Post #26: SNL’s Greek Gods Solve the Financial Crisis

Post #26: SNL’s Greek Gods Solve the Financial Crisis

By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Friday June 17 2016

"Now, either you give us the money, or we take all of Europe down with us. I mean, we started democracy; we can end it."
--Zeus (Jason Sudeikis), Saturday Night Live 37.5 (2011)

I wrote the following entry last summer (2015) during Greece’s proposed exit from the European Union. I didn’t publish it on this blog for a variety of reasons, but it seems relevant once again with the UK’s referendum vote (the “Brexit”) on leaving the EU in the news lately, so here it is!

Figure 1: Tourists take a photo with the Parthenon as backdrop, striking poses reminiscent of ancient Greek statuary. Image credit: ekathimerini.com.

Figure 1: Tourists take a photo with the Parthenon as backdrop, striking poses reminiscent of ancient Greek statuary. Image credit: ekathimerini.com.

The financial crisis in Greece that's reached a fever pitch in the last month has revealed the gap between the country's present and its ancient past. The yes-no referendum, lines of pensioners at ATMs, and angry protestors contrast with the hordes of tourists from every conceivable country that continue to flock to the Parthenon each day to take selfies with ridiculous poses (figure 1).

The romantic images of ruined buildings and fragmented artifacts has old roots in western culture, dating back to the early nineteenth century when a few Brits helped the Greeks fight for their independence from the Ottoman Turks. Johanna Hanink wrote an excellent Eidolon article about this.

This mirage continues into the present, with several newspapers publishing pieces that cast the crisis in ancient rather than modern terms. An article in Britain's Telegraph spoke in glowing terms about a letter signed by numerous academics to the effect that the Greek past should make us sympathetic to the country’s present economic problems. A New York Times article by a history professor argued that the fifth-century BC Greek general and historian Thucydides would be able to understand the current Greek crisis. An editorial in The Spectator argued that the eighth-century BC epic poet Hesiod would advocate a Grexit. And let’s not forget the numerous commentators who described the country’s financial meltdown as a “Greek tragedy” (props to Dr. Jesse Weiner for this reference).

Figure 2: The wares of P. Michaylou’s Amphora Ceramics Art store on Apollonos Street in Delphi, Greece.  Image credit: Vincent Tomasso.

Figure 2: The wares of P. Michaylou’s Amphora Ceramics Art store on Apollonos Street in Delphi, Greece.  Image credit: Vincent Tomasso.

Since more than 18% of Greece’s GDP comes from tourism, modern Greeks do their part to perpetuate this romantic image. Shops that cater to the tourist taste for the country’s past can be found all over Greece, from the shadow of the Athenian acropolis to tiny villages. On my recent trip to the country, I came across one such shop in the small mountain town of Delphi--in antiquity famous, inside and outside Greece, for its oracle, now inhabited by less than 30,000 people and politically unimportant. Not far from the sanctuary of Apollo, the Amphora Ceramics Art store sells modern re-creations of every kind of ancient Greek vase imaginable, from small plates to large amphorae (figure 2). Many of these vases are painstaking copies of particular (and very well-known) ancient artifacts. The proprietor told me with pride that her husband, Mr. Michaylou, makes the vases that she sells in her store, and a later visit confirmed this; he was hard at work on not one but three pots with his brushes.

The disconnect between ancient and modern Greece is brought out hilariously by a Saturday Night Live sketch that aired in November of 2011, another moment when the Greek economy was in peril. In "Greek God Meeting" Jason Sudeikis’ Zeus calls the gods together to address the financial woes of the country. Although the crisis is solved in the end due to Zeus’ high-handed pronouncement quoted at the beginning of this entry, the gods’ behavior demonstrates that Mount Olympus is woefully ill-equipped to deal with the considerable challenges that face modern Greece.

The humor stems from deities who are all about violence, debauchery, and orgies; who are severely limited in their spheres of influence or whose spheres overlap; and who are experts in everything but finance. After poking fun of modern Greeks’ 3-day, 5-hour workweeks, Zeus is incredulous when he discovers that Ares and Athena are both gods of war.

ZEUS: Ares, isn’t finance part of your sphere?
ARES: No, I, Ares, am the god of war, violence, and bloodlust.
ZEUS: All three--wow! Great range! Athena, what about you?
ATHENA: I am also war.
ZEUS: Okay, hold on. So, basically, we have two gods of war, huh?
ATHENA: I’m also god of wisdom.
ZEUS: Perfect! Great! Then, you know, give us your wisdom.
ATHENA: We could go to war…
[shouts of assent from the rest of the gods]
ZEUS: No! Easy, you animals, we’re not going to war! We can figure this out!

The Greek pantheon’s all-too-easy desire to start a war to solve the world’s problems appears again when Zeus asks Artemis for her help:

ZEUS: Artemis, what about you?
ARTEMIS: I am goddess of the hunt!
ZEUS: Uh huh, so basically also war, yeah.

…and again when he asks Hades:

ZEUS: Hades, god of the underworld, whaddaya got?
HADES: We could just kill everyone. I don’t know. I only do one thing. I don’t know what you want me to say.
ZEUS: Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, I don’t even know why I asked, you know? Maybe it’s time for Zoloft, buddy, alright?

To the modern mind, war is a totally and unreservedly negative thing, and so it makes no sense to have a god of war at all, much less three. Zeus’ assumption that Artemis is also “basically” concerned with war is incorrect from an ancient perspective, though his comment makes sense from the perspective of modern societies that treat hunting as a sport activity.

Figure 3: Ares’ first appearance in Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. He’s a living embodiment of destructive war; certainly the Homeric Zeus would agree with this interpretation. Image from HTLJ 1.5 (1995). Image credit: screen capture (Renaissance Pictures/MCA Television).

Figure 3: Ares’ first appearance in Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. He’s a living embodiment of destructive war; certainly the Homeric Zeus would agree with this interpretation. Image from HTLJ 1.5 (1995). Image credit: screen capture (Renaissance Pictures/MCA Television).

In antiquity, Ares and Athena represented two very different aspects of war. Ares was often depicted as a savage: Homer’s Zeus, for instance, calls him “most hated of the gods who live on Olympus” (Iliad 5.890). Ares is the negative side of warfare, war for its own sake. I’m reminded here of his first appearance in the late ‘90s television series Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. In “Ares” (1.5), the god is quite literally armed conflict, appearing as a helmeted giant with blazing eyes and a mace and blades for hands (figure 3). In spite of Ares’ bad rap, the ancients still felt that he had to be propitiated; Greek religion expert Walter Burkert points out that marching armies (and almost no one else) sacrificed to Ares (1985: 170). Athena, by contrast, had much more positive connotations in the ancient world with her oversight of intelligent warfare, “the war-dance, tactics, and discipline” (Burkert 1985: 141). The ancient Greeks felt that both Ares and Athena were necessary--need to be worshiped--in a world that experienced violence constantly and in which nearly everyone would be exposed to that violence. Virtually every summer, for instance, adult men would take up their armor and march into battle with their neighbors.

SNL’s Olympians aren’t able to find a god who can fix the financial mess, and so they force “Claus, the German god of prudence and austerity” to bail out Greece under the threat of taking down all of democracy. This demonstrates how pop culture tends to see modern Greece in terms of the ancient world, and very much to the modern country’s detriment.

Figure 4: A sign on a Vergina city sidewalk (Vergina is the home of the Macedonian royal tombs--Alexander the Great’s family). Above the map, the city’s motto appears in (modern) Greek and in English: “ζωντανό παρόν/vibrant present, glorious past/λαμπρό παρελθόν” The ordering of these two phrases demonstrates how Vergina values present and past, but it’s significant that the present comes first. Image credit: Vincent Tomasso.

Figure 4: A sign on a Vergina city sidewalk (Vergina is the home of the Macedonian royal tombs--Alexander the Great’s family). Above the map, the city’s motto appears in (modern) Greek and in English: “ζωντανό παρόν/vibrant present, glorious past/λαμπρό παρελθόν” The ordering of these two phrases demonstrates how Vergina values present and past, but it’s significant that the present comes first. Image credit: Vincent Tomasso.

The tombs of Alexander the Great’s family are located in northern Greece, steps from the modern town of Vergina. A short distance from the archaeological museum that displays some of the greatest finds from the ancient world, a sign in the town square alludes to the glorious past of the area but also informs us that the modern city is just as important: “vital present, glorious past.” Pop culture is incapable of distinguishing between these two categories. Perhaps Saturday Night Live is right: the past is unsuited to the needs of the present.

Header image credit: screen grab from Saturday Night Live clip, "Greek Gods" (http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/greek-gods/n13253?snl=1) (NBC Studios/NBC Television).

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