Hellas in the Mediterranean World

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Shepherd’s stone house and enclosure for sheep / goats, about 4,000 years old. Mt. Ainos, Cephalonia, Greece. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Mainland Greece was never sufficient for all its inhabitants. About 80 percent of the land is dominated by mountains. Even the gods chose Mt. Olympos in Thessaly for their home. Thessaly is unusual because it has enough flat land for growing food. Prosperous valleys are rare in Greece. Attica that nourishes Athens is a valley, but, according to Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian War, the soil of Attica was so poor that Athenians were autochthonous people, that is, they were born in Attica and did not come to Attica from any place else.

Polis and civilization

Thus the geography of Greece, a country of mostly mountains, explains to some degree the passion of Greeks for freedom, their determination to live free or die. The advantages of living in the difficult conditions of mountainous Greece, or islands, were many. Greeks embraced the virtues of freedom, self-reliance, creativity, beauty, love of nature, and courage. At the same time, harsh mountain life has been motivating them to search for a better place to make a living.

In the Bronze Age, 3,100 – 1,000 BCE, they developed the polis, a village community of very small farmers and shepherds who spoke the same language and felt pious towards the same gods. The polis encouraged cooperation for public defense and the invention of the best form of government for equality, the rule of law, and the administration of justice for all. Farmers raised food and defended the polis. They invented civilization, that is, the means for living a prosperous and joyful and friendly life in the polis. In other words, they discovered eudaimonia.

The necessary virtues for living well included architecture, art, temples, festivals and athletics for the gods, theater, schools, and political theory that justified their form of government: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy.

The Oracle at Delphi

The Oracle at Delphi became the center of Greek religious and political life. No wonder the Greeks thought that Delphi was the center of the world.

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Omphalos / Navel of the world at Delphi. Zeus sent two eagles, one from the east and the other from the west, and tradition has it, that the eagles met over Delphi. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Apollo, son of Zeus, was the chief deity at Delphi. He was the god of prophesy, light, music, and diplomacy. His priestess, Pythia, had advisors with admirable knowledge of Greek and international affairs. Nothing of importance happened in Greece without the approval of Pythia who spoke for Apollo.

Spreading Hellas in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean

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Ancient Phoenician and Greek colonies, about 550 BCE. Red for Phoenician and blue for Greek colonies: in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Public Domain

In the late second millennium BCE, some 50 young Greeks joined Jason in an expedition to the Far East (the present state of Georgia). These Greeks, mostly sons and grandsons of gods, went to Iolkos in Thessaly and sailed the ship Argo basically constructed by goddess Athena.

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Argo by Konstantinos Volonakis. Public Domain.

Argo took them through Euxeinos Pontos, the Welcoming Sea, Black Sea, and all the way to Colchis / Georgia. Their purpose was to bring back to Iolkos the Golden Fleece. We learn the story of the Argonauts from the great epic poem Argonautika stitched together by Apollonios Rhodios, a librarian at the Library of Alexandria in the third century BCE. The Argonautic expedition, however, was much more than bringing back to Hellas the Golden Fleece. It brought back precious knowledge on metallurgy and the prosperous region of the Black Sea. The Greeks built settlements and poleis (city-states) all along the coast of the Black Sea.

Magna Graecia

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Map of Magna Graecia. Public Domain.

By the eighth century BCE, Delphi approved the movement of Greeks to south Italy, which almost outshone Hellas. This new Hellas came to be known as Magna Graecia, Great Greece. Its territory included all of southern Italy starting at Naples and ending with all of Sicily.

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Doric Temple of Concordia, Akragas / Agrigento, Sicily, Magna Graecia, 440 – 430 BCE. Public Domain

The most important poleis of Magna Graecia included Cumae founded by Euboea at about 740 BCE. Then Cumae set the foundations of a much larger polis that took the name of Neapolis / Naples. This new polis eventually became “the promised land of the ancient Greeks.” Sybaris was another famous colony founded by Troezen at about 720 BCE. Sybaris is in modern Calabria. It became wealthy, so wealthy in fact that its name became synonymous to luxury. Its wealth came from the land. Sybaris founded Poseidonia / Paestum in the Western part of Italy, not very far from Naples. Poseidonia built 3 magnificent temples in honor and worship of Poseidon, Hera, and Athena.  In about 710 BCE, Achaeans from Peloponnesos founded Croton / Crotone in Calabria. This was the polis where in 530 BCE Pythagoras established his school. Pythagoras was one of the greatest Greek philosophers, scientists, and cosmologists. He taught animals are sacred and should not be sacrificed to the gods. He taught vegetarianism.

The salt of the Earth

ERT 1, a television station of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation or Greek National Radio and Television, produced in 2018 a documentary on the surviving Greek musical traditions in Magna Graecia. It named the documentary The Salt of the Earth.

I checked the site of ERT 1 and found some useful background information. In the decade of the 1980s, the producer and editor of The Salt of the Earth, Lampros Liavas and his colleague, Nikos Dionysopoulos, investigated and studied the musical tradition of the Greek speakers of southern Italy. They spread the music they taped to Greece and the world.

The surviving Greek musical tradition of Magna Graecia is alive in two provinces of Italy: Apulia-Salento and Calabria. These traditions reflect different dialects, songs, and dances. Ima Giannuzzi, outstanding singer, dancer, and musicologist of the Greek musical traditions of Magna Graecia, directed the ensemble of the Greek speakers of Salento known as Arakne Mediterrannea (Mediterranean Spider). Moreover, since 2005, a group of talented Greek musicians, going under the label of En Cardia (In the Heart), have been specializing on the Greek musical traditions of Magna Graecia. Greek musicians include Kostas Konstantatos, Vaggelis Papageorgiou, Michael Kontaxakis, Natalia Kotsani, and Anastasia Doulphe.

The main dialect of Magna Graecia is Griko. It incorporates ancient traditions of music as well as modern ballads reflecting the anguish and tragedy of migration away from Magna Graecia for better living. Among those ballads, the best belong to the songs of Franco Corliano from the village Calimera (Good Morning / Good Day) of Salento. One of the most popular songs of Corliano is The Crying of the Woman of the Emigkratou / Migrant. This song is popular in Greece under the name of Andra mou Paei (My Husband is Gone).

There’s a special emphasis on the near liturgical dance of Tarantela-Pitsika. This dance mirrors the name of the ancient Greek polis of Taras / Tarentum in Apulia. The dance, says ERT 1, takes the form of “musical exorcism or dance therapy.” But in reality, this dance, presented by Arakne-Mediterrannea, is a remnant of the dance of the maenads, women followers of god Dionysos. Both Arakne-Mediterrannea and En Cardia have been collaborating in presenting varieties of this dance from memories in the local surviving traditions. At the same time, ERT 1 says, the show on the Greek musical traditions of Magna Graecia is capturing the “history, language, connections with Greece, and the efforts of the Greek speakers of southern Italy to preserve their identity and civilization at a time of globalization.”

Indeed, the survival of the music and dances and songs of the Greek speakers of Magna Graecia is almost miraculous. The Salt of the Earth is pure magic, a masterpiece of storytelling and gorgeous dancing. For an hour and forty minutes, we see a near alive ancient Greek festival of singing and dancing. So much so that it reminded me of the history of god Dionysos among the Greeks. Son of Zeus, Dionysos had a tremendous influence among the women of Hellas. Some of them followed him. These women were called maenads because they acted like they were mad. They worshipped the god with orgiastic rites of raving, reveling and fury. We have but inklings but not certain knowledge of the maenads. Their daring dancing and singing for the god of theater was certainly passionate, erotic, even orgiastic and beyond reason.

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A maenad holding a thyrsos in her right hand to ward off the two Satyrs. Her left hand holds a few thin round wooden sticks tied together. The bundle of wooden rods crosses the center of a possibly silver ring standing slightly above her forehead inclined backwards. The maenad is in ecstasy. Apulian (Tarantian) red-figure kalyx-krater, 380-370 BCE. Louvre. Public Domain.

In some way, modern maenads, beautiful Greek women from Magna Graecia and mainland Greece, resembled the ancient maenads. They were dressed in white, red, and black clothes. They had large red scarves in their hands. They moved their hands and bodies in a thousand ways, singing and dancing, telling stories of love, families, and traditions. They sang in their Greek dialect, Griko. Men, some of them from mainland Greece, joined the singing and dancing Magna Graecia women and, together, they brought to life a rich heritage some 3,000 years old. The experience for me was unforgettable. Like a time machine, this combination of beauty, laughter, modified ancient Greek retelling stories of love and life, and the grace and beauty of the women, wild and passionate about their traditions, lifted me to Mt. Olympos. I tasted the nectar of the gods — who were probably watching.

The other complementary experience came from another documentary about the modern religion of Magna Graecia. The traditions of religion at villages in Magna Graecia and villages in mainland Greece are nearly identical. In both cases, peasants have preserved ancient Greek religious traditions, which they have added to their Christianity. But in Magna Graecia, peasants are very close to their ancient Greek ancestors. For example, they carry an icon or the remnants of a saint outside the church. Then, holding tightly the casket of the relics or the icon, they danced on the spot wildly, while singing in Greek Christian hymns. I never saw such a custom in Christian villages in Greece.

The circle dancing of the villagers in south Italy is also somewhat different from the circle dancing of modern Greeks. I suspect, the villagers of Magna Graecia maintained their ancient Hellenic traditions just as passionately as those of villagers in mainland Greece. They had to live through the violent Christianization, which uprooted “paganism” everywhere. They had to protect themselves from waves of barbarians from Germany. Moreover, they resisted the proselytism of the mighty Catholic church, which saw them as heretics. This was true after 1051 when the Patriarch in Constantinople and the Pope in Rome excommunicated each other. Surviving these life and death confrontations, brought the Magna Graecia peasants closer to their Greek ancestors. Nostos / desire to return home became a way of life. The country of their ancestors after 1453 disappeared from the map. Hellas / Achaia / medieval Greece was conquered by Muslim Mongol Turks. The Parthenon changed hands from being a Temple of Athena Parthenos, daughter of Zeus, to a Christian church and from a Christian church to a Muslim Mosque. The Greeks of Magna Graecia probably thought that Hellas had dropped into Hades.

Then the Greek Revolution of 1821 resurrected Hellas. Which is why the surviving of the ancient Hellenic musical traditions of Magna Graecia are auspicious. They are sparking similar interests in mainland Greece. Hellas, once again, escaped Hades to illuminate further Magna Graecia, mainland Greece, and, quite possibly, the rest of the world.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.