Stories about the Olive, part I: Civilisation or curse?

 

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This is not so much a story about the olive tree and its fruits, as it is a story about the stories we tell ourselves, about where we came from and how we got where we are today, in which the olive happens to be a central character.

In the archaeology of Greece, the time when olive trees began to be systematically exploited by humans is seen as a pivotal moment in the region’s development, at least as important a transition as the beginning of agriculture which took place several millennia earlier. The first to credit the olive with a “civilising” influence was a British archaeologist, Colin Renfrew, who wrote a hugely influential study called The Emergence in Civilisation in 1972. In it, he made the first attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation for the emergence of the Minoan and Myceneaean societies in the Bronze Age. It was an ambitious project, taking the reader from the scattered agricultural hamlets of the Neolithic period to the first “palaces” of the Bronze Age, with their sophisticated visual culture, monumental architecture and complex economy – for the most part without the aid of historical records, as are we essentially talking about prehistory.

For Renfrew, the olive was part of what he called “the Mediterranean triad”, along with the vine and wheat, the essential components of civilised life in the region, continuing though the Classical period to the present day. Influenced by the “new” or “scientific” archaeology which grew out of the anthropological tradition in the United States, Renfrew was one of the first to study the “mundane” aspects of past life such as agriculture and social relations, as opposed to the classically-inspired focus on kings and battles that had prevailed until then. On the olive front, he had very little archaeological evidence to go on – a few stray pips and branches here and there, preserved almost accidentally in an era when botanical remains were neither systematically sought nor retained for study. He did observe, however that the parts of Greece where Late Bronze Age “palaces” appeared coincided with the best conditions for olive cultivation.

Renfrew’s essential thesis was this: the olive and the vine were both a step up from the existing cereal-based cultivation because they enabled their cultivators to produce high-value storable products, oil and wine. He noted that a key feature of the Late Bronze Age “palaces” was the presence of large liquid storage facilities. These were administered using a form of proto-writing, an early accounting system, which recorded inflows and outflows of goods including oil and wine on behalf of a ruler and a number of deities. Working backwards, he reasoned that the rulers of the “palaces”, the first of their kind, derived their power from this “redistributing” activity. He called the first rulers “chiefs”, following the models of social evolution influential at the time, which envisioned a universal development path from “tribal” societies to “chiefdoms” and “states”. They became “chiefs”, according to his account, because the new crops, and the high-value surplus production they generated, required a higher level of organisation to administer.

“The redistribution of goods, which is organized and controlled by the chief himself, . . . is, of course, exactly the function fulfilled by the palaces of Minoan-Mycenaean civilization, taking in and storing the produce from the very different fields, orchards, and pastures which are found, even in a small area, in south Greece.”

This was a benevolent managerial elite, taking on the task of redistributing the newfound bounty of the earth to the surrounding communities. They rewarded themselves with the accoutrements of “wealth”, defined as the “the ownership of desirable transferrable goods”, which they took to their graves in the form of marble statuettes and weapons and ornaments made of metal. It is impossible to overstate how influential this model of social evolution was, for the archaeology of Greece and of Europe more generally. For the first time it provided a narrative that wasn’t a “just so story” about the inexorable march of progress or an illustrated foundation myth for a modern nation-state. Yet within a decade it was lampooned by one of its critics in a published debate as a vision of “a benevolent squirearchy bent on agricultural improvement, a little modest trade, and the advancement of the deserving poor”.

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Reconstructing the olive.

A much darker vision was offered in a 1981 article by Antonio Gilman, an American archaeologist researching Spanish prehistory. Gilman also believed that arboriculture, including exploitation of the olive and the vine, was a key technological development in the emergence of complex societies in the region (“civilisation” already being regarded with suspicion as too value-laden a term). However, he saw its importance in very different terms from the enabling role envisioned by Renfrew. The key difference it brought was “capital intensification”, the need for upfront investment:

“Tree crops […] present radically new technical requirements. Vine cuttings do not yield fruit until three years after they have been planted but produce for generations thereafter. Olives do not yield fruit for ten to fifteen years after planting, come into full production some twenty years later, and continue to give fruit for centuries. In the meantime, the trees must be pruned, the ground around them plowed. In other words, the farmer must invest a lot of work before he (or his heir) receives a return. Mediterranean polyculture constitutes a capital-intensification of subsistence.”

This produced a power shift in those early egalitarian societies, from those who lived hand-to-mouth, to those who were able offer protection against the destruction of their livelihoods:

“The investments of labor to insure future production would have to be defended. But the value of these same assets would dampen the potential for social fission, so that it would be difficult to check the aspirations of those to whom the defense had been entrusted. In the face of a protector whose exactions seem excessive, the household’s choices are limited: it may abandon the asset for which it sought protection; it may find another protector (who may prove no less self-aggrandizing than his predecessor); or it may submit to the excessive exactions. Over the long term, these options consistently favor the protectors. In the end there would have arisen a permanent ruling class.”

Rather than being benevolent managers, Gilman’s first “chiefs” are “protectors”, and the olive rather than being a blessing is a form of bondage. This is in effect a Mafia society.

Indeed, in more recent years, historians studying documents from nineteenth century Italy have proposed a very similar model for the emergence of the modern Cosa Nostra, as a protection racket preying on the citrus groves of Sicily. One group of documents that has been extensively studied is the account of a Dr Galati of Palermo, whose story takes place in the 1870s, and offers a vivid illustration of how an orchard-based protection network might work:

“In 1872 Galati came to inherit a pristine four-hectare lemon grove only a ten-minute walk from Palermo. However, all was not well inside its walls. Its previous owner, the doctor’s brother-in-law, had died of a heart attack following a series of threatening letters. Some time before he died, he learned that the sender of these letters was a warden on his own grove, Benedetto Carollo, who had dictated them to someone who was literate. He said that he swaggered around the grove making wild threats against Galati and it was well known that he creamed at least twenty per cent off the sale price. He even stole coal for the steam engine. Eventually lemons started to go missing from the grove. Orders couldn’t be met and the grove got a bad reputation. Carollo was trying to ruin the grove so as to buy it himself. Galati sacked him and hired a replacement.

Some ‘good friends’ of Carollo’s came around and advised that Galati should take him back, but Galati refused.

At approximately 10pm on 2 July, 1874, Carollo’s replacement was shot several times. The hitmen had built a platform behind a stone wall so as to shoot him in a winding back lane. This method became a staple of early Mafia hits. The police were called and they tactfully ignored Galati’s convictions that it was Carollo, arresting instead two men who had no connection with the victim and then promptly releasing them. He received a series of threatening letters, seven in all, which said it was a disgrace for a ‘man of honour’, such as Carollo, to be fired. Eventually he was forced to flee the country after a series of attempts on his life…

Even at this early point the Mafia has corrupted the local government. When Galati asked for his seven threatening letters back, he only got six. The seventh and most explicit had been strangely mislaid.”

The idea that our “civilisation” might come at a price, that perhaps the elegant prehistoric artefacts that we admire in museum cases, the Cycladic marble figurines and the golden drinking sets of Troy, may have been financed by the blood and toil of an emerging serf class at the hands of a proto-Mafia, is a radically different view of prehistory. It may be one that more people would identify with at this present time of increasing wealth inequality, but it is not the one that prevails.

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A token of civilisation or the loot of a proto-Mafia?

Can we determine with certainty which version is right? Both of these contrasting visions of the past were based on near-identical data sets (though Gilman’s was more geographically extensive, including evidence from the western Mediterranean), and neither of them did the data violence to fit their story. In the years following their advancement, academic priorities have been directed towards testing hypotheses through further gathering of evidence, following the scientific method. In the course of this inquiry, the discipline first questioned and then apparently affirmed the evidence for olive exploitation in the critical periods of the Early and Middle Bronze age. But the narratives put forward to account for the evidence have changed only at the margins. That is probably because such big questions, touching on intangibles such as human intentionality, hover on the very margins of empirical proof or refutation.

What accounts for the different views? It might help the reader to know, by way of context, that Colin Renfrew was awarded a life peerage in 1991 and now sits in Conservative benches of the House of Lords as Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, while Antonio Gilman wrote the entry on “Marxist archaeology” in the 2001 International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. It shouldn’t come as a shock that their perspectives on what drives human history differ. Archaeologists are in a constant debate amongst themselves about how to interpret the past, and their views can be quite heavily informed by their beliefs and their present circumstances – much more than the general public would know from the media reporting of their findings. While this inner turmoil is largely hidden from public view, the dawning realisation has led to a “loss of nerve” in the discipline, almost an existential anxiety, which makes the majority of its practitioners shy away from the Big Questions because they feel they can’t provide proper, definitive, incontrovertible answers (or because they fear that their research will only be funded on that promise). This is a shame. Acknowledging that present-day politics can shape our view of the past is not a negative as long as it leads to productive inquiry by framing hypotheses that can be tested. Humans are storytelling animals, stories are how we make sense of the world, and perhaps it isn’t so bad to admit that the evidence allows for more than one definitive version of the story. I am not for a moment suggesting that people should be encouraged to select their preferred version of the past from an infinite relativist superstore (Ideas’R’Us?), or that we always have to chose between such stark opposites. Rather, just being aware that alternatives exist and that some questions remain open would enrich our understanding of the past and our appreciation of the present.

That, at any rate, is something to consider the next time you pop an olive in your mouth with your aperitif, or drizzle some extra virgin on your salad.

IMAGES: Ancient olive tree in Crete, from ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com; 3D rendering of the Monumental Olive Tree of Vouves, said to be the oldest olive tree in the world, after Maravelakis et al.; display of Early Cycladic figurines at the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens.

Stories about the Olive, part I: Civilisation or curse?

Imitation ‘Greek’ statues flooding the market, consumer organisations warn

Consumer organisations are warning buyers against an influx of counterfeit goods from the Far East. Customs police, acting on a tip-off from Interpol, recently cracked down on a massive fake goods operation, which specialised in trafficking ornamental sculptures into Europe and marketing them as ‘Greek’.

The life-size terracotta statues were originally described by their Chinese promoters as “[potentially] inspired by Greek sculptures and art”, however ruthless European middlemen have taken it one step further, claiming to “imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals.” Experts warn consumers to beware of false advertising, and to be sceptical of the hype in the popular media. “These products claiming to be ‘Greek’ are not only smaller and of lesser artistic merit, they are also made of inferior materials,” cautions Pheidias, who owns a garden centre specialising in architectural ornaments on the Marathon road. “For example, a genuine caryatid is 100% solid Pentelic marble, guaranteed to hold up a temple pediment for centuries. These copies are terracotta, they will crumble instantly and injure someone. They would never pass European safety tests.”

The counterfeiters appear to be exploiting on the sky-rocketing demand for so-called caryatids in Greece, where state-sponsored British looting has resulted in a scarcity of the monumental female statues. “They think that if they slap the word ‘Greek’ on them we’ll be fooled,” said Mrs Toula, a bargain-hunter rifling through a stall of ‘Superbry’ and ‘Abidas’ sportswear at the local outdoor market. Recently, a campaign by German supermarket chain Lidl to promote Greek products backfired, when nationalists complained about the alleged desecration of the Greek flag on the marketing logo.

The terracotta statues are believed to have been mass-produced in a giant manufacturing plant in China’s Shaanxi province, while traffickers working for the operation are recently thought to have been identified from their skeletal remains as far afield as London.

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The alleged “Chinese caryatid factory”, Xi’an, China.

Others, however, argue that the Chinese statues should be appreciated on their own merits, regardless of whether the Greeks had a hand in making them.”I have a deep respect for the cultures of the East, mused Isodoros, a 25-year-old DJ/mixologist, as he polished the battery-operated ‘lucky cat’ on the reclaimed zinc bar of his Monastiraki speakeasy. “I think it is because I have always been a spiritual person. At the end of the day, we are all one big cosmic civilisation.”

Asked to comment on the controversy, Professor Killjoy, holder of the Nitpicker chair of Archaeology at the University of Pedantry told us: “It is the job of professional archaeologists to determine whether this is a case of cultural diffusion or independent invention. More study is required to shed light on this question, which will necessitate extensive international travel, many media appearances and a small army of postdocs to cover one’s teaching duties. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a research grant to apply for.”

Imitation ‘Greek’ statues flooding the market, consumer organisations warn

I wasn’t there when…

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It was a beautiful autumn evening as I walked to Athens’s Tae Kwon Do arena where the 2nd Syriza party conference is being held this week. The air was warm but the shadows long, and the light had the golden hazy quality that is peculiarly Attic. I had only decided to check out the conference the day before, when I saw the posters announcing it, plastered – illegally – along the median strip of most major roads in town.

To get to the Tae Kwon Do, one of the least unsuccessful pieces of Athens’s Olympic legacy now functioning as an expo centre and occasional refugee shelter, I had to pick my way along the seafront strip aspirationally rebranded as the “Athens Riviera”, along the gulf of Faliro. This involved traversing a maze of underpasses, flyovers and empty stranded car parks reminiscent J.G. Ballard’s dystopian Concrete Island, walking the narrow pavement along the coastal highway past the last holdouts of the nightclubs that once lined that stretch of road, and finally crossing the freshly planted park surrounding the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre which resembles a Mediterranean zen garden, and over a pedestrian bridge towards the setting sun.

The conference piqued my interest in part because I have never attended a Greek political gathering of any sort, and I happened to be in the neighbourhood. I have attended political conferences in the UK for different parties as a non-member in a professional capacity and found them to be fascinating experiences, but I am simply not a party animal in any sense (except perhaps ironically when Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet belted out “Gold” at one of the otherwise stolid Tory events). Anyway, I digress. I probably wouldn’t cross the road to attend a routine political event by most other political parties, as I haven’t done in all my years in Greece. The closest I came was the run-up to the July 2015 referendum, which was adrenaline-inducing, both in the exciting and the downright scary sense. I thought it would be interesting to see how Syriza measured up, after inspiring such passion in both the positive and the negative sense, at its second ever conference after a year and a half in power, having climbed a rapid learning curve, and with the honeymoon period decidedly behind them.

I also figured that being a relatively new political formation and making a big deal of inclusiveness it would be easy to blag my way in. In the UK, party conference attendees have to register weeks in advance, get a conference pass in the post and queue to get through tight security barriers.

As I approached the venue I was struck by the calm. I had expected something along the lines of the KNE (Communist Party Youth) festivals that used to take place down the road from us when I was growing up, and where Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras cut his teeth in the not too distant past: tannoys blaring Theodorakis songs and slogans, leafletting, honking horns and music late into the night. Here, only a few flags fluttering in the autumn breeze gave away a party event rather than an Ideal Home expo. Thin crowds milled outside, little groups of friends greeting one another, craning their necks to find more people they recognised, smoking. There were a few recognisable faces, including senior cabinet minsters, mingling outside. Three times I thought I spotted the rotund mustachioed Parliamentary speaker Nikos Voutsis, only to realise that the paunch and braces were something of a common look among male attendees of a certain age.

I only had to walk through an airport-style scanner and put my bag through an x-ray machine. No photo ID badges, and only a couple of discreet police buses for security. Inside the hall, I had an hour to kill before the programme was due to start. The PA system played an eclectic mix, “Bella Ciao” alternating with “Rock the Casbah” and Greek dad-rock. Looking around me, I estimated the average age of the gathering audience to be mid to late 50s, perhaps a bit older. Some had brought children who were already fidgeting. One small section towards the back of the arena was taken up by the Syriza youth, who were the only ones showing a sense of occasion. As I leant over the bannister the gentleman next to me smoked a candyfloss-scented electronic cigarette. Around 10 minutes before the scheduled starting time, a disembodied male voice came on the PA system: “Comrades, comrades, please take your seats so that the conference can begin”. There was a slight show of purpose in the crowd. At the third attempt, the announcer started to betray some impatience, adopting the deliberate phrasing of a kindergarten teacher: “Comrades, please. We are taking our seats and settling down so that the conference can begin”.

There was a rustle and random sections of the audience stood up and applauded. “Who is it?” whispered the group of women next to me. “It’s Alexis, it’s him!” (this is the first genuine excitement of the evening). On the big screens we could see Tsipras and a group of senior party figures making their way from the back of the hall through the crowd to the stage. The hall was still not full. There was the odd empty seat in the stands, and the floor was only crowded near the front. To the sound of some kind of instrumental folk-rock which I didn’t recognise, Tsipras shook hands along the front rows, while the rest of the audience chatted.

Once the meet and greet had concluded, the voice proceeded to introduce the honorary conference committee as they rose to take their places on the stage. I only recognised a few names of the presiding team. After them came a colourful, diverse group, which I would have trouble picturing onstage with a more established party: a Muslim MP from Thrace, a Paralympian, the president of the Philippino domestic workers’ association, and eventually a long list of resistance fighters, dissidents and Communist party members with histories of imprisonment and exile. After the applause subsided, the Syriza youth section erupted into a chant of “On barren islands and in prisons, the Communists never bowed”. This was greeted by stony silence from audience.

The party secretary stood up to give the welcome address. He was not an inspiring speaker, and I have to admit that I have a short attention span when it comes to political speeches in general. My mind starts to wander within the first couple of sentences and I revert to people-watching. What I did notice was that I was not alone. At a UK party conference of the governing party, even as a registered attendee I would not even be in the main hall, I would probably be watching a screen in an overflow room, but there would still be a palpable atmosphere that carried you along. I recently watched in amazement a snippet of the fractious Republic convention in the US, where the floor delegates dutifully applauded Ted Cruz on cue for several minutes before it slowly dawned on them that he was not in fact going to endorse Donald Trump as expected. Based on these precedents, I was concerned that I would stand out if I failed to applaud. There was in fact very little applause on cue, and when it came, several people around me didn’t join in. Only the Syriza youth chanted occasionally.

The tone was particularly flat when the speaker tried to whip the audience up by stating repeatedly that this was the first conference of its kind in Greece, “held by a leftist party while in government”. I had read more experienced and knowledgeable commentators note that this conference would be very different from the first, partly because the centre of gravity of the senior Syriza team had shifted from the more radical personalities of their opposition days and their first term toward the more conservative figures drawn from the ranks of the Socialist PASOK party, which had governed Greece on and off since the early 80s. This was clearly borne out in the audience by the frosty reception that greeted the “first time left” claims.

I can’t remember much more of his speech. As my eye wandered I fixed on two incongruous figures seated in the youth section: two twenty-something guys in sharp suits and carefully trimmed beards, smoking cigars like the wannabe Gordon Gekkos used to do while the ordered sushi around the old Athens Stock Exchange. Had they stumbled in from a Nea Demokratia event, or were they perhaps a Cuban youth delegation? One of them ostentatiously brushed down his jacket sleeve after one of his more casually-attired comrades in the stand bumped into him.

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Eventually, the secretary ceded his place to Alexis Tsipras. This also struck me as odd compared to the Anglo-American experience, where the party leader’s speech typically forms the crescendo of the conference programme, after all the aspirants and the grandees have had a chance to warm up the audience and iron out the message. Maybe this is how it’s done in Greece, but I found it interesting that Syriza wouldn’t have challenged such a tradition, given their emphasis on bottom-up process and consultative deliberation, to have the leader set the tone up front in such an obvious way. But, oddly, I was looking forward to this. I had never found Tsipras to be an engaging speaker when I had watched him on TV. He declaims in a loud nasal monotone that some people compare to the late Andreas Papandreou, who was generally counted as an inspirational orator, but I find soporific. He peppers (or should I say crams) his sentences with political clichés of the type described in Greece as “wooden language”, which hark back to the cold war days of the 1970s. In the comfort of my own home I tend to drift off to make a coffee or get a drink and read about it later, but having heard Tsipras described as a “firebrand” and “charismatic” I expected that the live experience would be more engaging. The principle had worked when I was dragged to Neil Young and Springsteen concerts only to be dragged away a reluctant convert.

On this occasion I was wrong. I stayed engaged long enough to sense the audience freeze again when the “first time left” message was repeated. They did the same when Tsipras claimed the July 2015 referendum will remain etched on our memories as the greatest moment in modern history. There was stony silence when he said that leaving the Euro was never part of the Syriza plan – earlier in the day, a leaked book excerpt quoted French President Hollande to the effect that Tsipras had approached Russian President Putin to print drachmas in Russia in the event of a Grexit. Talk of changing Europe from within barely caused a ripple in the audience; ditto the mention of the pantomime villains, the media and the old political parties.

The floor was still only two thirds full. A busty blonde woman in a tight black dress strode up and down the back of the audience wiggling her hips and blowing kisses to her friends (?) in the stands. You will have to resort to more expert commentary for what followed. Rumours have it that the party conference is the prelude to a ruthless cabinet reshuffle, but I didn’t stay to pick up any hints of this. My curiosity satisfied I left, probably a third of the way through Tsipras’s speech. Maybe it was different in the “old days”, a mere couple of years ago. Maybe this is just what happens when a party grows up, or maybe it has burned out already.

If it was exciting, I wasn’t there.

PHOTOS by Atlantis Host, October 2016.

I wasn’t there when…

Welcome to the entanglement show

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Hello Greece-watchers and welcome to another thrilling parliamentary debate on political entanglement (or diaploki to give it its proper Greek name)!

You join us as Greece endures its seventh year of austerity, with no end in sight. Long time spectators may have switched channels now that there are fewer telegenic riots in the streets and a dearth of “maverick” media-friendly politicians to grab the headlines, but that doesn’t mean the drama is over. There is still plenty of austerity in the pipeline, bargains to be driven and hard decisions to be made, but there is always time for some good old fashioned showmanship.

The country’s elected representatives across the political spectrum have kindly agreed to devote an afternoon of parliamentary debating time to the ever-popular subject of… (drum roll please)… “phenomena of entanglement and corruption and their influence on the institutional and political system of the country and ways to confront them”. There are those who might say that treating such a serious matter as show is frivolous – we would ask whether it is even good use of parliamentary time. After all, there is at least one parliamentary committee still taking evidence on precisely the topics we expect to hear discussed. But hey, why not book in another session of mid-afternoon mud-slinging to prospect even further down the depths of the political barrel that must at some point be revealed to have a false bottom?!

This debate offers a great opportunity to brush up on your Greek political vocabulary. So without further ado, here is a preview of what to expect:

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Alexis Tsipras (Syriza).
  • Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will give a whistle-stop tour of the “triangle of entanglement” (the Hellenised version of a Reuters coinage referring to the links between banks, media and political parties in Greece). Tsipras has promised to name “addresses and names” (διευθύνσεις και ονόματα) but don’t hold your breath for any revelations – last time he used this “teaser” for a debate on the judicial system we had to make do with a stack of document folders being brandished suggestively and standard allegations against “some” (κάποιοι), presumably shadowy forces, delivered in a theatrical whisper. If cornered (trigger word: elections) he will question the accuracy/integrity of the latest opinion polls that show Syriza trailing the opposition with disapproval ratings of 90%.
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Nikos Pappas (Syriza).
  • Minister of State Nikos Pappas “owns” the broadcast licensing agenda, the most visible plank of Syriza’s anti-corruption drive. He will elaborate on Tsipras’s speech, but in a more high-pitched voice. He will accuse private TV channels owners of conducting an αεροπειρατεία (aeropiratía, lit. air piracy, hijacking) – his latest slightly-off-the-mark bon mot to describe the (still) present anarchic broadcasting regime. He will brush off any of the numerous questions still hanging over the tender process. If cornered (trigger word: Kalogritsas, the name of a successful license bidder, who withdrew after he was revealed to virtually embody the aforesaid triangle) he will commit to using the €250 million raised in the auction to hire hospital staff/create nursery places/support young scientists/buy milky bars for everyone (clue: he has only promised three of these so far).
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Kyriakos Mitsotakis, ND.
  • Nea Dimokratia leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis will stand up looking like a smug prefect and give a slightly awkward, over-rehearsed speech with stage-managed hand-gestures and carefully focus-grouped jokes which will fail to amuse anyone but his most loyal groupies. If cornered (trigger word: Siemens), he will reminisce about his early life as a six-month old political prisoner during the junta, while his big sis casts back on changing his nappies and kicks herself for not trying harder for the party leadership. He will demand snap elections, but will fail to mention a single credible policy. He will accuse the government of setting up a “new left-wing diaploki”, hoping instead to catch disillusioned Syriza voters on the rebound (he will probably be disappointed). He will then post a mawkish photo op with his dad, Mitsotakis Sr., the 98-year-old honorary party chairman, looking like a confused and/or mummified Don Corleone.
  • One of ND’s right-wingers, perhaps Adonis Georgiadis or fellow ex-LAOS MP Makis Voridis, will then stand up to do the dirty work of ad hominem attacks and loose allegations, then tweet out the video of his performance with a comment like “I love the smell of burning lefties in the morning!”. He may let slip an admiring comment about a former dictator.
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Panos Kammenos (ANEL).

 

  • Junior coalition partner Panos Kammenos (ANEL) will give us a live reading from his private correspondence with an oligarch, which may or may not be a hoax, so as to present himself as an incorruptible free agent. As his senior partners in the coalition are tarnishing rapidly, he sees the ghosts of junior coalition partners past beckoning from the dustbin of history and paddles furiously to disassociate himself where he can. Kammenos rarely misses a debate which affords a cost-free opportunity to bloviate, but invariably votes “yes” in absentia on crucial austerity bills, to avoid heckling chants of “sta tessera” from the opposition benches.
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Thanassis Papachristopoulos (ANEL).
  • In the event that Kammenos decides to give it a miss, his ANEL understudy will show up promptly, pompadour quiff askew and shirt unbuttoned like a taxi driver who has slept off his shift in the cab because the wife has thrown him out. He will work himself into a lather and choke on his outrage. Over whatever.
  • Fofi’n’Stavros (PASOK leader Fofi Gennimata and Potami leader Stavros Theodorakis), presiding over what remains of Greece’s decimated centre-left, will avoid eye contact. That one night stand they had over the summer holidays failed to blossom into a party merger and is now a source of embarrassment to them both.
  • Someone with a shaved head and/or elaborate facial hair from Golden Dawn will use the word βοθροκάναλα (vothrokanala, sewage channels) to refer to private TV channels – but most other MPs will be taking a tactical coffee/cigarette break at the time.
  • Centrists Union leader Vassilis Leventis will once again express his revulsion for the corrupt political system he has finally succeeded in joining after decades of trying. He probably won’t reiterate the curses against the establishment political families that older viewers may remember, as he bides his time to become the next kingmaker.
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Policy in the making (1).
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Policy in the making (2).
  • There will be no South-Korean/Ukrainian-style punch-up, because the Greek parliament is still (still!) too cosy for that.

BONUS FEATURE: Why not boost your live viewing experience by playing a drinking game? Down a shot each time you hear any of the words in italics. Or any entries from our Glossary of Parliamentary Language, or our Greek Glossary of Informal Exchange Systems. [WARNING: Consume responsibly. Dateline: Atlantis accepts no liability for damage caused through excessive consumption.]

IMAGE: “Alexander the Great slaying the snake”, from the traditional Greek shadow puppet theatre. In the play, the wily Greek anti-hero Karagiozis tries to claim the reward for killing a man-eating snake, but is unmasked by the actual slayer, Alexander the Great. Via theatroskion.wordpress.com.

Welcome to the entanglement show

The Zea Conspiracy

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I recently tried to take a break from the snark, cynicism and political intrigue that normally fuel this blog by sketching out a proposal for an essay combining two of my other interests: ancient stuff and food. A whimsical yet informative look at the revival of ancient foods, I thought, a good news story about rediscovering the past in the crisis, peppered with incidental historical detail and toothsome gastronomic tips.

But would “they” let me? The hell they would!

When I say “they” I am referring not to the voices in my head, but to my tirelessly inventive friends, the conspiracy theorists. I had forgotten Rule Number One: no topic, no matter how benign or obscure, is conspiracy-proof. Especially in Greece.

If you have visited a Greek health food shop recently, or any of the new generation of “traditional” delis, you will have been struck by the incredible array of dried pasta, a lot of it made in Greece from various obscure rustic grains. And if you happen to have read any literature on the origins of agriculture, some of these grains will sound familiar: δίκοκκο σιτάρι (Triticum dicoccum); spelt (Triticum spelta) often labelled by its German name, dinkel; and the more classical-sounding “Zea”. A veritable cornucopia of archaeobotanical samples seems to have taken over the shelves overnight, despite the hefty price tag that many of them command.

I was curious as to what had spurred this new market, particularly given that it coincides with a dramatic contraction in the average household’s spending power. So, naively I typed “ζέα καλλιέργεια” (“zea cultivation”) into Google. I was expecting to find official web pages from the Ministry of Agriculture about subsidy schemes, perhaps some farming publications discussing yield and soil types, and maybe a few food blogs of the “knit your own yoghurt” variety.

Instead I was confronted by a whole slew of articles with titles like “Zea, a well-made fairytale”, “What is zea and why it was banned in Greece”, “Bread from ZEA flour – READ the WHOLE TRUTH”. The random capitalisation signals it loud and clear: there is a TRUTH about zea that THEY don’t want you to know. The comments sections played host to some fairly disturbing flame wars, too – easily a match for an anti-vaccine bulletin board or a bitcoin forum.  So much passion and anger for a humble little grain!

Without much effort, I traced the source of the conspiracy stories. “The Historic Swindle” (Ο ΙΣΤΟΡΙΚΟΣ ΕΜΠΑΙΓΜΟΣ) by one General George G. Aïfantes, published in 2010 in archaïzing katharevousa Greek (the linguistic affectation of choice of the reactionary), now sadly out of print, is a classic of its genre. To cut a long and meandering story short, the book is an explication of how the great world powers conspired to destroy Greece over a century ago, with clearly telegraphed topical parallels to more recent events.

I will let the author explain in his words, translated verbatim below for the extensive passages quoted on various websites like this one (epilepsy warning!), with the original punctuation:

«Οί αρχαίοι δέν έτρωγαν ψωμί άπό σιτάρι. Τό σιτάρι τό είχαν ώς τροφή τών ζώων καί τό (ονόμαζαν πυρρό. Έτρωγαν μόνον ψωμί άπό Ζειά ή Κριθάρι καί έν ανάγκη μόνον από κριθάρι ανάμεικτο με Σιτάρι. Ό Μέγας Αλέξανδρος έτρεφε την στρατιάν του μόνο μέ Ζειά, διά νά είναι οι άνδρες του υγιείς και πνευματικά ανεπτυγμένοι. Αν οι αρχαίοι Έλληνες έτρωγαν ψωμί άπό σιτάρι δέν θά είχαν τόσο ύψηλήν πνευματικήν άνάπτυξιν.»

“The ancients did not eat bread from wheat. Wheat they used as animal feed and they named it πυρρό. They ate only bread from Zeia or barley, and only in emergencies from barley mixed with Wheat. Alexander the Great fed his army only on Zeia, in order that his men be healthy and mentally developed. Had the ancient Greeks eaten bread from wheat they would not have such a high level of intellectual development.”

«Μόλις οι κοσμοκράτορες έδιάβασαν αυτήν τήν έκθεσιν τής επιτροπής, δίδουν εντολή το 1928 νά αναιρεθή αμέσως ή καλλιέργεια Ζειά στην Ελλάδα, και μόνον στην Ελλάδα. Διά νά μειώσουν μέ το σιτάρι τήν πνευματικήν άνάπτυξιν των Ελλήνων, μειώνοντας τήν άντίληψίν τους και οργανώνοντας ταπεινήν έκπαίδευσιν των παιδιών τους καί διδάσκοντας τις πολιτικές τους εις τά σχολεία και πολιτικοποιούντες τα εις τά κόμματα που αυτοί ελέγχουν απόλυτα, για νά ποδηγετήσουν πλήρως εις πρώτον χρόνον τους Έλληνας. Ενώ τώρα αναμειγνύοντας τους μέ αλλοδαπούς, θέλουν νά τους εξαφανίσουν τελείως.»

“As soon as the world rulers read this report of the committee, they issued an order in 1928 to cease immediately the cultivation of Zeia in Greece, and in Greece only. So as to reduce with wheat the intellectual development of the Greeks, reducing their understanding and organising debased education for their children and teaching them their politics in the schools and organising them into political parties that they controlled absolutely, so as to control the Greeks in the shortest time. Whereas now mixing them with foreigners, they want to eradicate them completely.”

«Ναι άλλα πώς θά τό επιτύχουν αυτό;Αμέσως δίδουν έντολήν είς τόν τέκνον των τον Βενιζέλο νά έπιστρέψη στην Ελλάδα καί νά εξαφάνιση τήν Ζειά. Οπότε βλέπουμε τόν Βενιζέλο νά έπιστρέφη στην Ελλάδα μετά άπό 8 χρόνια αυτοε­ξορίας του, νά άνασκουμπώνεται και νά ορμά σάν λέων κατά τής Ζειάς. Μέσα σέ 60 χρόνια μόνον ήλλοίωσαν τήν πνευματικήν ύπεροχήν του σκέπτεσθαι τών Ελλήνων, τους έκαναν αδιάφορους, άβουλους, μέ μετρίαν αντίληψιν και φιλάσθενους καί τώρα μέ τους αλλοδαπούς επιδιώκουν τόν πλήρη εξαφανισμό τής φυλής των, ένώ συγχρόνως ξοδεύουν δισεκατομμύρια δολλάρια οι φιλεύσπλαχνοι διά νά μην εξαφανισθούν οί οχιές, κόμπρες, πάντα καί άλλα ζώα καί ερπετά.»

“Yes but how will they achieve this? Immediately they issue an order to their child Venizelos to return to Greece and eradicate Zeia. So we see Venizelos returning to Greece after 8 years’ self-exile, rolling up his sleeves and setting upon Zeia like a lion. Within a mere 60 years they corrupted the intellectual superiority of Greek thought, they made Greeks indifferent, timid, with mediocre understanding and sickly and now with the foreigners they are intending the complete eradication of their race, while simultaneously the benevolent are spending billions of dollars to prevent the disappearance of vipers, cobras and all other animals and reptiles.”

«Προς το τέλος του 1928 ο “Εθνάρχης” μας Βενιζέλος, προφανώς μετά από κάποια εντολή, με της Αμύνης τα Παιδιά, τυφλά εις τον νουν και την κρίσιν και διψασμένα το πώς να ευχαριστήσουν καλλίτερα τον αρχηγόν των εκήρυξαν τον πόλεμον κατά της Ζειάς και εφορμήσαντες ακαταμάχητοι, ενίκησαν νίκην λαμπράν και εις βραχύτατον χρόνον 4 ετών δεν υπήρχε εις την Ελλάδα ούτε ένα σπυρί Ζειάς για σπόρο. Είπαν εις τον λαό ότι η Ζειά είναι ζωοτροφή, δι αυτό τα λεξικά την γράφουν έκτοτε ζωοτροφή και ότι είναι βλαβερή στην υγεία. Αυτό το πρόβαλαν έντονα τα Μ.Μ.Ε. και σε 4 χρόνια εξηφανίσθη η Ζειά.»

Towards the end of 1928 our “Ethnarch” [sic] Venizelos, clearly acting on instruction, with his “boys in Defence” [an ironic reference to a pro-Venizelos anti-royalist song of the time], blind of mind and judgement and thirsting for how to best please their leader declared war on Zeia and charging forth invincible, won a glorious battle and in a brief 4 years there was not left in Greece a single grain of Zeia for planting. They told the people that Zeia is animal feed, and for this reasons since that time the dictionaries have it as animal feed and write that it is harmful to health. This was promoted strenuously in the Mass Media, and within 4 years Zeia had disappeared.”

The General goes on to say that Venizelos also expunged any reference of Zea from Greek dictionaries, and that his friends made a killing importing wheat into Greece on the back of the Zea ban. But that is not all. He also gives a vivid description of how gluten is used by “the establishment” to breed compliant slaves to the system. “Here comes the science!” as Jennifer Aniston used to say in the those shampoo ads – look away now if you know anything about molecular biology:

«Η γλουτένη του σιταριού καταστρέφει την υγείαν, το πνεύμα, την μεγαλοφυίαν, τον πολιτισμόν της ανθρωπότητος, διότι ως ισχυρή κόλλα επικολλάται εις τα τοιχώματα όλων των αγγείων πού διέρχεται, πεπτικούς σωλήνες, έντερα, φλέβες, αρτηρίες κ.λπ. Ένεκα τούτου παρακωλύει την σωστήν πέψιν, τις κενώσεις και την κυκλοφορίαν του αίματος, με τις αντίστοιχες επιβαρύνσεις εις την υγείαν.» 

“Wheat gluten destroys the health, the spirit, the genius and civilisation of mankind, because as a strong glue it fixes itself to the walls of all vessels that it passes through, digestive tracts, guts, veins, arteries etc. Because of this it prevents proper digestion, excretion, blood circulation, with the corresponding detriments to health.”

«Εις τον εγκέφαλον ως πρωτεΐνη στηρίξεως κολλά ισχυρά τις πρωτεΐνες της μνήμης με αποτέλεσμα, ότι παραστάσεις και ιδέες εβίωσεν το παιδί εις την ηλικίαν 3-7 ετών, οσο λανθασμένες και αν είναι, οσο πιο δυνατές και ξεκάθαρες αποδείξεις περί πλάνης του και αν του παρουσιάσεις αργότερα, δεν πρόκειται ως ενήλικας να απορρίψη τις αποθηκευμένες μνήμες και δοξασίες του, περί θεού, πολιτικής, κ.λπ.»

“In the brain as a structural protein it fixes solidly the proteins of memory with the result that, whatever attestations and ideas the child experienced at the age of 3-7 years, however mistaken they may be, however powerful and clear proof of their fallacy you present later, it will not as an adult reject its stored memories and beliefs about god, politics, etc.”

«Δι’ αυτό ακριβώς οι θρησκείες, οι Δικτάτορες, οι έξουσιασταί μας με διάφορα τεχνάσματα και ωραία λόγια προσπαθούν να ποδηγετήσουν τα παιδιά απο μικρή ηλικία και εσοφίστηκαν τα κατηχητικά και τις πολιτικές νεολαίες. Οι Δικτάτορες και οι τραπεζίτες εισήγαγον την πολιτικήν εις τα σχολεία με πρόφασιν, δήθεν, την προπαρασκευήν ενήμερων πολιτών, ενώ στην ουσία εκπαιδεύουν τυφλούς δούλους του τραπεζικού συστήματος.»

“This is exactly why religions, Dictators, our masters with various ploys and beautiful words attempt to manipulate our children from a young age, and devised Sunday schools and political youth movements. The Dictators and banker introduced politics into schools with the pretext of, ostensibly, producing informed citizens, but in reality they are training blind slaves of the banking system.”

«Όποιος απο εσάς πιστεύει εις την ανεξάρτητον σκέψιν των ανθρώπων, ας αγωνισθή δια την κατάργησιν του συνδικαλισμού εις ολα τα σχολεία, πλην των πανεπιστημίων. Επομένως η γλουτένη του σιταριού είναι και η τροχοπέδη της εξελίξεως και του πολιτισμού. Ταυτοχρόνως, τροχοπεδεί και την ελευθέραν σκέψιν και πνευματικήν άνοδον του άνθρωπου και τον καθιστά δούλον του ιερατείου, του κατεστημένου, διότι αγωνίζεται και θυσιάζεται δια αξίας που του ενέπνευσαν τα οργανωμένα συμφέροντα και όχι η φύσις. Είναι όλοι οι αγώνες του εναντίον των φυσικών νόμων. Αντίθετα η πρωτεΐνη στηρίξεως της Ζειάς (πληθυντικός Ζειαΐ) διασπάται απο τα ένζυμα και αφομοιώνεται σαν καλή τροφή απο τον οργανισμό.»

“Whoever among you believes in the independent thought of people, must struggle for the abolition of unionisation in all schools, with the exception of universities. Therefore wheat gluten is a brake on development and civilisation. Simultaneously it acts as a brake on the free thought and spiritual elevation of man and makes him a slave to the priesthood, to the establishment, because he fights and sacrifices himself for values that were inspired in him by organised interests and not by nature. All of his struggles are against the laws of nature. In contrast, the structural protein of Zeia (plural Zeiai) is broken up by the enzymes and absorbed as a good food by the body.”

No doubt the General found an eager readership in the intersection between those the 75 percent of our countrymen who apparently believe that the financial crisis was engineered by conspiracy against Greece by outside forces, the one in three who are convinced that “we are being sprayed”, and the uncounted hypochondriacs who buy water purification kits off TV informercials while speed-dialling the astrology hotline. The Zea conspiracy certainly found traction on the Greek fringe nationalist internet and its affiliated TV stations, where the General appeared regularly as a pundit. For what could be more patriotic than reviving the (alleged) food of Alexander’s troops that was (allegedly) banned by the Great Powers, and that (supposedly) boosts not just your bodily functions but also your IQ so that you can make Greece great again?

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The critics are equally vehement: Zea is a scam invented by profiteering farmers. It isn’t certified, and much of it is probably imported from Germany, fraudulently “Hellenised”, and inflated in price. It is nothing but the latest snake-oil put on the market to rip off gullible Greeks. It is bringing in GMOs by the back door. All references to zea attributed to ancient texts are invented or distorted. We are being sold grain that our ancestors barely saw fit for animal feed.

After consuming this rich fare, going back to writing about how “comeback grains” do offer some modest health benefits “as part of a balanced diet”, and how they may give farmers a new income stream, feels like swapping a big juicy double gyro wrap “with everything” for a virtuous bowl of all-organic, 100% vegan, gluten-free gruel. It’s a tough call. But at the end of the day, there is no sinister Zea abolition act in the parliamentary record, just the first modern food testing and standardisation regime, introduced in Greece 1928 (no matter how you choose to label it when you upload it to the internet). Nor does the accumulated knowledge of classical literature and archaeology support the General’s assertions that a crop called “Zea” was a staple of the ancient Greek diet and that wheat was not. As for the “science”, it belongs firmly in inverted commas along with Grain Brain, Wheat Belly and whatever other tome your orthorexic friend is is beating you about the head with this week. Eating whole grains will give you a healthier gut, and you may actually like the taste, but it won’t transform you into Pythagoras or Alexander the Great overnight. It certainly won’t restore Smyrna to Greece, or bring back the monarchy. “Buying Greek” may help local farmers, but it won’t make anyone rich, and it won’t end the financial crisis. All of the grains labelled “Zea” are ancestral wheat varieties that contain some gluten. But gluten isn’t poison for most people, nor is it part of a sinister government plot to keep us fat’n’stupid – and if it is, it is doomed. Your honour, I present as evidence millennia of bread-eating western progress, improved well-being and increasing lifespans.

To give credit where credit’s due, neither the obsession with food purity nor the anxiety over government control are uniquely Greek. “Survival seed banks” guaranteeing non-GMO, non-hybrid, “open pollinated”, “patriot” seeds untouched by government, the WTO and big agribusiness, packed in bomb-proof containers, are now a cottage industry in the US, competing for the custom of “preppers” making their plans for the end of days. To the question “Are governments attempting to stop citizens from growing their own food?” the answer for some is always “yes, the U.S. government now claims the power to simply march onto your farm with guns drawn and demand all your crops, seeds, livestock and farm equipment.”

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Thankfully we’re not there (yet)!

IMAGES: The Goddess Demeter with her Eleusinian attributes, wheat, serpents and poppies (go on, ask me about the poppies!) via patheos.com; crop duster by Charles O’Rear via Wikipedia.org; emergency seed bank via texasready.net.

 

The Zea Conspiracy