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Eyes wide open to the past


Eyes wide open to the past

Jane Stephens finds nods to ancient times and bygone eras reimagined in everything from bread to music hits and the skin we show the world.

There is nothing new under the sun, it is said. Every trend comes back, shapeshifting and warping time, often just dressed up in new clothes. Songs newly released and on heavy rotation at my gym have riffs that were hits in my teenage years. But now they are nearly always bookended by swearing or spliced with screaming.

This month, Paul McCartney toured and The Rolling Stones released an album – both prompting music fans and journalists to froth and cheer. Octogenarians they may be, but they sure know how to preen and please.

I recently spent more money than I ever thought a loaf of bread would cost in my lifetime: a special sourdough made with ‘ancient grains’. Precisely what the old seeds were was not in the knowledge bank of the woman who served me.

Cacao, the cleaner cousin of chocolate, has been around for 2000 years, but is seen as cool and healthy in the West. The ancient Himalayas must be running out of salt, such is our voracious appetite for the seemingly magical pink seasoning. Kimchi (Korean sauerkraut) and Kombucha (a Chinese fermented drink) have been around forever and are said to prevent everything from cancer to dermatitis, so we Aussies chow down and guzzle them. Similarly, word got out about Mexico’s treasured chia seed and suddenly it is being made into puddings, tossed in muesli and joining avocado on toast all over the coast. Those ancient Incas would find that funny, I am sure.

The difficult simplicity that is yoga and mindfulness – mediation practices of the primeval East – are de rigueur. We are not inventing the wheel, but it is as if we are noticing it properly with eyes wide.

Olde world writing abounds, too, in the most unexpected places – on those moveable billboards that are tattoos. Latin scholars such as Cicero and Marcus Aurelius would be astounded. Hits on the tattoo parade include: vita brevis means ‘life is short’; alis grave nil is ‘nothing is heavy for those with wings’. Also massively popular are carpe diem (‘seize the day’) and dum spiro spero (‘while I breathe, I hope’) – words that move me, although I have not felt the need to brand myself with them.

Recently, a man at my bus stop had Latin wisdom on his throat: semper fortis or ‘always brave’. I wondered if he knew, and whether he was. Everything old is new again.


Jane Stephens is a USC journalism lecturer, media commentator and writer.

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