Should Greeks get in touch with their inner Minotaur? Sounds like trouble. But arguably, the Greek crisis is a psychological one, an epic battle in which, for now, dependence has trumped innovation in the national character.
Greek myths are the cultural property of Europe, the West and the world, immortalized in high art as well as cartoons and movie depictions such as "Clash of the Titans." Greeks are rueful at how the legacy of their ancient statesmen and philosophers stacks up against their reduced circumstances. But mostly they don't cite old myths, possibly based on kernels of truth, that helped people make sense of chaotic times.
"They don't connect it. You never hear anything about myths, the rise of myths," Magnus Briem, an Athens-based documentary producer, said of Greek commentary on the crisis. He speculated that, "maybe it's too playful for them, to deal with something so serious."
Over lunch on a rooftop terrace overlooking Syntagma Square, scene of many protests and riots outside the parliament building, Briem and Harris Mylonas, a political scientist, mused that modern Greeks are creating contemporary myths because the state, stripped of credibility, does not provide them with any answers.
Among the conspiracy theories they cited as prevalent among Greeks: European bankers and policymakers are using Greece as an "experiment" to see how far they can drive down wages and pensions before the population snaps. Another one holds that the government engineered the deaths of three people in a bank fire during a 2010 demonstration in an attempt to derail public anger and protests against austerity policies.
For at least two decades, artist Yanni Souvatzoglou has displayed his bronze sculptures in the old Athens neighborhood of Plaka. He depicts Dimitra, the goddess of fertility and agriculture, as a slender figure, like a stalk of wheat, with a symbolism that suits hard times.
"She told us to use our ingenuity to survive even if we don't have wheat," said Souvatzoglou, who cites his main influences as the ancient Minoan and Cycladic eras. "She told us, 'Before you do something important in your life, you should apply thinking' — she's holding her head — 'But if things don't work out for some reason, be flexible.' Like the wheat is when the wind is blowing."
When countries undergo hardship, boosters sometimes pay glowing tribute to the perceived resilience of their populations. This hasn't happened much with Greece, but Meineck, the academic at New York University, suggested that maybe it should.
"The great single-minded warriors of the Iliad are all dead — Achilles, Agamemnon, Ajax, etc. It is the wily Odysseus who survives," Meineck wrote. "Perhaps we should not count the Greeks out quite so soon? This small country has been dealing with giants for a very long time, be it Alexander, Rome, the Moors, Venice, the Ottomans, the Nazis or even now — the market forces of Europe."
So, as with the phoenix of ancient mythologies, Greece may yet rise from the ashes.
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