The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition

Problems and method

The lament for the dead is essentially functional. It is only one part of a complex tradition of ritual customs and beliefs. To understand the nature of its development in Greek tradition, and to determine the extent of its continuity from ancient to modern times, it must therefore be studied not in isolation but as an integral part of the ritual to which it belongs.

This raises several problems. First, the interpretation of much of the ancient material is still in dispute, largely because of insufficient evidence and the differing kinds of sources available. Second, while there is no lack of evidence for the Byzantine and modern periods, it has not yet been systematically collected and studied. Third, the method and approach required for the study of funeral ritual are not the same as those required for the study of the lament. For these reasons I shall not attempt to give a full account of the funeral ritual, but rather try to determine the relation between lamentation and ritual in ancient, Byzantine and modern tradition. I have drawn primarily on the evidence of the laments themselves, supplementing it with other literary sources and with some epigraphical and archaeological material doing so I have tried not to oversimplify the divergences of practice and belief which existed within the ancient world and which still exist today.

D. Kurtz and J. Boardman’s Greek Burial Customs, which comprises a primarily archaeological survey of the ancient material, unfortunately appeared while my own book was in the final stages preparation, and I have consequently been unable to make use of it as fully as I should have wished.

As for modern Greek, a substantial amount of material has be collected and published in somewhat scattered form in the numerous regional and national folklore periodicals of Greece. Where possible I have drawn also on my own field work, which was conducted in Thessaly in 1963 and in western Macedonia in 1966. Since most of the funerals I was able to attend were for people whose relatives were personally known to me, I felt unable to record from the actuality of a funeral. Nor is it easy to persuade people to sing laments at other times, because of the emotional strain it causes and because of their fear of evil consequences. The value of my field work lies not so much in the intrinsic merits of the laments I recorded as in the greater insight which it afforded me into the composition and performance of the lament and into its meaning for the people today. {3|4}