Sunday, 25 January 2015

January 23 – Saying goodbye

(The cemetery of Molyvos)

Last year the biggest grave ever in Greece got opened in Amphipolis, an ancient town close to Serres in the north of Greece. The grave was guarded by a large statue of a lion and two sphinxes and it has different rooms, most of them sealed off. A team of archaeologists are now slowly opening these rooms, which were closed for centuries. Its a bit like discovering the grave of Tutankhamun. The big question is: who is buried in the grave? Some people hope that it will be Alexander the Great, even though he died long ago (in 323 BC) and far away in Babylonia. Other people think it might be his wife Roxanne buried there.

Last summer the media were full of speculation and news items of Amphipolis. But now that the world has other worries and Greece is under the spell of the latest election, news about the excavation of the grave has lost its place on the front pages. Even though recently 5 skeletons were discovered; that should have excited the world - but did not. Who was the woman over 60, the 35 and 45 years old men, the child and the other man?

They must have been important people, because the beautiful grave with mosaic floors, statues and different rooms, was far too large for the normal grave of those times. In the very ancient times Greeks could bury their dead as they pleased: they went through the towns in big processions trying to gather as big a crowd as possible, hired people to lament loudly and the graves were built as big as money could afford.

But in the 6th century BC the Athenian statesman Solon made laws to reduce the noise of funerals so that public life was no longer disturbed and graves could not surpass a building that could be built within 3 days by ten workers (which seems to me to still be quite a building, but I guess that Amphipolis would have needed more than 3 days of building). Since then graves became more simple, with standing gravestones or pillars (stele) pictured with the deceased.

Around that same time the tradition of funerals arose that was also adopted by the Romans: preparing the body at home (prothesis), the procession to the grave yard (ekphora), the burial and then there was a small party at home (perideipnom) to thank all the people that participated at the funeral.
Nowadays this has not changed that much: the deceased is made ready for the bier, the open coffin is taken to the graveyard in a small procession, the burial takes place and is followed by a small gathering home or in a cafenion for the family and friends.

Ancient Greeks sometimes buried their dead with their slaves, women and/or horses; pets also have been found in some graves. Later it became only things the dead might need for their travel to Hades, the underworld. Besides food, a coin (obol) was placed in the mouth, to pay the ferryman Charon who has to take the dead over the river Styx to Hades. Nowadays it's only flowers that are thrown in the coffin.

Once buried at the graveyard, you are not allowed to stay for too long. To save space the Greek State says that a buried person has to be removed from the grave after 3 years. The bones are washed with wine and given to the family or placed in a local ossuary. Which sometimes can be an honour;  there are some famous ossuaries in the world where they make pure art out of the bones. In the Czech town of Sedlec there is an ossuary where you find beautiful lamps, candlesticks and other decorations all made of bones. In the little Portuguese towns of Alcantarilha, Evora en Pechão the local churches have chapels built with walls of bones. Should the dead person no longer have any family, or is just simply forgotten, the bones are thrown on a big heap or simply destroyed.

There is a superstition that when a corpse is dug up, the bones must be white and clean. When not, it is believed that the person had a life in sin. Or even worse: it could be a vampire! There are graves found in Mytilini in Lesvos that became famous as those of vampires.  People were so afraid that vampires would resurrect that they drove huge pins through bodies in the coffin (see: The island of Dracula!).

You would think that in Greece cremation would be encouraged due to shortage of burial space. In ancient Greece cremation was as normal as was burial in the earth. There even was a time that it was an honour for soldiers to be cremated and many heroes of the Trojan war were this way rendered to ashes. It was in fact the Greeks who introduced cremation into Europe, but since the Orthodox Church rules over Greece cremation is highly forbidden. If you wanted to be cremated, you lost your membership of the church. In 2006 however the government decided that cremation was no longer illegal. But, to date, there is no crematorium in Greece and people who want to return to ashes have to travel to other countries like neighbouring Bulgaria.

It are hard times in Greece and the number of suicides are fast on the rise. Already in the first month of this new year three people took their lives here on the island. Even though the Orthodox Church forbids suicide and per case judges if the deceased person should be allowed to have a proper farewell. I do hope that the Church will consider the crisis sufficient reason to allow that a suicide is still worthy of burial.

On January18th, Giorgos Giannakos died of pneumonia and he is going to be greatly missed in Molyvos. This dear friend loved to go into nature to gather horta or mushrooms. He knew every fish in the Aegean and even in Africa, he was a soulmate of the sea. It did not came as a surprise that he opted to be cremated and so his last journey will be to Bulgaria. When his ashes are returned to Molyvos, they will be scattered over the largest grave of the world: the sea. Goodbye, Giorgos!

Beyond the sea, beyond the sea,
My heart is gone, far, far from me;
And ever on its track will flee
My thoughts, my dreams, beyond the sea.

Beyond the sea, beyond the sea,
The swallow wanders fast and free:
Oh, happy bird! were I like thee,
I, too, would fly beyond the sea.

Beyond the sea, beyond the sea,
Are kindly hearts and social glee:
But here for me they may not be;
My heart is gone beyond the sea.

(Thomas Love Peacock)

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

January 7 – Happy New year

(Snow in Anemotia; photo: Takis Xatzidiakos)

The New Year presented Lesvos with a thick layer of snow; especially in the higher regions and the mountains where it was plentiful. It got Agiasos renamed Small Switzerland: even without snow this little mountain village is picturesque, but with a layer of snow it is like an Alpine paradise and photographers can’t get enough of it. I also saw pictures of Anemotia in the snow, nearly as beautiful as Agiasos.

The first winter I spent on Lesvos was also pretty cold and had mainly lots of sleet. As soon as the snow whirled down, all the villagers came out to see the spectacle: snow in Molyvos is very rare they said. However the next winter, in 2004, was even worse: you couldn’t count the snow falls anymore and Molyvos coloured white more than once. I then concluded that Greeks must have bad longterm memory, because they pretended the snow was very special, but I had then seen snow two winters running. There was so much snow that even Eftalou and her beaches were white and of course nobody claimed to ever have seen that before.

I must admit that since then winters have become a lot milder. Since then I have not seen snow in Eftalou. Even though the highest peaks of the island, Mt Lepetymnos and Mt Olympus have, now and then, gathered some snow, last winter they remained green. And whilst Agiasos once or twice has turned into a Christmas postcard, it was never for long, nor as beautiful as this year.

It is clear that you cannot trust Greek winters. On any one date temperatures can vary immensely. Take for example New Years Day. In 2010 temperatures reached 23 ºC and in 2007 they went down to minus 7ºC. Last New Years Day the thermometer barely reached 3 ºC and last few days it has descended slowly to below 0, so that in many places - even at the seaside – there were frozen water flacks and many broken water pipes.

Low temperatures do not have to be a problem. What’s really unbearable is the windchill. At the beginning of this year a wind from the north turned into a nasty storm and made being outside nearly impossible. And this Voreas keeps on blowing his icecold Siberian breath over the island: what a chill!

Personally the new cold year surprised me with a nasty flu and so I did not enjoy all the beautiful sights with the snow nor did I go for a walk in the snow. Buried deep into a warm bed yesterday my thoughts were in the harbour of Molyvos (and all over Greece), where Epiphany was celebrated. The priests, while most of the villagers were present, blessed the sea. During these kind of celebrations everyone dresses up and from deep under my pile of blankets I could feel them shivering in the almighty cold. The low temperatures, feeling even lower due to the wind, did not prevent a group of boys from standing ready in bathing suits to dive into the water, looking for the cross which the priest throws into the sea. Not even a mighty Ice Queen can halt this tradition.

Armed with a hot water bottle at the feet and hundreds of Kleenex around my head I have lots of time to muse about this New Year. Just like the weather reports that cannot get rid of the cold, the political barometer also tends to storm. The news of the attack at Charlie Hebdo (the French satirical magazine that I used to read when living in France, but for years now lost sight of) hit my bed like a heavy earthquake. I was wondering if this magazine would have already prepared for next month a special issue about Grexit, a Greece without the euro or Europe without Greece. So I slumbered away into a world where the drachma would re-appear.

I dreamt about a procession of strangely dressed people, straight out of a Jeroen Bosch painting, who swarmed through the narrow and snowy streets of Agiasos. In each street more people gathered. They merrily waved with big piles of drachmas and started to make a fool of the Greek Gods. Their behaviour became more and more obscene and their screaming louder until the village and the snow disappeared because of the huge congregation of people and everything became a pretty straggly gruel.

In a few weeks the Carnival will start and for the Greeks this means the opportunity to satirize everything they do not like in life: the Greek carnival are The days of Satire, because on those days nothing will be spared, even the Holy Church. Beautiful Agiasos is especially known for its incisive political satire. And I am sure there will be lots of laughter this year during carnival, because the worse life is in a country, the better the satire. And no Kalashnikov nor any other violence will prevent the Greeks from this great carnavalesque criticism.

The best wishes for 2015

(with thanks to Mary Staples)