The Ancient Greek Lament: From Paganism to Christianity

The Homeric Multitext, Creative Commons

By Dr. Margaret Alexiou
George Seferis Professor of Modern Greek Studies
Professor of Comparative Literature
Harvard University


The function and purpose of the lament changed in accordance with the historical developments of antiquity. What was the impact of the economic, social and religious upheavals which accompanied the decline of the ancient world and the rise of Byzantium? Was there not an inevitable transformation by Christianity of all the most characteristic features of something so essentially pagan as funeral ritual and lamentation?

The transition from paganism to Christianity took place very gradually and unevenly in late antiquity and in the early Byzantine world. The Hellenistic expansion which had begun in the third century B.C. had earned Greek culture far beyond the boundaries of Greece itself, but in doing so it had opened the way for a new influx of mystic cults from the East. Byzantium was heir to all these. Some idea of the confusion in popular religion soon after the founding of Constantinople in A.D. 324 can be gained from the anonymous magic incantations of the period, many of which have been preserved on papyrus.[1] Among the intellectuals there was a more conscious fusion of pagan and Christian beliefs and doctrines, beginning with Clement of Alexandria and Origen, culminating in the late Gnostic and Neoplatonic writers.

For the first two centuries of the Byzantine Empire, official policy towards paganism was cautious and tolerant. Even after the closing of the Athenian Academy in 529 by Justinian, its philosophers were permitted to remain within the Empire without becoming Christians. It was during this period that Christianity absorbed a great many pagan elements, numerous ancient cult sites being transformed into Christian shrine of similar association.[2] But the process was nether immediate nor exhaustive. At the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries the religion, customs, language and laws observed in the towns and {24|25} villages of Greece appear to have changed little since antiquity, while in the countryside the survival of pagan ritual is referred to in various sources from the seventh to the twelfth centuries.[3]

These conditions favoured the survival of the ritual lament. Throughout the Byzantine period the correct observation of funeral ritual was a matter of concern for people at all levels of society, as can be understood from the homilies of the Christian fathers, and from works such as the Emperor Konstantinos Porphyrogennetos’ de Cerimoniis (tenth century), or from the curious handbook entitled de Ordine Sepulturae, written c. 1420 by Symeon, Archbishop of Thessaloniki.

The evidence for the survival of the ritual lament is plentiful, but it needs to be handled with caution, since it comes mainly from homilies, chronicles and commentaries, where pagan survivals are mentioned only with disapproval. It cannot always be taken as a true reflection of popular tradition.

The Struggle of the Soul

A Byzantine mosaic of John Chrysostom from the Hagia Sophia / Wikimedia Commons

The ritual began as soon as it was clear that death was imminent. The first task, the sweeping of the house, was observed, according to one tradition, at the death of the Virgin herself.[4] Then came the ψυχορράγημα as the struggle of the soul was now known. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), Archbishop at Antioch and at Constantinople, gives a vivid account of what was seen by the soul at this moment. It might also be taken for an echo of Plato’s description in the Phaedo, were it not for the fact that he refers explicitly to popular belief:

That is why you can hear the common people tell of fearful sights and dreadful visions at this moment … because the soul is forcing herself down, reluctant to be torn away from the body and unable to bear the sight of the approaching angels. – Migne 58.532[5]

The reason for the soul’s fear of the host of ángeloi and daímones is that it sees ‘the hostile forces standing there, account-books in hand, shouting accusations and trying to snatch it away’ (ibid. 60.727).[6]

The full terror of this moment is graphically captured by Makarios (fourth century), one of the early ascetics from Egypt, in what he calls ‘A Dreadful Story which Appals the Mind’. Near Heaven, angels are {25|26} busily flying up and down, guiding the souls of the dead past the judgement barriers which separate them from Paradise. Suddenly a host of black creatures appear and try to snatch the souls away to Hell. The angels resist, and all are saved except for one sinful soul, which fails to pass the formidable Barrier of Prostitution and Adultery. Angels and devils argue fiercely about the desirability of saving it, and the dispute is only decided by the propitious intervention of the soul’s guardian spirit, who has been busy making sure that all was ready at the tomb. This ἄγγελος ὁ ἀπὸ τοῦ βαπτίσματος δοθεὶς αὺτῷ εἰς παραφυλακήν (angel appointed at baptism to guard him), who is exactly parallel to Plato’s ὁ ἑκάστου δαίμων ὅσπερ ζῶντα εἰλήχει (daímon to whom each man is allotted during his lifetime), assures both sides of the man’s sincere deathbed repentance, and so the soul is acquitted, much to the annoyance of the devils.[7] The idiomatic style of this cautionary tale suggests a popular origin.

Another belief which expresses the physical terror of dying is that the dying man’s soul was weighed on the scales of justice. In his commentary on the Iliad, Eustathios of Thessaloniki (twelfth century) refers to the phrase εἰς τὰ τοῦ ῞Αιδου κεῖσθαι ζυγά (to lie on Hades’ scales) as synonymous with dying in popular speech.[8] Three centuries later we find the same idea in one of the many popular dialogues between Man and Charon, written in the vernacular. Charon says threateningly:

Ζύγι κρατῶ στὸ χέρι μου τῆς ἐλεημοσύνης
γιὰ νὰ ζυάσω τά ’καμες …

Moravcsik SBN (1931) III.33-4

In my hand I hold the scales of Mercy,
to weigh out what you’ve done…

It is also incorporated into a prayer for the dying:

Ἐλεήσατέ με, ἄγγελοι πανάγιοι … οὐκ ἔχω γε ἔργον ὰγαθὸν
ἀντισταθμίζειν τὸν ζυγὸν τῶν φαύλων πράξεων.

Spyridakis 97

Have mercy upon me, all-holy angels … for I have no
good deed to balance the burden of my evil ones.

The idea has survived notwithstanding the changes of deity, Hades, Charon, and God.

As in antiquity, the moment of dying was an agón, and for that reason came the call for silence in the funeral service:

You behold the great mystery; be silent in the dreadful hour, that the soul may depart in peace, for it is engaged in great ordeal.

Pitra AS 1.246 {26|27}

A full account of the funeral of Makrina is contained in one of the homilies of her brother Gregory of Nyssa (331-96), in which he describes how in deference to her explicit wish the sorrowful company present at her passing restrained their anguish until the end.[9]

It appears that the early Byzantine Church tried consciously to extend and develop the moral aspects of various popular beliefs current since antiquity concerning the last moments of life. In doing so, it was merely adapting elements of ancient superstition to a more acceptable Christian form.

The Wake

St. Macrina the Younger (fresco in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev) / Wikimedia Commons

As Gregory observes in his account of Makrina’s death, the spontaneous lamentation which broke out once the struggle of the soul was over was all the more passionate for having been controlled for so long. As soon as the first violence of grief had passed, the ritual preparation of the body began. It had changed little since antiquity. First came the closing of eyes and mouth, still known by the ancient term καλαλύπτειν.[10] Sometimes a coin was placed on the mouth.[11] Then came the washing and anointing with wine and scents and the scattering of herbs. Clement’s suggestion that this was to stop the souls from smelling in the underworld may not be entirely frivolous, even if it was a rationalisation of popular belief, since it finds some support in one of Herakleitos’ obscurer fragments.[12] The body was then dressed in a white winding-sheet (σάβανον), corresponding to the Homeric φᾶρος,[13] and in unworn clothes, sometimes rich gold and purple,[14] sometimes in full wedding attire, as in the case of Makrina.[15] Thus prepared, it was placed on a bier and strewn with the same evergreens and herbs as in antiquity- olive, laurel, palm, myrtle, cypress and celery. All was then ready for the formal wake, which took place at sunrise just inside the door of the house, with the bier facing towards the east.[16] Finally came the ritual breaking of clay vessels, believed to chase away the evil spirits hovering around to snatch away the souls by force to Hell.[17]

At the wake it was customary for the mourners to cover the body with their shorn hair. Digenis Akritas, legendary hero of the eastern frontiers of the Byzantine Empire, asks for this last tribute from his wife as he lies on his deathbed, according to the version of the epic preserved in the manuscript from Andros (seventeenth century):

Καὶ δάκρυά σου στάλαξον καὶ τὰ μαλλιά σου κόψον
ἀπάνω εἰς τὸ λείψανον Άκρίτου τοῦ ἀνδρείου.

DA 4481-2 (A) {27|28}

Shed your tears, and cut your hair
upon the body of the brave Akritas.

All the evidence suggests that this was the scene of violent grief, in spite of the disapproval of the Church. In his homily de Mortuis, Gregory of Nyssa attempts to persuade people to be more moderate in their grief, arguing, like Lucian, that the dead cannot appreciate any of the attention lavished upon them.[18] The usual behaviour is described and roundly condemned by Basil of Caesarea (330-79), in his homily de Gratiarum Actione:

Therefore neither men nor women should be permitted too much lamentation and mourning. They should show moderate distress in their affliction, with only a few tears, shed quietly and without moaning, wailing, tearing of clothes and grovelling in the dust, or committing any other indecency commonly practised by the ungodly.

Migne 31.229c

Violent lamentation was unseemly, even at the funeral of an Empress.[19] Most vehement of all is John Chrysostom, who denounces dirges as ‘blasphemies’.[20] It is significant that he objects not only to the more violent practices, such as laceration of the cheeks, tearing of the hair, and rending of garments, roundly condemning a widow bereaved of her only son for her wild desire to bury herself alive with him in the tomb, but also to the very essence of the dirge, which he describes as self-centred and self-indulgent. Particularly offensive was the use of hired mourners, usually specified as Greeks. Chrysostom refers to them in no less than eight homilies and commentaries, complaining that ‘this disease of females still persists’.[21] He is especially horrified at the pagan character of the scene, which with the incessant display of wailing and beating of the breast amounts to no less than a dance.[22]

The frequency and vehemence of these condemnations in the early Byzantine period are proof of the persistence of ritual lamentation. It was regarded as harmful not only because of its insidious effects on others, but also because, as Chrysostom understood, in the initial stages before Christianity was firmly established, such pagan customs were ‘fatal to the Church’.[23] The Church fathers tried only to moderate the manner of lamentation, not to stamp it out completely. Restrained grief was a necessary release to the feelings, a pleasure (ἡδονή) sanctified by the Scriptures. [24] If the popular lament was condemned as pagan and effeminate, what was the Christian ideal? {28|29}

Gregory’s account of Makrina’s funeral gives an interesting answer. All night long the body was laid out, lamented by holy sisters singing psalms. When day broke, and the crowds began to collect, the calm beauty of the psalms was threatened by noisy lamentation. But Gregory ensured that order was maintained by separating the men from the women, whom he wisely placed next to the holy sisters:

I took care that the chants should be sung with due rhythm and harmony, by arranging the two groups of singers on opposite sides, as in the liturgy, so that the chanting was properly blended with the sound of all the people joining in.

Migne 46.993A

This antiphonal lament, not unlike that sung by the Muses for Achilles in its arrangement, is reminiscent of the ideal prototype suggested by Plato for his Examiners in the Laws.[25] It is doubtful how often it was realised. True, as time went on the Church fathers objected less frequently and less vehemently to the evils of lamentation, but this was hardly because they had been eradicated, rather that the ritual had been accepted and gradually absorbed into Christianity.

The Funeral Procession

The Funeral of the Virgin / Thessaloniki, Church of Hagios Nikolaos Orphanos, Public Domain

The funeral procession was an important occasion, more directly controlled by the Church than the wake, and fully exploited as a spectacle likely to impress the people. At important funerals, large numbers of men and women were hired by the Church, whose work was to give physical manifestation of their grief, to sing psalms and funeral hymns, and to tend the graves, as their official names suggest.[26]

The Church seems to have succeeded in gaining control, at least in the more important funeral processions. Their use of hired mourners and breast-beaters makes the denunciations of Chrysostom and Gregory appear somewhat hypocritical. What they objected to was not the custom itself but its pagan associations. Chrysostom, in a moment of anger, reveals the true cause of his indignation:

What are you doing, woman? Tell me, would you shamelessly strip yourself naked in the middle of the marketplace, you, who are a part of Christ, in the presence of men and in the very market-place? And would you tear your hair, rend your garments and wail loudly, dancing and preserving the image of Bacchic women, without regard for your offence to God?

Migne 59.346 {29|30}

His anger is directed against the ‘rabble’, which was accustomed to lead the funeral procession with loud noise, bright torches and women s dancing, by the busiest streets of the city and then to stop in the market-place for a longer and more organised performance.[27] This was just the kind of public display which the ancient legislation had been intended to combat.

At the funerals of holy men or of members of the imperial family, crowds were encouraged. Makrina’s funeral procession took a whole day to reach the tomb, only seven or eight stades away.[28] Gregory Nazianzen (329-89) describes in one of his homilies the sincere grief expressed by the people at the funeral of Basil of Caesarea, but is narrative makes it plain that while crowds were welcomed, there was more than a hint of conflict between the official psalm singing of the Church and the spontaneous lamentation of the people:

There were crowds of people everywhere, in the marketplaces, arcades and buildings two and three storeys high, all attending his funeral and walking behind, in front and alongside, trampling on one another. Thousands of people of every race and age, not known before, psalms giving way to lamentations, and philosophy overcome by passion. It was a struggle between our followers and outsiders-Greeks, Jews and immigrants … and the body itself only just escaped their clutches.

Migne 36.601

In addition to the trained choirs singing religious music, the procession was given extra splendor by the torches and wax candles carried by the people. Gregory of Nyssa describes the mystical beauty of the psalms and torches at the funeral of Makrina:

First came a large number of deacons and ministers, all advancing in order and with wax candles in their hands. It was rather like a mystic procession, with the sound of the chanting ringing forth in one voice from one end to the other.

Migne 46.993B

The use of the lighted torch is explained by Chrysostom as an expression of the soul’s journey towards the ‘true light’. It was decorative, and also warming and cheering to the dead.[29] Its older, apotropaic properties, referred to by Athenaios, survive in Byzantine folklore, in a delightful story of how five monks carrying torches jumped into a disused country well to drive away the evil spirits lurking there, {30|31} which tormented the nearby villagers. The combined strength of the smell of the candles and the sound of the psalms sung by the monks vanquished them, and they disappeared into the nooks and crannies at the bottom of the well never to re-emerge.[30]

Once the procession reached the tomb and the psalms were over, there was a fresh outbreak of uncontrolled grief as the teleutaîos aspasmós (last greeting) was given. Like the last tear and the stretching out of the right hand over the bier in the ancient ekphorá, it was essential for the peace of mind of the dead as well as of the next of kin.[31] The custom must have been Christianised at an early stage, because it is found in early Byzantine sources.[32]

When the religious music was over and the earth was shovelled into the grave, once more the spontaneous lamentation of the people conflicted with the more formal aspasmós of Church tradition, as is evident again at this point in Makrina’s funeral:

That prayer caused the people to break out into fresh lamentation. The chants had died down … then one of the holy sisters cried out in disorderly fashion that never again from that hour should we set eyes on this divine face, whereupon the other sisters cried out likewise, and disorder and confusion spoiled that orderly and sacred chanting, with everyone breaking down at the lament of the holy sisters.

Migne 46.993D

Burial and After

A wall-painting from the Etruscan Tomb of the Lionesses (actually panthers) at Tarquinia. In the scene men are reclining on cushions at a drinking party. 530-520 BCE. / AlMare, Wikimedia Commons

After burial came the enkómion or epitáphios lógos. The early Church attached great importance to it, strictly adhering to its cold, rhetorical formality, perhaps to counteract the effects of what was considered the uncontrolled grief of the people. Whereas enkómia have survived in great number, there is no example of a popular lament, quoted in full from an actual funeral, which has come down to us. All we have are the accounts of the Church fathers, frequently exaggerated or distorted. But the ancient ritual custom of passionate invocation at the tomb is known to have persisted, alongside the literary convention of epigrams in dialogue form.[33]

On the evening of the funeral the household in mourning usually held a banquet, still known by its ancient name of perídeipnon, or sýndeipnon, which was attended by relatives, close friends and representatives of the Church.[34] {31|32}

Chrysostom directs some of his sharpest attacks against the practice, common among rich and poor alike, of offering food, clothing and lighted candles at the tomb. These offerings were made on the third, ninth and fortieth days after death. Chrysostom argues that the dead no longer have need of such material things, which the poor can ill afford. For the rich, on the other hand, is it not far better and far holier to ensure against such abuses by leaving property and money to the poor, or to the Church? His advice was followed by some, whose piety the Church rewarded with especially grand memorial services.[35] But the old practices still went on, with little change in the nature of the offerings since antiquity: wine, water, crops and kóllyva.[36] Gregory Nazianzen refers three times to choaí and apárgmata (libations and first- fruits) as ancient ritual offerings which he cannot approve of, still observed in his own day.[37] They were common enough to give rise to the medieval proverb ἀλλοτρίαις χοαῖς τοῖς γονεῦσιν αὐτοῦ ἐναγίζει (he honours his parents with other people’s libations).[38]

A closer look at the evidence reveals once more that it was not the ritual itself so much as certain pagan associations which were considered harmful. Apostolic law recognised trítaénata and eniaúsia (offerings on the third and ninth days and after one year), retaining the ancient terms but taking care to give an acceptable theological explanation, that Christ had risen on the third day, that the soul reaches Heaven on the ninth, and that the dead should be commemorated on the anniversary of their death.[39] The ancient triakóstia (offerings on the thirtieth day) were replaced by a memorial on the fortieth day, since that is how Moses was lamented by his people. Instead of dirges and invocations there were to be psalms, hymns and prayers.[40] But the ritual remained the same, and the priest himself had the sacred duty of sacrificing doves to the dead as a special tribute.[41] The strictest possible adherence to the rules for tending the tomb is laid down in Symeon’s de Ordine Sepulturae, where it is implied that neglect could have serious consequences.[42] Saint Martha is said to have stricken with illness the steward at the monastery where she lay buried, appearing to him in a vision as he lay dying and upbraiding him for failing to see that her candle was kept alight.[43]

Mourning, in due moderation, was sanctified by the Church. For a year at least black clothes were worn, hair was allowed to grow long, and personal appearance generally neglected.[44] One mother, whose son has been martyred, is warmly commended by Gregory Nazianzen for refusing to observe the usual trappings of mourning, which she enumerates in a curious kind of negative lament: {32|33}

I will not tear my hair, nor will I rend my cloak, nor will I scratch my flesh with my nails, nor will I start up the dirge, nor will I call up the mourning women, nor will I shut myself in darkness that the air might lament with me, nor will I await the comforters, nor will I prepare the funeral bread. For such things belong to vulgar mothers, who are mothers only in the flesh.

Migne 35.928A-B

Some people even went to the extreme of leaving their homes in the city, living for many years at the graves of their dead.[45]

The ancient idea that flesh, being earth, must return to earth after death, has survived unchanged in the early liturgy and in epigrams, prayers and hymns of all kinds. Here is an example from the funeral service:[46]

Οἱ βροτοὶ ἐκ γῆς διεπλάσθημεν / καὶ εἰς γῆν τὴν αὐτὴν πορευ-σόμεθα / καθὼς ἐκέλευσας ὁ πλάσας με, / καὶ εἰπών μοι· Γῆ εἶ, καὶ εἰς γῆν πορεύσῃ.

Pitra AS 1.242.2

We mortals have been fashioned from earth, and to this same earth we shall depart, as my Creator bade, saying, ‘Earth thou art and to earth thou shalt depart.’

The evidence examined here is unfortunately too incomplete to provide an objective picture of the relation between lament and ritual in the Byzantine period, and of the extent to which ancient practices survived. Certainly, funeral ritual and lamentation were condemned by the early Christian fathers. But it is not known how general this attitude was and how far it reflected the official policy of the State. All that can be said is that these condemnations indicate the insidious pagan influence which such practices were believed to have on the minds of the people. As in antiquity, they could be regarded as constituting a social threat.

Towards the ritual at least there seems to have been a gradual change in the Church’s attitude. Once sure of its control, it did not try to diminish the importance that funeral ritual had held in antiquity, but on the contrary it incorporated many elements it had formerly condemned into official ceremony, reinforcing them where possible with Old Testament tradition. Judging by the number of ritual practices in the Orthodox Church which can be traced back to antiquity, this process must have gone on at an unconscious as well as a conscious level. {33|34}

The Church, then, tried to detach the ritual, which it found necessary and politic to conserve and possible to Christianise by means of new theological explanations, from the more violent forms and expressions of lamentation which it deemed incompatible with Christianity, such as self-mutilation, and the man-centred, pagan outlook of the ancient lament. It tried to replace their prominence at the wake, funeral procession and burial with its own highly organised performance of psalms, hymns and prayers. It is impossible to measure accurately the degree of its success. In learned and religious circles the unity of poetry and ritual characteristic of the lament in the classical period was broken down, so far as it is possible for us to judge from the literary laments which have survived. On its own evidence it is doubtful whether it was so successful among the people. It must be remembered that the popular laments are referred to by the Church fathers only to be condemned. The stereotyped language and recurrent, formalised topoi which characterise the examples they give us suggest a conventionalised distortion, designed to create an impression of uncontrolled, self-centred paganism; they are therefore not to be treated as a faithful recording of popular laments.[47]

For the early Byzantine period there is no independent witness by which to test the objectivity of the Church’s attitude. A different picture emerges, however, from Buondelmonti’s eyewitness account of a funeral in Crete, written in 1420:

After the man had left this life, singers went to his house and, standing before the corpse among the womenfolk, they burst out into lamentations. Then everyone fell silent until each had praised the dead man in song. All the women took turns, sometimes cursing the Fates. Finally they gave a last farewell, and allowed themselves to be taken weary to their homes. Then at last came that long night which they voluntarily live, a year or more, without light, like animals on the ground. There on the earth they eat, and late and early they never cease calling in shrill lament upon the man who has now descended to the shades. For three or four years they shun the church, and choose to be in the darkness and in solitude.[48]

The details are not essentially different from those referred to elsewhere, but the exacting ritual pattern laid down by tradition for the wake and after burial, and the orderly praise of the dead man, are seen in a more sympathetic light. And the mourner’s long self-{34|35}banishment from church not only explains official hostility, but also indicates the independence and strength of the popular customs.

It would seem that the popular lament, unlike its literary counterpart, which had been divorced from its ritual associations, might have preserved something of the ancient unity of poetry and ritual. For a fuller understanding of its character we must turn to the folk tradition of today.


  1. See Laurent BZ (1936) 300-15, and Brown WLA 54-6.
  2. Io. Malalas, Migne 97.344,324, see also Browning GAM 8.
  3. Gregorovius GSA 1.35, Brown WLA 50-7, 72, Browning GAM 8.
  4. SEC p. 892.33 (Spyridakis EEBS (1950) 89).
  5. Cf. Migne 59.198, 60.726, 767 (Loukatos ELA (1940) 43, nos. 4,1,2,5), and Pl. Phd. 108a-b.
  6. Loukatos 43 no. 3.
  7. Migne 34.224-30 (Spyridakis 89).
  8. Comm. ad Hom. Il. 1266.43 f.; cf. ibid. 699.42 (Koukoules BBP 4.152).
  9. Migne 46.985d, cf. Thrak (1929) 131 (Spyridakis 97,99).
  10. Cont. Theoph. 548.5 (Koukoules 154). See also Rush DBCA 105-7.
  11. δανάκη, Koukoules 158.
  12. Paid. 2.7, 8, cf. Hklt. 98: αἱ ψυχαὶ ὀσμῶνται καθ’ ᾅδην. For the washing the corpse in milk and wine, see Rush DBCA 115.
  13. The word σάβανον is derived from Latin sabanumsavanum, Du Cange 1313, Korais At. 2.422-3, and it is found in Greek as early as Clement of Alexandria. For φᾶρος, see Il. 23.352, Od. 2.97, 19.138, 24.132 (Politis LS 3.326 n. 5 and 327 n. 1).
  14. Loukatos 50 nos. 1-4.
  15. Migne 46.992C.
  16. Spyridakis 102-3, cf. Migne 60.725 (Loukatos 52).
  17. Politis comments on the medieval character of this custom and its explanation, LS 3.333 and 2.268-83; but there can be no doubt that it is related to the practice of pouring out water (ὕδωρ ἐκχε̂ν), which was forbidden in the legislation from Keos in antiquity, LGS 93A.
  18. Migne 46.497a-537b.
  19. Ibid. 46.878-92.
  20. βλασφήμους λόγους, ibid. 61.791.
  21. Ibid. 59.346, cf. 57.374: Σὺ δέ, ὥσπερ αὐξῆσαι τὸ ἔγκλημα σπεύδων, καὶ θρηνῳδοὺς ἡμῖν ἅγεις Ἑλληνίδας γυναῖκας, ἐξάπτων τὸ πάθος …, 63.44: Εἰ οὖν οὗτος (sc. ὁ θάνατος) συμβαίη, καί τινες τὰς θρηνούσας ταύτας μισθώσαιντο … πολὺν αὐτὸν χρόνον τῆς ἐκκλησίας ἀπείρξω ὡς εἰδωλολάτρην, and also 62.811, 60.726, 61.390, 59.467, 348, 52.576, 62.203 (Loukatos 62-3). It is probable that Chrysostom, writing in the fourth century, was using Hellene in the religious sense, i.e. Hellene as opposed to Christian; but in any case it did not have the generalised, pejorative sense of pagan, i.e. any non-Christian, which it acquired in the fifth century and afterwards. See Browning GAM 15.
  22. Reference is made frequently to the wild dancing of mourning women, see Migne 63.811, 61.390, 52.576, 59.467.
  23. Ibid. 63.44: ἡμεῖς δὲ οὐκ ἀνεχόμεθα ἔθη τοιαῦτα ὀλέθρια τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ ἐπεισαγαγεῖν.
  24. Greg. Nyss. ibid. 46.868a-b: ἦν ἐν ἡδονῇ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις τὸ δάκρυον, Bas. ibid. 31.224-5, Io. Chrys. ibid. 153.785.
  25. Pl. Lg. 947b-c: κορῶν δὲ χορὸν πεντεκαίδεκα καὶ ἀρρένων ἕτερον.
  26. They were known as δεκανοί, κοπιαταί, ἀσκήτριαι, κανονικαί, ἀκόλουθοι. Justinian, legislating on their number and payment in the Church of Constantinople, mentions that Anastasios had limited their number to 1,100, Nov. 43 (Spyridakis 135-6); see also Rush GBCA 203-8. Horses were sometimes used to convey the coffin from house to tomb, see Migne 49.52 (Loukatos 67-8 no. 5).
  27. Migne 63.811: Ποῦ πορεύεται ὁ πολὺς ὄχλος ἐκεῖνος; τί γέγονεν ἡ κραυγὴ καὶ ὁ θόρυβος; … Τί δὲ καὶ ἐγένοντο αἱ βοαί; ποῦ τὰ στόματα τὰ πολλὰ ἐκεῖνα, τὰ κραυγάζοντα … θαρρεῖν ὅτι οὐδείς ἀθάνατος, cf. ibid. 809, 807, 42; 62.203; 61.697, 702, 707, 48.1020 (Loukatos 70-1).
  28. Migne 46.993c-d. Riots are said to have threatened to break up several imperial and sacred funerals, ibid. 18.463, 46.868a-b, 153.516-18, Io. Kantakouzenos Hist. 2.17.
  29. φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν, Migne 60.725 (Loukatos 74), cf. V. Thom. Alex., SEC 603 (Spyridakis 143). Rush points out that before the third century, Christian fathers opposed the use of candles and torches because of their association with pagan cults, GBCA 224-5.
  30. Ath. 442a: λύχνων ὀσμὰς οὐ φιλοῦσι δαίμονες, cf. AntonV. Sym. Styl. (Spyridakis 143-4).
  31. The similarity was such that the author of the Christian tragedy Christòs Páschon was able to give the actual words of Medea’s farewell to her children to Mary as she greeted her son for the last time, CP 1315,1318 ~ E. Med. 1070. See chapter 4 n. 25 on the question of date and authorship of this play.
  32. Spyridakis 147-9, cf. Migne 3.556d.
  33. Again in the Christòs Páschon, the myrrh-bearing women perform a long invocation at the tomb, which by implication is essential to Christ’s Resurrection, 2020-6. The Church’s disapproval of the practice among the people is expressed by Chrysostom, Migne 63.803-4: Ἐν τῷ τάφῳ πρὸς τὸν πλησίον ἕκαστος ὧδέ πῃ φθέγγεται, —Ὤ τῆς ταλαιπωρίας! Ὤ τῆς οἰκτρᾶς ἡμῶν ζωῆς! Ἄρα τί γινόμεθα;, 50.551: οἳ ἅμα τε τοῖς τῶν τεθνηκότων τάφοις ἐφίστανται, καὶ ὥσπερ ἀντὶ τῆς θήκης, τοὺς ἐν τῇ θήκῃ κειμένους ἑστῶτας ἰδόντες, οὕτως αὐτούς ἀπὸ τῶν προθύρων εὐθέως ἀνακαλοῦσι, cf. 48.606. For some of the more literary funerary epigrams, see Cantarella 22, 35, 40, 121, 154, 175.
  34. Migne 47.343, 48.1038, 61.235.
  35. Ibid. 57.348, 55.512, 59.348, 60.598, 147, 148.
  36. Politis LS 3.349-51, cf. Sym. OS Migne 155.670-96.
  37. Migne 35.776: ἐρρέτωσαν … ὅσα διὰ χοῶν τε καὶ ἀπαργμάτων … ἀφοσιοῦνται νόμῳ πατρίῳ μᾶλλον ἢ λόγῳ δουλεύοντες, cf. 37.871: χοὰς τοῖς δαίμοσιν, ἃς προσφέρουσιν οἵ γε δεισιδαίμονες, 36.377: ἀγόνων χοῶν καὶ ἀπαργμάτων ὡρίων, ὧν τοῖς νεκροῖς χαρίζονται νόμον ποιησάμενοι τὴν συνήθειαν (Koukoules 212).
  38. Planudes 105, cf. Politis Paroim. 1.571 (Koukoules 211-12).
  39. Tríta and énata: Leont. Neapol., p. 55.2 ed. Gelzer: εἰς τὰ τρίτα τοῦ παιδός; Pachym. 1.19, p. 55 Bonn; Nikeph. Gregor. 1.3, p. 65 Bonn; Io. Kantakouzen. III.1, p. 14 Bonn: μετὰ δὲ τὴν ἐνάτην τῶν ἐπὶ τοῖς τετελευτηκόσι συνήθως γεγενημένων ἰλασμῶν; Apokálypsis Theotókou, Vassiliev Anecd. graec.-byzant. p. 133: ταῖς λειτουργίαις τὰ τρίτα καὶ τὰ ἐννέα καὶ τὰ λοιπά, V. S. Theod. 20, p. 12 Arsenij: τελέσασα τὰ τοῦ ἀνδρὸς τρίτα καὶ ἔνατα. See also Du Cange, s.v. eniaúsiaénnata(387), mnemósynon (940), tríta (1612-13). These and other references are cited by Politis, LS 3.348 n. 2. See also Freistedt AT4-6, 78-89 for a discussion of third- and ninth-day rites in the early Greek Christian communities. For legislation, sacred and secular, see Apostolische Konstitutionen VIII 42.1, pp. 552 ff. ed. Funk, and Justin. Nov. 133.3.1, p. 671 ed. Schoell.
  40. On the origin of the fortieth-day rites, and their relation to the thirtieth-day rites of Greek antiquity, see Freistedt AT6-15, 161-71, 172-8. He argues that the Hebrew origin of the custom, which the early Church fathers insist upon (see Migne 1.1145 ff.), is questionable, and that in fact the custom was most widespread not among the Jews but among the early Oriental Christian communities of Armenia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Greece. In the western Church, on the other hand, the most important commemoration rites were held on the third, seventh and thirtieth days (51). The earliest reference in Greek to fortieth-day rites is found in a pagan inscription, probably to Hermes, of uncertain date but before the fourth century A.D. (Wünsch JKPh 27 Suppl. (1902) 121). For the use of hymns, psalms and prayers in the Greek Church, see Migne 63.43, 50.634.
  41. Rallis-Potlis 4.387-8: Εἰ τῷ ἱερεῖ ἔξεστιν περιστερὰς ἐν τοῖς τάφοις τῶν τεθνεώτων καὶ τοῖς μνημοσύνοις αὐτῶν σφαγιάζειν (Koukoules 211).
  42. Migne 155.670-96.
  43. AS Maii 5.413a (Spyridakis 162).
  44. Migne 115.437c, 31.232c, 155.670-96, Greg. Theol. ibid. 35.928a
  45. Io. Chrys., Migne 47.409: Πολλοὺς δ’ ἔγωγε οἶδα, μετὰ τὴν τῶν φιλτάτων ἀποβολήν, τοὺς μὲν τὴν ἐν ἀγροῖς δίαιταν τῆς πόλεως ἐναλλαξαμένους καὶ τῶν ἐν ταύτῃ καλῶν, τοὺς δὲ παρὰ τὰ μνήματα τῶν ἀπελθόντων τὰς οἰκίας δειμαμένους καὶ τὸν βίον ἐκεῖ καταλύσαντας, cf. 50.551. Sometimes, images οf the dead were made and lamented, together with surviving articles of their clothing, 57.403: Εἰ γὰρ καὶ νῦν εἰκόνας διαπλάττοντες ἄνθρωποι, ἐπειδὴ τὸ σῶμα κατασχεῖν οὐκ ἔχουσιν … προσηλωμένοι ταῖς σανίσιν ἐκεῖ, cf. 59.366: Τί δέ; τῶν πολλῶν τὰς εἰκόνας ὅταν ἴδωμεν ἀνακειμένας ἐν ταῖς οἰκίαις, οὐχὶ μᾶλλον θρηνοῦμεν; (Loukatos 102, 99).
  46. Cf. Zoras 65.3, 5: Γῆν ἔσχηκα προμήτορα, γῆ μὲ καλύψει πάλιν. The idea is not exclusively Greek, see Ps. 146.4.
  47. See AB 18.256, Migne 31.232ff., 35.928a, 61.236, 791, 792, 59.347, 114.313a, 115.1556a-c.
  48. C. Bondelmontius, Descriptio Cretae ed. Legrand DIA 116-17 (Morgan CPSI 388). This account may be compared with a description by Michael Apostolis in a letter written in 1467 of a funeral he witnessed near Skutari on the Albanian coast: Συνειλέχθησαν οἱ τοῦ νεκροῦ ἀγχισταὶ καὶ τουτονὶ περιστάντες τῆς θρηνῳδίας ἀπήρχοντο, τῶν μὲν ἀνδρῶν ἱσταμένων, καθημένων δὲ τῶν γυναίων∙ καὶ τῶν μὲν ἀρχομένων, τῶν δὲ διαδεχομένων, οἵῳ τῷ τρόπῳ Κρῆτες ἐχρῶντο περί τε γάμους ἡρώων καὶ πανηγύρεις θεῶν∙ ὅθεν καὶ ἐς ἡμᾶς τουτὶ τὸ πρᾶγμα διαμεμένηκε. τοιουτότροπα ἐς χόρους (sic) ᾀδόντων τῶν Κρητῶν τε καὶ τῶν Κρησςῶν, Noiret LIMA 80, cf. Schirò ZBa (1963-4) 145-160. Particularly noteworthy is the mention of antiphonal singing, which he compares with ancient and contemporary practice in Crete. The death of the young man occurred, apparently accidentally, during a sword contest held annually within the precincts of the church of St. Laonikos on Palm Sunday, in preparation for Holy Week. It is not clear why Apostolis should refer to these people by the name of Taulantioi, as the ancient Illyrian tribe of that name was of no historical significance after the third century B.C. As for the sword contest, the nearest modern equivalent which I have come across is the custom, still observed in northern Epiros, on ‘Lazarus’ Saturday’ (the day before Palm Sunday), when the young boys masquerade through the village in strange costume, brandishing spears, sabres and bells, and threatening the villagers, Megas EE 142-3. Ancient parallels which might usefully be investigated include the warlike dances and contests associated with the rites celebrating the death and rebirth of the god, see Ath. 139d-f.

From “The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition”, by Margaret Alexiou. Published by The Center for Hellenic Studies under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.



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