Sunday Essay : who was Mary Magdalene? Debunking the myth of the penitent prostitute

 Detail from Caravaggio’s Mary Magdelene, 
painted circa 1594-1596. Wikimedia Commons

Who was Mary Magdalene? What do we know about her? And how do we know it? These questions resurface with the release of a new movie, Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara in the titular role.

The question of how we know about her is a relatively simple one. She appears in a number of early Christian texts associated with the ministry of Jesus.

These texts comprise Gospels written in the first and second century of the Common Era (CE). The earliest of them are included in the New Testament, where Magdalene plays a significant role. She also appears in later Gospels, which were not included in the Bible and come from a later period in early Christianity.

The answer about who she was and what we know of her is more complex. In Western art, literature and theology, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute who meets Jesus, repents of her sins, and pours oil on his feet in a gesture of humility, penitence and gratitude. She is sometimes depicted kneeling at the foot of the cross, hair unbound, emphasising the sinful past from which she can never quite escape, despite being declared a saint.

The tradition of the penitent prostitute has persisted in the Western tradition. Institutions that cared for prostitutes from the 18th century onwards were called “Magdalenes” to encourage amendment of life in the women who took refuge in them. The word came into English as “maudlin”, meaning a tearful sentimentality. It is not a flattering description.

Titian’s Penitent Magdalene, circa 1565.Wikimedia Commons

Artistic depictions continued to emphasise Magadelene’s sexuality in various ways, under a facade of piety. In another twist on the same theme, she is presented as the wife of Jesus, most notably in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003).

The tradition of Mary Magdalene as the archetypal penitent whore, whose sexuality somehow manages to persist beyond her conversion, can be dated to a sermon preached by Gregory the Great in the sixth century CE.

Admittedly, there are a confusing number of women called “Mary” in the Gospels and we might assume Pope Gregory was tired of distinguishing between them. He reduced them to two: on the one hand, Mary, the mother of Jesus, perpetual virgin, symbol of purity and goodness, and, on the other, Mary Magdalene, promiscuous whore, symbol of feminine evil from which the world must be redeemed.

A disciple of Jesus

Yet nowhere in the Gospels is Mary Magdalene associated either overtly or covertly with sexuality. The four Gospels of the New Testament present her in two significant roles.

In the first place, she is a disciple of Jesus: one among a band of women and men from Galilee who believed in his message of love and justice and followed him in his ministry.

Secondly, Magdalene is a primary witness in the Gospels to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Unlike many of the other disciples, she does not flee when Jesus is arrested. She remains at the cross when he dies and later visits his tomb to find it empty, with a vision of angels declaring his resurrection.

Mark’s Gospel, which we now know to be the earliest Gospel to be written, speaks of Magdalene as a disciple of Jesus who has followed him from Galilee along with other women, but it does not mention her until the crucifixion. These women disciples now stand near the cross, despite the danger in being present at the execution of a dissident.

Three of them, including Magdalene, visit the tomb on Easter morning where they meet an angel who informs them that Jesus has risen from the dead (Mark 16:1-8). The women’s subsequent departure from the tomb is ambiguous, and they leave in fear and silence, which is where the manuscript of Mark’s Gospel abruptly ends. An ending added later makes mention of the risen Jesus making an appearance first to Magdalene.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Magdalene meets the risen Christ as she leaves the tomb, this time with only one other female companion, who is also called “Mary” (Matt 28:1-10). In Luke’s account, Magdalene appears at the cross and at the empty tomb to hear the angel’s words, but she and her female companions are not believed when they convey the message of the resurrection to the apostles (Luke 24:1-11).

Mary Magdalene anoints Christ’s feet in Dieric Bouts’ Christ in the House of Simon (circa 1420–1475). Wikimedia Commons

In Luke, there is an earlier mention of Magdalene in Jesus’s ministry where she is present, along with other women, as a disciple and supporter of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3). She is described as having had seven demons cast from her. This description might lead to the conclusion, in some minds, that the many “demons” refer to her unfettered sexuality.

But that would be erroneous. Exorcisms — the casting out of evil spirits — are common in the first three Gospels. Those suffering demonic possession are never described as sinful but rather are victims of external evil.

These days, we would associate their symptoms with physical maladies such as epilepsy or mental illness. Magdalene, in other words, has been the victim of a serious illness and Jesus has healed her.

Furthermore, the description is unusual here in that she is not described in relation to a male figure, as other women at the time generally were: father, husband, brother. She is simply referred to as “the Magdalene”, that is, the woman from Magdala, a Jewish village in Galilee.

We might well assume, from Luke’s description, that she is an independent woman of some means, who is well able to fund, as well as participate in, the movement around Jesus.

Her most significant role

John’s Gospel, however, gives Magdalene her most significant role. Once again, she does not appear until the crucifixion. In the narrative that follows, she comes alone to the tomb on Easter morning, finds it empty, tries unsuccessfully to gain help from two other prominent disciples, and eventually meets the risen Christ himself in the garden (20:1-18). He is alive and commissions her to proclaim the message of his resurrection.

On the basis of John’s story, later tradition gave Magdalene the title of “apostle to the apostles” and recognised something of her significance for Christian faith, witness and leadership. A tragic consequence is that her role as witness to the resurrection was later overshadowed by the apparently more alluring but inaccurate picture of her as the penitent whore.

A more accurate portrayal of Mary Magdalene announcing the risen Christ from the 12th-century English illuminated manuscript St Albans Psalter.Wikimedia Commons

The later Gospels, beyond the New Testament, also emphasise Magdalene’s importance as a disciple of Jesus and witness to the resurrection. The manuscript of the Gospel of Mary, which describes her discussions with the risen Christ, is unfortunately damaged and the central section is missing. In this and other similar Gospels, however, Magdalene is presented as the favoured disciple. This situation leads to some tension with the other disciples, who are jealous of her closeness to Jesus and the teaching she alone is given.

One Gospel speaks of Jesus kissing her, but the imagery in the Gospel of Philip is metaphorical and refers to a spiritual union with Christ. In response to the objection by the other disciples, Jesus asks why he does not kiss them in the same way, implying that they do not as yet possess the same degree of spiritual knowledge.

No evidence of Magdalene anointing Jesus

There is no evidence, incidentally, that Magdalene ever anointed Jesus.

There are three anointing traditions in the Gospels. In one, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’s head in prophetic recognition of his identity (Gospels of Mark & Matthew). In another, a named and known disciple, Mary of Bethany, who is a model disciple, anoints Jesus’s feet in gratitude for his raising her brother Lazarus from the dead (Gospel of John). In the third, a “sinful woman”, who is not explicitly identified as a prostitute, anoints Jesus’s feet in a gesture of repentance, gratitude and hospitality. None of these three figures is associated in any way with Mary Magdalene in the texts.

The movie Mary Magdalene, directed by Garth Davis, is a significant portrayal of this early Christian figure in the light of evidence from the earliest texts. The screenwriters, Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, are quite clear that Mary is not to be associated with Jesus through her sexuality, either as harlot or wife. On the contrary, she is depicted as a faithful and deeply insightful disciple of Jesus, on whom he draws for his message of love, mercy and forgiveness.

Magdalene is beautifully portrayed in the movie, which draws on traditions from the earlier and later Gospels. She possesses an intense and compelling presence, which does much to restore her character from its later distortions.

It is true that the film makes somewhat erratic use of the New Testament, both in its presentation of Magdalene and of other characters in the story. Towards the end, for example, there is an implication that Magdalene and the church stand on opposite sides, the one in sympathy with Jesus’s teaching and the other anxious to build a self-glorifying edifice on his assumed identity.

This is unfortunate, as the New Testament itself is quite clear about the priority and identity of Magdalene as a key disciple, witness and leader in the early church, without seeing her in opposition to others.

Indeed, those who campaigned in a number of Christian churches for the ordination of women in the 20th century used precisely the example of Mary Magdalene from the New Testament as “apostle to the apostles” to support their case for women’s equality and leadership.

The recent installation of Kay Goldsworthy as Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Perth — the first woman in this country and across the world to be given this title — is the true heir of Magdalene as she is portrayed in the earliest Christian writings.

This essay was written by:
Image of Dorothy Ann LeeDorothy Ann Lee – [ Frank Woods Professor of New Testament, Trinity College, University of Divinity]
The film Mary Magdalene opens in Australian cinemas on March 22.




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Listen To Older Voices : Chris Stockley – Part 2

 Welcome to Listen To Older Voices,  
a program produced by Rob Greaves for Uniting Melba and 
podcast through the Toorak Times and Tagg.
Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principle of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.

This is another Baby Boomers special program featuring the story of Chris Stockley presented 4-parts. We pick up in Part 2 of the story of Chris Stockley, who realizing the Melbourne and indeed the Australian music and cultural scene was years behind Britain, is at first dismayed but then sees an opportunity to fulfill his music desires. So he forms his first duo which mutates into his first band – The Roadrunners. Chris’ story takes us through a journey of the embryonic Melbourne music scene as seen through the eyes of this gifted and somewhat musically besotted teenager.

Eventually Chris joins his first professional group – Cam-pact, and the band has some success even though most of their recordings were covers of American soul music. Now although the group tinkered with writing their own music it became obvious that Cam-pact would not fully meet Chris’ musical needs. However he was receiving recognition among his peers as a talented musician and he was invited to join the legendary Brian Cadd and Glenn Shorrock in the amazing group – Axiom.

We learn how the group, at its height of popularity, travelled to work and record in the UK and, flopped! Chris candidly shares the stories and reasons behind this unexpected and disastrous failure.

Cam-pact [Left to right: Mark Barnes, Chris Stockley, Keith Glass, John Pugh and Robert Lloyd]

Click to hear Chris Stockley – Part 2


Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 
[Listen To Older Voices is a Uniting Melba program and receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Commonwealth Home Support Program]


How the histories of Mardi Gras and gay tourism in Australia are intertwined

 Within a little more than a decade following the  
1978 riot, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival and Parade  
nourished the emergence of a budding gay and lesbian tourism industry.

Today, Mardi Gras is framed, at least in part, within a global gay and lesbian tourism industry that craves a bigger and better parade each year. It’s unlikely that any of the heroic individuals caught up in the brutal riot on the night of 24 June, 1978 would have had much of an inkling that Mardi Gras would become one of the world’s most spectacular and enduring gay pride parades.

Nor would they have likely imagined that the parade and the festival would attract thousands of tourists from across Australia and the world making it one of the most attended annually occurring special events in the country.

In the late 1970s gays and lesbians were a marginalised and oppressed community struggling for law reform and social acceptance. We were still a decade or so away from becoming a recognisable market segment to be strategically targeted by companies selling top-shelf alcohol, boutique holidays and hair remover.

Yet within a little more than a decade following the 1978 riot, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival and Parade nourished the emergence of a budding gay and lesbian tourism industry, paralleling the emergence of the “gay consumer”. Mardi Gras has played a crucial role in the emergence of Australia, and, in particular, Sydney, as an internationally recognised gay and lesbian tourist destination. This led to the successful bid, and hosting, of the International Gay Games in 2002.

How the festival inspired others

In 1999, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Ltd, which was the entity organising the festival at the time, launched its own gay and lesbian travel agency – Mardi Gras Travel. This development, although short lived, nevertheless strengthened the sometimes contradictory connection between Mardi Gras as a grassroots community festival and the tourism industry with its overtly commercial preoccupations.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation report on LGBT tourism describes the market as robust and resilient, comprising relatively cashed up consumers with deep pockets and a strong desire to travel. And who like to party.

A study from the early 1990s estimated the economic impact of Mardi Gras to Sydney to be around A$30 million. Acknowledging its significant social, cultural and economic impact, the City of Sydney recognised Mardi Gras as a hallmark event in the early 1990s.

These hallmark events and festivals are powerful drivers for LGBT tourism. LGBT destinations are linked globally by an extensive calendar that includes more than 1,000 pride events, film festivals, circuit-parties, International Gay Games, and the Gay Day phenomenon. This is where gays, lesbians and their friends descend on theme parks, the largest being GayDayS Orlando which is now a seven day “vacation experience” attracting about 180,000 participants.

Festivals and events can also be significant tools in regional economic and community development. If intelligently managed, festivals attract substantial numbers of LGBT tourists to regional and rural destinations, injecting additional income into the local economies.

The success of Mardi Gras as a distinctly Australian LGBT festival has spawned similar, if smaller festivals, in most of Australia’s capital cities and a range of regional areas as well.

LGBT festivals of varying scales now take place in DaylesfordCairnsAlice SpringsHunter Valley, and Lismore. The newest of these is the Broken Heel Festival, a homage to the film, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, hosted in Broken Hill. In fact, it seems almost all tourist accommodation has already sold out there for early September, when the Heel festival occurs.

Mardi Gras has inspired other LGBT festivals in Australia. Dan Himbrechts/AAP

The growth of peer-to-peer accommodation platforms, such as Airbnb, and the gay men’s equivalent, Mrbnb, diversify accommodation options, further increasing the appeal of these regional places to LGBT travellers.

For the past 40 years, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade has meandered its glittering way up Oxford Street, Sydney, captivating the thousands of onlookers lining the route. Simultaneously, defiant and celebratory, the parade and the festival that has grown up around it have been pivotal in shaping and reshaping relationships between the LGBTQI community and the broader Australian community.

The demonstration of Mardi Gras, and of LGBT tourism, to contribute significantly to the nation’s economy I think has been a useful strategy to advance social and political “acceptance” of the LGBT community. But Mardi Gras contributes far beyond economic benefit and the social, cultural and political impacts have been profoundly important in the construction of LGBT identities in Australia.

This article was written by:
Image of Kevin MarkwellKevin Markwell – [Professor in Tourism, Southern Cross University]




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Sunday essay: how archaeology helped save the Franklin River

 Morning Mist Rock Island Bend, Franklin  
River, Southwest Tasmania. Peter Dombrovskis/ (courtesy Liz Dombrovskis) AAP

On 1 July 1983, in a dramatic four-three decision, the High Court of Australia ruled to stop the damming of the Franklin River. It brought an end to a protracted campaign that had helped bring down two state premiers and a prime minister, as well as overseeing the rise of a new figure on the political landscape – the future founder of the Greens, Bob Brown.

The fact that a remote corner of southwest Tasmania became the centre of national debate reflects what was at stake in the campaigns against hydro-electric development. For many, like novelist James McQueen, the Franklin was “not just a river”: “it is the epitome of all the lost forests, all the submerged lakes, all the tamed rivers, all the extinguished species”. The campaign was a fight for the survival of “a corner of Australia untouched by man”; it was a fight for the right of “wilderness” to exist.

“It is a wild and wondrous thing,” Bob Brown wrote of the Franklin River in May 1978, “and 175 years after Tasmania’s first European settlement, the Franklin remains much as it was before man – black or white – came to its precincts.”

But it was not only the idea of “wilderness” – of an ancient, pure, timeless landscape – that saved the Franklin. The archaeological research that took place during the campaign was at the heart of the High Court decision. Far from being untouched and pristine, southwest Tasmania had a deep human history. What was undoubtedly a natural wonder was also a cultural landscape.

‘A sea of stone artefacts’

The archaeological site at the centre of the campaign was, for a time, known by two names: Fraser Cave and Kutikina. Kevin Kiernan, a caver and the first director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, was the first to rediscover the site. He and Greg Middleton recorded it on 13 January 1977 as part of a systematic survey of the lower and middle Gordon and Franklin Rivers.

They were aware that the monolithic Hydro-Electric Commission was considering the region as the site for a new dam and they were searching for something – “maybe a big whizz-bang cave” – that might save these valleys from being flooded. In an attempt to raise awareness of this threatened landscape, they started a tradition of naming rock features in the southwest “after the political figures who would decide their fate”.

Fraser Cave was thus named after the sitting Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. There was also a Whitlam cave, a Hayden Cave and a Bingham Arch. When the Tasmanian Nomenclature Board caught wind of this tradition, they accused Kiernan and other members of the Sydney Speleological Society of “gross impertinence” for naming caves outside their state. In mid-1982, at the suggestion of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Fraser Cave became Kutikina, which means “spirit” in the oral tradition nurtured by the dispossessed Tasmanian Aboriginal community on Babel Island in Bass Strait.

The excavations at Kutikina played a powerful political role in the Franklin River campaign. Rhys Jones, AIATSIS, JONES.R09.CS.000142949

But although Kiernan admired the natural splendour of Kutikina in 1977, he did not immediately recognise the artefacts it contained as human-made. It was not until he returned in February 1981 that he realised what he had found. He and the new director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, Bob Brown, and its secretary, Bob Burton, were searching the remote valley for evidence of a convict who had supposedly perished in the region after escaping the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.

The story conjured the “wildness” of the country and the discovery of his bones might help bring publicity to their campaign against the dam. But when they climbed through the entrance of Kutikina, they were amazed to find a sea of stone artefacts and ashy hearths extending into the dark. These were no convict bones.

Three weeks later, a team of archaeologists, cavers and National Parks officers rafted down the Franklin River to investigate. It was already dark on 9 March 1981 when they tied their boats to the riverbank. They had a deep chill after hours navigating the fast-flowing river, hauling their aluminium punt and rubber dingy over successive rapids, journeying deeper into the dense rainforest. The rain picked up again as they unloaded their gear and took shelter in the mouth of the cave, which opened “like a huge, curved shell”.

Some of the team started a small, smoky fire to cook their dinner, while the others, with the light of their torches, ventured into the cavern. Kutikina opened out “like an aircraft hangar” and extended for almost 200 metres into the cliff. But it was not its scale that excited them: it was the idea that this remote cave, buried in thick “horizontal” rainforest, could have once been home to a thriving human population.

Too tired to erect their tents, they unrolled their sleeping mats on the disturbed floor at the cave entrance. It later occurred to them that they were probably the first people to sleep there in around 15,000 years.

Over the following days, as rain poured outside, the team carefully surveyed Kutikina. The archaeologists, Rhys Jones and Don Ranson, opened a small trench where the black sediment of the floor was covered by a thin layer of soft stalagmite. The test pit only extended to a depth of 1.2 metres before it met bedrock, but it yielded an extraordinary 75,000 artefacts and 250,000 animal bone fragments.

Don Ranson outside Kutikina in the heart of the southwest Tasmanian rainforest. Rhys Jones, AIATSIS, JONES.R09.CS.000142944

This small pit represented about one per cent of the artefact-bearing deposit, making the cave one of the richest archaeological sites in Australia. “In terms of the number of stone tools,” Jones said to one journalist, “much, much richer than Mungo.”

The archaeological remains at Kutikina told a remarkable story. The tools appeared to be a regional variant of the “Australian core tool and scraper tradition”, found across the mainland during the Pleistocene, suggesting immense chains of cultural connection before the creation of Bass Strait. The bone fragments were also curious. Most had been charred or smashed to extract marrow, and almost all (95 per cent) were wallaby bones, suggesting a finely targeted hunting strategy, similar to that found in the Dordogne region in France.

But most surprisingly, underneath the upper layer of hearths, there were angular fragments of limestone that appeared to have shattered and fallen from the cave roof at a time of extreme cold, forming rubble on the floor. It was one of the main pieces of evidence that led Jones to speculate in his diary: “Is this the late glacial technology?”

Home to the southernmost humans on earth

The possibility of Ice Age dates conjured the image of a dramatically different world. Pollen records in the region revealed that what is now rainforest was once an alpine herbfield like the tundra found in Alaska, northern Russia and northern Canada. Twenty thousand years ago, the mighty trees of ancient Gondwanaland had retreated to the river gorges, where they were irrigated and sheltered from fire, while wallabies and wombats roamed the high, open plains above.

The cold blast of Antarctica, only 1000 kilometres to the south, had dropped temperatures by around 6.5 degrees Celsius. A 65-square-kilometre ice cap presided over the central Tasmanian plateau, feeding a 12-kilometre-long glacier that gripped the upper Franklin valley. Icebergs floated off the Tasmanian coast.

At the height of the last Ice Age, Kutikina was home to the southernmost humans on earth. The people of southwest Tasmania hunted red-necked wallabies on the broad open slopes of Franklin valley, they collected fine stone from glacial melt water gravels and chipped them into tools, and they sheltered beside fires in the mouths of deep, limestone caverns. “They alone,” Jones reflected, “may have experienced the high latitude, glacier-edge conditions of a southern Ice Age.”

Significantly, during a separate excavation near the confluence of the Denison and Gordon Rivers, archaeologists also discovered tools and charcoal dating to 250–450 years ago, long after the ice cap had melted and the rainforest had returned. It revealed that the river valleys of southwest Tasmania had a recent, as well as a deep, Aboriginal history.

The rediscovery of Kutikina made the front page of the local and national newspapers, and was discussed on the floor of Parliament, but, surprisingly, it was restricted to the margins of the conservation campaign. John Mulvaney later reflected on the productive, albeit tense alliance between archaeologists and conservationists during the campaign:

We claimed an Ice Age environment of tundra-like grasslands, where their dearly loved primeval forest was supposed to have stood eternally. By discrediting the image of a forest wilderness, we were ruining their image and battle cry!

Added to this tension was the animosity the Tasmanian Aboriginal community felt towards both the archaeologists, for fossicking on their land, and the conservationists, for suggesting they had never lived there. Their activism during the campaign had profound implications for the Australian archaeological community. But while Aboriginal leaders such as Rosalind Langford and Michael Mansell were eager to regain control of Kutikina – “the most sacred thing in the state” – they also recognised the value of the history that had been uncovered. As Mansell said:

The fact that the Aborigines could survive physically and culturally in adverse conditions and over such a long period of time … helps me counteract the feeling of racial inferiority and enables me to demonstrate within the wider community that I and my people are the equal of other members of the community.

At the 1981 Tasmanian Power Referendum, 47 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the Gordon-below-Franklin dam. But, remarkably, there was also a 45 per cent informal vote. Tens of thousands of voters had scrawled “no dams” on their ballot papers. The unprecedented “write-in” had been organised by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, led by Brown. It repeated this highly organised, campaign-oriented strategy at local, state and federal elections throughout 1982.

The federal leader of the Australian Democrats, Don Chipp, also recognised the mood of the electorate against the dam and in August 1981 he initiated a Senate inquiry into “the federal responsibility in assisting Tasmania to preserve its wilderness areas of national and international importance”. Jones, Mulvaney and the executive of the Australian Archaeological Association were among the many to make submissions to the new Senate Select Committee.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre also made a submission, drawing upon the archaeological research to underline the cave’s “great historical importance”. But they also made a more personal plea. The Franklin River caves “form part of us – we are of them and they of us. Their destruction represents a part destruction of us.”

This advocacy had a profound influence. Several members of the Senate Committee flew into the Franklin valley to see the ongoing archaeological work and when the committee presented its report on the Future Demand and Supply of Electricity for Tasmania and Other Matters, the archaeology dominated the “other matters”. “Apart from any other reasons for preserving the area,” they concluded, “the caves are of such importance that the Franklin River be not inundated.”

Prime Minister Fraser heeded the conclusions of the report. He did not want the Franklin dam built, but he was reluctant to intervene in what he regarded as a state matter. So he did not act when construction on the dam began in July 1982.

Protests and political shifts

On 14 December 1982, the same day the region was formally listed as a World Heritage site for its natural and cultural value, a chain of rubber rafts blocked the main landing sites along the Franklin River, protestors occupied the dam site and rallies were held in cities across Australia.

Anti-dam protesters in southwest Tasmania, opposing the planned construction of the Franklin River dam, 1982. National Archives of Australia

By autumn 1983, 1272 protestors had been arrested during the Franklin blockade, and nearly 450 had done time in Hobart’s Risdon Prison, including Mansell and Langford, who were charged with trespass on their return from visiting Kutikina.

While the blockade continued, and with a federal election just around the corner, the ALP made a snap change in its leadership on 3 February 1983. It replaced Bill Hayden, who had voted against Labor’s policy to stop the dam at the party’s national conference, with Bob Hawke, who had voted for it. And in a tumultuous few hours of Australian political history, Fraser called an early election on the same day. It would turn out to be a grievous political miscalculation.

Neither Fraser nor Hawke believed the Franklin River dispute decided the 5 March 1983 election, but the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, Doug Anthony, was adamant: “There is no doubt that the dam was the issue that lost the government the election.”

On 31 March the new Hawke government passed regulations to prevent further construction on the Franklin dam. Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray took the matter to the High Court, challenging the constitutionality of Hawke’s “interventionist” legislation. His appeal failed by the narrowest of margins.

The judges in the majority considered that the Commonwealth had a clear obligation to use its External Affairs power to stop the proposed dam, as the inundation of “the Franklin River, including Kutikina Cave and Deena Reena Cave”, would breach the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act and damage Australia’s international standing. They also invoked the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people.

The Franklin River campaign has entered “the folklore of Australian environmentalism” as a green victory: a battle won, in Clive Hamilton’s words, through “the intrinsic worth of wild places.” But behind the scenes it was the deep Aboriginal history of the region that pushed the decision over the line. The archaeological evidence featured in every report about the judgement, and privately Malcolm Fraser considered it to be the deciding factor.

This is an edited extract from Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia(Black Inc., 2018).

This essay was written by:
Image of Billy GriffithsBilly Griffiths – [Research fellow, Deakin University]




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A critical guide to the Oscar Best Pic nominees – and why Call Me By Your Name is the standout

 Timothée Chalamet (left) and Armie Hammer in 
Call Me By Your Name (2017): a beautiful film, equal parts sweet 
and sad, it deserves to win. Sony Pictures Classics

Films nominated for Best Picture are often hit and miss – sometimes some are very good, often many are mediocre, reflecting popular notions about “good cinema”. We tend to forget how much these nominations depend on the marketing and PR moves of the filmmakers and production teams, as well as broader socio-cultural trends.

This year, a surprisingly wide variety of styles and genres are represented in the nominees. Some are quite good and some are pretty forgettable, if not downright awful. Phantom Thread seems suspended between these two categories. There is only one extraordinary film in the mix: Call Me By Your Name.

The extraordinary

Directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by the apparently ageless James Ivory, Call Me By Your Name is an amazing film; it is certainly the only flawless (or nearly flawless) one nominated this year, with its immersive narrative realised through a combination of stunning cinematography of the northern Italian locations (it is shot on film rather than video), a mesmerising soundtrack and riveting performances.

The story, set over one summer in 1983, follows 17-year-old Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet, who is also in Lady Bird) as he falls in love with statuesque, impossibly handsome Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio’s father is an archaeology professor, and Oliver has come to spend the summer with him as his research assistant.

Timothée Chalamet as Elio in Call Me By Your Name (2017). Sony Pictures Classics

The story is as simple as it sounds in this beautiful film, equal parts sweet and sad. It manages to be both hypnotic and gentle, as we effortlessly drift along with the narrative – and the breezy Italian summer. Both Chalamet and Hammer show extraordinary self-assurance in their roles, and the supporting cast are equally impressive.

Juxtaposed against this year’s other nominees, Call Me By Your Name reveals just how heavy-handed, self important and downright silly much popular cinema has become.

The Good

It is rare for horror thrillers to be nominated for such high accolades, and the fact that writer-director Jordan Peele’s Get Out is up for Best Picture is testament to its strength as a genre film.

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Universal Pictures

It is certainly one of the most entertaining films from last year, brilliantly interspersing its horror narrative with moments of side-splitting comedy.

The story follows African American Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he meets the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) on a weekend getaway, only to discover that the whole thing has been staged for reasons that are best described as nefarious. As a genre film, it is excellent – several plot twists are unexpected, the violence is shocking and the horror intense.

As a piece of political commentary, its intervention into race dynamics in the contemporary US falls short. It seems to make an equation between racial micro-aggressions and slavery, and this is extremely problematic. Still, regardless of this, Get Out is immensely satisfying.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water also works well as a genre piece. Typically for del Toro, this sweet if uninspiring romantic fantasy is built upon a genuine reverence for the moving image – its history, as well as current technical and aesthetic possibilities – and this is borne out in both the narrative and style of the film.

Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (2017). Fox Searchlight Pictures

Set in the 1960s, the story follows mute cleaner Elisa (Sally Hawkins) as she falls in love with a sea monster that has recently been kidnapped by US military powers and brought to a scientific facility for study and, eventually, vivisection.

Michael Shannon has a field day as sadistic nemesis to the creature, Strickland, and Richard Jenkins is equally engaging as Elisa’s friend Giles, but the real focus – and star – of the film is, one senses, the film itself. Sometimes this becomes a little annoying, as in its laboured approach to period detail and hammy attempts to say something about social injustice, but it is such a stylish film that such moments are readily forgotten.

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post (2017).Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

No Steven Spielberg fan, I think The Post, his latest film, is one of his better offerings – if for no other reason than the appeal of its subject matter. It follows the true story of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s to the Washington Post, and the decisions made by owner Kay Graham (played by a tired Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks).

The whole thing is about as imaginative as a telemovie, but it’s hard not to become enthused by the film’s romantic nostalgia for this bygone (thoroughly mythical) period of journalism and perception of journalists as arbiters of truth and justice, holding power to account.

The moment was certainly a critical one for the popular perception of American politics and the role of the press – and this significance is realised in the film through punchy, fast-paced dialogue, and men (and a few women) in suits doing important things under immense time pressure. But the film, a mostly pleasurable affair, is let down at the end by Bradlee’s absurd, posturing rant about the importance of the freedom of the press for American democracy – as though the press in a capitalist society can ever be “free” when news is determined on the basis of sales and profit.

The Bad

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s latest exercise in British nationalism, is a sombre, solemn film, depicting the evacuation of Dunkirk in WWII leading up to Churchill’s famous “New World will rescue us” speech.

Nolan has always been a relentless experimenter, and is a good stylist, so it is a surprise that, despite his potentially thrilling approach to the event – three different time scales dynamically overlapping, the story associated with each interweaving across air, land and sea, civilian and soldier, hero and coward – it is an unengaging and dour film.

It attempts to envelop the viewer in the drama – and the soundscape contributes a great deal to this – but it doesn’t hold a candle to the great war films of the 1950s and 1960s like Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes and Robert Aldrich’s Attack.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). Warner Bros Picture

Nolan has managed, with Dunkirk, to make an at best, unengaging film. This is all capped off by an annoyingly sentimental ending – we have lived, now, through Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. – and predictable British jingoism about stiff-upper lippedness.

Like Dunkirk, writer-director Neil McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missourihad the potential to be great. Consider the ingredients: excellent actors, some of whom are at the peak of their powers (Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, newcomer Caleb Landry Jones), a score by Carter Burwell, a story about a distraught mother facing off against the town sheriff about his treatment of the violent rape and murder of her daughter … McDonagh directed In Bruges, after all, and that was great.

Alas, McDonagh also directed one of the most irritating films of the 21st century, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards is evidence, if we needed it, that In Bruges was a fluke. This film again sees one of the McDonagh brothers doing his post-Mamet, post-Tarantino thing, but it’s all rather tired and tiresome.

Rockwell’s performance is the highlight of the film, and Harrelson et al. cruise through, but, though watchable, Three Billboards is a trite, unimpressive film, that tries far too hard to be clever, funny, and, at the same time, important.

Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Darkest Hour, a biopic about Winston Churchill in the early days of WWII, features an amazing performance by an unrecognisable Gary Oldman in the lead role – and not much else.

Like most biopics, it fetishises the genius of Churchill – explicitly describing him as a Cicero at one point – without much consideration for the material processes and social realities underpinning this so-called genius. It touches, for example, on Churchill’s responsibility for some of the 20th century’s great civilian massacres, including the brutal bombing of Mesopotamia, but seems to ignore this history to ultimately celebrate his “eccentricity.” It feels more like a parody of a “serious film” than a serious film, reminding one of the mock trailers at the beginning of Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder. It is also unbearably sentimental and jingoistic.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig, star of a panoply of innocuous “indie” films ranging from bad (Maggie’s Plan) to mediocre (Greenberg), uses every trick from the “indie” playbook in Lady Bird, a harmless, mildly funny, mildly annoying coming of age film following the titular girl’s transformation from disaffected Sacramento high school student rebel to artsy New York uni student.

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird (2017). A24

The film tries hard to be funny, and tries hard to be quirky in its presentation of Lady Bird’s troubles with her mum, boyfriends, teachers, etc. – in short, it tries hard – but everything seems so affected that it’s difficult to see it as much more than a whimsically vapid genre film.

Saoirse Ronan, as the bratty, self-important teen is great, offering the one bright spark in a film that proves, once again, that heartfelt does not make interesting or successful art. How – and why – this was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar is anyone’s guess.

The Strange

Phantom Thread, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, is definitely the outlier in this year’s bunch, by virtue of its sheer strangeness.

The story follows the relationship between arrogant, infantile British fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress he picks up as a model, a lover, and a factotum, who eventually ensnares him in marriage. Once married, Woodcock’s infantility becomes even more apparent, and he loses his magic touch as a rich person who makes clothes for other rich people. This seems to be a connecting theme across both Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread – rich people whose bad behaviour is magically linked to their “talent.”

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day Lewis in Phantom Thread (2017). Focus Features

Krieps is deliciously diabolical as Alma, and Day-Lewis gives a typically absurd, deranged performance as Woodcock – surely the name is a joke? Anderson is, after all, married to comedian Maya Rudolph – and the film is beautifully shot; but, ultimately, we are left wondering what we’ve been watching, why we’ve been watching it, and why it’s been made in the first place?

Is Phantom Thread a joke on the audience? It is certainly very funny and the fact Day-Lewis is able to keep a straight face throughout several of these scenes is testament to his acting chops. It also seems odd that Anderson would fall back on old clichés like the troubled male artist and the borderline female seductress who steals his power, unless he’s offering us some kind of satire, laughing at the gullibility of the audience in treating the work seriously.

Phantom Thread hovers somewhere between masterpiece and turkey – it is both brilliant and stupid – but it may improve with repeated viewings, and across time.

Last year, Moonlight was easily the best of the nominees, and it won the Oscar. This year, Call Me By Your Name is the standout; hopefully it, too, will win.

This article was written by:
Image of Ari MattesAri Mattes – [Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Notre Dame Australia]




This article is part of a syndicated news program via

How a three-decade remaking of the city revived the buzz of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’

 Marvellous Melbourne, a city full of life, has been 
revived over several decades. This is Swanston Street in 2017. 
Andrew Curtis/City of MelbourneAuthor provided

In the gallery of Australian art at Federation Square hangs John Brack’s iconic portrait of Melbourne in the 1950s — Collins Street, 5pm. This painting of the ritual march home from work to the suburbs depicts a city full of people and buildings, yet monochromatic and flat. It has become iconic not only because it captured a mid-20th-century conformity, but also because it stood for the loss of an intensive urbanity that had flourished in the “Marvellous Melbourne” of the late 19th century.

While this era came to a crashing end with the 1890s depression, Melbourne did not fall into decline so much as into conformity and staidness. Through the early decades of the 20th century and two world wars Melbourne remained a major city, but the focus of its development shifted to the suburbs.

Retail activity in the central city declined as suburban shopping malls burgeoned and planners surrendered the city to cars and parking. A substantial architectural heritage was threatened with demolition for a stream of high-rise modernist projects — and indeed much was lost. The central city’s residential population was negligible and Melbourne became a rather dull place that closed on evenings and weekends.

Read more: The elephant in the planning scheme: how cities still work around the dominance of parking space

The laneway culture – this is Block Place in 2017 – has brought life back to the inner city.David Hannah/City of Melbourne, Author provided

While many challenges remain, central Melbourne’s transformation since the 1980s is now a global success story. This is not one story but many: the design of new architecture and public space reclaimed from cars. From turning its back on the water Melbourne has embraced the river and become a waterfront city.

Residents have become a vital part of the city centre, while the inner suburbs have become more dense, diverse and desirable. The city has grown greener — literally, environmentally and politically. The universities have become internationalised and their campuses urbanised.

Laneways that were once filled with garbage are now filled with hip bars, housing and street art. Always an urbane city, Melbourne is emerging as a city with a depth of character and urban buzz that is palpable, ineffable and unfinished.

So how did the transformation happen?

This is not a story of heroic leadership nor of grand projects so much as many stories of many agents and projects working together. While there have been important forms of leadership and governance and significant formal transformations, what really counts are the slow incremental transformations over the long term.

One key problem with the central city of the 1980s was that almost nobody lived there. Beginning with the Postcode 3000 program in the 1990s, the demand for residential accommodation has grown so that the challenge is now one of preventing residential development from damaging the city and displacing other uses.

The concept of a central business district has been relegated to history as the city becomes a place where people live, work, shop and play everywhere; formerly monofunctional zones become diversified; the raw ingredients of a city blend into a rich curry.

Another transformation has been in the expansion and pedestrianisation of public space. While one can point to new open spaces such as Federation Square and Southbank, much of this expansion is also incremental.

Queensbridge Street, Southbank, in 1982 and 2017. Nick Townsend; David Simmons/City of Melbourne, Author provided

Reclaiming public space from the car mostly happens one parking space or traffic lane at a time. This is a slow cycle: less available parking induces people to move from cars to public transport; this leads in turn to more pedestrian life and a demand for more public space, which is further enabled by fewer cars.

Flinders Street near Kings Street in 1986 and 2017. Ronald Jones; David Hannah/City of Melbourne, Author provided

The complexities of density

One of the most visible of the incremental changes has been the overall increase in density – whether measured as streetlife, residents, jobs or building bulk. Density is one of the most difficult urban properties to manage.

On the one hand density is good: it brings everything closer together and gives us walkable access to more people and places. Yet density can also kill the urban buzz. Hyper-dense projects that damage adjacent public spaces are blighting some parts of central Melbourne.

It is no accident that the most vibrant of laneways in central Melbourne are in areas with buildings less than 10-12 storeys high. The threat of over-development to the quality of public space remains a key challenge.

Lygon Street, Carlton, looking towards the city centre in 1991 and 2017. Kim Dovey; David Hannah/City of Melbourne, Author provided

The transformation of central city laneways from derelict and dangerous wastelands to global tourist attractions has also been incremental. Melbourne’s laneways emerged during the 19th century as adaptations to the formal grid. The blocks and plots were initially far too large, and the need for subdivisions and shortcuts led incrementally to the intricate network we have inherited.

In this regard, Melbourne was lucky since so much of its character is now embodied in this intersection of the formal grid with the irregularity of the laneways. The potential of the laneways has long been recognised, especially by the young and the creative industries. The laneway transformations are due more to enabling those activities to flourish than to the various upgrading projects that often follow.

Hardware Lane in 1967 and 2017. K.J. Halla 1967/State Library of Victoria; David Hannah/City of Melbourne, Author provided

The danger now is that as lanes become gentrified and “branded” for global consumption, the street art becomes curated and the real urban life moves on.

Urban choreography, not micro-management

Urban design within a complex city can be understood as a kind of “urban choreography”, not a micromanagement of the form or the life of the city, but a practice of framing, shepherding, enabling and constraining. How to achieve a balance between over-regulation, which paralyses creative and productive forces, and under-regulation, which unleashes over-development and privatisation that can kill urban life? How to enable markets to flourish while controlling over-development?

Good cities allow elements of disorder, spontaneity, informality and unpredictability. Different people, practices and buildings cluster in cities to form alliances; but different values, built forms and activities also intersect and contradict, and make a richer society because of that. We are all agents in the choreography of urban life.

A major challenge that remains in Melbourne lies in developing a better relationship between the city and the state. In the 1980s the state government played a key role in initiating positive change and in collaborating with Melbourne City Council on a range of urban design transformations – the Southbank strategy and laneway revitalisations, for example. Many Melburnians will remember the event known as the Greening of Swanston Street in 1985 when the state (with Evan Walker as planning minister and David Yencken as head of department) paved the civic axis with grass and threw a street party that enlarged our imagination of what was possible.

The Greening of Swanston Street in 1985. Victorian Ministry of Planning, Author provided

Urban design within the City of Melbourne has flourished ever since, but state intervention in the central city (regardless of the party in power) has often been ill-informed, authoritarian and damaging. The recent decision to allow Apple to rebrand Federation Square, together with the anti-democratic manner in which it was implemented, is but one example.

A 1961 proposal for the Flinders Street Station precinct and the view in 2017 of the area, including Federation Square. Unknown; Andrew Curtis/City of Melbourne, Author provided

Where do we go from here?

Any understanding of central Melbourne today is also the basis for the kind of city it might become over the next 30 years. If we compare the many past visions for central Melbourne against the city that has actually emerged, again we find that incremental change is the norm of urban transformation.

Urban Choreography: Central Melbourne 1985— MUP 2018

Grand visions may “stir men‘s blood”, as Burnham famously put it, but are rarely realised in full; the real city has generally emerged as more complex and more interesting. While images of idealised urban futures capture the public imagination, the deeper task is one of understanding the complexity of the city, the forces that drive it, the possible outcomes and the interventions that are necessary to realise them.

While there is always a place for imaginative new projects and instant transformations, the key task of inventing the future is that of imaginative adaptation of the existing city. While most change is incremental, in aggregate it is transformational.

The palpable buzz that distinguishes central Melbourne from all other Australian cities, indeed most new world cities, did not emerge overnight. And it is not finished yet. Watch this space.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Kim DoveyKim Dovey – [Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, University of Melbourne];
Image of Rob AdamsRob Adams – [Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne]
Image of Ronald JonesRonald Jones – [Adjunct Professor of Landscape Architecture, RMIT University]

This article is an edited excerpt from Urban Choreography: Central Melbourne 1985— (MUP 2018), edited by Kim Dovey, Rob Adams and Ronald Jones.




This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Listen To Older Voices : Chris Stockley – Part 1

 Welcome to Listen To Older Voices,  
a program produced by Rob Greaves for Uniting Melba and podcast 
through the Toorak Times and Tagg.
Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principle of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.

This is another Baby Boomers special program featuring the story of Chris Stockley presented 4-parts. Born in the UK in 1948, we learn about Chris and his family included his grandparents. Chris became enamored with music at a young age developing a love for Rock ‘n’ Roll but a passion for the Blues. He was 14 when the British new music scene exploded around him.

We follow the story of a somewhat distressed Chris as he was uprooted when his parents migrate to Australia in the early 1960’s, just as it was all “happening” musically around him in the UK. We learn of the misgivings the family had when they arrived in Melbourne and about Chris’ dismay at the music scene he found on his arrival. However, Chris connects with another young man who had a similar taste in music and all of a sudden life isn’t so bad and he sets out to start his first band.

Chris circa early 1965 [Authors collection]

Click to hear Chris Stockley – Part 1

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 



[Listen To Older Voices receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Commonwealth Home Support Program Program]

Sunday essay: the erotic art of Ancient Greece and Rome

 A fragment of a wall painting showing two lovers in bed 
from the House of L Caecilius Jucundus in Pompeii, now at 
Naples National Archaeological Museum. Wikimedia Commons

Rarely does L.P. Hartley’s dictum that “the past is a foreign country” hold more firmly than in the area of sexuality in classical art. Erotic images and depictions of genitalia, the phallus in particular, were incredibly popular motifs across a wide range of media in ancient Greece and Rome.

Simply put, sex is everywhere in Greek and Roman art. Explicit sexual representations were common on Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. They are often eye-openingly confronting in nature.

Bronze tintinnabula in the shape of flying phalluses, Pompeii, first century AD. Gabinetto Segreto del Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Wikimedia

The Romans too were surrounded by sex. The phallus, sculpted in bronze as tintinnabula (wind chimes), were commonly found in the gardens of the houses of Pompeii, and sculpted in relief on wall panels, such as the famous one from a Roman bakery telling us hic habitat felicitas (“here dwells happiness”).

However these classical images of erotic acts and genitalia reflect more than a sex obsessed culture. The depictions of sexuality and sexual activities in classical art seem to have had a wide variety of uses. And our interpretations of these images – often censorious in modern times – reveal much about our own attitudes to sex.

Modern responses

When the collection of antiquities first began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries, the openness of ancient eroticism puzzled and troubled Enlightenment audiences. This bewilderment only intensified after excavations began at the rediscovered Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Gabinetto Segreto (the so-called “Secret Cabinet”) of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli best typifies the modern response to classical sexuality in art – repression and suppression.

The secret cabinet was founded in 1819, when Francis I, King of Naples, visited the museum with his wife and young daughter. Shocked by the explicit imagery, he ordered all items of a sexual nature be removed from view and locked in the cabinet. Access would be restricted to scholars, of “mature age and respected morals”. That was, male scholars only.

Erotic terracotta sculptures in a showcase in the Gabinetto Segreto at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Found in a Samnite sanctuary in the old town of Cales (Calvi Risorta). Wikimedia

In Pompeii itself, where explicit material such as the wallpaintings of the brothel was retained in situ, metal shutters were installed. These shutters restricted access to only male tourists willing to pay additional fees, until as recently as the 1960s.

Of course, the secrecy of the collection in the cabinet only increased its fame, even if access was at times difficult. John Murray’s Handbook to South Italy and Naples (1853) sanctimoniously states that permission was exceedingly difficult to obtain:

Very few therefore have seen the collection; and those who have, are said to have no desire to repeat their visit.

The cabinet was not opened to the general public until 2000 (despite protests by the Catholic Church). Since 2005, the collection has been displayed in a separate room; the objects have still not been reunited with contemporary non-sexual artefacts as they were in antiquity.

Literature also felt the wrath of the censors, with works such as Aristophanes’ plays mistranslated to obscure their “offensive” sexual and scatalogical references. Lest we try to claim any moral and liberal superiority in the 21st century, the infamous marble sculptural depiction of Pan copulating with a goat from the collection still shocks modern audiences.

Marble statue of Pan copulating with goat, found the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. first century AD. Wikimedia

The censorship of ancient sexuality is perhaps best typified by the long tradition of removing genitals from classical sculpture.

The Vatican Museum in particular (but not exclusively) was famed for altering classical art for the sake of contemporary morals and sensibilities. The application of carved and cast fig leaves to cover the genitalia was common, if incongruous.

It also indicated a modern willingness to associate nudity with sexuality, which would have puzzled an ancient audience, for whom the body’s physical form was in itself regarded as perfection. So have we been misreading ancient sexuality all this time? Well, yes.

Marble statue of Mercury in the Vatican collection. The fig leaf is a later addition. Wikimedia

Ancient porn?

It is difficult to tell to what extent ancient audiences used explicit erotic imagery for arousal. Certainly, the erotic scenes that were popular on vessels would have given the Athenian parties a titillating atmosphere as wine was consumed.

Athenian red-figure kylix, attributed to Dokimasia Painter, c. 480 BC. British Museum.The Trustees of the British Museum

These types of scenes are especially popular on the kylix, or wine-cup, particularly within the tondo (central panel of the cup). Hetairai (courtesans) and pornai (prostitutes) may well have attended the same symposia, so the scenes may have been used as a stimuli.

Painted erotica was replaced by moulded depictions in the later Greek and Roman eras, but the use must have been similar, and the association of sex with drinking is strong in this series.

The application of sexual scenes to oil lamps by the Romans is perhaps the most likely scenario where the object was actually used within the setting of love-making. Erotica is common on mould-made lamps.

The phallus and fertility

Although female nudity was not uncommon (particularly in association with the goddess Aphrodite), phallic symbolism was at the centre of much classical art.

The phallus would often be depicted on Hermes, Pan, Priapus or similar deities across various art forms. Rather than being seen as erotic, its symbolism here was often associated with protection, fertility and even healing. We have already seen the phallus used in a range of domestic and commercial contexts in Pompeii, a clear reflection of its protective properties.

Marble Herm, from Siphnos, Greece. c. 520 BC. National Archaeological Museum, Athens.Wikimedia

A herm was a stone sculpture with a head (usually of Hermes) above a rectangular pillar, upon which male genitals were carved. These blocks were positioned at borders and boundaries for protection, and were so highly valued that in 415 BC when the hermai of Athens were vandalised prior to the departure of the Athenian fleet many believed this would threaten the success of the naval mission.

A famous fresco from the House of the Vetti in Pompeii shows Priapus, a minor deity and guardian of livestock, plants and gardens. He has a massive penis, holds a bag of coins, and has a bowl of fruit at his feet. As researcher Claudia Moser writes, the image represents three kinds of prosperity: growth (the large member), fertility (the fruit), and affluence (the bag of money).

It is worth noting that even a casual glance at classical sculptures in a museum will reveal that the penis on marble depictions of nude gods and heroes is often quite small. Classical cultural ideals valued a smaller penis over a larger, often to the surprise of modern audiences.

All representations of large penises in classical art are associated with lustfulness and foolishness. Priapus was so despised by the other gods he was thrown off Mt Olympus. Bigger was not better for the Greeks and Romans.

Myths and sex

Classical mythology is based upon sex: myths abound with stories of incest, intermarriage, polygamy and adultery, so artistic depictions of mythology were bound to depict these sometimes explicit tales. Zeus’s cavalier attitude towards female consent within these myths (among many examples, he raped Leda in the guise of a swan and Danae while disguised as the rain) reinforced misogynistic ideas of male domination and female subservience.

A mosaic depicting Leda and the swan, circa third century AD, from the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, Palea Paphos; now in the Cyprus Museum, Nicosia.Wikimedia

The phallus was also highlighted in depictions of Dionysiac revelry. Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, theatre and transformation was highly sexualised, as were his followers – the male satyrs and female maenads, and their depiction on wine vessels is not surprising.

Satyrs were half-men, half-goats. Somewhat comic, yet also tragic to a degree, they were inveterate masturbators and party animals with an appetite for dancing, wine and women. Indeed the word satyriasis has survived today, classified in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a form of male hypersexuality, alongside the female form, nymphomania.

Detail of an Athenian red-figure psykter (cooler) depicting a satyr balancing a kantharos on his penis, painted by Douris, c. 500-490 BC. British Museum.Wikimedia

The intention of the ithyphallic (erect) satyrs is clear in their appearance on vases (even if they rarely caught the maenads they were chasing); at the same time their massive erect penises are indicative of the “beastliness” and grotesque ugliness of a large penis as opposed to the classical ideal of male beauty represented by a smaller one.

Actors who performed in satyr plays during dramatic festivals took to the stage and orchestra with fake phallus costumes to indicate that they were not humans, but these mythical beasts of Dionysus.

Early collectors of classical art were shocked to discover that the Greeks and Romans they so admired were earthy humans too with a range of sexual needs and desires. But in emphasising the sexual aspects of this art they underplayed the non-sexual role of phallic symbols.

This essay was written by:



Listen To Older Voices : Wyn Wilson – Part 2

 Welcome to Listen To Older Voices, 
a program produced by Rob Greaves for Uniting Melba 
and podcast through the Toorak Times and Tagg.
Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principle of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.

This is another wonderful Golden Moment Repeat program, where we have dipped into our vault of treasured memories and retrieved a story from the archives that we believe deserves being repeated for those who may have missed it the first time. The story of Wyn Wilson was first aired in October 2004 when I sat down with the then 77-year old Wyn.
This is the second and final part of the story of Wyn Wilson. Having been born and bought up in South Africa during its height of apartheid, Wyn is in a prime position to talk about why this terrible social and racial separation occurred and why it was so wrong. Although now consigned to history, it is an engrossing experience to hear from the mouth of an educated white woman who witnessed so much of this terrible tragedy – and it reminds us why we should guard against similar separateness today.

We are also totally entranced by the story of the horrific story of the trials and traumas she and her husband had in getting out of South Africa before happily making Australia their new home.

Click on the radio to hear Wyn Wilson – Part 2

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 




[Listen To Older Voices receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through 
the Commonwealth Home Support Program Program]

Sunday essay: species sightings

 An echidna in the Western Granites at 
Jam Tree Gully. John Kinsella

A Rare Sight

The bird seen first time here
in forty years sings lightly
on the wire, you turn to touch
the shoulder of a friend
and turning back together
find nothing but sky
and wire trembling.

Brushtail possum evidenced. We had not seen one here in nine years, and there might not have been a sighting long before this. But there might have been. A possum or possums may have been driven out, removed from the roof cavity — there are, sadly, people who will do this and then exterminate them. But this too is conjecture, we’re only going here on the general condition of the bush block when we arrived — the 170 years of colonial erosion, the running of cattle and sheep and horses, the fencing, cropping (to a lesser extent because we are on the rocky northern face of a valley — that happens on the other side of the hills, a couple of kilometres away), and the machinery of colonial domestic presence — house, sheds, driveway, firebreaks.

Once, this area in the Western Australian wheatbelt, like nearby Goomalling (“Place of possums”), was prime habitat for brushtail possums. Even now residual and remnant York gum and jam tree woodland, granite boulders and granite outcrops, in patches of greater and lesser density, provide enough for native fauna to retain a hold.

Since we’ve been at Jam Tree Gully, we have removed internal fences, planted trees and — through not farming animals — allowed the beginning of a return of undergrowth. It’s an agonisingly slow process; this year is the first in nine years that we have actually seen, through self-generation, the reappearance of the shy sun orchid (a single example), scarlet runner (running postman) and a native fern.

Looking south across Jam Tree Gully. John Kinsella

I am talking about Ballardong Noongar boodja (country), and not “ours” but by the colonial reality of surveys and land titles, “allocated” as our domestic jurisdiction, the act of survey and property hierarchising entitlement (though mining companies believe they have even more entitlement than that, as, of course, does the state, as anyone can tell you who had “their” land reclaimed as part of the Cathedral Avenue widening of the road from York to Quairading and the destruction of hundreds of old-growth salmon gums, wandoos and York gums). As far as I and my family are concerned, we have an obligation to return this land to a health that though distant from its pre-colonial state of health, at least gestures towards it.

One of the dominant linguistic behaviours of our family residency in the area, of our presence, is to discuss what other living things we see every day, and how they relate to the country we see them on. Our son Tim, an avid birdwatcher and naturalist, walks the block every day and reports back, verbally and on film, about what he’s observed. These are intricate and informed observations, cross-referenced with what is likely to be seen, differences in, say, behaviour (mating plumage, nesting processes, shifts in song, etc), numbers, and implication. Like his parents, Tim sees language as part of presence, and these observations are an essential part of his own poetry-making.

John Kinsella. Tracy Ryan

Similarly, I spend my time out on the block doing restorative tasks and acts, and working their language into the matrix of my writing. The language is in flux because rather than a taxonomy, a nomenclature of seeing and presence, what happens is that experience of habitat loss, and attempts at habitat restoration, place words, syntax and utterance as we have it under pressure.

Something else emerges, an active language of presence that needs to critique the ironies of its own impact, of its own vicarious (and direct) participation in the ongoing dynamics of dispossession and acquisition.

Neologisms and new nomenclature might be one outcome, but more often it’s a shift in what constitutes the observing eye and voice, what makes the self in the process. In poetics, we talk about the “I” in the context of the unified self and challenging the primacy of personal observation when language itself creates at the very least a simulacrum of self in which the poem is a cybernetic producer of opinions, surprise correlations and yokings, undoings and interjections. The poem itself is alive — made by the writer, it takes on a life of its own.

So, does this mean I am suggesting the poem itself, for example, channels the disturbances and distresses of country? Well, yes, up to a point.

The wasp making its mud cells and inserting caterpillars or spiders, stunned but alive with a wasp egg laid inside their bodies, to be eaten alive — in a state of life suspended — by wasp grubs, which break out of their dark cells into the light. It’s a poem that needs no explanation if “made” — it works on levels of allegory, symbol, a glimpse of habitat, and so on. Or maybe something a little more acceptable to a readership which ultimately looks for affirmation of connection with the natural world while benefiting from capitalist exploitation of place (look around us), an echidna moving rapidly downhill, its quills liquid in the fractured light of late afternoon sun streaming over the rim of valley, through the York gum canopy.

We don’t see echidnas often here, but we see evidence of their diggings for ants and termites almost daily. And we see their scats. In fact, coming across scats is how we identify so much, including the brushtail possum. Scats, footprints, scratchings and sounds, especially at night. These languages are outside direct encounter, and often outside a description we might offer. Echidna sightings are coming less often, though evidence of their presence remains strong.

The poem interprets this as avoidance and strategy on the part of the echidna — we respect the not-seeing, and delight in the evidence of presence. Same with kangaroos. But in the case of eagles, the (illegal) killing of an eagle in a pair that were resident for many, many years, is an undoing that is hard to resolve under habitat-loss pressure. It is brutal. But writing about this loss, about the wrong done, cannot be a fait accompli — it must believe in the imagined presence as likely “return” as species, at least.

Roos at Jam Tree Gully just before the fences came down. John Kinsella

All life we see on the block is vulnerable to human violence — thrill-killings of animals are sadly not uncommon, and there seems a strong link between far-right politics of patriotism and shooting around the district.

Scramble-biking, bush-bashing and remorseless clearing are changing habitat around the zone we “protect” at a far greater pace than when we arrived. It’s easy to use the “fly-in fly-out” dynamic as a distraction for the massive abuse that mining is in Australia, and to separate social issues of employment and purpose when discussing the obvious (“clear-cut”) environmental abuses of miners and their protectors, but nonetheless it is a real impact on ecologies that needs to be factored in.

The psychology of the mine

The impact of flying, the obvious impacts of the mines themselves, but also the psychology of purchasing a country property within a couple of hours’ reach of the city airport to use as a base. So many of the farmlets and blocks around where we live appear to have been bought by FIFO (fly in fly out) workers (real estate ads often overtly pitch to FIFO buyers, and I offer anecdotal evidence of conversations direct and indirect with and involving neighbours), and in many circumstances the psychology of the mine looks as if it has been brought to those blocks — substantial bush clearing, clear indifference to wildlife, and a psychology of control, ownership and what manifests by intent or default as a disrespect of Aboriginal land rights.

Of course, such attitudes to country are not unique to FIFO miners, far from it, and they have found around them a context of receptivity to such ways. And I do not blame the individual miners for this per se, but I do blame the mining companies and those who facilitate the abuses of land by those miners. A work psychology too readily becomes a life psychology.

An Inland Thornbill at Jam Tree Gully. John Kinsella

In creating writing that acts as witness to species loss, we too easily become contributors to the archive, to the seedbank of metaphors that substitute for the real thing. It’s like repugnant natural history collections that give us a record of so many lost species when the very process of collecting has been a part of that species loss. Science bears many moral ironies that I feel an active, restorative poem should not. I am not saying a poem shouldn’t ironise the limitations of its own production, its impacts on ecologies; in fact, the opposite. I am saying it should be aware of them and critique its own role in the destruction.

A poem having a role in destruction? I hear you wonder. How so? Because industrialised consumer life is impacting and many, even the most environmentally-minded, make their art through the tools of exploitation.

It becomes a question of genuinely weighing up the cost in terms of the benefit to the environment. Does getting the message out there regarding habitat destruction cost more morally and literally than not doing so? The notion of “costs” needs to be placed under pressure before we begin. An economics of the figurative needs to be held accountable, scrutinised.

Which brings me back to the language of participation, observation and instruction I intimated when talking of our son Tim and writing what’s happening on the block. My partner Tracy and I are often confronted with the horror of having to say, “We saw a lot of those (birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, trees, shrubs, flowers etc) when we were kids, but not often now, or not at all.”

In many cases, flora and fauna we knew as children are now endangered or verging on extinction, not only within the physical areas with which we were most familiar, but across their range.

An example is the brown bittern, which I used to see and hear as a child when around swampy areas, and which is now almost extinct, certainly in the Northam region. Yet Tracy and I, travelling with Tim, had the remarkable experience of very likely seeing (unconfirmed sighting) a black or brown bittern between Toodyay and Perth last year. Tim, a most observant person, didn’t see it because he was studying something else outside the opposite window, and has been quizzing us about the sighting ever since. He has done a vast amount of research, and we have considered all other possibilities (too big for a little bittern, not the right size and shape for a night heron, a bird I know well), and so on. It was really, a notifiable sighting. Not in the sense of an “invasive species” (the irony!), but as an almost extinct species.

Echidna in the Western Granites. John Kinsella 

Would such notification lead to an invasiveness that affected its habitat more, or would it lead to protection? I consider recent sightings of night parrots in northern Australia, and wonder. The “understanding” to “save” can be so destructive — life, persisting against the odds, suddenly disturbed, fetishised, made vulnerable with over-attention. The “leave alone and stay away” approach can often be more effective. At least until the bulldozers arrive, which I’ve learnt over my life is eventually.

So, what do we do? Write a poem of resistance, of embodying the bird but not appropriating it in a poem, of keeping an eye on habitat and acting if it looks under threat?. Where a creature once was, a creature might be. Belonging and the marks of the endemic cannot be erased entirely with all the brutal means of survey and development, though the modus operandi of the state and its private apparatuses is to achieve that, and to convince us it’s been achieved. They want no comeback, to retrospective protections, and certainly no memorialising that cedes authority.

Brushtail possum evidenced. The nature of our interaction yet to be decided — largely by possum, but also by us. Possum enters poems, enters essays, enters stories. But does it become just a word, just an idea separated from its living life, it’s actuality? So easily, yes. Yet tense has a lot to do with it. As an active presence, not a thing of the past, and as a generator of sounds, movement and language. It is not an addition to here; it is here. It is not an exercise of painting a landscape; it is the land.

Language used in the poem needs to be alive to the visceral, to a future in which it is not archival but an active presence, a declaration of rights. How can this be achieved? That poem is trying to write itself at the moment, and is finding its feet, its fur, its eating-places and shitting-places. There is an obligation in how we write, and a social implication in all we write.

In the community of the poem, which is both inside the text and outside, a knowledge of species loss and its prevalence might inform an observing, interaction with and imagining of a creature (or plant) as not only at risk, and on the verge of loss, but also as a resistance to collecting, archiving and relegating. The creature isn’t “was” but “is”, always now. We, the readers and hearers, participate in the speech-making of the poem, participate in this “imagining, and acting, in a world”. There’s one biosphere of many worlds. In our writings we need to make the leaps, the segues, the conversations between the one and the many. Brushtail possum evidenced. Listen, listen — on the roof, now, tomorrow!

This is an edited version of a paper given at the Australian Academy of the Humanities’ 48th Annual Symposium, Humanitarianism and Human Rights, held November 15 to 17, 2017, in Western Australia. The poem A Rare Sight is from John Kinsella’s The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony (Fremantle Press, 1995).

The essay was written by:
Image of John KinsellaJohn Kinsella – [Professor of Literature and Environment, Curtin University]




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