The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition

3. Modern survivals

In a country with a large rural population like Greece, where geographical conditions and backward communications have led to the growth of isolated and self-contained communities, each preserving distinct its local dialect and traditions, it is natural to find many pre-Christian survivals, especially in connection with something so fundamental as death. The mere existence of ritual beliefs and practices in Greece today does not prove continuity of development from antiquity, since similar survivals can be found in most of the Balkan countries. I shall therefore attempt in this chapter not to enumerate details of ritual for their own sake, but to point out the thread of continuity and change, and above all to define the relation between poetry and ritual in the popular lament, since this was obscured in our sources for the Byzantine period.

The fight with Death

In the case of a young person, a protracted death need not have any moral implications, but may simply reflect a natural reluctance to leave the pleasures and responsibilities of life. The fight with death is then understood literally: the dying man may call out that he can see Charos approach, sword in hand, often dressed in black, or winged, like ancient Hades. [7] A girl from Thrace who died at the age of twenty two in the influenza epidemic of 1917 was heard to shout out, an hour before she died, ‘There he is! A young man is coming with a spear to {37|38} cut me up! Bring me the long knife. He is going to slaughter me. She then engaged in an imaginary but fierce fight. [8] In the ballads of the Underworld which describe a wrestling-match between Death and the young man, it is regarded as a mark of heroism and not as a sign of a sinful life for the young man to face Death with a challenge:

— Λεβέντη μ’, μ’ ἔστειλε ὁ Θεός, νὰ πάρω τὴν ψυχή σου.
— Χωρὶς ἀνάγκη κι ἀρρώστιὰ ψυχή δεν παραδίνω,
μόν’ ἔβγα νὰ παλέψουμε σὲ μαρμαρένιο ἁλώνι,
κι ἄ μὲ νικήσης, Χάροντα, νὰ πάρης τὴν ψυχή μου,
κι ἄ σὲ νικήσω πάλι ἐγώ πήγαινε στὸ καλό σου.

Politis 214.11-15

— Young man, God has sent me to take your soul.
— Without force or sickness, I will not give up my soul.
Come, and let us wrestle on the marble threshing floor.
And if you win, Charondas, you can take my soul,
and if it is I who win, you must go and leave me.

Washing, dressing and lamentation

The use of strange mourners is considered a mark of respect and affection towards the dead. They are sometimes, but not always paid, and payment is in kind, with coin or purse. A Cretan mourner expressed her dissatisfaction with the proffered payment by opening with these words: [20]

Πολλὰ μακρὺς μοῦ φαίνεται
καὶ τὰ κουκιά ’ναι λίγα!

The corpse seems too long, and the beans are too few!

And a Maniot mourner is promised by the dead man’s next of kin: [

κλάψετε τόνε μου καλά—κούμουλα θά ’ναι τὰ κουκιά!

Sing me a fine lament for him, and you shall have a pile of beans. {40|41}

Being less directly and personally involved, they are equipped to give a more accomplished and professional expression to their grief. This does not mean that they suffer less; on the contrary, because they are required to fulfill an obligation to the dead, their grief may be more acute. [
22] Nor are they insincere, since, like the Trojan captives who mourned with Briseis for Patroklos, they may, with the permission of the kinswomen, lament their own troubles and their own dead, sending a message through the dead man to their own kinsmen in the Underworld:

Μιὰ φρόνιμη νοικοκυρά, μιὰ ταχτικὴ γυναίκα,
βουλήθηκε, ἀποφάσισε νὰ κατεβῆ στὸν Ἅδη.
Ὅπου ἔχει λόγια, ἂς τῆς τὰ εἰπῆ, παραγγολὲς κι ἂς στείλη,
κι ὅπου ἔχει γιὸ ξαρμάτωτον, ἂς στείλη τ᾽ ἄρματά του.

Pasayanis 44

A wise housewife, an orderly woman,
has made up her mind and decided to go down to Hades.
If you have messages to send, give them to her to take,
and if you have a son unarmed, send him weapons too.

In 1963 Sophia Lala, aged 66, from Samarina in western Macedonia, explained to me that since the death of both her husband and her son in her youth, she had sung nothing but laments. When invite to lament at other funerals she would never refuse, because in is way she could sing for her own dead, ‘I weep for my own, not for theirs.’

The result of such an antiphonal exchange between kinswomen and strangers was a gradual crescendo of emotion, of rising intensity but not without its traditional, ritual pattern. Moreover, lamentation in some areas was considered such a professional art that it was consciously cultivated among certain families, and the skill was handed down from mother to daughter. This was the case until recently in Mani and in the island of Imbros, where the fame of Samothracian mourners was such that it gave rise to a proverb, ‘You need Samothracian women to lament you’ (Loukatos 64).

From house to tomb

In Epiros, the last greeting between dead and living before the final separation may take the form of an imaginary dialogue, in which the nearest kin is required to hold his hand over the body of the dead man, like Orestes, while the other mourners sing on his behalf:

Ἁπλῶστε τὸ χεράκι σας καὶ πιάστε το δικό μου,
κρατῆστε με νὰ σᾶς κρατῶ, νὰ μὴ ξεχωριστοῦμε,
γιατὶ ἂν ξεχωρίσουμε, δὲν θέλ’ ἀνταμωθοῦμε.

Laog (1960) 346.26, 5-7

Stretch out your hand, and take my hand in yours.
Clasp me, as I clasp you, so as not to part,
for once we part we’ll never meet again.

Burial and after

As in the Byzantine period, the priest presides over the actual burial, laying on the dead a piece of tile or pottery bearing the inscription ΙΣ XΣ NIKA (Jesus Christ Conquers) to ward off evil spirits, and sprinkling him three times with oil and wine taken from the central lamp of the church. [34] Then he throws on to the coffin a clod of earth, repeating the formula ‘Earth thou art, and to earth thou shalt depart’. In Crete it is not the priest, but an experienced person, usually a woman, who officiates, touching the earth with her two forefingers and whispering softly to the dead, ´Τούτ ἡ γῆς ποὺ σ’ ἔθρεψε, τούτη θὰ σὲ φάη (This earth which fed you shall also eat you), a phrase which has hardly changed since antiquity. [35] Similarly, the formula of many ancient epigrams finds an echo in the line ‘I owe my body to the earth, {44|45} my soul to the angel’ (Theros 750). While the mourners throw into the grave their last offerings of fruit and flowers, laments are sung, either in the form of a dialogue between the dead and the living, or as a series of instructions given to ‘those long dead’ and to Earth to take care of the newcomer:

Ἄι, πεθαμένοι συγγενεῖς,
δόστε του ροῦχα, νὰ ντυθῆ,
πυρῶστε το καὶ στὴ φωτιά,
μὴ μοῦ κρυώση το παιδί!

Theros 776.19-22

Ái, dead kinsmen, give him clothes to wear,
warm him by the fire. Don’t let my child catch cold!

Πλάκα χρυσή, πλάκα ἀργυρή, πλάκα μαλαματένια,
τοῦτον τὸν νιό, ποὺ στέλνουμε, νὰ τὸν καλοπεράσης,
φτιάσε του γιόμα νὰ γευτῆ, καὶ δεῖπνο νὰ δειπνήση,
καὶ στρῶσ’ τὸ στρῶμα του παχιό, νὰ πέση νὰ πλαγιάση.

Golden tombstone, silver tombstone, tombstone all of gold,
see that this boy we send you has a pleasant time there.
Give him food to eat, and let him dine,
and make his bed thick, that he may lie and rest.

But in this Maniot lament, unlike the ancient epigrams, the Earth has an answer, and it is not a pleasant one:

Τίγαρις εἶμαι ἡ μάνα του, νὰ τὸν καλοπεράσω,
Μένα μὲ λένε Μαύρη Γῆ, μὲ λένε μαύρη πλάκα,
κάνω μανοῦλες δίχως γιούς, γυναῖκες δίχως ἄντρες,
κάνω τὶς μαῦρες ἀδερφὲς δίχως τοὺς ἀδερφούς τους.

Pasayanis 35

Do you think I’m his mother, to give him a pleasant time?
My name is Black Earth, my name is Black Tombstone,
and I make mothers part from sons and wives from husbands,
I make poor sisters part from their brothers.

On the third, ninth and fortieth days after death, and after one year, wine and water are placed on the tomb and in the house for the thirsty soul to return and drink. Dirges, mostly passionate invocations imploring the dead to return, are improvised by kinswomen at the tomb; sometimes they contain thinly veiled threats, arising, perhaps, out of considerations of inheritance and property. In the following Maniot lament for a girl who died childless, soon after marriage, her relations and relations-in-law take turns to improvise a couplet, ending with a threat, probably uttered by her mother-in-law, that her dowry will be returned to her mother’s house: [39]

— Καημένη, νὰ συλλογιστῆς,
λυπήσου τὴ μητέρα σου.
— Ἂν δὲν ἐρθῆς, κι ἂν δὲν φανῆς,
θενὰ σοῦ κάμουν προσβολή,
θὰ πᾶν νὰ πάρουν τὰ προικιὰ
ν᾽ ἀπὸ τὸ σπίτι τοῦ ἄντρα σου,
γιατὶ δὲν ἄφησες παιδί.

Pasayanis 107.14-20

— Wretched girl, think again! Have pity on you mother.
— If you do not return, if you do not appear,
they will insult you, and go and take the dowry
from your husband’s house, because you left no child!

These harsh words perhaps indicate something of the violence and feeling which gave rise to the exaggerated displays of grief so hateful to Chrysostom, and to the ecstatic attitudes depicted on the fifth-century vases. The real function of invocation at the tomb has remained unaltered: the living, by their offerings and passionate invocations, can enter into communion with the dead. {46|47}

Some days in the Church calendar call for an even more lavish banquet, among them the first Friday of Lent and the Friday of Pentecost (known also as στοῦ Ρουσαλιοῦ, a popularised form of the ancient Roman Rosalia). The latter is referred to by the people as ‘the day of the pies’, because it is the day of the most extensive offering of ψυχόπιττες (pies for the soul), when the whole village—strangers, clerks, shepherds and herdsmen together with their sheep, goats, cows and oxen—makes its way to the tombs. It is the last day of freedom for the souls, which have been freed since the Sunday before Lent by the blood of hens slaughtered over their graves, the ceremony may be a relic of the ritual blood sacrifice believed in antiquity to release the souls of the dead for a limited period. [41] The central part of this ritual is the gonátisma (kneeling), which takes place after the first part of the service has been sung inside the church. Everyone, young and old, walks in procession to the churchyard (perívolos), led by the women, who carry baskets of offerings covered with fine scarves, usually white. The women stay at the tombs to guard the offerings, kneeling with heads bent towards the earth, while the priest takes the men back to the church to continue the service, also kneeling. During this silent kneeling the souls are believed to rise to eat and drink. Afterwards the men come out of the church and sit round the tombs in a large circle, while the women hand round food and drink.

The custom of exhuming the dead after one, three or seven years is well known in all parts of Greece. The purpose is to examine the {47|48} remains to see that there are no inauspicious signs for the dead man’s relatives. If the body has dissolved, leaving the bones clean and white, all is well, and they are washed in wine and reinterred. But if the body is black and putrid, the chances are that the dead man has become a βρυκόλακας (revenant). According to the official explanation, he is in Hell, or, more picturesquely, in popular speech καίγεται στὰ Τάρταρα (he is burning in Tartara) (Laog (1911) 476-7). In a lament from Epiros, the macabre instructions are spelt out in full, as if by the dead:

— Κάμε τὰ χέρια σου τσαπιά, τὴν πλάκα παραμέρα,
καὶ τράβα τὸ μαντήλι μου ἀπὸ τὸ πρόσωπό μου,
κι ἂν μ᾽ εὕρης ἀσπροκόκκινον, σκύψε κι ἀγκάλιασέ με,
κι ἂν μ᾽ εὕρης μαῦρον κι ἀραχνόν, τράβα καὶ σκέπασέ με.
Στὶς τρεῖς πῆρα κι ἀράχνιασα, εἰς τὶς ἐννιὰ μυρίζω,
κι ἀπ᾽ τὶς σαράντα κι ὕστερα ἁρμοὺς ἁρμοὺς χωρίζω.

Giankas 885.4-9

— Make your arms into pickaxes, heave aside the tombstone,
and draw the kerchief from my face.
If you find me pink and white, bend down and embrace me,
and if you find me mouldering black, cover me once more.
On the third day I began to moulder, on the ninth I smell,
and from the fortieth my limbs fall one by one.

The whole village community is responsible for the care of the bones of their ancestors, on which their good fortune is thought to depend, as in antiquity. [44] In the case of sudden evacuation of a village, the bones are carefully dug up, put in special sacks, and taken with them to help found a new settlement. If there is no time for this, then the bones are burnt, to prevent the possibility of desecration by the enemy. When Parga, sold by the British to Ali Pasha in 1817, was ceded to the Turks in 1819, its inhabitants burnt the bones of their ancestors before they left, as is recorded in the historical lament:

Βλέπεις ἐκείνη τὴ φωτιά, μαῦρο καπνὸ ποὺ βγάνει;
Ἐκεῖ καίγονται κόκκαλα, κόκκαλα άντρειωμένων, {48|49}
ποὺ τὴν Τουρκιὰ τρομάξανε καὶ τὸ βεζίρη κάψαν.
Ἐκεῖ ’ναι κόκκαλα γονιοῦ, ποὺ τὸ παιδὶ τὰ καίει,
νὰ μὴν τὰ βροῦνε οἱ Λιάπηδες, Τοῦρκοι μὴν τὰ πατήσουν.

Ibid. 44

Do you see yonder fire, and the black smoke which it makes?
Bones are being burned there, bones of brave men,
who caused the Turks to be afraid, and burnt the vezir.
There a parent’s bones are burned by his own child,
lest the Turkish infidels should find them and trample on them.

As for mourning, the duration and customs vary considerably, but everywhere the widow is required to observe the most exacting terms. [

This summary of ritual lamentation as it has been recorded from different parts of Greece for the past hundred years or so, while far from exhaustive, may perhaps indicate some important features in the continuity of Greek tradition. First, the general pattern of the ritual, and the distinctive types of lament characteristic of its three stages—at the wake, at the funeral procession and at the tomb—have remained fundamentally the same. Second, in spite of the changes, there are some striking similarities of detail, in the ritual practices themselves, in the explanations given for them by the people, and above all in the terminology. Further, relating the modern ritual to the ancient and Byzantine material already examined, we find that on the one hand there are some practices in modern folk tradition which can be paralleled in ancient ritual, but which are not recorded in Byzantine tradition, and on the other hand a certain discrepancy between the official attitude of the Church as expressed by the early fathers and as practised by the village priests today, who are by no means reluctant to preside over, or profit from, certain practices of demonstrably pagan origin.

This discrepancy reflects a subjective rather than an objective change. Now that paganism is no longer regarded as a powerful force among the people and the Church has no need to take a hostile attitude, the two are thoroughly integrated. There is no conflict because there is no real distinction. On the one hand the Church has learnt to tolerate what it had once discouraged or condemned; on the other hand, popular ritual has associated itself more or less directly with Christianity. The ancient figure of Hades has disappeared, but his popular successor is not God or Saint Michael but Charos, who is responsible for accompanying the dead to the Underworld, still known as Hades, and much more similar to its ancient counterpart than to the Christian concept of Hell. Along with Charos in Hades are {49|50} to be found the Virgin, the saints and apostles, while Charos occasionally finds his way to Paradise, usurping Saint Peter as keeper of the gate. He has survived because there is no doubt in the minds of those who believe in him that he is the servant of God, and so it is to him that mourners address their prayers to release the dead from their graves on the Christian festivals. The assimilation has been complete, yet unconscious, as in the following folk song recorded from the Peloponnese: [46]

— Στὸν Ἅδη θά κατέβω καὶ στὸν Παράδεισο,
τὸν Χάρο νὰ τὸν εὕρω δυὸ λόγια νὰ τοῦ πῶ.

I will go down to Hades and to Paradise,
to find Charos and say a few words to him.

Perhaps on factor in this process of assimilation has been the change in the position of the Orthodox Church. During the long centuries of Turkish occupation, when it was no longer in a dominant position, through the lower village priests at least it played an important role in the struggle for national liberation and so became more closely united and identified with the people. Under these circumstances, since old divergences and disputes tended to be forgotten, some aspects of pagan ritual probably received official recognition.

This relation between lament and ritual affords a clue to continuity. The ancient lament, even in its most highly developed literary form, never entirely lost sight of its ritual connections. When this dynamic interplay of poetry and life was obscured in Byzantine learned tradition, the result tended towards a cold formal literary exercise, divorced from popular language and culture. What is characteristic of the modern Greek folk lament—although by no means unique to Greek tradition—is that it has retained its ritual significance without any diminution of its poetic quality. {50|51}

At present survival is threatened neither by legislation nor by the Church, but by a more insidious and gradual corrosion of the social conditions on which it depends. Will it inevitably disappear when its old functional value has gone, together with the practices and superstitions of which it is a part? It is too soon to answer such a question yet, but perhaps the vital unity of poetry and ritual, characteristic of Greek tradition and essential to the continuity of many features of the lament since antiquity in spite of the historical and religious changes, will ensure its survival in a different form in the future, perhaps in popular poetry of a new kind, which is neither exclusively folkloric, nor exclusively literary. Folk tradition, when deep-rooted in the consciousness of a people as it is in Greece, is extremely tenacious and at the same time adaptable.


[ back ] 1. Cited by Lekatsas Psyche 126, cf. Theros 783, Michaelidis-Nouaros 315, Passow 154.10-12, Politis LS 3.323.

[ back ] 2. Il. 24.44-5, cf. Migne 60.726 (Loukatos 43.2-3), Politis 65B 1.

[ back ] 3. Laog (1934) 390, ArP (1964) 161.

[ back ] 4. ArP (1951) 181-2, Laog 389.

[ back ] 5. Politis 92, cf. Pl. Ph. 118a.

[ back ] 6. ArP (1951) 182.

[ back ] 7. Peek 632.4: Ἅιδης ⟨ο⟩ἷ σκοτίας ἀμφέβαλεν πτέρυγας (fourth century B.C.). The modern concept of Charos as winged probably derives in part from the fusion of Charos and the Archangel Michael, which goes back to vernacular poetry of the late Byzantine period, see Moravcsik SBN (1931) 45-61, Zoras Parn (1970) 420-38.

[ back ] 8. Laog (1934) 389.

[ back ] 9. See Vlastos SS 166 s.v. πεθαίνω and Vostantzoglou Antilexikon 503.

[ back ] 10. Laog (1934) 388, ArP (1964) 161.

[ back ] 11. Ibid. 390.

[ back ] 12. Schmidt GMSF 38 (Lawson MGF 108-14).

[ back ] 13. ArP (1951) 182, Laog (1934) 391, see also Politis LS 3.327, Lekatsas 348.

[ back ] 14. Politis cites evidence of the use of the garland at funerals of the young and newly married in Macedonia, Chios and Laconia, LS 3.327 n. 7, cf. Toumefort VL 1.99 for the dressing of a dead woman in bridal attire in Crete.

[ back ] 15. The complete text of this lament is published in ET (May 1963) 436.

[ back ] 16. Politis LS 3.328.

[ back ] 17. Pasayanis prologue, cf. Loukatos 64, who cites similar evidence for Laconia, Pylia and his native Kephallonia, where he recorded the following couplet: Τὸ ξόδι θέλει συντροφιά, θέλει γενιὰ μεγάλη, | νὰ τ᾽ ἀρχινᾷ ἡ μιὰ μεριά, νὰ τὸ ἀφίν᾽ ἡ ἄλλη ibid. 55.

[ back ] 18. Politis 197, Pasayanis 13,63.

[ back ] 19. Laog (1911) 475.

[ back ] 20. Cited by Spanakis KCh (1955) 401 n. 58, in a detailed commentary on the stipulation in the Testament of Andreas Kornaros (1611) that no moiroloítres be permitted to enter the church or his house, or to lament at his graveside, as was customary among the gentili et etnici in Crete; cf. Tournefort VL 1.99, where payment seems to have been in the form of money. An edict from Zakynthos of 1622 legislates against lamentation and funeral rites, and more recently the Church has legislated against the use of hired mourners in Sinope and Alagonia, Loukatos 63-4.

[ back ] 21. Patriarcheas NK (1939-40) 1044.

[ back ] 22. See Kyriakidis GL 57-9, Lioudaki 413.2, NK (1939-40) 1040.

[ back ] 23. Pasayanis prologue, Laog (1911) 547, Lioudaki 407, Baud-Bovy 1.350.

[ back ] 24. A liturgical dance at the wake of a priest has been recorded from Crete within living memory, Lioudaki 409.

[ back ] 25. ArP (1951) 185-6, (1964) 164-5, Politis 220, Laog (1934) 396.

[ back ] 26. ArP (1951) 186, cf. Lioudaki 403, Politis LS 3.330, Loukatos 55.

[ back ] 27. Laog (1911) 473 n. 1.

[ back ] 28. Politis LS 3.333, 2.268-83.

[ back ] 29. Laog (1934) 399.

[ back ] 30. The women come last in Anaselitsa, Thrace (Laog (1934) 401), but are more prominent in Mani (ibid. (1911) 475).

[ back ] 31. Politis LS 3.335 n. 1, Loukatos 69.

[ back ] 32. Laog (1911) 475, ArP (1941) 112-13. Politis cites an edict of 1365 from Crete which forbids the custom of taking the procession round by the main streets, LS 3.334 n. 3, see also Jegerlehner BZ (1904) 467; but the same custom is described in Crete by Toumefort VL 1.107. In recent times, the following custom was recorded from Arachova: Μετὰ τὴν ἐκκλησία τὸν περνοῦν βόλτα κι ἀπ᾽ τὴν ἀγορά LA 1153 Α39 (Loukatos 71).

[ back ] 33. Laog (1911) 475, Kanellakis 339.

[ back ] 34. Politis LS 3.336, 346, Laog (1934) 401-2.

[ back ] 35. Lioudaki 406. See chapter 1 p. 9.

[ back ] 36. Politis LS 3.337, Laog (1934) 401-2.

[ back ] 37. Luct. 24. See Loukatos 90, Politis LS 3.342-4, 353, Akoglou LK 225.

[ back ] 38. Laog (1934) 404-5, Politis LS 341-2.

[ back ] 39. Cf. Pasayanis 115, Tarsouli 227.3-6.

[ back ] 40. See Politis LS 3.345, 346 n. 4, Laog (1934) 408-9.

[ back ] 41. See Dawkins FL (1942) 131-47, Politis LS 3.346-7, Laog (1934) 409. For the Roman Rosalia as one of the occasions prescribed for offerings at the graves of relatives and friends, see Toynbee DBRW 64 n. 253.

[ back ] 42. Καθ’ ὃν χρόνον ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ παρασκευάζονται τὰ πρὸς μνήμην νεκρῶν κόλλυβα, ἡ τοῦτα ποιοῦσα θέτει χωριστὰ μέρη ὠνοματισμένα εἰς τὸν καθένα, προφέρουσα ἑνὸς ἑκάστου τὸ ὄνομα (Crete), Zografakis LA 895 (Loukatos 98).

[ back ] 43. Phlegon Mir. 1, see Lawson MGF 487, 540.

[ back ] 44. Politis LS 3.355 n. 6, and for antiquity, see Hdt. 1.67-8, A. Pers. 405.

[ back ] 45. See Passow 162.3-7, Petropoulos 238.45.

[ back ] 46. From a private collection of folk songs recorded before World War II by Despoina Mazaraki, kindly made available to me by Nikephoros Rotas. Cf. Petropoulos 42.3

[ back ] 47. Wolf Peasants 88 cites a paper by Gearing ‘Religious ritual in a Greek village’ on how commonality is asserted at village funerals: even the dead man’s enemies attend, and are welcomed by the household.