Monthly Archives: April 2018

Experiencing the Acceptance of Death: A Visit to the Holy Thursday Evening Mass

When you walk from the Monument of Lysicrates towards the Acropolis, you take a small street called Epimenidou. Most people just stroll straight past it: but on your left, you will find a small church that due to its white colour merges into its architectural surroundings. This 17th-century Greek Orthodox Church is dedicated to Saint Demetrius. The plaque at the entrance tells us remarkably enough that Athanasios Diakos, the national hero of the Greek Revolution (1821-1832), served in this church.

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Entrance of the Church of St Demetrius (Epimenidou 5-7, Athens)

The last eight days, Orthodox Athens has celebrated the Holy Week, from the Saturday of Lazarus to the celebration of Pascha. We visit the church on Holy Thursday to attend the evening mass at 7 pm. Upon entering, we find ourselves in a dark space faintly lit by numerous candles and surrounded by people making the sign of the cross while kissing the icons of Saint Demetrius and Virgin Mary. They listen to the priests reading aloud the liturgy of Holy Thursday that is marked by two significant events: the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples and the betrayal by Judas Iscariot. Anticipating the Matins on Good Friday, the Twelve Gospels (twelve passages from the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are read: the accounts of Christ’s trial, suffering, and death.

IMG_20180405_191430(1)Plaque at the entrance of the church with the text: “In this church of St Demetrius Athanasios Diakos ministered”

The climax of the Thursday service is the procession of the Crucifix, after the reading of the fifth Gospel. With the exception of a few candles, the church is now completely shrouded in darkness. People kneel and pray for their spiritual well-being, imitating the thief on the cross who confessed his sins and faith to Christ (Luke 23:39-43), and then come forward and kiss the Crucifix. During this ritual, the following hymn is recited:

Fifteenth Antiphon from the Great and Holy Friday Matins (sung between the reading of the fifth and sixth Gospel):

Σήμερον κρεμᾶται ἐπὶ ξύλου, ὁ ἐν ὕδασι τὴν γῆν κρεμάσας.
Στέφανον ἐξ ἀκανθῶν περιτίθεται, ὁ τῶν Ἀγγέλων Βασιλεύς.
Ψευδῆ πορφύραν περιβάλλεται, ὁ περιβάλλων τὸν οὐρανὸν ἐν νεφέλαις.
Ῥάπισμα κατεδέξατο, ὁ ἐν Ἰορδάνῃ ἐλευθερώσας τὸν Ἀδάμ.
Ἣλοις προσηλώθη, ὁ Νυμφίος τῆς Ἐκκλησίας.
Λόγχῃ ἐκεντήθη, ὁ Υἱὸς τῆς Παρθένου.
Προσκυνοῦμέν σου τὰ Πάθη Χριστέ.
Δεῖξον ἡμῖν, καὶ τὴν ἔνδοξόν σου Ἀνάστασιν.

Translation:

Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on a tree.
The King of the Angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped in the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the cross with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy Passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.

Commemorating the passion of Christ, death is an important theme during the Holy Week. This hymn expresses the climax of Christ’s sufferings: he is mocked, beaten, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross and pierced by a spear. However, he accepts his death willingly. The Cross is the fundamental paradox of Christianity: the crucifixion was the most tragic event in Christianity, yet the most glorious victory of Christ and the biggest defeat of Satan. Christ won by losing. He, in human form, allowed himself to be made sin in order to redeem us. Through his love, he bore all our sins on the cross.

However, this paradox not only explains the redemption of mankind. In Christ’s acceptance of death also lies the opportunity for our acceptance of death as human beings. By reading and singing this hymn, we can reach an (ecstatic) understanding of death that helps us face death. Christ’s humility and obedience to death is worth pursuing. Still, a real acceptance of death is not possible if we keep seeing it as a final victory in life. A real acceptance is only possible if we approach death as a necessary and inevitable component of life, or even better, if we embrace it as a gift of life, as a friend rather than an enemy. By embracing death, Christ shows that death is not the absolute end but just an episode in eternity.

IMG_20180405_192456Courtyard of the church

Then, when the night seems to be at its darkest depths, light begins to dawn. More and more flames of candles start shining in the darkness. The warmth of all the people who have gathered together has spread throughout the small church. For a moment, all of us, both regular churchgoers and curious tourists, become part of one, close family. With a few steps we are outside the church in the courtyard, a sun-drenched hortus conclusus where time seems to have been forgotten and death to have been overcome.

 

The Secrets of the Past Revealed? The Exhibition on the Eleusinian Mysteries in the Acropolis Museum

Muse, sing to me of the Two Goddesses, the Mistresses of the Earth. Sing to me of the Mysteries of Demeter and Kore, who give great blessings.

In the small town of Eleusis, only about 20 kilometres away from Athens, the great Mystery cult of Demeter and her daughter Kore (better known as Persephone) brought in visitors from all over the ancient world. This cult, open to anyone, was focused on Demeter and Kore’s connection to the Earth and the Underworld, and promised a blessed afterlife to all who were initiated into the cult. These initiates, mystes, were shown secret objects, which were so sacred that even now we don’t know what they were. Authors did reveal rituals of the sacred  procession starting in the Eleusinion in Athens and the rites that were conducted in the Telesterion, the large temple/hall in Eleusis. The real secrets however, held in the Anoktoron, the smaller construction within the Telesterion, still remain a mystery.

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Our proud author, showing off the ancient remains of the Telesterion on a cloudy day in June. 

The new exhibition in the Acropolis museum in Athens, focused on the mysteries of Eleusis, is structured like the ancient sanctuary in Eleusis. While all the artefacts from the site are placed in a large exhibition room, they hold little value until one enters the artificial temple in the middle: in here, a short film explains the ins and outs of the Eleusinian Mysteries. In other words, one walks the same route as a newly initiated would, and the truth of the Mysteries lies in the inner sanctum. While this is very poetic, it makes the exhibition slightly confusing, especially for those not fond of videos.

The mysterious objects do hold a certain magic: the statue of a fleeing maiden, her skirts billowing around her legs and her face turned to look back in fear, immediately reminds one of the myth of the Abduction of Persephone. A stone pillar resembling a torch tells of the longevity of the Mysteries: only when the Roman emperor Theodosius forbade any sort of non-Christian worship were the Mysteries abandoned. The torch shows how the remains of the cult were recycled by Christians: it now carries a large inscribed cross on its side.

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The fleeing maiden.

The absolute masterpiece of the exhibition, however, is a small object known as the Ninnion tablet: a small ceramic tablet which shows a procession ending at the two goddesses, Demeter seated on a  rock and Persephone standing next to her. The elaborate details, such as the folds of Demeter’s dress, the crowns and wreaths that are worn and the brushstrokes used for the fire of the torches that the initiates carry make this small tablet an absolute delight.

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The Ninnion tablet. The Greek reads: Ninnion dedicated (this) to the goddesses.

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A close-up of the Ninnion tablet. Demeter seated on a rock, Persephone standing next to her.

This exhibition then, reveals a past that is yet still hidden: we can only catch glimpses of one of the largest cults of the Greek world, and its past can only be partly seen by the things left behind.

Muse, sing to me of the Two Goddesses, and the secrets they revealed to mankind, sing to me of glorious afterlife and a distant past.

Shattered: Death on Pottery

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Geometric krater with prothesis of the deceased and mourners.

Anno 2018, people do not particularly identify themselves with their eating and drinking utensils. Leaving my personal attachment to the wine glass and its use in contemporary -regular- drinking rituals out of this discussion, the vessels we use today are rarely more reflective of identity than whether or not their user shops at Ikea. Maybe this is part of the reason that the vases collection of the National Archaeological Museum at Athens seems like a quiet oasis compared to the other museum wings. The collection, located on the second floor, mainly attracts those people with a particular fanaticism in regards of pottery or those who are kindly -yet firmly- directed this way during a school trip, or, as in my own case, Death in the Greek World course.

That this admittedly slightly negative, “not-my-cup (of tea)”-attitude towards pottery is unnecessary, becomes clear as soon as the museum guard turns on the light of the Geometric-period (900-700 BC) exhibition and we come face to face with several giant jars. The vessels, in which we could easily hide some of the smaller members of our group, are decorated with beautiful geometric patterns and what for many of the casual visitors will look like a polonaise of stick figures. But these vases, as well as the vessels of the following centuries, actually have a much deeper story to tell, namely one of life and death.

The impressive large geometric vases for instance, were originally used as funerary markers. In the decoration this use in emphasized, however, at the same time a subtler message regarding the specific roles of men and women was expressed. In a central scene, the first part of the burial process, the prothesis or “laying out of the body” can be found. Around the body the simple figures show a remarkably emotional scene: female mourners grab their heads and even seem to pull out their hair in grief, while the men are more restraint and merely greet the deceased with their swords at their hips.

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White-ground lekythos with man remembering the deceased at a grave monument.

While in the following centuries the themes on funerary vases were expanded, the special role of women in mourning and burial is one that persists throughout antiquity. Because of the biological mysteries of birth and menstruation, women were regarded as ‘polluted’.  Although it would be extremely unwise to mention this concept to any woman alive today, the “polluted nature” of women was then considered incredibly useful when dealing with another difficult transition: death.  Women prepared the body for burial and openly mourned. Later they were concerned with making offerings to the deceased and maintaining the grave.

By the 5th century BC the raw emotion had disappeared from the funerary depictions on the funerary vessel of the time: the white-ground Lekythos. It seems however unlikely that this reflects a sense of indifference to death. While the vessels show serene scenes of people tending the graves and remembering the deceased, their abundance and professionalism shows that mortuary ritual was booming business. Despite appearances, death was still a “shattering” experience to the living.

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Woman carrying offerings to a funerary monument ( on white-ground lekythos)

Iris Rom, 03-04-2018

Some rituals never change: the First Cemetery of Athens

 

Walking around Athens you cannot avoid dealing with death somehow, in the names of mains streets, in the busts in little squares and in the famous museums and sites. The celebration of important personalities that have literally made Greek history is entangled to monuments that aim to preserve their memory. However, what happens when we approach death not as mere memory but as reality? Have you ever considering how it must have been like walking through the Kerameikos cemetery recognizing people buried along the streets? They were parents, sons, friends, not just ancient figures on beautiful grave stones. On this idea, in 1837, after the Greek war of independence, not too far away from the Panathenaic Stadium and the Olympieion, the First Cemetery of Athens was built. Placed in the World Monuments Fund (WMF) in 2012, this monumental cemetery is nowadays open to everybody. Here national benefactors, such as Georgios Averoff, mayors and politicians, such as Melína Merkoúri, are celebrated in the same way as the ancient Herodes Atticus was. Archbishops are remembered as the first Christian communities’ clergy members were. The so-called monument of “the Sleeping Girl” in memory of Sofia Afentaki, died at the age of eighteen of tuberculosis in the 19th century, remembers the stelai of those beautiful and wealthy Greek woman died too young and displayed at the National Museum. Famous artists, such as the Greek modern sculptor Yannoulis Chalepas and the poet Giórgos Seféris, are inhumed here.

 

The sleeping girl

The Sleeping Girl monument

As the images carved on ancient funerary monuments do not reflect real society but the idea of wealthy, fierce and immortal beauty that people wanted to transmit to posterity, the same happened in modern times. The monument of the German archaeologist Henrich Schliemann, well known for his excavation of what is considered by many as the city of Troy, is a clear example of this. His majestic Doric style mausoleum, designed by himself, dominates the main area of the cemetery.  It consists of an exuberant celebration of his career’s achievements with four friezes that alternated scenes from the Iliad, Odyssey and scenes from his personal life. This decoration creates an unforgettable connection between him and Greek heroes as Greek kings and Roman Emperors used to do to reinforce their role. The inscription “For the Hero, Schliemann” corroborates this aim.

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Schliemann mausoleum

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Detail of one of the friezes on the mausoleum of Schliemann

 

As it happened in the past, the multi-ethnic Greek society has always provided space within its sacral areas to different cultural groups. Distant from the main streets of the cemetery, quieter areas housed the modest Orthodox tombs of foreign people and the little Jewish cemetery.

Greeks seem to not have lost their traditions over time. Visitors can experience how citizens still deal with death, how they share their grief with family and friends keeping alive the memory of their deceased.