History / Dějiny

From palaces to parades: How Spain treats its Islamic past

In the gardens of the Royal Alcázar of Seville stands a simple, unadorned column with a short, poignant inscription written in Spanish: ‘The city of Seville to its poet-king Almutamid ibn Abbad, on the 9th century of his sad exile, 7 September 1091, Rachab 384’. Centuries after the city was re-taken by the Christians during the Reconquista, the Alcázar has become a popular tourist attraction officially owned by the city Seville itself. Several districts were remodelled over the centuries, but the bulk of the Moorish-built premises have not only remained unchanged, they have also been renovated and proudly marketed as one of Seville’s many wonders. Some rightly consider the Alcázar along with other monuments built by Muslims such as the Tower of Gold and La Giralda as the pride of Seville.

Alcázar of Seville from the webpage Real Alcázar
Alcázar of Seville from the webpage Real Alcázar

What is interesting is to look at Spain in the context of pressing political events, namely, the US President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban on seven Middle-Eastern countries, the rise of France’s right-wing Front National party, and the looming threat of international Jihadist Terrorism.

For over seven and half centuries, Spain had been defined by an armed struggle that was both territorial and ideological in nature and the memory of this conflict continued to shape it centuries after it ended. Over time, Spain has become a country that diligently preserves and restores the centuries-old Islamic architecture and markets it with pride as a tourist landmark. And palace gardens of the land once known as al-Andalus now hide memorials of its powerful Muslim rulers. This means that many aspects of Spain’s historical memory have intricate ties to both its Christian and Muslim past.

Hostility and heritage

Territory of Al-Andalus at its greatest territorial span, Aprende Lengua de Signos, 2013
Territory of Al-Andalus at its greatest territorial span, Aprende Lengua de Signos, 2013

For centuries, the northern kingdoms of Christian Spain were inextricably bound to the conflict with their southern, Muslim-dominated lands, called al-Andalus. The Christians saw this as a struggle to reclaim a land lost to Islamic invaders – a struggle commonly called the Reconquista. For centuries after it was won, the country continued to identify itself by this struggle, and its effects can still be seen today: not just in palaces, paintings and statues, but in smaller details of everyday life too.

Legendary figures from the period of the Reconquista are remembered for how they fought against their Muslim opponents: Don Pelayo, who forged the shattered remnants of the Spanish Visigoths into the Kingdom of Asturias and who began the long war of resistance against the Emirs of Cordoba, or Jaime I ‘the Great’ of Aragon who conquered the island of Majorca and turned his kingdom into a regional power. Or El Cid, the one who, a legend tells, resisted in the city of Valencia against the fanatical Almoravids and whose corpse supposedly frightened away scores of fresh enemy troops – such was the awe and terror he inspired in them.

Certainly, traditional views of Spanish history have tended to divide the struggle between the Christian and Islamic kingdoms as a clear case of ‘Us’ against ‘Them’. For a very long time, the defeated Visigoth kingdom was seen as the ‘True’ kingdom of Spain, and the kingdoms that came after were styled as heirs to the lands once belonging to these legitimate rulers. Conversely, the Muslim kingdoms were seen as the enemy, the invaders, and the phrase “Sufrimos la invasión…” (“We suffered the invasion…”) has been used when talking about the Umayyad conquest of Spain in the early 8th century CE. The apostle Santiago (Saint James), the patron saint of Spain, was given the sobriquet Matamoros or ‘Moor-killer’, a sobriquet which became a Spanish surname still in use today. The word Moro – literally ‘Moor’, the historical term for what was the primarily North African-descended Muslim population of Spain – is still used as a racial slur for people of North African or Middle Eastern origin. The Islamic Shahada “There is no God but God and Muhammad is His prophet” is commonly translated as “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s prophet”: a translation some scholars argues is a subtle way of making the rest of society view Muslim communities and cultures as the ‘Other’.

Yet even during the Franco dictatorship, Spain has not only invested more resources into preserving the relics elements of its Islamic past, but it has also renovated and restored them. Seville is one such example; along with the Alcázar, the city has also marketed the Tower of Gold and the tower of La Giralda – the latter once a minaret and now the bell-tower of what is currently the Cathedral of Seville – as part of the city’s landmarks and tourist attractions. Both were built by the Berber Almohad dynasty of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE, and La Giralda in particular is, along with the Alcázar, a lucrative tourist attraction.

Monumento a Averroes, Córdoba, Medicina fuera de la medicina, 2014
Monumento a Averroes, Córdoba, Medicina fuera de la medicina, 2014

Certainly, one could make the case that Spain’s interest in its Islamic past is purely economic: a pragmatic move to exploit a source of revenue to its fullest. And still, one finds details that do not appear essential and yet they were included anyway: memorials, made with the apparent intention of honouring the important figures of what was once al-Andalus. If one visits La Giralda there is a striking detail that catches the eye: two ceramic plaques on the wall of its ground floor. One is written in Castillian Spanish and explains the tower’s origins and history. It provides details on the Almohad Caliph who ordered its construction as well as speaks about changes made to the tower over its history. The plaque ends with the message ‘This inscription was made in the year 1984, as an exaltation of the eighth centenary commemoration of the construction of this great and marvelous minaret’. The plaque next to it repeats the same message, but is written entirely in Arabic.

These memorials do not stop with plaques and columns: Abd al-Rahman I, the first independent Emir of Córdoba, has a statue in Almuñécar in the province of Granada. The philosopher and medical pioneer Ibn Rushd has a statue situated close to the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba – itself another example of Spain’s preservation and renovation of the remnants of al-Andalus. Currently, Ibn Rushd is more commonly known by the name Averroes, is considered a key figure of Spanish history whose name has been given to two separate medical centres in Madrid alone.

Statue of Al-Mansur at Calatañazo, Wikipedia
Statue of Al-Mansur at Calatañazo, Wikipedia

Al-Mansur, the General and de facto military dictator during the Caliphate of Cordoba, conducted over fifty successful military campaigns against the Christian kingdoms of the north over twenty-five years, most famously razing the city of Santiago de Compostela – one of Spain’s most famous cities – to the ground in 997. Supposedly he forced the survivors to drag the bells of their destroyed church all the way back to Cordoba. One would not expect that such a figure, responsible for such destruction, would have a single statue dedicated to him. He has two: one in the city of Calatañazor, site of his likely-fictitious defeat at the hands of a coalition of Christian kings, and another in the city of Algeciras, where he was born. Both were built recently.

This is not a new phenomenon, but one with a certain historical precedence: The Song of El Cid, one of the oldest works of Spanish literature (dating from at least the 13th century), has the titular legendary hero refer to his Moorish ally Abengalbón as his ‘natural friend’, and this character is consistently described and depicted as noble and good throughout the whole tale. The last Muslim ruler of Granada and al-Andalus, Muhammad XII (colloquially known in Spain as Boabdil) was depicted in two nineteenth-century oil paintings by the Spanish painter Pradilla. In the first, he is seen surrendering the keys of the city to the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and in the second, he is portrayed as looking back wistfully at the city he once ruled while he departs to permanent exile. An entire Spanish architectural style (called Mudejar) was created as a result of imitating the style of the Moorish palaces of Granada, Seville, and Medina Azahara. Even the official Spanish term for the shade of green used in the current flag of Andalucía is ‘Umayyad Green’ after the Umayyad dynasty which ruled in Cordoba from the 8th to the 11th centuries.

There comes a point when one feels that such actions seem to go beyond exploiting mere economic interests, but how far beyond is difficult to say.

Festivals and films

Spanish popular culture has seen its own variety of looking at its Muslim past. The most visually-striking one are the Moros y Cristianos festivals, in which local towns and cities put on lavish costumed parades where people dress in extravagant style of Christian or Moorish clothing. With much ceremony and theatricality, they symbolically perform the ‘capture’ and ‘retaking’ of the city itself through mock battles. This tradition is very much beloved throughout whole Southern Spain.

Moros y Cristianos parade, Valencia, Wikipedia, 2005
Moros y Cristianos parade, Valencia, Wikipedia, 2005

In cinema, one of the most interesting examples was the 2003 animated film titled El Cid: La Leyenda (El Cid: The Legend), which follows exploits and adventures of the legendary Spanish hero. Although aimed primarily at younger audience, the film attempted to create a complex picture of the time and its people: There are heroes and villains among both the Christians and the Muslims, with the villains at the court of Castille being power-hungry and treacherous nobles, while Yusuf, the Almoravid king, is a brutal invader who terrorises the Moorish people under his rule. During his travels El Cid is helped by a number of allies, among them Al-Mutamin, the Moorish prince of Zaragoza. Not only is he, and his followers, depicted as loyal, noble and brave, but it is they who make up the bulk of El Cid’s army, crying out “Allah is great!” before charging into the film’s final battle to aid him.

It is interesting to note that these same Moorish allies, hailing from the city of Zaragoza, speak neutral Castillian-Spanish accents while Yusuf, the film’s main antagonist and the only individual explicitly stated to be from North Africa, has a ‘stereotypical Arab accent’. Such an apparently simple choice can be read in many ways, possibly even as an attempt to illustrate common ground between the Andalusian Moors and the Castillian Christians.

“Refugees welcome”

While some European nations have seen a rise in nationalist sentiment and xenophobia, Spain (along with Portugal) has remained relatively unaffected, with newer right-wing parties so far unable to enjoy the success and popularity of the new left-wing progressive party Podemos. This has led to what some have called a more ‘open’ attitude toward the Refugee Crisis affecting Europe. Since September 2015, a great banner has been hanging from the Madrid City Hall reading ‘Refugees Welcome’. Last Saturday 18thFebruary saw thousands of people marching in Barcelona demanding (“Queremos acoger” – “We want to take in [refugees].”) that the government stays true to its word and takes in the refugees it promised it would. So far it has taken a number far below its pledge from 2015.

Could it be that Spain’s open acceptance of its Muslim past has contributed to this more open attitude? Perhaps stating such a conclusion may be reading too much into things. No nation is untouched by xenophobia, and Spain is certainly no exception. The Reconquista is popularly seen as a matter of ‘Us’ against ‘Them’ and Spanish popular culture still tends to stereotype Muslim-majority countries, even if this is hardly something unique to Spain. And yet, Spain has diligently preserved this part of its historical heritage and even paid homage to a number of Muslim rulers, generals and philosophers. One therefore cannot avoid feeling there is something deeper at play and this adds a fascinating layer to Spain and the manner in which it its history.

The end of an empire – 1898: The Last Garrison of the Philippines


In 1898, Spain and America entered a three-month war that ended with the Spanish Empire’s defeat and relinquishing of all of its remaining Pacific and American holdings – namely Cuba and the Philippines – after its defeat. For the Philippines, the war arguably marked the beginning of the path to becoming the nation it is now, with all its complexities and idiosyncrasies. For Spain, it was the end of its time as a colonial power and the start of a long and troubled entrance into the twentieth century. In all the upheaval and world-changing events, one particular incident stands out: A small Spanish garrison of fifty men in the Philippine town of Baler entrenched themselves in the local church at the start of the war. They held out against a prolonged siege, and refused to surrender even after the war had long ended and the Philippine-American war had begun – in 1899.

The film

Released in Spanish theatres in early December, 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas chooses to largely avoid lecturing the audience on all the historical background knowledge of the Spanish-American War. Instead it focuses exclusively on the aforementioned event: the fifty men besieged in the Church of Baler by Filipino rebel troops and the physical and emotional exhaustion they underwent as the siege dragged on. Their commanding officers refused to surrender even as evidence that the war has long since ended continued to pile up. Why a group of men would continue to resist for so long – whether due to bravery and adherence to duty, miscommunication and distrust, or sheer bull-headed stubbornness – is a matter that director Salvador Calvio and producer Enrique Cerezo choose to look at in a fascinating and minimalist fashion.

A talented and well-chosen cast fronts the film’s story, but the heavy lifting is done by its two leads. First, Álvaro Cervantes as Carlos – a young, fresh-faced soldier recently enrolled in the army – and then Luis Tosar as Lieutenant Martín Cerezo, who leads the garrison in their resistance after the death of their captain and in his refusal to surrender becomes increasingly more determined – to an almost suicidal extent. Javier Gutiérrez and Karra Elejalde play two significant supporting roles as, respectively, the grizzled and cruel Sergeant Jimeno and the world-weary and wise missionary Fray Carmelo. All of them are fine actors, who play off each other well and whose conflicts and interactions feel convincing and believable.

A fine cast put aside, there is a lot to like, even admire, about this film. The camerawork is excellent, often perfectly reflecting the character’s emotions: The jungle surrounding the town of Baler is almost ethereally beautiful, yet also ominous and vaguely threatening. The inside of the church, at first seemingly old and worn, becomes safe and protective when the siege begins, then turns dark and claustrophobic as it drags on. Night scenes are full of deep shadows, hiding figures that flit between pools of darkness, or emerge half-visible under moonlight or the glow cast by flames. The passage of time is felt as a crushing, relentless slog: malnutrition and disease soon become as deadly an enemy as the Filipino rebels, adding an underlying layer of dread to many scenes. The pale-blue uniforms of the Spanish garrison are tattered and mud-green by the end of the film. By the time the garrison decides to surrender the audience will feel as exhausted by the war as they do.

However, while the film’s slow pace does help to convey the crushing grind of the siege, it also makes it seem longer than it actually is and makes the story drag in places, particularly in the last third. The ravages of the siege are not reflected on our actors’ faces: they do not become gaunter from the lack of food or even grow extra facial hair, undermining somewhat the aforementioned feel of the passage of time. This is especially striking in the case of one character’s opium addiction, which leaves him looking no worse for wear. The dialogue, while well-delivered, is at points repetitive and goes over previously-discussed points more often than needed.

The film also gives the impression that the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines – and even in Cuba – is a disaster of the Spanish Empire. In truth, these provinces were all that remained of an empire, which had long been reduced to a weakened, vestigial remnant of what it had been once, plagued by economic and political troubles. There are also some other claims regarding the siege of Baler that are possibly a matter for historical debate.

These, however, are nit-picks. The film is thoroughly recommendable as a historical war film. It does not take the approach of adrenaline-filled action, but rather opts for a slow-burning pace and a surprisingly complex and nuanced take on this particular chapter of Spain’s colonial past.

Dark complexities of a colonial past

A country’s colonial past is always going to be a complicated subject to discuss, particularly for a European colonial power such as Spain in today’s political climate when the rise of populist nationalism may lead to unjustified excuses of the past. It is immensely refreshing that 1898 opts to look at a chapter of colonialist history not through the wider lens of history, but through smaller and more personal viewpoints of the characters living its story. In its characters, the audience comes to see some of the best qualities of the Spanish colonialists, but also the worst.

The characters of Carlos and Fray Carmelo – the young soldier and the old missionary – are easily the most sympathetic. Carlos is kind and youthful, in danger of being broken down to a shell of his former self as his duty to his country hurts more than it rewards him. Fray Carmelo, who admits he has been away from Spain for years, is wise and world-weary, and his wry humour does not entirely conceal a melancholy that suggests he knows, and has accepted, that both his days and those of the Spanish Empire’s are numbered, and coming to their end. In contrast, Sergeant Jimeno is easily the most hateful member of the garrison: Tough, scarred and with a haunting gaze, his undeniable qualities as a soldier disappear  every time his cruelty shines through: he abuses prisoners, kills animals, intimidates his own men, and even suggests leaving a Filipino child tied up and helpless in a crocodile-filled swamp. He takes traditionally positive qualities – bravery under fire and discipline even in extreme circumstances – and twists them into a reflection of his own inner darkness.

Location of the Philippines. Copyright: Daniel Feher, http://www.freeworldmaps.net/asia/philippines/map.html
Location of the Philippines. Copyright: Daniel Feher, http://www.freeworldmaps.net/asia/philippines/map.html

Yet the most interesting and complex character is Lieutenant Cerezo, and his journey from stern yet seemingly reasonable and caring commander to a frighteningly stubborn antagonist whose monomaniacal determination to keep fighting slowly starts to resemble less an adherence to duty and more an elaborate suicide attempt. He consciously chooses to ignore the mounting evidence that the war has ended – newspapers, communications, even a visit from the Spanish high command – and instead dismisses them as all as insidious ploys by the enemy to trick the garrison into surrendering. He says that he has lost his wife and children, and has nothing waiting for him in Spain, yet in having himself nothing to lose, he seems determined to refuse to admit that his nation has long lost the war.

In Cerezo, film shows the most complex portrait of a colonialist – one could even argue that he stands as a metaphor for the Spanish occupation of the Philippines as a whole: a man whose stated adherence to his duty and service to his country ends up causing far more harm than good. Despite his redeeming qualities, the damage he has caused by the end is such that no-one can find it in themselves to forget what he has done or forgive him for it – not even himself.

The film is also utterly fearless in choosing to portray the ugliness of war, and strips the struggle of any sense of glory its portrayal might have brought. Both the Filipinos and the Spanish conduct brutal night raids in which neither side is above slaughtering unarmed and unprepared soldiers, with the Spanish even killing a few civilians fleeing in terror. The effects of malnutrition on the human body are horrific to see, and there is a palpable sense of despair and weariness at several points in the film, helped by the fact that its action scenes are very much spaced apart, with a lot of quietness between them wherein the grim atmosphere just sinks in and permeates everything.

Looking back at a legacy

In  its portrayal of the Filipino rebels, the film does something unexpected: What begins as a hostile enemy force is, by the end, shown to be a people fighting for their homeland, no less fiercely or less determined than the Spanish garrison fighting for theirs. Their commanders are often portrayed as reasonable, repeatedly offering the garrison chances to surrender and even giving them a gift of fresh fruit and food at a critical point as a gesture of goodwill. More intriguingly, they seem to be keenly aware of how Spain’s presence has shaped their burgeoning nation. At the start of the film, the Spanish soldiers are given a blunt speech by their commander: “We’ve been here for four hundred years. We’ve built their [the Filipino’s] cities, given them their religion, but they don’t give a shit about that. They want us out and they want us dead, and that’s that.” Yet, when the garrison’s surrender at the end of the film is being negotiated, the Filipino commander makes surprising terms – to not only grant the Spaniards safe passage as far as his territory allows, but also provide them with an Honour Guard as they leave. Shocked, the Spanish officer in charge of the surrender can only ask why. The answer comes after a brief pause: “It’s been four centuries.”

Contemporary Westerners know the Philippines mostly as a beautiful holiday destination. But the country has a complex colonial past. Photo copyright Allan Donque (2010).
Contemporary Westerners know the Philippines mostly as a beautiful holiday destination. But the country has a complex colonial past. Photo copyright Allan Donque (2010).

Just as the film did  not exempt the Spanish from indulging in the ugliness of war, it cannot be ignored that the country’s decision to sell the Philippines to the United States – including several islands that officially did not belong to Spain – contributed to many of the post-colonial problems still being felt in that country in the  present day. Yet modern, post-Francoist Spain generally regards and studies its imperial past in a surprisingly blunt way, not shying away from the atrocities and ugliness committed in the nations it had once ruled, even as it laid the building blocks for the countries they would become. There is not, overall, a great amount of sentimentalism for this colonial past, and 1898 is a reflection of that: It looks at the effects of a war, and the end of an empire, not through a grand sweeping vision but from the perspectives and the emotions of those affected and damaged by it. By the film’s conclusion, the end of the siege of Baler – and the end of the Spanish Empire – is seen not with melancholy, but with a feeling of inevitability.

Perhaps, given the political climate in Europe and the sentiments we saw grow to such alarming extents last year, it is the best and only way to look at such a complicated past legacy.

Forsaken by gods: a short reflection on Ancient Greek religion


A strange question, to ask if gods abandoned us. After all, many people in Europe today stopped believing in God at all. To speak of gods is then even stranger. It seems to point to pagan religions gone from Europe for a millennium or more, if we do not count some odd cults, whose efforts to revive dead beliefs usually turn into a caricature. Others may even feel uncomfortable to speak of “divine matters;” as some recent events, whether in France or in the Middle East, could indicate that we are better off without god, be it in singular or plural.

But let’s just consider one possibility: that we don’t really know who or what gods are. A brief consideration will show that the God of Christianity or monotheistic religions starkly differs from gods worshipped by our ancestors in Ancient Greece. It is then possible that over the course of this examination, we will discover that what is divine can be actually quite familiar to us. Even to the extent that we could find out that life has a holy dimension that our civilisation is not sensitive to. If this were to be the case, the fact that gods are “missing” would receive a new meaning. We could then start asking how did this happen and whether we can thing beyond such circumstances.

To start with the three big monotheistic religions, their answer to what is God is well-known. God is one and all-powerful. “He” sits at the top of hierarchy of beings; uncreated, he is the creator of all. He rules, orders, commands, but is also deemed to merciful towards his creation. Obviously, for the increasingly atheistic Europe the problem is to believe in this God at all. How can God be kind and compassionate, when he allows so much individual and collective suffering? Unless one is deeply convinced of their faith, it is hard not to sympathise with Stephen Fry, who considers God “utterly, utterly evil“ and asks „[w]hy should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

There are also philosophical problems with this conception of God. Christians often say that our ethics nowadays lack transcendence. And by that they mean that our moral standards are hollow, because in a “Godless time”, they don’t have an origin in God’s command and providence. If all moral rules are based on human consent and opinion, there is no reason to prefer one to another, they say. Apparently, only the existence of a greater being that will tell apart good and evil provides us with such transcendence ground our behaviour and moral principles. Without going to argue against that conception, we will see that the Ancient Greeks had an entirely different view of transcendence. If we look more closely on transcendence, it will also give us hints about their understanding of gods.

For the Greeks there was something else around us than just “mere things”, which means to say this or that entity. What fundamentally “is” is that something is or is not. And that it is this way or that way. It is a sort of basic miracle of human existence that we are and we won’t be. But as long as we are, we recognise ourselves as existing, here along with other humans, animals, things, or the world. We are born into a certain time, into definite conditions, and deep down we know that our ultimate fate is to die and cease existing. This means to say that we understand being, in all its temporal and historical dimensions. To our knowledge, we differ in this aspect from every other being, be it a stone or an animal. For this reason, German thinker Martin Heidegger spoke of human beings as Dasein, which in German means “being-there”. Humans are of such kind, that we have the power to understand being of our time and place, precisely as we proceed towards death. For us, stone is not just a stone – it may be a familiar rock lying next to our homestead, where we played hide and seek as children and where we gave our first love kiss on her lips. We live in the world of meaning, that is in the realm of being, which is, existentially speaking, more fundamental than any facts that science may subsequently discover.

The Ancient Greeks, according to Heidegger’s reading of pre-Socratic philosophers and Homeric texts, tacitly understood all this. Being. How things are. What they are like. How we are. How the world is. That things are rather than are not. For them, being is the true transcendent. And this transcendent is reachable only because there is one being whose fundamental feature is understanding – of its own existence and of being as such with it. We could say that humans are a sort of a portal or “a clearing in the forest” (Heidegger’s expression), where everything gains its meaning. In the eternal play of birth and death, struggle and stillness, love and hate, all things shine with significance. No supreme being, not even Christian God as traditionally understood, can be transcendent enough in the light of such transcendence. He is “just another being”, even if highest in the rank, while the dimension that transcends beings – being itself – is omitted.

Our understanding of being changes. Under most circumstances, we go on about daily routine, without realising it is a routine in the first place. How often we stop and think why do we engage in this and that, what future does it have, where is it heading, why is it meaningful? In Being and Time, Heidegger calls this inauthentic behaviour, but that may be misleading: to a great extent it is unavoidable, it is how we are. We all know the humdrum of a regular working day. Waking up after the alarm clock can’t be ignored anymore. Sun inconspicuously shining through the windows of the bedroom. Outside the construction site wakes up into existence as machines rumble to finish everything off before the arrival of winter frosts. A long sip of coffee to fire up brain cells and then a tram that jolts along the rails and on which all carless employees rely to carry them to the office. Whether we spent the day diligently or incline more to procrastination, afternoon ends and if it is the right, perhaps we will finish the day with the right company over a drink. But do we realise all this? When do we notice if something or someone does not point it out to us? The state of normalcy seems to be that we don’t grasp this being of our daily regime. Yet there are more fundamental things that we forget. What also slips away from us as we go about day-to-day affairs is that we are mortal; beings who are born and who have to die. It is also the apprehension of our mortality that throws us back against the mystery of being: that “things” are, but they just as well might be not.

A conversation with a good friend, a thoughtful film in a cinema, loving relationship with someone who opens to us other important things in life, in all such crucial moments the real understanding of our situation can emerge. It erupts. It does justice to the saying that we sometimes use – that a realisation comes down on us as a “lighting out of a blue sky”. Truth comes, it appears, disappears again, and we have no control of it. Is it then any surprise that our Greek ancestors saw gods as messengers of being, messengers of truth? We are surrounded by the familiar. By this or that being in our daily routine that we go about as if we “know” it. Only at moments the ordinariness breaks and we can say to see the truth. We gave a small example of such occasions above, but how does it work?

A first kiss between lovers can be a message, perhaps. It is a sign. A sign of a relationship, but also that the world is now a different place, a more liveable place, one brighter and happier. Since happiness is fragile, the kiss just as well might not have happened. The lovers could have never met in the first place. Or, a mistaken word, a foolish action, could have never led them to build that relationship. The truth of being suddenly emerged – and it could just as suddenly disappear and hide into concealedness that is also part of truth. It is in human power to understand being, but not to control it. We can machinate and dominate beings, we can smash atoms and modify genomes, but we will never change what things and how things are. Happiness, sadness, inspiration to action, laziness, keenness of an eye for a scientific discovery, they rush down with force and change our sight. That is why a kiss can be divine. It “transcends” us as individual beings, it transforms us from the ordinary day-to-day experience that we don’t properly realise, into the realm of being, of meaning, of truth. It is extraordinary, tremendous, daemonic. Love is a fundamental truth, just as friendship, hate, or revenge for example. For that reason “behind” or “in” a woman that we kiss there may appear a goddess. There can’t be a “mere woman” when she carries the message of the transcendent, of being beyond the ordinary appearance of beings, even beyond two people standing there. Do we have to still wonder that the receptive souls of poets and artists could “divinise” women or “divinise” warriors? That they could identify that behind this man or this woman, there is a divine being? Was theirs really a naïve anthropocentric religion, or was it rather an essential part of their attunedness to being?

It may still seem peculiar that Greek gods appear in human form. Perhaps the Greeks were simply “poetising” and gave names to universal concepts? Or did they really think that the gods had a personality and we could come across them walking on the meadow, so to say? Such understanding would miss what the Greeks saw and were trying to express. The fact that gods appear, Heidegger notes, has a connection to our capacity to understand truth – to understand being. Understanding of being we carry in our behaviour, we adopt a look. That look is open to others, it awaits other beings, because in our existence we living in communication and sharing this world with other people. Human beings are distinguished precisely by a look, as only through such “looking” being appears and can express itself in truth. To put it bluntly, being can appear only in us and through us, just like in the example of two lovers that we gave above. We have a relationship to being that can’t be found in stones, plants, or animals. As Emilio Brito observed, it is “[p]recisely because the tremendous has to appear in the figure of something ordinary, that the Greek god appears in the human form, because human being is a being that has a special relationship to being, as a place where being itself is revealed” (Brito 1999, p. 156).

It means that in the Greek world, gods have a special connection to us the mortals. Human beings can see and be struck by the divine, because it is in human heart alone where being appears. Gods “look” out of human form, because it is only in speaking, struggling, fearing and believing in each other where we can grasp being, in lightning and flashes. And it is precisely gods who reach beyond the ordinary and point out the daemonic message of transcendence. Are we forsaken by gods because we are not attentive but to daily affairs, that we treat everything as faded, ordinary, just as “mere beings”? Can a world dominated by calculative thinking, logic of capital markets, or non-committed relations on social networks still find itself rediscovering the subtle message of what it means to be?


Brito, Emilio (1999) Heidegger et l’hymne du sacré. Leuven : University Press; Uitgeverij Peeters (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum theologicarum Lovaniensium).

Roman poets: modern and old


Latin is often regarded as dead as any language can be. Stories, poetry, love letters, simple daily correspondence: everything in this tongue seems to belong to a vanished past, thither behind us, a vestige of a civilisation long begone. We postmoderns would rather go and look for Latin inside dusty tomes at far shelves of a town library than on the internet among music videos, where, among sound bites and trendy pop clips, it just seems out of place.

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Otto von Habsburg and his spouse, Princess Regina of Saxe-Meiningen
Otto von Habsburg and his spouse, Princess Regina of Saxe-Meiningen

Otto von Habsburg, the son of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl I, died in his estate in the Bavarian town of Pöcking on 4th July. Undeniably, whom Europe lost is a man noble not only by lineage, but foremost by deeds and spirit. Politically active from the 1930s, he became one of the early proponents of European integration in the tradition of Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Paneuropean Union, which he first came to chair as Vice President (1957-73) and as President later on (1973-2004).

Being raised by his mother, Empress Zita, on the way to becoming a Catholic monarch and having later obtained education in political and social sciences at the Catholic University of Leuven, it was Christian faith that proved to have lasting influence on his public engagement. It was not surprising then that he felt politically closest to the Bavarian CSU. While its legendary leader Franz Jozef Strauss became his mentor, he started serving under its colours as a Member of the European Parliament for 20 years (1979-1999).

For the duration of his long life, and much beyond the floor of the European Parliament, Otto von Habsburg followed in the best footsteps of his family’s tradition in upholding the ‘imperial’ idea of Europe, a form of the political unity that is based not on membership ties to one nation or another, but on the allegiance to a principle. He was convinced that for Europe this central principle was Catholicism – it both inspired his vigorous political activism and fuelled his personal qualities, which included, among great resolve and bright intelligence (he fluently spoke 7 languages), also a deep sense of moral duty towards “the Habsburg family’s” peoples of central Europe. Notwithstanding the fact that he had to spend years in exile and obtained Austrian citizenship only after making a declaration that he would abstain from politics and renounce all personal claims to the Austrian throne, he ever remained a keen Austrian patriot.

His most notable act in the effort to reconcile European peoples separated by the world domination attempts of two superpowers was the organisation of the Pan-European Picnic in August 1989 on the Austro-Hungarian border: a symbolic event perhaps, but a one that gave many a hopeful signal that a better future might have been coming. In about 3 hours, 600 East Germans got the chance to cross the border to Austria, which was followed on 11 September by a complete opening of the border for the citizens of all Eastern European countries; the first time that a Warsaw pact member country ever did so. One can therefore only wonder what Otto von Habsburg thought of the events of the last few weeks, when France and Italy decided to put ‘temporary and targeted’ restrictions on the free movement in the Schengen zone, while Denmark restarted border spot checks on people travelling from Germany and Sweden just today, supposedly in order to ‘keep out criminals from Eastern Europe and illegal economic migrants’.

A European union he favoured was the one based on Christianity as Europe’s “soul”, although he and Paneuropean movement always accepted what they called the shaping role of other two monotheist religions. One could expect nothing else from a heir to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy coming from the Europe’s most renown Catholic dynasty. One can hardly doubt the earnestness of his belief, although, with some critical spirit, we should note that the origin of Europe, in the sense of its historical and cultural background, is not Christian but rather ‘pagan’:[ref]I put ‘pagan’ in inverted commas because the derogatory term paganus (“country dweller”) represents a Christian view on the ancient Mediterranean polytheist religions, not the one, quite obviously, held by their adherents.[/ref] fundamentally connected with Ancient Greece and Rome, which gradually adopted the creed of once-a-minor, monotheist sect and meld it with ‘paganism’ in such a way, that Catholic Christianity retained its notable elements; not least the worship of saints, these ancient heroes in a new mould. Similarly, it cannot be hoped that Catholicism will play much of a political role in uniting the world’s most atheist continent that is becoming even more so with every year. Any appeals for a return to the principles of the Church will have little effect in a culture of post-modernity, which already pursues a different god – that of the ever-present more, appearing as the trinity of greater profit – greater technological advancement – greater spread of (neo)liberal democracy worldwide, notwithstanding occassional disagreements of cultures-so-to-be-endowed. But this trinity that Heidegger called Gestell, a ‘frame’ through which we people of our time perceive the world, has escaped the notice of many other people than he – perhaps, of all of us. It nevertheless made the Otto’s wish that, one day, the EU’s future constitutional treaty might refer to the one God as a high authority, illusory. At the same time, one can well agree with Otto von Habsburg’s sighs that politicians do not speak much about religion anymore. Since spirituality and the holy belongs to the public space of any culture – no matter whether it is in the form of pondering about our ‘absent gods’, or about the issues related to religious plurality.

To end our brief homage to Otto von Habsburg’s life, which was that of a convinced European, who not only believed but also acted so that the continent’s peoples might once find reconciliation in their common European home, there are probably few more fitting words than those of Robert, chevalier d’Estouteville: “There where is honour and there where is faithfulness, there and there alone rests my homeland.” Without hesitation, we might take this creed as if it were the last European emperor’s own.