The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition

2. From paganism to Christianity

We have seen in the first chapter how the function and purpose of the lament changed in accordance with the historical developments of antiquity. What was the impact of the economic, social and religious upheavals which accompanied the decline of the ancient world and the rise of Byzantium? Was there not an inevitable transformation by Christianity of all the most characteristic features of something so essentially pagan as funeral ritual and lamentation?

The transition from paganism to Christianity took place very gradually and unevenly in late antiquity and in the early Byzantine world. The Hellenistic expansion which had begun in the third century B.C. had earned Greek culture far beyond the boundaries of Greece itself, but in doing so it had opened the way for a new influx of mystic cults from the East. Byzantium was heir to all these. Some idea of the confusion in popular religion soon after the founding of Constantinople in A.D. 324 can be gained from the anonymous magic incantations of the period, many of which have been preserved on papyrus. [1] Among the intellectuals there was a more conscious fusion of pagan and Christian beliefs and doctrines, beginning with Clement of Alexandria and Origen, culminating in the late Gnostic and Neoplatonic writers.

These conditions favoured the survival of the ritual lament. Throughout the Byzantine period the correct observation of funeral ritual was a matter of concern for people at all levels of society, as can be understood from the homilies of the Christian fathers, and from works such as the Emperor Konstantinos Porphyrogennetos’ de Cerimoniis (tenth century), or from the curious handbook entitled de Ordine Sepulturae, written c. 1420 by Symeon, Archbishop of Thessaloniki.

The evidence for the survival of the ritual lament is plentiful, but it needs to be handled with caution, since it comes mainly from homilies, chronicles and commentaries, where pagan survivals are mentioned only with disapproval. It cannot always be taken as a true reflection of popular tradition.

The struggle of the soul

It appears that the early Byzantine Church tried consciously to extend and develop the moral aspects of various popular beliefs current since antiquity concerning the last moments of life. In doing so, it was merely adapting elements of ancient superstition to a more acceptable Christian form.

The wake

As Gregory observes in his account of Makrina’s death, the spontaneous lamentation which broke out once the struggle of the soul was over was all the more passionate for having been controlled for so long. As soon as the first violence of grief had passed, the ritual preparation of the body began. It had changed little since antiquity. First came the closing of eyes and mouth, still known by the ancient term καλαλύπτειν. [10] Sometimes a coin was placed on the mouth. [11] Then came the washing and anointing with wine and scents and the scattering of herbs. Clement’s suggestion that this was to stop the souls from smelling in the underworld may not be entirely frivolous, even if it was a rationalisation of popular belief, since it finds some support in one of Herakleitos’ obscurer fragments. [12] The body was then dressed in a white winding-sheet (σάβανον), corresponding to the Homeric φᾶρος, [13] and in unworn clothes, sometimes rich gold and purple, [14] sometimes in full wedding attire, as in the case of Makrina. [15] Thus prepared, it was placed on a bier and strewn with the same evergreens and herbs as in antiquity- olive, laurel, palm, myrtle, cypress and celery. All was then ready for the formal wake, which took place at sunrise just inside the door of the house, with the bier facing towards the east. [16] Finally came the ritual breaking of clay vessels, believed to chase away the evil spirits hovering around to snatch away the souls by force to Hell. [17]

At the wake it was customary for the mourners to cover the body with their shorn hair. Digenis Akritas, legendary hero of the eastern frontiers of the Byzantine Empire, asks for this last tribute from his wife as he lies on his deathbed, according to the version of the epic preserved in the manuscript from Andros (seventeenth century):

Καὶ δάκρυά σου στάλαξον καὶ τὰ μαλλιά σου κόψον
ἀπάνω εἰς τὸ λείψανον Άκρίτου τοῦ ἀνδρείου.

DA 4481-2 (A) {27|28}

Shed your tears, and cut your hair
upon the body of the brave Akritas.

All the evidence suggests that this was the scene of violent grief, in spite of the disapproval of the Church. In his homily de Mortuis, Gregory of Nyssa attempts to persuade people to be more moderate in their grief, arguing, like Lucian, that the dead cannot appreciate any of the attention lavished upon them. [18] The usual behaviour is described and roundly condemned by Basil of Caesarea (330-79), in his homily de Gratiarum Actione:

Therefore neither men nor women should be permitted too much lamentation and mourning. They should show moderate distress in their affliction, with only a few tears, shed quietly and without moaning, wailing, tearing of clothes and grovelling in the dust, or committing any other indecency commonly practised by the ungodly.

Migne 31.229c

Violent lamentation was unseemly, even at the funeral of an Empress. [
19] Most vehement of all is John Chrysostom, who denounces dirges as ‘blasphemies’. [20] It is significant that he objects not only to the more violent practices, such as laceration of the cheeks, tearing of the hair, and rending of garments, roundly condemning a widow bereaved of her only son for her wild desire to bury herself alive with him in the tomb, but also to the very essence of the dirge, which he describes as self-centred and self-indulgent. Particularly offensive was the use of hired mourners, usually specified as Greeks. Chrysostom refers to them in no less than eight homilies and commentaries, complaining that ‘this disease of females still persists’. [21] He is especially horrified at the pagan character of the scene, which with the incessant display of wailing and beating of the breast amounts to no less than a dance. [22]

The funeral procession

In addition to the trained choirs singing religious music, the procession was given extra splendor by the torches and wax candles carried by the people. Gregory of Nyssa describes the mystical beauty of the psalms and torches at the funeral of Makrina:

First came a large number of deacons and ministers, all advancing in order and with wax candles in their hands. It was rather like a mystic procession, with the sound of the chanting ringing forth in one voice from one end to the other.

Migne 46.993B

When the religious music was over and the earth was shovelled into the grave, once more the spontaneous lamentation of the people conflicted with the more formal aspasmós of Church tradition, as is evident again at this point in Makrina’s funeral:

That prayer caused the people to break out into fresh lamentation. The chants had died down … then one of the holy sisters cried out in disorderly fashion that never again from that hour should we set eyes on this divine face, whereupon the other sisters cried out likewise, and disorder and confusion spoiled that orderly and sacred chanting, with everyone breaking down at the lament of the holy sisters.

Migne 46.993D

Burial and after

The evidence examined in this chapter is unfortunately too incomplete to provide an objective picture of the relation between lament and ritual in the Byzantine period, and of the extent to which ancient practices survived. Certainly, funeral ritual and lamentation were condemned by the early Christian fathers. But it is not known how general this attitude was and how far it reflected the official policy of the State. All that can be said is that these condemnations indicate the insidious pagan influence which such practices were believed to have on the minds of the people. As in antiquity, they could be regarded as constituting a social threat.

Towards the ritual at least there seems to have been a gradual change in the Church’s attitude. Once sure of its control, it did not try to diminish the importance that funeral ritual had held in antiquity, but on the contrary it incorporated many elements it had formerly condemned into official ceremony, reinforcing them where possible with Old Testament tradition. Judging by the number of ritual practices in the Orthodox Church which can be traced back to antiquity, this process must have gone on at an unconscious as well as a conscious level. {33|34}

It would seem that the popular lament, unlike its literary counterpart, which had been divorced from its ritual associations, might have preserved something of the ancient unity of poetry and ritual. For a fuller understanding of its character we must turn to the folk tradition of today.


[ back ] 1. See Laurent BZ (1936) 300-15, and Brown WLA 54-6.

[ back ] 2. Io. Malalas, Migne 97.344,324, see also Browning GAM 8.

[ back ] 3. Gregorovius GSA 1.35, Brown WLA 50-7, 72, Browning GAM 8.

[ back ] 4. SEC p. 892.33 (Spyridakis EEBS (1950) 89).

[ back ] 5. Cf. Migne 59.198, 60.726, 767 (Loukatos ELA (1940) 43, nos. 4,1,2,5), and Pl. Phd. 108a-b.

[ back ] 6. Loukatos 43 no. 3.

[ back ] 7. Migne 34.224-30 (Spyridakis 89).

[ back ] 8. Comm. ad Hom. Il. 1266.43 f.; cf. ibid. 699.42 (Koukoules BBP 4.152).

[ back ] 9. Migne 46.985d, cf. Thrak (1929) 131 (Spyridakis 97,99).

[ back ] 10. Cont. Theoph. 548.5 (Koukoules 154). See also Rush DBCA 105-7.

[ back ] 11. δανάκη, Koukoules 158.

[ back ] 12. Paid. 2.7, 8, cf. Hklt. 98: αἱ ψυχαὶ ὀσμῶνται καθ’ ᾅδην. For the washing the corpse in milk and wine, see Rush DBCA 115.

[ back ] 13. The word σάβανον is derived from Latin sabanum, savanum, Du Cange 1313, Korais At. 2.422-3, and it is found in Greek as early as Clement of Alexandria. For φᾶρος, see Il. 23.352, Od. 2.97, 19.138, 24.132 (Politis LS 3.326 n. 5 and 327 n. 1).

[ back ] 14. Loukatos 50 nos. 1-4.

[ back ] 15. Migne 46.992C.

[ back ] 16. Spyridakis 102-3, cf. Migne 60.725 (Loukatos 52).

[ back ] 17. Politis comments on the medieval character of this custom and its explanation, LS 3.333 and 2.268-83; but there can be no doubt that it is related to the practice of pouring out water (ὕδωρ ἐκχε̂ν), which was forbidden in the legislation from Keos in antiquity, LGS 93A.

[ back ] 18. Migne 46.497a-537b.

[ back ] 19. Ibid. 46.878-92.

[ back ] 20. βλασφήμους λόγους, ibid. 61.791.

[ back ] 21. Ibid. 59.346, cf. 57.374: Σὺ δέ, ὥσπερ αὐξῆσαι τὸ ἔγκλημα σπεύδων, καὶ θρηνῳδοὺς ἡμῖν ἅγεις Ἑλληνίδας γυναῖκας, ἐξάπτων τὸ πάθος …, 63.44: Εἰ οὖν οὗτος (sc. ὁ θάνατος) συμβαίη, καί τινες τὰς θρηνούσας ταύτας μισθώσαιντο … πολὺν αὐτὸν χρόνον τῆς ἐκκλησίας ἀπείρξω ὡς εἰδωλολάτρην, and also 62.811, 60.726, 61.390, 59.467, 348, 52.576, 62.203 (Loukatos 62-3). It is probable that Chrysostom, writing in the fourth century, was using Hellene in the religious sense, i.e. Hellene as opposed to Christian; but in any case it did not have the generalised, pejorative sense of pagan, i.e. any non-Christian, which it acquired in the fifth century and afterwards. See Browning GAM 15.

[ back ] 22. Reference is made frequently to the wild dancing of mourning women, see Migne 63.811, 61.390, 52.576, 59.467.

[ back ] 23. Ibid. 63.44: ἡμεῖς δὲ οὐκ ἀνεχόμεθα ἔθη τοιαῦτα ὀλέθρια τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ ἐπεισαγαγεῖν.

[ back ] 24. Greg. Nyss. ibid. 46.868a-b: ἦν ἐν ἡδονῇ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις τὸ δάκρυον, Bas. ibid. 31.224-5, Io. Chrys. ibid. 153.785.

[ back ] 25. Pl. Lg. 947b-c: κορῶν δὲ χορὸν πεντεκαίδεκα καὶ ἀρρένων ἕτερον.

[ back ] 26. They were known as δεκανοί, κοπιαταί, ἀσκήτριαι, κανονικαί, ἀκόλουθοι. Justinian, legislating on their number and payment in the Church of Constantinople, mentions that Anastasios had limited their number to 1,100, Nov. 43 (Spyridakis 135-6); see also Rush GBCA 203-8. Horses were sometimes used to convey the coffin from house to tomb, see Migne 49.52 (Loukatos 67-8 no. 5).

[ back ] 27. Migne 63.811: Ποῦ πορεύεται ὁ πολὺς ὄχλος ἐκεῖνος; τί γέγονεν ἡ κραυγὴ καὶ ὁ θόρυβος; … Τί δὲ καὶ ἐγένοντο αἱ βοαί; ποῦ τὰ στόματα τὰ πολλὰ ἐκεῖνα, τὰ κραυγάζοντα … θαρρεῖν ὅτι οὐδείς ἀθάνατος, cf. ibid. 809, 807, 42; 62.203; 61.697, 702, 707, 48.1020 (Loukatos 70-1).

[ back ] 28. Migne 46.993c-d. Riots are said to have threatened to break up several imperial and sacred funerals, ibid. 18.463, 46.868a-b, 153.516-18, Io. Kantakouzenos Hist. 2.17.

[ back ] 29. φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν, Migne 60.725 (Loukatos 74), cf. V. Thom. Alex., SEC 603 (Spyridakis 143). Rush points out that before the third century, Christian fathers opposed the use of candles and torches because of their association with pagan cults, GBCA 224-5.

[ back ] 30. Ath. 442a: λύχνων ὀσμὰς οὐ φιλοῦσι δαίμονες, cf. Anton. V. Sym. Styl. (Spyridakis 143-4).

[ back ] 31. The similarity was such that the author of the Christian tragedy Christòs Páschon was able to give the actual words of Medea’s farewell to her children to Mary as she greeted her son for the last time, CP 1315,1318 ~ E. Med. 1070. See chapter 4 n. 25 on the question of date and authorship of this play.

[ back ] 32. Spyridakis 147-9, cf. Migne 3.556d.

[ back ] 33. Again in the Christòs Páschon, the myrrh-bearing women perform a long invocation at the tomb, which by implication is essential to Christ’s Resurrection, 2020-6. The Church’s disapproval of the practice among the people is expressed by Chrysostom, Migne 63.803-4: Ἐν τῷ τάφῳ πρὸς τὸν πλησίον ἕκαστος ὧδέ πῃ φθέγγεται, —Ὤ τῆς ταλαιπωρίας! Ὤ τῆς οἰκτρᾶς ἡμῶν ζωῆς! Ἄρα τί γινόμεθα;, 50.551: οἳ ἅμα τε τοῖς τῶν τεθνηκότων τάφοις ἐφίστανται, καὶ ὥσπερ ἀντὶ τῆς θήκης, τοὺς ἐν τῇ θήκῃ κειμένους ἑστῶτας ἰδόντες, οὕτως αὐτούς ἀπὸ τῶν προθύρων εὐθέως ἀνακαλοῦσι, cf. 48.606. For some of the more literary funerary epigrams, see Cantarella 22, 35, 40, 121, 154, 175.

[ back ] 34. Migne 47.343, 48.1038, 61.235.

[ back ] 35. Ibid. 57.348, 55.512, 59.348, 60.598, 147, 148.

[ back ] 36. Politis LS 3.349-51, cf. Sym. OS Migne 155.670-96.

[ back ] 37. Migne 35.776: ἐρρέτωσαν … ὅσα διὰ χοῶν τε καὶ ἀπαργμάτων … ἀφοσιοῦνται νόμῳ πατρίῳ μᾶλλον ἢ λόγῳ δουλεύοντες, cf. 37.871: χοὰς τοῖς δαίμοσιν, ἃς προσφέρουσιν οἵ γε δεισιδαίμονες, 36.377: ἀγόνων χοῶν καὶ ἀπαργμάτων ὡρίων, ὧν τοῖς νεκροῖς χαρίζονται νόμον ποιησάμενοι τὴν συνήθειαν (Koukoules 212).

[ back ] 38. Planudes 105, cf. Politis Paroim. 1.571 (Koukoules 211-12).

[ back ] 39. Tríta and énata: Leont. Neapol., p. 55.2 ed. Gelzer: εἰς τὰ τρίτα τοῦ παιδός; Pachym. 1.19, p. 55 Bonn; Nikeph. Gregor. 1.3, p. 65 Bonn; Io. Kantakouzen. III.1, p. 14 Bonn: μετὰ δὲ τὴν ἐνάτην τῶν ἐπὶ τοῖς τετελευτηκόσι συνήθως γεγενημένων ἰλασμῶν; Apokálypsis Theotókou, Vassiliev Anecd. graec.-byzant. p. 133: ταῖς λειτουργίαις τὰ τρίτα καὶ τὰ ἐννέα καὶ τὰ λοιπά, V. S. Theod. 20, p. 12 Arsenij: τελέσασα τὰ τοῦ ἀνδρὸς τρίτα καὶ ἔνατα. See also Du Cange, s.v. eniaúsia, énnata (387), mnemósynon (940), tríta (1612-13). These and other references are cited by Politis, LS 3.348 n. 2. See also Freistedt AT 4-6, 78-89 for a discussion of third- and ninth-day rites in the early Greek Christian communities. For legislation, sacred and secular, see Apostolische Konstitutionen VIII 42.1, pp. 552 ff. ed. Funk, and Justin. Nov. 133.3.1, p. 671 ed. Schoell.

[ back ] 40. On the origin of the fortieth-day rites, and their relation to the thirtieth-day rites of Greek antiquity, see Freistedt AT 6-15, 161-71, 172-8. He argues that the Hebrew origin of the custom, which the early Church fathers insist upon (see Migne 1.1145 ff.), is questionable, and that in fact the custom was most widespread not among the Jews but among the early Oriental Christian communities of Armenia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Greece. In the western Church, on the other hand, the most important commemoration rites were held on the third, seventh and thirtieth days (51). The earliest reference in Greek to fortieth-day rites is found in a pagan inscription, probably to Hermes, of uncertain date but before the fourth century A.D. (Wünsch JKPh 27 Suppl. (1902) 121). For the use of hymns, psalms and prayers in the Greek Church, see Migne 63.43, 50.634.

[ back ] 41. Rallis-Potlis 4.387-8: Εἰ τῷ ἱερεῖ ἔξεστιν περιστερὰς ἐν τοῖς τάφοις τῶν τεθνεώτων καὶ τοῖς μνημοσύνοις αὐτῶν σφαγιάζειν (Koukoules 211).

[ back ] 42. Migne 155.670-96.

[ back ] 43. AS Maii 5.413a (Spyridakis 162).

[ back ] 44. Migne 115.437c, 31.232c, 155.670-96, Greg. Theol. ibid. 35.928a

[ back ] 45. Io. Chrys., Migne 47.409: Πολλοὺς δ’ ἔγωγε οἶδα, μετὰ τὴν τῶν φιλτάτων ἀποβολήν, τοὺς μὲν τὴν ἐν ἀγροῖς δίαιταν τῆς πόλεως ἐναλλαξαμένους καὶ τῶν ἐν ταύτῃ καλῶν, τοὺς δὲ παρὰ τὰ μνήματα τῶν ἀπελθόντων τὰς οἰκίας δειμαμένους καὶ τὸν βίον ἐκεῖ καταλύσαντας, cf. 50.551. Sometimes, images οf the dead were made and lamented, together with surviving articles of their clothing, 57.403: Εἰ γὰρ καὶ νῦν εἰκόνας διαπλάττοντες ἄνθρωποι, ἐπειδὴ τὸ σῶμα κατασχεῖν οὐκ ἔχουσιν … προσηλωμένοι ταῖς σανίσιν ἐκεῖ, cf. 59.366: Τί δέ; τῶν πολλῶν τὰς εἰκόνας ὅταν ἴδωμεν ἀνακειμένας ἐν ταῖς οἰκίαις, οὐχὶ μᾶλλον θρηνοῦμεν; (Loukatos 102, 99).

[ back ] 46. Cf. Zoras 65.3, 5: Γῆν ἔσχηκα προμήτορα, γῆ μὲ καλύψει πάλιν. The idea is not exclusively Greek, see Ps. 146.4.

[ back ] 47. See AB 18.256, Migne 31.232ff., 35.928a, 61.236, 791, 792, 59.347, 114.313a, 115.1556a-c.

[ back ] 48. C. Bondelmontius, Descriptio Cretae ed. Legrand DIA 116-17 (Morgan CPSI 388). This account may be compared with a description by Michael Apostolis in a letter written in 1467 of a funeral he witnessed near Skutari on the Albanian coast: Συνειλέχθησαν οἱ τοῦ νεκροῦ ἀγχισταὶ καὶ τουτονὶ περιστάντες τῆς θρηνῳδίας ἀπήρχοντο, τῶν μὲν ἀνδρῶν ἱσταμένων, καθημένων δὲ τῶν γυναίων∙ καὶ τῶν μὲν ἀρχομένων, τῶν δὲ διαδεχομένων, οἵῳ τῷ τρόπῳ Κρῆτες ἐχρῶντο περί τε γάμους ἡρώων καὶ πανηγύρεις θεῶν∙ ὅθεν καὶ ἐς ἡμᾶς τουτὶ τὸ πρᾶγμα διαμεμένηκε. τοιουτότροπα ἐς χόρους (sic) ᾀδόντων τῶν Κρητῶν τε καὶ τῶν Κρησςῶν, Noiret LIMA 80, cf. Schirò ZBa (1963-4) 145-160. Particularly noteworthy is the mention of antiphonal singing, which he compares with ancient and contemporary practice in Crete. The death of the young man occurred, apparently accidentally, during a sword contest held annually within the precincts of the church of St. Laonikos on Palm Sunday, in preparation for Holy Week. It is not clear why Apostolis should refer to these people by the name of Taulantioi, as the ancient Illyrian tribe of that name was of no historical significance after the third century B.C. As for the sword contest, the nearest modern equivalent which I have come across is the custom, still observed in northern Epiros, on ‘Lazarus’ Saturday’ (the day before Palm Sunday), when the young boys masquerade through the village in strange costume, brandishing spears, sabres and bells, and threatening the villagers, Megas EE 142-3. Ancient parallels which might usefully be investigated include the warlike dances and contests associated with the rites celebrating the death and rebirth of the god, see Ath. 139d-f.