Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Ancient Olympic Games

Olympic Games - Wrestling
The Olympic games are thought to have started sometime around 778BC as a celebration in honor of Zeus, the god of thunders and ruler over the human kind. The event took place every four years and, it was the only opportunity to see the Spartan generals near the Athenian politicians going along with philosophers all over Greece. For just a few days the Hellenic world would forget about all their feuds and embrace sports as their common language.

The Sacred Truce was an understanding between Hellenic tribes to stop all wars during the Olympic games and to allow free passage to pilgrims on their way to Olympia. Nothing was above the Sacred Truce. That is why even Philip II, Alexander the Great's father, well known for his temper agreed to pay a huge fine for disturbing the pilgrims that were considered to be sacred. Also, that is why King Leonidas was left alone with only 300 of his men to withstand the Persian invasion.

Olympic Games - Chariot Race
Greeks being of a very competitive nature, winners were not reworded with wealth as you might expect but with a simple olive wreath. What they would win though is social status. A winner at the Olympic games would obtain the right (socially speaking)  to merry a rich woman, he would be invited to feasts, get free meals or lodging. He would be the now days equivalent of a TV star. People would look up to him and everything he would touch would turn to gold (not literally of course - King Midas is another story)

At these events,  women were not allowed to participate or even to watch  but that doesn't mean that they did not come to the event. Pompous carriages, fatuous dresses and sparkling jewelry, they would do anything to impress. As Indro Montanelli says in his book " The History of the Greeks", women came there to be seen rather then to see. Around the close gates of the arena there was the today's equivalent of a Luna Park. From taverns to jugglers, from boutiques to street vendors you would find anything you could think of.

Regarding the women not being allowed in the arena...Well, there was one  exception. A mother who disguised herself as a man in order to see her son fight in the ring of the sports arena. Her happiness  gave her away though when her son won the olive wreath and she was taken away in order to be killed since that was an offense punishable by death. The story says that Hercules himself appeared to defend her since she was descendent from his family. She was not executed but as a result of this incident all spectators from the arena had to attend the events naked. That way there would be no chance of disguise. Simple problem, simple solution:) 
Stadium Entrance Olympia

The ancient Olympic games came to an end in 393 AD through a decree of Emperor Theodosios I. Since the Romans adopted Christianity as their official religion they tried to discourage and later even outlawed any form of pagan ceremony. And since the Olympic games were mainly a religious event being dedicated to Zeus it has been abolished. Olympia fell into decline and what was left of it was destroyed by the Romans in 486 AD through a decree given by Theodosios II.

An interesting thing that, I believe, is worth mentioning before the end is that the Marathon was never part of the ancient Olympic games. It comes from the battle of Marathon (490BC) in which the Greeks have won against the Persians. Pheidippides who was a courier by profession ran more than 40km from Marathon to Athens to bring the news of victory. Νικωμεν (nikomen - meaning "we won") was his last word. After that he collapsed and died. The was the first one to run the Marathon but he was also the only Marathon winner who did not enjoy the spoils of victory.

Friday, July 27, 2012


Cornucopia, also known as The Horn of Plenty, is used as a symbol of prosperity and abundance. Many countries use it as part of their coat of arms  (Colombia, Panama, Venezuela), there are festivals named after it but probably the most known celebration that uses Cornucopia as it's symbol is Thanksgiving.

But how did it end up there and where did it come from in the first place? The first question is a bit more complicated to have a short answer but the second one..I'll give you three chances to guess.. 1, 2 and 3. Yes..Greeks, Greeks and Greeks.

To my great surprise though people here never heard of Cornucopia ...and to think that they are generally very proud of their cultural heritage.

Anyway, there I was asking if anyone have heard of Cornucopia and people started making small eyes at me trying to figure out what language I'm talking or if I'm making fun of them. My first thought when I realized nobody knew what I was talking about was: "HA! Here is something you missed taking credit for!" since the "all words have a Greek root" attitude is very widely spread in Greece. But then my second thought was: "Shit! Now I'm actually giving them more argument to persist in that attitude."

But what's fair is fair. Cornucopia does come from a Greek myth, Zeus' birth to be more precise. Zeus' father, Cronus, found out that one if his offspring was destined to overthrown him so, the solution he found was to eat his kids at birth. Rhea, Zeus' mother, tricked Cronus and gave him to swallow a rock in stead and hid her child in a cave of Mount Ida. Here the young Zeus was raised by Amalthea, the goat goddess. One day, the story says that Zeus, playing with Amalthea, broke one of her horns by mistake. From that point on the horn provided endless nourishment for the young god.

Demeter holding a Cornucopia
As a symbol, Cornucopia appears along side lots of Greek deities like Fortuna, the goddess of luck, Demeter the goddess of crops, or Gaia the goddess of the Earth. When the Romans come adopting most of the Greek pantheon, some of their deities also start being depicted with the Cornucopia like Abundancia, the personification of abundance. 

This is how Cornucopia as a symbol spread all over the Roman world. Later on, when Christianity started rising, Cornucopia continued to be used as a symbol of abundance and prosperity despite its particularly pagan roots. Useless to say that in time, the Christian world became even bigger then the Roman world and so Cornucopia traveled oceans. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Origin of "The Finger"

The Finger
Have you even wondered where does "The Finger" gesture come from? I always thought that it had something to do with the Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the One Hundred Years War between the French and the English. 

According to the story, the French soldiers cut off the middle fingers or the English archers to prevent them from using the longbow. In respond, the English soldiers gave the French "The Finger" to show them that they still have it. But this story seams to be also the origin of the "Flicking the V" which would actually make more sense since you need both the index finger and the middle finger to draw a longbow. 

Flicking the V

That was too much of a coincidence for me so I started searching...

And guess what? "The Finger" was used for the first time (that we know of) as an insulting gesture in Ancient Greece. It's meaning, I doubt it needs any further explanation. The finger itself represent the falus, the meaning of the gesture symbolizes anal intercourse in a manner meant to degrade, intimidate and threaten the receiving part of the message. 

"The Finger" gesture was also used as a protection against the Evil Eye. In many European countries, tradition that is kept to this day in some rural areas, a curse could be diverted with a threat of a bigger curse.

In Ancient Greece, the gesture was called κατάπυγον (katapigon) meaning someone who would willingly submit themselves to anal intercourse and, as a gesture, appears in some very intellectual contexts. The first historical attestation of "The Finger" in a theater play was in 423 BC in Aristophanes' "The Clouds". While Socrates considers the gesture to be boorish and childish, philosopher Diogenes makes use of it by addressing it to orator Demostenes (4th Century BC) as related by Diogenes Laertius.

The ones who are really responsible for spreading it around the world are the Romans. Who, even though they called it "digitus impudicus"  - the offensive finger - were still using it in official or less official circumstances.

So, next time you use "The Finger" think of how old it is and that you are actually handling a 2,5 thousand years artifact:))

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Earth Festival - Vlasti

Vlasti is a little village near Kozani, in the western part of Macedonia, that no one would have heard about unless the people there really wanted to put their village on the map.
Until the 80's, the place has been deserted, as many other Greek villages in which the young generations left in search of work and the hope of a better life.
Some of those young people decided to come back and revive the village by transforming it into a touristic place but something was missing.

They needed to find a way to make their small village more attractive then the others. So, they managed to bring there The Earth Festival (Γιορτες της Γης), an annual event where people all over the world meet in a very flower power atmosphere to enjoy good music, good food and last but not least good times. 

Unfortunately this year I didn't manage to be there from the beginning but I got there just in time to get a refreshing doze of energy and good mood. 

From South American rhythms to African drums and back to Greek traditional music, those forests have head them all. The camping site covers a whole side of a mountain and people come there for the event, the atmosphere but also for the environment. 

It was nice to see whole families with kids being there and enjoying themselves, people dancing barefoot in the dirt, wearing colorful clothing and  speaking all languages of the Εarth. For some reason I felt like I belonged there.
The festival  takes place in the second weekend of July so if you think of going, keep it in mind. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

When God Weeps for Greece

For those of you who were lucky enough not to have to learn Greek as a foreign language, this is a strip from the B1 Greek manual. I remembered about it and I figured it goes very well with the subject of my blog so I translated it and here it is.

This strip was a bit surprising to me mostly because Greeks are not very well known for their self irony, some have the tendency of taking themselves too seriously sometimes, but this proves beyond doubt that self irony it's not extinct just yet in Greece.

"One day, before the end of the World, God tries to give one last chance to the nations so they will change their politics. Thus, he chooses randomly three head of states in order to talk to them: The US President, The Russian President and The Greek Prime Minister.

The American President goes to God and tells Him:
- Oh My God, tell me, when will the United States become the strongest nation and will never again have problems?
- In 100 years.(says God)
(The American President starts crying)
- Why are you crying, my child?
- I would have died by then. (answers the US President)

The Russian President goes to God and asks:
- When will Russia become the strongest nation in the world?
- In 200 years.(says God)
(The Russian President starts crying)
- Why are you crying, my child?
- I would have died by then. (answers the Russian President)

The Greek Prime Minister goes also and asks God:
- My God, can I also ask you something?When will Greece become the most powerful nation on Earth?
(God starts crying)
- But, Your Sanctity, why are You crying?
- Until then even I would have died.(says God)"

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hello Crete (Kitty)

I don't know if you remember my post about Problem Solving in Greece, particularly the part about Crete but I found this picture which says more than I could ever say.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Summer Grinch

In case you're wondering...that is me, the summer Grinch. Everybody else comes for vacations in Greece during summer only I wish I could visit the North Pole or at least some northern country with a summer temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. Don't get me wrong, I like summer as a season but I really don't like heat.
The funny thing is that I was talking with someone from Oslo, Norway yesterday and he complained of how warm the day have been. A whole lot of degrees, 25! Woow!
Ok! Now let's take a look at the thermometer here.

Notice anything different? It's 8.34 AM and there are 36,5 Degrees Celsius.
And I was wondering how come when I went running I felt like I ran 50 km and i was totally exhausted.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

At the table with the Gods

Mount Olympus is one of the most known landmarks of Greece and not for its height, which is anything but negligible, over 2900m, but for being the home of the ancient Gods. Zeus himself is known to have thrown his fierce thunderbolts from the highest peak of Olympus, Mytikas.
Getting there is not for everyone or so the legend says. Only the pure hearted are granted the honor of being in the presence of the Gods.

Hoping that I will prove worthy of meeting with them, I start my trip at the foot of the great mountain where lies a small and quiet village called Litochoro which is going to be my home for the night.

To my surprise, the village has a quite vivid night life, a lot of taverns worth remembering and a mean ice-cream place. The only downside is that lodging tends to be a bit overpriced in summer since it’s the only village close enough to the mountain to allow you to wake up in the morning and start walking.

Most people who aim on climbing the highest peak, Mytikas, start walking from Prionia (1100m), the last refuge up to which you can go by car. From there, it’s a two to three hour hike to the next refuge, Olympus A (2100m) from where you can start planning your last assault on the top.

At Refuge A you find people from all over the world speaking all kinds of languages you have never heard before so it is also a cultural experience. What is even more important is that everybody’s friends there. The mountain draws everybody closer together.

Rising early is critical on the day of the peak climb. The path is not difficult up to Skala (2866m) but is very abrupt and it required a lot of effort. Also, there is no water source on the way up so it is vital to take enough water for going and coming back, which is going to be a considerable amount of hours.

The mountains have usually their own weather so if you wake up in the morning and find yourself in a mist so dens you can hardly see your hands in front of you, as I did. Don’t despair! Mountain weather can change any minute radically.

From Skala to Mytikas the difficulty of the path increases. The way is not steep enough to climb but not flat enough to walk on so I need to “scramble”. A rope would be very useful in this section of the climb but I wasn’t that inspired. This part is a bit harder but getting to the top and meeting Zeus himself is worth all the efforts.

Since I still had a few days left to wonder around on the mountain I decided to visit the Muses Plateau. They say that there, on that plateau, if you are very attentive you can see the muses dancing and singing in the winds that caress those heights.

I start my trip from Refuge A and continue the same way I went the previous day up to a point where the map shows me the entrance to Zonaria. In Greek, “zoni” means belt and this path looks exactly like one. It is not a risky path but it does require all your attention since it is very narrow and gravelly.

Kakalos refuge guards the entrance to the plateau. It’s a small colorful place that gathers experienced climbers from all over the world, the raw kind of mountain people that don’t mind sleeping on the edge of a cliff with no tent or enjoy drinking their coffees outside at 12 degrees while sunbathing in their shorts. Even though it was a sunny August the temperature up there was more of a chilly spring.

The plateau is green, quiet and welcoming. I can easily imagine why people thought of it to be the home of the muses. After the rush of the climb, suddenly I found myself in the serene and eternally green fields of the muses.

For a church, this is hardly the place to be and yet, at almost 2650m above the sea level, I found “Profitis Ilias” (Ilias Prophet). It’s not the typical kind of church though since it is made of piles of rocks found on the plateau.
I know what you might think. That it was made having in mind a more touristic purpose rather than a religious one. To my surprise “Profitis Ilias” is a perfectly functional church. I even found out that some days before a couple got married there.

A small tip before the end, if you happen to find yourself on Olympus in mid August there is no better place on earth to see the Perseides, the meteorite shower that starts on the 9th and lasts up to the 14th of August.

And this particular year, all through the month of August, you can see the planet Mars which will be very close to earth and on the 27th of August will appear as big as the Moon.