Sisyphos and Tantalos: Ancient Tales with Contemporary Lessons

Community involvement, both in Greece and the Diaspora, is sometimes reminiscent of Greek mythology. There are figures whose metaphorical significance is so great that their mere mention suffices to summarize a situation. One example is Sisyphos, King of Ephyra (Corinth). Hailed for his cleverness and wile, he was hailed as the craftiest man who ever lived (and rumored to be Odysseus’ actual father). Although credited for being an effective ruler, his infamous character flaws and weaknesses ultimately were his undoing. Punished by the gods, he was compelled to roll a boulder endlessly up a steep hill, only to see it roll back down before reaching the top, rendering his efforts futile and his frustration perennial.

This column has often argued that the lack of coordination and public discourse represents the Achilles heel of the Greek Diaspora – at least in the United States. Aside from the fact that this shortcoming contributes to institutional dysfunctionality and stands as a roadblock to development and progress, it also weakens Greece, because the work and intervention of the Greek-American Community – especially in the heart of a superpower like the United States – is important and serves as a force multiplier for Greece.

Since “a stitch in time saves nine,” as the old saying goes, it would be expedient if Hellenism handled this issue in a timely manner to avoid a debacle when the going gets tough and lack of coordination and planning may prove far costlier. The events in Ukraine and before that in Armenia should serve as a warning.

To illustrate this point, let us look at a specific instance of dysfunctionality, where internal strife is spilling over and affecting the entire Community as a result. This year’s commemoration of the double holiday of March 25th coincides with the return to pre-pandemic customs, including the resumption of parades. Some cities, like Philadelphia and Tarpon Springs already held their Greek Independence Day Parades, as is fitting.

It’s common knowledge that the largest such parade in the United States takes place along New York City’s storied Fifth Avenue. Some weeks ago, it was announced that this year’s parade would uncharacteristically be held on June 5th – nearly two-and-a-half months after the holiday! The Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York – the body responsible for organizing the parade – has been embroiled in a lengthy and ugly power struggle that may end up ultimately being settled in court.

It’s not known whether the Federation’s administrative dysfunctionality is wholly to blame for this odd date – a first in recent decades – however, it’s more likely than not. Sadly, this negatively impacts the image of Hellenism on a wider level, because it demonstrates an inability to coordinate and appropriately plan and to establish a axis of common principles to which community leaders adhere. Much like a follow-up to the fiasco surrounding the years-long delayed opening of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine, the inability to plan a parade at or about the date of an important national holiday generates deeper questions and concerns.

Aren’t organizers concerned about how the public will interpret the long delay between the parade and the holiday it celebrates? Or that this might result in a lack of enthusiasm? Is there even a plan in place to market/promote the parade within the context of a June celebration?

While some may speculate that the fair weather will draw a larger crowd, they overlook the fact that May and June are filled with social and family obligations, like weddings and baptisms, or that mercurial New York springs can be quite unpredictable and stormy.

It’s hard to blame the participants in Greek Community events from feeling like Sisyphos from time to time, rolling a boulder up a hill endlessly. Of course, Sisyphos’ punishment was meted out due to his hubris, because he thought he could outsmart everyone – including the gods. Admittedly, there is no lack of this same egocentrism in organized community affairs. The unwillingness to engage in discourse and continually search for improved ways of doing things acts is the surest indicator that this boulder will continue to weigh down community leaders, but also members.

This situation brings to mind another infamous mythological figure, Tantalos, who is best known for the punishment imposed upon him: to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, which always evades his grasp whenever he reaches to grasp it. Likewise, whenever he bends to take a drink, the water always recedes before he can get to drink any. The word ‘tantalize’ is said to derive from Tantalos, thus representing yet another example of the rich legacy of the Greek language and its universal dimensions.

The primary reason for Tantalos’ punishment was the murder of his son Pelops and attempt to feed him to the gods at a banquet to see if he could outsmart them. When performing the necessary self-examination espoused by Hellenism since the time of Socrates, it’s worth asking ourselves if our failure to promote the interests of the youth in our organizational polity is not somewhat Tantalean in nature.

When we become embroiled in petty infighting or lose sight of the greater good for the sake of fulfilling personal agendas, are we not dangling the fruit of the Hellenic legacy in the face of our children, only to pull it away at the last second?

The year’s Greek Independence Day was celebrated fairly quietly in New York, despite the fact that Greece is facing a slew of challenges that could threaten its very sovereignty in the 21st century. When and if personal agendas finally get straightened out, perhaps we could focus on what’s really important. The history of Hellenism is filled with heroes – old and new – who sacrificed themselves for the greater good of their people, as well as infamous figures who were deemed to deserve the cruelest of punishments for putting their personal interests over those of the group.


Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas


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