The Poetics of Apotheosis: The Iconography of Venizelos in Crete

Michael Herzfeld, Harvard University
Eleftherios Venizelos was a historical figure; but, like many historical figures, he has also acquired the patina of a mythological hero. Nowhere is this more evident than on Crete, where today even those who represent ideologies that would have been anathema to him (and that would have anathematized him as well) stake their share in the Venizelist heritage through a variety of narrative and iconographic devices. In this brief assessment, I shall consider this phenomenon against the background of Orthodox ecclesiastical aesthetics, social anthropological theories of segmentation, and the political history in which he was such a central player.
The point of this analysis is not to contribute to the historiography of the Venizelos era. I am not a historian and I would not presume to think that I could add to what Lilly Macrakis and others have done in this area. Rather, it is to demonstrate something more in keeping with my identity as a social anthropologist: to show, in short, how the historical figure of Eleftherios Venizelos became stereotyped according to pre–existing mythological, narrative, and iconographic structures, and to suggest that in his apotheosis in Crete, at least, we can discern a pattern that helps to explain the continuing significance of this emblematic figure in local as well as national political practice.
There were certainly hints of a heroic apotheosis even during Venizelos’s lifetime. Macrakis (2006:36) notes that his birth was later adorned with “all kinds of legends,” with a bright light appearing in the sky at the moment of his emergence into the world. She reports that he was later to say, “Don’t repeat such nonsense—people will think I was God!” One might retort that precisely such an utterance was calculated to reproduce the ideal-typical pose of modesty expected of a charismatic young man and thereby to enhance his aura. It is in fact precisely the kind of “disclaimer” that, as Bauman (1977:22) has noted, people expect of particularly skilled performers, here transposed from the musical stage onto a political plane, and thereby invested with a greater range of impact in time and territorial space. Indeed, this observation anticipates some of what I shall say below about the poetics of Cretan male personhood to which Venizelos’s self-presentation has become adumbrated over time.
It is clear that the preconditions existed for Venizelos to become a variety of secular saint. I deliberately use this oxymoron to express the larger pattern whereby secular and even atheist Greek social actors move through, and even reproduce, spatial configurations that reproduce the cosmological principles of Orthodox Christianity (see Hirschon 1989:233). Such persistence of the impact of doctrine on the habitual spaces of culture makes Venizelos an ideal protagonist for what Victor Turner (1974:33–46) calls a “social drama,” a scenario associated with a stylized narrative that often concerns some divine or political figure from the past whose passion, in the Christological sense of the word, provides the template for specific, real events in the social lives of living people. When a grieving mother invokes the image of the Virgin Mary confronted with the death of Christ, for example, she adumbrates her own suffering to that of an eternal, generalized, and deeply admired or venerated persona. Both iconographically and narratologically, such reprises are translations of social experience into mythic form; they are also, conversely, deployments of myth that give legitimacy to present or recent actions.
To understand this phenomenon more precisely, and in keeping with the emphasis of this volume on aspects of poetics, I would also like here to offer a brief explanation of what I mean by “social poetics.” Much attention has been paid by anthropologists in recent years to aspects of social interaction that can be summarized as “performance” (see, notably, Bauman 1977; Bauman and Briggs 1990; Fernandez 1986). This work addresses the materiality of discourse, showing how words and other semiotic phenomena have real effects in the lived social world, and making it clear that they should not be treated as merely superstructural expressions of some underlying, physically accessible truth. But relatively little attention has been paid either to the tension between convention and invention that characterizes so much social performance, or to the relationship of that tension to the longer-term, cumulative cultural changes that these incremental moments ultimately help to generate.
It was to this lacuna that I addressed my coinage of “social poetics” (Herzfeld 1985; 2005). Starting out with the swashbuckling sheep- and goat-thieves of the west-central Cretan mountains, I began an exploration of how extraordinary social prominence in a local community is often generated by the ability to temper a balanced and controlled understanding of social rules with the occasional act of wild daring, and by the related ability to stare risk coolly in the face with what Thomas Malaby (2003:21) calls “instrumental nonchalance.” It is probably no coincidence that both Malaby and I were working in Crete, where men “seek the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth” by testing—risking—their social standing in acts that deliberately skirt disaster and tempt fate.
One can discern a similar tension in the life of Eleftherios Venizelos, not only in his stereotypical representation as a Cretan man, but also in his political career. Lily Macrakis’s (2006:51–67) account shows that, during the Cretan phase of his career, he carefully balanced a strategic policy of restraint against the occasional (and, in his view, necessary) act of almost desperate daring and defiance. At one level, a lawyer by training and briefly a merchant out of respect for his father’s memory (Macrakis 2006:42–49), his background exuded respect for norms and conventions, but of a kind that in practice become the basis for negotiation and performance. At another level, his political sympathies occasionally led him, especially when the situation appeared to offer few alternatives, into throwing in his lot with the most ardent freedom fighters among his fellow-islanders, as in the revolt of Therisso. In short, both in his early life and for much of his political career he exhibited precisely that balance of stylistic savoir-faire and opportunistic adventurism that also marks those who achieve the status of powerful men in the shepherding communities of the Cretan highlands, albeit on a different scale and in a very different setting.
It may well be that this balance was more influential in persuading so many of his fellow-Cretans to follow—and eventually to revere—Venizelos than were any of his actual policies. In his own lifetime and at least until the end of the twentieth century, social considerations such as kinship almost always trumped questions of policy in determining voters’ choices. Moreover, Venizelos displayed the kind of self-possession that is still especially admired in a Cretan male’s self-performance. Macrakis (2006:51–67) documents his narrative and political transformation from a talented team-player into a heroic leader, a man cast in that mold of individualistic warrior that has been a staple of Greek nationalist historiography and early ethnology (see d’Istria 1867:590–591) and that also figures prominently in the narrative construction of self among various highland communities in, especially, the western mountains of Crete (Damer 1988; Herzfeld 1985; Machin 1983; Kapsomenos 1979; Tsantiropoulos 2004).
It is presumably no coincidence that Venizelos is credited with a mandinadha (Cretan assonant couplet) that expresses both “agonistic” (Peristiany 1965) masculine excellence and the egalitarian ethos that hypothetically opens the arena to all contenders:
Σαν είν’ ο τράγος δυνατός και δεν το στέν’η μάντρα,
ο άντρας κάνει τη γενιά κι όχι η γενιά τον άντρα.

If the billy-goat is strong, the sheepfold can't hold him in;
a man makes his patrigroup, not the patrigroup the man!
Herzfeld 1985:17
There is some evidence that Venizelos did not originate this couplet, which a recent researcher (Deiktakis 1999) attributed to a well-known lira player, Stelios Anganakis (1859–1951), whom the Cretan politician greatly admired. The most popular understanding of the verse is that what counts is not ancestry but individual prowess. Yet that prowess must be demonstrated through a command of conventions; the mandinadha itself takes a proverbial or gnomic form, recalling the well–known proverb «ο παπάς κάνει το ράσο και όχι το ράσο τον παπά» (“The priest makes the clothes, not the clothes the priest”). As my Cretan informants made clear (Herzfeld 1985:141–149), the originality of a mandinadha lies less in the choice of words than in a striking application of familiar wording to a novel or unfamiliar situation. The words simply cue the overall performance. Evidently Venizelos sought with this particular couplet to indicate that he had more respect for individual prowess than for descent, but we should not forget that the patrilineal clan, the yenia or fara, is the primary unit of kinship solidarity in most of Crete. So the couplet, in its sweeping denial of the importance of descent, also contains that element of exaggeration—and, again, of disclaimer—that actually raises the stakes for any poetic claim to exceptional ability.
It is here that I would like to emphasize the relevance of “social poetics.” In agonistic masculinity, it is precisely the ability to dominate and bend the conventions to an individual will that allows the “man” to transcend his genealogy—to be “good at being a man” (kala ’ndras, in Cretan dialect usage) rather than being merely “a good man” (kalos andras, not an especially positive evaluation in the Cretan context). The ability to take a mandinadha and turn it to political advantage would have been exactly the kind of skill that would have won Venizelos local admiration; this is how a good singer or narrator reproduces in performance, and particularly in the dexterity of his word-play, the professional skills of a powerful shepherd and adroit goat-thief.
Cretans remember the performance of especially striking mandinadhes as a triumphant management of context; and the oral archive of any highland village is full of such examples. Those who managed to produce a notably conventional verse that, at that moment and in those specific circumstances, cleverly turned the context to their own advantage are remembered with admiration.
The continuing attention given to this one mandinadha is thus symptomatic of the local cultural dynamics that allowed Venizelos not only to play a major political role but, what is more significant here, simultaneously to capture the imagination of his intensely localist fellow-Cretans as one who seemed to represent (and perform) their own collective and quintessential qualities. To say that the individual was more important than his clan was both to step outside the immediate realm of Cretan kinship and yet, at the same time, to remind his hearers that ultimately this was the world he inhabited. And it would not have been lost on his local hearers that the ultimate test of mountain masculinity was the ability to outrun and outmaneuver a billy goat, the animal that most effectively tested the skills of the shepherd who was also, perforce, an animal-thief. That some of Venizelos’s own most prominent political heirs were later to be associated with the same social traditionalism and that they were even, through their patronage networks, thought to have protected various animal-thieves from imprisonment in exchange for the votes of the thieves’ fellow-clansmen merely amplifies the poetic associations of this couplet and the political ramifications of its symbolism.
In the larger Greek context, the model of patrilineal transmission of personal qualities is still present, along with other, more localized and differently inflected patterns (see, e.g., Vernier 1991). Indeed, in one recent blog, a commentator attributed the verse to “Lefterakis,” little Eleftherios—the diminutive an interesting reflection in itself on how the politician had become a personal and affective presence for the blogster. She explained, suggesting again the usual attention to context as well as the actual words, that he uttered this mandinadha “when they accused him of being of humble origin (ταπεινής καταγωγής, a term that again suggest lineal descent).” And she added, “I hope he at least left plenty of descendants” (“Ελπίζω να άφησε τουλάχιστον αρκετούς απογόνους!”)—yet again, a phrase suggestive of the local emphasis on procreation and especially on the maintenance and growth of the patriline. [1]
Even at the more obvious level of intra–familial arrangements, male transmission was an extremely powerful concept for Cretans in Venizelos’s time, as indeed it still remains today. Sources reveal, says Macrakis (2006:39), Venizelos’s father’s “deep wish for a son to carry in his name and business.” Such an expression of desire has an even greater resonance in modern Greece than it would have had in Victorian England. The linkage in Greek society between the transmission of baptismal names and of material property is well established in the anthropological literature. While the idea of transmitting the family business from father to son was common practice elsewhere in Europe, moreover, in Crete it would immediately have evoked these strong symbolic associations. For the young Venizelos, therefore, his father’s wishes in this regard must have presented a genuine internal conflict. On the one hand he evidently venerated his merchant father; on the other he had already developed a deep passion for the greater “patriline” (genos) that was the symbolic form accorded by nationalist historiography to the Greek nation. In his use of that emblematic mandinadha, he effectively merged these two levels, allowing himself the transcendence necessary to achieving a commanding position on the national stage.
The conventionality of the mandinadha, both in its style and in these social allusions, is also interesting as an index of the extent to which the image of Venizelos was assimilated to a stereotypical Cretan essence. Even the capacity for distorting and tweaking the conventions was, in an internally paradoxical sense, also conventional: a man who could not play elegantly with conventions that required risk in the presentation of self had no place in the universe of tough, high-wire (Paine 1989) performing males. That Venizelos appeared to operate at the political level with the dexterity that a shepherd might be expected to employ locally served to reinforce the sense of concentricity that conjoined his national significance with his regional apotheosis. In order to succeed as a local politician first and foremost, the key precondition for his eventual success on the national stage, he first had to demonstrate his mastery of the conventions of local, Cretan identity—a mastery that many of his self-appointed heirs, including prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis, replicated in their own embrace of those Cretan customs that skirted the very edges of legality. Mitsotakis, for example, was often found in the company of shepherds who fired guns into the air as a sign of celebration even as the authorities in Athens sought to curb the practice. Other assertions of Cretan identity were perhaps less challenging to the authority of the state; Pavlos Vardinoyannis, then the deputy leader of the Neo-Liberals, made a point of dressing in local costume when he visited the highland villages. But since Cretan masculinity often seems to entail a deliberate rejection of Athenian governmental legitimacy, Cretan–born politicians necessarily embodies in their very persons the fundamental internal conflict that a revolutionary independence movement always encounters at the moment at which it assumes civic power.
In appearance, of course, Venizelos was much more of an early 20th century international diplomat than a Cretan shepherd. And yet that very adoption of a pan-European urbanity made him stand out from the crowd of local dignitaries; his goatee was not a priest’s beard but the uniform of countless European aristocrats and leaders, and gave him an individuality in the Cretan context that should be described, in a technical sense, as iconic.
I use that term in a double sense, and the inevitable pun is actually helpful here in understanding the way in which Venizelos’s personal appearance served to perpetuate his status as the exemplar of a type of social drama for long decades after his death. In the Greek context, any bearded face with spectacles tends to look like Venizelos. Indeed, one man in Rethimno who used to sport a similar beard and glasses as well as the kind of lambswool hat that Venizelos frequently wore clearly intended to act out the physical presence of the great statesman—a rare but unmistakable tribute and one that was especially recognizable in the latter’s home island (Herzfeld 2004:41).
In practice one effect of this standardization of the image of Venizelos was to stabilize a physical image that in itself became both a convention and an acceptably eccentric pose. Statues of Venizelos around the country (e.g., fig. 1) are instantly recognizable, as are the photographs that creep in everywhere; in a flyer for the recently constituted University of the Mountains of Crete, for example, one photograph contains within its frame an entirely recognizable Venizelos portrait—whether by accident or design is not entirely clear.
Fig. 1: Statue of Eleftherios Venizelos, Rethimno, Crete (photograph by the author)
In one sense it matters little whether such evocations of the great man are intentional or not. They pervade the spaces of Cretan life to an extent that even now, with Venizelos’s national importance strikingly symbolized by the naming after him of the new Athens airport (Kitromilides 2006a:1), there is something distinctly localist about the dissemination of his image around the island. Kitromilides (2006a:1) points to the relatively recent date of Venizelos’s elevation to the status of a unifying figure for Greece as a whole, but he does not trace the apparently earlier emergence of this extraordinary transcendence in Crete, and especially in the highland villages of that island.
When I was doing fieldwork in the Milopotamos region in the decade immediately following the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1974, it was clear that for all villagers, regardless of their current political affiliations, Venizelos had already become, in a literal sense, the iconic image of the manly Cretan leader who rose to national prominence. For them, his ascendancy validated their frequent boast that, far from harboring separatist sentiments (as they are sometimes accused of doing), they were simply primi inter pares—or, to paraphrase Homer, the best of the Greeks.
To understand this process analytically, it is necessary to stabilize the meaning of the term “iconic.” Too often, even in scholarly writings, the popular use of this term as meaning “emblematic” takes precedence. The notion of a film star or singer as an “icon” elides the precise meaning of the term both in its own etymology (eikōn ‘likeness’) and in its very specific application in semiotics (a sign by virtue of its resemblance to its referent). Much discussion has been devoted to the latter, and especially to the question of whether an icon in this more restricted sense ever really exists, or whether, as most would now concur, it is more useful to emphasize the quality of “iconicity” rather than a set of entities reified as “icons” (Eco 1976:190–217; Bouissac, Herzfeld, and Posner 1986). To those familiar with Eastern Christianity, on the other hand, the long and often contentious history of the use of icons as objects of veneration has a significantly different set of implications.
In one key respect, however, religious aesthetics and formal semiotic theory converge. Inasmuch as the latter insists on the property of resemblance, whether in some abstract existential sense or (as is anthropologically more defensible) as a quality that emerges in accordance with locally salient, cultural principles of recognition, it echoes a central doctrinal precept. Byzantine and later aesthetics were grounded in the assumption that all icons, regardless of which saints they portrayed, were ultimately derived from an original exemplar and as such were directed to specific, unchanging cosmological features; each painting “was not so much a copy of a certain isolated real object… as much as a symbolic indication of the object’s place in the represented world surrounding it” (Uspensky 1976:34). They thus represent components of a transcendent grace (see Campbell 1964:344), refracted in turn through the sinful conditions of a divisive social world.
That concept, moreover, is found among populations far removed from the centers of doctrinal authority (see Campbell 1964:326, 355; Danforth 1989:169–174; Herzfeld 1990). The message is clear: icons remind their viewers both of the fallen condition of humankind and of the grace that will ultimately unite these errant souls in the unity of their faith and redemption. In the meantime, such being the corruption of the flesh and the corrosion of innocence that attend the condition of Original Sin (see Campbell 1964:329), they provide models for intercession with the divine. Praying before an icon is not idolatry, but a pious request for intervention in mortal affairs, not unlike—as numerous anthropologists have pointed out (e.g., Boissevain 1969:78–79; Campbell 1964:342)—the intercession of a patron who serves as a broker in the contacts between his clients and powerful politicians.
Thus, there is already a link between the use of icons and the power differentials that enable political patronage. When the blogster called Venizelos “Lefterakis,” she was perhaps unconsciously reproducing the tradition of addressing saints with the affectionate possessive mou (“my”) and also sometimes with diminutive vocative forms of their names. Such expressions of affect, built into the rhetoric of “friendship” (filia) in relations between patrons and their local clients, remind both sides of moral obligations (ipokhreosis) that are grounded in the logic of reciprocity (see Campbell 1964:95–96, 259–261). This is surely no more outlandish than the use of baptismal ties to cement alliances between men who had formerly raided each other’s flocks, thereby creating the horizontal blocs that the politicians sought to attach to themselves in a vertical (that is, politically unequal) relationship. The larger context is a world made imperfect by divine ordinance and requiring such measures, which is also why the Neoliberals were able to make such a powerful locality appeal in their political campaign literature, asserting that they had “the God of Crete with us!”
Into this context, then, steps the representational tradition of immortalizing politicians, those masters of ephemeral power, by celebrating their images and thereby according them the illusion of immortality. The numerous statues of Venizelos that can be found in virtually every Greek town of any size are exercises in a disciplined iconicity in this sense; they give stereotypical form to the collective memory of a revered leader. Photographs of Venizelos perform the same function. I have long ago noted, for example, that in a highland Cretan village these photographs provided the common ground for the bitter rivals who represented, not only opposed clans locked in various forms of vendetta, but also political parties whose ideologies were in theory radically different from each other (Herzfeld 1985:99; 1990:111). One group represented the neo-liberal party then headed by Constantine Mitsotakis, whose subsequent election as leader of the conservative New Democracy party and then as national prime minister was read as one possible reincarnation of Venizelist liberalism, a link largely secured by the use of the term “(neo-)liberal” and strong family connections between Mitsotakis and his father, a close ally of Venizelos. The socialists invoked another patriline, that of Andreas the son of George Papandreou, whose Center Union claimed the mantle of Venizelist liberalism in a more literal sense. Even the far right group that covertly perpetuated the nationalist values espoused by the now disgraced colonels who had ruled from 1967 through 1974 insisted that they were the true heirs of the Venizelist mantle; their reasoning seemed more far–fetched but appealed to a curious symbiosis of irredentist nostalgia for the “lost fatherlands” of Asia Minor and an aggressive localism that claimed Crete as the repository of the unadulterated essence of the Hellenic soul.
If, then, Venizelos’s own actions seemed to typify the risk–taking poetics of Cretan masculinity, or could at least be subsequently so represented, his apotheosis demanded instead a reversion to conventional iconic forms. Moreover, as he became increasingly understood as a unifying rather than as a divisive figure, the stylization of his image took on an ever greater likeness to processes that are observable in the production of religious icons. This image, which emphasizes the goatee and glasses, reappears in simplified versions in many contexts, from book-ends (see Herzfeld 2004:40–41) to woven goods. Venizelos himself could no longer deform the conventions of his own appearance, but others could reduce it to caricature or something approaching the sanctity of a divine portrait. As a symbol of Cretan identity, and especially of a Cretan identity in the vanguard of Greek national redemption, it would be hard to find a more evocative symbol.
If, as Kitromilides has shown, this apotheosis of Venizelos as a unifying national figure is relatively recent, it has been accompanied by a standardization of his physical image and an increasingly generalized sense of his role as a unifier of Greek politics—which, Kitromilides rightly insists, was not exactly how he was perceived in his lifetime. The popular narrative of his career has been simplified, stylized, burnished, and invested with a generic appeal that may retain little historical accuracy but that has without question contributed to the consolidation of Greek identity—an identity that has become remarkably solidary in contrast to, for example, that of the Italians (see Herzfeld 2003). This process of narrative simplification is strikingly analogous to the phenomenon that Wills (1979) describes for the creation of the American national mythology, in which a date (July 4) and an event (the collective signing of the Declaration of Independence) were forged (in both senses of that word!) from a series of events none of which occurred on that day and none of which possessed the collective character celebrated in ritual and art.
In the case of Venizelos, perhaps appropriately for a country in which masculine individualism is often treated as a national trait, the persona of Venizelos offers perhaps the strongest example of this process of historical streamlining in the interests of a self–fulfilling myth of national unity and homogeneity. What has happened to the historical figure of Venizelos exemplifies the process described by Max Weber (1968:48–65) as “the routinization of charisma.” Routinization represents the bureaucratic management of an individualistic or distinctive reputation. Against its constraints, agonistic social actors are constantly striving to achieve new forms of distinctiveness through the exercise of a creative social poetics, and the irony of nationalist historiography is that it requires both the heroic individualist as a founding figure and the state’s control of the encompassing narrative—the other great example from Greece being the curious transformation, after Independence, of the status of erstwhile guerrilla fighters as “klefts,” thieves (in the literal meaning of kleftes) recast as national heroes. (The irony of this historical revisionism was not lost on my sheep–stealing friends in the highlands of Crete [see Herzfeld 1985:27–29].)
The apotheosis of Eleftherios Venizelos also, and concomitantly, points up the paradox at the heart of Cretan masculinity: that the very striving for originality entails, not only a command of local style sufficiently confident to permit a significant degree of variation, but, ultimately, a surrender to the categorical imperative of being “good at being a man”—in other words, adherence to an especially prominent social convention. The much-vaunted individualism of Greek (and especially Cretan) male social actors (see Campbell 1992), which in the ideological literature of the Greek national revival formed one of the key elements in Greek claims to a quintessentially European identity (see Herzfeld 1982:57–60), is itself a conventional stance. Venizelos’s genius during his lifetime partly consisted in his adroit management of that paradox. Since his death, his apotheosis has reinforced the conventionality of his image, leaving it to new generations to generate creative variations on the themes that his life inflected with such energetically distinctive style.


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