Category Archives: Death in the Greek World 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.

 

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.

 

 

Death in the … museum

When entering the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, you will stand face to face with one of the most famous objects of the museum: the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. This golden death mask was found in Mycenae and opens the museum exhibitions, leading into the prehistoric collection. Apart from the prehistoric objects, most of the exhibition rooms focus on sculpture and vases. The museum houses archaeological finds from ancient Greece, from prehistory until late antiquity.

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An example of the rich grave goods found in a Mycenaean grave.

Even though I did not think that a prehistoric exhibition would be full with golden objects like death masks, drinking cups and jewellery, this is the largest part of the exhibition. The NAM is proud of their Mycenaean collection and puts in the centre of attention. However, will the many many tourist that stare at the large amounts of gold understand the context of the objects? Will they know, fighting for a spot in front of the showcase, where the objects came from? When it is too crowded to read the information signs, when tourists are not able to read Greek or English, or simply do not want to, the simple display of the objects will not tell them were they are looking at: death.

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A grave marker – a krater with the depiction of burial rituals on it – starts the sculpture exhibition, kouroi can be seen in the background.

A large part of the objects on display, not only in the Prehistoric collection, but also in the other parts as the sculpture collection, have been found in/by/on top of/surrounding graves. One might even say that the collection of the museum is determined by death. The rich grave goods have often been preserved, together with the architecture of the tomb and the sculptures and reliefs that were placed as grave markers. On the other hand, cities, palaces and settlements have been destroyed, reused or looted and when preserved the objects are often in a lesser state than the ones found in graves. Therefore, it is death that will guide you through the NAM and through the history of ancient Greece. The grave markers will show you the development of ancient Greek art, from static kouroi to the dynamics of the Hellenistic era. While there are many objects on display that have not been found in a grave context, it is death that is most prominent in the objects, but not in the type of museum display and certainly not in the minds of the tourists. Will they realize that they are looking at objects connected to extremely strong emotions, of dramatic changes in peoples in lives? That these objects were made because of the loss of a loved one?

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A grave monument for a woman, 350-325 BC, found in Athens.

The multilateral identities of the Argolis

The history of the Argolis is defined by all the different peoples that contributed to her culture. Take, for instance, the coastal city of Nafplio: the temporal capital of Greece after the Greek War of Independence is one of the most beautiful examples of Greece’s culturally diverse history. A short stroll over Nafplio’s gorgeous boulevard is enough to experience this: while the impressive Venetian Palamidi fortress on top of the hill watches over the city, one cannot help but feel like walking in an Italian city, especially when confronted with the Antica Gelateria di Roma on the corner. No visit to Nafplio is complete without Italian ice-cream.

When turning to the bay and taking a look over the water, beyond the Greek flag waving atop the Venetian Bourtzi castle, we can see the ancient acropolis of mythical Argos in the distance. Arriving in Argos, the first thing one notices is the Byzantine fortress, impressively built on the site where once the citadel of the mighty polis of Argos stood.

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View from the boulevard of Nafplio, in the distance the Bourtzi castle and the hill of Argos.

One of modern-day Argos’ primed aspects is her Byzantine Museum. The former 19th century cavalry barrack has been transformed to one of the most splendid museums of Greece. The museum not only offers a very satisfying and important amount of information with her objects but also a fascinating experience. The visitor gets indulged in the distinct phases of the Byzantine Empire, starting with the creation of the empire, then the transition it underwent from the world of Late Antiquity to Medieval times, and then focusses on the local hybrid history of the Byzantine Argolis and ends with a presentation of the various and impressive remains of the many different cultural groups that lived (and are still living) in the area. A few examples are the Osman funeral inscriptions, the Slavic jewellery, the Frankish equestrian equipment and fascinating digital audio material on which one can listen to traditional Arvanite songs.

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View from the site of Ancient Corinth. Spring has arrived.

An equally impressive site is ancient Corinth and the vast collection of archaic and classical material displayed in her beautiful museum, especially the archaic twin kourai of Klenia are a must-see. Another splendid aspect of the museum is her Roman collection. The funerary stele of the Roman legionary Valerius Valens and its Latin inscription (see photo) is an extraordinary example of the presence of Rome in first-century C.E. Corinth, which is especially interesting since not much later we see Greek inscriptions on Roman funerary steles instead of Latin. A beautiful example of the intermixing and acculturation of cultures, and exemplary for the impressive and rich history of the Argolis.

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Funerary stele of Roman legionair Valerius Valens.

 

Mycenae roars as loud as its lions

The citadel of Mycenae is a hidden gem in the Argive plain. You’ll only notice it perched atop a steep hill if you have driven around the Panagia ridge. This citadel oozes sheer power and claim to the surrounding land, just like Simba sits atop Pride Rock.

The first major cemetery a visitor would come across as one walks towards the citadel from the southern road – nowadays the carpark – is Grave Circle B (GC B). This is surprisingly modest in terms of its architecture, visibility and grave goods in comparison to major features at Mycenae. It was first used in Middle Helladic III (1800-1700BCE) before the great Cyclopean Walls were erected. The wealth of objects found inside the graves is certainly monumental. It contained for example the first product made of amber in the entire Mediterranean, deriving all the way from the Baltic region. However, compared to the elite kingroup (wider family) buried in nearby Grave Circle A (GC A), they are nowhere near as prosperous.

As you’re ascending the ramp towards the citadel you’re overwhelmed by the impressive Cyclopean walls. Their sheer size, not just as a collective but also of the individual blocks you are bound to feel intimidated. Once you arrive at the gate, you are overshadowed by its stature, as the lions of Mycenae are roaring their dominance over the entranceway. Anyone part of the contemporary Bronze Age elite circuit would have understood the symbolism of the lions. They symbolize power and prestige, and their use shows participation in wide elite networks of the Eastern Mediterranean states, like those of Egypt, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and the Hittites (central Turkey).

The Lion GateOnce you have crossed the threshold into the citadel, what captures your eye is GC A, a monumental cemetery with its own clear circular demarcation. As GC A reached its zenith in the Late Helladic I (1700-1600BCE), GC B was slowly forgotten and had fallen into disuse. It is quite likely that kingroup ‘B’ lost a power struggle to the kingroup ‘A’.  The grave goods from GC A – most of which are now on display at the National Archaeological Museum – are especially captivating, both in terms of splendour and craftsmanship. Think of the famous Face of Agamemnon and the countless bronze weapons, gold other precious commodities. The inclusion of the GC A in the citadel by the extension of the fortification walls in Late Helladic III tells us it was important to the ruling family of the time; whether truly descendants or not, ancestral ties were forged.

Grave Circle A

Zigging and zagging your way further up to the king’s seat (the megaron) you can’t help but look across your right shoulder. In ancient times, visitors would be granted this view of the Argive plain only from the courtyard, just before they would enter the throne room. This was a deliberate manipulative act to create a sense of audacity when you enter the most inaccessible and restricted area of the entire Greek mainland. Is this where the power of the ruling family is demonstrated most clearly? What exactly can you see standing high up on this hill? Right in the middle of the Argive plain is the Treasury of Atreus, the largest tholos tomb ever constructed. This royal tomb might have belonged to the grandfather of the king who remodelled the megaron. The king’s seat was hereby visually connected to the family’s massive new resting place and the domain they possess.  You feel like the great lion peached on his rock, looking over his domain, ready to roar.The view from the megaronTreasury of Atreus

The Multifaceted Story of Marathon

 

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The Athenian tumulus on the Marathon plain

The term Marathon can mean many things: it is a famous long distance run, a metaphor for the eternal struggle between the West and the East or the victory of democracy over despotism. All of these definitions eventually lead back to the battle that took place at the plain of Marathon in 490 BC. Where on the 12th of September, the heavily outnumbered Athenians won an unexpected victory over the mighty Persian empire and thereby saved their beloved city.

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A partly burned offering given to the Athenian dead, displaying two hoplites.

The first impression of the Marathon plain, after a 42 kilometre drive through the busy streets of Athens and the rough countryside of Attica, is certainly a fascinating one. Being very fertile, the plain appears as a sudden explosion of green with small colourful flowers growing here and there. Standing out is the tumulus built for the fallen Athenian soldiers. The 192 Athenians that were killed in the defence of their city were first cremated and then buried underneath a 10 meter high tumulus with the appropriate  offerings commemorating their bravery.

The story of the Greek victory at Marathon is certainly an epic one. We should, however, always keep in mind that any political connotations inherent to this metaphorical name are deliberate constructs meant to emphasize difference and superiority over others.

Unknown to many, Marathon’s archaeological sites provide more narrative than battle alone. Not far from the Athenian tumulus seven other tumuli are located that are dated to the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1600 BC). These tumuli are filled with multiple tombs and are clearly demarcated from each other, emphasizing continuity and the importance of group identity. Not only are these tumuli used for a long time, they also maintain in use when other groups start using different and more elaborate burial practices, well up into the Mycenaean Period (1600-1100 BC). This showcases that these people made a deliberate choice, in this case of fortitude; to preserve older traditions and to maintain a clear physical connection to their ancestors.

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One of the tumuli at Marathon from the Middle Bronze Age. In this case a bigger tumulus is built over and around a smaller earlier tumulus.

Even earlier, Marathon was home to a hybrid culture in the Early Bronze Age (3000-2000 BC). In a time when Greece was mostly divided between Cycladic, Minoan and Mainland societies, the inhabitants of Marathon showed that the only borders in this world are the ones we create ourselves. The contents in the tombs of the spectacular Tsepi cemetery displayed clear influences of different cultural spheres. Other telling elements of this cemetery are its spatial organisation and tomb architecture: almost all tombs are located in neat rows, emphasizing the coherence of the entire community while at the same time all tombs are clearly individually demarcated by a row of stones emphasizing the distinctiveness of the different families. In this way these burials tell us to look after the ones closest to us while at the same remind us that we are always part of a bigger whole. Marathon, therefore, is not only a place that commemorates struggle and difference but also affinity and cohesion.

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Several tombs from the Early Bronze Age Tsepi cemetery, the tombs are organised in neat rows and demarcated by a row of stones.