Archive for mars, 2016


Studer klassisk filologi!

Stikkord: ,

Palmyra fra luften


“Aristotle Anniversary Year: From Hate Speech to tolerance and understanding” Symposium


Greece, Russia launch cultural cooperation with exhibition at Acropolis Museum

 Greece and Russia launched their one-year cultural cooperation with the opening on Friday of a small exhibition of three selected golden objects from the Scythian collection of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum.

The presentation of these objects is a precursor to a larger exhibition which will take place in during the year. On its side, Greece will lend Hermitage a marble statue of a 7th century BC archaic Kore from the collections of the Acropolis Museum.

Culture Minister Aristidis Baltas and Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko inaugurated the event at the Acropolis Museum by signing an agreement certifying the program exchanges and events organized by the two countries.
The group of items consists of two vases and a piece of jewelry which were part of a unique Scythian burial set of the 4th century BC, found in 1830 in the royal tomb Kul-Oba, in the Crimea. These masterpieces of metalwork were made by Greek settlers in Crimea, with whom nomadic Scythians had established close trade relations.
“It is a great pleasure for us to inaugurate today officially the Greece-Russia year between two countries with a long history and fraternal relations,» said Baltas, noting that this cooperation involves two very well worked for both countries.
“It is a dedicatory year that wants to highlight not only the ties with the past and the friendship of the two peoples but also to respond to the crisis facing Greece, Russia and the surrounding region,” he added.
On his side, Prikhodko said that the two countries count thousands of years of political, religious, historical and cultural ties. “Since ancient times, Greece was a source of scientific knowledge for Russia,” he said.
«We believe the Greece-Russia year will contribute to the effective strengthening of relations between our countries and will boost trade and economic cooperation which is not going through its best phase,» he added.
Commenting on the exhibition, the president of the Acropolis Museum Dimitris Pandermalis welcomed the event saying it is a testament to the close relations between Greeks and Scythians.
“There could not be a better selection of items, which are the ambassadors of this year of friendship; these three articles which show in the most vivid way the close relationship between the Greeks and the Scythians,” he said.
The Director of the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovski described the items as “the pride” of the museum. “It is a great pleasure and honor for the Hermitage Museum to present our exhibits in one of the most modern and large museums in the world. The exhibits are the pride of the Hermitage and Russian archeology. They are the best exhibits and truly reflect the very good relations between Greece and Russia,” he said, adding that Russian often say the country is part of the European culture thanks to Russia’s Greek roots.
He also said that officials at Hermitage are already preparing the area where the Kore will be exhibited, noting that this will be followed by a Byzantine exhibition, which will be a joint collaboration between the two museums.
The event was attended by State Minister for Coordinating Government Operations Alekos Flambouraris, Alternate Education Minister for Research and Innovation Kostas Fotakis, Deputy Foreign Minister Yiannis Amanatidis, as well as other officials, from the foreign ministry and the Russian embassy in Greece.
The three objects will be exhibited at the ground floor of the Acropolis Museum from March 11 until October 2, 2016.

— Eleni


Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World review

Disbelief has been around for 2,500 years

Doubt about religious faith is as old as religion itself – Tim Whitmarsh’s brilliant book carefully explores literary and philosophical sources to make the case for a questioning of the gods in Greek and Roman times

It seems likely that there will be a female president of the US well before there is a self-professed atheist in the Oval Office. Ted Cruz declared last year that someone who does not begin every day on “his knees” (sic) is not fit to be commander-in-chief. Atheism is controversial, in the US as in many other countries around the world. But both its detractors and its supporters tend to portray lack of faith in a divine power as a possibility or danger available only in modern times.

Those in the Cruz camp often view atheism as a marker and a cause of the degeneration of contemporary society; Cruz’s father famously declared that it is the cause of sexual abuse. The defenders of religion point to the fact that all human cultures throughout history seem to have had religious beliefs and practices, and therefore religion is sometimes said to be an essential feature of human nature.

Those on the other side may celebrate “our” freedom from the superstitions that were rampant before the Enlightenment. Christopher Hitchens argued that “religion comes from the period of human prehistory when nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made of atoms – had the slightest idea what was going on”.

Tim Whitmarsh’s brilliant new book about ancient atheism makes a compelling case that various forms of religious disbelief have been with us for the past two and a half millennia, with greater and lesser degrees of cultural prominence. Atheism has had a distinguished and varied lineage. It seems likely that doubt about religion is just as old as religion itself, although there is no way to prove what people believed or did not believe in cultures that have left us no literary evidence.

Whitmarsh makes the illuminating observation that modern, post-Enlightenment atheism has a particular social function: it draws authority away from the clergy, towards the secular “priests” of science. In the ancient world, the conflict between science and religion did not exist, at least not in these terms. But it does not follow that nobody in antiquity ever questioned the traditional stories about the gods, which were often patently ridiculous.

Classical scholars may turn to Whitmarsh’s book, as I did, with questions about whether the term “atheism” is really the right one for discussing pre-Judaeo-Christian religious doubts and resistance to religion. It is an academic commonplace to distinguish between the “orthopraxy” of Graeco-Roman religion – the focus on collective rituals, sacrifices and festivals – and the “orthodoxy” of modern monotheistic religions. No ancient Greek or Roman ever recited a Creed. Besides, in classical Greek, the word atheos (“not-god”) is usually used to mean “godless” or “against-the-gods”, rather than a person who does not believe that gods exist. But Whitmarsh builds a case that stories about “battling the gods” are actually ways of articulating doubts about traditional religious teaching. He argues that classicists have gone too far in presenting ancient religion as primarily concerned only with action, not faith. As he rightly notes, this historical claim relies heavily on public sources, such as inscriptions, which may teach us a lot about ritual practices but much less about what individual worshippers thought was true and false. Public documents can only give the “official, ideologically sanctioned versions of events”. For this reason, much of Whitmarsh’s work is a careful teasing out of the literary and philosophical sources, including those that exist only in fragmentary form, as he searches for hints of people in antiquity who questioned the gods’ existence.

The ancient Greeks certainly did not assume that the gods are likable or lovable, and hostility to the gods is a familiar trope in Greek literature. The Homeric poems – which were never treated with the reverence afforded to the holy books of the Islamic or Jewish traditions, but which were by far the best known texts of Graeco-Roman antiquity – depict anthropomorphic gods who are very much of this world, and who interact with humans, even fighting with them on the battlefield. Battling the gods was a common enough trope in the Greek imagination that they had a word for it: theomachia. One might think that stories about gods as threats to humans must imply a strong belief in their existence. But Whitmarsh argues that theomachy stories express “a kind of atheism, through the narrative medium of myth”. One key example is the archaic tale of Salmoneus, who claimed to be Zeus, demanded sacrifices to be offered to himself, and created thunder by dragging kettles around behind his chariot. Whitmarsh suggests that this story raises disturbing questions for believers in the gods: “If gods can be fashioned by mortal imitation, how real can they be?”

19th Century Greek Vase Illustration of Zeus Abducting Leda in the form of a Swan1813-1824 --- 19th Century Greek Vase Illustration of Zeus Abducting Leda in the form of a Swan --- Image by Stapleton Collection/Corbis
A 19th century Greek vase illustration of Zeus abducting Leda in the form of a swan. Photograph: Stapleton Collection/Corbis

One may still balk at the idea that this is really “atheism” in the modern sense. Even the pre-Socratics of the sixth and fifth centuries BC, who are usually seen as the precursors to modern scientific and philosophical inquiry, cannot all be identified as atheists in any straightforward sense. Xenophanes of Colophon declared that “Africans say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, Thracians that they are blue-eyed and red-haired”: but pointing to the limitations of Greek concepts of anthropomorphic deities is not quite the same as denying the existence of all gods.

In the fifth century BC, we reach more convincing examples of people who can be categorised as atheists in the strong modern sense of the word. Protagoras, an important and influential sophist (“wisdom-teacher”), declared at the start of his book On the Gods, “I cannot know whether they exist”. Whitmarsh shows that this claim was closer to outright atheism than agnosticism, since Protagoras went on to argue that what cannot be perceived does not exist. Another sophist, Prodicus, claimed that “the gods of popular belief do not exist”. In the later Hellenistic period, the third and second centuries BC, the nature and existence or nonexistence of the gods was reconsidered by many schools of philosophy. Stoics identified god with nature and fate. Epicureans had a slippery, perhaps confused notion of gods who were composed of a different, thinner type of matter from all other entities in the universe, and lived “between the worlds”, affecting nothing but dreams and the imagination. Sceptics argued that all beliefs rest on “shaky foundations”, including belief in the gods.

Whitmarsh rightly underlines the central importance of ancient Scepticism in the history of atheism; these philosophers came up with a hugely influential set of arguments against a vast range of religious claims. Carneades, an early leader of the school, used a form of “heap” argument (a thousand grains is a heap; take one away, it’s still a heap; but one grain is not a heap; so when does it cease to be a heap?). His argument relies on the Greek assumption that the gods belong to this world, rather than being a different order of being, and he poses the question: are nymphs and satyrs gods? If not, where do we draw the line? Some have interpreted Carneades – whose work does not survive first-hand – as saying only that traditional religion is questionable, rather than that gods do not exist. But Whitmarsh makes the case that Carneades wanted to prove that belief in the gods is logically impossible; the idea that he was only attacking current (Stoic) beliefs about gods comes from the much later, and highly partial, testimony of Cicero.

Whitmarsh, who is primarily a Greek literature specialist, spends much more time with the Greeks than the Romans, and treats Greek religion more sympathetically. But he has a big and provocative story to sketch once he reaches the world of the emperors. He makes a connection between the disparate, scattered world of the Greek city states and Greek polytheism, which was more a set of local cults than a centralised religious system. With the centralising power of Rome, religion also became more centralised and politicised – as did, Whitmarsh argues, atheism.

Since the Romans tended to equate the success of their own empire with divine providence, scepticism about Rome and scepticism about the gods now went together. (Scepticism about the gods was good, it provided a sphere for political dissent for people who wanted to criticise Rome implicitly.) But the “dream” of being able to “imagine the possibility of a world that had left religions behind” lasted for only two or three hundred years. As the Roman empire became increasingly difficult to govern, there was a strong motive for those in power to find an ideological force that could hold the people under imperial control. Christianity proved particularly useful for this purpose.

The Theodosian code was instituted in the fifth century CE, and represented a vast shift away from the old model of Graeco-Roman polytheism. Now, religion was not an infinitely expandable series of cults dedicated to multiple different divinities; all doubt was heresy, and all beliefs except Nicene Christianity were punishable by death. As Whitmarsh insists, individuals probably continued to have doubts about religion throughout late antiquity and the middle ages; but “they were invisible to dominant society and so have left no trace in the historical record”.

This is an invigorating, urgent book that makes an important contribution to a central contemporary debate. One of its chief virtues is that it underlines the gulf between the Christian and pre-Christian eras, without presenting antiquity as an atheist’s utopia. There were no ancient equivalents of wars using religion as a premise (the crusades or jihad). But doubters were put on trial in antiquity, and some were executed, for instance under the Athenian law against “impiety” – including Socrates, who was accused of “not believing in the gods of the city”.

Whitmarsh also reminds us that disbelief comes in many varieties. Democritus the atomist – who lived in the fifth century BC – seems to have had some kind of belief in the gods: he thought that people see gods in their dreams, although they have no explanatory function for the workings of the material universe. Gods exist, but they are irrelevant for scientific inquiry. Democritus was not an atheist in quite the same way as Hitchens, but he was no fool, and he was certainly not brainwashed by religion.


— Eleni

Stikkord: ,

Cycladic Art Museum shares secrets of ancient craftsmen


The Museum of Cycladic Art in central Athens has temporarily transformed the three halls of its central building on Neofytou Douka Street into arts and crafts workshops, named after Athena, Daedalus and Hephaestus, for pottery, marble and metal.

The spaces feature long tables fully equipped with all the tools needed to turn humble base materials into fine works of art, where presentations take place to show the public how ancient sculptors, potters, goldsmiths and bronze workers went about their craft.

There is also an exhibition, which, museum director Nicholas Stampolidis explains, describes the construction of some of the spectacular pieces on display in the museum. It is these 40 pieces that are reproduced in the workshops, allowing museum-goers rare insight into the techniques and methods that were applied.

The initiative belongs to Nikos Papadimitriou, who also curated the exhibition, and the aim is to showcase the skill that went into the wonderful pieces by known and anonymous ancient artisans which have survived to this day.

Admission costs 3.50 euros and is valid all day long, allowing visitors to take as much time as they like wandering from one workshop to the next and viewing the exhibition.

“It is enchanting to see how a pottery wheel helps transform a lump of clay into a vase,” says Stampolidis.

Regular visitors to the museum will remember the bronze shield from the Idaean Cave, found in Eleutherna, now a symbol of the new museum that will be inaugurated at the archaeological site on Crete in June. In the current exhibition, which runs through February 29, they can see how the ancient artifact was made. The replica shield will be put in the place of the original exhibit, which has now returned to Crete.

How did the ancients craft the Cycladic idols? The quality of the rock, almost exclusively marble, was key and this would be whittled by the craftsman with special tools and shaped according to the stone’s natural contours.

Stampolidis explains how the eye-catching gold ornaments we see at the museum were made by cutting a thin leaf of gold into small squares, melting them into pellets and then shaping these into forms. The goldsmith, he says, needed skill not just in producing the material but also in fusing the different elements of a piece together.

Bronzesmiths also had their hands full with “outlining the shapes, turning the sheet inside out and giving it volume and form.” It also required a lot of skill to know how to “divide the surface, particularly when crafting curves for, say, a shield.”

“Experience was not enough” for the potters of ancient times, says Stampolidis, explaining how, while it was key that they knew how to find the right clay and dilute it to its proper consistency, it also took physical labor, requiring “strong legs and hands.”

— Eleni

Museum of Cycladic Art, 4 Neofytou Douka, Kolonaki, tel 210.722.8321. Open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities salvages lost chapters of history


You want to hold your breath, as you do when you’re underwater, when gazing upon the splendid objects that archaeologists have dragged up from the deep. Ancient vases, Classical era jars, bronze figurines, Ottoman clay pipes from the 17th century, Byzantine coins and, most surprising of all, the contents of an amphora from Sinope in the Pontus region, found off the coast of the eastern Aegean island of Fournoi: 2,000-year-old shells of shrimps that were meant to feed a ship’s crew and which are now stored in a plastic food container.

Catching a glimpse of the valuable contents of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities (EEA) on Dionysiou Areopagitou Street in downtown Athens is a privilege reserved for just a few. You don’t know where to look first, while it’s hard not to touch the remains of a past that spent centuries hidden from human sight at the bottom of the sea before being brought to light.

I was greeted at the entrance by the head of the EEA, Angeliki Simosi, who took me on a tour of what she describes as “the country’s most special archaeological department, dedicated to the country’s biggest museum: the Greek seabed.” That is a “museum” that is not just huge in size (covering all of Greece’s territorial waters), but also in terms of time, as the findings to date range from the Stone Age all the way up to the 20th century.

“When a shipwreck is located, we bring up a sample of objects so that we can date them, roughly at first. Then we try to do a survey of the ship’s hull and, once its condition is ascertained, we can go ahead with the excavation if we feel that it is merited,” explained Simosi, who has served at the EEA since its founding in 1976.

There are hundreds of wrecks in the Greek seas, Simosi explained, but the service focuses its efforts on those that are considered most significant because of the cargo they were carrying when they went down.

“One of our duties is to scan the seabed to see whether there is more than one hull at the location,” Simosi said. “This year in Fournoi, our archaeologist Giorgos Koutsouflakis located 22 wrecks in a small area.”

When an object is first removed from the water, it is immediately placed in a container with seawater and once it arrives at the EEA it is transferred to a tank, where the desalination process, which can take anything from a few months to years, begins. This painstaking process is essential to protect the object, as any abrupt changes to the environment in which it has existed for perhaps hundreds of years can cause rapid deterioration.

“Every so often, we take the object out and slowly clean off the various layers that have built up on its surface,” said Simosi.

Once this process is complete, it is up to the conservation experts to reveal the wood, metal, clay or marble beneath. With patience and care, they spend hours returning every single object to its original form, put it back together and clean it.

Two of the conservationists who work at the EEA, Angelos Tsombanidis and Spyridoula Papanikou, feel privileged to be tasked with bringing such treasures back to life and they confess that it can be an emotional process at times. “One experience that we will always remember is when we had to restore a child’s skull, found in a sunken ancient settlement in Metochi in the Pagasetic Gulf. It is dated to the middle Bronze Age, around 1700 BC. A characteristic of the settlement is that they would bury their children inside the home.”

The most impressive find made so far is locked in a glass cabinet on the ground floor of the EEA. It is parts of a large statue from the late Hellenic period with a fascinating history.

In 2006, a fisherman brought up the leg of a bronze statue in his nets, in the area between the islands of Kalymnos and Kos. Shortly afterward, another fisherman, who happened to be related to the first one, found the other leg in the same area. He found part of the torso in 2009, while the head and other parts of what is believed to be a military leader on horseback turned up here and there later. What is odd about the story is that while the fishermen pointed out the spot to the EEA, archaeologists have been unable to find any other trace of the statue. Over the years, research has suggested the parts belong to a figure of an imposing man on horseback, holding the reins in one hand and saluting with the other. No trace of the horse has been found.

“The torso spent a long time in the desalination tank and is a perfect fit to the legs,” said Simosi. “We can’t be sure about the head because it’s not in Greece right now. It is on loan and being exhibited abroad. First it went to Florence, then to America and next it will be shown at a major exhibition of ancient Greek art in Japan. From our experience, though, we believe it to be a part of this very big and very beautiful statue.”

The conservationists gave me a special treat. They opened the cabinet and carefully removed the legs. Tsombanidis held them upright to give me an idea of what they would look like in their proper position.

“As you can see, every day is special for us, full of surprises,” the EEA staff said as they saw me out.

— Ελένη