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Today’s my nameday

6 Dec

Saint_Nicholas_1550Russian icon of St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker (click)

Today’s the feast of St. Nicholas (on the Gregorian calendar — December 19th on the Julian Calendar, depending on what kind of Orthodox you are ethnically), the saint generally known in the East (and beautiful Bari, one of my favorite Italian cities) as the “Miracle-worker.”  But for me the coolest thing about St. Nick, and that’s the cause of his nauseating transformation into Santa Claus in the West, is that his miracles are deeply human and mundane and material, and actually just more good deeds than miracles: his most metaphysical, I guess, was his power to calm threatening seas; probably more to the point he prevents the execution of an accused criminal, following Christ’s example in opposing capital punishment or — my favorite — he quietly leaves three bags of gold, εν τω μέσω της νυχτώς, in the bedroom of three poor sisters who needed dowries to get married.  He didn’t preach or rail against the dowry system, like the moralist who thinks his ideological crusade is more important then the real needs of real people, who gets a hard-on from his preaching while others are truly suffering: for example, the schmucks who leave a hard-working waiter a card that says: “We don’t believe in tips; they’re exploitative, join our group at www…etc…” or like the assholes you hear in New York on the subway when a panhandler comes by and certain types go off on their “oh-I’ve-heard-that-story-before-get-a-job-you-probably-make-more-money-than-me” tirades, without thinking that if a man is reduced to begging, for whatever reason, he’s already been through hell enough and deserves your compassion.  A priest at my old parish in Whitestone, I remember years ago on this day, said in his sermon: “St. Nicholas is not one of our great theologian-intellectual saints, like the Cappadocians [though he apparently slapped someone at the First Oecumenical Council at Nicaea for saying something dumb about the Trinity…I think], or one of our warrior, defender-of-the-faith saints, like Demetrios or Mercourios or the Archangels.  More, he was a saint who always made sure that everyone under his pastorship had food to eat and a roof to sleep under.”  He was particularly venerated in the sea-faring islands of Greece, for obvious reasons (“Hagie Nikola, I implore you” sings the island girl with her sailor-man away, “carpet the seas with flowers…”) and is the patron saint of Russia.  In communist times the name still had some lingering Imperial/Romanov stigma attached to it and when I was there in the eighties, it seemed anachronistically charming to many Russians.  Now it seems there are significantly more young “Kolyas” and “Nikolays” everywhere.

Despite an almost erotic devotion to and obsession I’ve developed for St. Demetrios over the years — hard to resist a young Roman aristocrat in uniform with a pretty deep, homoerotic friendship as part of his martyrdom backstory — Nicholas is still my patron saint.  And he’s more than just important to me as saint himself, but because I love the Orthodox nameday tradition, which again varies from country to country.  Serbs have always observed a single clan nameday, the Slava, celebrating the saint on whose feast-day the family’s first ancestor supposedly converted to Christianity, a very ritualized and beautiful celebration and one of the many traditions that Serbs adhere to that makes them the Slavs that, more than any others, still have one foot in their pagan past; telling, also, to how important he is in the Orthodox world: the single largest group of Serbian clans celebrate St. Nicholas as their Slava patron.  Communism forced Russians to take their birthdays more seriously, and discouraged the celebration of the obviously religious nameday, but nineteenth-century Russian literature is full of nameday celebrations (Chekhov’s “Nameday Party,” and Tatyana’s nameday dance in Pushkin’s Onegin*), and as a semi-conscience remembrance of what the new Western-style celebration of birthdays replaced, the birthday-boy is to this day still called the “imeninets,” the “name-bearer.”

What I most love is that, among Greeks, your nameday is a day critical to your honor and reputation: it’s when you take friends out and treat them; it’s when people in small towns especially, but even some in Athens still, sit home in a house full of food and sweets and wait for everybody who has the right to — meaning every one they know essentially — and most likely will, drop by and wait for the the privilege of feeding them; most young Athenians today wait for an official invitation but massive group drop-ins are still common enough among the old-fashioned.  In smaller, provincial towns, when there was a death in the family, you used to have to put an ad in the paper saying: “Due to mourning, we won’t be accepting callers this St. Nicholas Day.”  In villages everybody just knew.  It’s a day when you make an artoklasia,  a “bread-breaking” offering and share sweetened and blessed loaves with your whole parish.  It’s a day when it’s your obligation to give and serve and prove your noblesse and not, as Western birthdays have become, a day when you sit around waiting for others to do for you or give you gifts.  Western, American, birthdays are only slightly less gross to me than the totally American ugliness of wedding and baby showers: “I’m getting married and/or I’m pregnant; so I’m having a party where you have to bring me things.”  And don’t even start me on bridal registries, where you tell people, not just that they have to bring you something, but what they have to bring you.

So: χρόνια μου πολλά…  And Многая Лета to other Nicholases everywhere.  Keep the tradition alive.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* Tatyana was not a popular name in Russia until Pushkin’s Onegin became the Bible and literary gold standard of modern Russian, and Russians took the deeply loved heroine into their hearts.  Only then did it become a widespread name and eventually, through her epic act of heroically soul-baring letter-writing probably, her nameday, January 12th or 25th — depending again on calendar — become the patron saint day of young students and scholars.

I’m registered at Amazon for my nameday

7 Dec

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The response to my attack on Western birthdays, Christmas presents, child-rearing and consumerismPhoto: Athens metro — ‘Today is the nameday of…’was terrible and swift.  All were from people infuriated, offended, mostly women (just stating a fact), and totally, entertainingly point-missing.  “What’s wrong with buying a present for a friend you appreciate and care for?”  “That was a bitter and mean post.”  “A birthday cake is a way to show a child you love him.”  And, no, I “obviously” don’t have children.  (Christmas and children, especially — since both were invented at the same time in the nineteenth-century — are a particularly pointed way to épater le bourgeois when you need to.)  People felt demeaned, ridiculed.

I felt bad.

And that made me think about it some.  And I said to myself: “Wait a second; P. and I didn’t have a $100,000 wedding; nobody ever got me a house-warming gift off a Crate & Barrel registry, neither when I inherited my father’s house or bought my new place; I’m not getting pregnant any time soon…”  And I began to see the logic behind Western-style asking for presents.  Specific ones.  I started to see the wisdom of white-folk…

And so I’m sending out my Amazon wish-list as my nameday registry.  I’ve pasted a few screenshots below of the stuff that I’d really like, but I’m also sending out the link to the whole list so that you have a greater variety of gift-giving options.  My nameday was yesterday December 6th, but you traditionally have 40 days to wish me well, so let’s say that goes for buying me a gift too.  If we take into consideration that Old Julian Calendar St. Nicholas isn’t till December 19th, then you have way into January to get me something.

Thanks in advance and hugs and kisses to all.

My wish list!

List 1

List 2

List 3

List 4

List 5

List 6

List 7

List 8

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Photo: Athens metro — “Today is the nameday of…”

3 Dec

IMG_0833In recent years — I don’t know how long — the Athens metro system has began to add a list of daily namedays to the signs on platforms that give passengers the date, time and weather — so they don’t forget to at least call or text and well-wish their friends and relatives.  A nameday, for those who could possibly still not know, is the feast day of the saint you were named after.  Above the weather, the sign in the photo, which I took back on October 21st, says: “Today is the nameday of: Artemios, Artemes, Artemis, Artemisia, Artemida, Gerasimos, Makes, Gerasimina, etc.”  It’s really different versions of two names — Artemis and, the most popular among them, the male Gerasimos, the patron saint of the Ionian island of Cephalonia — but the Orthodox calendar usually celebrates more than one saint on each day of the year, since it didn’t go through their files the way the Catholic Church did after Vatican II and remove from the calendar those saints whose miracles didn’t have the requisite scientific backing (……)

Saints’ days and namedays have come up on several occasions on this blog, probably the most detailled exposition of the tradition on my part is this post from last December: Today is my nameday,” from which there’s a money quote below in case you don’t want to wade through the whole text.

This is all a part of a very tender traditionalism that has taken hold of a segment of the Greek soul since the current economic and social crisis began, the kind of refuge a society is wont to take in comforting old forms of social behavior and interaction under such circumstances, but had begun before things hit rock bottom the way they have now; it had actually started to lift as soon the the heavy malakia of metapoliteuse thinking had started to wear off as early as the 90s: this term — metapoliteuse – is defined briefly in the first footnote of this post: “Careful what you wish for…Erdoğan and Ottoman Turkish” — but culturally included a rejection of all things Church-and-Orthodoxy-related as part of the reaction against the right-wing, the monarchy and the Church of Greece’s unforgivable support in the 60s and 70s for the junta that tormented Greece with its idiocy until it fell in 1974  (See much of Pamuk’s commentary on the much more radical spiritual vacuum in which the Turkish Republic’s anti-clericism left his own class in Turkey and that may be part of the state that society finds itself in today.)  I owe readers a post that will be called “The Perfect Metapoliteuse Idiot” to borrow the term and subject matter from Mario Vargas Llosa‘s book “Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot” which describes a sociological phenomenon and type startlingly similar to its Neo-Greek counterpart.

manual-del-perfecto-idiota-latinoamericano-de-atlantida-4387-MLA3538134950_122012-F

And so the nameday makes a comeback.  Not that the Western birthday celebration and its obnoxious gimme-gimme narcissism has not also taken root here; it has.  (And like everywhere else, no one thinks about what a baby learns about the world when a glowing piece of confectionery is shoved in front of his face and all the big, powerful adults in his life chant to him like he’s the emperor.)  But the nameday celebration, in which you give and, generally, don’t expect to receive, is still going strong.

(Let me make just one note here: the “traditionalism” of which I’m speaking has nothing to do with the invented, racist, cruel Neo-Traditionalism of Golden Dawn and its supporters; theirs is the obnoxious militaristic “tradition” — including its revolting Spartan/Leonidan warrior pretenses that has nothing to do with any real past — of a reborn Greek fascism.)

Music, food, a renewed interest in agricultural life and processes — often as a form of survival — tiny gracious gestures of etiquette — all of these are parts of this renewal.  But what surprises me the most are the ones that concern religious observations.  Often these are performed in recognition of their cultural beauty and not necessarily as expressions of any deep spiritual impulse.  Still.  All the more, in fact.  I, for example, had always been terrified of having to spend what I thought would be a barren, empty Easter in modern Greece, which I had never had to in my life; when I finally did last year (see: “Σήμερον κρεμάται επί ξύλου…“) I was pleasantly surprised at how immersed the society was in the observation of this central, defining pole of our identity.

And now we’re in the middle of the Christmas fast, which began forty days before Christmas, on November 15th.  This is the period known as Advent in the West, for those who still remember, and as the word implies, indicates that Christmas, like Easter, was once an anticipatory holiday, with a forty-day period of fasting and relative sobriety preceding it, like Easter still is and has in the East.  Christmas was not the consumption orgy that now starts in late October and a tree that goes up on Thanksgiving and gets thrown out before New Year’s even.  Christians waited for Christmas: and it began on Christmas Eve — with the setting up of the decorated evergeen in the northern European tradition, as the West’s entire literary tradition has it, and then the celebration of the “twelve days” that ended on January 6th.  But all that was scrapped because it doesn’t fit in with distinct shopping-spree periods or quarterly earnings reports and didn’t allow enough time for too many exhausting, gluttonous “holiday” parties with people you don’t want to be with and for buying plastic crap to hang on your door.

So that bright Sunday Attic afternoon, the first day of the Christmas fast, I was sitting here (below) in a very, sehr cool little cafe-bar in Pagkrati (a very cool little neighborhood), when a pretty, elegant twenty-something girl suddenly said to her boyfriend in a testily audible voice: “Σου είπα ότι είναι νηστεία σήμερα και δεν αρταίνομαι ” — “I told you it’s the start of the fast today and I don’t partake” — using an archaic form for “partake”“αρταίνομαι” — that I can’t find the etymological root of.  I nearly fell off my chair.

Plastera Cafe 1Plastera Cafe 3

Plastera Cafe 4Plastera Cafe 2

And then Venetis, a large bakery-patisserie-café chain here — which actually has some pretty good stuff — has this notice on its tables: “Νηστεύετε;” – “Are you fasting?”  And on the back: “40 μέρες νηστεία…60 νηστίσιμα προϊόντα.” — “40 Days of Lent…60 Lenten Products.”  

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Commercial.  But a commercial use of something latched onto in the zeitgeist air.  Un-heard of…laughing-stock corny…less than even a decade ago.

Quote from “Today’s my nameday” that I mention at top:

“What I most love is that, among Greeks, your nameday is a day critical to your honor and reputation…

“…It’s a day when it’s your obligation to give and serve and prove your noblesse and not, as Western birthdays have become, a day when you sit around waiting for others to do for you or give you gifts.  Western, American, birthdays are only slightly less gross to me than the totally American ugliness of wedding and baby showers: “I’m getting married and/or I’m pregnant; so I’m having a party where you have to bring me things.”  And don’t even start me on bridal registries, where you tell people, not just that they have to bring you something, but what they have to bring you.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Saint Jean’s Midsummer bonfires in Quebec: the bonfires of St.Jean

23 Jun

ThinkstockPhotos-186513838

Greek song from the 60’s: “They light bonfires in the mahallades on St.Johna’s Eve, from what you know and tell me.  Ay, how many thing like you know, that have died.”

The primary purpose of Jadde-ye-Kabir may be to pay yahrzeit to these customs and in this sense keep them alive, at least in memory.

There was a previous post, wait, here, from a couple of years ago:

Malagac07_17161026People dance around a bonfire during Saint John’s night in northern Spanish town of Oviedo, late June 23, 2011. (Reuters/Eloy Alonso)

Today, June 24th is the feast day of St. John the Baptist.  It’s actually one of several.  June 24th is his birthday and August 29th is the day of his death (the whole Herod and Salome and head on a silver platter story).  But the Orthodox Church has a tradition of setting aside the day after a particular holiday as the synaxis of the main “player,” shall we say, in the previous day’s events.  Thus the Feast of the Holy Spirit comes on Monday after Pentecost, which marks its descent and illumination of the Apostles.  December 26th is the synaxis of the Virgin, but there are so many other holidays dedicated to the Virgin that her synaxis the day after Christmas mostly goes unobserved.  But January 7th, the synaxis, is the most important of the three St. John’s days of the Church — not his birthday, nor his death, but the day after Epiphany, January 6th, when he baptized Jesus Christ.  So as opposed the Catholic West, where June 24th, today, is the most important of his feast days, what most Greeks refer to as του Άη Γιαννιού is usually January 7th and most Greek Johns celebrate their namedays on this day as the closing date of the Christmas season.

And yet his birthday is not ignored.  If we remember (or ever knew) Christ and St. John were cousins, as were their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth.  On March 25th,  the of day the Annunciation, the first thing the Virgin Mary does after the visitation of Gabriel is run — flustered and shocked — to her cousin Elizabeth to tell her what had happened to her. (This love between the two teenage Jewish cousins has always touched me.) Elizabeth at the time was already six months pregnant with the young John, and the “babe leapt in her womb” upon hearing that his beloved cousin had been conceived, for it was John’s purpose — the “Forerunner” — to lay the groundwork, baptize Him and set Him on His mission.  Three months later, at the Summer Solstice, John was born.

And so again we have the formidable astrological and astronomical symmetry that the Church most likely inherited through Zoroastrianism.  Exactly three months after the Annunciation on the Vernal Equinox (Nowruz), John is born on the Summer Solstice (Tirgan), and then six months later Jesus Himself is born on the Winter Solstice (Yalda).  According to Iranian friends, Tirgan is not celebrated nearly as widely as Yalda and especially not Nowruz, and even less than the Autumnal Equinox (Mehregan), but is still present as a holiday in the Iranian consciousness.  Apparently there’s a certain symbolic ritual table set-up for Tirgan, like there is for Nowruz and Yalda, and I had located an image of it before but now can’t find it.

Throughout the Christian world it has traditionally been a time for building bonfires, though why this should be so in the middle of the heat and lengthy days of late June and not at the Winter Solstice has always kind of baffled me.  In northern Europe (for our civilization’s perhaps greatest treatment of the season, see Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” and starkly intense film version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie by Liv Ullman and starring Colin Farrell — as perhaps our civilization’s greatest treatment of the season), Scandinavia and Russia (oh, yeah, Dostoevsky’s White Nights too) this time of the year has also always been associated with a kind of — especially — erotic license and carnivalesque freedom, or even temporary bouts of lunacy or mental illness, which probably comes from not sleeping for several weeks when the sky only goes dark for about an hour every night.

The bonfire tradition still persists in parts of Greece as well, but as all such practices, is probably slowly being forgotten.  The disappearance of practices like this, and the subsequent impoverishment of humanity’s symbolic consciousness and imagination that these losses entail always saddens me.  As I’ve written before, a friend once said to me: “History is a personal emotion for you, N.”

There’s a song by the recently deceased Demetres Metropanos that I love which refers to St. John’s Eve and its bonfires.  Metropanos was a singer very popular in Greece from the 1970s to the early part of the previous decade.  I’ve never understood why so many people considered him to be slightly skylé as a singer — meaning, oh, I dunno, crudely if not underworldly, working-class.  I think much of his music is lovely.  This song, the lyrics of which I don’t totally understand, meaning not that I don’t understand the Greek; I don’t understand the imagery:  Η σούστα πήγαινε μπροστά — “The spring (which means wire coil? shock absorbers?  spring, as in both mattress and ‘jump,’ when its the name of a dance in Crete or the Dodecannese? Something else? I don’t know…) led the way forward” is one of them.  But it’s a testimony to the high quality of Greek popular music at the time, that composers and singers (I don’t know who Metropanos’ lyricist was) were unafraid to use the most abstract and associative poetic imagery in their music, even if it was destined for middle and even lower-middle class audiences. as opposed to the lyrics of rebetika, which often consist of mostly repetitive, “tough-guy,” metallic jangling.

The lyrics, in Greek:

Η σούστα πήγαινε μπροστά
κι ο μάγκας τοίχο τοίχο
δεν έτυχε στα χρόνια αυτά
τίποτα να πετύχω

Ανάβουνε φωτιές στις γειτονιές
του Άη Γιάννη αχ πόσα ξέρεις και μου λες
αχ πόσα τέτοια ξέρεις και μου λες
που ‘χουν πεθάνει

Με βάλαν πάνω στην κορφή
στ’ αγριεμένο κύμα
στης Σμύρνης την καταστροφή
στ’ άδικο και στο κρίμα

Ανάβουνε φωτιές στις γειτονιές
του Άη Γιάννη αχ πόσα ξέρεις και μου λες
αχ πόσα τέτοια ξέρεις και μου λες
που ‘χουν πεθάνει

(Again, very difficult, odd to translate)

The spring led the way
With the “tough guy” (manga, maganda) hugging the wall
I never managed, in all these years, to accomplish anything.
They light bonfires in the mahallades on St. John’s Eve,
which you like telling me about.
Oh, all those things you know and tell me of,
things that are long dead.
They set me up on top,
with the furious waves,
At the destruction of Smyrna,
Amidst the injustice and the pity.
They light bonfires in the mahallades on St. John’s Eve,
which you like telling me about.
Oh, all those things you know and tell me of,
things that are long dead.
“…things that are long dead…”
And that’s me, NikoBako: the keeper of things long dead.
And the song:

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

 

What is January 6th? (reposted from 2015)

6 Jan

 

This is a question, or comes as part of misguided well-wishing, that I get at this time of the year when people find out I’m Orthodox.  “Your Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Epiphany?  What’s Epiphany?”  “That’s right!  Three Kings’ Day?!”  “But Russian Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Is that what they call ‘little Christmas’?”  And the thing is that this is one of those questions that people aren’t really interested in hearing the entire answer to because it’s so complicated, and you see their eyes start glazing over just as you’ve started to explain, so I usually mumble “uh-huh” or something and change the topic.  So let this post be my official statement on the issue that people can refer to when they want to know what the deal is, or on those nights when the Ambien isn’t working.

Once upon a time, Julius Caesar created a calendar.  Well, even if it wasn’t Caesar himself but his astronomers, it was known as the Julian calendar and it was what the entire Christian world used until the sixteenth century.  That’s when Western astronomers — during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII — who were smarter than Caesar’s astronomers, realized that the calendar we were all using was off, vis-à-vis certain fixed astronomical events like solstices and equinoxes, and especially the all-important Vernal Equinox* by which the date of Easter is calculated: that it had drifted back some ten days over the centuries, meaning the day that was actually March 20th, let’s say, had slipped back to the day we were calling March 10th at the time.  So they came up with a new calendar that was more accurate, called Gregorian, like the Pope.  They just skipped the errant ten days.  And one fine evening of March 10th, let’s say, Christians the world over went to bed and when they woke up it wasn’t March 11th but March 21st.  With me so far?

After some fuss, Western Christians accepted the new calendar.  The hyper-traditional Russian Orthodox Church and the rest of the Orthodox Churches, which were mostly part of Muslim states at the time, kept the Old/Julian Calendar, till the early twentieth-century when the Greek and Romanian churches adopted the New/Gregorian Calendar, while the other ones (and the monastic communities of Mount Athos) continued and continue using the Julian Calendar.  One of several critical points: since the sixteenth-century change the discrepancy has grown so that the Julian Calendar is now thirteen days behind the astronomically correct Gregorian Calendar.

So, Christmas?  Well, Russians celebrate Christmas on what the West calls January 7th.  Mind you, their church calendars say December 25th when ours say January 7th, so they don’t really celebrate it on January 7th.  It’s just January 7th to us.  Though, actually, if you ask a Serb or a Russian when, for example, St. Nicholas’ Day is, they’ll say December 19th — meaning on our current, modern Gregorian calendar — though on their church books it’s still December 6th, when the West and Greeks and Romanians celebrate it.  The key point is that on the Old/Julian Calendar everything is thirteen days later.

gregory xiiiPope Gregory XIII (click)

I generally find this calendar difference to be a nuisance, one of the negatives of the decentralized structure of the Orthodox Church, mostly because you get vacation at all the wrong times and have to ask for days off, but also because, despite the often scathing condescension I feel for most of Western Christianity, I am an oecumenist at heart.  And it’s unpleasant to celebrate Christmas on a different day than other Orthodox Christians or even Easter on a different date than the West.  On the other hand, sometimes it’s nice.  It’s nice to celebrate Easter without the cheap plastic crap of Easter Bunnies and parades all around.  And it’s nice to get to drop into church in early January when the late December craziness of Christmas in this country — no matter how hard one has tried to stay out of it — has made it impossible for you to even light a simple candle for the holiday. Convenient, in a sense, as well; if I can’t get to a Greek church on August 15th, for example, for the Dormition of the Virgin, (or here) I can always go to a Russian one on August 28th.  But generally, I think it’s the dumbest kind of traditionalism to stick to the Old Calendar.  I mean, even if we’re so literal-minded as to think that we know when Christ was born — or even so literal-minded as to think He actually existed — we now know, scientifically, that the day we were calling December 25th is not December 25th.  So what’s the problem?  Russians, of course, make off like bandits with this deal.  Communism made New Year the most important holiday of the year, but even then everyone still celebrated Old New Year on January 13th.  Now festivities in post-communist Russia start around Western Christmas, go through New Year’s, celebrate Russian Christmas proper on January 7th, and still celebrate Old New Year on January 13th — a month of more than the usual everybody-being-plastered.

Easter?  Oh, Easter.  Why do Greeks celebrate Christmas with the West but Easter with other Orthodox Churches?  Again, a result of the decentralized structure of Orthodoxy.  The Greek Church switched to the Gregorian calendar for everything else, but, due to the fundamental centrality of Easter and the Easter cycle (Lent-Easter-Pentecost) to the faith (something the West has quite seriously lost sight of), it was decided that Greeks and Romanians would continue to calculate the date of Easter according to the Julian Calendar in order to stay in step with the others and maintain Orthodox solidarity.

“But what about January 6th then??!!” you ask, desperately seeking Christian truth.  January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  I repeat: January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  The Богоявление in Church Slavonic, Bogojavljenje — The “God Revelation,” literally, or also colloquially called Jordaninden in some South Slav languages: “Jordan Day.”  Er, like the river, right?  That’s right.  It’s the day Jesus Christ was baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist and the beginning of Christ’s ministry.  But this happened when Christ was 30.  He was baptized on January 6th, thus the Twelve Days of Christmas, but it was January 6th thirty years later; it’s purely coincidental that they come so close to each other, but understandable that Christian observance would lump them together into one holiday season.**  But Epiphany is not a holiday thematically related to Christmas or Christ’s birth; it’s not part of the first few weeks of His life.  It’s also purely coincidental that Epiphany comes twelve days after Christmas and that the Old and New Calendars diverge by thirteen days.  But that’s the reason people have heard of something about January 6th and think “Russian Christmas” is January 6th.  It’s not.  It’s the 7th.  January 6th is Russian Christmas Eve.  And that means Russian Epiphany is…..?  Have you been paying attention?  Very good.  January 19th.  Thirteen days later.  Though, again, Russian and Serbian and Bulgarian Churches are celebrating it on what — for them — is January 6th.

The Epiphany is one of the Great Feasts of the Church and of great theological significance, which is really why I get so worked up about this issue.  It’s not just the day Christ was baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist.  At the moment of His baptism, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father was heard saying: Οὗτός ἐστιν υἱός μου ἀγαπητός, ἐν εὐδόκησα.” “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Thus, it’s the first time that the Trinity was revealed to mankind in all three of its forms at once.  That’s what Epiphany, or Theophany, as it’s also known, (Επιφάνεια or Θεοφάνεια) mean: the “showing” or “revelation” of God — in all His forms.  It was also my father’s nameday (“Fotios,” like “photo” for light — the day is often colloquially known as “The Lights” in Greek) and an important holiday in his village.

Baptism_(Kirillo-Belozersk)Russian icon of the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus Christ (click)

And the Three Kings?  Three Kings’ Day is an abomination whose prohibition I will begin to work towards as soon as I am elected to the College of Cardinals.  Honestly, sorry to be so churlish and ruin the fun of hundreds of millions of little Hispanic kids, but I genuinely find the observance to be more than mildly offensive.  I don’t care that it doesn’t make any sense textually – that the gospels are clear that within days of His birth Mary and Joseph had whisked Christ off to safety in Egypt and that they weren’t sitting around in the cold for almost two weeks waiting for these “kings” to come.  (Though it’s cool that these “kings” were likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran — searching for something they had heard would happen towards the West around the Winter Solstice — Yalda).  I just think it’s the Catholic Church at its cheapest, most propagandistic worst to let a holiday of such theological importance degenerate into a by-product of Franciscan Christ-Child piety (like most of Christmas in the West anyway) and to officially condone this sentimental tripe about frankincense and myrrh, while the real meaning of the holiday is completely forgotten, as if believers are incapable of understanding the real theology behind the day.  It’s the Catholic Church at its Grand Inquisitor worst, actually — and there I’m with Dostoyevsky: give ’em a show and a nice little parade and keep their loyalty and submission; they’re too stupid to get the deep stuff anyway and you’ll only risk confusing them and then, enraged, they’ll turn on you: “Ecco homo….Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος.”  It’s one of the many ways that Rome still seems to be incapable of finding a way between the most ruthless authoritarianism and the cheapest populism.  Though that, of course, was exactly Dostoyevsky’s point: that the two work hand-in-hand.

Which is why, aside from its incredible power as a scene in and of itself, I find the segment from Twelve Years a Slave I posted at top to be immensely gratifying; a slave at least knew that “John” and “baptism in the Jordan” had something to do with “Three” — and not three kings

blessing-of-the-waters

In seaside parts of Greece, the “blessing of the waters” is performed, where the priest throws a cross into the sea and young men dive in to retrieve it.

A few years ago, the Turkish government permitted Greeks in İstanbul to perform the rite again, though for the Patriarch to do so at the Fanari on the Golden Horn, they generally have to call out Turkish commandos to protect the participants from the Çarşamba*** crazies from up the hill.

Oh, and just to add to the confusion, early Christians actually did celebrate the Nativity of Christ on January 6th, but the Church moved it to the 25th of December at some point so they could get a piece of the Saturnalia and Mithra-Birthday celebration market.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* Easter is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox, thus, the first Sunday after the first Full Moon, 14-15 of Nissan — the first night of Passover — in the Jewish Calendar…I think.  In short, the first Sunday after the first night of Passover, one more indication that the New calendar is the more correct way to calculate and number things.

** On the Old Julian Calendar Easter often came so early that Carnival began in late January, thus Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, was considered the beginning of Carnival — one long wintery festival season from Christmas to Ash Wednesday.  This is why Shakespeare’s play, which has nothing to do with the Epiphany, was called “Twelfth Night” — because it was a comedy commissioned for the beginning of Carnival.  For some reason, in the more Slavic, — yes, I said it: S-L-A-V-I-C — parts of northwestern Greece, like Lerin or Kostur, serious Carnival time is early January, and includes elements much like what we know of the Roman Saturnalia, and not the pre-Lenten season that it is elsewhere.  And he have evidence that the Byzantines celebrated a similar, Roman-Saturnalia-derived extended festive time throughout the winter.

Oh…  But what’s Carnival?  And Lent?  Ash Wednesday?  Oooofff….other posts…

*** Çarşamba is a hyper-religious — yes, I’ll just call it fundamentalist — mahalla, up the hill from the Fanari, the once entirely Greek neighborhood on the northern shore of the Old City where the Patriarchate is located.  It’s the only part of İstanbul I — and not a few İstanbullus themselves — genuinely feel uncomfortable being in or walking through, and occasional bits of fun like Molotovs tossed into the Patriarchate’s compound usually come from these lovely black-clad, bearded neighbors of ours.

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New Year in Derviçani: loving to come; dying to leave; fireworks; hate that won’t die; and a judo fantasy

14 Jan

Dropoli Road 1
I spent New Year’s Eve and Day in Derviçani, my father’s village in Albania, and as always it was an exhausting experience. No matter how well I arm myself emotionally to take this place on: knowing how it’ll test my eating and drinking prowess, my instant access to genealogical knowledge files, my capacity for being immersed in the constant love, attention, curiosity and just physical presence of scores of relatives, the emotional demands of everyone – not that they’re not normal; they’re perfectly sane – we’re the emotional cripples compared to them – the memories of those people lost who I never got to know, the steady haemorrhaging away of those who still remember those people and the mentally exhausting task of drawing often traumatic memories out of those who are still around; the whole community’s looking ahead with indifference to the past I’m here to excavate, while they’re still stuck in a different past I’d like to change: one of hurt, deprivation and ethno-religious – sorry I can’t call it anything milder – hatred — and especially around holidays – hatred armed — often hidden but nonetheless real and present and easily accessible; it all drains every drop of my emotional energy. All that, and then the going through the borders and customs and floodlights that still reek of Stalin and enclosure and entrapment…as soon as the vehicle has picked up speed and we’re riding through the ugly brush country of Greek Pogoni and on my way to Jiannena, my body feels this, excuse me, defecatory freedom that I only know from a New York cop letting me go with a typical: “Ok, git outta heeya.” I love coming here. I love leaving perhaps even more.

A friend of mine, E., who came here to a family wedding with me last summer, something of a professional Balkanist, I guess one would call him, sent me a very sweet email about what a “lovely evening” it must’ve been when I sent him pictures of the fireworks that Derviçani and all neighboring villages shoot off; but he should have known that all the bright lights might have had a slightly more sinister edge than is immediately evident. The immediately neighbouring village to the north of Derviçani is is the Muslim-Albanian Lezarates, for example, with whom we’ve had a centuries-long blood feud – why and how is lost in the past but I’ll give you what I know and why a bit further down. Needless to say, a fireworks display at New Year is anything but a piece of innocent joy. It’s a minor war-skirmish from a distance, which my buddy should have guessed.

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To begin with, in the Greek villages of Dropoli, the valley south of Gjirokastër (Argyrocastro) down to the ridge and now Greek border of Mourgana, New Year is celebrated by Greek time, one hour ahead, while Albania is one hour behind. “They think they’re Italians,” we like to make fun of them. Then, among the fireworks, at least in the past, innocent Roman candle stuff, were also included the firing off of Kalashnikovs, dynamite, and what sounded to me, frankly, like rocket-propelled grenades…the Kalashnikovs are still around for sure. Then at midnight local time, the Albanian villages of the valley come out with an even bigger barrage of rockets’ red glare.  They blow it all. We wait about twenty minutes, and at 12:20 shoot off some more of our flares. They’re “Arvanites,” i.e. — you draw your own conclusions – so they shot off all their stock at one time, while we’re crafty Greeks who held back on some to send out a second ball-busting round a little bit later. A few tiny spurts from Lezarates itself or the Muslim Libohovo across the valley was all we got in return.

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*   *   *

I wrote in my preface to Annia Ciezadlo’s beautiful piece on the Syrian refugees and Mytilene: “Be Like Water: The Nonviolent State of Iraq and Syria. The Republic-in-Motion of Lovers Not Fighters. The Government-in-Exile of People Who Just Want to Go to School.” that:

Across exactly from Mytilene is the Turkish town of Ayvali (Ayvalık). Ayvali was one of those products of the Ottomans’ improvisatory policies for managing the multiple ethnic and religious corporate groups that constituted the empire, and usually worked; in the 18th century, the coast of the Anatolian Aegean being underpopulated and underutilized economically, a grant was given to Greeks to settle the region that didn’t just encourage Greeks, but excluded Muslims from settling there, to make the area even more attractive for Greek settlers…

Ayvalik_III

Ayvali

“And very soon, Ayvali grew, out of its seafaring activities and the fertility of its hinterland, into a prosperous and what is, architecturally, still a beautiful small Greek city, the object of much nostalgia in the Greek genre of Anatolian martyrology, but more, the symbol of what Patricia Storace calls “the voluptuous domesticity” that Greeks associate with their former paradisiacal life on the Aegean coast…

[It’s also made Ayvali, the neighbouring island of Cunda, and the formerly Greek-inhabited islands of Tenedos and Imvros to some extent, newly fashionable for White Turk hipster tourists, since their parents’ generation didn’t get a chance to turn it all into Bodrum or Benidorm like they’ve done to the rest of the coast.  They’re the Aegean coast equivalent of Pera/Galata and like neighborhoods in Istanbul.  See my Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013]

“So the two regions came to fit into each other like a Yin/Yang symbol, and when the Exchange came, most Ayvali Greeks were settled in Mytilene, while the Turks of the island were shipped just across the water – the often treacherous channel were so many refugees today have drowned (it’s a great error – popular and tourist-based — to see the Aegean as a benign sea), and settled in Ayvali and its neighboring villages.”

“…the Ottomans did odd shit like this, to keep everybody happy and for the most part it worked.  Like Ayvali and its environs, in Istanbul, for example, in the 17th century the Porte granted the mostly Chian shipyard workers from the tershana in Hasköy on the Golden Horn/Keratio, the right to establish a village around the pre-existent shrine of St. Demetrios on the hilltop which the gulley up through Dolapdere leads to, and where no Muslims, weirdly, were allowed to settle.  This was the nucleus out of which the legendary Greek neighborhood of Tatavla grew, and which, due to its rough, working class character, was an intimidating place for Muslims to enter until the end of the Empire.  Except for its famous Carnival, when everyone was allowed.

“The same would happen in highland regions of Greece, Epiros especially — where remittances from emigrant locals provided the wealth to pay for it — and autonomous privileges were bought from the Ottoman authorities by groups of villages in return for a modest amount of self-government and the right to not have Muslims settle there and not be subject to Islamic proselytizing of any sort — violent or otherwise.”

*   *   *

For many reasons that’s not what happened in the Christian villages of the valley of Dropoli. At some point in the late 17th and early 18th century the region was subjected to a violent wave of Islamization. There are little bits and pieces I’ve been able to put together on my own, though I’m anything but a professional historian, but I haven’t been able to come up for a single, holistic theory of why this happened across what seems to have been much of the western Balkans at the time. Was it Mehmet IV’s failing at Vienna a second time, this time with the Hapsburgs chasing the retreating Ottomans as far south as Kosovo? (The subsequent Austrian withdrawal and the violent anti-Serb reprisals that followed — the whole internecine blood-letting mechanism worked like tragic clockwork — is part of what set off the Great Migration of the Serbs northwards at the time and accounts for the demographic shift of the of the Serbian nation’s center of gravity far north to the Hapsburg frontier and the movement of a great many Serbs across the Danube into Austria itself.) Was it the simultaneous urban revolt of what had always been the loyal city of Jiannena, under the leadership of a charismatic priest known as Dionyses Skylosofos, which had always sounded to me doomed from the beginning, and ended in the expulsion of the Christian population of the city from inside the walls – a common Ottoman response to infidel misbehaving – while the city’s walled neighbourhoods became exclusively Muslim and Jewish till the 1920s and the Exchange?

Was it the spread of Bektaşism that needed to be put down? Because this is the period when Bektaşism: an originally Sufi order from Anatolia that ended up becoming an Alevi-like, quasi Shia branch of Islam, eventually became Albania’s and Epiros’ most naturalized form of the religion. I asked a British academic that I once met personally and who’s a specialist on Bektaşism, and incidentally – or maybe not – of Turco-Jianniotiko descent himself, something I always wondered about: Bektaşism was pretty much the official Islam of the Janissary order and the Classical Ottoman period Janissary corps was of disproportionately Albanian, Serbian and Bosnian stock. We now know that Janissaries maintained much closer contact with their communities of origin than previously thought. Was the spread of Bektaşism in the western Balkans a kind of circular process, where young men taken away into the corps came back to their communities and there spread their new form of Islam, more digestible to Christians willing to convert: pacifist — paradoxically for a warrior corps — full of semi-Christian elements, again like Alevism, like music and dance and shared, liturgical feasts? “That’s an excellent question,” he responded, “but not one we have any way of answering.” (That’s the cynical explanation of Greeks of our parts anyway: that so much of southern and central Albania is Bektaşi because Albanians just couldn’t give up their drink.)

Dropoli Road 2.jpg

For our case, did the discouraging of Bektaşism by an Ottoman power-that-was, after a humiliating defeat that spelt out clearly that they were never getting the rich plains of Hungary back (as that ass Orbán insists on reminding us) and certainly not ever a chance at Vienna, go hand in hand with a wave of violent proselytizing and conversion in southern Albania/Epiros? That is, did defeat and suppressing disorthodoxy within the faith come hand in hand with converting the real giaourides as well? (Mind you, I’m not even sure there was any suppression of the Bektaşis at the time — sure only of that that occurred with the disbanding of the Janissaries in the 1820s by Mahmud II.)  The period left its mark on Dropoli in any event, whatever other events it was connected to.

There is, as a result, a violently defensive Greekness about our villages, which I’ve tried to respect and tried to free myself from intellectually and spiritually at the same time for most of my life, that is clearly a descendant of a violently defensive response to attempts at forced conversion. The “national anthem” of the Greek villages of Dropoli is “Δεροπολίτισσα,” “Dropolitissa,” — girl from Dropoli — a song heard at least once at every feast, wedding and other gathering:

“Dropolitissa, when you go to church,

When you go to church with lamps and candles.

Pray for us too, for us Christians,

For we’re being crushed by Turkdom*

And they’re slaying us like lambs,

Like lambs at Easter, like goats on St. George’s Day.”**

Μωρ’ Δεροπολίτισσα,
μωρ’ καημένη
μωρ’ Δεροπολίτισσα, ζηλεμένη,
βάλ’ το φέσι σου στραβά
σίντα πας στην εκκλησιά,
με λαμπάδες με κεριά
και με μοσχοθυμιατά.
Και προσκύνα για τ’ εμάς,
για τ’ εμάς τους Χριστιανούς,
τι μας πλάκωσ’ η Τουρκιά
και μας σφάζουν σαν τ’ αρνιά,

σαν τ’ αρνιά τη Πασχαλιά

τα κατσίκια τ’ Αϊ Γιωργιού.

* The word used is Tourkiá, not a plural, but a great, overwhelming singular mass, which is…I dunno…a collective noun, I guess, grammatically? The verb for “crushed” — “plakose,” comes from “plaka” which means “slab,” usually of stone.  The image is one of a great big slab of granite falling onto you.  Not Turks, but Turkdom: “Türklik”

** St. George’s Day is April 23rd always near Easter; with the Calendar change, it often comes before Easter, so if Easter is May 1st, like it will be this year, St. George’s Day will be moved to May 2nd so that so important a saint’s day doesn’t fall during the lenten period or Holy Week. So the two are closely related, in Greek folk songs, especially, one coming as the non-rhyme ending of the line after the first.

*** “Οι ερευνητές του 19ου αιώνα, Παναγιώτης Αραβαντινός και Κωνσταντίνος Σάθας, πιστεύουν ότι αναφέρεται σε εξέγερση του 1565 και στις τραγικές συνέπειες που είχε η αποτυχία της. Κατά τους Ν. Παπαδόπουλο και Α. Μαμμόπουλο το τραγούδι χρονικά πρέπει να τοποθετηθεί στην περίοδο 1600-1700.”

“According to folklore researchers Panagiotes Aravantinos and Konstantinos Satha, the song refers to the an uprising dated 1565 [before my estimate] and to the tragic results of its failure. According to N. Papadopoulu and A. Mammopoulo the song should date chronologically to the period between 1600 – 1700…[ which is more in keeping with my theory of larger Ottoman and Central European events — second siege of Vienna, Great Migration of the Serbs — and to local folk-historiography about the slaughter of Christians, the song itself and the conversion of Lezarates, all during and around the time of Mehmet IV’s reign, the spread of Bektaşism in the region – almost as a compromise form of religious change – all coming at around the same time and resulting in Dropolites’ reputation as Orthodox Christians of an almost nationalist fanaticism, including their later and current resistance to language change and…of course…as if Lezarates weren’t unpleasant enough neighbors, they’re inatlı refusal to ever forgive them for converting.]”

This is a recording of the song; though it’s from a formal folklore performance and the women aren’t wearing Dropolitiko dress (like in the very old photo below), the vocals and clarinet and violin soloists are superb.  Young Greeks suddenly became fascinated with our dronal, polyphonic singing, that of Greeks and Albanians in southern Albania, in the mid to late 90s.  And the style, the “code” of the dancers — I don’t know what to call it except the deadly seriousness with which we used to take our song and dance tradition, perhaps most important — is gorgeous:

Dropolitisses sitting

Apparently, the Christian peasant women of Dropoli, serfs essentially of the çiftliks of Gjirokaster’s ağas, went around till the mid-nineteenth century with a tattooed cross on their forehead, like Egyptian Copts still put on their wrists, to defensively state their faith, to prove a girl’s religion when/if abducted by a Muslim man, or to prevent seduction by sweet-talking Bektaşi babadhes, though there’s no living memory of that practice, at least not of Bektaşis as agents of violent conversion: if anything, quite the opposite. What there is living memory of, though, is of Lezarates and their ‘opportunistic’ conversion to Islam at some point in the early 18th century, for which they will never be forgiven: turn-coats that we will now have nothing ever to do with. And there’s the alternative, totally science fiction myth, that Lezaratinoi are descended from a legion of Janissaries who had some contagious disease, and were abandoned to die by their comrades on the bare rocky plateau that Lezarates is built on. And yet survived. And today’s Lezaratinoi are the descendants of these Janissary-cyborgs: ruthless, tough as nails…Albanian.

This is our view of them at least; maybe we should take a look in the mirror.

In any event, the depredations of the now upper-handed-because-Muslim Lezaratinoi –- constant raids, shootings, encroachment on flocks and fields, bride-snatchings — none of which any Christian in Ottoman times had any real legal recourse for — it meant taking things, and a rifle, into your own hands – had gotten to a point where the population of a once entirely Greek village located between the two villages, Kolortse, up and moved to the safety of numbers in Derviçani in the 1860s, and there’s still a sub-ethnic difference recognized between “Old” Derviçiotes and them.

Buci grave 1

The death toll of this current feud between the two villages – though nobody seems to know when we’re counting from – now stands at Lezarates 23 – Derviçani 21: that’s how many fatalities in the other community we’re each responsible for, the “Lazides” two points ahead. A not so recent one, but one that is pretty much illustrative of the whole “geist” of these incidents, is this young man, Gazmend Buci, shot at the age of 21 in 1999 while walking through some fallow field on the northern end of Derviçiotiko territory. Two Derviçiotes saw him there — this was a couple of years after the Albanian army just self-disbanded, and the entire state came close to collapsing, during an economic crisis caused by a ridiculous pyramid scheme the government was part of and when people had just walked off with anything the fleeing conscripts left behind: guys proudly driving tanks back home to their village, whole vans of Kalashnikovs pounced on and distributed to anybody who wanted one, or two or three if you had the guts, and it took the Albanian police quite a while to get things under control. But no mass collection or return of arms was ever conducted so you can bet that most households in the region still have one or two or more firearms under the floorboards.

He was “looking to steal” something was the excuse. What, what, what, he could’ve possibly been been looking to steal in the empty, gravelly no-man’s land between the two villages?…or is “stealing” just what Albanians do? Anyway, the Derviçiotes just blew him away with two volleys in the chest. His family took his body and buried him in Lezarates…but set up this semi-grave monument to him in 1999 in the middle of the Derviçiote’s empty field where he had been killed.

Now, you don’t think that’s the end of the story just because it happened in 1999, seventeen years ago, do you? As more and more Albanians of all countries and of all religion and ethnicity are migrating again: some, especially Kosovars, are joining the larger sweep of refugees heading north; others are leaving a Greece in deep economic doldrums, and returning north to their villages and trying to make use of the arable land they left lying fallow since they fled through the seemingly magic opened gate they feared would close on them again in 1990-91. These gulley-striated hills between Derviçani and Lezarates – the old lands of Kolortse – used to grow a deep black grape with a high sugar content and thick skin that could be left to macerate pretty heavily, produce a strong, tannic wine like a Cahors, and then still leave mash powerful enough to make excellent raki out of. And people are at it again. Fields dead since the 90s are sprouting everything you can imagine. It’s just a matter of time before the Derviçiote owner of this plot is going to put it to plow again and the kid’s from Lezarates soi is gonna come make a fuss about it and claims for blood price and a new round of other dumb, Balkan male shit will start all over again.

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Especially now, Lezaratinoi are hurting economically. Because, between the late 90s and 2013, Lezarates gave up almost all other form of economic/agricultural activity and dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the cultivation of hashish.  And of excellent standard mind you, in case you think we’re all subsistence-level barbarians – this was hash of good Bordeaux quality; and not just producers of it, but merchants of Uzbek and Afghan product and blenders of some pretty fine dope that they sold through networks they had all over the rest of the Balkans and Europe. This made us happy because it kept them prosperous and off our case and we were free of the petty-and-not-so-petty thievery they were always supposedly agents of. If you had looked at a Google Earth map of the region at the time you could see the whole barren, rocky slopes south of Argyrocastro, and every field of Lezarates’ (Lazarat in Albanian) in a bright, fertile green.

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When you went into the village – which we Derviçiotes never do, out of both disdain and fear, but I did once out of curiosity in 2013 — it had turned into an Albanian version of a south Afghan Pashtun village, nothing but high, cement-brick walls, topped with barbed-wire loops, the random Mercedes that there was no room for with the others in the compound, sitting outside, and not just no women, like in Afghanistan – no people, at all – in the empty lanes, no coffeehouse, a pitiable little mosque put up recently for the wear-it-lightly Islam most Albanians practice. (I’m sure that if I could make a normal, human visit of the village and actually speak to people, there’d a ruined Bektaşi tekke, destroyed by Hoxha’s Chinese-inspired cultural revolution in the 60s, round a holy man’s grave that I could find, but…τρέχα γύρευε…στα μέρη μας…) But soon, I think, the European Union got wind, no pun intended, of what most of the Balkans had already known for years and a huge police operation moved in, burst into every family’s compound and burned everything they had growing to ashes – “even their basil,” said one cousin of mine from Derviçani with glee. And her glee was made even greater because Lezarates’ humiliation was augmented by the fact that the police operation had entered the village through the upper mahalladhes of Derviçani (see map above), and — don’t quote me, what the fuck do I know — but I’m pretty sure with info from Derviçiotes who had been doing business – of some sort – with them for quite some time.

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So yeah

So yeah, E., New Year’s Eve in Derviçani was lovely. Great wine, great raki, the most delicious you might have ever imagined of any form of animal protein: lamb and rice, boiled ram, goat, farmers’ cheese with red peppers, feta, the paça and işkembe traditional on New Year’s Eve, the right sweets – kurabiye and melomakarona. A scary amount of heavily imbibed, hair-trigger male anger at a teenage kids’ game of twenty-one, the sound of vaguely artillery-sounding fireworks at midnight. And the relief that I’m no longer one of the kids, and don’t have to go out on a drive in the region on a night like that or go to a neighboring village’s – even a Greek one’s – café for a party or a “pop-up” disco in Argyrocastro that lasts till noon the next day.

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The next morning-more-like-noon comes the cutting of the Vasilopitta.  I had known that in certain parts of western Greek Macedonia, the Vasilopitta was an actual food, meaning, not a sweet çörek like in most of the north or a soggy poundcake like Old Greeks make, but pitta — spinach or cheese or cabbage — that the good luck coin was baked into, like it is in many sweet breads and cakes in many parts of the Christian world. I didn’t know that in Derviçani it was a deep dish börek casserole made with a yufka crust and filled with all of the previous night’s left-over, shredded meats mixed with tarhana and a copious amount of butter, all light as a brick and delicious but not as good as the leftover paça you’re looking for desperately for your hangover. I got the lucky “flouri” this year (from florin?) and promptly lost it.  What are you going to do?  “Δωρεάν ελάβατε, δωρεάν δώτε” – “Freely ye have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)

Pitta plate flouri 3

K., one of my favourite nephews, never not a joke or laughter on his tongue, never not a smile on his face, comes bursting into his “mana’s” (granma’s) house that midday, probably hasn’t been home yet, and among his stories of the previous night’s revelry is a stabbing, at a party at a bar in Argyrocastro, between two Albanian kids.  (This is fascinating: part of them — our kids — think they’re fabulously superior to Albanians, but unless things get ugly for some real reason, they’ll easily be best buds.)  “Ώ, μω…” says babo in the classic vocative call of the region, “Why didn’t one of you stop him?” “Cause then we’da had two stabbed guys to take to the hospital, μω μάνα…” trailing off in the the way the region’s drawl does…says K., giggling as usual.

Now ‘mana’ goes off on another song I had never heard before, but which is of the same timbre, and certainly same time period or, at least, subject matter:

Σ’ αυτή τη τάβλα πού’ μαστε

σε τούτο το τραπέζι,

Άγγελο φιλεύαμε και τον Χριστό ευλογάμε.

Και την Κυρά την Παναγιά, πολύ την προσκηνάμε.

Βοήθα Παναγία, για να γλιτώσουμε,

Κι όσες καντήλες νά’ χεις

Θα σ’ τις χρυσώσουμε.

“At this meal we’re sharing, and at this table where we are,

We were hosting an angel guest and blessing Christ,

And we were praying to our Lady Virgin.

Help us, Panayia, help us and escape,

And all the lanterns we have for you,

We’ll cover in gold.”

*   *   *

The rest of New Year’s Day is spent visiting Vasilys for their namedays – hoping for some quick raki for your hangover — and, for me, spending time with the old people who didn’t have the energy for pop-up parties or even for playing cards till past midnight. The personal stories I’m looking for are usually told me in some intimate corner when enough raki has been shared between me and teller; the teller wants to say it all but it’s too painful and difficult and the older they get the harder it is to get them up to speed; the tales’ status is already too reliquary to just blurt out all over the place — and there are too many young people around who don’t have enough memories of past totalitarianism — arrests, informings, beatings, labor camps, executions, mass graves — to think that the wandering misery and half-assed violence of now is really all there ever was – and they just won’t know how to pay the proper respect.

There’s a great deal of grumbling and complaining about their position as Greeks in Albania.  But other than the suffering of a totalitarianism past — I could never say any of this there openly, mind you — what’s the problem? Who knows, really? Do you know how good you have it – to me, at least, a person from the outside – I feel like saying? Your churches and schools are functioning unobstructed. The border that was a barbed-wired death-zone that kept people from their loved ones for generations is basically a formality now. The Orthodox Church of Albania is, in fact, headed by a Greek, Archbishop Anastasios, a cleric of exceptional intelligence and cosmopolitanism in the Bartholomew vein and compassion for what he knows is the wounded society that’s been given to him to heal. He’s rebuilt its destroyed institutions and churches and monasteries, opened up dialogue between Christians and the country’s Muslim majority so that relations between the two are probably better in Albania than practically anywhere else in the Muslim world.  And, in fairness to both Greeks and Albanians, liturgical practice and administration are fully bilingual according to community — in the best openness of Byzantine tradition.  He may have brought Greek and Albanian Orthodox closer than they have ever been in the past two hundred years of their history simply by recognizing Orthodox Albanians as Albanians and not as a part of his flock that needed to be “Hellenized.”

On a village cultural level, you’re the ones not taking care of your inheritance and birthright: your art and song and dance, your dress, your architecture – that made and make you what you are – so don’t blame the “Arvanites.” All that’s been forgotten in just two decades is mind-bogglingly sad: the singing that’s on UNESCO’s list of intangible art forms has practically died; you’ve torn down most of your traditional homes to build bad imitations of Northern Suburb villas. But you’re just still sitting around and talking about how Greece sold you out and the Protocol of Corfu and its promises of Northen Epirote autonomy reneged on. The contentlessness of nationalism. Even my hippest nephew, my favorite of all of them, who’s the d.j. and organizes the pop-up parties in Argyrocastro that go to midday of the 1st, and the only one likely to read this, is bitching about autonomy for the minority. And busy – well, in his case maybe not hating, just feeling slightly superior – but everybody else: hating. Like for its own effing sake. Even he, the super-suave one from Tiranë, who speaks more and better Albanian than he does Greek, got a little perturbed once when I told him that frankly I can’t see the difference between the kids from Libohovo (an Albanian Muslim village right across the valley from us) and our own. What for?

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The 2014 annual paneygyri of the Greek youth of Derviçani…(video by Alexandros Nekos)…in Albania, just to make sure…and here. They put up the flag of Autonomous Northern Epiros 1914 — a short-lived experiment after the Balkan Wars that was then abolished due to Italian objections, since Italy considered Albania their sphere of influence — and the Albanian police came and made them take it down.

*   *   * 

I have this fantasy. And who knows what I’ll do with it one day, because right now it’s nothing but that…not a fantasy I hope or think might actually drop into my lap, or a dream I think I’ll ever find myself in the process of actively working towards. Just a fantasy…

Dropoli Road 3

I’d have a few million dollars and I’d find a big empty plot of land outside Derviçani somewhere, on a low hill, but no so low or central in the valley that the river would flood it every other year. And I’d build a big, architecturally beautiful judo dojo there: yeah, with a weight room or maybe an interior basket-volley-ball court; but mostly two, haydi, three, beautiful regulation-size tatami spaces, and cedar wooding and perfectly sprung floors that would suck up force like heaven. And it’d be a low-slung compound and look like kind of a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie house, except with the beautiful grey-white local stone and where possible, large glass windows with views of the mountains all around.

I’d find two or three open-minded senseis to teach there. Fuck, I’d even invite Iliadis to come give guest-star classes, though this would piss off the Albanian kids, and the Greek kids would get irritated when the Albanians pointed out that Iliadis isn’t even really Greek.  Or I’d invite some of the other younger, the real, Georgians, Tchrikishvilli or Liparteliani – perfect candidates for these fuckers — if they’d come.  They’d be towards the end of their careers by then — God grant them many more victories — and they’d be used to the Eastern European living standards and they’d teach the slightly more rough-house ex-Soviet judo these kids would love. (We’d move on to a more elegant Japanese style later – for that I’d bring my man G. from Athens, or D. and A. even from New York as guest teachers, for the subtler understandings of certain things.)

Yes, at first they’d come armed and we’d have to pat them down. And we’d have to explain that jiu jitsu and judo were created precisely in order to fight with no arms. And that would take a while to permeate their thick Albanian/Greek skulls. But apparently it took a while to convince the Japanese of the same in the 19th century, when the carrying of weaponry was forbidden by the reforming Meiji regime to the samurai class, the only ones who had the privilege anyway, which I kinda don’t doubt. And I’d persevere. And knowing them, they’d first learn all the moves with which one can seriously do another guy damage. And we’d have to steer them away from that inclination. Tough.

Exterior of Robie House designed by Frank LLoyd Wright.

Exterior of Robie House designed by Frank LLoyd Wright.

There would be a lot of serious injuries in the beginning, but we’d have a good physical therapy team. And we’d spend the first few years explaining: “Guys, hurting each other is not what we’re here to do.”  And if they asked why we don’t do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or the so-called “Mixed Martial Arts” they see on television or YouTube, I’d tell them they’re not mature enough for that stuff and that judo is a much more difficult and challenging, and much more beautiful sport anyway…harder – more “archontiko,” as G. in Vyrona likes to say.  It’ll be a base for anything else they might want to learn after. And that single element: “archontia” – style, elegance, nobility, seriousness and sobriety — bet you any money, would convince them.

Most importantly, membership would be free to kids from Derviçani and one super-low, nominal price for kids from any of the region’s neighbouring villages in Gjirokastër county –irrespective of language or religion.

And given the physical and mental toughness land this hard breeds, the steely alacrity, and the perseverance and stubbornness – or just the inat that’s our curse that we can transform into something else if we want to — we’d have an international level, at least juniors,’ team put together in a matter of years.  And the place would be a lightning rod that would suck up all that extra testosterone and drive it right into the earth.

And then maybe something would snap. And something would come of it. And they’d see themselves all as a team and not as Greeks and Albanians or Christians and Muslims.  And then you’d see. The whole region would change.

Dropoli Road 4

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Post-datum: A Kosovar production of an Albanian-Serbian Romeo and Juliet was produced in Belgrade last year, directed by one of Serbia’s most prestigious actors, Predrag Miki Manojlović, as a cooperation between Radionica Integracija: Belgrade and Qendra Multimedia: Priština.  Read Armandra Kodra Hysa’s  glib and cynical to the point of nastiness review of the production in The Balkanist.  It’s the perfect example of “throw out the good because it’s not perfect” pettiness and more of the negativity our countries already have an excess of.  It’s infuriating.  It’s a start Anthro Al!  I’d love to see it staged at the dividing Mitrovica Bridge too.  But you can’t ask for too much too fast. That there was no violence is cause enough for some contentment.  Forget about recent soccer nonsense; do we remember the reception given Angelina Jolie’s Land of Blood and Honey when an attempt to screen it was made in Belgrade a few years ago?  Think of how far from that this has come.

Below are Alban Ukaj as Romeo and Milica Janevski as Juliet.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Athens exploding in citrus

5 Dec

Oranges 2

Oranges and tangerines are suddenly in season and the farmers’ markets are bathed in their smell and color.  I remember, à propos of previous post’s bitching about birthday and Christmas excess, my mother shaking her head at the riot of insane shopping and spending and spoiling of children (because she too had succumbed; how better can capitalism manipulate you than through your children?) and going about the living room Christmas morning collecting wrapping paper and mountains of horrible plastic packaging, mumbling about how: “On New Year’s Day* we’d get a pair of socks…maybe an orange.”  And while her half of the family had moved from her natal village of Pesta north to Jiannena, another branch, to which she was very close, had settled in the southern Epirote city of Arta, a very pleasant town, the mediaeval capital of the Despotate of Epiros ** and therefore full of beautiful Byzantine churches, which lies in the region’s coastal lowlands and is surrounded by one gigantic, heavenly citrus orchard like the Huerta of Valencia or parts of lower Andalusia, so it shouldn’t have been too hard to get more than just one orange.  But there was no spoiling the children then and in Jiannena one orange was probably expensive enough.

Oranges 1

And I’d love to know whose great idea it was to plant orange trees along many of the streets of the city.  These are bitter oranges, known as nerantzia (obviously same root as naranja and I would say sounds Persian but is probably Arabic) often called Seville oranges in Britain, and they can only be eaten in marmelades and jams — in Greece, either whole and when still green, or in curled slices of the orange peel…my favorite…  Don’t put it in front of me; I could eat gallons of it in a matter of days.

Street oranges

But since there’s a limit to how many candied oranges a nation can consume, most of them end up fallen on the street, where they get squashed and can be dangerously slippery, but whose rotting smell is not entirely unpleasant.

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The compensation is in the early spring when the trees bloom and — while it would otherwise be a sin to compare such an ugly to such a beautiful city — Athens smells just like Seville.

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* Greek children, and only children, used to get their presents on New Year’s Day, and they were brought by Saint Basil of Caesarea (Kayseri) in Cappadocia.  I don’t know why, since he was a theologian saint and had no gift-giving traditions associated with him — probably just because January 1st is his feast day — and I don’t even know what people here do now.

** The Despotate of Epiros was one of the independent Greek successor states, along with Nicaea and Trebizond, of the dismembered Byzantine Empire that emerged after the Frankish conquest, sack and destruction of Constantinople in 1204, under the rule of one branch of the Doukases, I think, but later also under a motley crew of other Greeks, Serbs, Albanians and Norman Italians.  It rejoined a reconstituted Romania, or Byzantine Empire (below), at some point after 1261 when Constantinople was retaken by the Laskarids/Palaeologans of NicaeaTrebizond, the region known as Pontus in Greek, remained independent.

12701

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What is January 6th? (Reposted from 2014)

9 Jan

This is a question, or comes as part of misguided well-wishing, that I get at this time of the year when people find out I’m Orthodox.  “Your Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Epiphany?  What’s Epiphany?”  “That’s right!  Three Kings’ Day?!”  “But Russian Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Is that what they call ‘little Christmas’?”  And the thing is that this is one of those questions that people aren’t really interested in hearing the entire answer to because it’s so complicated, and you see their eyes start glazing over just as you’ve started to explain, so I usually mumble “uh-huh” or something and change the topic.  So let this post be my official statement on the issue that people can refer to when they want to know what the deal is, or on those nights when the Ambien isn’t working.

Once upon a time, Julius Caesar created a calendar.  Well, even if it wasn’t Caesar himself but his astronomers, it was known as the Julian calendar and it was what the entire Christian world used until the sixteenth century.  That’s when Western astronomers — during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII — who were smarter than Caesar’s astronomers, realized that the calendar we were all using was off, vis-à-vis certain fixed astronomical events like solstices and equinoxes, and especially the all-important Vernal Equinox* by which the date of Easter is calculated: that it had drifted back some ten days over the centuries, meaning the day that was actually March 20th, let’s say, had slipped back to the day we were calling March 10th at the time.  So they came up with a new calendar that was more accurate, called Gregorian, like the Pope.  They just skipped the errant ten days.  And one fine evening of March 10th, let’s say, Christians the world over went to bed and when they woke up it wasn’t March 11th but March 21st.  With me so far?

After some fuss, Western Christians accepted the new calendar.  The hyper-traditional Russian Orthodox Church and the rest of the Orthodox Churches, which were mostly part of Muslim states at the time, kept the Old/Julian Calendar, till the early twentieth-century when the Greek and Romanian churches adopted the New/Gregorian Calendar, while the other ones (and the monastic communities of Mount Athos) continued and continue using the Julian Calendar.  One of several critical points: since the sixteenth-century change the discrepancy has grown so that the Julian Calendar is now thirteen days behind the astronomically correct Gregorian Calendar.

So, Christmas?  Well, Russians celebrate Christmas on what the West calls January 7th.  Mind you, their church calendars say December 25th when ours say January 7th, so they don’t really celebrate it on January 7th.  It’s just January 7th to us.  Though, actually, if you ask a Serb or a Russian when, for example, St. Nicholas’ Day is, they’ll say December 19th — meaning on our current, modern Gregorian calendar — though on their church books it’s still December 6th, when the West and Greeks and Romanians celebrate it.  The key point is that on the Old/Julian Calendar everything is thirteen days later.

gregory xiiiPope Gregory XIII (click)

I generally find this calendar difference to be a nuisance, one of the negatives of the decentralized structure of the Orthodox Church, mostly because you get vacation at all the wrong times and have to ask for days off, but also because, despite the often scathing condescension I feel for most of Western Christianity, I am an oecumenist at heart.  And it’s unpleasant to celebrate Christmas on a different day than other Orthodox Christians or even Easter on a different date than the West.  On the other hand, sometimes it’s nice.  It’s nice to celebrate Easter without the cheap plastic crap of Easter Bunnies and parades all around.  And it’s nice to get to drop into church in early January when the late December craziness of Christmas in this country — no matter how hard one has tried to stay out of it — has made it impossible for you to even light a simple candle for the holiday. Convenient, in a sense, as well; if I can’t get to a Greek church on August 15th, for example, for the Dormition of the Virgin, (or here) I can always go to a Russian one on August 28th.  But generally, I think it’s the dumbest kind of traditionalism to stick to the Old Calendar.  I mean, even if we’re so literal-minded as to think that we know when Christ was born — or even so literal-minded as to think He actually existed — we now know, scientifically, that the day we were calling December 25th is not December 25th.  So what’s the problem?  Russians, of course, make off like bandits with this deal.  Communism made New Year the most important holiday of the year, but even then everyone still celebrated Old New Year on January 13th.  Now festivities in post-communist Russia start around Western Christmas, go through New Year’s, celebrate Russian Christmas proper on January 7th, and still celebrate Old New Year on January 13th — a month of more than the usual everybody-being-plastered.

Easter?  Oh, Easter.  Why do Greeks celebrate Christmas with the West but Easter with other Orthodox Churches?  Again, a result of the decentralized structure of Orthodoxy.  The Greek Church switched to the Gregorian calendar for everything else, but, due to the fundamental centrality of Easter and the Easter cycle (Lent-Easter-Pentecost) to the faith (something the West has quite seriously lost sight of), it was decided that Greeks and Romanians would continue to calculate the date of Easter according to the Julian Calendar in order to stay in step with the others and maintain Orthodox solidarity.

“But what about January 6th then??!!” you ask, desperately seeking Christian truth.  January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  I repeat: January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  The Богоявление in Church Slavonic, Bogojavljenje — The “God Revelation,” literally, or also colloquially called Jordaninden in some South Slav languages: “Jordan Day.”  Er, like the river, right?  That’s right.  It’s the day Jesus Christ was baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist and the beginning of Christ’s ministry.  But this happened when Christ was 30.  He was baptized on January 6th, thus the Twelve Days of Christmas, but it was January 6th thirty years later; it’s purely coincidental that they come so close to each other, but understandable that Christian observance would lump them together into one holiday season.**  But Epiphany is not a holiday thematically related to Christmas or Christ’s birth; it’s not part of the first few weeks of His life.  It’s also purely coincidental that Epiphany comes twelve days after Christmas and that the Old and New Calendars diverge by thirteen days.  But that’s the reason people have heard of something about January 6th and think “Russian Christmas” is January 6th.  It’s not.  It’s the 7th.  January 6th is Russian Christmas Eve.  And that means Russian Epiphany is…..?  Have you been paying attention?  Very good.  January 19th.  Thirteen days later.  Though, again, Russian and Serbian and Bulgarian Churches are celebrating it on what — for them — is January 6th.

The Epiphany is one of the Great Feasts of the Church and of great theological significance, which is really why I get so worked up about this issue.  It’s not just the day Christ was baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist.  At the moment of His baptism, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father was heard saying: Οὗτός ἐστιν υἱός μου ἀγαπητός, ἐν εὐδόκησα.” “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Thus, it’s the first time that the Trinity was revealed to mankind in all three of its forms at once.  That’s what Epiphany, or Theophany, as it’s also known, (Επιφάνεια or Θεοφάνεια) mean: the “showing” or “revelation” of God — in all His forms.  It was also my father’s nameday (“Fotios,” like “photo” for light — the day is often colloquially known as “The Lights” in Greek) and an important holiday in his village.

Baptism_(Kirillo-Belozersk)Russian icon of the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus Christ (click)

And the Three Kings?  Three Kings’ Day is an abomination whose prohibition I will begin to work towards as soon as I am elected to the College of Cardinals.  Honestly, sorry to be so churlish and ruin the fun of hundreds of millions of little Hispanic kids, but I genuinely find the observance to be more than mildly offensive.  I don’t care that it doesn’t make any sense textually – that the gospels are clear that within days of His birth Mary and Joseph had whisked Christ off to safety in Egypt and that they weren’t sitting around in the cold for almost two weeks waiting for these “kings” to come.  (Though it’s cool that these “kings” were likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran — searching for something they had heard would happen towards the West around the Winter Solstice — Yalda).  I just think it’s the Catholic Church at its cheapest, most propagandistic worst to let a holiday of such theological importance degenerate into a by-product of Franciscan Christ-Child piety (like most of Christmas in the West anyway) and to officially condone this sentimental tripe about frankincense and myrrh, while the real meaning of the holiday is completely forgotten, as if believers are incapable of understanding the real theology behind the day.  It’s the Catholic Church at its Grand Inquisitor worst, actually — and there I’m with Dostoyevsky: give ’em a show and a nice little parade and keep their loyalty and submission; they’re too stupid to get the deep stuff anyway and you’ll only risk confusing them and then, enraged, they’ll turn on you: “Ecco homo….Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος.”  It’s one of the many ways that Rome still seems to be incapable of finding a way between the most ruthless authoritarianism and the cheapest populism.  Though that, of course, was exactly Dostoyevsky’s point: that the two work hand-in-hand.

Which is why, aside from its incredible power as a scene in and of itself, I find the segment from Twelve Years a Slave I posted at top to be immensely gratifying; a slave at least knew that “John” and “baptism in the Jordan” had something to do with “Three” — and not three kings

blessing-of-the-waters

In seaside parts of Greece, the “blessing of the waters” is performed, where the priest throws a cross into the sea and young men dive in to retrieve it.

A few years ago, the Turkish government permitted Greeks in İstanbul to perform the rite again, though for the Patriarch to do so at the Fanari on the Golden Horn, they generally have to call out Turkish commandos to protect the participants from the Çarşamba*** crazies from up the hill.

Oh, and just to add to the confusion, early Christians actually did celebrate the Nativity of Christ on January 6th, but the Church moved it to the 25th of December at some point so they could get a piece of the Saturnalia and Mithra-Birthday celebration market.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* Easter is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox, thus, the first Sunday after the first Full Moon, 14-15 of Nissan — the first night of Passover — in the Jewish Calendar…I think.  In short, the first Sunday after the first night of Passover, one more indication that the New calendar is the more correct way to calculate and number things.

** On the Old Julian Calendar Easter often came so early that Carnival began in late January, thus Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, was considered the beginning of Carnival — one long wintery festival season from Christmas to Ash Wednesday.  This is why Shakespeare’s play, which has nothing to do with the Epiphany, was called “Twelfth Night” — because it was a comedy commissioned for the beginning of Carnival.  For some reason, in the more Slavic, — yes, I said it: S-L-A-V-I-C — parts of northwestern Greece, like Lerin or Kostur, serious Carnival time is early January, and includes elements much like what we know of the Roman Saturnalia, and not the pre-Lenten season that it is elsewhere.  And he have evidence that the Byzantines celebrated a similar, Roman-Saturnalia-derived extended festive time throughout the winter.

Oh…  But what’s Carnival?  And Lent?  Ash Wednesday?  Oooofff….other posts…

*** Çarşamba is a hyper-religious — yes, I’ll just call it fundamentalist — mahalla, up the hill from the Fanari, the once entirely Greek neighborhood on the northern shore of the Old City where the Patriarchate is located.  It’s the only part of İstanbul I — and not a few İstanbullus themselves — genuinely feel uncomfortable being in or walking through, and occasional bits of fun like Molotovs tossed into the Patriarchate’s compound usually come from these lovely black-clad, bearded neighbors of ours.

The Feast of St. John the Baptist, Tirgan, Bonfires and “things long dead…”

24 Jun

Malagac07_17161026People dance around a bonfire during Saint John’s night in northern Spanish town of Oviedo, late June 23, 2011. (Reuters/Eloy Alonso)

Today, June 24th is the feast day of St. John the Baptist.  It’s actually one of several.  June 24th is his birthday and August 29th is the day of his death (the whole Herod and Salome and head on a silver platter story).  But the Orthodox Church has a tradition of setting aside the day after a particular holiday as the synaxis of the main “player,” shall we say, in the previous day’s events.  Thus the Feast of the Holy Spirit comes on Monday after Pentecost, which marks its descent and illumination of the Apostles.  December 26th is the synaxis of the Virgin, but there are so many other holidays dedicated to the Virgin that her synaxis the day after Christmas mostly goes unobserved.  But January 7th, the synaxis, is the most important of the three St. John’s days of the Church — not his birthday, nor his death, but the day after Epiphany, January 6th, when he baptized Jesus Christ.  So as opposed the Catholic West, where June 24th, today, is the most important of his feast days, what most Greeks refer to as του Άη Γιαννιού is usually January 7th and most Greek Johns celebrate their namedays on this day as the closing date of the Christmas season.

And yet his birthday is not ignored.  If we remember (or ever knew) Christ and St. John were cousins, as were their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth.  On March 25th,  the of day the Annunciation, the first thing the Virgin Mary does after the visitation of Gabriel is run — flustered and shocked — to her cousin Elizabeth to tell her what had happened to her. (This love between the two teenage Jewish cousins has always touched me.) Elizabeth at the time was already six months pregnant with the young John, and the “babe leapt in her womb” upon hearing that his beloved cousin had been conceived, for it was John’s purpose — the “Forerunner” — to lay the groundwork, baptize Him and set Him on His mission.  Three months later, at the Summer Solstice, John was born.

And so again we have the formidable astrological and astronomical symmetry that the Church most likely inherited through Zoroastrianism.  Exactly three months after the Annunciation on the Vernal Equinox (Nowruz), John is born on the Summer Solstice (Tirgan), and then six months later Jesus Himself is born on the Winter Solstice (Yalda).  According to Iranian friends, Tirgan is not celebrated nearly as widely as Yalda and especially not Nowruz, and even less than the Autumnal Equinox (Mehregan), but is still present as a holiday in the Iranian consciousness.  Apparently there’s a certain symbolic ritual table set-up for Tirgan, like there is for Nowruz and Yalda, and I had located an image of it before but now can’t find it.

Throughout the Christian world it has traditionally been a time for building bonfires, though why this should be so in the middle of the heat and lengthy days of late June and not at the Winter Solstice has always kind of baffled me.  In northern Europe (for our civilization’s perhaps greatest treatment of the season, see Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” and starkly intense film version of Strinberg’s Miss Julie by Liv Ullman and starring Colin Farrell — as perhaps our civilization’s greatest treatment of the season), Scandinavia and Russia (oh, yeah, Dostoevsky’s White Nights too) this time of the year has also always been associated with a kind of — especially — erotic license and carnivalesque freedom, or even temporary bouts of lunacy or mental illness, which probably comes from not sleeping for several weeks when the sky only goes dark for about an hour every night.

The bonfire tradition still persists in parts of Greece as well, but as all such practices, is probably slowly being forgotten.  The disappearance of practices like this, and the subsequent impoverishment of humanity’s symbolic consciousness and imagination that these losses entail always saddens me.  As I’ve written before, a friend once said to me: “History is a personal emotion for you, N.”

There’s a song by the recently deceased Demetres Metropanos that I love which refers to St. John’s Eve and its bonfires.  Metropanos was a singer very popular in Greece from the 1970s to the early part of the previous decade.  I’ve never understood why so many people considered him to be slightly skylé as a singer — meaning, oh, I dunno, crudely if not underworldly, working-class.  I think much of his music is lovely.  This song, the lyrics of which I don’t totally understand, meaning not that I don’t understand the Greek; I don’t understand the imagery:  Η σούστα πήγαινε μπροστά — “The spring (which means wire coil? shock absorbers?  spring, as in both mattress and ‘jump,’ when its the name of a dance in Crete or the Dodecannese? Something else? I don’t know…) led the way forward” is one of them.  But it’s a testimony to the high quality of Greek popular music at the time, that composers and singers (I don’t know who Metropanos’ lyricist was) were unafraid to use the most abstract and associative poetic imagery in their music, even if it was destined for middle and even lower-middle class audiences. as opposed to the lyrics of rebetika, which often consist of mostly repetitive, “tough-guy,” metallic jangling.

The lyrics, in Greek:

Η σούστα πήγαινε μπροστά
κι ο μάγκας τοίχο τοίχο
δεν έτυχε στα χρόνια αυτά
τίποτα να πετύχω

Ανάβουνε φωτιές στις γειτονιές
του Άη Γιάννη αχ πόσα ξέρεις και μου λες
αχ πόσα τέτοια ξέρεις και μου λες
που ‘χουν πεθάνει

Με βάλαν πάνω στην κορφή
στ’ αγριεμένο κύμα
στης Σμύρνης την καταστροφή
στ’ άδικο και στο κρίμα

Ανάβουνε φωτιές στις γειτονιές
του Άη Γιάννη αχ πόσα ξέρεις και μου λες
αχ πόσα τέτοια ξέρεις και μου λες
που ‘χουν πεθάνει

(Again, very difficult, odd to translate)

The spring led the way
With the “tough guy” (manga, maganda) hugging the wall
I never managed, in all these years, to accomplish anything.
They light bonfires in the mahallades on St. John’s Eve,
which you like telling me about.
Oh, all those things you know and tell me of,
things that are long dead.
They set me up on top,
with the furious waves,
At the destruction of Smyrna,
Amidst the injustice and the pity.
They light bonfires in the mahallades on St. John’s Eve,
which you like telling me about.
Oh, all those things you know and tell me of,
things that are long dead.
“…things that are long dead…”
And the song:

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The Annunciation: “And I thank you for choosing me…”

25 Mar

AnnunciationSantaMariaMaggiore

The Annunciation of the Virgin mosaic from Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore (click)

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to a terrified, barely post-adolescent Jewish girl in a village in Galilee and told her that she was going to become God’s mother.  And in one of the greatest acts of moral bravery in history, this — what? fourteen-year-old? — Jewish girl said: “Yeah…ok.”

This is a “yes” which we should all pray to be given the opportunity to offer up to some one or to some greater thing, in even the tiniest of manners, at some one point in our lives.  It, oddly enough or not, always puts me in mind of the name “Reza,” which I’ve always loved on Persian men, since as far as I understand it, it means “willingness, acceptance, consent…” a saying-yes to Life or to the Divine Will.  (The other is “Peyman,” with its comparable sense of promise and commitment.)  Except in Mary’s case it’s a “saying-yes” that’s particularly female in its bravery, since she barely understands what’s being asked of her and she consents out of pure love, and most men find such consent difficult without first knowing what glory there is in it for them.  Instead Mary does the glorifying:

Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν Κύριον καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ Θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,
ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αυτοῦ. ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί,
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός, καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς τοῖς φοβουμένοις αυτόν.
Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ, διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν·
καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς, πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς.
ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ, μνησθῆναι ἐλέους, καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν τῷ Αβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

54 He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

That’s March 25th: the Annunciation of the Virgin.  The rest — by which we mostly mean Greek Independence Day — is bullshit.  Nothing that led to the establishment of the first independent Kingdom of Greece happened on March 25th.  There were sporadic outbreaks of rebellion, some semi-coordinated, among Ottoman Greeks throughout the Empire in the early spring of 1821, but there was no raising of any standards, or launching of any campaigns or declarations of any kind made on March 25, 1821 as far as we know.  Except for sporadic massacring nothing much occurred at all that year until the fall, when, only with foreign help, the Greek rebels were able to finally take Tripolitsa in the Peloponnese and butcher the majority of its Muslim and Jewish — meaning practically its entire — population.  And eventually all that happened is that the Greek statelet slapped its observation of Independence Day onto the Annunciation in a conscious-or-not appropriation of the holiday’s already inherent meanings of conception, inception and beginning (I think that, the Julian Calendar still in operation at the time, March 25th was also Easter Sunday that year so, with the theme of Resurrection added, the temptation was irresistible) and so Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus smothered one of the loveliest holidays of the Church with flags and parades and tanks and national anthem sap and all the other cheezy trappings of N/S patriotism.

But by the same token, the Annunciation itself was slapped by the Church onto the pre-existing observation of the Vernal Equinox (by a few days), the Persian Zoroastrian New Year, Nowruz, the first day of spring, the first day of the month of Aries — with its already inherent meanings of conception, inception and beginning.  And fast forward nine months, exactly (she was nothing if not on-time our Pantanassa*) and we have Christ born on (or near) another Zoroastrian holiday, Yalda, which marks the Winter Solstice and the beginning of the lengthened days and the Sun’s return to our lives.  The Winter Solstice, in more ancient Iranian religion, was the birth date of the deity Mithra, often associated with the Sun, and who — guess what? — was often said to be born in a cave, of a virgin mother, and who saved the world through the sacrifice of a bull along with a whole other complex of shifting tales and myths that I’m not an expert on.

But though Mithra seemed to fade into a secondary deity in classical Sassanian Zoroastrianism, he was accepted with great fervor and enthusiasm into the highly eclectic polytheism of the late Roman world, where he was especially popular in the Roman army.  Many of the latter emperors were devout followers and there are historians that believe — seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me — that the West came close to being a Mithraic civilization instead of a Christian one.  But the Church slapped Christ’s December 25th birthday onto Mithra’s (I’m simplifying some) and that was the end of Mithraism.  Which is a bummer, because by the Second Century A.D., Mithraism had evolved, in Roman hands, into a super-butch, male virility bull-cult for an initiated military elite, all wrapped-up in the full panoply of Hermetic-Alexandrian-Astrological wisdom, where Roman officers and soldiers gathered in caves and commemorated the sacrificed bull and honored its blood  (we don’t really know what occurred because it was only for the initiated but a sacrifice and subsequent shared meal of some kind was probably involved) and Christianity is kinda — well — is kind of lacking in those kinds of thrills.  One of my best beloved Roman ancestors, Julian the Apostate (the subject of four Cavafy poems), a fascinating figure, who was both a devotee of Mithra and an initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries, tried to reverse his uncle Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the Roman state religion and give support to the traditional pagan cults, their rites, rituals and sacrifices, but it was already too late.  People just wanted their blood as metaphor by then, a shift in consciousness that has always been considered psychic or intellectual progress of some kind though — like the shift to monotheism itself — I could never quite understand why.  Those of us who still like reality better still have and have always had Spain though; that’s unless the European Union and PETA and the Catalans take their sanitary Handy-Wipes to the corrida too and that’ll be the real end.

Ah, but even then we’ll still have Mexico…

"Tauroctony" - Mithras slaying a bull

Mithra and the Bull, from the Vatican Museum (no other info) (click: it’s a huge and beautiful file)

What conclusions can we draw from all this?  One, is that humanity is not particularly imaginative and just kinda copies itself over and over ad infinitum.  Second, is the idea that often comes up when looking at our zone, thinking about “our parts,” more closely — and that’s the simple conclusion that everything is Persian.  Not just our food, our music or dance, our dress, our color palette, our poetic sensibility and ideas about love, but our common penchant for narrative cycles of martyrdom and rebirth (see: “Ashura 1435: a poem from Agha Shahid Ali”) and the deeper structures of our spiritual psyches.  It’s tempting; instead of the inane arguments about what’s Greek and what’s Arab and what’s Indian and what’s Turkish — everything is Persian, and be done with it.  Alexander seemed to have gotten it; shouldn’t be too hard for the rest of us.  But probably the truth lies and always will lie with Jung: and that is that all of the imaginary activity of the human unconscious operates on one, unified, symbolic grid of archetypes.

Chronia Polla to those whose namedays are today.  And signing off this post with R&B singer Lauryn Hill’s beautiful “To Zion” where the subtitle of this post comes from.  This was a song that came from her real-life experience of having to choose between having an unexpected baby and sticking with her career.  “One day…you gonna understand…”  Lyrics are below:

“To Zion”

Unsure of what the balance held
I touched my belly overwhelmed
By what I had been chosen to perform
But then an angel came one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For unto me a man child would be born
Woe this crazy circumstance
I knew his life deserved a chance
But everybody told me to be smart
Look at your career they said,
“Lauryn, baby use your head”
But instead I chose to use my heart

Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

How beautiful if nothing more
Than to wait at Zion’s door
I’ve never been in love like this before
Now let me pray to keep you from
The perils that will surely come
See life for you my prince has just begun
And I thank you for choosing me
To come through unto life to be
A beautiful reflection of His grace
See I know that a gift so great
Is only one God could create
And I’m reminded every time I see your face

That the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Marching, marching
Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Beautiful, beautiful Zion
[repeat to end of song]

*************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

*”παντάνασσα,” pantanassa, is one of my favorite epithets for the Virgin, but whether it means “all-breathing, giver-of-breath, breath-granting” I can’t tell, nor can anybody else I know.

**Latest addendum note: Beloved dinosaur cousin — who is the always the one one should go to for these question, since he’s a monster of erudition in most fields, but especially Greek language, informs us that Pantanassa has nothing to do with breath or breathing, as many of us must assume, but: Η άνασσα είναι το θηλυκό του άνακτος (ονομαστική: άναξ), του βασιλέως (εξ ου και ανάκτορα).  “Anassa” is the feminine form of “Anax,” meaning king, same root as “Anaktora,” or palace.  So it simply means “Queen of Queens,” which is kind of disappointingly Catholic-sounding.  Speaks to a whole history of Greek and Latin vocabulary mixing itself up, replacing, re-replacing, disappearing and then appearing again, especially in titles of government or military due to initial composite character of Byzantine state structure.  I’m assuming, i.e., άνασσα was already an archaically Greek word at the time, for example, the Chairetismoi were written.

And a personal sensory note:  According to the guidelines of Orthodox fasting, which if observed carefully constitute the most elegantly designed spiritual economy of partaking and abstaining one can imagine (probably only Hinduism could produce a more intelligent  schema) — again, the guidelines, not the rules, meaning it doesn’t affect your G.P.A. at the end of term if you slip up, like if you’re Catholic — fish is considered meat, and is not eaten during Lent.  But there are festive days, essentially the Annunciation and Palm Sunday, which even in the sorrow of Lent, should be marked as Feasts, and then the eating of fish is practically obligatory.  Today in the streets of Greek neighborhoods, therefore, here in Athens or in Astoria, in apartment house corridors and restaurants, the smell of fried bacalao is all-pervasive.  One of my strongest sensory memories of Holy Week as a child is being taken to the matins for Holy Monday on Palm Sunday evening, the first of the so-called “Nymphios” or “Bridegroom” services (the reference being to Christ coming to Jerusalem for Passover and to meet his fate) and all the old women in church smelling like fish fritanga.

And a really interesting article from Wiki about “Tauroctony” or “Bull-slaying” if you’re interested in the phenomenon religio-anthropologically.  Again, the best book, that’s both an anthropology of Mediterranean bull cults and the best sociological history of Spanish bullfighting there is, is Timothy Mitchell’s “Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com


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