Monday, February 23, 2004


Marriage has always formed an important role in Greek society. From times ancient, marriage alliances were treated as a form of business or property investment with families arranging marriages with a view to securing for their children some type of property and hopefully, a family with a 'good name.' Thus the value in a prospective wife lay not so much in her virtue as in the wealth of her parents and their social standing. In effect, one would 'purchase' a husband, or, considering that the dowry would have to be returned in the case of marriage break-up, 'hire' a husband. This proprietary conception of marriage was enshrined in Byzantine Emperor Justinian's legal code and formed the basis of customary law throughout Greece up until recently. It enshrines a corpus of values and way of life that has profoundly influenced the first generation's view of marriage even today.
Immigration of Greeks to Australia has seen an interesting erosion of this set of traditional values. Far removed from an agrarian and closed society that provided little if no outlet for youth contact with the opposite sex, the first generation at first tried to cling tenaciously to the old values, restricting their daughters from a free social life and the connotations of 'looseness' and 'unworthiness' that would ensue from the closed Greek community they constructed for themselves, fearing that such a 'reputation' would diminish their daughter's marriage chances.
Greek parents also developed an almost hysterical fear of the outsider. Mixed marriages were seen as taboo and then as a source of great shame on the person who 'left the race' and on that person's family. Conversations of the time centered on how superior we are as a race and how outsiders were basically, uncultivated barbarians..
Time has seen the first taboo erode. Second and third generation Greek-Australians now enjoy a social freedom that permits them to engage themselves in all aspects of Australian life. They may meet freely with whomever they choose and experience a multitude of cultures, opinions and pastimes. The second taboo holds strong. Indicative of this are the attitudes of one John Romios, recent letter writer to this publication, who mirrored the hysterical tones of his ancestors in his condemnation of those would enter into mixed marriages as 'traitors to the race,' but also made an important point: Our community looks down upon those who enter into mixed marriages.
This is undoubtedly true. When parents get together to talk about their respective children, the first question that is asked about their partners is: "Is s/he Greek?" If the answer is in the affirmative, the response is "good." If the answer is in the negative, a condescending: "Δεν πειράζει, ας είναι καλά," is proffered. Whether we like it or not, few Greek parents are pleased when told that their children's partner is a non-Greek. Some may be supportive, others understanding but nonetheless, our culture and value system has supposedly been built on cultural exclusivity and an element of dissapointment exists.
So why are mixed marriages looked down upon by the first generation (and some of the second generation as well)? A multitude of reasons exists, from families losing face, to fears that a non-Geek will not be able to adapt to a 'Greek' lifestyle, to fears of lack of communication and participation in family life and most importantly, because of the fear that mixed marriages leads to a loss of Hellenism in the subsequent generations.
Some of these fears are petty, while others are founded upon reasonable grounds. For example, it is quite plausible and has been demonstrated time and time again that culture clashes with Greeks are common. Greeks have a highly developed sense of nationality and this can choke, confuse or distance a new non-Greek member of the family. In the obverse, a non-Greek member of the family may simply choose not to partake of Greek culture, his new Greek family finding this offensive. At the end of the day, while such petty considerations seem laughable, (especially in the light of the fact that most Greek's conception of Greek culture is going to church, having namedays, cooking and dancing, much like any other nationality except that it is done in Greek,) considerations such as these have caused tension and friction both in the immediate and extended mixed family unit. Differences always intimidate and repel. This is human nature and a great deal of understanding is often needed to overcome such ostensibly petty differences. Certainly it is laughable to argue that mixed marriages are undesirable because foreigners just don't fit in. This seems to be a xenophobic remnant of the times when villagers flatly refused to marry anyone outside of their own village and when this was done, the partner was referred to (and sometimes still is, as ξένος.) Ξένοι, whatever their origin are people and deserve to be thought of as such.
The argument that mixed marriages are undesirable as they lead to a gradual de-Hellenisation of the Greek community is a more difficult one to defeat. Approximately 40% of the Greek marriages in the Greek community are now mixed. These statistics, along with the alarming decrease in both community involvement by subsequent generations and an adequate knowledge of the Greek language can be linked to prove that a catalyst for erosion exists.
Yet is questionable whether this catalyst is in fact the mixed marriage phenomenon, or whether we are overlooking the root cause. Whether from 'pure' or 'mixed' homes, the simple fact of the matter is that the second and third generations do not use the Greek tongue to converse with each other. Instead, it has been relegated to an ancestorgloss, useful only for the sake of aged grandparents who have difficulty in English. As younger members of the first generation are generally fluent in English, most second and third generation Greeks speak English in their homes. When they marry, regardless of the origin of their partner, English shall be the language spoken in the home. If the offspring of that marriage learns Greek, this will usually not be due to the efforts of its parents, but rather of its Greek grandparents.
Put simply, the Greek language, the single most important factor determining a Greek identity, has been unable to bridge the intergenerational gap and have a social utility down the generations. It may be granted that it is more difficult for a child of a 'mixed' marriage to learn a language as only one parent speaks it yet this seems to be a selectively defeatist attitude. Language acquisition is quick and easy when both parents understand the importance of their children acquiring the language and culture of their choosing and make steps to facilitate this. Parents who themselves have only a cursory knowledge of Greek and attach little importance to its dissemination will of course, not be able to pass on that heritage to their children, regardless of whether those children are 'mixed' or 'pure.' The problem therefore lies in lack of effort and understanding rather than mixed marriages as a sole cause. There are of course a multitude of examples of 'mixed' children who speak fluent Greek, simply because this was deemed by both their parents to be a priority.
Of course 'culture-clashes' do exist by parents who both want to instill in their children their respective identities and traditions. While some casualties do ensue, an understanding and all embracing approach can ensue that their children are firmly grounded and are able to move freely within both cultures. This is a great boon and can only be achieved with patience and hard work.
Once the language is lost, communication with the mother culture is impeded and an identity based on a communion with a vast array of tradition and history ruptured. We cannot draw moral conclusions as to the correctness of people's choice of partners. Ever since Jason traveled to Colchis and abducted Medea, mixed marriages have been a live issue in our culture. However, as we pride ourselves on the ecumenicity of our ethnos, which holds Greeks to be not those who are born so, but who act so, let us concentrate more on ensuring that the members of our community are embraced by this tradition rather than starved or alienated from it due to distrust and/or laxity. In this age, the swan-song of the first generation, they can still do their children and grandchildren a great service.

first published in NKEE on 23 February 2004