Tag Archives: Christmas

Merry Christmas to all

21 Dec

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Athens exploding in citrus

5 Dec

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

From Salon: Jewish angels and Roman gods: The ancient mythological origins of Christmas

3 Jan

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This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet

 

 

 

Valerie Tarico interviews Dr. Tony Nugent, scholar of world religions. Dr. Nugent is a symbologist, an expert in ancient symbols. He taught at Seattle University for fifteen years in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and is an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Many Americans have heard that December 25 was a birthday of Roman gods long before it was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some people also know that our delightful mélange of Christmas festivities originated in ancient Norse, Roman and Druid traditions – or, in the case of Rudolph, on Madison Avenue. But where does the Christmas story itself come from: Jesus in the manger, the angels and wise men?

Nugent: The familiar Christmas story, including the virgin conception and birth of Jesus, is found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Scholars have pointed out that these stories are somewhat disconnected from other parts of these Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. In fact, by the time he is a young boy in the temple, Jesus’s parents seem to have forgotten the virgin birth. They act surprised by his odd behavior. There is never any other mention in the New Testament of these incredible events! These stories seem to be an afterthought, written later than the rest of the gospels that contain them. To make matters more interesting, the stories themselves have inconsistencies and ambiguities – contradictory genealogies, for example. Our Christmas story (singular) is actually a composite.

Or consider the idea that Mary is a virgin. The Greek writer of Matthew quotes Isaiah as saying: “a parthenos shall conceive and bear a child.” The Hebrew word in Isaiah is “almah,” which means simply “young woman.” But the Greek word parthenos can mean either a virgin or a young woman, and it got translated as “virgin.” Modern Bible translations have corrected this, but it is a central part of the Christmas story.

That’s a lot of added complications. If the rest of the New Testament doesn’t refer to these stories or need them, then how did we end up with them? Where do they come from?

Nugent: One part of the answer comes from Hellenistic culture. (It is no accident all New Testament books written in Greek.) In this tradition, when a man did something extraordinary there was the assumption that he did this because he was different, either divine or semi-divine. They would make up a story about how he came to be divine. Almost all Greek heroes were said to be born of a human woman and a god–even Alexander the Great, Augustus and Pythagoras.

The father typically was Zeus or Apollo. The god would come and sleep with the woman, pretending to be the husband or as a bolt of lightning, or some such. Greek mythology also shows up in the book of Genesis: the gods lusting after the women and coming down and mating with them.

Why were they added to the Christian story?

Nugent: Jewish Christians, the first Christians, didn’t believe in the virgin birth. They believed that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. Part of their Christology was “adoptionism”–they thought Jesus was adopted as the unique son of God at some time later in life. There were disagreements about when – Mark suggests the baptism, Paul suggests the resurrection.

Over time, gentile Christianity replaced Jewish Christianity. There were Jewish-Roman Wars. The Jewish Christians were marginalized and oppressed. The Gentile branch became dominant. Eventually we get the gospel of John which pushes the sonship of Jesus back to the beginning of time. This writer is at the other end of the spectrum from the Jewish Christians.

But Matthew and Luke think that the sonship of Jesus began at birth. And they want to tell a story that reinforces this point. Matthew and Luke are the source of the Christmas story as most of us learned it.

Why didn’t the writers do a better job of cleaning the contradictions?

Nugent: They did, some. This is called the “orthodox corruption of scripture.” But it appears that these birth stories were added toward the end, so scripture got frozen before they could get integrated.

I was raised that the bible was the literally perfect, “inerrant” word of God, essentially dictated by God to the writers. What you are saying about the Christmas story sure calls into question this point of view.

Nugent: Which Bible?! There are thousands of manuscript variations. Most biblical stories are probably fiction, not non-fiction. They are mythology in the deepest sense of the word. But we need to get beyond the issue of whether biblical reports happened in the historical, physical sense to understand what they mean spiritually and mythically.

Ok. Back to Christmas. Of all the images from the Christmas story, the one that people fall in love with most is angels. The Christmas story is full of angels, beings of light. Is this because of the solstice tradition?

Nugent: Actually it comes from the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish scriptures that were eventually adopted into the Christian Bible as the Old Testament. It also comes from the Jewish literature written between the Old and New Testaments that didn’t get into the biblical canon. Some of these are even quoted in the New Testament, for example Enoch, from the 2nd Century BC. It’s all about angels.

What are angels in these stories? Who are they?

Nugent: The Bible calls them the sons of God, the Divine Council. The word used for God in parts of the Hebrew Bible, Elohim, is plural implying a family of deities. Angels are the lesser gods of the deposed pantheon of ancient Israel. They are under the rulership of Yahweh. Together with Yahweh they are part of Elohim, a plural word that we translate “God” in the book of Genesis. Elohim/God says “Let us make humans in our image.” Christians understand this to refer to the trinity, but that is a later interpretation. These angels came from the ancient pantheons of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Many of these gods come from stars. There is a strong astral dimension. “Heavenly Hosts” are stars.

The Luke story focuses on one angel specifically: Gabriel. Is he the archangel?

Nugent: Gabriel is the Angel of the Lord. He is one of two angels who are named in the Jewish canon and the Christian canon outside of the apocrypha: Gabriel and Michael. They are the angels of mercy and judgment. Gabriel means “Strong One of El.” He is first named in Daniel.

f you go into an Eastern Orthodox church you have two icons on the north and south. Michael is on the North to fight with Satan who lives there. Gabriel is on the south. He is more like what the angels originally were, which is messengers of the gods. That is what angel means. The idea that God has a special messenger is exactly what we read about in the Middle Eastern mythologies. Each of the earlier gods has his own special messenger. Enki, who becomes Yaweh, has Isimud. The goddess Inana has Ninshubur. Each high god will have an envoy or assistant, who is a lesser god. The angel of the lord is the same thing. The distinction between angels and gods came later.

So Gabriel is a star person? Or one of those semi-divine descendants of gods and women.

Nugent: He is one of the gods who would come down to earth.

Why do you say that?

Nugent: The offspring of the gods mating with women are called Gaborim–from the same root as Gabriel. In the second century, Gabriel appears in the Epistula Apostolorum. It talks about Jesus and these secret teachings that he gave to his apostles after the resurrection. One of the secrets is that he is actually Gabriel. After Gabriel took on flesh and united with Mary, then he becomes Jesus. The idea that Christ was an angel was extremely popular in the early church. Later we find this really strict separation between humans and angels; between gods and angels. (more)

We have time for just one more favorite Christmas story: The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi.

Nugent: The Magi are astrologers. They are Zoroastrian priests. Just to the east of the Roman Empire was the Persian Empire, which was Zoroastrian. They see this star at its rising (the better translations don’t say in the East). The astrologers paid a lot of attention to this. It is likely that what this refers to was a heliacal rising, which is the first time that a star appears over the horizon during the course of a year. They thought this was a sign of the Jewish messiah. Scholars speculate that they would have been living in Babylon, where there were lots of Jewish merchants. The Jews had been there from the time of the Jewish exile from Babylonia. We have cuneiform records from them.

Are you assuming that this story is historical?

Nugent: Think of it as a frog and pond. The pond is real, the frog is not. They are fictional stories in a real setting. They don’t always get the details of the setting right, but they are fictional characters in real places. The Magi follow their star from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The author has in mind a real star that would be in front of you in this situation. It would have to be a star in the far southern sky. Remember what I said about the Heavenly Host being stars? The star in Matthew and the angel in Luke are two variants of the same mythology.

My former fundamentalist head is spinning. Is there anything else you’d like to say in closing?

Nugent: We need to be able to appreciate these stories as myths, rather than literal histories. When you understand where they come from, then you can understand their spiritual significance for the writers and for us.

This interview first appeared at the Huffington Post, December 25, 2008

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“The sun has set on Tehran. It is Yalda now.”

21 Dec

To be super-succinct: this is where Christmas comes from.  And so consider it my Christmas greetings to folks too, ’cause I won’t have time to come up with anything else…

See 2012 post re-blogged from Tehran Bureau and pasted below.

All be well.  NB

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Dispatch | Yalda: The Evolution of an Iranian Tradition

by CORRESPONDENT

27 Dec 2012 06:060 Comments
 A winter festival that predates the Prophet becomes an occasion to reassert national identity.
The sun has set on Tehran. It is Yalda now.It is Thursday, December 20, the last day of the month of Azar in the Persian calendar. The winter solstice has begun — the longest night of the year, the night of Yalda. The history of the seasonal celebration dates back to pre-Islamic Iran and the Mithraists, for whom Yalda was the night when Mithra, the angel of light and truth, was born. The tradition was adopted in turn by the Zoroastrians. With the arrival of Islam on the Iranian Plateau, Yalda became a purely social occasion without religious or official standing. For centuries, it was quietly observed by many Iranians with family gatherings and readings from the classical masters such as Hafez. That has largely changed.Cars choke the streets of Tehran and the capital’s notorious traffic jams are even worse than usual. People are heading to their Yalda parties after lining up outside shops since early afternoon. The shelves of pastry stores are empty. The prices for pistachios and the dried fruit-and-nut mix known as ajil have been rising for the past week, although the bakery and candy shop syndicate has announced that there is no shortage of Yalda treats. Coffee shops across the city have hung signs inviting people to come celebrate Yalda. To a foreign observer, it would seem self-evident that a national holiday is being observed.Is this the norm in modern Iran? Morteza, a cab driver who works out of an agency on Sattar Khan Street in west Tehran, does not think so. “Yalda became important in the last few years; it was just a tradition and not a very important one.” Nooshin, a psychologist from south Tehran, agrees. “Yalda was an occasion for people to get together, to meet their elders and to recite poetry and have fresh fruits and snacks.” Now, “Yalda is a really big deal for many,” she says. “From a night of family reunions and poetry readings, Yalda has evolved into a night of dancing and parties.” She has seen many Yalda fêtes where alcohol — entirely illegal in the Islamic Republic — flowed freely.For Bahareh, a 36-year-old physician, Yalda is a time to mix old traditions with new habits. “In our family, we usually get together at my grandparents’ house. All my uncles and aunts are there with their children.” She used to find such gatherings fun, but as Bahareh grew older her tastes changed. “I like my family, but hanging out with the older generation can be a bit boring,” she says.Tonight she will drop by her grandparents’ place, but then head elsewhere for most of the evening. “My brother and I will hit a few parties in the north of Tehran.” She even plans a costume change: a fashionable, yet modest outfit for the family will be followed by an evening dress for the party rounds. “It’s a younger crowd and you need to look good,” she explains. As for alcohol, she is looking forward to having some wine after hearing her grandfather read from Hafez. “A party without alcohol is not a party!” she proclaims. She is rushing home as her itinerary requires careful preparation.The shift in how Yalda is celebrated has had economic consequences, as evidenced by those retail queues. In the Yousef Abad neighborhood, at one point there were at least 80 people lined up outside Bibi, a popular pastry shop. The cost of watermelon, a Yalda delicacy, has risen to new heights. Many from north Tehran have headed to farmers’ markets on the south side to try to find it at a reasonable price. Javid, a grocery store owner in his mid-50s, is not happy. “Damn truck drivers halt by the roadside to sell their load to the passersby. I cannot find what my customers need and am losing clients to these pirates!” There is a heavy trade in alcoholic beverages as well. Kasra, a 26-year-old salesman, has already received his order of beer and Cognac for the night.

Kashani, who runs a pastry shop close to Vali Asr Square, says the celebration is good for his business. “People start to shop for Yalda a day or two before…. They come early to place orders so they can pick up fresh pastries in the afternoon.” His cakes and cream puffs disappear as soon as they emerge from the kitchen. Kashani compares the increase in his sales to the one that precedes Nowruz, the Persian New Year’s holiday. “It is not quite as much as Nowruz, but it is similar, maybe one of the biggest nights after that for us.” The spike in pistachio and pastry prices tends to presage the level of temporary inflation around New Year’s.

“What makes people happy is good for business and right now Yalda makes them happy,” says Kashani. Last year, he ran out of baked goods on Yalda. This year, he believes, he is fully prepared to meet the increased demand.

Why has Yalda grown into such a major festival? According to Morteza, “People have no real entertainment, they are not happy anymore. They use any excuse to celebrate.” Almost everyone I ask replies with some variation on that theme. Nooshin, for instance: “Yalda has become important because our people are looking for new ways of entertainment, trying to be happy.” Mr. Hosseini, a retired teacher in his 60s, says, “People are celebrating their heritage. They want to tell the government that they are Iranians and they have Iranian heritage too.”

Celebrating Yalda as a way of underscoring a distinctly Iranian identity is not new, says Nooshin. “However, people have become adamant about their cultural identity recently,” she asserts. Mr. Hosseini concurs completely. “Our government wants to change us into something we are not. People do not want that and use every opportunity to keep their traditions.” Riding Morteza’s cab, he noticed how much more visible the celebration is around the capital compared to years past. “The government does not like Yalda, but now they have to acknowledge it because of the people.”

It does seems that the authorities are taking notice. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) 1 is airing the American blockbuster comedy Meet the Parents. Dubbed into Persian, it has been rigorously censored according to IRIB rules. No one has any doubt, however, that it is a special screening for Yalda. Other TV and radio channels are broadcasting Persian music and poetry readings. A national photography competition dedicated to capturing Yalda moments is being held.

Still, the regime is hardly joining the party wholesale. A group of high-ranking clerics just announced that Friday, the day after Yalda, is the anniversary of the Second Imam, Hassan Mojtaba, whose martyrdom has traditionally been mourned three weeks later. The pious are advised to mark the occasion with prayer and mourning ceremonies. Morteza believes the sudden change of calendar is intended to dampen the public mood on Yalda itself. If indeed that was the intent, it has evidently failed.

It is getting late and the streets are still jammed. Yalda has just begun. Tehran, under the veil of darkness, celebrates its own unconquerable spirit.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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

25 Mar

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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

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem placed on UNESCO’s world heritage sites in danger list: Israel and U.S. object

29 Jun

(File, AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

PARIS (AP) – UNESCO’s World Heritage committee on Thursday approved a Palestinian bid to place the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on its list of sites of World Heritage in Danger – a move seen by some nations as dangerously mixing politics and culture.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said the vote was an affirmation of Palestinian sovereignty over the site that marks the place where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Israel angrily denounced the vote, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ilana Stein saying the decision “has turned UNESCO into a theater of the absurd.”

“This is a sad day for the World Heritage Committee,” she said.

The 21-member committee, meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, voted 13-6 to include the church and pilgrimage route, located in the Israeli-controlled West Bank, on its list of sites. There were two abstentions.

The drive to get the Nativity church quickly recognized as a World Heritage site was part of the Palestinians’ bid to win international recognition since attempts to establish a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel are frozen.

The United States was among nations opposed to the Palestinian proposal of an emergency candidacy for the iconic Christian site, shortcutting what is usually an 18-month-long process to apply for World Heritage recognition. Neither the United States nor Israel was on the committee. The U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said the United States is “profoundly disappointed.”

The church – which drew some 2 million visitors last year and parts of which are 1,500 years old – stands above the grotto that Christians believe was the birthplace of Jesus. The Palestinian application asks for recognition as a site of “outstanding universal value” urgently in need of attention.

The application cited lack of regular restoration of the church due to the political situation since 1967 when Israel occupied the territories, and difficulties procuring equipment because of lack of free movement imposed by Israeli forces.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization voted to admit Palestine as a full member in October. The emergency candidacy for the church clearly showed the Palestinians’ intention of making the most of their position, after a failure to join the main U.N. body because Palestine is not a recognized state.

The Palestinian application to place the Church on the list showed that they plan to put forward other sites for prestigious World Heritage recognition, eventually linking various landmarks to the life of Jesus.

“The message to Israel today is that unilateral actions will not work and that Israel cannot continue challenging the world despite its powerful allies,” Ashrawi said.

Killion, the U.S. ambassador, said “this body should not be politicized.” His statement noted the candidacy was opposed by a UNESCO experts committee, whose conclusions are almost always heeded.

The three churches acting as custodians of the site had also been opposed. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic churches keep the site under a so-called Status Quo agreement dating to the Ottoman empire, and fear the Palestinian action will upset that delicate balance.

“The site clearly has tremendous religious and historical significance,” Killion’s statement said. “However, the emergency procedure used in this instance is reserved only for extreme cases.”

Stein, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said those who voted in favor of the Nativity candidacy “have given themselves up as pawns in the service of the Palestinians at the expense of UNESCO’s professionalism and good name.”

While the church needs restoration, including repair of a leaky roof, it was not seen by the experts committee as being in imminent threat of destruction – the criteria usually reserved for the emergency procedure

A site nominated by Israel depicting human evolution at Mount Carmel, the Nahal Me’arot/Wadi el-Mughara Caves, also was inscribed on the World Heritage list. That nomination, like all others under consideration in St. Petersburg, went through regular channels – not the emergency route.

Exterior and interior of the church

 

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