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Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy.

By Juliet du Boulay.

Juliet du Boulay in 1980. Photograph by Edwin Mickleburgh.

THE SUBJECT OF THIS book is the imaginative world of an Orthodox Christian village in Greece, and specifically the cosmological, religious and moral imagination associated with the characteristic forms of its life. The pattern of this life, formed for the most part by villagers living directly on the fruits of their own labour in their fields and forests, was the subject of my previous book, Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village, (1) and the present book aims to reveal the inner world which corresponds to that outer world.

To become aware of the religious imagination in subsistence villages of this kind in Europe involves engaging with a living reality which is often only seen at a distance, through the prism of debates which remain very much alive in the religious history of the West. With a Greek village this is particularly the case: Greece has remained to many the mother of the western world, whether as the first source of free, rational thought or as the source of the Greek language in which the New Testament was first written. And for this reason western preoccupations with Greece have shaped perceptions of the Greek imagination in at least three distinct ways.

FIRST, IN THE NINETEENTH century, European Hellenists saw Greece as the birthplace of reason, the heir to classical antiquity; they formed the notion of a self-governing Greek nation state, destined to rise from the ashes of Ottoman oppression and recreate appropriate institutions of free speech and democracy. These lovers of classical antiquity liked to see the traditions practised in the villages almost as an earthy rationality in contrast to Christianity, admiring, for example, the bleak realism of Greek death practices even though at times they were moved to condemn aspects of them as at best magical and at worst destructive. (2) From the folklore industry generated by this perspective, and from some fine historical and ethnographic studies too, (3) the notion grew up that the Greek villages, at any rate as they existed before the flight to the towns, were a repository of thinly-veiled pre-Christian or non-Christian ways of thought—a proof of their classical pedigree.

This way of looking at the religious imagination is associated with the modern period in the West, with its strong distinction between rational and magical thinking, where what is not explicitly reasoned is by definition illusory. Given impetus by the rationalizing tendencies of Protestantism, and later by proselytizing atheists, (4) this distinction continues to surface in some historical accounts as well, such as in those which continue to portray the peasantry of the European middle ages as ‘magical’ thinkers who used fragments of older thought forms on which the medieval Church is thought to have had little impact. (5)

With time though, European Hellenism has generated opposing evaluations, which point instead to the Byzantine and Ottoman inheritance of Greece, encapsulated in a term which resounds with subtle connotations of both—Romiosýne (Ρωμιοσύνη), the historical experience of the Romaíoi (Ρωμαίοι, sing. Ρωμιός), the former people of the Eastern Roman Empire. The associations of this term under the Ottomans—reflecting the way in which these people learned to cope with their subjection using a varied repertoire including secrecy, lies, braggadocio and trickery—have gained a new lease of life in a view that sees Greece as possessing not only the institutions of a modern European nation state, and the professional identities which go with them, but also often a contrary identity. This contrary identity is resistant to Europeanism and is kept secret among one’s own familiars, protected by lies, jokes, tricks, irony and plays upon words—a Romiosýne like that of Ottoman days which, coexisting uneasily with the European values that dominate public life, is deviously asserted in encounters with others, especially with strangers and with institutions. (6) In the villages this perspective has drawn particular attention to the individualistic and competitive behaviour of men, to such things as their blasphemy and their irreverence towards public organizations, their games with auguries and competitive stealing. (7)

This view of the Greek imagination has affinities with postmodern currents of thought in the West. From the 1930s onward, closer encounters with other cultures have been making the whole notion of magical thinking problematic and have encouraged an increasing openness to symbolic languages. Between the wars, social anthropologists working among the varied cultures of the British Empire had already found themselves at the limit of modernist assumptions, and they began to draw attention to other forms of rationality even in African ideas about witchcraft. (8) As a consequence, which was further stimulated in the last few decades by widespread cross-cultural encounters in cosmopolitan cities, a second way of seeing religion has emerged in reaction to modernism which recognizes a variety of alternative rationalities, and, correspondingly, a variety of alternative ways in which individuals may thread together a self-made identity. The individualism of this postmodern sense of identity is indeed perhaps its chief distinguishing mark. Individualism and competitive choice of lifestyles permeate the market for religious experience which goes under the name of the ‘new age’, just as they permeate the growing fashion for agnosticism. And the implication that both are a lifestyle choice undermines any sense of belonging to a greater whole.

BOTH THESE WESTERN PERSPECTIVES on the Greek religious imagination have drawn attention to a part of the reality; but if the Hellenist view was too narrowly focussed on the Greece of antiquity, so too, in a different fashion, has been the postmodern alertness to the disenchantment with western ways which is a facet of the term Romiosýne. Another great part of Romiosýne is the Byzantine legacy of the Orthodox Christian faith, whose symbols and thought forms are embedded throughout the culture, and Greeks may resist the ethos of the modern European state not only from individualism or scepticism, but also from an Orthodox vision of society. (9) Studies in Greek literature, especially poetry, by writers such as Zissimos Lorenzatos and Philip Sherrard, set a pattern establishing the influence of Orthodox as well as classical symbolism on the Greek poets. (10) Positive revaluation of the Christian influence on the Byzantine heritage had begun in the 1930s with Steven Runciman’s Byzantine Civilisation, (11) and it continued with Sherrard’s historical and theological treatise The Greek East and the Latin West, (12) and with the history of the contemporary Greek nation state which the anthropologist John Campbell and Sherrard later co-authored. (13) Ethnographic studies, too, have increasingly noticed the influence of Orthodoxy on Greek popular culture; and for this they are deeply indebted to the vision of their first exponent, John Campbell, for he not only achieved the classic study of patronage, economics and kinship among the Sarakatsani, (14) but he also perceived a whole range of imaginative elements, such as the sacred ties between shepherds and their sheep, the symbolic structure of relations within the household, the sense of release felt after the Easter service, the nature of the blood, moving as a ‘mysterious and intelligent force’ binding people together. In this way he was the pathfinder, and provided an incomparable base for those who came after him. More recently aspects of church practice (15) and church ritual, (16) pilgrimage centres (17) and monasteries (18) have been described, and monastic teaching has been extensively documented; (19) and even in the more elusive arenas of city, village and mountain pasture, distinctive Orthodox conceptions, for example of the angelic and diabolic worlds, (20) of time and memory, (21) of women’s role and the use of household space, (22) of the sacramental quality of substances like wheat, wine and oil, (23) and of the relation between man and the land (24) and man and the natural world, (25) have been found largely intact and persisting.

These observations reflect a sense that in Greece the religious imagination has been particularly rich and influential because it informs the whole culture and not merely the lives of individuals; and an awareness of this power of the religious influence in shaping civilization generally has reawakened in the West. The so-called ‘clash of civilisations’, (26) suggested as the new face of the world order after the Cold War and debated as a possible element in the events of 9/11 and after, has caused many people to reappraise the way in which the deep levels of a culture continue at a conscious or unconscious level to carry the thought forms of the faith which created it. This recognition is a return to a view which has always had its adherents: the celebrated religious autobiography of Thomas Merton, (27) for instance, records the influence on him of a childhood spent amid the Christian symbols and structures of an old French town. And more recent ethnographic evidence has confirmed the deep Catholic symbolism still present in the life patterns of many western European communities. (28) In the same way, the transition from the medieval to the early modern period in western Europe has been reappraised, overturning the modernist view and revealing in the thought of the peasantry a deep enculturation of Catholic symbolism which had been overlooked. (29)

These discoveries of long continuities in symbolic elements of Greek, and more generally of European, culture have given fresh relevance to my original preference for centering this book on the whole round of life in a single community, and for exploring the varied symbolism by which the community makes sense of that life. And at the same time the religious grounding found in many of these continuities has endorsed a question which the book increasingly set before me as it developed—the question, how far Orthodox Christianity has provided a central, coherent set of those symbols. This second issue is native to the way Greeks see themselves, whether Orthodoxy is a past from which they wish to free themselves, or one which they take as a matter of course as their own, or one which they long to make more fully present in aspects which have been lost. But these Orthodox Christian roots cannot be explored without also encountering those pre-Christian ideas which others have noticed previously, or those sceptical ways of combining and playing with all such notions, often prompted by the patterns of individual competition and self-assertion already referred to; and since these other aspects of the culture are part of a living, contradictory whole, I have also tried to clarify how they relate to the Orthodox understanding of things, so as to provide as complete a picture as is possible, in the space available, of the Greek religious imagination as I found it within the varied aspects of one community.

THESE QUESTIONS I ATTEMPT to answer through evidence from the community described in my Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village. My first period of living in Ambeli lasted from autumn 1966 to spring 1968; then in autumn 1970 I returned to the village for just under two more years, until summer 1972, to engage on a follow-up study. This type of community has a particular value for the issues explored here: the imaginative world I recorded over these six years belongs to a time when many Greek villages, like Ambeli, were still vibrant working communities living almost entirely off their own land. Globalizing influences were discernible, but minimal, and the rich interlayering of folk beliefs and practices with ecclesial customs and precepts made it a place of extraordinary interest for studying the local understanding of religion and cosmology.

In this comparison of local with ecclesial understandings, my guide to the Church’s thinking has been chiefly the Orthodox liturgy. Orthodoxy is known and experienced by the villagers primarily in the visual and verbal symbolism of their liturgical life, which provides a much richer and more authentic touchstone for their faith than conventional dogmatic summaries can provide, though I refer to these, and to some relevant writings of the eastern Fathers of the Church as well. This liturgy of the Church—a term which I use to include all its offices, not just the Divine Liturgy which is the eucharist itself—is the work of early Christian communities, the authors being in many cases little known, though they clearly used not only the words of Scripture in extraordinary richness and profusion but also the words of authors in the patristic tradition who are felt to speak directly out of their experience of God, and are often described as theologians in this sense. Despite the gap between liturgical Greek and village language, this incomparable treasury is a living part of the experience of the Greek villages (as it is of every part of the Orthodox world), whether it has become known to them through immediate knowledge of the services and explanation by the priests, or whether it has penetrated the culture of the people in such a way as to have become, over hundreds of years, part of the oral tradition. The comparison of village imagery with liturgical imagery has a recent precedent; and the systematic use of the comparison which has been attempted here has proved a revealing method for answering the questions of this book, and it is central to its conclusions. (30)

The circumstances which led me to explore the Orthodox liturgy explain why the reflections which I began to make on my material, at a time when the postmodern phase in western thought was at its height, happen now to coincide with the new questions which have recently arisen about religion in the western world. The first draft of several chapters of the book was written using data from fieldwork only, and the book was well under way when, in 1981, I was disabled by a complex spinal problem. For some years after this, writing a book was more than I could handle, though detailed working out of various intricate and difficult questions that were beginning to emerge from my material became possible with the help of a hand held tape recorder and a typist, and I produced a number of articles over that period which were published in anthropological journals.

Then in the 1990s, a new light began to be cast on my material by experience of the Orthodox Church. I had been received into the Church in 1968, between my two periods of fieldwork, but in Greece my comprehension of the liturgy in the village churches had been seriously hampered by my ignorance of the high language of the Greek Church, though there was much in the action of the liturgy that made sense to me on a level deeper than words. In this context it is relevant to say that Church Greek was a difficulty also for the villagers who did not understand word for word what was being said and needed the Gospel of the day to be explained to them by the priest; but they nevertheless knew where they were as the liturgy progressed, and responded spontaneously to the layers of meaning they perceived in it at each stage, and were deeply focussed in the course of it.

In the village, therefore, my own grasp of the liturgy was largely through their intuitions, and with much less knowledge, and this continued for some time to be the case. It was not only in Greece that my ignorance of Church language hampered my understanding of the Orthodox texts, but in England also, for in those days Orthodox parishes, when they did not celebrate in Church Greek, celebrated almost exclusively in Church Slavonic. However, when my husband and I became involved with the start of a small Orthodox community in our early years in Scotland we began to celebrate in English, and from those beginnings a new world opened up, revealing the relationships lying between great areas of folk belief on the one hand, and the insights of the Orthodox Church on the other. Some of these relationships I had already sensed: asymmetric patterns of giving without reward had emerged as important during my first period of field work, and during my return visit in the early 1970s the dance pattern had begun to appear as a constant theme, later linking in with the same pattern in the liturgy; but the number and detail of the correspondences between the life of the people and the liturgy of the Church only began to dawn on me in the 1990s, though they have been developing ever since.

THE INTERPRETATION OF MY material which has resulted from this experience can be compared with the purely anthropological interpretations, freshly made on my fieldwork alone, which I published in the 1980s through to the early 1990s. These are listed in the bibliography. A few small differences are marked in the notes; but otherwise the interpretation of the village material is substantially the same. Differences arise only from the much broader perspective taken here, which requires additional distinctions to be made about the Christian or other origins of village material, but chiefly imparts to it a heightened sense of the spiritual and symbolic heritage from which it springs.

A deep participation in the life of the Orthodox Church is something which few academics in the West, even those closely involved in observing and studying Greek culture, feel called to engage in; indeed, many would shy away from it, feeling perhaps that it might compromise their academic objectivity. But anyone who observes life by participating in it, as social anthropologists have always done, must feel that such an avoidance is a little paradoxical, and that many connecting links in Greek culture might well be more easily seen with a mind sensitive to the formative ideas of the Greek Orthodox Church. For those who do not themselves, for whatever reason, participate in the life of the Orthodox Church, therefore, I offer here what is at once a view from an insider’s experience, and a view from the discipline of social anthropology; and as chance and the circumstances of biography would have it, this combination of experience has become apposite to our sharpened contemporary awareness that broad cultural regions of the world have different ways of seeing things, and can contribute to the question of how far the forms taken by Orthodox cultures are shaped by their religious origins.

For all that Greece is so much seen as the mother of the western world, modern studies of the Greek world are not always well understood in the West. Among other problems, there is a potential among readers from western confessions for misunderstanding the Christian history of Greece, though I believe that, when it is rightly read, there is also a potential for their recapturing their own history within it. It became apparent, for example, as I wrote this book, that in the various streams of tradition that had fed into what the villagers of Ambeli called ‘the old mind’ (τὸ παλιὸ μυαλό), there were differing world views available, running alongside one another and intersecting and clashing at various points. This was a culture with very ancient roots which necessarily included choices other than Christian ones, even if the main frame was by that time drawn from Christianity. The drama of village life lies in the vividness with which people perceive these different traditions of thought, how they choose between them, and how the choices work out for good or for ill; and this is why it is so easy to see a variety of different influences in the villages—the classical past, the Orthodox inheritance, the distrust of public institutions which goes back to the Ottomans, and the competitive juggling with all these ways of seeing which is a part of village repartee.

CHRISTIANITY HAS PLAYED A complex part in its contact with the villages. Initially the Church began by opposing the rural or ‘village’ conception of the world (‘pagan’ originally meant simply ‘of the villages’), seeing it as something in which the divine was presented as polymorphous, chaotic and conflicting, in much the same way as the world of nature appears to be in its immediate impact on the senses. From this perspective some western readers may begin with a superficial impression that village Orthodoxy is still battling with residual memories of paganism. There are points where this is true in Greece, as it is everywhere, but judging that a custom is inconsistent with Christianity is not as simple as may first appear, since the Church’s judgments are graduated. In general it can be said that there are areas of belief which have become accepted as a folk expression of the living tradition, such as not doing handwork on the eves of saints’ days, areas with which the Church co-exists while withholding approval, such as belief in nereids, which the Church rejects in the sense that it redefines nereids as a species of demon, and areas—in particular the use of short incantations known as yítia (dialect for γητειές) or spells—where popular practices avowedly defy ecclesiastical injunctions. At the extreme lie those practices, perceived by both villagers and Church alike as powered by ‘demonic energy’, which involve manipulation of forces to harm others, in particular the appeal to witchcraft. Recent scholarly writing on Greece has drawn attention to these liminal aspects of the culture. (31) But for the most part, the formative influence of the Church has concentrated on building an architecture of Christian meanings which could embrace, unify and transform the fragments of old cultures that live on in Greece wherever they are not directly in contradiction with the Christian message; and a representative picture will focus more on this broad phenomenon, as I do here, than on more extreme instances like witchcraft.

Thus, while in many of these areas the Church was contending with varying levels of what it saw as erroneous belief, it was also engaged in a great enterprise of unifying the divine and natural worlds in a new vision of creation, and this accounts for the large areas where village experience of the natural world has integrated easily with liturgical and theological reflection within the Church. This cosmic vision is already described by St Paul in a passage which holds the germ of this enterprise fully formed. (32) The architecture of this vision was especially comprehensive in the Greek East, and in the vision of theologians like Dionysius ‘the Areopagite’, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas, but it was not limited to the East and something of it penetrated every corner of life in the mediaeval world both East and West. (33) In the West in late mediaeval and early modern times, this vision was disrupted by deliberate separation of thought about the natural world from thought about the divine world—a separation which has created the fragmented and desacralized western cosmos of the present day.

Nevertheless in Greece, partly because of Greece’s 400-year occupation by the Turks and its resulting isolation from the cultural changes in Europe, the vision has continued until very recently with undiminished immediacy. From this point of view many western readers may have a sensation that in the cosmos of village Orthodoxy they are coming home to a more ancient Christian understanding.

Even within the Christian framework in the culture, however, there are choices. Greek culture is full of what have been called ‘contested identities’, (34) belonging to subcultures within the whole, and while some of these (the subcultures of prostitutes, for example, or of the hashish dens (35)) are seen as outside the Christian framework, other conflicts between subcultures occur also within its positive values. One such conflict is that between the monastic and the married life. (36) Other choices, mentioned in this book, involve the tensions set up, for instance, between the duty of preserving the ‘strength’ of the house and that of generosity to others, and between the obligation to observe saints’ days as days of rest, and the demands of the household and of daughters who need dowries. These oppositions, however, though they create certain ambivalences, are ultimately reconciled within the Christian paradigm.

WITH ALL THIS ROOM for choice and contradiction, therefore, this book does not attempt any firm dogmatic separation of orthodox and heterodox elements. Rather, I try to portray the particularities of the villagers’ own images of the sacred while presenting alongside them liturgical material which is universal in Orthodox practice. Of course not every person in such a community embodies this tradition without distortion, and in fact the freedom to make subversive choices is an indispensable part of the process by which each generation of the community learns how to live within the whole communal understanding. However, in the overall direction of such a community and of the symbolism with which it lives it is, I believe, not difficult to recognize the extent to which it is an accurate reflection of Orthodox tradition.

These comments have been for those who have some religious or theological interest in the themes of this book, but there remain issues of interpreting Greek religious thought for readers who come with little previous knowledge or sympathy. First there is the difficulty today that Christianity, because it is associated with the past, may also be associated for them with power structures in which masters ruled servants, men ruled women, and nation or empire ruled all. Many people today seem unaware that Christianity from the beginning sought to soften and replace all these structures, saying, in the words of St Paul, that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’, (37) and the struggle against these structures has continued in Christianity with some success up to the present day. But at each stage of the history of this struggle, many of the forms of the society of that time have been accepted as current realities which could only be transformed slowly, and could not immediately be overthrown without worse consequences. In Greek peasant villages the distinction between these brutal realities and the vision of the faith is sharp, but both perspectives are found alongside each other in their language and symbolism, and a casual reader may be deceived into supposing that the villagers do not see the contradictions. It is important therefore to understand that the dialogue between these opposed viewpoints is crystallized in the village accounts of paradise and the fall, and that this dialogue is an inner presupposition of Greek culture and of the Orthodox faith—one which has shown a capacity to sustain realism along with transcendent vision in a way which simple utopianism would find hard to match.

This is illustrated in the position of women in the villages, which has been governed by circumstances that from a modern western perspective are harsh (although less commonly perceived is the degree to which the position of men is harsh too), and this is explained in village life by the story of Eve. But readers who are unfamiliar with Orthodox thought may not appreciate at first that this story is only one of two poles of thought, only one aspect of a paradox well understood by villagers and expressed in the story, told me by a village woman, of Kassiane, a young girl questioned by the emperor’s son who was looking for his match in marriage. ‘From one woman came all evil’, said the emperor’s son, alluding to Eve, to be answered by Kassiane with an allusion to Mary: ‘And from one woman came all good’. (38) This story makes clear that Greek villages cannot be understood without taking into account the extraordinary significance of the Orthodox title Mother of God, the Panaghía (Παναγία) or All-holy One, a title which especially as Panaghía is found on the lips of these Greek villagers in every kind of circumstance. To unravel the symbolic implications of these phrases is part of the task of this book, for they are inseparable from the understanding also of the nature of the Orthodox cosmos, and the Orthodox view of life and death.

Evia (Euboea).

A FINAL QUESTION REMAINS as to why I write in a style which is both particular and general, and how far the findings of this book can in fact be generalized.

Unless otherwise stated or referenced the book relies solely on fieldwork material gathered in the northern part of the island of Evia (Euboea)—with very few exceptions specifically from the village of Ambeli—during the periods mentioned earlier. The time and place of the data are thus highly particular, and I believe that the concreteness of the images provided by this particularity is vital to the invocation of the way of thought. Theoretical generalization is removed from place and moment by abstraction, and so inevitably stands at a certain distance from the people from whom the data were derived. Ethnographic description on its own, on the other hand, is limited to these particularities, and opens itself to being relegated to a moment of history which has no abiding significance. In this book I wanted to write somewhat differently, in such a way as to reveal the enduring linkages in patterns of thought found within an ethnographic cross-section taken from one particular moment. I have found myself seeking to depict a particular Orthodox Christian community in such a way as to reveal, through its particularities, its essential nature, and through this to throw light on the essential nature of similar communities. This nature is defined principally by the people’s way of seeing the world and responding to it both in work and in symbol—in liturgy—for both overlap in the vision of the sacred in this kind of community: the work of the liturgy and the liturgy of work are parallel activities.

The attempt to convey both the particular and the prototype simultaneously is helped by comparing village talk with liturgical texts, as I have done throughout. But I also made a stylistic decision that I would deal in this introduction with topics otherwise omitted, and would eliminate from the main text the kinds of detail which would tend to localize and parochialize the evidence. Hence I have not mentioned myself as observer, and, because my informants are speaking—and very often see themselves as speaking—less as individuals than as people passing on an ancient tradition, I do not cite them individually, even though their individuality emerges with every utterance. Again, in order to reduce distraction from the integrity of the world view described, I have reduced references to comparative material to a minimum, and have omitted for the most part ethnographic variants in other parts of Greece. Most significantly, I have written in the present tense. The reason for this lies in the widespread and long-lasting nature of the thought patterns described, and in the fact that where these patterns correspond to patterns in the Orthodox liturgy, they remain part of a contemporary world view which is retained at the heart of the Orthodox faith, even while many of the agricultural and cosmological implications of that world view may have been reinterpreted.

A further stylistic problem for some may also be my use of ‘man’ to refer to humankind. The problem does not arise in Greek or the Latin-based languages: in Greek a man and a woman are both ánthropos; in Latin, homo. Thus this problem occurs particularly in languages with Teutonic roots. However, the modern alternatives either force English writers into the clumsy s/he, or abstractions such as ‘humankind’, and my purpose in writing in the way I have— using the particular to stand for the general—is better served by the older usage in which ‘man’ was acknowledged to have two senses, one without gender and corresponding to the Greek ánthropos, and the other corresponding to the Greek ándras, a person of the male sex.

THE ONLY EXCEPTIONS I have made in the overall style of writing I have chosen are in the case of the moon landings, whose date is relevant because they were a critical catalyst in exposing the village cosmology, and in the case of local saints where local affections expressed in their veneration are a deep principle of the culture. Because such saints are more likely to be perceived in the West as hagiographic stereotypes rather than as real individuals, I have given concrete historic particulars of some of the holy figures of northern Evia as examples of local saints, ubiquitous in the Orthodox world, to whom the people turn, and whom they regard as peculiarly their own. This apart, though, the emphasis is on the generality and durability of the particular ideas and practices I describe in Ambeli.

To recognize the enduring quality of much that I describe is not, however, to ignore the fact that change has always been a part of village life, and indeed so many changes have happened since I was in Ambeli in the 1960s and 1970s that much of the way of life recounted here can no longer be found. Earlier changes begin with the village itself, which had been built around 1800 by families who escaped there from a lower village which had been devastated by the Turks. Before this some of the big families were said to have come in a boat from the north, perhaps Pelion. These upheavals, however, dramatic though they were, did not necessitate a deep change of values but simply a reinterpretation of ancient themes in the new situation. Similarly, most of the twentieth-century wars and economic shifts which I chronicled in my first book, although affecting farming strategies and bringing prosperity or poverty to the people, did not alter the deeper ideas and values which I describe here; and even when young men and women began emigrating permanently from the village during the 1960s, threatening its demographic viability in the longer term, those who had by then married and settled in the village continued to retain the traditional mentality which made sense of their way of life. Before I left the village in 1972 though, a different kind of change had begun to escalate. This process also I touched on in my former book, yet the significant element was not the advent of change per se, but of a kind of change which began to relegate the people’s sense of who they were from a centre in themselves and in their own village to a centre in an outside world. This outside world, which was more and more making the villagers’ choices for them, was one which defined worth and centrality in completely new terms, and found the villagers wanting—saw them, with a supreme irony, as ‘far from God’.

A sign of this change which is relevant to the present book was that the villagers had become sensitive to the devaluing of their traditional cosmology by the literate outside world, and thus they were increasingly likely to be reticent about earlier beliefs and to refer to them as ‘lies’. This devaluing, of which significant agents were the young children with the crass literalism of their newly-acquired school knowledge, was already apt to lead, in conversations with older people about the cosmos, to such defensive pronouncements as, ‘the world is round like an orange’. The sense of embarrassment, almost of shame, about such topics, with which the older people began to be afflicted around the beginning of the 1970s, made details about the earlier cosmology surprisingly difficult to obtain. However, the moon landings from 1969 to 1972 created such a furore in the cafés among men both young and old, and such a stir in the houses, and there was so general a rejection of the American claims, that the subject became the issue of the time and for a period ‘the old mind’ became more accessible.

A second sign of the new unease was that the 1970s saw the beginning of the departure from the village of some of the settled married householders. In the autumn of 1971 a road was built, and with it came electricity, transport, machines. The chance to mechanize farming, which had already come to other mountain villages and was making Ambeli feel left out, was now available, and 1973 was the last year in which the use of animals for the threshing—insisted on by the old grandmother of one of the last conservative families as the right way to do things—was carried out. The road also brought the possibility of commuting to salaried work in the plains and of bringing a certain prosperity and a greater ease to village life. Yet in spite of these new possibilities of local work, the flight of working householders steadily gathered pace after I left, and in the course of the last thirty years has virtually eliminated the working basis of village life, leaving only a few ageing couples still gaining their livelihood from the village. Now, however, a fresh impetus is bringing a different sort of life to Ambeli: one or two newcomers from the towns have bought and renovated a village house as a weekend cottage, one new couple has arrived and settled permanently, old people return from their children’s homes elsewhere to spend the summer at ‘their own fire-side’, and the village has an appearance of prosperity with many of the houses being re-roofed and modernized by the children themselves, some of whom are returning to their once-deserted houses to use them as holiday homes.

This study thus took place at the end of a long period of stability in the patterns of thought I describe in this book, and on the verge of a great change—one occurring at that time throughout Greece. (39) It depicts the world shared by the married householders of the village, and still sustained there even as young single people were leaving. Most of the customs and beliefs discussed with these settled couples, as also with some of the young, were current during my residence in the village. Many I witnessed personally, though there are some which were described to me which had already lapsed, and to avoid misrepresentation I have identified these in an Appendix. But after I left, the departure of most of these couples was to make the village unsustainable as a centre of communal work, and thus starved of the people who in each generation could validate and create their communal thought patterns afresh in carrying out that work. Undoubtedly the memories they took with them have influenced their way of dealing with the Greek and foreign cities to which they went, but at the time when they began to go many younger people felt they had to catch up with a world that was leaving them behind, and many older people felt unequal to sustaining the culture I have described in this book, against the onslaught of a world constructed by global media, and with recourse only to cultural tools which they had not yet learned how to handle. How far they or their children have in their subsequent lives been able, using new skills in those tools, to adapt or recreate elements of the culture they grew up in, whether in whole or in part, is a story I have to leave to them or to others; but if this account gives them back any part of it, I will feel that I have not written in vain.

As for the generality of the thought patterns I describe, my avoidance, for the most part, of explicit reference to other evidence from Greek ethnography, which I have felt necessary for readability, creates a risk that superficial particularities will be taken as general where they are not. Thus it must be said that variety is of the essence in this culture: there are minor differences in the customs even between neighbouring villages, and people will firmly identify with their own way of doing things as opposed to the way that others do them—‘We take exception to that here.’ Differences also multiply with distance. For instance, the village of Ambeli is a Greek mountain village with inheritance of land through the male line and a pattern of marriage in which women move to live with their husbands, and this has given rise to a particular configuration of kinship and inheritance practices. However, in many of the Aegean islands the female line becomes more significant, and here these shifting elements will be arranged in a different pattern consistent with their reality. (40) But it is arguable that both societies will reveal, even though with different materials, the same underlying patterns constructed in accordance with the unchanging elements of their belief. Both will be recognizable as taking part in the same Orthodox tradition. Recently, I have tried to give an example of how such analysis can be supported by comparing the symbolism of everyday life in Ambeli with that of the Sarakatsan shepherds of northern Epirus, where in spite of sharp differences in communal imagery, a continuity can be shown with the same source texts of the Orthodox liturgy. (41)

AGAIN, THERE IS THE question of differences between rural and urban communities. The Christian tradition first spread within the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean, and the city—whether in Augustine’s City of God or in the symbolism of ‘The City’ (Constantinople) in the Greek East—became in some ways the paradigm of a Christian community. Philip Sherrard’s description of Constantinople from this perspective is full of insights, (42) and similar resonances have been found among the Asia Minor refugees, described by Renée Hirschon, (43) who were settled in Kokkiniá and other urban areas of Athens and throughout Greece after the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1923, and had sustained, throughout the emigration, a deep Orthodox tradition. Indeed, Constantinople as the Christian City has exercised a powerful nostalgia in Greek culture, although it has not always engendered wise politics. (44) It is true that there has been a long-standing tension between the people of the towns and those of the villages, the villagers feeling—for the most part correctly—that urban people patronize and look down on them, and at times countering this, in private, by robust comments and gestures which are not entirely polite. But it is probably fair to say that cities with a strong Orthodox tradition have also been cities which had a deep link with the surrounding countryside, and have had the images of village life deeply impressed in their way of thinking. Even now city people in Greece still refer to their patrídha (πατρίδα), their family village of origin, and return there on symbolic occasions; and with the growth of secularism, of which cities have become the chief dispensers, village Christianity has become in its turn prototypical. This means that it should be possible to find transpositions of village themes in the culture of the cities where faith remains alive. The monasteries and the intellectual centres have also been key elements in generating and preserving the tradition, and we could probably say also that an essential prerequisite of a deep Orthodox tradition is that it is not peculiar either to urban or to village life, either to the monastics or to the folk, but represents a level at which people in all walks of life and in all occupations understand each other’s experience as one. A great tradition seeks always to find what is universal in town and country, monastery and shepherd’s hut, seeking to make both aware of one another and of the part both play in the welfare of all. Rural Orthodoxy can offer to the cities the natural world and its symbols, while urban Orthodoxy can offer to the villagers its metaphysical and intellectual tradition.

The question then remains as to how far it is permissible to extrapolate from a book of this sort to the wider world beyond the Greek borders. Certainly those who have travelled in the Balkans will recognize some elements in this book, and this suggests that there may be certain common elements which will be found wherever the Orthodox tradition is found. Some of the aspects discussed may also have links with village life in Russia before the Revolution, if descriptions of nineteenth-century Russia are any guide. (45) Of course increasingly, as one moves further from the kind of village about which I have written, there are going to be more and more details which differ—the agricultural cycle, kinship patterns, staple foods, economic activities—but it is nevertheless likely that the way in which Orthodoxy fits these changing elements together is going to result in recognizable patterns at a deeper level. And it is possible, too, that the potential for comparison could be extended to the Christian world beyond Orthodoxy, for Orthodoxy is descended from the united Christianity of the first thousand years, and in Western Europe continuities with this world of the first thousand years of Christianity can be discerned in rural life till well after the Reformation. (46)

As to the extent to which the picture I have drawn can be extrapolated back in history, again I have to leave this question to those with more historical qualifications than I have. Charles Stewart has pointed to Orthodox images of the heavenly and demonic worlds which have remained constant from the fourth century AD to the present day. (47) Concurrences of village patterns of thought and practice with the Orthodox liturgy, and with some of the writings of the Church Fathers, are also a sign that many of the themes brought out in this book are ancient. Liturgists say the Orthodox liturgy was already by the fifteenth century substantially as it is now. (48) Examples are given in this book of village story and song which have come down from Byzantine times, like the story of Kassiane already quoted. And going even further back, it is not difficult even for an amateur to notice pre-Christian images in, for example, ideas about death. It is not unlikely that we are dealing here with what has been called the history of ‘la longue durée’, (49) but how much of this continuity has been preserved in the contemporary Greek and foreign cities to which villagers have gone, and whether and in what form it can be re-asserted, is a question which remains to be answered.

This point having been made, however, my focus as I wrote the book was not on how far it could be generalized, but on how deeply I could give expression to what I found in the village itself. My life in Ambeli gave me a direct and individual experience of what it is to live in such a community, and the wish to write about this for its own sake. I was the only foreigner in the community—was unmarried at the time—and I depended on the people for everything, not only for information about how they lived and what they believed and valued, but for those things without which any life there would have been impossible—hospitality, love, laughter, comfort and companionship. And nothing can replace for me the living experience of this way of life—the rapidity of the people’s voices with their soft Boeotian accent, the high-pitched torrent of invective against some erring child or hapless goat, the scent of pine smoke in the winter and the chill of the water under the plane tree in the summer, spring nights filled with the song of the nightingale and with the crowing of cocks and outbreaks of dogs barking, the September air pungent with dried herbs and rotting figs, the long walks over the mountain paths accompanied by the kaleidoscope of the people’s talk, the extraordinary charity of their acceptance of myself as a stranger in their midst, the winter evenings sitting with them in the light of the blazing fires and hearing the deep echoes in the drama of their discussions and reminiscences, their intuitions, their stories, their silences. At such times I would feel, as people in such communities do feel when their confidence is undamaged, that I, with them, was at the centre of the world. I hope that something of this experience can be conveyed to my readers.


Juliet du Boulay has an MA in English Literature and Language and a D.Phil. in Social Anthropology. After her first degree she worked on a newspaper in London for two years, but in 1961 she went to Greece and remained there, with some breaks, until 1973. During 1961-64 she travelled extensively in the villages in mainland Greece and Evia (Euboea), and also spent some months walking with a donkey in the mountainous areas of Western Crete. She returned to England to study social anthropology at Oxford, after which, in the period between 1966 and 1973, she lived chiefly in a mountain village of northern Evia, at first collecting material on the customs and institutions of the village, and then paying especial attention to the people’s cosmological and religious ideas. She is married to an Orthodox priest and is the author of Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village and Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village, to which this essay is an introduction. It appears in full exclusively in the Fortnightly Review. Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy is the the eighteenth publication in The Romiosyni Series, published by Denise Harvey (Publisher), 340 05 Limni, Evia, Greece. Republished by permission of the author.

NOTES:
(1) Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
(2) e.g. John Cuthbert Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910).
(3) Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974); Loring M. Danforth, The Death Rituals of Rural Greece (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).
(4) For a recent example see Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006).
(5) e.g. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971).
(6) Michael Herzfeld, Anthropology through the Looking-glass: Critical Ethnography in the Margins of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
(7) Michael Herzfeld, The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); ‘The Significance of the Insignificant: Blasphemy as Ideology’, Man (N.S.), 19 (1984), pp. 653–64.
(8) E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937).
(9) The chief theorist of post-Ottoman Romiosýne has also remarked on this recently: see Michael Herzfeld, ‘The Ethnographer as Theorist: John Campbell and the Power of Detail’, in Mark Mazower (ed.), Networks of Power in Modern Greece (London: Hurst, 2008), p. 153. This essay takes a hint from the work of Charles Stewart, who ‘has consistently and persuasively argued against the conceptual separation of church doctrine from folk practice in Greece’, and suggests that ‘Stewart’s argument should in turn lead us to look for doctrinal principles…and to ask how far those doctrines might determine the shape of social interaction.’
(10) Philip Sherrard, The Marble Threshing Floor: Studies in Modern Greek Poetry (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1956); Zissimos Lorenzatos, The Drama of Quality: Selected Essays (Limni, Greece: D. Harvey, 2000).
(11) Steven Runciman, Byzantine Civilisation (London: E. Arnold, 1933).
(12) Philip Sherrard, The Greek East and the Latin West: A Study in the Christian Tradition (London: Oxford University Press, 1959).
(13) John Campbell and Philip Sherrard, Modern Greece (London: Benn, 1968).
(14) J. K. Campbell, Honour, Family and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964).
(15) Lucy Rushton, ‘Religion and Identity in a Rural Greek Community’, D.Phil. thesis (University of Sussex, 1982).
(16) Margaret Kenna, ‘Icons in Theory and Practice: An Orthodox Christian Example’, History of Religions, 24 (1985), pp. 345–68; ‘Why does Incense smell Religious? Greek Orthodoxy and the Anthropology of Smell’, Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 15 (2005), pp. 52–70.
(17) Jill Dubisch, In a Different Place: Pilgrimage, Gender and Politics at a Greek Island Shrine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
(18) A. M. Iossifides, ‘Sisters in Christ: Metaphors of Kinship among Greek Nuns’, in Peter Loizos and Evthymios Papataxiarchis (eds.), Contested Identities: Genders and Kinship in Modern Greece (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), and ‘Earthly Lives and Life Everlasting: Secular and Religious Values in two Convents and a Village in Western Greece’, Ph.D. thesis (University of London, 1990).
(19) e.g. Kyriakos Markides, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 2001), and Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 2005).
(20) Charles Stewart, Demons and the Devil: Moral Imagination in Modern Greek Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
(21) Laurie Kain Hart, Time, Religion and Social Experience in Rural Greece (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992); Renée Hirschon, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
(22) Renée Hirschon, ‘Essential Objects and the Sacred: Interior and Exterior Space in an Urban Greek Locality’, in S. Ardener (ed.), Women and Space: Ground Rules and Social Maps (London: Croom Helm, 1981), pp. 72–88, and ‘Women, the Aged and Relgious Activity: Oppositions and Complementarity in an Urban Greek Locality’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies 1 (1983), pp. 113–29.
(23) Hart, Time, Religion and Social Experience.
(24) Margaret Kenna, ‘Houses, Fields and Graves: Property and Ritual Obligations on a Greek Island’, Ethnology, 15 (1976), pp. 21–34.
(25) Dimitris Theodossopoulos, ‘What Use is the Turtle? Cultural Perceptions of Land, Work, Animals and “Ecologists” in a Greek Farming Community’, Ph.D. thesis (University of London, 1997).
(26) Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (London: Simon and Schuster, 1996), and The Clash of Civilisations? The Debate (New York: Foreign Affairs, 1996).
(27) Thomas Merton, The Seven-Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948).
(28) Sandra Ott, The Circle of Mountains: A Basque Shepherding Community (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981); Joao de Pina-Cabral, Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve: The Peasant Worldview of the Alto Minho (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).
(29) Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400 – c. 1580 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992).
(30) For the recent precedent see Stewart, Demons and the Devil, Ch. 7. Such comparison presupposes the long-term stability of the Orthodox liturgy, for which see Robert Taft, The Byzantine Rite: a Short History (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1992). The chief source of variation in recent centuries has lain in the pattern of routine omissions or of transpositions in the sequence which is customary for practical purposes in particular places and periods. In some offices, shortened Greek versions have been in common use in village parishes, including during the period of the fieldwork described here, and in these cases the quotations chosen for translation have aimed to take this into account, and to mark it in a note. For consistency of style in the English translations, the style of the Festal Menaion and Lenten Triodion translations, which form the bulk of the material, and annotate Greek usage roughly contemporary with my fieldwork, has been the exemplar. In some particular rites of passage, matching this style has meant going to accessible English translations of Orthodox services in the Russian tradition which have worked from comparison with the Greek texts, but care has been taken to check that the translations correspond to Greek usage in any places where it might differ.
(31) Stewart, Demons and the Devil.
(32) Romans 8 : 19–23.
(33) C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964); Duffy, Stripping of the Altars; Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400–1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
(34) Loizos and Papataxiarchis (eds.), Contested Identities.
(35) Stathis Gauntlett, ‘Between Orientalism and Occidentalism: The Contribution of Asia Minor Refugees to Greek Popular Song and its Reception’, in Renée Hirschon (ed.), Crossing the Aegean: an Appraisal of the 1923 Compulsory Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2003).
(36) Iossifides, ‘Sisters in Life’ and ‘Earthly Lives’.
(37) Galatians 3 : 28.
(38) The origin of this story is the 10th c. Byzantine chronicler known as Georgius Monachus Continuatus, the bridegroom concerned being Theophilus (Byzantine Emperor AD 829–42). Versions of the story continue to this day to be circulated both by oral transmission and in popular pamphlets published by the Orthodox Church, for Kassiane (or Casia) became a nun and a celebrated hymnodist. I would like to thank Professor Paul Magdalinos for this reference.
(39) Roger Just has shown that the urban population of Greece became the majority for the first time in 1971: Just, A Greek Island Cosmos: Kinship and Community on Meganisi (Oxford: John Curry, 2000).
(40) Just, Greek Island Cosmos; Muriel Dimen and Ernestine Friedl (eds.), ‘Regional Variation in Modern Greece and Cyprus: Toward a Perspective on the Ethnology of Greece’, in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 268 (1976), pp. 1–465
(41) Juliet du Boulay, ‘Bread and Sheep: A Comparative Study of Sacred Meanings among the Ambeliots and the Sarakatsani’, in Mark Mazower (ed.), Networks of Power in Modern Greece (London: Hurst, 2008), pp. 209–30.
(42) Philip Sherrard, Constantinople: Iconography of a Sacred City (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).
(43) Hirschon, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe.
(44) Michael Herzfeld, Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology and the Making of Modern Greece (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982); Michael Llewellyn Smith, Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor 1919–1922 (London: Allen Lane, 1973).
(45) Vera Shevzov, Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of the Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). Even at the end of the Soviet period, atheist propaganda and forced changes in farming towards an industrial and collectivized model had not by the 1990s destroyed habitual practices in Russian villages which were associated with Orthodox and other aspects of their past, though in the absence in country areas of a fully revived Church, these changes had, curiously, reinforced a reconstruction of many practices as agrarian rituals or expressions of local loyalties. See Margaret Paxson, Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, and Bloomington: Indiana University, 2005).
(46) Duffy, Stripping of the Altars; Hutton, Rise and Fall.
(47) Stewart, Demons and the Devil.
(48) Taft, The Byzantine Rite.
(49) Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294–1324 (London: Scholar Press, 1978).

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