Lapith and Centaur. The front leg of a horse is sensually interlaced with that of a man. A Lapith. The arm of the Centaur is raised, the hand gripping tyrannically the throat of its human combatant. Who himself appears to lash out in self-defence, his fist pushing the grimacing face of the horse figure away. His own face is almost serene. Like that of a lover succumbing to sleep. Or of the fallen hero succumbing to death.
You’ll probably be familiar with this scene. Though not from visiting the Acropolis or its museum in Athens. As the sculpture itself is kept in The British Museum, along with the other marbles pilfered from Greece in an act which has often been seen as open pillage. Something the country is becoming tragically victim to once again, though this time under the auspices of the Troika. (Sorry, the ‘Institutions’). And, again, as today, this was all supposedly meant to be for the good of Greece itself. The insulting claim being that the Greek people and their government are incapable of looking after their own treasures (or their own economy) themselves. A claim that in both cases, of course, is not only an insult but an utter fallacy.
In the case of the marbles, still often stupidly known as the Elgin Marbles (from the title of the British noble who originally lifted them), these went on to be irreparably damaged by their new tutelary possessors in a series of botched clean up jobs. Clean up jobs that, beside the physical damage caused to the marbles themselves, have arguably constitued a clean up job on culture and history itself. That is, the attempt to scour European antiquity into fitting a later imperialist European dogma of civilisational superiority. A warped self-perception that was at all costs to be forced onto this art through an enforced ‘purity’ and ‘whiteness’. A process which led ultimately in 1938 to what is now widely condemned as the most destructive of all such clean up attempts. A report carried out in the same year by the British Museum Standing Committee found that as a result ‘some important pieces had been greatly damaged.’ (Source, The British Museum).
As for the current equally unwanted and destructive tutelage that Greece itself now finds itself under, in the form of the neo-liberal and undemocratic triumvirate of the ECB, the European Commission and the IMF, this short history of pillage and misguided, even willful destruction, might well serve as a metaphor.
However, turning back to the original scene of struggle itself, depicting the mythical brawl between the human Lapiths and their half-human, half-animal guests at a wedding feast, I quote the British Museum from an entry on their site (describing another similar composition):
‘The sculpture from the famous temple on the Acropolis in Athens shows a mythological battle between a human Lapith and a barbaric centaur’.
The description goes on:
‘Lapiths were humans from northern Greece, while centaurs were part-man and part-horse, to represent the dual aspect of their nature. They were capable of being both civilised and savage.’
The wine being passed around at the festivities apparently having ‘inflamed’ this ‘savage side of their nature’, all havoc broke loose. The battle that ensued, it is noted, though ‘won by the Lapiths’, resulted in ‘casualties on both sides’.
Appropriately, as this brief description begins to take on a disturbing resemblance to any current media or official stamement on any of the disastrous conflicts waged by the West in recent history, the author of this brief entry makes reference to a ‘possible….political message’ that might be read into the sculpture.
Some historical contextualisation is offered:
‘In 480 BC… the Persians under king Xerxes attacked the sacred Acropolis of Athens and demolished an unfinished temple.’
Leading to the conclusion:
‘Bearing in mind that the Parthenon was built out of the ruins of the earlier temple, it seems likely that this sculpture… makes symbolic reference to the life and death struggle of Athens against the Persian, barbarian, invader’.
If this description of a fifth century Athenian sculpture and the mythical scene it depicts sounds all too familiar, it probably won’t come as a surprise. The process of grafting its own cultural mythology of domination onto an anterior mythology, and, conversely, of grafting that mythology onto their own, has long been a tack of empire. And our own is certainly no different.
The current existential crisis of Western imperialism is just as much a crisis of meaning. Having raided the pantheon of European/Western mythology to perpetuate its power, it is now rapidly wearing out its most favoured of all of these: Democacry. Should the fraudulent use of this last myth finally become unviable (as in the real world the Western powers prove themselves to be flagrant abusers of democracy, even under the banner of its own name) they will almost certainly find themselves at a loss to find a replacement.
Despite all the efforts of the European/Western establishment to cover things up, the undermining of democracy in Europe itself, and more specifically (and symbolically) in its supposed place of birth, Greece, could well mark the point where the correlation between myth and reality (always strained) finally gapes wide open.
The question is, will the almost total media servility to the cause of Western/neo-liberal domination, combined with the apathy and nihilism of consumerist society, be enough to keep the fallacy, and the myth, intact.
Adam Warren is a journalist living in Paris.