The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition

9. The allusive method


Another method was to describe through symbols. This might take the form of a simile, both simple and developed. The simile is associated with the lament in Homer and in the funerary inscriptions, but not in tragedy; nor is it prominent in the hymn and enkómion. [5] In the Byzantine period, too, the simile was more characteristic of the laments than of the hymns; and, while it is found in all types of lament, the developed simile, in which the point of comparison is elaborated for its own sake on both sides, is found only in the more popular tradition. [6] A Cretan mourner of today uses a developed simile which is remarkably close to Home’s simile for Achilles lamenting the death of Patroklos: [7]

Ὡς κλαίει ἡ μάνα τὸ παιδί, ὅντινα τσῆ πεθάνη,
κλαίω κι ἐγὼ γιὰ λόγο σου, μὰ ὁ νοῦς σου δὲν τὸ βάνει.

Lioudaki LK 121

As a mother weeps for her child who dies,
so Ι weep for you, but you cannot perceive it.

ὡς δὲ πατὴρ οὗ παιδὸς ὀδύρεται ὀστέα καίων,
νυμφίου, ὅς τε θανὼν δειλοὺς ἀκάχησε τοκῆας,
ὣς Ἀχιλεὺς ἑτάροιο ὀδύρετο ὀστέα καίων.

Il. 23.222-4

As a father weeps for his son, when he burns his bones,
a bridegroom, who caused grief to his wretched parents by his death,
so Achilles wept for his comrade as he burnt his bones.

Even commoner than the simile in the modern laments, which compares a real event with an imagined one, is the more flexible expression of reality entirely through symbols. In a couplet from Mani, the tragic circumstances of death are conveyed through imagery alone: because of a feud, two leading families were extinct in the male line except for one orphaned boy, who was carefully tended by female relations in order to take revenge until at the age of eight he fell ill and died: {186|187}

Ἡ ἄμπαρη ξεθύμανε κι ἔσπασε τ’ ἀλαβάστρο.
Μικρὸ κανόνι κρέπαρε, μὰ ξαρματώθη κάστρο.

Theros 771

The hold has burst and the alabaster has shattered,
a small gun has exploded into pieces, but a fortress is disarmed.


But there were other sources of transmission, outside the Christian tradition. Quintus’ Briseis mourns Achilles with an image in the classical style, as ‘the sacred day and light of the sun’ (3.563-4). Other classical motifs, such as the loss of sight, which is the light of life, the quenching of a single lamp or candle in the midst of darkness, the setting of the sun and the waning of the moon, can all be traced from learned poetry and rhetoric to popular tradition through the romances. [16] Apart from the archaising language, the dirge of Dianteia for her son Hysminias in Eustathios’ novel is strikingly similar to popular laments, in both the form and the range of imagery, as can be seen by comparing it with some of the modern laments. [17]

Ἥλιον εἶχον τὸν παῖδα, καὶ νῦν τοῦ παιδὸς κρυβέντος, ἀνήλιος ἡ μήτηρ ἐγὼ. Ἀστήρ μοι παῖς ἐκεῖνος περιφανής, ἀλλ’ ἀπεκρύβη, καὶ νὺξ ἀφεγγὴς τὴν μητέρα με κατέλιπε. Φῶς ἦν μοι παῖς ἐκεῖνος, ἀλλ’ ἀπεσβέσθη, καὶ νῦν ἐν σκότει πορεύομαι.


I had my child as the sun, and now that my child is obscured I, his mother, am without sun. My child was a bright sun, but now he is hidden, and the gloom of night has enshrouded me, his mother. My child was light to me, but he is quenched, and now I walk in darkness. {188|189}

Μοὺρ πῶς δὲ μὲ λελίζεσαι καὶ δὲ μ’ ἐλεημονιέσαι,
ὁπὄχασα τὰ μάτια μου, ὁπὄχασα τὸ φῶς μου,
σὰν ἥλιος ἐβασίλεψα, σὰν τὸ φεγγάρι ἐσώθ’κα,
καὶ πάγωσαν τὰ χέρια μου ἀπανωθιὰ στὰ στήθια.

Giankas 879.4-7

O why don’t you pity me, and why do you have no mercy?
For I have lost my eyes, I have lost my sight,
like the sun I have set, like the moon I have waned,
and my hands have frozen upon my breast.

In the Cretan Sacrifice of Abraham, Sarah mourns Isaac first as her eyes (378), and later as her only candle, in a couplet which can be paralleled almost exactly from Crete today:

κι ἂς τάξω, δὲν τὸ γέννησα, μηδ’ εἶδα το ποτέ μου,
μά ’ναν κερὶν ἁφτούμενον ἐκράτουν κι ἤσβησέ μου.

Thysia 401-2

I must make myself think that I did not give him birth, that I never saw him,
but that I held a single lighted candle and it was put out.

Ἂς τάξω δὲ σ’ ἐβύζασα, δὲ σέ ’δα ’γὼ ποτέ μου.
κι ἕναν κεράκι ἁφτούμενο ἐβάστουν κι ἤσβησέ μου.

Lioudaki 416.2

I must make myself think that I did not give you suck, that I never saw you,
but that I carried a single lighted candle and it was put out.

The themes in these laments belong to a common tradition. Besides the more general concept of light, there is the sun, symbol of life, warmth and justice; the dawn, contrasting light with darkness; the moon and stars as cherished objects of brightness; the more homely lamp and candle, put out before their time and leaving the mourner to continue her way in gloom; and finally, the identification of light and sight, without which man is blind. Although the symbolism is naturally most explicit in the religious tradition, the images themselves are so closely integrated into the Greek lament of all periods that much of their allusive quality is lost without an understanding of their evolution and history.


How were these themes of travel both by road and by sea, so closely integrated in ancient Greek, developed in later tradition? Some aspects were incorporated into Christianity and elaborated in the Byzantine hymns: in the Akáthistos Hýmnos, Christ is ὁδηγὸς πλανωμένοις (a guide to those who stray), an idea which may owe something to the ancient mysteries; [23] and in Romanos’ kontákion Mary opens her lament with the question, ‘where are you going, child? For whose sake are you completing the swift course?’ (19.1.10-16). Christ {190|191} as the haven of souls, the helmsman of sailors, the sea to drown all sinner, is familiar from the early liturgies; but apart from some striking variations in the Akáthistos Hýmnos, this imagery is rather stylised, and does not appear to have had a direct influence on the lament. [24] In Dianteia’s dirge for Hysminias, on the other hand, from Eustathios’ Hysmine and Hysminias, the classical praise formulae are perfectly appropriate to the occasion of lamentation:

Εὐάγκαλός μοι λνμὴν Ὑσμινίας ὁ παῖς, κἀγὼ δ᾽ ὡς ναῦς ἐν λιμένι νηνεμίαν ἦγον καὶ ἤμην ἀκύματος∙ νῦν δ᾽ ὁ λιμὴν οὐδαμοῦ, κἀγὼ δ’ ἡ ναῦς ἐν πελάγει μέσῳ κατακλυδωνιζομένη τοῖς κύμασιν.


My son Hysminias was a welcome harbour to me, and I, like a ship in port, enjoyed calm, and was unruffled by the waves. But now the harbour is nowhere to be seen, and I, the ship, am driven out into the ocean- and overwhelmed by the waves.

The same theme is recognizable in a Monody for Constantinople written by the Byzantine scholar Andronikos Kallistos: ‘O haven once sweet and kind to ships, now unfortunate, indeed a very Skylla’ (NE (1908) 206.18-9). Were these just archaisms, or may they have owed something to contemporary vernacular poetry?

Certainly, allusion to travel is nowhere so complex and flexible in Byzantine laments as in the modern ritual laments. During his lifetime, the dead man was ‘a well-equipped ship to his home’ (Politis 197.6). Without his protection, his orphaned children are desolate:

σὰν τὸ καράβι στὸ γιαλὸ πού ’ναι χωρὶς τιμόνι,
φυσάει βορᾶς, μέσα τὸ πάει, κι ὁ μπάτης τὸ γυρίζει,
καὶ ὁ πουνέντης ὁ τρελλὸς στὴν ξέρα τ᾽ ἀρμενίζει.

Laog (1911) 266.4, 2

… like the ship by the shore which has no rudder,
the north wind blows and drives it in and the sea breeze turns it back,
and the mad west wind dashes it on to the reef.

Nor is this all. When the dead is dressed for the wake before the funeral procession, he is thought of as a ship about to depart for the Underworld; and since it is a maiden voyage, it has golden masts, silver stem and sails of silk. As if unknowing, the mourner asks its destination: {191|192}

— Καράβι πρωτοτάξιδο κι ἀσημαρματωμένο,
πὄχεις πανιὰ μεταξωτὰ κι ἔχεις κουπιὰ ἀσημένια,
κι ἔχεις κι ἀντενοκάταρτα χρυσά, μαλαματένια,
ποῦθε θὰ ρίξης σίδερο, θὰ δέσης παλαμάρι;
— Στὴν Κάτου Γῆς τὸ σίδερο, στὸν Ἅδη παλαμάρι,
καὶ μέσ’ στὸν Ἅι-Λιὰ μπροστὰ θ’ ἀράξη τὸ καράβι.

Romaios KR 228

— Boat decked out in silver for your maiden voyage,
you whose sails are of silk and whose oars of silver,
and whose yardarm and masts are made of finest gold,
where will you lay anchor, where will you moor your ropes?
— I will anchor in the Underworld, I will moor in Hades,
and I will come to rest in front of Saint Elijah.

By the same complex allusive method, the dead was praised in his lifetime as ‘horseman among those on foot’ (Fauriel 2.62.7). Now that he is dead, they are saddling outside a horse with golden spurs and silver reins. It is the familiar preparation for any traveller’s journey on horse back. Yet the lament continues inexorably:

Νὰ πάη στῆς Ἄρνας τὰ βουνά, στῆς Ἄρνησης τὰ μέρη,
π᾽ ἀρνιέται ἡ μάνα τὸ παιδί, καὶ τὸ παιδὶ τὴ μάνα.

Romaios KR 231.5-6

He is to go to the mountains of Denial, to the regions of Denial,
where mother denies her child and child denies its mother. {192|193}

Finally, just as the image of the dead as a ship is fused with that of the ship of Charos, so here, parallel to the dead horseman about to set of on his perilous journey, is the terrible figure of Charos the huntsman:

Μὰ νά τον καὶ κατέβαινε στοὺς κάμπους καβελάρης,
μαῦρος ἦταν, μαῦρα φορεῖ, μαῦρο καὶ τ’ ἄλογό του.

Politis 219.11-12

But see, there he was coming down the plains on horseback.
He was black, his clothes were black, and his horse was black.


Even more significant is the wide diffusion in laments from all parts of Greece of the identification of a dead husband or son with the pillar of the house, found nowhere to my knowledge in Byzantine tradition. It is often introduced incidentally as one of the praise formulae: ‘you were a pillar of gold to your house’ (Giankas 891.3). But it is also developed in a more fundamental way. In Crete, the relatives sometimes call out to the dead man as he is carried over the threshold, ‘we have lost the pillar of our house! Ófou! and when the pillar of the house falls, the beams will fall too!’ (Lioudaki 407). In a Pontic lament, a mother warns her dead son ‘and a house without a pillar soon falls to ruins’ (ArP (1951) 187.15). This gains added significance when we remember the ritual custom of the mourner calling on the pillar of the house, as well as on the door and walls, to weep and take their leave of the dead as he is carried out. [32] The underlying implication, as in Iphigeneia’s dream, is that with his departure the very structure of the house is threatened with ruin.

Ὀσπίτα μου, ᾽κι φλίνηστουν, στουλάρα μ’, κάτι κλαῖτε,
κ᾽ ἐσύ, βασιλοστούλαρο μ’, κατ’ ’κὶ σταλάζεις αἶμαν; {194|195}
Γουρπάν’ς, ὀσπιτοχάλαστε καὶ τζαχοζεμέντσα,
ἐχάλασες τὴν κερχανά σ’ κ’ ἐπόζεψες τὸν κέγρος,
τ’ ὀσπίτα σ’ ἐσκοτείνεψαν, αὐλή σ’ ἐχοχολῶθεν.

ArP (1946) 108.44

My houses, do you not grieve, my pillars, why do you not weep?
And you, chief pillar of the house, why do you not drip blood?
Woe is me! May house and hearth fall into ruins,
for you have destroyed your home and brought down your fortress,
your houses have darkened, your courtyard is filled with rubble.

Spring and harvest

The juxtaposition of man and nature is an ancient and universal element in folk poetry. An aspect of nature is compared or contrasted with a human condition, throwing it into sharper relief. In its simplest form, the comparison is expressed in a couplet, the first line describing nature, the second pointing the parallel. In Greek tradition, the idea of life as a plant or a flower is as old as one of the oldest lyric poets. [33] Particularly suitable to lamentation was the comparison of early death with a flower withered before its time, or cut off in full bloom, frequently extended to include allusion to spring and harvest, blossoming and reaping, as in a fragment of Euripides: βίον θερίζειν ὥστε κάρπιμον στάχυν (to reap life like fruitful com) E. Hyps. fr. 757 Nauck. [34] When combined with the untimely snatching of Hades and applied to a young girl, it suggests the violent marriage rite of death, in which the girl is ravished by Hades. [35] The image has ancient mythical associations with the story of Demeter and Kore, but in later poetry it was developed for its own sake. In one of Meleager’s epigrams (second to first centuries B.C.), it has become an evocative but literary affectation:

αἰαῖ, ποῦ τὸ ποθεινὸν ἐμοὶ θάλος; ἅρπασεν Ἅιδας,
          ἅρπασεν· ἀκμαῖον δ’ ἄνθος ἔφυρε κόνις.

ΑΡ 7.476.7-8

Alas, where is my lovely shoot? Seized by Hades,
          seized! Dust has defiled the flower in full bloom.

In the funerary inscriptions, the idea finds frequent and varied expression throughout antiquity, as in the following inscription from Larisa (second to third centuries A.D.), where the imagery suggests immunent sexual fulfilment suddenly denied by death: [
36] {195|196}

[παρ]θένος οὖσα τέθ[νη]κα Λε|[ο]ντὼ ὡς νέον ἄνθος |
          ὥρης παντοθαλοῦς πρωτο| [φ]ανὴ{ς) καλύκων
καὶ μέλλου|[σα] γάμῳ δεκαπενταετὴς | μείγνυσθαι
          ἐν φθι|μένοις κεῖμαι, ὕπνον | ἔχουσα μακρόν.

Peek 988

I, Leonto, died a maiden, like a young flower
          when it bursts its bud and first shows its petals,
— fifteen years old, just ready to be joined in wedlock,
          I have come to lie among the dead in a long sleep.

Variations on the same theme are extremely common in Byzantine literature, as in one of the epigrams of Gregory Nazianzen:

᾽Εμὲ γὰρ ῥάδαμνον ὥσπερ Hades has cut me down
νέον ἐξέκοψεν ᾅδης… like a young branch…
Ἀκόρεστος εἶλε Πλούτων Insatiable Plouton has seized
ἐμὲ Παῦλον, ὥσπερ ἔρνος me, Pavlos, plucking me like
ἁπαλὸv τεμὼν πρὸ ὥρας. a tender young plant, too soon.
Θάνατος νέων τὸ κάλλος Thanatos reaps the full beauty
ὅλον, ὡς χλοήν, θερίζει of the young, like grass,
δρεπάνῃ. with his scythe.

Carmina Epitaphia, Migne 38.2, 80-1

Each of these details recurs throughout the learned poetry and prose, especially in the romances, [
37] where there are also signs of a connection with popular tradition. A new image in Theodore Prodromos’ novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles (twelfth century) is of the apparently dead Rhodanthe as a withering apple: μαραίνεται τὸ μῆλον, ἡ ῥοιὰ φθίνει (the apple is withering, the pomegranate is fading 6.299, 258). It is a startling comparison, until we remember the love songs of modern folk poetry, where the fresh beauty of the girl to be won is likened, as in Sappho’s fragment, to a ripening apple; [38] conversely, in the modern laments, the phrase ‘like a withered apple’ is a stock simile which dates back at least to the version of Digenis Akritas preserved in the Escorial manuscript (end of fifteenth century). [39] The nature of the simile is precise enough to suggest that Prodromos may have been drawing on popular traditon. It is interesting to note that in general, this theme is well developed in learned and popular poetry but comparatively rare in the hymns. [40]

In the modern laments, just as men were, on the whole, identified with the ship, horseman, tower and pillar, the imagery of spring and flowers belongs to mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. A mother from Kalymnos addresses her daughter: {196|197}

Ρόδο τῆς πρώτης ἄνοιξης μὲ πέντε θεωρίες,
κεφάλιν ἤσουν, κόρη μου, μέσα στὶς κοπελλοῦ[δ]ες.

Baud-Bovy 2.39

Rose of the first spring with five colours,
you were the chief, my daughter, among the young girls.

A child’s death is frequently seen in relation to the seasons of the year; and, like Hades in the ancient inscriptions, it is usually Charos who is blamed for the premature plucking: [

Γιὰ ἰδὲς καιρὸ ποὺ διάλεξες, Χάρε μου, νὰ τὸν πάρης,
νὰ πάρης τ’ ἄνθη ὀχ τὰ βουνά, λελούδια ἀπὸ τοὺς κάμπους.

Politis 192

See what a time you have chosen, my Charos, to take him,
to take blossoms from the mountains and flowers from the plains!

As in antiquity, death is seen as the reaping of the crop of life; once more, the prime reaper is Charos, as in the following Maniot lament:

Σταράκι μου καθαριστὸ κι ἀγουροθερισμένο,
ποὺ σ’ ἀγουροθερίσανε τοῦ Χάρον οἱ θεριστάδες.

Pasayanis 98.1-2

My corn that has been husked and reaped before its time,
reaped too soon by the reapers of Charos!

This leads us directly to the simile of the deserted mother in The Song of the Dead Brother, who is left, after the ravages of Charos, ‘like stubble on the plain’ (Politis 92.21). The allusion here is to the stubble left behind by the reapers after their work is done and then scorched, as is clear from a developed form of the same simile in a lament from Karpathos, where the girl accuses her dead lover: [

τσαὶ σοῦ μ’ ἀπαλησμόνησες σὰκ καλαμιὰ στὸκ κάμπο,
ἀποὺ τὴ σπέρου τσ’ ἀνεμμᾶ τσ’ ὕστερα τὴθ θερίζου,
τσαὶ τῆς ἐπαίρου τὸκ καρπὸ τσ’ ἡ καλαμιὰ πομένει,
βίου τῆς καλαμιᾶς φωδιὰ τσαὶ μένει στάχτη μόνο.

DAr (1948) 285.12-13

You have forgotten me like stubble on the plain,
which men sow and it grows, and then they reap,
and they take the crop and leave behind the stubble,
they set fire to the stubble and only ashes are left. {197|198}

The tree

Closely associated with spring and harvest is the imagery of the tree, but it deserves separate consideration because there are some sufficiently precise details both in the associations of the theme and in its application to trace its evolution continuously through Greek tradition.

The parallel between man and tree can be traced at every stage of growth. Just as Thetis mourns Achilles, thinking of his childhood in terms of a carefully tended shoot, so too, in the seventeenth-century Cretan play, The Sacrfice of Abraham, Sarah tells how she watched Isaac grow like the shoot of a tree (Il. 18.55-7, Thysia 379). The same thought is implicit in the modern laments, in the formulaic praise of a young man’s beauty ‘tall as a rod, slim as a reed’ and ‘straight as a cypress tree’ (Passow 347.16, 350.12), which can be traced back to the fifteenth-century Byzantine Achilleid (61-2).

The idea was traditional in antiquity, and is frequently found in association with the dead. Herodotos, compressing the simile into a single adjective πρόρριζος, applies it to the sudden downfall inflicted by a jealous fate on those who are tempted to greater wealth than the gods permit. Amasis, king of Egypt, warns the prosperous tyrant of Samos, Polykrates, that he has never yet heard of a man so fortunate through{198|199}out his life who did not come to a terrible end and ‘die root and branch’ (ἐτελεύτησε πρόρριζος 3.40). When his end finally comes, and his cruel death is announced to the people of Samos by Maiandrios, it is commented that Polykrates ‘fulfilled his own destiny’ (ἐζέπλησε μοῖραν τὴν ἑωυτοῦ 3.142). Solon’s famous warning to Kroisos on the dangers of excessive wealth contains the same allusion, that God may give wealth to many and then cause their downfall, root and branch (1.32-3); and the Spartans conclude the moral tale told to the Athenians about the perjuror Glaukos, pursued by an unseen avenger until his whole house was destroyed without a trace, with the words ‘and he has been wiped out root and branch from Sparta’ (ἐκτέτριπταί τε πρόρριζος ἐκ Σπάρτης 6.86). Herodotos has invested an old idea with a new significance: let the rich beware of tempting the gods too far, else his house will be uprooted for ever. The moral arose from the social conditions of the time, which saw the rise and fall of many a tyrant and aristocrat.

The next important link in the evolution of the theme comes from a long consolatory decree of A.D. 242, a prose inscription from Arkesina in Amorgos commemorating men killed in battle. The style is simple, the spelling indifferent, and the ideas expressed—the desertion of parents by their children, the sorrow left behind, the inescapable death fixed by fate, the crown of glory that will be theirs—are all traditional. Its value as evidence here lies in its closeness to popular tradition. The death of one Kronios is described in the following terms, directly associated with the workings of fate: {199|200}

ὥσπερ | δένδρον εἵμερον, εὐθαλές, ὑπὸ πνεύματος ἐκρει|ζωθέν, ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔκεσεν, οὕτως καὶ ὁ Κ[ρ]όνιο[ς] | μοιριδίως ἔπεσεν ἐπὶ τὴν πεπρωμένην αὐτῷ | εἰμαρμένην, πένθος ἄτλητον καταλιπὼν | γονε[ῦ]σιν αὐτοῦ.

BCH (1891) 586.9

Just as a cultivated, thriving tree falls to the ground, uprooted by the wind, so too Kronios fell doomed, according to his destiny, leaving unending grief to his parents.

The simile recurs, in strikingly similar form, in Michael Psellos’ lament or Skleraina, written in verse in learned and rhetorical style (eleventh century):

ὡς δένδρον ἀνθοῦν ἐκ νοητῶν κοιλάδων,
φεῦ, φεῦ, πρὸ ὥρας, ἐτρυγηθη ῥιζόθεν.

Cantarella 166.2.20-1

Like a tree blossoming from the valleys of the mind,
alas, alas, she has been harvested, uprooted before her time.

Nor was it restricted to learned poetry. A Pontic mourner laments her dead husband with the same image: [

Τὸ δένδρον ντ᾽ ἐπεκκούμπιξε ἀπὸ κορφᾶς ἐτσάλωσεν καὶ σύρριζα ἐρροῦξεν.

ArP (1946) 68.2, 5

The tree he leant upon rotted from its peak and fell from its roots.

And a mother from Naxos cries out over the body of her dead daughter:

Γιὰ ἰδέστε τη, πῶς κείτεται, σὰ λεμονιὰ κομμένη!

Theros 750.6

Look at her, how she lies, like a felled lemon tree!

The relevance and vitality of this image among the Greek peasantry is beautifully illustrated from an account recorded by Elli Papadimitriou from the Civil War of 1945-9: seeing her husband brought in dead, a woman cries out Πεῦκο μου! (My pine tree!). [
48] Imagery is often most forceful when it is stark, spontaneous and unadorned.

The full significance of allusion to spring, harvest and trees in popular tradition, then, is that the whole world is nothing but a garden, and the people are flowers, fruit and trees for Charos to pluck and uproot. In a Maniot lament, all the threads developed separately elsewhere are brought together with a fine sense of detail. The allusion in the last line is to the old men—the bare posts, which Charos makes his fence:

Ὁ Χάρος ἐβουλήθηκε νὰ φτιάση περιβόλι …
Βάνει τὶς νιὲς γιὰ λεμονιές, τοὺς νιοὺς γιὰ κυπαρίσσια,
βάνει καὶ τὰ μικρὰ παιδιὰ γαρούφαλα καὶ βιόλες,
ἔβαλε καὶ τοὺς γέροντες στὸν τοῖχο του τρογύρω.

Pasayanis 9.1, 3-5

Charos decided to make a garden …
he puts young girls as lemon trees, young men as cypress,
and he puts small children as carnations an gillyflowers,
and he put old men all round on his fence.

The identification of the dead man with an uprooted tree was sufficiently well established in Homeric tradition to be freely elaborated in similes. Herodotos extended it to include the divine aganecy in a man’s fate. In tragedy, it became part of the actual lament. Meanwhile, as the prose inscription from Amorgos shows, it had lived on in vigorous form in popular tradition, and probably continued to do so until it gave rise to a new interpretation in Byzantine vernacular poetry: no longer a jealous god on behalf of Díke, threatening to uproot the wealthy, but Charos, arbitrarily picking on the just and unjust alike. Nor has the image degenerated into a perfunctory formula: the cry ξεριζώθη! (he has been uprooted!) over the dead man has its counterpart in the blessing καλορίζικο! (good rooting!) on the newly married couple when they set up their new home together. Finally, ριζικό and μοῖρα are now synonymous, meaning fate. The ancient association of the two concepts has been completed by their actual identification. {201|202}

Water and thirst

One of the inscribed tablets of the fourth century B.C. contains the following detailed instructions for the journey of the dead man in the Underworld:

Εὑρήσσεις δ’ Ἀΐδαο δόμων ἐπ’ ἀριστερὰ κρήνην,
πὰρ’ δ’ αὐτῆι λευκὴν ἑστηκυῖαν κυπάρισσον·
ταύτης τῆς κρήνης μηδὲ σχεδὸν ἐμπελάσειας.
εὑρήσεις δ’ ἑτέραν τῆς Μνημοσύνης ἀπὸ λίμνης
ψυχρὸν ὕδωρ προρέον · φύλακες δ’ ἐπίπροσθεν ἔασιν.
Εἰπεῖν …
“δίψηι δ’ εἰμ[ὶ] αὐὴ καὶ ἀπόλλυμαι ἀλλὰ δότ’ αἶψα
ψυχρὸν ὕδωρ προρέον τῆς Μνημοσύνης ἁπὸ λίμνης.”
καὐτοί σοι δώσουσι πιεῖν θείης ἀπ(ὸ κρή)νης.

Kern OF 32a

You will find to the left of Hades’ halls a spring,
and standing by its side, a white cypress tree.
Do not go near this spring.
But you will find another spring by the Lake of Memory,
with cool water flowing from it. There are guardians in front.
Say …
‘I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly
the cool water flowing from the Lake of Memory.’
And of their own accord they will give you to drink from the holy spring.

W. K. C. Guthrie has drawn attention to the white cypress tree, not elsewhere known to be associated with the sacred spring or with the dead in antiquity, and possibly to be explained as an assimilation with the white poplar. [
50] Whatever its origins, the association of spring and cypress tree in the underworld is still known to this day, as in the following lament from Mani:

Ὁ Χάρος στὸ περιβόλι του ἔχει ἕνα κυπαρίσσι,
στὴ ρίζα τοῦ κυπαρισσιοῦ εἶναι μιὰ κρύα βρύση.

Pasayanis 103.1-2

Charos in his garden has a cypress tree,
at the roots of the cypress there is a cool spring.

It is not an isolated reference. Allusion to the dead man as a tree whose foliage shaded his house and family may be further extended to include a reference to the cool spring at its root. [
51] {202|203}

The ancient tablet refers to two springs, one of Lethe and one of Mnemosyne. Today, ‘the pain-killing draught of Lethe’ has evolved, by a process traceable through Byzantine tradition, into ‘the water of forgetfulness’, connected with the familiar ‘plant of forgetfulness’ of the love songs. [53] As for Mnemosyne, tradition is more confused. But the idea found in one of the Alexandrian epigrams and in Bion’s Epitáphios, that the tears of the living can flow down to Hades to greet the dead is elaborated in some of the Byzantine vernacular laments in the form of tears so boundless that they make a river or lake to reach the dead. [54] In the modern laments, it is sometimes expressed as the mourner’s duty to weep sufficient tears to make a lake or spring to quench the thirst of the dead:

Τί στέκεστε, ὀρφανὰ παιδιά, σὰν ξένοι, σὰ διαβάτες …
καὶ δὲν τρέχουν τὰ μάτια σας σὰ σιγαλὸ ποτάμι,
τὰ δάκρυα λίμνη νὰ γενοῦν, νὰ βγῆ μιὰ κρύα βρύση,
γιὰ νὰ νιφτοῦν οἱ ἄνιφτοι, νὰ πιοῦν οἱ διψασμένοι;

Aravantinos 255

Why do you stand there, orphaned children, like strangers, like passers-by? …
Why do your eyes not run like a quiet river,
so that your tears become a lake and make a cool spring,
for the unwashed to be washed, for the thirsty ones to drink?

It is this river, lake or spring which makes possible the contact between living and dead, and hence the function of ancient Mnemosyne has been preserved in a new form. In a fine lament from Epiros this theme is developed for complex allusion, designed to {203|204} express by means of poetic hyperbole the overwhelming grief of a mother for her dead child, and hence implicitly, the ritual importance of tears and lamentation: [

Τί νὰ σοῦ στείλω, μάτια μου, αὐτοῦ στὸν κάτω κόσμο;
Νὰ στείλω μῆλο—σήπεται, κυδώνι—μαραγκιάζει,
σταφύλι—ξερογίζεται, τριαντάφυλλο—μαδιέται.
Στέλνω κι ἐγὼ τὰ δάκρυα μου, δεμένα στὸ μαντήλι.
Τὰ δάκρυα ἤτανε καφτερά, καὶ κάηκε τὸ μαντήλι,
καὶ τὸ ποτάμι τά ῤιξε σὲ χήρας περιβόλι,
ὅπου τὰ δέντρα δὲν ἀνθοῦν, τὰ μῆλα δὲ μυρίζουν,
τὰ κόκκινα τριαντάφυλλα ροδόσταμα δὲ χύνουν.
Καὶ βγῆκε ἡ περβολάρισσα, καὶ τὰ μυριοχουγιάζει∙
— Ποιὸ εἶναι τὸ κακορίζικο, πού ῤθε στὸ περιβόλι;
— Κυρά μου περβολάρισσα, μὴ μὲ μυριοχουγιάζης.
Ἄχ, νά ᾽ξερες ἡ μάνα μου, πῶς καίγεται γιὰ μένα!

Giankas 911

What shall I send you, my dear one, there in the Underworld?
If I send an apple, it will rot, if a quince it will shrivel,
if grapes they will fall away, if a rose it will droop.
So let me send my tears, bound in my handkerchief.
But the tears were burning, and the handkerchief was scorched,
so the river washed them up in the garden of a widow,
where the trees have no blossom and the apples no fragrance,
where the red roses give no rose-water.
And the woman gardener comes out and jeers at the tears.
— What is this ill-fated thing which has entered my garden?
— My lady gardener, do not jeer at me so.
Ah if only you knew how my mother burns with grief for me!

This analysis, although far from exhausting all the images and ideas, illustrates the importance of the allusive method throughout Greek tradition. The continuity, both in form and content, rests not so much in the static conservation of ancient poetic forms as in the constant rehandling of traditional beliefs and practices. The means of transmission and evolution was complex, dependent sometimes on the assimilation of eastern elements through Christian tradition and sometimes on incorporation into learned writing, especially rhetoric and erotic literature. But there is a sufficient number of specific images, found only in the modern laments outside ancient Greek, to suggest an independent transmission through popular tradition. Here, the evidence of the funerary inscriptions of late antiquity would seem to suggest a link. Finally, while the importance of the allusive method in the modern laments may be explained as a universal feature of folk poetry, the richness, complexity, and above all the interrelation of the different themes can be appreciated more fully and precisely when related to their long evolution. {205|206}


[ back ] 1. See Wells BT 85.

[ back ] 2. See Hom. Hm. 8 and 28, Pl. Smp. 197d-e, Samm. 343; magic incantation from papyrus text, Cantarella 28-9.9; Orphic Hymn to Physis, ibid. 31.2.11; Ioannes Geometres Hymn to Virgin, ibid. 150.68, 1.

[ back ] 3. Cf. A. Ag. 895-902, Hom. Hm. 8.3-7.

[ back ] 4. Cf. Tarsouli 223, 224 Pasayanis 13, 82.5, 98, 116, 117, Theros 755, 763.

[ back ] 5. See Il. 18.56-60, Kb. 719.7, RM (1879) 313a, MAMA 1.102, Ramsay CPB 684.3, Peek 736.3, 1079.5, 1938.

[ back ] 6. See Andreas of Crete Mégas Kanón, Cantarella 103.50, 103; Michael Psellos Lament for Skleraina, ibid. 166.2, 20; Στίχοι θρηνητικοὶ Ἀδὰμ καὶ Παραδείσου, Zoras 64.73; Thrênos for Constantinople, ibid. 201-2.72-94; The Plague of Rhodes, Wagner Carm. 32-52.

[ back ] 7. A wide range of parallels in similes from Homer and from modern folk songs has been collected and analysed by Petropoulos Laog (1959) 355. Other similes in modern laments include Laog (1911) 266.4, Tarsouli 232.9-10, Giankas 879.6, Pasayanis 62.2-5, 73, 88.8, Politis 209.5.

[ back ] 8. See Bultmann Phil. (1948) 1-36, from whom the references in notes 8-12 are taken: Il. 1.605, Od. 19.35, Hes. Op. 339, Pi. fr. 114, A. Ag. 4, S. Ant. 944, El. 86, E. Ion 1550, Ar. Ra. 455.

[ back ] 9. Od. 16.15, 17.39, 19.417, Pi. O 2.8-9, A. Pers. 150, Eum. 1025, S. Ant. 879.

[ back ] 10. Il. 5.47, 6.11, 24.558 et passim, A. Th. 403, Ch. 319, Eum. 522, E. Alk. 269, Pl. Smp. 219a.

[ back ] 11. S. Aj. 856, Ant. 809, OC 1549, E. IA 1281, 1506.

[ back ] 12. Cf. Od. 17.41, Simon. ALG 2.88.76, A. Pers. 299-301, Ag. 602, S. Aj. 395.

[ back ] 13. Cf. A. Pers. 979: τὸν σὸν πιστὸν πάντ’ ὀφθαλμόν.

[ back ] 14. Cf. Peek 736.3, 945.3, 1097.5-6, Kb. 262.6.

[ back ] 15. See Ps. 27.1, Mt. 8.12, Jn. 1.5, Ephraem ed. Assemani 3.417e. For the sun as symbol of justice in OT, see Ps. 84.11, Mal. 42, cf. Mt. 5.45. Light symbolism is, however, found extensively in early Byzantine hymn writers using classical rather than eastern forms, see Clement Hymn to Christ, Cantarella 3.2, 35-7; Apollinarios Translations of Psalms, ibid. 8.4, 3; Greg. Naz. Evening Hymn, ibid., 15.3, 3-9 and 13-21.

[ back ] 16. See Quintus 3.563-4; Georg. Akropolites On the Death of Irene Comnena, Cantarella 213.50-1; Διδασκαλία παραινετικὴ τοῦ Σπανέα ed. Lambros DIEE (1900) 105.13, Eust. Manueli Comn. Imp. Laudatio funebris, Migne 135.1025b.

[ back ] 17. Cf. Anakálema 101-2, Thrênos for Constantinople Zoras 201.23-4, The Plague of Rhodes 158-6 Wagner Carm. 37, Erofile 5.4.505, 5.5.575-6. Other modern parallels include Politis 194, 197.5-6, 186.10-11, Theros 763.9, 772.15-16, Giankas 879.6, Pasayanis 169.13-15, Baud-Bovy 1.316, ArP (1946) 68.2, 1.

[ back ] 18. See Kern OF 32, 4f, 5c, Pl. Ti. 44b, R. 586a, Hklt. B 59, 60, 71, Parm. B 1.2, Demokr. B 230.

[ back ] 19. Peek 701, 1209.3, 1539.2. See Lattimore TGLE 169.

[ back ] 20. MAMA 3.347.5, cf. Antiphanes Edmonds FAC 2.186.53: εἶτα χἠμεῖς ὕστερον εἰς καταγωγεῖον αὐτοῖς ἥξομεν κοινῇ τὸν ἄλλον συνδιατρίψοντες χρόνον.

[ back ] 21. ΑΡ 10.65, cf. Ar. Ra. 136-8, S. Ant. 1284.

[ back ] 22. Cf. E. Andr. 891, Pl. Smp. 187d-e, and a curious Lament for Pet, preserved in a papyrus fragment of the first century A.D., Grenfell and Hunt 2.40.219: [ἀπορο]ῦμαι ποῦ βαδίσω, ἡ ναῦς μου ἐράγη.

[ back ] 23. Τhe way of justice is a common biblical theme, see Dt. 26.17, Jn. 14.6; but the idea of wandering or straying seems to have originated in Greek, see Pl. R. 586a, Phd. 81.

[ back ] 24. Lit. Alex. ed. Swainson 34.49b, cf. Ephraem ed. Assemani 3A71e-f. Akath. Hm. ed. Wellesz 205-9.

[ back ] 25. Theros 665, 769, Pasayanis 102. See also Romaios KR 229.

[ back ] 26. Hesseling BZ (1929-30) 186-91 postulates Italian and Slavonic influence on the figure of Charos the horseman, which dates from the eleventh century, accepting Verrall’s rejection of κλυτόπωλος = famed in horses as an epithet of Hades (Il. 5.654), JHS (1898) 1-14. Some evidence for the antiquity of the idea in Greek has, however, been collected by Schmidt VNG 222ff.

[ back ] 27. S. El. 1126-8, 1145-50, E. Supp. 964-7, 918-14, 790-3, 1132-8. Cf. Hom. Hm. 8.3-4 Pi. O 2.7.

[ back ] 28. Trag. fr. adesp. 427 Nauck. See Thomson OA 2.73.

[ back ] 29. Eustath. Makr. Hysm. 6.10.213f., Sym. Met. Martyrium S. Sebastiani et Sociorum Migne 116.796d, Thysia 767-8. More archaizing forms appear in Quintus 3.435 (=Il. 1.284, 3.284, 6.5). The Akath. Hm. includes the idea of support, pillar, roof, door, gate, wall in the address of praise, see 132-3, 175, 184, 222, 276-7, cf. Ephraem ed. Assemani 3.471.

[ back ] 30. Thrênos for Crete EEKS (1939) 348.9: Μὰ τώρα σὰν πύργος ἔπεσε | σὰν φῶς ἀπ᾽ ἄνεμον ἔσβησε … Cf. Od. 11.556.

[ back ] 31. Cf. Laog (1909) 176-201. The theme is also common in the modern laments, as in the following example I collected from Rhodia in 1963: Βάζω, φκιάνω τὸ σπίτι μου ψηλότερ’ ἀπὸ τὰ ἄλλα∙ | βλέπω τὸ Χάρο πού ’ρχεται τὸ μαυροκαβαλάρη. Romaios KR 237 points out that Charos may sometimes build his own tower, with young men for the floor, old men as the foundations, and children as the turrets.

[ back ] 32. ArP (1946) 69.3: Ἀπανωθύρ’, χαμέλυνον, καὶ κατωθυρ’, ἔλ’ ἄνθεν, | καὶ σεῖς, στυλάρα τοῦ σπιτί᾽, ἐλᾶτε καὶ ἁρμοθέστεν, | μὴ ἐβγάλλωσι τὸν Ἕλλενον, τὸ νέον παλληκάριν.

[ back ] 33. Mimn. ALG 1.40-1.2. See Verrier VF 49-55.

[ back ] 34. Cf. A. Ag. 536, Supp. 637, AP 7.439.

[ back ] 35. See Peek 658.8, 678, 683.5, 878.1-2, 968.1, 1151.11, 1249.5-7, 1551.7-8, 1553.3-4, SEG 8.484, Wilhelm GEK II-IV, AP 7.490, 8.182.7.

[ back ] 36. Cf. Peek 942, 1541.2, 1891, 1997, 2005, Samm. 7288.4-5, ΜΑΜΑ 1.102. Other parallels are listed by Wilhelm Byz. (1931) 461. See also Alexiou and Dronke SM (1971) 836-7.

[ back ] 37. See Eustath. Makr. Hysm. 10.10.381; Anon. Monodia for Constantinople, NE (1908) 240.4,16; Sym. Met. Martyrium S. Varii, Migne 115.1156b-c; Greg. Nyss. in funere Pulcheriae, ibid. 46.865b-c; Prodromos Rhod. 6.291-302 (258).

[ back ] 38. Politis 130.1, 135.5, 2; cf. Sa. 122 L-P.

[ back ] 39. Politis 83.12, 209.5; cf. DA 181 (Esc.).

[ back ] 40. It does occur in the more popular versions of the Virgin’s lament and in the Epitáphios Thrênos, see chapter 4 pp. 67-8. In Romanos’ kontákion On the Nativity II, imagery of spring and harvest pervades his whole conception of the salvation of Adam and Eve, and it is brought to a climax when the Virgin hears of the necessity of the Crucifixion and exclaims to Christ, Ὦ βότρυς μου, μὴ ἐκθλίψωσί σε ἄνομοι· | βλαστήσαντός σου μὴ ὄψωμαι τέκνου σφαγήν ed. Grosdidier de Matons 2.108.17, 6-7.

[ back ] 41. See Politis 187, 193, 205, 212, Theros 726, 755. References to Charos with a scythe are frequent in Byzantine and post-Byzantine vernacular poetry, and the scythe or scythe-bearing chariot is commonly portrayed in contemporary illustrations, see the discussion by Zoras of Πένθος θανάτου in Parn (1970) 279-313, 420-38.

[ back ] 42. Another variation of this simile is found in Politis 128a 6-9.

[ back ] 43. See A. Ag. 966-7, AP 9.87. Modern extensions of this theme include Politis 187, Theros 726, Pasayanis 62, Giankas 873, ArP (1946) 68.2, 4.

[ back ] 44. Laog (1911) 266.5, 7-8. See also Romaios KR 237-8.

[ back ] 45. Cf. Il. 11.155-9. Perhaps the same idea underlies the famous but obscure lines on the fallen Achilles, Od. 24.39-40: σὺ δ᾽ ἐν στροφάλιγγι κονίης | κεῖσο μέγας μεγαλωστί, λελασμένος ἱπποσυνάων.

[ back ] 46. Cf. E. Hipp. 683-4 (part of a curse), Ar. Ra. 586-8.

[ back ] 47. Cf. Politis 187.1, 5.

[ back ] 48. Referred to by Eleni Ioannidou in her introduction to the second, as yet unpublished, volume of Papadimitriou, Martyries (vol. 1.Athens, 1964).

[ back ] 49. Cod. Paris, suppl. grec 680 f. 73v, ed. Moravcsik SBN (1931) 48. Cf. Dialogue between Charon and Man, written in the form of an alphabetical acrostic, Cod. Roman. Bibl. Nat. gr. 15 (fifteenth century), ed. Moravcsik ibid. III. 35-8: Ἴτα δεντρὸν εὑρίσκομαι κι ἦρτες νὰ μὲ τρυγήσης, | κι ἦρτες μὲ πόθο εἰς ἐμὲ καὶ δὲν πᾶ νὰ μ᾽ ἀφήσης;

[ back ] 50. Guthrie OGR 182 rejects Comparetti’s view that it is the white poplar that is intended here, and draws attention to Cook’s suggestion that the white cypress is an assimilation of the two, Z 2.467.

[ back ] 51. See ArP (1946) 70.4, where parallels from Mani and Thrace are also cited. In the Romanian lament Tradafir (also referred to in chapter 8 n. 59), the dead man receives detailed and elaborate instructions for his journey to the next world, after his soul has departed and his flesh has left his bones: he is to travel on a long road until he comes to a parting of ways . . . ‘Be careful which path you take. Do not turn off to the left, for that’s the dark road … Turn off to the right, for that’s the bright road …’ Further on he will come to a meadow, where he is to pick flowers to ease his heart’s pain, and give them to the dead. Going onwards again he will find a red willow tree ‘its tops among the stars, its roots in the sea … And under the roots is a cool fountain . . . The Holy Mother is there, with a glass of clear water, and whoever drinks it, his heart’s grief passes; and she gives it to the traveller.’

[ back ] 52. See A. Ag. 901: ὁδοιπόρῳ διψῶντι πηγαῖον ῥέος, AP 5.168: ἡδὺ θέρους διψῶντι χιὼν ποτόν (Thomson ΟΑ 2.73).

[ back ] 53. See Kyriakidis EL 205-6, Boehm NGT 14-15, Moravcsik SBN (1931) 50-1.

[ back ] 54. AP 7.476.1-4 Bion 1.64-6; cf. Thrênos by Father Synadenos of Serrai, NE (1908) 251.37-8: ῍Ω καὶ νὰ εἶχα δάκρυα ἄπειρα σὰν ποτάμι | νά ’κλαιεν ἡ καρδία μου ὥστε ποὺ ν’ ἀποκάμη. Modern examples include Pasayanis 55.2-9, Tarsouli 202, Petropoulos 217.

[ back ] 55. The same kind of hyperbole is used with extraordinary power in some of the love songs, where the lover’s kiss has the force to transform nature itself, see Politis 126.

[ back ] 56. Sakellarios 2.84, 28.