Dear Australians, We Need Coercive Control Laws Not a Religious Discrimination Bill

I’m not usually one to take a strong interest in politics, unless of course an issue props up that effects me directly. It is an egocentric mindset that many people can relate to. It is also a dangerous complacency because without active interest in what our politicians are doing, dubious bills can slip pass unnoticed, for example, the Australian Federal Liberal party’s Religion Discrimination Bill 2021.

Last year when researching a group of radical extremists, I became aware of the nuances of Australian’s so-called Freedom of Religion Act. Long story short, despite Australia supposedly upholding all human rights, for some reason, Freedom of Religion has the capacity to overwrite other human rights. In others words, if you want to abuse someone, all you need to do is claim you are acting in accordance with your religious beliefs.

Want to reduce others to servitude and keep them in line with cruel and demeaning punishments? No worries, mate, go ahead if that’s what your God says is the only way to get into heaven. Want to spy on someone and arbitrarily interfere with their privacy and communication with others? That’s also fine, mate, surely nothing can wrong if a religious leader has absolute control over who their followers talk to and interact with. No possible manipulation there at all. Want to arbitrarily deprive someone their of property? If that’s your religion, then go right ahead. For instance, taking quality shoes off a teenager with foot problems and giving them to an adult with no foot problems is a very reasonable religious practice. I’m sure the kid will be happy with those shoes that are two sizes too small which they found in a dumpster. As for those corns and fungal infections they develop due to inadequate footwear, well, that will just help them develop character. I bet God wanted that teenager to suffer anyway, that’s why the leader was guided in a dream to take the shoes off them in the first place. Want to promote suicidal ideation and self harm practices? Ordinary that’s not allowed, but if it’s part of your faith then Australia will provide you with a legal loophole to get away with it. Thus, Australia is becoming a desirable location for spiritual gurus who want form a religion.

I wish I could say the above paragraph was a fabrication of worst case scenarios, but it’s not. This has all happened in Australia. And this is still happening in Australia right now. Why? Because Australian authorities do not have the power to intervene. Freedom of Religion legislation as it currently stands can and does override other criminal offences. The so-called new and improved version of policies that Scott Morrison’s government is trying to get approved will only make matters worse. A snapshot of harmful religious practices currently conducted within Australia can be found on the Cult Information and Family Support website.

Abusive behaviours that are justified, executed, and legalised as religious freedom have a long history dating back thousands and thousands of years. Hitler was just following his religious beliefs too. Many who lived through WW2 swore it should never happen again. The United Nation’s defining of basic human rights was a collaborative effort from around the globe aimed at preventing atrocities occurring by religious fundamentalists with superiority complexes. Perhaps the current Australia government needs a history lesson?

While I have become involved in the issue through dealing with a radical extremist group (who claim to be a minority Christian religion), many others have criticised the Morrison government’s proposal for other reasons. Condemners include legal experts, unions, and civil organisations like LGBTIQA+ communities and women’s rights movement.

A few weeks ago, journalist Dalley-Fisher made the following remarks in The Canberra Times in relation to how the bill could harm sexual discrimination:

“ … it’s great to hear that the federal government is interested in legislating to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. [..] It’s therefore extremely frustrating to discover that the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 not only fails to properly implement the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, but it also manages to exacerbate the sort of cultural barriers that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s reports seek to overcome.

[..] Rather than limiting the right to manifest beliefs to protect the rights of others, the Bill actually limits the human right of others to freedom from discrimination, in order to protect the right to manifest beliefs.”

These sentiments could be aptly applied to other scenarios. The bill places religion and religious practices as more being important than common decency and other forms of discrimination. I’m all for individuals having the right to believe and practice whatever religion they want, but I’m not okay with religious rationales being accepted as a means of excusing abusive practices. The bill itself is an act of coercive control aimed at encouraging Australians to be tolerant of religious abuse.

If the Religious Discrimination bill goes ahead, then, as per the summary of the legislation, discrimination will be prohibited “on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity in a range of areas of public life, including in relation to employment, education, access to premises and the provision of goods, services and accommodation”. The aim is not to protect individuals who are non-religious and/or who have beliefs that differ to mainstream faiths. The aim is to protect mainstream religions by establishing “general and specific exceptions from the prohibition of religious discrimination” to a point in which “certain statements of belief [will] not constitute discrimination for the purposes of certain specified Commonwealth, state or territory anti-discrimination laws”. Did everybody get that? Religious conglomerates can avoid being charged with anti-discrimination under “Commonwealth, state or territory anti-discrimination laws” for exercising their religious beliefs “in relation to employment, education, access to premises and the provision of goods, services and accommodation”. Organised religions will have more rights than the average individual.

Why in hell (pun intended) would politicians want to create a bill that removes protections of human rights from certain individuals in order to allow other individuals the right to manifest beliefs that are sexist, racist, and otherwise abusive? The motive is clear. The only reason possible, is to increase the power of religious groups. What religious group may the Scott Morrison government have in mind? The obvious answer = Pentecostal Christianity. Of particular interest is Morrison’s connection to Hillsong, a Pentecostal denomination of Christianity that was introduced to Australia via American influences in the 1980s.

If Morrison’s aim is to increase privileges of Christianity – in particular Pentecostal versions – then he is being short sighted of the broader implications regarding the bill.

Morrison’s support of religious ideology includes being a close friend of one of Hillsong’s leading pastors, Brian Houston. How close? Let’s just say he’s known him a very long time and the bonds are sufficient for him to put Houston’s name down as a potential guest for an event at the White House. (By the way, Houston is currently facing criminal charges relating to the cover up of child sex abuse.)

Morrison’s alliance with Hillsong is long and controversial. Their adrenaline pumping gatherings were in the news recently for not following the Covid-19 mandate of no dancing at festivals – apparently there was some confusion over the NSW health order in which Hillsong thought being a religious gathering meant they had an exception to the rule that everyone else had to follow. Going back to March 2020, when Covid was beginning to impact the county, many speculated Morrison delayed the introduction of density limits till after a Hillsong concert. Was he looking after his mates’ best interests or the country’s? Either way, we know Morrison loves attending these kinds of worshipping sessions.

Scott Morrison opening Hillsong conference 2019. Source: Wikipedia

Pentecostal religion is relatively new but still has some of the good old medieval beliefs surrounding heaven and hell, Jesus and Satan, and predictions of the end times. Each particular Pentecostal Church and believer may have differing opinions, as is the norm across many versions of Christianity. Of concern are the devout who most vehemently believe you have to follow their version of beliefs in order to secure bliss in the afterlife. Subsequently, many Australians, like me, may be judged as being doomed for hell. That’s fine. What is not fine is putting fundamentalists in a position where others can be discriminated against and then protecting the acts of discrimination with federal laws that supersede state and commonwealth laws.

Belief in demonology and other unseen spirits is also pretty big in some Christian circles. Again, that’s fine. I’m happy to keep an open mind to the existence of fairies and gnomes too (and Allah, Buddha, and any other deity). But why should one ideology have the opportunity to discriminate over another? I don’t know exactly where Morrison stands on these issue, so I can only speculate. Besides, the issue isn’t directly what he believes anyway, the issue is that he is making legislations that empowers faith above rational reasoning. This is especially worrisome in relation to mental health issues when theories of possession are applied to individuals who are struggling with addiction and well-being concerns. Its dark age superstitions of psychology at its best when demons are used to explain conditions like anxiety, depression, and psychosis, while contemporary knowledge of the nervous system and the effects of trauma are ignored.

While most Christians are caring, kind hearted people, who do their best to look out for the needs of others, by creating legislation that it gives blanket approval to religious groups to express their faith, the door is opened for religious groups to use this loophole in such a manner that other human rights are neglected. Not only will it put more power into the hands of mainstream religions, it will also allow destructive cults and radical extremists the capacity to discriminate against others. The marginalised will be atheists, non-religious people, and individuals who do not otherwise have the backing of a religious ideology to justify “certain statements of belief”. Rather than promoting equality, a major criticism of the bill is that gives privileges to certain groups who want to exercise prejudices in the name of religion. The potential repercussions are highly alarming to say the least, especially given that freedom of religion in Australia already favours Christianity over other faiths.

Focus on spiritual principles in relation to work and employment situations is also damning when individuals are expected to work for God, not money. Whistleblower, Nicole Herman, says the Hillsong church is a cult that expects followers to work for free, despite huge annual earnings. This situation is not unique to Hillsong. I have had direct interactions about this subtle form of enslavement with the Australian Federal Police, Fair Work Ombudsmen, and Workplace Health and Safety Commission. If religious groups can conn their followers into forgoing their rights to be given fair pay in exchange for their time, services, and skills then Australian agencies are not in a strong position to intervene. I have personally had this conversation with all three of the aforementioned government agencies in relation to a religious group (not Hillsong) that coerces members into working for the leader for free. Despite it being clear there is an employment relationship and group members are performing work outside of volunteer guidelines, religious leaders can avoid persecution due to, you guessed it, “freedom of religion”.

Moving on, Hillsong has received 42 million tax-free dollars of federal money under questionable circumstances. The church the Morrison’s personally attend, Horizon, received 110K for security upgrades, which some question the necessary of. And a Hillsong teaching academy is reported to have received 5 million in support packages. Is this the type of education Morrison believes constitutes more learning and less activism?

From slave labour to tax cuts and government handouts, Hillsong is doing so well it was able to recently purchase Melbourne’s Festival Hall for 23 million dollars. I’m not alone in the opinion that the situation highlights financial advantages given to religious organisations that are unfair and need to be addressed by making them pay taxes like everyone else.

But wait, while on the topic of a performing arts theatre venue, let’s not forget that in 2019 Morrison slashed Arts funding and merged the Department of Communications and Arts portfolio into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. Is it just me or does Morrison care more about providing support to religions than encouraging a diverse range of freedom of thought, conscience, and belief through artistic expressions? Further, while Hillsong currently say they will maintain the Melbourne Festival Hall as a host venue for performing artists (except on Sundays), who’s to say they won’t censor performances by only permitting artists who align with Pentecostal beliefs to use the facility?

Coercive control can be tricky to identify because you can’t always look at just one instance and call it out. It’s the sum of its parts, not the individual parts them self. Having said that, the Religious Discrimination bill 2021 is a very big part of a broader picture.

Coercive control involves behaviour such as intimidation, threats, humiliation tactics, and other forms mental or emotional abuse. For instance, telling someone they’ll go to hell for being gay, implying God wants all women to be subservient to men, claiming anxiety is caused by the devil tempting their soul, belittling traumatic events as being the result of karma, and so forth.

The harmful toll on mental and physical health caused by coercive control is increasingly becoming known and documented. Likewise, it is well recognised by mental health experts that religion is the perfect breeding ground for manipulative behaviours to flourish, hence terms like spiritual bypassing and religious abuse are becoming more common. Personally, I’d place a lot more faith in a government that wanted to protect its citizens from religious abuse than one that endorses coercive control by empowering religious groups with the ability to forgo human rights.

As reported in several articles (like The Conversation), Morrison believes he was chosen by God to be Prime Minister. I wonder if Morrison thinks he was chosen by God to become Prime Minister so as he could evangelise? Perhaps he views the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 as his holy work?

Am I being too harsh? Too cynical? Perhaps Morrison is really a level headed human who is capable of putting his personal faith in perspective and doesn’t allow it to bias his professional decision making processes? If so, why is the number of Pentecostal Christians in Morrison’s cabinet so high? Pentecostal Christianity represents 1.1% of the population but at least 10% of Morrison’s cabinet are Pentecostal and at least 50% are affiliated with a Christian doctrine. How can a cabinet dominated by one particular religious ideology create fair laws which cater to the diverse climate of Australian culture? Likewise, how can preferential funding practices be scrutinised?

It is beyond disappointing that institutions could be given the option of terminating employment due to clashes of belief towards things like gender equality and sexual orientation (even the Pope has let go of archaic ideas of homosexuality being caused by demonic possession). Such measures means that opportunities for positive connections between faiths, like I experienced when working at an Islamic school, could be lost.

From a big picture perspective, giving more power to religious groups under the guise of protecting the integrity of their faith, may be fine if that religion supports other human rights. However, it also paves the way for smaller religious communities to exercise prejudicial behaviours that diminish human rights. Australia is not immune to radical extremism, and oddly, our anti-terrorist and violent extremism laws can be overrided by freedom of religion rights. (Again, I can confirm this due to direct interactions about the matter.)

In sum, the Morrison government is not promoting policies aimed at cultivating peace and harmony within a multicultural and multi-faith country. His devotion to his faith is a conflict of interest that places the right to freedom of religion above other human rights. While many points can only be speculated, the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 indicates the Australian Federal Liberal party has a lack of integrity.

I propose a formal investigation is conducted into the the use of federal funds to support Hillsong and Morrison’s conflict of interest in making policy regarding religious beliefs and conduct.

Australians, we need to curb discriminatory, abusive, and coercive practices in all sectors so as everyone genuinely gets a fair go.

In February 2022, Australian parliament intends to review the Religious Discrimination Bill 2022. If you do not want to see this bill passed, please share this open letter to others and let the politicians know we will not tolerate coercion and the diminishing of humans rights.

Christian Principles, What are They?: Supplemental to Dear Australians, We Need Coercive Control Laws Not. Religious Discrimination Bill

Behind the Hijab: Reflections on Working at an Islamic School From a Teacher Raised as a Catholic

Several years ago, I had the good fortune of being employed as an art teacher at an Islamic school. It wasn’t an experience I actively tried to have, rather I took the opportunity out of necessity. I was unemployed and needed a means of paying the bills which translated into accepting any job interview my employment agency offered. It turned out to be one of the most valuable and enriching life experiences I’ve ever had.

I have not obtained consent from individuals to share specific stories, so in order to maintain confidentially I shall focus on my journey in general terms. The aim of doing so is to break down cultural barriers in the hope that my experience and learnings are of benefit to others.

The interview occurred during a Melbourne heatwave. As per the agency’s instructions, I dressed in clothes that covered me head to toe, including a scarf wrapped around my head, hijab style – I relied upon YouTube tutorials to do this. Naively, apart from my attire, I approached the interview like all others and promptly offered my hand to give a welcome shake to the gentleman who ushered me into interview room. My first lesson: in Islamic communities women don’t shake men’s hands. To ease the tension of my faux pas a female interviewer stepped forward to grasp my hand that was dangling awkwardly in mid air. Somehow, I still got offered the six month position, and in time, realised that Muslim women’s empathy and capacity to accomodate the emotional needs of others is very high.

My whole experience prompted me to look beyond the mindset I was raised with so as I could see the world through a broader scope, a scope that went beyond surface level tolerance of other religions. I was raised a Catholic and with this I had a very western view of life, values, expectations, and assumptions. In other words, I had prejudices. If I were to be completely honest, up until that point, I viewed Muslims as being “others”, not of “my kind”, and dare I say it, “inferiors”. I am now eternally grateful for being humbled by being forced to confront my erroneous attitudes.

I was very guarded when I first began my contract. I was going there to do a job and get paid. End of story. But when does that ever really happen, especially in a school setting? Teaching involves interactions, and interactions lead to bonds being formed and relations developing despite anyone’s best intentions of remaining autonomous.

The first couple of weeks were especially challenging. Not only was there a heatwave, the school was an hour and a half away from home and my car’s air conditioning was broken and I didn’t have the funds to get it fixed. I dressed skimpily to accomodate for the weather then put on coverings in a back street before entering the school grounds. On a personal level, I felt enormous pangs of guilt about abandoning my thirteen year old son at 6:30am every morning. He had just began his secondary education at new school and had to get himself up and to the bus stop without my support. To top it all off, I was going through health challenges and was mourning of the loss of a romantic relationship. I cried to and from work many days. Some days my eyes were still red as I passed through the electronic gates at the front of the school. It took all the strength I could muster to pull myself together and put on my professional teaching persona. I had no allies in this place, no friend to whinge to or unload my burdens onto like at previous employments. The first few weeks were tough, really tough, but that changed as the veil of otherness dissipated and familiarity bred connection.

Each day I turned up to work felt like I was entering into a different world. It was weird, yet there was also something beautiful brewing. Despite my best efforts to look the part, the students all instantly recognised I was not one of “them”. Was it the way I spoke? The style of my clothing? Or was it the way I wore my hijab? After I’d built up rapport with some of the students they informed that it was a combination of all of these and that they could sense my “otherness” immediately. They also kindly showed me how to wear a hijab properly (YouTube had failed me).

I support most feminist ideals, always have and always will. To be placed in a scenario that had an outward appearance of females being treated as inferiors and males as superiors was a thing for me. But my pre-existing stereotypes of Islamic gender roles did not fit what I was experiencing. In the junior high school levels I only taught girls (boys were at another campus). These students displayed a broad range of attitudes typical to any school. Some students were exceptionally concerned about their grades, while others just wanted to use class time to chat with their friends. Initially, I thought that because all the students had to wear hijabs I would not encounter distractions pertaining to appearance like playing with hair, wearing make up, and excessive jewellery, but no, all these issues popped up with exception of playing with hairstyles which was replaced with hijab fashioning.

The daily life experiences of the students did not match my definition of “normal”. However, I had to face the fact that it was my definition of “normal” that was wrong, not the Islamic lifestyle. For instance, how are compulsory hijabs any different to compulsory tie wearing in other schools? (I once worked in a school that required preps to wear ties.) Both are symbols of cultural values. To give another example, I felt like an outsider when I did not know how to respond to certain phrases mentioned at the opening of staff meetings, however, when I thought about it, this was no different to my non-Catholic peers in Catholic schools not knowing how to respond to customs they had not been initiated into.

In the specialty subjects of senior high school, years eleven and twelve, classes were mixed gendered and the expectation was that males and females would sit in different parts of the room. However, I did not know this when I first started. I’d been teaching at the school for at least six weeks when I learned fo this rule. When I realised I hadn’t been enforcing expectations, I apologised to my class for the oversight but the students just kind of smirked and told me genders were allowed to interact in Art classes because of the need to move around and use resources – teenagers of all cultures know how to work around school rules they don’t agree with.

On the teaching front, I thought at first that I could simply repeat lessons I’d given at previous schools, with the exception of portraiture and figure drawing. There were an abundance of other lessons like pattern making and landscapes painting that could be done. Sometimes these activities were successful, sometimes not. I had to stop making assumptions of prior learning experiences and be open trying new approaches that better suited the students before me. I realised that in the past I’d sometimes been robotic with my teaching, like I was in autopilot, but now I had to be fully present.

As time passed, more and more open conversations between myself and the students took place within the boundaries of professional interactions. Some students were devout to Islamic traditions, others not so. There is no one size fits all for Muslims just like there is no one unified Christianity.

I wish I could share some of the specific bonding points and examples of how the veils of otherness fell away, but like I said, due to confidentiality reasons, I cannot. Suffice to say, I was moved by the depth of acceptance that I was embraced with by students and staff.

In regards to the other teachers, in particular my female peers (Muslims), they were as dedicated and professional as other places I’ve worked. Many had Master degrees in addition to their teaching qualifications. Not only were they intellectual, they had a deep appreciation of the Arts. They were strong, kind hearted, and resourceful. On multiple occasions I witnessed female staff putting their back into moving furniture and doing physically laborious tasks. Why was I surprised to see this? Where had I gotten the impression that Islamic woman were meek, mild, and fully dependent upon men in accordance to (western) stereotype roles?

While my initial intention of working at the school was to keep to myself as much as possible, this simply did not happen and, after the first few trying weeks, I found myself looking forward going to the staff room to interact with my fellow teachers for morning tea break even though I could just as easily boil a kettle in my office. The conversations were typical of any work place. What did you do on the weekend? How’s the renovations going? Where are planning your next holiday? And similar topics. And of course work stuff, like did so and so do their homework?

I didn’t realise I was making genuine connections with my colleagues until second term. Some staff members started coming across to the art room (which was an effort due to it being located on the outskirts of the other school buildings) to catch up with me and have idle chatter because they’d missed me in the main staff room. Sometimes they shared stories of personal dilemmas, parenting issues, teaching moments, or the excitement of an up coming event they were looking forward to. In other words “normal” stuff.

Not everything was smooth sailing. I made bloopers, used the wrong phasing in some of lessons, and raffled a few feathers here and there with my unorthodoxy. However, when the principal commended me on the quality of my student’s art works and how refreshing it was to see new types of Art being made, I had no reason to doubt her sincerity. I like to think it was a two way street of learning, a building of an alliance through mutual tolerance and respect.

As I developed more comfortable feelings of being within an Islamic community, I felt inclined to do some shopping at the nearby centre as opposed to going home and shopping in my own familiar neighbourhood. On occasion, I did so still wearing a hijab and without. When I went to the shops without, I had a distinct feeling of being “other” whereas without it, I felt like one of “them”. I even perused the scarf stalls and purchased a couple of that had designs I felt reflected “me”. Doing so encouraged me to reflect upon the “uniforms” I self imposed on myself in other situations. On a philosophical level, I realised that “me” was deeper than my outward appearance and how others may judge what I was wearing.

As the end of my contract neared, it was with joy that I received the news that the school wanted to extend it. I communicated with the principal that I’d like to continue, however, the long drive was tiresome and I felt as though I was neglecting my son. She understood. She said she’d also once worked at a school that she had to drive an hour and half to attend, so in order to keep me she offered to reduce my allotment and rearrange the timetable so as I only needed to go in four days a week. Just days shy of signing the new contract, I was offered a job forty-five minutes from home. It was a tough decision but I decided it was in my personal interest to take the alternative job. My new position was at all boys Catholic school which I’ve written about elsewhere.

As I look back upon my experience of working at an Islamic school, the highs greatly out way the lows. I went there out of necessity and desperation for work, but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding opportunities I’ve ever had. I was an outsider to the culture but I was embraced, welcomed, and made to feel valued, despite my stuff ups. I’m quite certain my positive view of the experience was not a one way street. There were tears in the eyes of at least one student when I broke the news that I was leaving. They had changed me, and I them. Prejudices and misunderstandings were relinquished, perhaps in me more so than anyone else.

Prior to teaching in an Islamic school I had never considered myself to be discriminatory, but I’d also never been confronted with the need to really understand Islam. I had to be honest with myself, I had harboured silent prejudices against the Muslim faith that I may have never faced if I had not forced to do so.

When I told some people of my experiences of wearing a hijab, they questioned why I had to do so if my personal beliefs did not align with the custom. I understand where they were coming from, but personally, I’m glad I was able to put my values aside and respect the wishes of my employer. If I had not done so, I would not have been able to develop a deeper appreciation of life from another’s perspective.

Nowadays, if I pass an Islamic woman wearing a hijab on the streets, I tried to give them knowing smile. I do not know exactly what it is like to be “them” but I’ve had an experience of their culture that is sincere and valued to a point in which my previous “otherness” has been replaced with a sense of “us”. Do Islamic communities have issues of gender equality that need to be addressed? Yes, I do believe they do. But so to does western culture. At the end of the day, whatever culture or religion a person born into, we are all human and our shared humanity far outwards the differences.

One of the reasons I’ve have decided to share my experiences of working in an Islamic school now is because I am highly concerned about the Australian Federal government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill 2021. Presumably, the reason I was employed by the Islamic school was because I was the most qualified person interviewed (I found out later that an Islamic Art teacher had also been interviewed). Under Morrison’s bill, I may have missed out on the opportunity and the position given to a Muslim purely on the grounds of religious background alone, in other words, I would have been discriminated against for my religious background. The legal enabling of segregation practices based on religion is harmful on multiple levels.

My employment at a Muslim school was not a threat to their traditions or values. To think laws need to be made to prevent cross cultural interchanges so as religions can maintain “purity” is ridiculous.

Islam is not my religion, and I’m not about to convert. However, over the years, I have used my experience of working at an Islamic school in other teaching roles to inform my practice. For example, when possible, I interject traditional western presentations of Art history lessons with Islamic insights in a manner that I would not have done so prior to my position at a Muslim school. Surely, the dismantling of stereotypes and the fostering of alliances between cultures and different faiths is a good thing?

I rarely take selfies, however, due the commodity of having to wear a hijab some of my friends asked what I looked like, so I took a snapshot and posted it on social media. To my surprise, I was overwhelmed with responses telling me I looked beautiful. It felt weird. Why was I beautiful? Was it the pattern on my scarf? How could I be beautiful if I was covered? Had I covered my ugly parts? Or were they looking beyond my outer appearance? To this day, I still do know exactly. However, in accordance with my personal definition of beauty as a threefold phenomenon, I would describe my experience of teaching at an Islamic school as “Hera” beautiful! It was not dependent upon outward aesthetics like Aphrodite, nor did it fill me with beautiful emotions due to being triumphant over a challenge in an Athena style of beauty. Hera beauty is the beauty of transformation, an intangible experience not visible to the physical eye; the inner transformations I experienced by working at an Islamic school were definitely beautiful.

Aeschylus’ Death, a Genuine Tragedy or Murder Cover Up?

Legend tells us that Aeschylus died from fatal wounds caused by a tortoise falling on his head. Apparently, this freak accident was due to the victim’s bald noggin being mistaken as a rock by a hungry eagle who dropped the tortoise in order to crack open the shell and devour the soft inner flesh. Thus, two tragedies in one – Aeschylus died and an eagle was deprived of its dinner.

The death of Aeschylus, Maso Finiguerra (c.1400s). Source: Ancient Origins

While it is common practice for eagles to drop tortoises to smash their shells, Aeschylus, the great Ancient Greek playwright, born in 525/524 BCE, is potentially the only unfortunate soul in the history of humankind to have met his end due to being confused with a lump of hard stone. Rocks are still, human heads move. Further, as implied by the saying “to have eyes like an eagle”, eagles have exceptionally good eyesight. How then could an eagle make such a error? Or was Aeschylus an exceptionally still man?

Comparison of bald head (Source: Wikipedia Commons) and round rock (Source: Brooklyn Museum).

The poet Aeschylus’ departure was not voluntary, but the novelty of the occurrence makes it worth mention. He was in Sicily. Leaving the walls of the town where he was staying, he sat down in a sunny spot. An eagle carrying a tortoise was above him. Deceived by the gleam of his hairless skull, it dashed the tortoise against it, as though it were a stone, in order to feed on the flesh of the broken animal. By that blow the origin and beginning of more perfect tragedy was extinguished.

VALERIUS MAXIMUS, c.1-100CE, Memorable Doings and Sayings

Was Aeschylus sitting as still as a rock? Or did this particular eagle have poor eyesight? It’s not impossible for a person to die from an airborne reptile, but still, I can’t help but speculate if this fateful ending was really the imaginative concoction of a fellow dramatist rather than a freak of nature. Or was it a cover up for something more sinister … I’ll go over the drama aspect first.

Drama. The Ancient Greeks were masters of captivating audiences with their enthralling storylines full of tragedy, double meanings, and allegorical puns. Aeschylus was particularly good at writing plays, as evidenced by his numerous winning of awards (equivalent to today’s Hollywood’s Golden Globe awards). He set the bar so high he’s been dubbed the father of tragedy. In addition to mastering the art of story telling, he innovated stage productions by introducing multiple characters who had dialogues with each other. The standard for theatre plays prior to Aeschylus was to have a single actor presenting a monologue with an accompanying chorus. Aeschylus’ innovation of drama conventions with multiple characters interacting with each other in dialogues is still followed by playwrights today.

The Ancient Greeks were great thinkers and as a society who loved philosophy, their dramas were filled with irony and puns, subtle gestures, multiple storylines, symbolism, ethical references, and moral lessons. Thus it seems more than fitting for Aeschylus’ death to have same elements. Additionally, the Greeks (like many ancients) were staunch believers in prophecy and destiny … and apparently, according Pliny, Aeschylus spent a lot of time outdoors because he’d been told by a fortune teller that he was going to die by a falling object indoors … tragically, this prophecy was half right and/or the laws of destiny found a way to demonstrate their authority despite Aeschylus best efforts to avoid the Gods’ will.

The layers of intrigue associated with Aeschylus’ death are just superb! However, simply recognising similar elements between Greek drama and the circumstances surrounding Aeschylus’ death are not sufficient to suspect the details were purely the fabrication of an astute creative mind. A motive is needed if one really wants to claim a conspiracy was at hand.

Why would anyone want to kill a playwright then lie about how it happened? A potential explanation is zealous devotion to religious protocols. The ancient religion to be put on the stand for this cold case is the Eleusinian Mysteries. On a surface level, this cult worshipped the Goddess Demeter who was associated with the growing of crops, as told in the Homeric poem about Hades’ abduction of Kore (also known as Persephone).

The Eleusinian Mysteries were the dominate cult of the Classical Era. At least once in a lifetime anyone who could speak Greek, whether they be male, female, free, slave, child, or other, were expected to partake in annual festivals that included a walk from Athens to the cult centre in Eleusis; a journey that took approximately nine days. Many who could not speak Greek were also interested in the festival, however, access to the mysteries were denied to all those who did not meet the language requirement. (Several centuries later permission was extended to all Roman citizens.)

The origin of the Eleusinian Mysteries extends back to the grass roots of Greek culture, to what is termed the Greek Dark Ages (c.1100-750BCE). There are few written records of this era, however, there is reason to suspect it had some egalitarian aspects, as evidenced in records of women owning property. Traditionally, Homeric poems were passed down orally, till about c.800BCE when they were penned in Greek (the Greek alphabet developed via influence from the Phoenician alphabet – this point is mentioned to highlight the fact that Greek culture did not evolve in a vacuum).

The Eleusinian temple was built on a shoreline that had an underground cave (this where Hades took Kore). The earliest known building on the ground above the cave was a Mycenaean Megaron, which consisted of a central hall with small spaces attached to the edges (as per the myth it was built to honour Demeter). The style was typical to the region from about 1380BCE to 1190BCE. Over the years, the temple was repaired, replaced, and expanded according to maintenance needs and population increases. In Aeschylus’ lifetime it was a geometric building with a large rectangular hall, most probably constructed with what would later become known as Classical Greek Columns.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were considered to be of up most importance, so much so, that cease fires and temporary peace treaties between conflicting groups were honoured in weeks leading up to the festival to allow pilgrims to travel and partake in the rites without delays or safety fears. To emphasis how important the Eleusinian Mysteries were to the Greeks, I’ll say that again, wars stopped every year to allow the great festival to go ahead without interruption.

Very few precise details are known about the beliefs and customs of the Eleusinian Mysteries. What is known is that it had a hierarchical structure. The ceremonies of entrance level initiations could be witnessed by crowds, however, higher level initiations were done in private, possibly within the caves below the temple.

Secrecy over the rites, ceremonies, and rank of individuals was strictly guarded. Males and females were separated during certain parts of the rites, thus each gender had equivalent leadership in so far as priestesses lead women and priests lead men. The person/s in highest position/s were called the hierophant. The process of obtaining this post is not known. The level of secrecy was so high, it is believed the hierophant had their face covered during rites so as no one knew their identity. Like I said, secrets were strictly guarded. Under Greek law, anyone who disclosed details of the Mysteries to an uninitiated person could be charged as having committed a crime against the state. If found guilty, punishment was death. Which brings me back to Aeschylus.

Aeschylus was accused of revealing Eleusinian Mystery secrets in his plays. Specifically, there are reports of calamity during a production of Prometheus Bound. Members of the crowd supposedly attempted to kill Aeschylus on the spot because the drama contained direct references to sacred knowledge. Potentially, this didn’t eventuate because doing so would make it clear what those secrets were and who had been initiated to a rank of knowing such information. When formally questioned, Aeschylus escaped persecution by claiming he did not know what the mysteries were, therefore any reference to them in his play were done so with ignorance. In order for this defence to be validated members of the law establishment must have had access to the secret records of who was initiated and to what level. Moreover, the accusers and legal teams knew the significance of what may or may not have been revealed in the play.

The situation of Aeschylus’ charges and subsequent acquittal implies the law officials did know the Eleusinian Mysteries and they were privy to knowing the secret doctrines. Conspiracy theorists could have a field day speculating the connections between religion, wealthy families, and the leadership of Ancient Greece. On the outside, their culture and governance had a veneer of democratic rulership, however, beneath this was a web of secret connections that can be affiliated with the Eleusinian Mysteries.

To add insult to injury, not only was Aeschylus accused of revealing religious secrets, he also made cynical references to aristocratic rulership in his play Eumenides that were not well received by all viewers.

Given the common aristocratic desire to maintain power through the status quo, I can’t help but wonder if Aeschylus was quietly disposed of then an elaborate cover up story told? In my imagination, I wonder if “Death by tortoise” was a code name of a mission given to Ancient Greek special agents … a secret operation that needed to be carried out in order to silence a social media influencer … then again, maybe that is just my imagination going wild.

As a sidenote, it is interesting to ponder the premise of absolute secrecy associated with cultic practices. This scenario was by no means unique to Ancient Greece and the Eleusisian Mysteries. Judaism, Orphism, Mithraism, and several other ancient religions, including Early Christianity, all have subtle indications that their faith was cloaked in sacred shrouds of mystery. (E.g., one of the reasons the Pharisees’ wanted Jesus killed was because he dared to educate the masses about hidden codes within the scriptures; Luke 24:27). The question is, how many of these cults perceived the death penalty as being justified if anyone went against group rules by choosing to act openly, with transparent expressions of religious doctrines? Ancient worlds held very different attitudes towards knowledge and education compared to that of today. Time and time again it can be observed that aristocratic structures placed limits on access to education so as to preserve and maintain upper and lower levels of citizens. Keeping “lower classes”, like slaves, women, and manual labourers ignorant of information was a means of elevating “upper classes”, like men, senators, kings, queens, and priests to a divine sphere affiliated with the Gods.

As many have said, knowledge is power. And sometimes those in power will kill in order to maintain their position and keep others ignorant. The use of so-called divine reasoning based upon the authority of the Heavens as justification was more readily accepted in the past than contemporary times.

Through chance or design, in addition to being highly entertaining, Aeschylus dramas presented ideas that promoted thought and expansions of the mind. To share such information may have been deemed threatening to those in power who did not want their status overthrow. As stated earlier, it is possible Aeschylus was killed by a tortoise falling on his head, and personally, I am one to believe that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction … but all the same, an eagle mistaking a bald head for a stone sounds like a tall tale.

Aeschylus’ death is cold case that will probably never be reopened. The evidence for or against foul play has long expired … but still I wonder …

For more research and explorations of ancient religions, the history of education, and mental health topics visit the Renaissance Wellbeings blog page.


Eleusis, Telesterion (Building). (2022).,%20Telesterion&object=Building

Theodoros Karasavvas. (2018). Eagle Mistakes Bald Head for a Rock: The Bizarre Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Aeschylus.; Ancient Origins.

Exploring Ancient Myths: Defining Beauty, According to Homer’s Helen of Troy

Many great minds have attempted to explain the complexities of subjective and objective beauty. Some have focused on principles of aesthetics while others on the emotional arousal a thing of beauty can facilitate. Personally, I find Homer’s explanation, as inferred through an allegorical interpretation of Helen of Troy, to be the most enlightening. 


Homer is the name accredited to the Ancient Greek epics of The Iliad and The Odyssey. These are generally believed to have been an aural tradition for hundreds or thousands of years before being written down in the eight century before the common era. There is some dispute over whether or not Homer was a single person or an alias for a group of writers. Regardless, his works are a cornerstone of Ancient Greek culture.

Thanks to Homer’s enduring popularity, the contemporary world is still familiar with the great Gods and Goddesses of the Olympus pathaleon, like Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter, Hercules, Hades, Hera, Athena, Nike, Aphrodite, and Apollo. Other writers who followed (like the Romans, Ovid and Virgil) modelled the Greek’s style and appropriated the legends, kind of like Hollywood remakes of classics with updated social values, modern costumes, altered storyline emphasis, name variations, and so forth. I would argue the original is still the best. 

In The Iliad, we’re told Helen (a daughter of Zeus and Leda) is the most beautiful woman in the world. Many men want her hand in marriage. She finishes up choosing the King of Sparta, Menelaus, and the unsuccessful suitors graciously vow to protect the union. The marriage lasts a few years until Helen leaves to marry a guy called Paris. I’ll go over the finer details of how that happened shortly. 

To misogynists, Helen represents the epitome of women’s evilness. She is placed as the central cause of blame for the ten year Trojan War between the Greeks and Spartans, which inadvertently means she’s also responsible for the many lives lost, including that of Achilles (Peleus’ and Thetis’ son). Helen’s femme fatale portrayal is archetypal of all beautiful women who potentially have the capacity to spell bound men and cause strife just because they can, because women are supposedly inherently evil and all that junk. 

To feminists, Helen represents a prime example of a subculture of men who view women as nothing more than a shallow cull of a body in which external attractiveness is valued above other qualities, like intellect and thinking. Further, women are objects that men feel entitled to own, thus justifying fighting over who owns what female body. 

Some view Helen of Troy as a product of pure fantasy, a myth that expresses historical and cultural attitudes and behaviours. Others believe the story is an exaggeration of real events. Potentially, those who take the literal path also reject evolution theory and believe the earth was once occupied by deities who interacted with humans on a regular basis. 

None of these interpretations sit well with my understanding of Ancient Greek symbolism. 

Ancient Greek Symbolism 

The Ancient Greeks were great thinkers. They were meticulous, thorough, and accurate in mathematics, art, and many other spheres of life. They had an impetus for ensuring things were done in accordance with truth, goodness, and justice. From the forms in their alphabet through to the meanings of words, the Greeks strove for clarity and did not leave much to chance. This organised approach can also be identified in how they incorporated symbolism into their prose.

Homer was a poet. The Iliad and The Odyssey are poems. Poetry was really important to the Ancient Greeks. Having said that, their poetry was not like contemporary verse that calls upon creative and imaginative expression for the sake of personal expression. Poetry was a highly intellectualised activity, moreover, to put words down on papyrus was an activity that warranted the utmost respect. If something was written down, it meant it was really important. 

Aristotle informs us that the art of poetry was considered a genre that spoke of the universal. Aristotle was wrong about a lot of things but I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt that his comments about his eras customs are accurate. So what does Aristotle mean by poetry speaks of the universal? He means it was a language used to describe the nature of life. A somewhat crude comparison would be to say Ancient Greek poems were the scientific literature of antiquity. Except in antiquity, science was religion or, more precisely, religious explanations of the nature of life were considered to be as valid as scientific explanations are to the contemporary era. Just like contemporary scientific journals have a style code that is clearly recognisable to those who have training, so too the ancient writers followed a style guide that not all were privy to knowing. The history of education directly corresponds to religions and cult activities. (I’ve written a full blog series about the history of education in relation to religious cults that begins here.) 

All of these considerations come to significance when viewed in relation to Empedocle’s explanation of Zeus, Hera, Persephone, and Hades being personifications of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth respectively. I have written about this before so I will just give a brief summary.

To those who had a high level of education in Ancient Greece, it was thoroughly understood that Zeus was not a real male who had umpteen affairs with numerous Goddesses. Rather, Zeus represented a very high (not necessarily the highest) pinnacle of the element of Fire. In turn, Fire symbolised the Spirit of intellect, the nous or cognitive functioning. Likewise, Hera, Queen of the Heavens, was a very high pinnacle of Air. In turn, Air symbolised the Soul of emotions, a broad array of feelings from anger to joy. Zeus’ “lovemaking” (or raping, as it sometimes described) was symbolic of the intellect interacting with various feelings. Humans have lots of feelings, so it makes sense that Zeus had lots of partners! (See The Big Bang Theory in Egyptian Mythology for about this type of symbolism.)

Persephone, as water, represents the essence of Ether, a life force that could be roughly correlated to the nervous system. And Hades, as Earth, represents the realm underneath the heavens. Humans have a physical body that can only live if “married” to a life force. Homer describes aspects this union in the myth about Hades taking Persephone to be his wife. Overall, human beings’ physical existence comprises Earth and Ether bodies that are permeated by Spirit (Zeus) and Soul (Hera) forces. 

Knowing this symbolic code is very useful in interpreting ancient myths from an allegorical perspective, however, it’s not a straightforward task because the layering of symbolism within theological frameworks can be quite complex. The fact that male characters can represent both the Spirit and Earth realms, and female characters can represent both Soul and Ether realms, means there is plenty of room for error. Careful examination of other cues needs to be conducted. With this in mind, I suspect Helen is representative of Ether. The reason being is that she has divine parents but she marries mortals. In other words, her role is symbolic of Earth matter “marrying” Ether, moreover, and aspect of Ether that has links to the Soul qualities of Beauty and Love (Aphrodite).

Other female characters of interest in the story of Helen of Troy, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, are more likely to be representatives of Soul qualities because their characteristics are more complex and have significant emotional components. 

The nature of the Soul is potentially the most contentious because, as Plato tells us, it was the most disputed topic amongst philosophers. Variations between versions of myths confirm different sects or cults viewed the nature of Soul life quite differently. On face value it can be difficult to see the squabbling that went on between various schools of thought, especially when contemporary researchers try to harmonise storylines (like psychoanalysis practices) instead of appreciating dissimilarities. It is within the subtle differences in the presentation of characters between authors that differing opinions can be seen. For example, some texts emphasise Aphrodite as a being the personification of platonic Love while others focused more on her as a Love connected to sexual desire. The situation is a bit like various sects of Christianity attributing variations of qualities to God, Jesus, Mary, and so forth. 

Getting back to Helen of Troy, how do these insights help to define beauty? 

Helen of Troy

The story of Helen begins with a wedding banquet on Mount Olympus. All the Gods and Goddesses were invited to celebrate the union of Peleus and Thetis, that is all the Gods and Goddesses except the Goddess Eris. Annoyed at being left out, Eris arrives and presents a golden apple saying it is for the most beautiful woman present. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite are key contenders. 

Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, and Eris as personifications of Soul, are symbolic of emotional concepts. A simplified explanation is as follows: Hera, as the supreme Goddess, represents all emotions, Athena represents emotional intelligence that has protective qualities, Aphrodite represents both noble love and sensual desire, and Eris represents an aspect of strife. (Empedocles tells us that Strife has many names so Eris may just be one of them.)

The three beautiful Goddesses ask Zeus to decide who is most sublime, but in his wisdom, Zeus refuses to respond. Was Zeus immune to Strife? Or was he using the opportunity to demonstrate a lesson in beauty? Anyway, Zeus selects Paris, a mortal, to decide who was entitled to the prize of the golden apple. Paris is not as wise as Zeus and he doesn’t know Eris has orchestrated this situation as a means of revenge. 

When the Goddesses came down from Mount Olympus and to present themselves to Paris, some versions say they undressed. Many artists over the years have enjoyed painting this scene. Paris was overwhelmed, they were all so beautiful!

The Judgement of Paris, Rubens, c.1636

Emotions can be very powerful and sometimes compete with one another for recognition. The three beautiful Goddesses were the same, each one tried to win Paris over. Hera offered the reward of rulership and power over many lands if he chose her. Athena offered wisdom and supreme battle skills, and Aphrodite offered the love of the most beautiful woman on earth. Three beauties and three prizes. Eris’ plan of creating discord by forcing a rigid choice be made by defining the ultimate beauty was about to come into effect.  

Paris, of course, chose Aphrodite, and true to her word, he was awarded the most beautiful woman alive even though she was married to another man. Paris got what he wanted but at what cost? Troy was destroyed and Paris died in battle. 

Helen of Troy, as a representative of ethereal beauty is a shallow character, her thoughts and feelings are never explored in depth by Homer because she was not a real woman. Her connection to Aphrodite suggests she is the manifestation of beauty that is physically appealing and delights the senses, but is absent of the complexity that Hera’s and Athena’s contributions to beauty can provide.

What would have happened if Paris had chosen Hera or Athena? How would Strife have played out if he took the offer of wisdom that enabled victory in wars? Or if power and land ownership was manifested as supreme beauty? I imagine many ancient philosophers would have pondered on such things at length. 

Allegorically, I interpret the story of Helen of Troy to be a moral lesson on why one should not try to define or chase beauty according to rigid guidelines or aesthetics alone. Moreover, beauty that is only skin deep will put a man (or any person with a physical body) in a situation in which their life becomes full of discord, a war within. 

The battle at Troy was finally won when the Greek’s turned their ships into a gigantic wooden horse. They pretend it was a victory gift to the Spartans, a gesture of submission, but really it was a trick. Warriors hiding inside the wooden frame snuck out once the horse had passed through the city’s gates, thus giving the Greek’s access to the city which they then proceeded to demolish. 

To the ancients, a horse was a symbol of the intellect. Why? Because horses were a very useful and productive tool (you could say horse technology was once viewed in a similar way to how we now view computer technology). Therefore, there is something deeper, almost intangible, associated with the fact that the Greeks aligned themselves with the intellect and the successful destruction of a city over the sake of a shallow definition of beauty. Conversely, the story could be seen as a slur against Spartans, the initial custodians of Helen. 

To summarise, Hera is the beauty of having power and ownership over a full range of emotions. Athena is the beauty of transformation and the victorious experience of successfully completing a challenge. And Aphrodite is aesthetics, as can be explored through the elements and principles of art (which I also call the elements and principles of life). Thus, the ultimate beauty is a combination of all three Goddesses being in harmony with each other. If one tries to separate these three aspects of beauty then they will need to use their intellect (the Trojan horse), to overcome Strife, especially if one has fallen for skin deep beauty. 

This allegorical interpretation of Helen of Troy, can be put into practical application in a many contexts. In particular, I like to use it when I look at an artwork and I want to assess its beauty on different levels. I ask myself: How does it make me feel (Hera)? How does it change me (Athena)? How does it look (Aphrodite)? 

It could also be used as an allegory for assessing the beauty of romantic partners. How do they make me feel? How do they change me? How do they look? … It goes without saying that if an individual bases the beauty of their partner on looks alone they may want to consider what the wise man Homer once said about Helen of Troy …