Saturday, December 20, 2008

The True Meaning of Xmas

It is not a sin to use "X" in the abbreviation of Christmas. "Xmas" is not a disrespectful modern secularization, but derives from Chi (X), the first letter of the word "Christ" in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written.

The symbol has been used by the church itself at least as far back as the 15th Century, when typesetters employed it with the newly invented Gutenberg press.

When fused with the second letter of Christ's name in Greek, Rho (P), it is called the labarum, a sort of sacred monogram symbolizing Jesus Christ. This ligature is said to have originated with Constantine I, who reportedly dreamed the symbol before the pivotal Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312). He ordered his soldiers to paint it on their shields, and when they emerged victorious from the battle, Constantine converted, becoming the first Christian Roman emperor.

But all this has little to do with the true meaning of Xmas. For that, you need look no farther than this year's magnificent Postal Service Christmas stamp. It is taken from a painting by the Italian master Sandro Botticelli which hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Virgin and Child With the Young John the Baptist was painted around the same time the holy "X" was first being inserted by frugal German typesetters into Gutenberg's invention.

What does "Xmas" truly mean? Click to enlarge and feast your eyes--you'll be brought as close as you can come to an answer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Myth of the Sole

It was an "instantly mythic moment" according to the NY Times. Indeed the thrown shoe flies far back into the past. Posting for National Geographic's Pop Omnivore, Marc Silver writes on the history of Thrown Shoes and Other Hurled Insults. "Your feet walk on dirt. [...To] show the sole of your foot in Middle Eastern countries, in Thailand, and in a few other places—it’s a terrible insult. People get into huge fights when they think someone has purposely shown the bottom of their foot, barefoot or in shoes. If you cross [your] legs and let the sole of your shoe face someone, that can be a terrible, terrible insult. People have been killed for that." He traces the gesture back as far as ancient Egypt, where people "sometimes drew a pictograph of their enemy on the bottom of their sandals and walked on them symbolically."

This reminded me that the ancient Greeks also used shoes to express contempt. In my novel, Night of the Furies, the young trio of archeological sleuths contemplate a 1st Century BC statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty:

Eros, the winged cherub, fluttered just over her shoulder, while standing beside her was the goat-god Pan, doing his best to seduce her.

It's difficult to tell whether Eros is trying to defend Aphrodite or encourage Pan. But there's little doubt of the goddess' intent, flashing the sole of her sandal.

Later in the novel the trio investigate the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries. Initiates to the annual religious rite--which included both women and slaves--joined together in a boisterous 14-mile procession from Athens to the seaside city of Eleusis.
At one point, crossing a bridge over the river Kephisos, "Men with heads covered to conceal their identity sat on the bridge and hurled ribald insults at distinguished persons in the procession" (H.W. Parke). Whether it was done to "forestall any ill luck" or was simply an opportunity for merriment, we have to ask ourselves: What ancient culture other than the Greeks would have allowed such freedoms to its citizens? How many cultures even allow them today?

We have much to thank the ancient Greeks for, just as the Iraqi people--despite legitimate complaints and terrible costs--have much to thank our soldiers for. According to the brother of the Iraqi reporter who "spontaneously" threw his shoes at President Bush, he had been planning his "protest" for nearly a year. There was a time, not too long ago in Iraq, when he wouldn't have been free to even imagine such a thing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Isocrates blogs on Greek riots

The AP reports: ...the unprecedented scale of destruction has horrified Greeks. The conservative daily, Eleftheros Typos, lamented that the very foundation of the country's democracy was at risk. The paper's front page bore a single quote from the ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates:

"Our democracy is self-destructing, because it abused the right to freedom and equality, because it taught people to consider impudence as a right, illegality as freedom, rudeness as equality and anarchy as happiness."

Monday, December 8, 2008

‘Fury is Understandable’

In Euripides famous tragedy The Bacchae, the god Dionysus, humiliated by the young King Pentheus, punishes the king by luring him into a violent frenzy of Maenads. The women literally tear him apart.

What is often overlooked in the play is the fact that it is, in essence, a story of revenge. I was reminded of this by the wave of riots currently raging across Greece following the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old boy by police.

The police claim the boy was shot after their squad was attacked by a gang of youths. Despite this, riots have been spreading across the country and appear to be growing more violent.

"The fury is understandable," said the interior and public order minister, Prokopis Pavlopoulos. "What can't be understood is raw violence."

Perhaps the bewildered minister--and the Greeks themselves--have forgotten the lessons of The Bacchae. As Euripides demonstrated nearly 2,500 years ago, a sense of vengeance can unleash in a mob the most incomprehensible madness.