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Tuesday 11 February 2014

An Ancient Greek Symposium

I quite enjoy going to cultural festivals and events. With Melbourne's diverse and vibrant multiculturalism there are many such free events throughout the year where you can experience the sights of various cultural performances, the sounds of various kinds of folk music and dance, and the smell and taste of foreign cuisine in the heart of your own city. Over the past couple of months I was able to enjoy the Scandinavian Christmas Bazaar, a Mexican Festival, Chinese New Year celebrations, Maslenitsa Slavic Pancake Festival and the (modern) Antipodes Greek festival. And the turning of the wheel of the year will I'm sure bring many more such enjoyable events.

Another event I attended to was not only a cultural but also living-historical experience. Athanasios of the Ancient Hoplitikon of Melbourne Inc invited me to the Ancient Greek (and Roman) re-enactment group's annual symposium. All of the attendees were clad in Classical costume, myself in a white a knee-length Ancient Greek chiton, with a black swirling trim (which always reminds of the waves on the Aegean Sea at night), Grecian sandals, a pair of metal cuffs and my gold snake ring, a replica from Pompeii.

Upon arrival and a warm welcome we were taken for a tour around the group's grand new palatial white canvas tent. Everything was handmade to period pieces made with lavish detail, skill, patience and a passion for the past. Within the tent was a sumptuous feast for both the stomach and the eyes, with a plethora of traditional Greek foods. One end was open at the sides to catch the summer breeze, while the other was enclosed with several replica wooden Ancient Greek klinoi lounges. From the wooden support columns hung olive oil burning lamps, spears, a standard and a Hermes' caduceus staff were near the entrance, and arms, bronze armour, the accutraments of an ancient Olympic athlete and pottery. Outside club members moved about a the artillery of a Roman scorpion.

After that we held a re-enactment of an Ancient Greek holocaust style sacrifice and libation , our gracious host conducting the ritual in Ancient Greek. Naturally, the only thing sacrificed in this re-enactment was some of the finest red wine present. Then the guests grabbed small votive objects from a table and left them on the altar. In historical re-enactment, as a hobby there is often a trade off between safety and modern sensibilities vs period practises, either because ancient practises are only partly understood or obviously in combat, for safety of the participants and public. But one aspect that is often overlooked is the actual culture, ritual and lifestyle of people in the past. So it was great to see and experience this part of the re-enactment which is sadly all to often overlooked by other groups. Then we drank a small portion of a sweet wine to wet the appetite and continued on to enjoy our feast, watered down wine from a krater, our fine company and exquisite surrounds.

A modern symposium is an academic conference for presenting papers, while an ancient symposium was a sort of house party with food, music, entertainment and  plenty of wine, but it would have had other aspects to it other than just a party. It would have had some kind of ritual element to it, as well as being sociable, holding serious debates and discussing philosophy and making important political contacts and making business deals all rolled into the one kind of function.

 I must say I had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed sipping my wine from a metal kylix, a replica of one thought to date back to 300 BC, while reclining on a kline. A kline might at first appear unusual, it is not quite a couch or a bed, and is quite high. Yet, when you actually use one you can fully appreciate what you have seen on vase paintings, it is the perfect height to let you socialise while another person standing can talk to you face to face, not to mention the comfort of a posture that allows for digestion and rest while still being upright and active enough to engage with those around you and your surroundings. Even the simple oil lamp lighting, when placed appropriately and reflecting off the white canvas, with the glint of bronze in the background, created a warmly lit environment as if near a campfire.

It was the unexpected ingenuity and simplicity of carefully considered things like this, both in terms of designs from Antiquity and their re-creation in the present by Athanasios and the Ancient Hoplitikon that reveals the civilised art of holding a symposium.

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