On politics and divine instruction



Dr Nina Kyparissi-Apostolica is the honorary ephor at the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology in Greece. When someone with such a magnificent name, and holding such an impressive position, tells you something, you have to believe her.

Speaking of new finds at the site of Koutroulou Magoula in Greece, Kyparissi-Apostolica said: “This is an extremely important discovery, and an indication of the technological sophistication of the Neolithic inhabitants of the site.” And we believe her.

A large Neolithic complex (underneath some other, less ancient stuff) has been found, dating from the sixth millennium BCE. The complex has huge walls, includes kilns and mini- sculptures, and appears to have been in use for centuries. “Its function remains unclear,” said greekreporter.com, with somewhat more restraint than Kyparissi-Apostolica, “but preliminary results indicate that it has been used for a long period of time and it underwent several rebuilding efforts and modifications.”

The question to be asked, while the archaeologists work out what the hell went on at Koutroulou Magoula 8 000 years ago, is: What is an ephor?

It’s a position held by someone in an ephorate, obviously, as Kyparissi-Apostolica’s, er, epithet tells us, but where does it come from?

Well, in ancient Sparta, that rigorously militaristic polity, the ephors were five elected officials who ruled the state in conjunction with two kings (yes, two) and the gerousia, a sort of senate composed of men over the age of 60. In those days, not an awful lot of men reached 60, so it probably wasn’t a very large body.

According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, this Spartan governance arrangement was set up by one Lycurgus some time in the 9th century BCE. It was believed he got the instructions for this constitution from the oracle at Delphi, the Pythia, who was presumably channelling the words of the god Apollo.

That’s the simple version, which is perhaps a bit too much like our own public protector’s view of how she is instructed by God. Herodotus also records another account, which sounds somewhat more plausible. In this version, Lycurgus was appointed regent after his brother, the original ruler, died; Lycurgus would be regent because his brother’s wife had a royal child in her womb, who would rule once he emerged. Lycurgus seems to have made a power play, taken over the state, and then promulgated his constitution in what was later called the Great Rhetra — the Great Pronouncement. “Rhetra” is the word used for the utterances of the oracle.

It gets confusing, though, just like the public protector’s pronouncements. Some say Lycurgus brought the laws from Crete, an ancestor civilisation of Greece; others, naturally, say he didn’t really exist at all.

There is a tradition that says the Spartan constitution was never written down, yet, 600 years later, Aristotle apparently quotes bits of it, and Plutarch, in the first century CE, says he researched it in the Spartan archives. Some say it was in prose, others in poetry, because the Pythia always spoke in verse.

Politics — what a muddle!

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.


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