Some of the Greek Diaspora are up in arms that Netflix and the BBC are attempting The Iliad in the series Troy: Fall of a City. Their outrage is because African-British and Nigerian actors are playing Greeks in this attempt of a remake of a remake of a film based on the Homeric epic. The series includes David Gyasi (pictured above) as Achilles and Hakeem Kae Kazim as Zeus.
“The ancient Greeks,” my blonde, blue-eyed Greek teacher from Thessaly, informed us in Year 9, “were all blonde and blue eyed, like the Germans. The reason why most Greeks are not is because they have been forced to mix with barbarous races like the Turks and the Slavs.”
“But aren’t there large numbers of blonde, blue-eyed people among the Slavs?” Iasked.
“Where do you think they got that from?” my teacher replied, without batting an eyelid.
The ancient Greeks on the other hand, rarely portrayed themselves with the tawny locks of Brad Pitt in the Hollywood film, Troy. From the time of the Minoans to the Mycenaean period and beyond, Greeks have generally rendered their own images in dark tones in painting. Some famous painters, such as Exekias, portrayed Achilles as he slaid the Amazon Queen Penthesilea (and apparently falling in love with her corpse) in ebony hues, though this was a convention of Attic back figure pottery painting.
The equation of blondeness with goodness or bravery is an enduring one among the Greek people.
Nonetheless, the concept of the blonde has been present in Greek antiquity. The ancestor of both the Ionian and Achaean nations was said to be Xuthus, whose name is considered a variant of Xanthos, meaning blonde, though according to Liddell and Scott, as a colour, xuthus describes a tone as “between xanthos and pyrros” – between yellow and red. It means “tawny”or “dusky”. This can suggest that his name can refer either to his skin, his complexion, his hair – or all three.
The hyper-rational Aristotle extolled the virtues of blondeness, with reference to the animal kingdom: “Those with tawny coloured hair are brave; witness the lions. [But those with] reddish [hair] are of bad character; witness the foxes”.
The equation of blondeness with goodness or bravery is an enduring one among the Greek people. The many Greeks who believe in the prophecy of Agathangelos, an obscure 18th century monk who predicted the renascence of the Greek people after centuries of Ottoman rule, are still awaiting salvation at the hands of the “blonde race”,
When it comes to Homer, gods and heroes are generally portrayed as golden and blonde-like. Thus, while Poseidon was described as having a blue-black beard and Zeus, blue-black eyebrows – with Homer attention to detail is everything – Aphrodite is described as golden haired (χρυσή), Menelaos, the king of the Spartans is, together with some other Achaean leaders, portrayed as a blondie. as are Peleus, Achilles, Agamede and Rhadamanthys, while the blonde Odysseus is at some stage, transformed by Athena so that his beard becomes blue-black.
In the Hymn to Demeter, the goddess (or her hair) is twice described as “ξανθή”. Leto in the Hymn to Apollo is described as χρυσοπλόκαμη, or “golden-locked,” while Apollo himself and Hera are also occasionally described as blondes in the ancient texts.
Ancient Greeks and a large proportion of modern Greeks believe in the ‘goldenness’ of the Greeks; being blonde is being special.
According to D Pontikos, only two per cent of Greek statuary provides any evidence for blondness among the Greeks. Taking the genetic identity of Greeks to be fairly consistent over time, Pontikos argues that while there was a minority recessive trait for blondness among the Greeks, “the usage of terms such as ξανθή or χρυσή are more likely to have represented a darker pigmentation than is suggested by the modern term blonde”.
Nonetheless, it can be taken as accepted that for the ancient Greeks and a large proportion of modern Greeks believe in the ‘goldenness’ of the Greeks; being blonde is being special. In the moderns’ case, it is probably their swallowing of the orientalist, western propagated myth of the debased, swarthy Middle Eastern Greek who falls genetically below their flaxen-haired ancestors, that has led to the mass revival of platinum blondes via means chemical in the Republic of Greece.
Some of the Diaspora Greeks are up in arms, at the news that Netflix and the BBC are attempting to tackle The Iliad in the series entitled: Troy: Fall of a City. The reason for their outrage is the use of African-British and Nigerian actors in this attempt for a remake of a remake of a film based on the Homeric epic, including David Gyasi (main picture above) as Achilles and Hakeem Kae Kazim, as Zeus.
For them, this is an insult and a criminal misinterpretation of what they deem to be “their culture”. It implies that the ancient Greeks were black and this is apparently offensive to those aggrieved. One of them went so far as to assure me that “the Greeks were and always will be part of the Caucasian race.”
The Caucasian race of course, is a biological taxon, which depending on which classification is used, has usually included some or all of the ancient and modern populations of Europe, the Caucasus, Asia Minor, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.
According to D Pontikos, only two per cent of Greek statuary provides any evidence for blondness among the Greeks.
Black actors in Greek-themed epic films based on mythology are thus considered by the aggrieved as a historical distortion, even though we are dealing with fantasy.
The ensuing hysteria is related to the fact that while the rest of the world watches – for the sake of entertainment and not information – we Greeks expect to derive a statement about who we are. It must be one that conforms to the manner in which we have been told who we and our ancestors are since the Enlightenment.
If what we see upon the screen does not conform to the stereotype of the glorious, sagacious, blonde and beautiful Greek to whose civilisation one must pay the requisite homage, we become a little distressed at the real blondes calling us out for our lack of blondeness.
Interestingly, Greek-themed myth Hollywood fantasies have increasingly assumed the form of Viking sagas lately. Olympians assuming the form of the denizens of Asgard and Greek warriors are looking disconcertingly like Thor. This seems to cause our righteously angered historians no distress at all, possibly because their Nordic appearance makes them qualify as Aryans. This underlies a stereotype of genetic superiority of which we are the chief exemplars and which harbours inordinately repellent racist undertones.
What we should be objecting to are the inane film scripts, wooden dialogue, bad acting and disrespect towards our chief bard, Homer.
We should have no problem with the use of actors of any or all backgrounds in remakes or “interpretations”. The brilliance of Sophie Okonedo as Margaret of Anjou in Shakespeare, should also apply to Homer. It is not the appearance of the actor that is the primary consideration but rather the work and what the actor does that is paramount.
Having any actor, whatever gender or background, and immersing them in Homer is the ultimate compliment that could be paid to our Greek tribes. It is a greater honour than harking for actors who assuage our deep-seated phyletic insecurities and mask our western-imposed self-loathing.
What we should be objecting to are the inane film scripts, the poor, wooden dialogue, the implausible and ridiculous pandering to modern mores, bad acting and disrespect towards our chief bard, Homer.
As for our incensed compatriots, instead of lamenting how the west does not portray our classics faithfully – they do not – let us consider that it is they who articulate the work that determine the discourse. In this case, elements of an ancient Greek epic are being adapted for entry into the globalised Anglosphere. It follows that any interpretation will have as its primary reference point, the contemporary culture of its viewers juxtaposed against but ultimately reconciled with views of the ancient world crystallised in the West during the Enlightenment.
We on the other hand, descendants of Homer have never produced a film to assert a Hellenic perspective of Homer. The fact that we have not done so is paradoxical; Homer was revered and formed the core of Greek education from ancient times right up until the fall of Constantinople.
Somewhere along the line we no longer know how to articulate what Homer means to us without having someone else articulate it for us.
Instead, like Cavafy’s Poseidonians, we focus inanely on homage rituals, or the lack thereof. We the modern Diaspora and the Greeks in Greece, no longer understand we parrot the orientalist ideologies of the Anglo Franc and Saxon imperialists, and this through our Bard who was arguably the greatest of his craft. This is culturally criminal indeed.
This article was first published on Neos Kosmos. Konstanine Kalymnios is a contributor to Neos Kosmos, a poet and a solicitor. He is fluent in Greek, English, Assyrian and Mandarin and also speaks Albanian.