The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition


My purpose in this book is to study the ritual lament as it evolved and developed throughout Greek tradition, indicating how poets of different ages were able to draw on a common fund of ideas, themes and formulae, frequently investing an old and well-established convention with a new significance and contributing something of their own. At the same time, since the practice of ritual lamentation is attested in both ancient and medieval sources, and remains to this day part of a living folk tradition, whose survival depends not on individuals but on the collective participation of a community, we may also perceive how the lament has retained its vitality and spontaneity, while absorbing many features from its literary past. It is this dynamic interaction between learned and popular poetry which makes the study of Greek tradition so rewarding and exciting when seen as a whole.

This raises the question of continuity in Greek culture, which has long been debated both within Greece and outside. The ardour and acrimony which the discussion has sometimes aroused in both adherents and contestants derive from a subjective and one-sided approach. Continuity needs to be clearly defined and demonstrated within a specific context, if it is to be a meaningful concept. It is not a value judgement: it cannot imply the superiority or originality of those features which can be traced from antiquity to the present day; nor can it preclude the influence of other cultures. Many features of the lament which are discussed in the course of this book can be paralleled in the literary and vernacular tradition of other peoples. But since the written records of the Greek language can be traced, without a significant break, from the second millennium B.C. to the present, and since the lament is among the oldest recorded types of song, we have an exceptionally {xv|xvi} long perspective in which to study its growth and its treatment in both learned and vernacular literature.

The methodological problems involved in such a study are complex and diverse. To those who might object that ancient poetry cannot be treated as valid evidence of prevailing beliefs and practices, I would reply, first, that it is not my intention to reconstruct, for example, from the laments of ancient tragedy how ordinary people lamented their dead in classical Athens, but rather to indicate those features which belong to a common tradition. Literary evidence, properly used in conjunction with other sources, can afford valuable insight into the conventions of lamentation in antiquity. To deny its validity would be as mistaken as to dismiss the evidence of a vase-painting or a funerary inscription on the grounds that the former is an art form and the latter a convention.

More specific problems are those which arise from the disparate nature of our sources. For antiquity, in addition to the evidence of literature, I have drawn on the funerary inscriptions, especially those of the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman periods, as indicative of an essentially more popular and less literary convention. For those inscriptions first published elsewhere but included in Peek’s Griechische VersInschriften, the reader is referred to his collection for the sake of convenience and ease of reference. For the Byzantine period, our knowledge of lamentation is drawn from a diverse range of sources: the literary lament is found in learned poetry and prose—reflecting, on the whole, a conscious preservation of old forms—as well as in religious and vernacular poetry, where a diversity of new influences is apparent. Other sources of information include patristic writings, saints’ lives, chronicles and histories. As for the modern lament, I have restricted my study to folk tradition, although the literary material is no less rich and plentiful, because it is only through the folk lament that the continuity (as opposed to literary preservation) of specific features can be demonstrated. Further, our knowledge of the ritual customs and beliefs associated with lamentation is much fuller for the present period than at any other time, and can throw valuable light on cultural and social factors which have contributed to the process of evolution and continuity. Here, it should be stressed that the study of folk song requires an essentially different approach from that of literary criticism. The task of collecting folk songs in Greece was pioneered last century, without modern technical aids, and without the application of the principle and method of F. J. Child in England, who published all known variants of each song. Nikolaos Politis, who compares his task to that of the textual critic in the introduction to {xvi|xvii} his collection of Greek folk songs in 1914, is too philological in approach, since the process of continuity, variation and selection which is part of the definition of folk song precludes the literary concept of one original, authentic version of a song, of which variants are corruptions requiring recensio, if not emendatio. But whatever their shortcomings, it is thanks to the collections of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that some of the best of Greek folk tradition has been preserved. They should not be rejected, but used together with the more fully documented material now available.

Absolute consistency in the transliteration of Greek words and names—if, indeed, it has ever been achieved—is precluded in this book by the changes in the pronunciation of the Greek language from antiquity to the present. I have attempted to achieve some sort of general uniformity by avoiding, where convention permits, Latinised forms of classical and Byzantine names. In transliterating modern demotic words and names I have tried to approximate to the modern pronunciation (hence Politis, not Polites). For medieval Greek, I have observed the conventional non-Latinised spelling for learned words and names (e.g. Niketas Choniates, not Nikitas Choniatis), but the modern form for names current in vernacular literature (e.g. Digenis Akritas, not Digenes Acrites). I have had to infringe this principle where modern or early vernacular words are also discussed in an ancient context, or with reference to their etymology, so as to avoid confusing the reader with two forms of the same word: hence I write thrênos, not thrînos; paregoriá, not parigoriá, regardless of the change in pronunciation. As for the spelling of modern Greek in the texts cited, I have followed the rules for vowels and word division (though not always for accentuation) laid down by M. Triandafyllidis in his Modern Greek Grammar, since to retain the spelling of texts as published by each editor would create an impossible barrier for those readers who are familiar with Greek but not with the vagaries of modern Greek spelling.

Finally, a few words about the plan of this book. I have not followed the obvious course of discussing the ancient, Byzantine and modern material in three separate sections, since to do so would have involved unnecessary repetition, and would also have obscured the thread of continuity in my treatment of particular themes. Part I therefore defines the relation between lament and ritual, demonstrating how the survival of the lament as a living form has depended on the complex collective ritual of which it is a part. Chapter 1 describes the ritual occasions for lamentation in antiquity, and discusses possible causes for the legislation restricting funerary rites in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Chapter 2 indicates how some pagan elements were {xvii|xviii} gradually absorbed into the ritual of the Orthodox Church, while pagan forms of lamentation persisted among the people. Chapter 3 assesses the extent to which features of ancient and Byzantine ritual have survived today. Part II is an attempt to classify and analyse the main types and forms of lament. In chapter 4 aspects of the ancient laments for gods and heroes are examined and compared with the Byzantine and modern laments of the Virgin for Christ, and with some modern seasonal laments. Chapter 5 traces the growth of a tradition of historical laments for the fall or destruction of cities—a tradition which was readily adaptable to new calamities while retaining old conventions and formulae. Chapter 6 examines some distinctions in the various types of laments and songs to the dead, drawing partly on an analysis of terminology and etymology, and partly on the evidence of literature and modern folk songs. Part III is a detailed study of the structure and thought, conventions and imagery, which are shown to be traditional to the lament throughout its history. Chapter 7 analyses the use of three-part form, dialogue and refrain, and illustrates how in the best of the laments, the style is not external to but dependent upon the structure and thought. In chapter 8 several conventions, themes and formulae are traced from ancient literary laments and funerary inscriptions through Byzantine learned and vernacular poetry to the modern folk songs. Chapter 9 studies the use of imagery in the lament, and concludes that continuity, both in form and content, has depended not on the static conservation of established patterns, but on the poetic rehandling of traditional beliefs and practices which have remained alive among the people.

For generous help and valuable suggestions at various stages of my work on this book I wish to thank S. J. Papastavrou, J. S. Morrison, G. A. Megas, G. Spyridakis and D. S. Loukatos. I am especially grateful to those people in the villages of Thessaly and Macedonia who provided me with information and allowed me to record their laments, and to Vasiliki Papayianni, without whose assistance I could not have undertaken my field work. For valued discussions on different aspects of my subject I wish to thank colleagues in the University of Birmingham and elsewhere, in particular R. F. Willetts and A. L. Vincent. Sincere thanks are also due to the Syndics and staff of the Cambridge University Press for their expert and patient assistance. My warmest thanks go to my father, George Thomson and to my husband for their constant encouragement and critical advice.

M. A.
Birmingham, February 1973