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Originally published Sunday, June 24, 2012 at 4:41 AM

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Greek crisis: An odyssey seen through ancient myth

In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus pushed a boulder up a hill, over and over, forever, in a futile exercise that a few commentators have compared to international efforts to revive Greece's dire finances. Homer's Odyssey, whose protagonist endures years of peril on his way home after the Trojan War, is seen as another metaphor for the ordeal of a nation in its fifth year of recession.

Associated Press

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ATHENS, Greece —

In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus pushed a boulder up a hill, over and over, forever, in a futile exercise that a few commentators have compared to international efforts to revive Greece's dire finances. Homer's Odyssey, whose protagonist endures years of peril on his way home after the Trojan War, is seen as another metaphor for the ordeal of a nation in its fifth year of recession.

Scylla and Charybdis, the sea monsters flanking a strait that forced ships to brave one side or the other, are associated today with the expression, "between a rock and a hard place," the predicament of modern Greeks left with no good options.

Turning to allegories infused with one-eyed giants and other fantastical creatures to explain the Greek crisis, which threatens to morph into a financial crisis worldwide, seems like an indulgence at a time when the state, and ordinary citizens, can't pay their bills.

Yet ancient myths lend context to the swirl of acrimony and austerity, bailouts and brinkmanship, coalitions and currencies, debt and deadlines, that define the social and economic ills of Greece, which is in danger of falling out of the euro currency. It turns out the legends have plenty to say about hubris and ruin, order and chaos, boom and bust.

"Greek mythology is full of examples of how mortals should find the middle way in order to live a happy life, or as it said on the walls of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, `Nothing in Excess,'" Peter Meineck, associate professor of classics at New York University, wrote in an email.

He noted that, according to the Greek poet Hesiod, "the first divine agent that caused creation was Eros - the spirit of erotic drive or the impulse to create anything."

Icarus paid for his arrogance when he flew too close to the sun, plummeting to his death when his wax-and-feather wings melted. Prometheus stole fire from the gods for the sake of mankind, and as punishment, he was bound to a rock, where an eagle daily fed on his regenerating liver.

Similarly, reckless conduct and the flouting of rules fueled the crisis in Greece, which gained some political stability with the formation of a coalition government this week. Some experts assign blame beyond Greece as well, citing structural deficiencies in Europe's economic club and the insistence of Germany and other creditors on unbending austerity measures that have sliced into the quality of life.

Many Greeks are frustrated by the damning perception that their mistakes brought the global economy close to a sharp downturn. They share, one allegation goes, the same destructive qualities as their mythical monsters. Rather than attacking the idea, one Greek firm, Beetroot Design, embraces the image of Greece as a modified cyclops of modern Europe.

Its exhibition of images and sculptures in Athens, "The Greek Monsters," plays on European criticism, suggesting the beasts of lore are victims as well as predators, and teaching tools for a society sorely lacking in direction. It includes depictions of the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull imprisoned in a labyrinth, and the Medusa, who turned people to stone with her gaze and lost her head to the sword of Perseus.

"We wanted to say that we understand that we are in a very, very bad situation and probably it's our fault for a great deal of it," said designer Paris Mexis. "But within this country, there are creative people, productive people who still want growth, who still want Europe, who still want to be part of everybody else."

The Graeae are three crones who share one detachable eye and a tooth, stolen by Perseus in his quest to kill Medusa. They are cast as a symbol of organization because they share scarce, essential resources. The cyclops Polyphemus, a single eye in his forehead, devoured companions of Odysseus, who blinded him; the exhibition portrays the one eye as a tribute to focus and originality.

Here is the Minotaur's perspective, according to Mexis:

"`Guys wait: I'm a giant, I'm enslaved, I'm in a cave, nobody feeds me and at one time they threw into my cave, in the labyrinth, seven boys and seven girls, and I hadn't eaten for, like, months. So what should I do?'"

The monster, the designer said, can be a model: "He can never escape, but he can break walls, and make his own path. And a designer, or anybody who produces something, can do the same. Maybe he's in a spiritual labyrinth."

Should Greeks get in touch with their inner Minotaur? Sounds like trouble. But arguably, the Greek crisis is a psychological one, an epic battle in which, for now, dependence has trumped innovation in the national character.

Greek myths are the cultural property of Europe, the West and the world, immortalized in high art as well as cartoons and movie depictions such as "Clash of the Titans." Greeks are rueful at how the legacy of their ancient statesmen and philosophers stacks up against their reduced circumstances. But mostly they don't cite old myths, possibly based on kernels of truth, that helped people make sense of chaotic times.

"They don't connect it. You never hear anything about myths, the rise of myths," Magnus Briem, an Athens-based documentary producer, said of Greek commentary on the crisis. He speculated that, "maybe it's too playful for them, to deal with something so serious."

Over lunch on a rooftop terrace overlooking Syntagma Square, scene of many protests and riots outside the parliament building, Briem and Harris Mylonas, a political scientist, mused that modern Greeks are creating contemporary myths because the state, stripped of credibility, does not provide them with any answers.

Among the conspiracy theories they cited as prevalent among Greeks: European bankers and policymakers are using Greece as an "experiment" to see how far they can drive down wages and pensions before the population snaps. Another one holds that the government engineered the deaths of three people in a bank fire during a 2010 demonstration in an attempt to derail public anger and protests against austerity policies.

For at least two decades, artist Yanni Souvatzoglou has displayed his bronze sculptures in the old Athens neighborhood of Plaka. He depicts Dimitra, the goddess of fertility and agriculture, as a slender figure, like a stalk of wheat, with a symbolism that suits hard times.

"She told us to use our ingenuity to survive even if we don't have wheat," said Souvatzoglou, who cites his main influences as the ancient Minoan and Cycladic eras. "She told us, `Before you do something important in your life, you should apply thinking' - she's holding her head - `But if things don't work out for some reason, be flexible.' Like the wheat is when the wind is blowing."

When countries undergo hardship, boosters sometimes pay glowing tribute to the perceived resilience of their populations. This hasn't happened much with Greece, but Meineck, the academic at New York University, suggested that maybe it should.

"The great single-minded warriors of the Iliad are all dead - Achilles, Agamemnon, Ajax, etc. It is the wily Odysseus who survives," Meineck wrote. "Perhaps we should not count the Greeks out quite so soon? This small country has been dealing with giants for a very long time, be it Alexander, Rome, the Moors, Venice, the Ottomans, the Nazis or even now - the market forces of Europe."

So, as with the phoenix of ancient mythologies, Greece may yet rise from the ashes.

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