Greek World

We know ancient Greece more by its myths than its history. There was no cinema multiplex in Athens in the 5th century, but there was a theater. In fact, the Theater of Dionysius enjoyed the reputation of being the first of its kind in the history of the world. People flocked to its rows of wooden seats to see their treasured myths enacted in the circular playing area. The perishable seats would later be replaced with stone tiers set on one slope of the Acropolis. This half-bowl-shaped structure institutionalized the ritual of the human race reflecting upon itself. It is a cultural legacy that today resides primarily in movie theaters, where some of the Greek dramas can be seen on film. For the best of them, see Mythical Greece: Olympus.

The shift in position of Greece from a fringe population of the powerful empires of Asia to the first nation of Europe is accounted for only in the myth of Europa (there is no movie). It happened on the Greek island of Crete before the time of King Minos. We can only surmise that if there had ever been a king such as Minos, he would have lived perhaps 4000 years ago. The myth says that Zeus, never known for his fidelity to his wife, Hera, disguised himself as a comely bull and abducted the Phoenician princess, Europa, from the shores of Sidon, today’s Lebanon. He carried her westward to the island of Crete and there made love to her. Europa produced offspring who became the first Europeans. Crete was later conquered by Mycenae. For Mycenae and the Trojan War, see Peloponnese: Mycenae / Troy.

Crete was also the setting for the foundation myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, offspring of Cretan royalty, half man and half bull. The theme of overcoming the animal in ourselves, or reason over passion, or ego over id, or civilization over ungoverned impulse, lies at the core of the Greek identity shift.

Parthenon metope at the British Museum, London

Parthenon metope at the British Museum, London

This primal psychodrama was featured on the façade of Athens’ most important temple. See the metopes (say meto-peas) at the tops of the Parthenon columns. One series of panels tells the parable of the Lapiths and the Centaurs. The Lapiths were a tribe of early Greece who made the magnanimous gesture of inviting the neighboring Centaurs, half human and half horse, to a wedding of one of their own. The Centaurs came, drank too much wine, and attempted to abduct the women from the wedding. Theseus, now King of Athens, was a guest at the wedding and he helped the Lapiths fight off the rapacious Centaurs. There are several versions and perversions of the myths mentioned above and nothing is definitive. For more on the myths, see Mythical Greece: Olympus.

Students of art history learn early in their coursework that the significance of Greek sculpture is in the shift from representing the gods as half-human-half-animal to the idealization of the human form. In sculpture and in the theater, the Greeks gave expression to the human ideal.

History is submerged in myth. It was true 2500 years ago and it is true of the movies seen on the big screens today. The only Greek historical figure to get any serious attention from Hollywood is the entirely mortal Alexander the Great and his movies are mired in controversy over their historical veracity (see Northern Greece: Alexander).

Modern Greek movies are burdened with sad nostalgia for past glories (see Modern Greece: Reclaiming the Past).

For a full list of movies viewed for this website, go to Movie Archive, above.