Memory or the art of shaping

Since 2020 the Hellenic Republic has been commemorating the 2,500 years of the Battle of Thermopylae. This renowned war is part of the so-called medical wars‍ (from 490 to 449 BC) that pitted the Greek polis –‍independent city-states‍– against the Achaemenid Empire, and took place during several days in the summer of 480 BC. In the narrow Pass of Thermopylae, where 7,000 Confederate Greeks boldly contained the advance of 250,000 Persians at the cost of the final sacrifice of at least 700 soldiers from the polis of Thespias, 400 from Thebes and the famous 300 Spartans – citizens of Sparta in its own right – all under the command of King Leonidas I.

For the occasion, the Hellenic country issued special editions in 2020 of stamps and coins, the National Archaeological Museum presented a great exhibition –Glorious victories. Between myth and history (until October 31, 2021, Athens) ‍– and, among other events and tributes, the Ministry of Culture and Sports launched in January of this year the virtual exhibition Proving history.

Of course, the brave Leonidas and his Spartans being the most acclaimed heroes of the historical episode and resounding their echo from generation to generation – “Honor to those who in their life / fixed and defended Thermopylae”, wrote the poet CP Cavafis in 1903‍ – Sparta also had to join the commemoration.

The present 2021 the city has carried out an activity program which includes the collective art exhibition Ancient Sparta with a modern look in the gardens of the Archaeological Museum‍, the concert Ancient Instruments-New Music of the set LyrAvlos, the projection of the film 300 (Zack Snyder, 2006) or a tribute to the sculpture erected in 1968 at the foot of the Municipal Stadium of Leónidas I, the diarca agíada – the ancient Spartans had two simultaneous kings, the diarcas, one from the agiad dynasty and the other from the Euripontid‍‍ -.

Courtesy of Pere Parramon

Monument to Leónidas I next to the Municipal Stadium of Esparta (2021, author’s file).

Twenty-five centuries have passed and the memory lives on. In fact, commemorations like these, far from being strange, are necessary. In the same way that memory configures the individual, it is also the foundation on which collective identities are built. Even far beyond the material, as in Sparta, whose splendor is not that of architectural pomp or monumental effusions, but the evocation of people and attitudes capable of continuing to shine through time.

Already at the end of the V century a. C., Tucídides affirmed: “If the city of the Lacedaemonians were devastated and only the temples and the foundations of the buildings were left, I think that the men of tomorrow would have many doubts as to whether the strength of the Lacedaemonians would correspond to their fame.” Certainly, neither then nor now does the notoriety of Sparta lie in the tangible, but in the power of her memory, which still challenges us through the firm patriotism of Leonidas, the intelligence of his queen Gorgo, the beauty of Helena de Troy –of Spartan origin‍ – ‍, of the admired reforms of the legislator Lycurgus, and even through words that give news of still respected moods: “Spartan” for the austere or “laconic” – from the Lacedaemonic region – for the sober in language. .

Now, in the same way that memory in people never supposes an objective record of events, but rather a subjective re-elaboration – hence, in the face of a shared event, different subjects can develop antagonistic memories – ‍, the memory of peoples, always subject to interests of a very diverse nature, it is not free from transformations and biases.

What we think we know about ancient Sparta is largely a construction made by Plutarch during the second century, based on a myth that already came from afar, as Bertrand Russell affirmed in History of Western philosophy (1946) – “Sparta had a double effect on Greek thought: through reality and through myth” – and it has never stopped growing and reworking itself – worth the example of Frank Miller’s imaginative graphic novel 300 (1998) or its film adaptation, already cited‍ – ‍.

So, commemorations such as those of the 2,500 years of the Battle of Thermopylae are sustained by mists of doubtful consistency? Absolutely. The question is not whether or not we can trust shared memory, but rather that we must approach it critically. Assuming its high degree of permeability to manipulation – conscious or not – makes the act of remembering itself an opportunity to investigate, rethink and reflect.

César Fornis, expert in the Spartan universe, is responsible for separating the grain from the chaff in The Myth of Sparta: An Itinerary Through Western Culture (Madrid, Alianza, 2019) and insists that the fallacies that may have been perpetuated do not detract from a certain idea of ​​Sparta, because it continues to be inspiring. How not to get excited at Leonidas’ response when the Persian Emperor Xerxes I demanded that he lay down his arms? According to Plutarco, “molòn labé (μολὼν λαβέ)”, he snapped, “come and take them”.

Patricia Maseda, Apollo (2019, photograph by Nuri Busquets).
Patricia Maseda, Apollo (2019, photograph by Nuri Busquets).

Commemorating should never be a ritual act, ‍based on repetition that could lead to automatisms devoid of content; rather, it should be a creative exercise. How appropriate, then, that in the exhibition Ancient Sparta with a modern look Curated by Evgenia Preva‍ Girona artist Patricia Maseda participate with a sculpture of the god Apollo, protector of the arts and, if we follow the dialectic of Friedrich Nietzsche in The birth of tragedy (1886), the guardian of form, order and light in the face of formlessness, chaos and darkness sponsored by his divine antagonist, Dionysus.

Of course, the presence in the sample of the Olympian Apollo was appropriate because it was he who, through his Oracle of Delphi, predicted before the battle of Thermopylae that Sparta would be destroyed or its king would fall – Herodotus explains in his stories-, and because, as Camille Paglia recalls in Sexual Personae (1990), Apollo was blond Lykeios (“Wolf”), as were the Spartan king Menelaus and his ancestors, the severe Dorians, since “the blond hair represents the coldness and the wolfish conceptualism of Apollo.”

In Patricia Maseda’s work, the face of the god takes shape emerging from a chaos of crumpled paper. That is always our story: however chaotic the fundamentals and however fragile the outcome, we must shape reality. And memory is a powerful way to shape.

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