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Mavrigí and Helen [Mavrigi kai Eleni]:
Ceremonies of Death and Rebirth in Contemporary Greece
Greece is at the time of writing instituting cremation of the dead, the right to hold civil funerals is being demanded at the present time, with the prospect of the complete secularization of the funeral service in view. At such a juncture, the study of traditional rites of death may seem somewhat out of place. If, however, “every culture is in a broad sense a culture of death”, as Dastur puts it, the aim of the present work is to throw light on various views that have remained, up to a point at least, unexplored regarding the cultural phenomenon of death in modern Greece. In other words we examine some methods that the inhabitants of Greece have found of enduring in emotional terms, of experiencing through their imagination and of handling the social aspects of the crisis, the loss and the fear that death involves. Thus they contribute to our self-knowledge.
The present volume includes mostly articles already published by the author that deal with death and the dead. Although these pieces concern different views of the traditional cultures of lamentation and death, they are presented here as a whole, so as to present a unified view of the cultural phenomenon of death that arises from oral tradition and the rituals or the customs concerning both death and other matters that are subsequently incorporated.
The book is the result of thirty years of field research by the author. The various methods of recording and study employed in the project are related to the academic path followed by the author over the years. These methods are also tied up with the changes that have occurred in her academic discipline and in the technology she has employed during fieldwork, in so far as she has been able to keep abreast of them. The folklore-based information regarding death that the book deals with derives from the contemporary central, south and western Peloponnese (the region of Eleia being the area to which the author has local ties), the Prefecture of Western Aitoloakarnania, Arta and, in general, from the western part of mainland Greece. It also derives from the Greeks of the now Turkish island of Imvros (today Gokçeada).
The author’s interest in the study of death arose from her long-term involvement in research in this area in the Hellenic Folklore Research Centre of the Academy of Athens (whose Greek (but transliterated) intials are K.E.E.L.), where the author worked as a Research Fellow for some thirty-five years. First, there was the ordering of ethnographic material relating to death in the archives of the Centre. She also conducted fieldwork on funerary matters and laments. This involved interviews and participant observation, which she recorded in ethnographic diaries, photographs, tapes, manuscripts and video recordings, most of which are stored in the special archives of K.E.E.L.
The ethnographic data, although it was recorded mostly during the last quarter of the 20th century, indirectly concerns a period of time extending from the end of the 19th century up to the present, for the informants referred to much older beliefs and practices held in their collective or individual memory. Our analysis deals with archetypal symbolic structures and relates to a geographical area of great historical and cultural dimensions, namely the Peloponnese and Greece in general. Thus the author’s analysis is also seriously concerned with the past in a Braudelian sense of “longue durée”. The ethnographic data does indeed seem to support the concept of “long existence”, particularly when it is seen against the historical and local background of cultural phenomena occurring over a long period of time, such as death rituals and the traditional lamentation.
In the first chapter, we make an attempt to bring together an overall religious symbolic narrative. We present the various images of the world of men and the world below and of life and death in soteriological and eschatological terms. This we do on the basis of the various parts of tradition regarding the dead and lamentation and of the seasonal ceremonies that occur at various points in the cycle of time and of human life. These elements of tradition assume a wide variety of forms. They include beliefs, testimonies, myths, songs, narratives, metaphors, symbolic names, the names of saints, symbolic places and places where production takes place, landscapes, religious icons, sacred buildings, ritual actions, movement and gesture. Our narrative, draws together all the elements that are to be traced, in comparative and critical terms and reconstructs a non-Christian religious system that co-exists alongside Christian tradition and modernity, either in agreement or in contrast with them.
Names are elements that go to make up the ceremonial narrative and thus the memory itself that the ceremonial narrative conveys. Thus our analysis concentrates on the mythical names of symbolic personages. Among the representations of the other figures, such as Charon [Charos], Hades [Adis], the souls of the dead [psyches]and symbolic places in the world below, the most important such representation consists an ambivalent divine female being. She bears what at first is the periphrastic name of “Black Earth”. Given the way that these two words are pronounced in laments as a single word and, moreover, given the way that it obviously refers to the name of a female personification, the name is to be rendered as one word, that is, Mavrigí. As an ambiguous, or indeed creative, reproductive womb and deadly insatiable belly, Mavrigí emerges in our data as a representation of both the Earth and Hades. As such Mavrigí defines and creates life and death, the world of the living and world below. Charos is, however, merely the executioner and accompanier of the dead and/or the demonic lover in the service of Mavrigí. Around the sacred form of Mavrigí laments and death rituals create a more general narrative that both centres on the earth and pertains to the symbolic figures of Mother and Mother-Daughter. This narrative contains a cosmology that is regenerative in nature, of soteriological hope, eschatological concepts and expectations that are constructed by means of ecstatic worship. In today’s Greek social reality these elements make up a distinctive system rooted in the diachronic. Such a system consists chiefly of female concepts, values and rules with roots that are deep, in terms of religion and history, in the places where we recorded our data. Over the longest term these roots direct us to the historical locale and point to the existence of a religious system involving the worship of the Great Mother.
In other words, we trace in critical and comparative terms the parallels among Mavrigí, “Black Virgin” (Mavri Panagia), “Black” Demeter [Melaina] and Daughter Persephoni and, furthermore, the relationship of these entities to the myth of “ Helen the Beautiful”, in her capacity as a fertility goddess of death and rebirth. Moreover, the chthonic, vegetative and regenerative symbolic relationships that exist among Mavrigí, Black Virgin, Black Demeter and Helen ‘the Beautiful’ lead one to compare these personages with a divine entity also bearing the name of Helen, who is also particularly noticeable in contemporary oral Greek tradition. She is the [Helen] Eleni of folk songs and popular religious ceremonies where these songs are performed. The ceremony context − in terms of mythical narrative and ritual actions − reveals this Eleni to be a sacred bride. She is chthonic and lunar at the same time and roams abroad mainly at night. In the symbolic and metaphorical forms in which she appears, she is apparently to be equated with aspects of the Earth Mother, who figures in modern Greek oral tradition as an ambivalent female divine entity. In the light of our ethnographic data we suggest that she bears mainly two names, Eleni and Mavrigí. In symbolic terms, however, she has many other names and forms that correspond to “Bride Daughter” and “Chthonic Elder Mother”- Earth-[Mavrigi], respectively.
As regards Mavrigí- Eleni, on the basis of place names and information drawn from archaeology, history, myth and ceremony, we would argue that there exists a cultural structure that links these two parallel religious traditions regarding Helen. One of these traditions is the ancient Greek one and the other the modern one, in terms of territory, production, symbols and narratives, traditions that, in terms of Greek life, are contemporary. We suggest that the saint’s name Agialeni, as a local name, is such a structure. We trace the presence of this name in threshing floors and wheat fields, which are places endowed with sanctity. On the site of such places named Agialeni, within or outside inhabited areas, one can see the traces of ancient shrines dedicated to Mother-and-Daughter Demeter or generally to ancient female divinities, such as Athena. On top of these ancient shrines one can often see churches (chapels, xoklissia) dedicated to Saint Helen, founded by the faithful and bearing the name Agialeni, in a somewhat furtive and transgressive manner. These data and the composite cultural data of our research lead us to believe that the sacred local name Agialeni, (at sites where there may, or may not, also be a church) is clearly identified as regards history and religion with the person of the Roman Augusta and Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. Nevertheless, the name ultimately involves a non-Christian divinity, the ambivalent sacred Mavrigí-Eleni of oral tradition and rituals, mainly as she appears in the lamentatory tradition.
On the basis of the ethnographic, religious, historical data of our research relating to Mavrigi-Eleni analysed in this first chapter, I suggest that we need to look at the history and myths surrounding Helen and from there the history of the religions in East Mediterranean in ways other than those already employed in scholarship. The questions we are addressing here are the following: Has the mythical “Helen the Beautiful” simply been “grafted” on modern Greek culture from an ancient tradition mediated only through literary, art and Western influence? Or perhaps is the figure of “Helen the Beautiful” [-Eleni-Agialeni] a historical, symbolic and social structure (expressed in religious, mythical, ritual and narrative ways) that is grounded, as it were, in contemporary local traditions?
The answer to our questions, we believe, lies in the second hypothesis. We therefore employ the death narrative of Mayrigi-Eleni as the cultural and historical framework within which all matters relating to death rituals are analysed in the remaining chapters of this book.
The second chapter involves the whole of a funerary lament for an extremely aged woman that I recorded during the ritual laying-out of the remains in the house of the deceased as an observer participant at Kamenitsa, in the region of Gortynia in Arcadia, in 1981. The structural analysis of the text of the lament, which comprises 154 verses, is accompanied by a recording of the whole lament on a CD and by photographs of the ritual laying-out of the body. With reference to of the local social and historical context and biography of the deceased, this particular lament, allows us to represent the structure, in ceremonial terms, of the dramatic and magical passage of the deceased in particular and indeed of every human being, from the world of men to the world below. Moreover, it is the women who, through mourning, together manipulate the funerary ceremony as a tool for communicative, emotional and commemorative purposes. Thus they are able to interweave in the places where the lamentation is performed the deceased, the social and physical environment, past, present and future time, the symbolic and metaphysical systems into one dialectical, didactic narrative. These observations also allow us to study generally the lamentation itself. What we want to assume here is that in terms of anthropology and folklore the particular funerary/mourning ceremony offers one the chance to decipher the code of the ceremonial, musical and poetic composition of laments in general. Comparison of our observations of this particular occasion of lamentation within the context of the funeral ceremony to local laments recorded outside the ritual context and to other laments belonging to the corpus of the Folklore Archives of the Academy of Athens, we believe that we have the key to understand the structure of lamentation generally. The lamentation then seems to be a ritual drama focussed around every deceased person and accompanying him or her from the world of the living to the world below, in accordance with the three-part structure of rites of passage, as first suggested by Arnold van Gennep.
The third chapter contains an account, in the form of an ethnographic diary, of our own experiences of the ritual laying-out of the remains of another extremely aged woman, at Langadia, also in the region of Gortynia, in Arcadia, in 1997. We offer critical observations on the procedure involved in the laying-out of the body of the deceased, a rite of transition, and of the wake conducted by her relatives and the female mourners, again with reference to the life story of the deceased and the local social and historical context. My aim here is to show the gendered cultural tug-of-war, both historical and diachronic, that I noted anxiously occurring in the symbolic arena of the laying-out of the dead. On the one hand, the female mourners who had been charged with the task brought along their sacred lamentatory tradition, regarding it as their duty to perform the funerary rites for any deceased member of the community. On the other hand, the forces of modernity, in their various social, financial, cultural and religious aspects, whose main agents are, directly or indirectly, men, and in general residents of urban areas and younger members of the community. These forces of modernity hindered the women in the execution of their mourning religious duties, with consequences for emotional and social relations and for the ceremony itself.
The fourth chapter deals with the Aplada. This is a three-day memorial ceremony that occurs nine days after the death (Enniamera) of an old man that the author recorded as an ethnographer at Vonitsa, in Aetoloacarnania in central western Greece, in 2001. This memorial ceremony is a rite of incorporation of the deceased in the world of the dead. It is a symbolic narrative consisting of representational activities such as gestures, symbolically significant materials and the commemorative oration involved in the lament put together in dialogue amongst themselves. This interaction of ritual elements constitutes a symbolic drama performed by the female mourners. The women symbolically restore to life the deceased, as it were, by means of kollyva. Kollyva is a mixture of boiled wheat, nuts, pomegranate seeds, parsley, sugar and spices representing the deceased, namely constituting an eidolon or likeness of the deceased. The female mourners are thereby aiming to incorporate the deceased, for the sake of the living, in symbolic soteriological and regenerative terms as a fertile shoot in the underworld. They are thus helping or even imposing this task, which is at the same time both pious and rebarbative, on Mother Mavrigí. In symbolic terms, they make of the body of the deceased a dismembered piece of food intended to ensure regeneration and to produce something that will function as a fertile seed for the world below. Thus they create in ceremonial and eschatological terms a relationship that is symbolic, magical, nourishing and productive in the local social and symbolic context among the living, nature, the dead and Mavrigí. Being maternal figures appropriate to the task, they magically intervene with Black Earth/ Mavrigí, in order to beg her to renew life in the world of men, and thereby symbolically attempt to remove death.
The fifth chapter includes certain seasonal magical and religious ceremonies that dramatise, in terms of worship, the old understanding of the world, which centres upon the Earth and involves various divinities who ‘have fallen asleep’. They are Christian and non-Christian, regenerative and soteriological rituals but are yet found absorbed in a syncretic fashion in Christian beliefs and feasts. Firstly, to take the contents of the chapter in the chronological order in which they were recorded, we have the ethnographic description of the funerary and sacrificial activities undertaken for the death of a holy Christian female and maternal person who has ‘fallen asleep’, namely the festival of the Dormition of the Virgin, held on 15 August. These rituals were recorded in 1990, and were performed by the Greek inhabitants of the village of Agridia, on the island of Imvros (today Gokçeada), which is now part of Turkey. Our text contains observations of a historical and ceremonial nature regarding the hecatomb, as it were, of sacrificial bulls that occurred here. We also comment upon the feast of the dead consisting of meals on the graves or nekrodipna in the graveyard.
In the same chapter, we include the springtime activities involved in the wake that is linked chiefly with the resurrection of Lazarus and with Holy Week, which was also recorded at Vonitsa, in Aetoloacanarnia. This recording took place during fieldwork carried out on these visits between 1999 and 2001 on the rituals of the Lazára and the fire-worshipping Agrapniés. The Lazára or carol singing for Lazarus, is a wake which is performed by a group of adult men roaming about the town of Vonitsa and singing at the door of each house the Lazára songs. The songs vary according to the age, gender and social status of each person. We show the fashion in which the songs performed outside each home are linked to each other by means of actions related to the resurrection of the dead. These songs narrate the myth of the spring rebirth of nature in the context of the fusion of the non-Christian narrative of Mother Earth with the Christian myth of saint Lazarus. I stress the importance of the ceremony for the local symbolic memory and for the teaching of community values.
The Agrapniés, or wake, make up the ceremonial continuity of the Lazára executed against the symbolic funerary background of Holy Week every night from Palm Sunday to Good Friday around a ritual fire. The Agrapniés are performed by a group of adult men, who are seated around the fire. They sing satirical couplets, utter ritual abuse and note deviations from social norms. Our analysis concentrates on this ceremonial action revealed here as a collective public admission of deviations from social norms. These deviations are cast, as it were, symbolically and redeemingly, into the holy, purifying flames, in an action influenced by forthcoming Easter, which, of course, is a feast concerned with resurrection in social and metaphysical terms.
In this chapter we also refer to a carnival mourning ritual, Achyrenios or Gligorakis, still occurring at Vonitsa every year on the Monday after the last Sunday of Carnival or Kathari Deftera. It is a mourning ritual of satirical nature, in which ritual abuse is uttered. It is performed by a widowed mother, played by a man dressed up as a woman, for her son, Achyrenios or Gligorakis. This is the effigy of a deceased man made of straw (Achyrenios) who “is in a hurry” (Gligorakis). Both these words refer to the desire for the timely arrival of spring and the germination of the wheat.
The last part of the book contains ethnographic material, such as testimonies, texts of contemporary laments and information on funeral rituals and customs that were recorded by the author during fieldwork conducted at different periods in different areas of the Peloponnese and in western Greece, in general. This material is published here to provide a comparative framework and an ethnographic basis for our analysis.
Translation: Andrew Farrington in collaboration with Vassiliki Chryssanthopoulou.