The polykatoikia is the quintessential housing solution in Athens. The term is derived from poly (multiple) and oikia (dwelling). These five-to-seven story buildings seem ubiquitous and serve the housing needs of millions of people who moved into the city between 1950 and 1970. The basic format is a reinforced concrete frame with masonry infill that contains a microcosm of Greek society since its apartments were open and accessible to residents with differing social status. Despite an abundance of negative comments regarding its aesthetics and disastrous impact on the city’s old neoclassical housing stock, the polykatoikia defines the contemporary urban landscape of Athens to such an extent that it has been adopted as a housing ideal by the city’s most exotic newcomers, the feral parakeets of the National Garden.
The parrot of Ctesias
The 5th-century BCE physician and historian Ctesias of Cnidus was the first Greek to describe a parrot: “it has a human voice and language, and is about the size of a hawk; it has a purple head and a black beard. Its body is dark blue, but it is the color of red cinnabar round the neck. It speaks Indian like a human being, but if it learns Greek then it also speaks Greek.” The average ancient Athenian, of course, would not have been familiar with parakeets; the last European species disappeared during the Miocene. But contemporary Athenians are becoming increasingly familiar with their raucous squawking.
The two species
The first parakeets in downtown Athens appeared in the late 1980s. Two medium-sized species have established breeding colonies: the ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri) and the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus). The former is native in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, while the latter originates from the temperate to subtropical areas of South America. The ring-necked parakeet is green with a red and black neck ring, as well as long tail feathers. It is very noisy and can be taught to speak. The monk parakeet is also bright green with a greyish forehead and breast, almost as noisy as the ring-necked parakeet and equally adept at developing a large vocabulary.
The origin of the parakeets’ breeding colonies in Athens is obscure. These are not typical migratory birds, so the first individuals probably escaped from the sanitary quarantine in Ellinikon, the old international airport west of Glyfada, in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Their territory gradually expanded as they occupied green spaces in densely populated areas across Athens. Their exemplary Mediterranean diet is based on trees that grow all over the city: cypress cones, palm tree dates, almonds, the fruit of the ash tree, and the seeds of the bitter oranges. The climatic conditions are perfectly suited to their needs and the noticeable lack of natural predators only makes their lives that much easier.
Polykatoikia for parakeets
According to the census of the Hellenic Ornithological Society, the Athenian parakeet population consists of more than 1500 individuals. All these birds must find shelter. The ring-necked parakeet is an avid searcher of suitable nesting sites, occupying temporary stations until it finds a permanent home. The monk parakeet is more ambitious. This bird actually builds stick nests in a mature tree (or a man-made structure). The nest (which can reach the size of a small automobile) is occupied by multiple pairs, each of which has its own “apartment”, much like the typical Athenian polykatoikia.
In late 2018, the Greek authorities removed the nests from the National Garden. They had grown so large that their weight posed a danger to pedestrians and the stability of the trees. But the monk parakeets, ever industrious and ever-persistent, are gradually rebuilding their polykatoikia on the pine trees in the middle of the National Garden (near the small zoo). In their diet and nesting habits, these exotic newcomers prove themselves 100% Athenian.
The ancient Greek symposium was primarily a drinking party. Kings and heroes had often enjoyed each other’s company over a few cups of wine during the time of Homer (8th century BCE) but it was only in the 600s BCE that the symposium acquired the form and context we now consider typical. It was the aristocratic event par excellence; it consisted of groups of men who came together in specially designated rooms on the host’s house to participate in an evening of drinking and intellectual discussion. Young male slaves attended the guests and served the wine; there were also female prostitutes or hetairai (courtesans), who danced, played music or offered sexual favors.
Games and singing
Despite its tendency to grow wild as more and more wine was served, early in the evening, the symposium was governed by rules. One of the drinkers was appointed symposiast (master of ceremonies) and decided on the sequence of activities. The guests reclined on couches (there could be as many as fifteen couches and thirty guests) and received their drink from the slaves; a large kratērin the middle of the room was used to dilute the wine with water (one part wine to two or three parts water). As the night progressed, the mixture became stronger (less water, more wine) and the guests less reserved (eventually the female attendants ended up climbing on the couches). The philosophical and political discussions then gave way to competitive singing and drinking games.
The most popular game was kottabos. According to Athenaeus, the game originated in Sicily and the name (which roughly translates to “wine-dregs”) is itself a Sicilian word. At its most basic form, the purpose of the game was to take the wet substance left behind from the drained drinking cup and fling it into a basin or onto a target. It may sound simple, but it was a game that demanded both skill and elegance; the symposiast required a steady hand and a fine sense of touch, much like a “good flute player”. The successful competitor was more likely to be the one who could bend his wrist with the most elegance.
Depending on the target, kottabos had many variations. One version required small saucers floating in a basin of water that was set between the symposiasts; the goal was to use the wine dregs to sink the saucers. Another target could be a disk balanced flat atop a tall pole; much like in a modern Greek taverna, the disk would be knocked off by the wine and fall with a crash (OPA!). Other targets could be truly elaborate constructions; according to a red-figure cup by Apollodoros (ca. 490 BCE), the target consisted of a flat pan, on which stood a tripod that balanced a phallus-headed bird!
The phallus-headed bird highlights a crucial aspect of the game, its erotic nature. The wine dregs flying through the air were described as “Cyprian” or “Aphrodisiac”. The players declared for whom they were playing and claimed sexual favors as a reward for a successful cast. A symposiast in Sophocles’ Salmoneus established tickling and the peck of kisses as prizes of victory for the man who cast the kottabos most pleasingly. A successful cast also signaled success in love. The hetairai were also allowed to participate in the game. Sometimes they were free to choose their partner and they often cast their wine dregs directly at the men, rather than at the inanimate target. A red-figured psykter by Euphronios (ca. 520 BCE) depicts a naked woman named Smikra (The Little One) in the process of throwing her wine in honor of a man called Leagros.
There were also some drinking games that required the physical engagement of the symposiasts. During the evening, guests endeavored to perform various types of exercises that involved all parts of their bodies and a range of cups and vases. A drinker may squat and balance a cup in the crook of his elbow, while holding a pitcher with his other hand, with the purpose of pouring its contents into the cup. Another may try to carry his cloak and an amphora with his foot. A red-figure cup (from the 510s BCE) has a young man in a state of erection attempting to carry a krater on his belly. Thirty years later, another young man tried to hold his cup in his teeth while keeping his arms and legs extended.
All this wine-dregs tossing and bizarre juggling were not to everyone’s taste, of course. Many intellectuals rejected these drinking games as coarse and tasteless, preferring to entertain themselves with “challenges”. The premise of this pastime was that any symposiast could issue a challenge such as riddles or singing songs. Elegiac poetry was closely associated with the symposium; the guests would compose songs on the spot in elegiac meter (often using a stock of themes and phrases that circulated widely) and sing it in the accompanied of an aulos. Another challenge involved round of speeches on a selected topic (the most famous being the debate on the nature of love in Plato’s Symposium).
A symposium, therefore, offered a range of entertainment options, which made the role of the symposiarch even more important. According to Plutarch, his aim should be “to preserve an atmosphere of cheerfulness” and to “sponsor a mixture of serious and playful events suited to the individual characters of those present”. The frivolous guests would thus receive some much-needed education, while the more serious and reserved symposiasts would relax and forget their worries. And at the end of the night, if all went well, everyone would stumble home content and blissful.
The quest for youth and beauty is as old as time, and the ancient Greeks had a few things to say on the matter. In the Clouds, Aristophanes has the young Pheidippides visit the school of Socrates in search of an education that will enable him to maintain his extravagant lifestyle. As he enters the school, he encounters two associates of Socrates, Superior and Inferior Argument, who debate with each other over which of them can offer the best education. Superior Argument claims that Pheidippides should spend his time in the gymnasium, running races beneath the olive trees and the white poplars. If he follows his recommendations, he will always have “a rippling chest, radiant skin, broad shoulders, a wee tongue, a grand bottom, and a petite posthē”.
It is fairly easy to understand the attraction of most of these physical characteristics. But a diminutive posthē is a bit more baffling, for in this context the word posthē refers to the penis. Ancient Greek art is full of attractive and heroic men endowed with male members we would not really consider “impressive”. Why would the Greeks depict their gods and heroes with small manhoods and why would an associate of Socrates (imaginative though he may be) argue in favor of a tiny penis?
The beauty of the foreskin
A word of caution is necessary at this point. The Greeks did not necessarily value a small penis per se; it was rather the prepuce (i.e. the foreskin) that was of particular importance to them and there was a dedicated vocabulary to describe all the important structures of the male organ. The part of the skin that covers the glans of the penis was called the posthē, while the tapered extremity of the foreskin that extends beyond the glans was known as the akroposthion. The prepuce was considered among the most beautiful parts of the male anatomy, as evidenced by the words of the Greek physician Galen (ca. 129 – 210 CE), who noted that “nature, out of her abundance, ornaments all the members, especially in man…the ears show obvious ornamentation, and so, I suppose, does the skin called the prepuce at the end of the penis and the flesh of the buttocks”.
The sexually attractive ancient Greek male had a well-formed and long prepuce. Ancient writers often refer to it and highlight its function as a visual stimulant. Dion was a “lusty, low-scrotumed, cuntish, and mastic-chewing young” who masturbated and groped whenever he saw someone with a long prepuce (or so Lucian informs us in his satire Lexiphanes). Mnesilochus, an ordinary Athenian, did not hesitate to press his face against a garment worn by the youthful and handsome poet Agathon and express his pleasure at the “pleasant smell of prepuce” (according to the Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes). “Large foreskinned one” [posthōn] was a term of endearment for young boys.
The morality of skin
The evidence from ancient Greek art is overwhelming; the Greeks valued the longer over the shorter foreskin and the smaller over the larger penis. Divine and heroic males are depicted with prepuces that comprise up to three-quarters the entire length of the penis. Even when the latter is erect, the foreskin remains unretracted and tapers off gracefully. Moderation and modesty required that the glans of the penis should remain hidden under an abundant cocoon of skin; an externalized glans was considered shameless and dishonorable, synonymous with lewdness and wantonness.
Even worse, an exposed glans could serve as an association with barbarity and slavery. A sixth-century Corinthian terracotta plaque depicts four slaves working in a quarry; one of them wields a pickax, but what truly captures our attention is the impressive male organ that swings between his legs. The glans is painted black and there is no foreskin; two white lines indicate the scars from the circumcision that clearly defines this individual as non-Greek (or at least like someone who does not live up to the Greek ideal of male beauty).
The exposure of the glans was, therefore, a serious no-no in ancient Greek society. The desire for a well-formed prepuce was so strong that the Greeks developed a tool to ensure a generously proportioned foreskin. The kynodēsmē (dog leash) was a thin leather thong would around the akroposthion and tied around the waist. Its purpose was to pull the penis upwards and apply continuous (and long-term) traction to secure the elongation of the foreskin.
According to the grammarian Phrynichus Arabius, the Athenians were notorious users of the kynodēsmē and would often call their penis kyon(dog). Participants at symposia would employ the kynodēsmē to maintain their modesty and decency even when inebriated. Athletes would use it to prevent their glans from protruding while training naked. The vase painter and potter Euphronius (ca. 535 – after 470 CE) created a magnificent calyx-krater with palestra scenes; among the youths depicted is a young athlete in the process of employing a kyn to pull the prepuce taut.
Even in erotic scenes, the foreskin remains neatly tapered and unretracted; there are only a handful of cases when a young and attractive male youth will be shown with an exposed glans. Such imagery was reserved for slaves, barbarians, lecherous old men and satyrs. The proper penis of a moral, virtuous, and attractive Greek male required an abundant supply of foreskin.
Animals were essential to the ancient Greeks. On a practical level, they were crucial to farm work and food production; they served their masters at war or carried them from place to place. They assisted them in the hunt or played a crucial role in ostentatious public sacrifices and in prophecy. Finally, they were companions and mentors. Such a close relationship left abundant traces in the literature and archaeological monuments of archaic, classical and Hellenistic Greece. Ancient myths, fables, epic poems, histories, and funerary monuments record the bond between animals (ranging from dogs to elephants) and their owners. But what names did the ancient Greeks select for their four-legged companions?
Cattle husbandry was a cornerstone of ancient Greek society. The epic poet Hesiod listed ox as one of the three essentials for anyone (the other two being a house and a wife). The heroes of Homer ate lots of beef and used the leather for their armor and shields. The average person, of course, would not have been able to consume so much meat, but oxen provided draft and sacrificial animals. This intimate relationship is reflected in the tendency to name the cows and the bulls. It was a tradition that originated in Minoan Crete, since the tablets of Knossos record the names of cattle: Black, Red, Dapple, Red-rump, Dusky, etc. The bucolic poet Theocritus in the 3rd century BCE recorded the efforts of a herdsman to gather his wayward cows, Lepargos (“whitecoat”) and Kymaitha (“chubby”).
What a man will do for his horses
Horses were another valuable and beloved possession, especially among the aristocrats. They provided essential service in battle and bequeathed eternal glory to their owners with their victories at equestrian competitions (especially at the Olympic Games). Cimon “Coalemos” (6th century BCE) was the proud owner of mares which won the Olympic chariot race three times. He had been banned from Athens for political reasons, but when he dedicated his second victory to the tyrant Peisistratus he was allowed to return. Four years later he won his third victory, only this time the sons of Peisistratus became envious of him and murdered him. His mares were buried in a tomb opposite his own, perhaps as part of the funerary rites.
We do not know the names of Cimon’s mares, but those of other famous ancient Greek horses have been recorded. Homer informs us that Achilles had three horses called Xanthus (“blonde”), Balius (“dappled”), and Pedasos (“jumper” or “captive”); the first two were divine, while Pedasos was mortal. Alexander the Great managed to impress his father and the Macedonian court by taming Bucephalus (“ox-head”), an imposing black animal who was named after a branding mark on his haunch depicting a bull’s head. The horse was said to have died in Punjab at the age of thirty. Alexander mourned his death and celebrated his life by founding the city of Alexandria Bucephalous in his memory.
The desire to commemorate a faithful and beloved horse was not restricted to the powerful. Even private citizens felt the need to erect a memorial or compose an epigram. This was the case with the wind-footed Aethyia (“seagull”), a mare who was as fast as a bird; during her illustrious career as a racing horse, she as far as a ship. Less fortunate was Aetos (“eagle”); in his youth, he had “outshone all fleet-footed horses” at the Panhellenic Games but when he grew old he was fettered by a collar and grinded corn by turning a rough stone.
Dogs played a significant role in ancient Greek society. There were hunting dogs, guard dogs, sheepdogs, performing dogs, and pet dogs. In Homer’s Odyssey, the noble hound Argos lies on a pile of cow manure. He is infested with fleas and can no longer assist his owner with his tracking skills. And yet, Argos is the first living creature to recognize Odysseus when the latter finally returns to Ithaca after twenty years overseas. When his master entered the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus, Argos was seized by “the darkness of death”.
Many centuries later (2nd century CE), Anaxeos from Mytilene bade a last farewell to Parthenope (“maiden-voiced”), his beloved and kind dog with whom he used to play throughout her life. Another man from Pergamon lamented the loss of his dog in the 3rd century BCE; Philokynegos (“chasseur”) was swift-footed and had spent his life chasing after ferocious beasts. Other canine names include Lampourgos (“fire tail”) for a sheepdog and Taurus (“bull”) for a swift-footed Maltese dog, who once guarded his master Eumelos, but is now prevented from barking by the silent streets of the eternal night. Anyte of Tegea commemorated the loss of Maira, a female hound that loved to make lots of noise; unfortunately, she was bitten by a spotted-throated viper near her home at Locri and perished.
King Antiochus III the Great was a big fan of elephants and made a point of receiving as many of these beasts as possible as a gift from Sophagasenus, a minor king who ruled the lands around Kabul. Antiochus was particularly fond of two of these elephants, to which he had given the names of famous ancient Greek heroes. During a campaign, though, the first of these elephants (Ajax) refused to enter a stream, while the other (Patroclus) made the attempt and was rewarded with silver pendants. Ajax felt degraded and refused to eat, preferring “death to ignominy”.
Ancient Greek parents had the right to expose a newborn child. Poor families with too many children, parents who only wanted sons, or girls who had been raped may not have been inclined to raise the child. Rather than killing the hapless newborn, they opted to expose it in a much-frequented place, in the hope that someone else would find it and protect it. The story of Oedipus is perhaps the most famous example of this mentality.
But there were also cases of abnormal children whose birth affected the entire community. A teras (monster) constituted an ominous sign from the gods. The state would attempt to eject it from the city territory, but without killing or burying it. A murdered teras could become a harmful and angry spirit eager to avenge its violent death. If the abnormal child was buried, it would return to the earth intact and might be reborn in the same form. The solution to the problem of an unnatural birth required much careful thinking, as evidenced by a report provided by Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of Emperor Hadrian who wrote On Marvels, a compilation of sensational (and supposedly true) stories.
Polycritus was a citizen of Aetolia and was elected aetolarch for a period of three years by the people on account of his virtue. During his time in office, he married a woman from Locris, a region to the east of Aetolia. Unfortunately, the couple only got to spend three nights together, for on the fourth night Polycritus died. Nine months later the widow gave birth to a child who had two sets of genitals; the upper portion was hard and masculine, whereas the lower part was soft and feminine. The child was a hermaphrodite, a deviation from nature that ushered into a whole series of bizarre events.
When public opinion runs wild
The relatives of Polycritus brought the child to the agora and called a general assembly of the people. They also summoned sacrificers and diviners to deliberate on what they should do. The astonishment was general and the offered opinions differed wildly. Some claimed that the child was a portent of war to come among the Aetolians and the Locrians since the infant was descendant from two different lineages. Others argued that both mother and child should be taken beyond the frontiers of Aetolia and burned to death, supposedly on the assumption that being consumed by flames while still alive is not really murder and therefore there is no chance that the child will come back furious and vindictive.
Zombie in a hurry
In the midst of these deliberations, Polycritus suddenly appeared. He had been dead for nine months and yet there he was, standing before the assembly, dressed in black. Many people tried to flee, while others were stricken with amazement and terror. The specter approached the child and addressed the citizens of Aetolia with a weak voice, informing them that the gods of the underworld had listened to his pleas and had allowed him to return among the living to save his child.
He called upon them to hand over to him the infant in order “that no violence takes place as a result of [their] reaching some other decision and that [their] hostility towards [him] not be the beginning of difficult and harsh troubles”. If the diviners were mad and wanted to burn the child, he would not allow them to do so. He also asked his compatriots to hurry up and make a decision for “those who rule beneath the earth” would not permit him to linger much longer.
When Polycritus was finished, the citizens were even more baffled than before. Some wanted to hand the baby over, while others were reluctant to do so and called for more deliberations. Polycritus, pressed for time, threatened them with serious trouble on account of their procrastination and their willingness to harm his child. Despite these direct threats from a zombie, the people continued arguing, at which point Polycritus decided he had had enough. He took hold of the infant, pushed the men back and tore it hastily limb from limb. Then he devoured the body of his child except for the head. The Aetolians threw stones at him, but to no avail. When the ghastly meal was over, Polycritus disappeared, leaving the child’s head lying on the ground.
This series of unfortunate and bizarre events was obviously far too baffling for the good people of Aetolia. Divine help was in order, so they decided to send a delegation to Delphi. But the head of the child decided to spare them the trouble of an arduous journey and began to foretell the future. He told them not to visit the sanctuary of Phoebus for their hands were unclean from the blood. Death had been ordained for all of them and a bloody drizzle was going to be poured on their heads; women would grieve forever and no children would grow in the houses where their fathers were mourned. They should expose the head of the child to the rising dawn and then abandon their land.
The Aetolians headed the advice of the talking head and sent their wives, children and the elderly away. But the men stayed behind and awaited the impending disaster. Which begs the question of why a group of supposedly rational adults would refuse to listen to the words of a talking head that survived being consumed by a man who came back from the dead. In any case, the prophecy was soon fulfilled. The Aetolians went to war with the Acarnanians (their neighbors to the west) and suffered great destruction.
In Homer‘s classic epic poem, The Odyssey, Mentor (Greek: Μέντωρ, gen.: Μέντορος), was both friend and counsellor to Odysseus (also known by the Latin name Ulysses). Odysseus, king of Ithaca, fights in the Trojan War and entrusts the care of his household to Mentor, who serves as teacher and overseer of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.
After the war, Odysseus is condemned to wander vainly for ten years in his attempt to return home. In time, Telemachus, now grown, ventures in search of his father. Athena, goddess of War and patroness of the arts and industry, assumes the form of Mentor and accompanies Telemachus on his quest. Father and son reunite and cast down would-be usurpers of Odysseus’ throne and Telemachus’s birthright.
The word Mentor evolved to mean trusted advisor, friend, teacher and wise person. The first recorded modern usage of the term can be traced to a 1699 book entitled The adventures of Telemachus, by the French writer Francois Fenelon. In the book the lead character is that of Mentor. The slender plot fills out a gap in Homer’s Odyssey, recounting the educational travels of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, accompanied by his tutor, Mentor, who is revealed at the end of the story to be Athena, goddess of wisdom, in disguise.
History offers many examples of helpful mentoring relationships: Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great, Hayden and Beethoven, Freud and Jung. Mentoring is a fundamental form of human development where one person invests time, energy and personal know-how in assisting the growth and ability of another person.
All the above have been a powerful inspiration behind the creation of Mentor.
Home is where the heart is. It may be as humble as a shepherd’s hut or as stately as a Bronze Age palace in Greece. Sometimes, though, it can be packed with greedy suitors keen on squandering someone else’s fortune. What is a young man or woman supposed to do then? Go abroad in search of knowledge and wisdom!
The voyage may be long but full of palaces, old temples, new friends, and a country you thought you knew but had never truly experienced with your own senses. And since you may feel lost or timid or unsure as to your itinerary and destination, why not place your trust in a mentor who can support, teach, and inspire you? After all, Telemachus, the son of King Odysseus, did it and had by his side the invaluable assistance of Athena (yes, it’s her in our homepage), the goddess of wisdom, in the form of Mentor.
Mount Taygetus dominated the skyline of ancient Sparta and inspired fear to any newborn male Spartan. Soon after the birth, the father brought the infant before a group of elders, who closely examined the child. If he was strong and healthy, the judges allowed his father to raise him. If he was misshapen, though, they took him to Mount Taygetus and threw him into a pit. They believed it was better for a sickly child to perish immediately than to remain alive and be unable to offer his military services to the city.
This popular story (which is almost certainly a myth) was narrated by Plutarch (c. 46 CE-120 CE), a Greek essayist who is known primarily for his Parallel Lives, a masterful series of biographies of famous men. He lived at a time when infanticide was a fairly common practice throughout the Greek world. Potentially disabled or deformed children were often abandoned or killed since congenital physical deviations were considered a mark of divine disfavor. An Athenian father had ten days to decide whether he wanted to raise the infant. Plutarch argued that citizens suffering from an impairment or a serious illness should not participate in public affairs as politicians or soldiers.
This grim picture of exclusion, physical violence, and neglect does not do justice to the reality faced by people with disabilities in ancient Greece. They were mocked by Aristophanes, but they also received maintenance assistance from the Athenian state. They married the goddess of beauty; composed the greatest epics; and died fighting the armies of King Xerxes alongside King Leonidas.
It’s a hard life
An ancient Greek polis was inhabited by people with a wide range of visible physical disabilities. Eupolis, a 5th century BCE Athenian comic poet, described his spectators as blind, hunchbacked, red-headed etc. Aristotle claimed that “biped” is not truly a human property, because not every human possesses two feet. Some disabilities were congenital, while others were acquired through warfare, accident, or disease. Aristotle argued that many birth defects were the result of an improper “setting” during the gestation process, leaving people with too many or too few parts. The absence of an arm or a leg at a newborn child was considered the result of an abortion of the missing extremity.
Clubfoot, tuberculosis, epidemic diseases, or cerebral palsy could have lifelong consequences. The loss of limbs or arthritis could result in permanent disability, while infections could prevent bones from healing properly. Protein and vitamin deficiencies left many children suffering from rickets. On the other hand, disabilities that are fairly common today (paralysis as a result of spinal cord injuries), were absent in antiquity for the simple reason that people who suffered such catastrophic accidents or birth defects did not survive.
People with disabilities were ubiquitous in ancient Greece. Their participation in economic activities was viewed as commonplace. There were lame slaves, tailors who limped, people with withered arms who used saws and spades, lame peddlers, and injured metalworkers or miners. According to a popular myth, the fearless Amazons dislocated their sons’ joints at the hip and then employed them as coppersmiths and leatherworkers. As for the Spartans, most of them did not recognize physical disability as a reason for exemption from military duties. Among the 300 who stood with Leonidas at Thermopylae was Eurytus, who suffered from a severe inflammation of the eyes, and yet fought and died. Aristodemus, who suffered from the same condition, returned home and was ridiculed by his compatriots for surviving when everyone else perished.
Much depended on mobility. There were no wheelchairs, so people used crutches, staffs, or canes. Others had to crawl about on their sound leg, supporting themselves with a hand on the ground. Donkeys, carts or litters could assist those who were unable to walk, provided they had the means to finance them. Prosthetic devices were individually crafted. Hegesistratus was the diviner of the Persian general Mardonius. When he was thrown into jail by the Spartans, he cut off his foot in order to escape and then fashioned a prosthetic foot out of wood. Eventually, doctors were able to employ corrective boots and shoes as an aid to people who had difficulty walking. The music master Damonidas lost his boots, so he prayed to the gods that these specially made items would find their way back to his crippled feet.
Medicaid in antiquity
The state in ancient Athens had provisions in place for people who were poor and physically impaired. A law commanded that those who were poor, incapacitated, and unable to work were to be given food at the public expense. Responsibility for inspecting eligible applicants rested with the Council. This was not a purely altruistic policy, though, since its main purpose was to prevent the destitute from becoming clients of wealthy politicians.
Physical care was the responsibility of the family. Handicapped people depended on their relatives, friends, or slaves for assistance. Life could be hard for those who were alone, or abroad when disability struck them. More often than not, it was women who were entrusted with the role of taking care of the disabled, since the home was their particular sphere of action. Aristotle believed that women were actually deformed males, but physical disabilities did not preclude them from fulfilling their most important task: childbearing. Plato claimed that a deformed spouse may make life unbearable, but such marriages clearly did take place. The historian Herodotus admired the Babylonian system for marrying off all the females. All the marriageable women were gathered in one place and were auctioned off to the men, beginning with the fairest and concluding with the “misshapen ones”. To entice the groom, these “deformed” women received dowries from the revenue raised from the sale of the beautiful women.
See no evil, hear no evil
Statistically speaking, it is very probable that only a handful of people suffered from hereditary deafness in an ancient Greek city. Athens, being the largest one, probably had a population of only 240 or so congenitally deaf people; smaller cities may only have had four or five. There is no proof as to the existence or absence of a sign language, but there are some references to the use of gestures for communication purposes.
A far worse condition was muteness. Ancient Greeks equated the inability to speak with an inability to reason, so mute people were considered stupid. Muteness is the pinnacle of divine punishment for terrible acts. Hesiod, in his Theogony, tells us that treacherous gods were punished by being forced to lie for one year without a voice. Speechlessness was also an appropriate curse aimed at your political opponents…or those who were simply annoying! Many curse tablets request that someone be afflicted with muteness.
Blindness was perhaps the most common disability in ancient Greece, with Galen mentioning 124 pathological conditions of the eye. Cataract and glaucoma were probably as prevalent back then as they are today. Nutritional deficiencies were also to blame. Priests at the sanctuaries of healing gods would invite patients to partake of animal sacrifices and thus (unknowingly but beneficially) ingest Vitamin A. Other doctors prescribed the daily consumption of beef liver as a cure for night blindness. Many people lost their sight as a result of accidents; masons, miners, and smiths often suffered grievous eye injuries.
As with muteness, the loss of eyesight could be considered a divine punishment; the Muses blinded the musician Thamyris when he dared to rival their musical skills. But for whatever the gods took, they gave something back. Tiresias lost his sight either for revealing the secrets of the gods to the mortals or for chancing upon a naked Athena. In any case, he was compensated with an exceptional sense of hearing that enabled him to understand the language of birds.
Blindness was no obstacle to a successful career. Homer was blind. Eratosthenes, a mathematician, and geographer who calculated the circumference of the Earth and became the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria, had dulling vision. Even Polyphemus, the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus, continued to work as a shepherd by running his hands over the back of his sheep. Blindness was not even an obstacle at war. In warfare, hand-to-hand combat was obviously out of the question, but blind Athenians were able to row a trireme.
Ascending to Olympus
The world of disability in ancient Greece incorporated a wide range of experiences. There was no a priori exclusion from social, military, and economic life; each case was dealt with according to its particular circumstances. Some people with physical impairments were ridiculed; others were considered the “teachers of Greece”. Men and women with disabilities were integrated into their communities and contributed to the best of their abilities. Perhaps there is no finer expression of ancient Greek attitudes towards disabilities than the inclusion of the lame god Hephaestus to their pantheon.
Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, artisans, and fire, was “shriveled of foot”. His life mirrors many of the daily experiences of mortals with disabilities. He was actively engaged in artisanal endeavors and had no trouble securing Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, as a consort. Plutarch accounts for the god’s association with fire by claiming that fire makes no progress without wood, and neither do lame people without a cane. Despite his physical deformity, Hephaestus took his place among the other gods in the feast-hall on Mount Olympus. He just had to ride a donkey to get there.
Mentor was created in late 2014, focusing on cultural/educational tourism, the management of cultural organisations, as well as the strategic tourism development planning of areas with strong cultural character. Our voluntary engagement with non-profit groups, aiming at the enhancement and promotion of the Archaeological Site of Eleusis, Greece, enabled us to come into contact with various universities and organisations abroad, which had a particular interest in its archaeological site. The gap in the demand for cultural and educational services by those foreign institutions led us to realise the great opportunity of turning our hobby into a profession and our beliefs into action. Our first office was in Eleusis (my hometown) and this is when and where the scene was set for the rest of our journey.
A powerful inspiration behind the creation of Mentor was Homer’s classic epic poem, The Odyssey and in particular, Mentor himself; the closest friend and counsellor of Odysseus, who serves as teacher and overseer of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. So, passionate about connecting ancient Greece’s culture and philosophy to today, οur bold mission was to enhance the appreciation and comprehension of the so-called birthplace of Western Civilisation in an interactive and stimulating way by blending thematic routes with thought-provoking educational workshops and seminars on ancient Greece led by our “Mentors”.
Following a particularly demanding four-phased evaluation procedure among almost 2,000 submitted applications, we have been distinguished on June 21st, 2016 as one of the 30 most innovative Greek start-ups for 2016-2017, through the innovation and youth entrepreneurship contest egg – enter grow go, a partnership between Eurobank and Corallia Clusters Initiative. Without a second thought we, both me and Yannis Pappas, dedicated ourselves to the purpose for which we entered the contest: conserve and enhance the Greek heritage through organising thematic educational routes, blended with thought-provoking seminars for students from around the world, manage cultural organisations and, draft the strategic tourism development of areas with strong cultural character.
One of the moments that determined our company’s course was meeting and cooperating with our mentor provided by the egg programme, Ms Vicky Evangeliou; a leading communication & marketing expert. Not only did she help us in thoroughly organising and setting up our company, but she has also been -and still is- a highly trusted consultant and friend.
At the same time, along with the organisation of educational tourism programmes, Mentor was responsible for the marketing and communication strategy of the bid of Eleusis for European Capital of Culture in 2021. Along with a very small, but mighty bidding team, we worked around the clock for over a year and a half on making one of Europe’s most environmentally-deprived areas the European Capital of Culture for 2021. We feel enormously lucky to be part of this life-changing adventure, as it proves that hard work, vision and perseverance can indeed make the impossible possible: that is Eleusis 2021 European Capital of Culture! (November 11th, 2016)
We keep on working hard and, a bit later, we rank first at the egg’s key performance indicators (KPIs) for November 2016. As a reward (offered by The Hellenic Initiative and Eurobank), we travelled -along with the other first nine companies- to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston for a 15-day educational programme, aimed at fostering extroversion, business networking and promotion in foreign markets. We attended seminars and lectures from the world’s top scientists. We were greeted at the Consulate General of Greece in Boston, met the local Greek community, visited incubators, businesses and universities, we were introduced to the most advanced technologies used in research centres such as the MIT Media Lab, and were given the opportunity to get to know Greek academics living and working in Boston. Nothing is the same after this trip. It is a journey that every young entrepreneur has to make, to see the big picture; a sea of opportunities, good practices and people that enable you to comprehend the concept of entrepreneurship on an international level.
On January 2017, we excelled at the egg’s KPIs and thus, we got awarded by Eurobank for the progress made in developing our business concept. In the meanwhile, like-minded people who share the same interests and goals as us, such as Emma and Thomais, joined our company, while practitioners from Greece and abroad, such as Olga, Eleanna, Flavia, Maria, Dimitris and Andreas have also worked hard in contributing to Mentor’s cause.
So far, we have been honoured with interviews and articles in national and local media, like the ones made by protothema.gr, επιχειρώ and New Money, as well as with our first promo video provided by the egg programme, which helped us communicate our mission and attract partners.
During last months we had the opportunity to meet significant and influential people who visited the premises of the egg programme, like the American and Israeli Ambassadors to Greece, the Greek Minister of Economy and Development, as well as some of the world’s leading entrepreneurs like the President and CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited, Mr Prem Watsa and, the Co-founder of GuesttoGuest, Mr Charles-Edouard Girard. From these encounters, we gained valuable insights and advice to apply to Mentor and help us progress.
The end of the 4th cycle of the egg programme is marked by two major events for Mentor. The first one is the fact that, according to the programme’s annual KPIs, we ranked first, scoring 9.9, and thus, we are rewarded by remaining for the second year at our ‘second home’, the egg’s premises, as alumni-residents. Also, we will have the responsibility of mentoring six new companies of the 5th cycle. The second one is the exclusive partnership agreement we signed with the Hellenic American University and the Hellenic American College. Study abroad and summer school programmes consisting of visits to sites of sublime archaeological, architectural, historical and aesthetic value, specialised seminars and workshops by highly-qualified professors and artists will soon be available for international students.
Following a truly fascinating year, we strive to make the change we are dreaming of through persistence. We are proud that our team is expanding and despite some unfortunate circumstances in Greece, we will keep on trying our best to grow and thrive in our beloved country.