Egyptian gods and Greek Jews

Egyptian gods and Greek Jews

The unidentified individuals who beheaded and dismembered statues of Isis and Osiris at the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods at Brexiza, near Marathon, remain unknown. The unidentified individuals who vandalized the Holocaust Memorial in Thessaloniki, which has been targeted before, remain unknown.

The culprits must be arrested and punished – but even more important is the need to understand that the river of hate that inspires such acts is deeper and wider than we like to think. It flows among us.

Among the many divisions that mark Greek society is one between acceptance of the new and insistence on the old. Often, this “dialogue” leads to a synthesis, as when a researcher discovers something which benefits the whole of society, including those who tried to obstruct progress – or like when a successful member of the diaspora pays for the refurbishment of the church in his ancestral village.

But we are very often tempted to locate the “other” and to load it with our troubles, so that we may appear good and innocent, the victims of injustice, rather than confused players in a confused world. This instinct does not depend on crises to burst out; all it needs is an opportunity. Of course, the anger and insecurity that stem from crises encourage extremist behavior, but, as we see from the attacks on targets related to Greece’s Jews, they are independent of such triggers.

The common denominator in every case is the perpetrators’ confidence that such deeds go unpunished. Their self-confidence is shaken only when the proper functioning of institutions (such as the police and judiciary) is combined with widespread revulsion of the act – as in the case of the mob assault on Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris, when the culprits, condemned by public opinion, lost their nerve in court.

Acts of vandalism against monuments, graves and symbols of Greece’s Jews have not met with similar outrage. As if it is normal to see the violation of the memory of tens of thousands of compatriots who were torn from their homes and sent to their deaths because of their religion. This reflects the complicated story shared by Orthodox Christians and Jews in the centuries of Ottoman rule. To a greater extent, though, it betrays a criminal and pervasive effort to wipe out memory, to erase the existence of the victims.

The guilty silence, which in itself serves to isolate the “target” of this silence, encourages violence: In the minds of those susceptible to carrying out acts of hatred, the target is an easy one, while the punishment – if any – will be worn as a badge of honor.

Greece’s Jews were and remain Greeks. Of course, the difference in religion had broader social and political implications, as it kept the Jews a distinct unit within society, making them something else, something foreign in the eyes of many. And when we have the “other” among us, we can feel that we raise our own status by attacking them.

Among the few who break through this fog of silence and complacency is Mayor Boutaris, who is trying to incorporate all the elements of Thessaloniki’s rich memory in the city’s conscience. The extent to which this effort is accepted or rejected is a measure of our society’s maturity – and an omen.

The Egyptian gods at Marathon (or rather the replicas of their statues, as the originals are, fortunately, in Nea Makri’s museum) are also victims of a hatred that runs through the ages. Pelly Fotiadou, who is responsible for the archaeological site, explained to Kathimerini journalist Yiota Sykka that the damage to the heads, hands and symbols on the statues point to “religious rage.” It suggested “religious vandalism,” without our knowing who the perpetrators are, she said.

The statues, in other words, were probably targeted either because they represented gods who were not Greek, or because they pre-dated the Christian era. In any case, for the vandals, they represented the “other.”

And yet, throughout their history, the Greeks embraced and absorbed new things, making them theirs, just as they exported their own gods, their thought and their arts. Once, Isis and Osiris were important gods for the Greeks, bearing the promise of personal salvation and life after death.

In the second century AD, in “The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses,” Apuleius depicts the goddess saving his luckless protagonist, Lucius, changing him from a donkey back into a person. This is how she introduces herself to him: “All humanity worships me in a thousand forms, with different names and many rituals and prayers.

The Phrygians, first-born of men, call me Cybele; for Cypriots I am Aphrodite of Paphos, while native Athenians call me Cecropian Athena; in Crete I am Dictynna-Artemis; the Sicilians, who speak three tongues, call me Stygian Persephone; for the people of Eleusis I am Demeter, while for others I am Hera, Bellona or Hecate or Nemesis of Rhamnous.

But the Ethiopians, whom the rising sun meets in the East, and the Egyptians, who exceeded all others in learning, worship me by my true name, the goddess Isis.” Apuleius was not born in Greece, and his work may have sprung from his own personal needs and beliefs, but his work was intended for an audience that was living in unsettled times and the novel’s survival proves that what it said made sense to those who read it through the ages.

In their outright rejection of anything different, those who destroy, those who shower hate on that which does not threaten them, love nothing and no one. They simply seek the opportunity to vomit part of the hate that chokes them. And even if society tolerates them, it should at least know who they are.

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