families would join to decorate their boats and take a short jaunt at night around the port. The images of tiny boats illuminated with bright lights reflecting off the dark sea stamped many a childhood memory of the season with delightful impressions.
The connection with boats has more to do with the feast day of Saint Nikolaos (Agios Nikolaos) than Christmas actually. Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and fishermen, is celebrated on December 6th. In his honor many families whose livelihood is tied to the sea decorate their boat for him.
According to Athens styleblog, children on the islands carry small wooden boats, either illuminated to light the way or with enough space to store treats given to them by the residents they sing for. The tradition also dates back hundreds of years when many Greeks were working as seamen. During Christmas time, when many were returning home after a long time at sea, their wives would celebrate by decorating small wooden boats as a way of saying “welcome home.”
This tradition has gradually spread inland with people all over the country beginning to decorate model wood or paper boats with lights and ornaments at Christmas time. Traditionally the boats are placed near the door or fire with the bow pointing inwards. This symbolizes the boats’ good direction towards home and the mainland. Sometimes coins or gold objects were also placed in the boats as a way to encourage riches into entering the home.
Surprisingly, the Christmas boat tradition has only become popular on the mainland in the last 30 years. It has been quickly overtaking the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree. This is due in part as a reaction against German influence. The Christmas tree is not traditionally part of Greek culture and was actually imported by their first king, Otto of Bavaria during the mid-19th century. It does not help that Germany is now the new bringer and enforcer of austerity. The Greeks in their typically proud fashion have been choosing to forego the Christmas tree for the “karavakia” or “little boats” to signal the holiday and to assert their right to self-governance.
So to show your Hellenismo, how about decorating a caique this Christmas. I dare you to plant it out in the front yard next to that jingling Santa Claus.
There is something about a cemetery —solemnity, stillness, that evokes contemplation.
Every morning I pass by at least three cemeteries: St. Michael’s, Cypress Hills, and Mount Carmel.
This one morning I actually parked the car and took a stroll through Cypress Hills. My walk flooded me with thoughts and feelings about life, about death.
Cypress Hills Cemetery was established during the Civil War when the government had to create an organized system to deal with the hundreds of thousands of slain war dead. The section I walked through holds the remains of military veterans who served in the two world wars, Korea. Rows of rows of uniform block white stones. So sooo many, young men, old men, with a spattering of headstones belonging to their wives even dead infants.
I surveyed and read the inscriptions on each individual headstone as carefully as I would look into a living face. I tried to pick up clues about who they were, how old when they died, which war and which department they had served. Some navy , some infantry, some air force, some with a star of David inscribed at the top others with a cross in a circle. I studied each last name: Ferrara, O’Shannon, Lim, for clues as to ancestry and ethnicity. These were silent strangers. The mystery of never knowing each person’s story made me think how we are each divided in our own unknowing. Each one had a unique story and life. But you could not know the details from just skimming over the headstone, by looking absentmindedly into the eyes of a passerby.
We are as similar and ordinary in death as we are in life. I remembered the rows of baby beds when my first daughter was born. Each birth is unique and ordinary at the same time. Just like the headstones in a cemetery. Each life lived under different circumstances, yet ending side by side in the same outline. We are not so different so unique as we think we are. We will all lie down next to one another in the end.
And then another thought—these were all soldiers, all men. I forget how many men gave their lives to serve in wars that may or may not have served them. And I had to think that war is an exclusively male domain. Men engage in war and women in birth. Things haven’t changed that much from the time of the caves.
It was chilling to walk through the rows on a chilly December morning. But the pause in the cemetery serves as a fitting reminder of the inevitable, a momento mori. It is a wonderful way to start the day sort of like when teachers use backward design to develop teaching units with the end in mind. Looking at graves makes you stop taking your day for granted. It all stops here, in the ground. “The ground we step on and kick at,” my yiayia used to say, “will be our blanket, will cover us all.”
I can’t help but think that I spend more time planning my weekends and outfits than I do mapping out the course of my life. If you haven’t thought about your death, how can you think about your life? As Christians we are implored to see life through the shadow of death. Like the Calavera Catrina, we can busy ourselves with ruffling up our bodies and embellishing our flesh, but underneath lies the skeleton. We are all walking skeletons until we can walk no more.
Only by walking through the cemetery in the morning do you remember to put things in perspective—the bills, the petty squabbles, the snubs. How is it that you want to live your life really? The passing through the cemetery every morning helps me center my day. That is the gift the dead bestow on the living: the reminder that we have to cherish each moment and make it beautiful even when it’s not.
What makes a real Greek? Who is more Greek: Nery Mantey Niangkouara or Jennifer Aniston?
Just in case you don’t know, Nery Mantey Niangkouara is an Olympic swimmer who has won two silver medals at the Mediterranean Games and has represented Greece in various swimming events and contests. She won the first medal for Greece in the European Swimming Championships in Madrid in 2003.
Is it ironic that the century marked by the greatest racial and ethnic diversity is also the one marked by a rising tide of fascism, ultra-conservativism and xenophobia. (Or is it understandable that one should be a reaction to the other?) In this post we are thinking through the big question: What does it mean to be Greek? Are you a citizen by blood or by soil? It is a question that is crucial not just for Greece, but for any nation struggling to come to terms with globalization within its borders, and multiculturalism wresting with its national image.
A real Greek is born, not made.
If you asked a party member of the Golden Dawn, they would vote for neither. Neither Jennifer nor Nery Mantey. Why? Because they are not “pure” Hellenes. They do not have 100% Greek blood on both sides. According to the legal statue of citizenship known as Jus sanguinis citizenship is not determined by place of birth, but by genetic descent; in other words blood and blood only confers real citizenship. According to this view, it does not matter if you do not speak Greek, if you have never set foot on Greek soil, or have no idea how to bake koulourakia. As long as you have a drop of Greek DNA in you, that is enough to claim Greekness. Genetic descent is what is important. These folks consider a Black Greek like Nery Mantey an impossibility, a mistake, and at the worse extreme an anathema. It does not matter that other illustrious Greeks of the African Diaspora such as the “Greek Freak” or his brother have garnered lots of fame and glory for the Greek banner. They should not be considered Greek as they have no blood that makes them so.
Greece is not alone in seeing citizenship this way. Germany is notorious for not allowing immigrants, however many generations they have spent inside its gates, to become citizens. Meanwhile a long-distant German immigrant in California who can trace his descent to a great-great-great-great grandfather can make a claim to citizenship. Like that magical substance Odysseus held in his veins, anchor, that je ne se qua that made him irresistible to both mortals and immortals alike, its “Greek” DNA that gives you the official stamp of “real Greek.”
A Greek is forged by place
On the other side, you have the folks that believe that you have a right to claim citizenship by birth or place. In order words, jus soli, the legal reasoning that states those born on the soil of a place makes them bona fide nationals. Curiously, countries that offer birthright citizenship are located almost exclusively in the Western Hemisphere. No country in Europe or East Asia, for example, has a similar citizenship policy. (Among those 33 countries that offer birthright citizenship, the United States admits the highest number of immigrants per year.)
What that means in practical terms is that somebody like Nery Mantey is more Greek than Jennifer Aniston. Aniston is not born in Greece and perhaps rarely goes there. Like many of us in the Greek Diaspora, her ties to the motherland have faded. While her blood carries some ancient DNA, she is in all intents a true American girl. No one identifies her by her Greek heritage anymore and (I dare say) not even herself.
The issue becomes more complicated for those of us, the go-betweens. Those who spend physical space in one place but psychic space in another. What happens when you are born in the USA but dream of Greece?
Should your identity be measured by how Greek you feel? Or by how much you love Greece? Can citizenship and identity become a matter of choice? Perhaps like me you were not physically born in Greece but feel like you belong there. In that case, Lord Byron, Thomas Jefferson and Sam Chekwas, and other philhellenes should be given Greek honorary citizenship. (In case you don’t know, Sam Chekwas is a Nigerian American bookseller and writer. He writes books in Greek, speaks Greek fluently and is a mayor of a Greek town.) For Diaspora Greeks, the issue is magnified by as many times they have moved and settled into a new country. (I claim citizenship to three different countries as does Sam and my Greek-American friends who moved from Alexandria, Egypt).
Greece, like other European countries, has been dealing with the changing demographics due to immigration. In the 90s and 2000s, a fairly large number of African migrants from Senegal, Nigeria and Biafra came to the country and stayed. They worked in Greek establishments, sent their children to Greekschools and slowly assimilated. In other words, they became Greek. Is it fair to deny them citizenship because they do not look “Greek”? Is it fair, hypothetically speaking, to give citizenship to Jennifer Aniston’s daughter who carries less than 1/8th of Greekness in her?
When those who identify with a particular place are threatened by the xenos, the outsider, they tend to clutch to each other. They stiffen the boundaries to make sure their group remains intact to penetration from other groups. Those not perceived as sharing certain “essential” characteristics are shunned. The issue is more polarizing when race and not just culture are in the mix. Perhaps it is easier to accept an Albanian as Greek or a German, eventually, over a black Senegalese.
But the changing reality of Greece might make a change to its face. In a NY Times editorial, Nikos Konstandaras of Kathimerini, wrote, “Deaths are outnumbering births, people are leaving the country, and the population is aging so fast that in a few decades Greece may be unable to produce enough wealth to take care of its people and may cease to be a viable nation state . . .The most frightening figure is a Eurostat projection which estimates that, in 2050, 32.1 percent of the Greek population will be over 65, compared with 16.6 percent in 2000. And this projection was made in 2007, before the crisis hit Greece’s population.”
What that means is there will be an increasing vacuum for migrants. What the US looks like today, Greece, however slowly, will look like tomorrow. And with that it will be possible to be a Nigerian Greek just as it is to be a Greek-American.
And speaking of Nigerian Greeks. It’s no wonder that America, that hodge-podge of immigrants and one of the biggest Western countries to allow birthright citizenship, described Giannis as the Greek Freak, not the Nigerian. In a country that is rich with diversity, albeit with its share of problems, Giannis’ identity is derived from his culture over his race. When he got drafted by the NBA, his rags-to-riches story was not lost on an American audience either. His parents poor Nigerian immigrants to Athens did what many still do to make a living—they hawk spin-off leather bags and counterfeit sunglasses. He too had to work the streets sometimes missing games as a result. Now his image has made Greece proud as it has put his face behind the blue-and-white banner. Greece is proud of him (as it always tends to claim credit for jettisoning a native son or daughter on the world stage). The Greek Freak shares the same identity with many of the same immigrants that the right-wing Golden Dawn decries as “subhuman” and terrorizes on the streets of Patissia. Some do not consider him Greek at all.
Is the Greek Freak really Greek or not?
When French-American writer, later diplomat, Jean de Crèvecœur Jean asked the big question, “What is an American?” in his famous Letters from an American Farmer, two hundred and fifty years before, he could have been asking it for any country today. Whether a country is as ancient as Greece or as young as America, the question needs to be asked again and again as identity gets redefined by space, race, and time. So, I begin and end with the same question, What makes a real Greek? Are you one?
I have been a practicing devout Orthodox woman for the past 22 years. This is counting from my true conversion into the faith that took place during my early 20s, not by benefit of my birth into a Greek Orthodox family. For all this time, the faith has sustained me: its traditions have comforted my soul, its theology has revealed the truth in my own soul and in the outside world. Its message of love symbolized in the all-holy image of Christ on the Cross has been the beacon for living. Christ on the Cross—that’s the central image and tenet of this faith. There is no doubt in my mind that its message, one of complete surrender to the Divine, that love divine love is what saves the world, that whole-hearted sacrifice the most poignant embodiment of love at work, is the Truth. Yes, I have heard about kenosis, that it’s the ego that is at fault for the soul’s travail, that by getting rid of selfish desire and self-centeredness one makes more room for the divine grace to enter thus making possible the goal of every soul theosis. To be God-like and bask in the light and love of the divine.
This sounds wonderful on the page and in theory. But, I have real struggles manifesting this in “the real world.” Of course, I am a wretch and a sinner with passions and bad habits. That’s partly why it is so hard to live the love of the Cross. But, there is a deeper issue tied to my being a woman and another tied to the concept of a healthy self-esteem.When I take these two aspects into account, I have to draw a line. There is a limit to love.
First the woman issue. The idea of self-sacrifice comes easier (in general) to women than men. Women have been socialized to be caring, nurturing, self-sacrificing by nature and by culture. As an inferior minority in most societies, they bear the brunt of the hard-work and the sacrifices for putting others, especially their children and their communities first. They put their own talents, aspirations, and needs second to taking care of others. This is all good and Christian, except that when the idealism of the Christian message hits the streets, it is coopted and taken advantage of. In church I see all the majority of the work, organizing functions, maintenance of building, taking care of the needy, falling to the women. Men chant, give lectures, serve liturgy and the women hover about taking care of their every little need. The Philoptochos has been predominantly a female-run institution. Is it that charity is an exclusively female virtue? Is chanting an exclusively male domain? So much of the work of the church, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, coordinating the shipment of charitable goods is done by the women. More than 60% of the volunteers in Orthodox church ministry are women. My issue is how can I believe in love and self-sacrifice in theory when in practice they are exercised unequally across a gender line?
Even while acknowledging that Christianity is one of the more forward-leaning institutions with regards to gender roles, in the 21st century in the Greek Orthodox Church of North America, I feel like a non-entity, a persona non grata. I do not see myself represented: I hear male voices in the choir, I see male deacons officiating, I hear male readers proclaiming the good word, I read liturgical texts and spiritual books that never refer to me as “she” or “woman”, I revere male theologians and saints over and over. It registers to one sensitive about these things as if only men had souls, if only their salvation matters. Although theoretically I know that is not true, the church does revere women, holds the Theotokos above all saints, but realistically, practically, I do not feel it. It feels like women are secondary; their words and their experiences do not matter. If they have the gall to express the slightest dissatisfaction, they are dismissed as sinful or worse, it is ignored. the Apostles did not believe the myrrh-bearers when they brought the truth of Christ’s Resurrection, because the word of a woman did not count The “Inter-Orthodox Symposium on the Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women” held on the island of Rhodes decreed that “The apostolic order of the deaconess should be revived . . . The revival of this ancient order . . . would represent a positive response to many of the needs and demands of the contemporary world. This would be all the more true if the diaconate in general (male as well as female) were restored in all places in its original, manifold services (diakoniai) with extension into the social sphere, in the spirit of the ancient tradition and in response to the increasing specific needs of our time.” 1 That was in 1998. The Orthodox Church has done very little to reinstate the order of deaconesses. It did, however, in sub-Saharan Africa when practicality called for it.
The second issue revolves around how healthy self-sacrifice and self-abasement can be to souls who have been abused. Psychologist tell us that you cannot love others if you cannot love yourself. A child cannot grow up believing that she is the root of all evil, which a long-standing Christian tradition expounds for women. How just and loving is it when someone destroys their own self-image and integrity to support others? Is there no room in Christianity for self-love? What’s so bad with having a healthy self-esteem? With standing up for yourself? Shouldn’t there be a limit to how much someone can sacrifice for another? When does a saint teeter as a masochist? Should someone “sacrifice” their life for another who is taking advantage of their kindness?
I have seen too many cases of women getting brutalized by partners, becoming victims of all sorts of emotional, physical and psychological abuse and taking it all because they believe this is the Christian thing to do. To suffer at the hands of your husband, the one who in the Bible is supposed to care and love you as himself. To be obedient and respectful are wonderful qualities, when your husband does right by you. In a healthy relationship governed by love for the “weaker sex,” it would be easier to put up with the female role as a “helpmate” or “companion” to man and not an equal partner. But in the reality of a broken world, the power entrusted to patriarchs can be abused to make the sanctimony of marriage an anathema. Too many children are wounded by the trauma of living under the virtue of a woman’s “quiet suffering” who has chosen to become the self-sacrificial victim of circumstances.
Many women use their faith as a crutch for not doing what is right but choosing instead to allow abuse as passive victims and actually make their acceptance of abuse into a wreath of sacrifice. “it is the cross I have to bear,” they rationalize in their minds that they are doing the Christian thing by accepting the abuse. Examples of the Church’s glorifying women as martyrs by bearing abuse exist, as the previous post about Saint Thomais of Lesvos revealed. Ironically this saint was upheld as the patron of marriage and wives in difficult relationships. A popular commentary on her life quoted in many Orthodox webpages cites, “because she was very pious and virtuous, she endured the barbaric behavior of her husband, who beat her severely every day [for thirteen years]. The Saint countered this temptation with prayer, patience and charity. God made her worthy of the grace of wonder-working.”
In the 21st century she would have been considered a domestic violence victim and be referred to a social worker.
I am not sure how healthy this stance is. How much do we bear the injustice of others meekly? What example do we give our children when we accept the abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to love us? Why is it condoned to exhibit love and care for others but possess such vile self-loathing for oneself? How does this self-loathing and unhealthy self-esteem get you into heaven anyway? The human soul was meant for joy not agony. How is it fair that a Christian must be charitable to all except oneself? The Christian message about self can be very harmful especially to those vulnerable and already lacking in self-esteem. For some the Golden Rule should be in contrapositive form: Do unto you as you do unto others. From what I can see, a human relationship does not survive very long with only one person sacrificing and the other taking. There needs to be a fair give-and-take, a synergy between partners, in order for it to function properly.
In many cases, the dilemma is not as extreme. Sometimes it comes down to everyday choices. Is it sinful to ask to take a hot bath and reserve some time for yourself instead of constantly running after others? Is it wrong to put your needs first if filling your needs will make you a stronger more present person for others? Self-sacrifice involves a lot of burnout. That burnout leads to resentment, short fuse and generalized misery. Is it better to be a little selfish but a bit happier, reserving a bit of love and care for oneself, or to be self-sacrificing but utterly miserable? I have seen been around many miserable givers. It makes their offerings toxic.
It’s hard to separate theory from practice; to say one thing about the theology but in practice to experience another. Love, even self-sacrificial love, has its limits. No more sappy Hallmark verse quips. Perhaps in a divine world, Christian love can work unconditionally. In the real world, with real problems, a woman must be wise in all things, especially in love. Only by balancing the love of herself with the love of others can she be happy. If this is an unChristian doctrine, please somebody explain.
Every Greek loves to brag. We created democracy, we created drama, we gave the world literature, poetry, architecture, the foundations of Western culture. That may be all well and good, but the Greeks, both ancient and modern, got one thing dead wrong—their treatment of women. As a woman of Hellenic descent this fact gives me pause; as much as I relish in the glory of my culture, I am checked in my enthusiasm when I read the sad history of how women have been treated in Greek society.
It is common knowledge that women of ancient Greece, as in many other male-dominated and agrarian cultures, could not own property, were not educated to the degree of their male counterparts, could not attend dramatic performances or athletic feats, say such as the illustrious Olympics. (While girls were educated especially in gymnastics, dancing and music to perform in religious and athletic events, these were segregated according to gender). A woman’s name could not even be uttered in public. So in essence, they were part of the culture but forbidden to enjoy the fruits of its civilization. They were invisible. (Dare to say, much the same way women in certain Muslim countries are treated.) As the online Ancient Encyclopedia states, “The ultimate goal of a girl’s education was to prepare her for her role in rearing a family and not directly to stimulate intellectual development.” Her role was primarily involved the private sphere of hearth and home.
Never mind the theoretical malignment of the female sex. Aristotle had no doubts that women were intellectually incapable of making important decisions for themselves. Socrates was no different. In the Apology, Socrates calls those who plead for their lives in court “no better than women” (35b)… The Timaeus warns men that if they live immorally they will be reincarnated as women (42b-c; cf. 75d-e). Plato was the same. The Republic contains a number of comments in the same spirit (387e, 395d-e, 398e, 431b-c, 469d), evidence of nothing so much as of contempt toward women. Even Socrates’ words for his bold new proposal about marriage… suggest that the women are to be “held in common” by men. He never says that the men might be held in common by the women… We also have to acknowledge Socrates’ insistence that men surpass women at any task that both sexes attempt (455c, 456a), and his remark in Book 8 that one sign of democracy’s moral failure is the sexual equality it promotes (563b). Imagine that! The O Sokratis o Sofos, the wise and respected Socrates, held even as a saint in the Orthodox faith in some circles, discounted democracy on the basis that it promotes sexual equality! You can be wise and smart in all things but still have a blind spot. We cannot go on patting a patriarchally insidious culture on the back without recognizing how utterly flawed it was.
Yiassas, all you wonderful philosophers and statesmen we so revere! Newsflash– “you got the woman issue wrong.” You can be right about many things, but if you deny the personhood of more than 50% of your population, let’s be honest, you cannot be considered an “ideal” society. So much of Greek pride whitewashes the truth–that it ignored, demeaned, and discredited women. Not to acknowledge the blatant misogyny in the glorious Greek past (and present) is to ignore the truth. But Zeus forbid, confessing that you have made a mistake in logic would be anathema. It erodes at your own ethical and logical foundation as an “authority.” Ironically, it is the blind spots, the irrational hatred for women because they are women, which demonstrates how illogical the magnificent men who founded the West were.
Not to recognize the errors in logical thinking by the founders of logic themselves is to go on seeing the past in rose-colored glasses. I wish that this overlooking the female sex is illogical oversight. The other possibility poses a darker picture–that they had been all too logical and they wanted it that way.
The history of misogyny in Greek culture I believe became even more entrenched after the 400 years under Ottoman rule. Many of the Hellenistic ideals became “Islamified”and women lost even more freedom. To this day, especially in the isolated agrarian villages, women are held in contempt. A fellow colleague whose family came from the rugged highlands of Thrace admitted that when people asked her father how many children he had, he would respond with two. He would leave her out, because she did not qualify as a child. In those parts a girl was considered a “kopeli” and did not count as a child.
All this collective misogyny leaves this woman of Hellenic descent very conflicted. How can I embrace and glorify my past when I know it would not recognize me? How can I cheer for these illustrious glorified icons of Greek pride without damaging my own identity? How can I be part of a culture that holds such hateful and mistaken ideas about my sex, even while it has made so many incredible contributions to the world? As smart as the ancients were, they had it all wrong when it comes to women.
I cannot embrace in full frontal pride and blind acceptance, the traditions and institutionalized intellectual misogyny that has continued to this day.
It is this understanding that gives me pause. It is this realization that makes me reject it even while I love it. I do not have research or surveys to gauge it, but I have a hunch that this is partly why many second and third generation Hellenes, especially women, have abandoned their culture of origin. In the era of heightened sensitivity for gender matters, the conflicts of coming from a patriarchal culture . #metoo has left a huge wake for us hybrid Americans to ride on.
Can you keep your culture without throwing your identity out with the dirty bath water? This is the task we are left to grapple with as Greek-American women.
Have you ever sacrificed sleep to experience the sun rise? It is a truly magnificent event. It’s the type of thing that happens everyday that we take for granted because we are not present. So much of the beauty and majesty in life we miss because we are not present. Not centered. But raging all over with thoughts of what to do and not do, of bullets to strike off a never-ending to-do list. Or else we lack the discipline to be prepared–to be at the right time and the right place to experience something valuable. Beauty is fleeting, yes, but if you don’t plan and take active steps to corner it, you will miss it entirely. Worse, you will think it does not exist.
So as a spiritual discipline, I challenge you to plan, be prepared, and present to witness the dawn at some point in this coming week. For Orthodox Christians who follow the liturgical cycle, dawn is part of everyday. It is how we are born into the new day. Most matins start before the break of dawn, four or five am. As the psalms are sung, the light of dawn paints a soft brush over the darkness of night. The songbirds signal its entrance with spontaneous madrigals. And of course, that golden orb, that mystical sun cracks just at the tip of the horizon bathing the world in blessed light. It is a triumph of light over darkness day after day. It is a miracle. And we miss it because we prefer to sleep. The few times I have witnessed the dawn, during early morning services at a monastery, after all-night partying on the islands of the Cyclades, walking up Mount Sinai at Saint Katherine’s monastery, as a young mother nursing my firstborn, after agonizing insomnia as a result of anxiety and depression, I have never forgotten it. Every dawn is unique, just like a birth.
One of my bucket list endeavors is to live in a place where I can see the sun rise and the sun set–every single day. The daybreak brings order to the rest of the day; if you greet it mindfully like you would a baby about to be born, it sets the course for the rest of the day. It is not harried nor hurried.
Plus, for a photographer and an artist, the dawn presents a spectacular display of color. I could be painting and shooting images every single day if I had the liberty.
It is not coincidental that I came across this “Prayer for Daybreak” during one of my sleepless nights. It is not coincidental that it was written by Father Sophrony of Essex. It was this year that I was blessed to visit the monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex and see his cell: a sparse cell, extremely cold and humid, with a hospital bed and a lever to lift his frail body. It has become one of my most endearing prayers. I make sure to start the day with the dawn and this prayer. After all, what do you have but one dawn, one day, one prayer?
Prayer at Daybreak
O Eternal Lord and Creator of all things, in your inscrutable goodness you have called me into this life and have given me the grace of baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. You have instilled in me the desire to seek your face. Hear my prayer!
I have no life, no light, no joy, no strength, no wisdom without you, O God. Because of my unrighteousness, I dare not lift my eyes in your presence. But I obey you who said:
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11)
Truly, truly I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father He will give it to you in my name. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16)
Therefore I now dare to approach you. Purify me from all stain of flesh and spirit. Teach me to pray rightly. Bless this day which you give to me, your unworthy servant.
By the power of your blessing enable me at all times to speak and to act with a pure spirit to your glory; with faith, hope and love, humility, patience, gentleness, peace, purity, simplicity, sobriety, courage and wisdom. Let me always be aware of your presence.
In your boundless goodness, O Lord God, show me your will and grant me to walk in your sight without sin.
O Lord, unto whom all hearts are open, you know what I need and what is necessary for me. You know my blindness and my ignorance. You know my infirmity and corruption. My pain and anguish are not hidden from you. Therefore I beg you: Hear my prayer and teach me by the power of your Holy Spirit the way in which I should walk. And when my perverted will leads me otherwise, O Lord, do not spare me, but force me back to your way.
Grant me, Lord, to hold fast to what is good by the power of your love. Preserve me from every word and act which corrupts the soul, and from every impulse that is unpleasing in your sight and harmful to the people around me. Teach me what I should say and how I should speak. If it be your holy will that I be quiet and make no answer, inspire me to be silent in a peaceful spirit that causes neither harm nor hurt to my fellow human beings.
Establish me in the path of your commandments, and until my last breath do not let me stray from the light of your ordinances. May your commandments be the sole law of my being in this life and for all eternity.
O Lord, I pray to you: Have mercy on me. Spare me in my affliction and misery and hide not the way of salvation from me.
In my foolishness, O God, I plead with you for many and great things. Yet I am ever mindful of my wickedness, my baseness, my vileness. Have pity on me! Cast me not away from your presence because of my foolish presumption. Increase rather in me the right presumption of your grace and grant that I, the worst of people, may love you with all my mind, all my heart, all my soul and all my strength, as you have commanded.
By your Holy Spirit, Lord, teach me good judgment and sound knowledge. Let me know the truth before I die. Maintain my life in this world until the end that I may offer worthy repentance. Do not take me away while my mind is still blind and bound by darkness. When you are pleased to end my life, give me warning that I may prepare my soul to come before you. Be with me, Lord, at that awesome hour and assure me by your grace of the joy of my salvation.
Cleanse me from secret faults. Purify me from hidden iniquities. Give me a good answer at your dread judgment seat.
Lord of great mercy and measureless love for all people: Hear my prayer! Amen.