Mythic Wisdom: A Greek Author’s Perspective

Connecting the past with the present has always been a powerful experience for me, maybe because I live in a land rich in history. In this blog I am going to explore a variety of topics, which I find deeply meaningful: women’s roles, gender and sexuality issues, activism, goddesses and gods, etc. By examining myths, symbols, and archetypal figures, I feel that we gain a fresh perspective on our lives and society. Ancient history, art, and literature can become amazing sources of inspiration. By learning from the wisdom of the past, we can transform ourselves and the world we live in.

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Direct Democracy: A Part of Our Pagan Heritage

Greece made the international headlines once again. Only this time it wasn't for the disastrous state of its economy, but for something a lot more positive: a very promising left-wing party won the elections on January, 25.[1] How often do you get that kind of change anywhere in Europe?

Yet the media often forget that this was a victory brought about by massive waves of protest. The workers’ and youth movements have made their presence felt over and over. So has the antiracist-antifascist movement, and recently the LGBTQ one too. Strikes, demonstrations, rallies, and sit-ins, whether small or large, are part of our everyday reality. In just four years, from 2010, when the austerity measures were imposed, to 2014, there were more than 20,000 mobilizations, according to the police’s records. Quite an impressive number for a country with a population of under 11 million people!

Those of us who have walked miles and miles in protest and often suffered from police brutality have good reason to be happy. Yes, people’s hopes are high in Greece now. They’re expecting an end to poverty, oppression, and social injustice. Yet, no government holds the magic wand to cure the ills of a society where money rules. The rich and powerful will find ways to pull the strings of every government until we manage to make profound, perhaps revolutionary changes. We can draw on our Pagan heritage for inspiration, much like our new prime minister did in his own way.[2]

You see, the very word democracy originated in classical Athens. Demos meant “the people” as a collective entity of those living in a certain location. The suffix -cracy comes from the cratos, “power” in ancient Greek. Literally speaking, democracy is "the rule of the people." Nowadays, the word is used for regimes run by a parliament which is elected once every few years. Yet this is a misinterpretation. By definition, the term means that the people themselves rule collectively--they’re the decision makers. Today this is called direct or pure democracy.

That was the form of governance used in classical Athens. This isn’t meant to idealize the patriarchal, slave-owning, and warlike regime that prevailed there. Besides, direct democracy was not even invented in historical times. Anthropological evidence shows that it was (and sometimes still is) practiced by tribes of hunter-gatherers. We should never forget that the human race was organized in small, egalitarian communities for most of its existence. Not surprisingly, their spirituality, usually called animistic by scholars, falls under the broad umbrella of what we perceive as Paganism. Probably not a coincidence!

Even in patriarchal Athens, the religion was intimately connected to politics. People would gather to make decisions in places surrounded by sanctuaries and temples. Aphrodite’s shrine, just outside the western entrance to the Acropolis, marked the place where citizens once gathered to discuss and make decisions. That is how she acquired the title Pandemos (Of all People).  That title was later so misunderstood that it came to mean, more or less, “she who goes to bed with anyone,” i.e. a prostitute.  Yet, the word Pan-demos has the same origin as democracy.[3]

b2ap3_thumbnail_Athena-in-the-Louvre.jpgAthena, the protectress of Athens, had a powerful connection to the city’s politics. People gathered to make decisions on the hill of Pnyx, having her marvelous temple, the Parthenon, right in front of their eyes. The goddess had the titles, Boulaia, “Of the City Council,” and Agoraia, from agora, the market, where people gathered and orators gave speeches.

According the famous playwright Aristophanes, Athena is the one “who properly despises tyrants,” a clear reference to her association with democracy. A myth preserved by the Christian writer St. Augustine narrates how she became the patron of the city because women voted for her. This may reflect memories from a distant past when all people, regardless of gender, took active part in the city’s affairs.[4]

Let’s consider how this concept could be applied to our modern times. It is well worth pondering: wouldn’t the world be a better place if people collectively made decisions about their own lives rather than letting governments and elites rule? This is such a radical idea that most people find it unthinkable. Yet those of us who participate in social movements and activist groups have first-hand experience with direct democratic practices.  

It seems that when people organize to take action about what matters most to them, such processes spontaneously arise. We have often witnessed them. When workers, students, or grassroots activists hold gatherings to discuss important issues and mobilize, they automatically turn to direct democracy as the best way to make decisions. Even though such practices usually take place at a small scale, they operated at a large scale in revolutionary times during the 19th and 20th century.[5]

It may actually take a revolution to bring true “power to the people.” Sounds scary? Well, right now Greeks and other Europeans are filled with hope after the victory of the Left in Greece. But governments and politicians tend to fail, time and again, to fulfill their promises of change. In the long run, enthusiasm usually turns into disappointment. So, what other choices do we have? I think that eventually we’ll have to learn how to trust our own ability to rule ourselves. That’s what real democracy is about, after all. Maybe it’s time to appreciate the true meaning of the word and remember that it is a gift from our Pagan ancestors…

 

Notes

[1] Paul Mason, “‘Hope Begins Today’: The Inside Story of Syriza’s Rise to Power,” Wednesday, January 28, 2015, www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/28/greek-people-wrote-history-how-syriza-rose-to-power.

[2] “The Guardian View on Greek Tragedy: Something Old, Something New,” editorial, Friday, January 30, 2015, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/30/guardian-view-greek-tragedy-someting-old-new.

[3] More on the political meaning of Aphrodite in my essay “Rediscovering Aphrodite: The Erotic Spirit of Greece,” www.hmeenee.com/1794/36101.html.

[4] Harita Meenee, “Women, Power and Religion in Ancient Athens,” http://hmeenee.com/1794/8501.html

[5] Χαρίτα Μήνη, «Άμεση δημοκρατία: μια ριζοσπαστική προοπτική», https://hmeenee.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/amesi-dimokratia/

 

 

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Harita Meenee is a Greek independent scholar of classical studies and women’s history. Her graduate studies were in the field of archetypal and women’s psychology. She works as a writer, translator and editor while also being a human rights activist. Harita has presented cultural TV programs and has lectured at universities in Greece and the US. She is the author of five books, as well as of numerous articles and essays published in Hellenic and international anthologies and magazines.

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