Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What is lost in Plato's story of Atlantis

       The second secret of Plato's story of Atlantis* is even more significant (see last post). In the Timaeus, Plato projects the patriarchy of subsequent Greek civilization back onto Atlantis. 

       But the most noticeable feature of Cycladic civilization which preceded the later Greek era and disappeared is funerary objects relating to women.  The abstract marble statues, including two life size ones, have breasts and vaginas.  The votive objects – misleadingly labeled frying pan designs – feature stars and spirals and ships, and a triangle vagina with pubic hair at the base.  The Cycladic and Cretan civilizations (in Crete roughly 2900 til the emergence of Minos and even then surrounding him until 1600) were woman-led civilizations.  Birth was revered.  Women spirits, not Hermes, traveled between worlds, took the spirits of the dead to the underworld.

        These were trading civilizations with comparative  equality (similar size houses, no palaces – the famous palace of Knossos near Iraklio on Crete is a labyrinth of the dead).  The frescos many of them preserved by volcanic ash, are beautiful scenes of ordinary life, the “grace of life” as one scholar named it.  They are different and more attractive  than much of the Egyptian and Greek statuary which finally emerged in the Golden Age in the supple images of Phidias and others.  There are no Cycladic images of war,  no funeral steles with charioteers with spears slaughtering their enemies.  Such images would await Mycenae.

       The subsequent Greek civilization is ferociously patriarchal (men are still served meals before women to this day).  In Athenian culture, there was constant struggle against the older rule of women,  a theme in Greek plays.  For instance, in the Oresteia, Athena, of no woman born, a warrior and “rational,” subdues the Erinyes (the Furies).  The city is named for a woman who does not give birth and was not born from a womb.   And the Greek Orthodox Church is, well,  patriarchal.   Yet the patriarchy was not yet certain of itself, had to name even its center of empire for a woman whom it had, one might say, unwomaned.

      Even  today, the Cycladic museum in Athens, actually devoted to the objects remaining from this women-led civilization,  has on the first floor a brief commentary on the female figures which speaks of “a man’s world” and “man is the measure” (an anarchronism from fifth century Athens, all the more ridiculous in that room, a reflection of a curator's unease in the presence of all those vaginas).  The elaborately presented or filmed scenes of “everyday life” in Athens on the fourth floor reveal the imprisonment of women – they are to stay in the house and send off the warriors – which the curators somehow dare not comment on or even name.   The contrast is jarring.

     In the National Archaelogical Museum in Athens, there is a room on the Cycladic islands off to the right.  But “Greek civilization” emerges with the gold death masks of Mycenae,  the gold jewellery which binds such women as are shown.   The signs provided by curators  wax eloquent about high status warriors who conquer.  These are the men of the Iliad,  they say, the ones who give birth to “Western civilization.”

     Plato’s story of Atlantis is a founding contribution to this patriarchal deceit and perhaps self-deception.  For the volcano on Thira (Santorini) in 1550 BC and the sea submerged a more attractive  human possibility.  Perhaps Odysseus at last finds a home in abandoning war.  But we in the 21st century need to learn from this earlier civilization and to do far better on transforming the world nonviolently.  War has run its course.  For wars with contemporary weaponry, accompanying global warming, will  not too distantly make the earth uninhabitable for humans.

 *I have benefited from a very helpful conversation with Jonilda Dhamo on these matters.

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