Tag Archives: Holy Week

New Header Image: Konstantin Savitsky, Monk 1897

28 Mar

This will have to do until Holy Week/Easter.

Special thanks to Pelagia in Belgrade (old post) for first posting this image @Ljiljana1972.


And some slightly weird seguing/addendum:

For more on B-Town see also: “I haven’t seen any other English-language writer pull these elements together into such a compelling portrait of the city.” :

Hi Niko,

Predictably enough, when I first discovered your blog (a happy accident — I was googling “Sveti Jovan Bigorski” and spent an unusual amount of time leafing through search results) one of the first things I did was look under the ‘Serbia’ tag. I’ve already seen all four of the posts you’ve referenced. All four are terrific, but I’m especially enamored of your take on Belgrade — you really understand the place and its people and its historical-geographical specifics. I haven’t seen any other English-language writer pull these elements together into such a compelling portrait of the city. It’s obvious that you care about the place, which means a lot.

Just that I’m particularly proud of that review… :)


Write us: with comments or observations, or to be put on our mailing list or to be taken off our mailing list, contact us at nikobakos@gmail.com.

Σήμερον κρεμάται επί ξύλου…

17 Apr



“Today hangs suspended from a piece of wood, the One who suspended the earth amidst the waters…” begins the main hymn of tonight’s service in the Orthodox Church.  It’s matins for Good Friday, sung the night before; it corresponds to the Oficio de Tinieblas in the Catholic Church, or the Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross.  Except it’s not the forty-five minutes Cliff notes version.  It’s a four — with Russians, five plus — hour, perfectly paced and structured, oratorio that uses twelve gospel selections (it’s colloquially known as the “Twelve Gospels” among both Greeks and Russians and I imagine other Orthodox peoples), and a surfeit of beautiful and psychologically astute poetry and music to tell the story of the Last Supper, and Christ’s arrest, judgement, crucifixion, death and burial.  It’s my favorite Holy Week service.  Because it’s a masterpiece.  It doesn’t draw any of its power from made-up, sadistic Mel Gibson details that aren’t even in the gospels: like how many times Christ fell, or where they whipped Him, or where and when they spat on Him, or where He scraped his knees, or any of the bloody kitsch and sensationalism and fabricated detail so physical that it’s disrespectful and that the Catholic Church allows and encourages; one speaks of the body of Christ with a certain laconic awe I would think, no matter what it was put through.  Its power comes from the perfection of its theater and its theology and — if anything — from the spareness of the story it tells.

Background to this post…  For years, whenever I heard that relatives or friends from Greece, especially under a certain age and especially from Athens, were coming to New York to visit for Easter, my guts would get twisted up in knots of anxiety in anticipation because I just could not endure having them around at that time of year.  Anticipation of what?  Well, there came a time, for me a crucial turning point in post-1974 Neo-Greek culture — it was around the early-eighties — when Greeks started asking each other: “Where are you going for Easter?”  And I couldn’t imagine what I would answer if asked.  Where am I going for Easter?  I dunno…  I’m going to be home.  I’m going to my village.  It’s Easter.  Where should I be going?  This is because there came a point, when, for the demographic I’m talking about, Holy Week and Easter had become the equivalent of Spring Break, some free days to go off on a vacation somewhere.

So I could anticipate their attitude.  I knew they wouldn’t appreciate the subtle shift in the pace of life that occurs in a Greek neighborhood like Astoria when Palm Sunday dawns.  The sobriety mixed with the rush of preparation and excitement.  I would anticipate instead the surprise, at best, but mostly the grinning condescension, with which they’d react to how seriously diaspora Greeks still took this time of the year, how backwards and un-hip and un-Euro it was of us.  I’d know they’d want to go out to a cool baraki on Good Friday night.  I’d know they’d ask to be taken shopping on Holy Saturday, in the middle of the cooking and cleaning: there were some shoes they had seen on sale at Macy’s.  I had two Turkish roommates for a while once: totally secular, modern Istanbullu girls; they just didn’t eat pork.  And out of respect, or just to prevent possible squeamishness on their part — they had never even said anything to me — I would keep salami and pancetta and other pork products in the basement refrigerator that they never used.  On the other hand, I once had to have a screeching match with a Athenian guest about not having meat in the house on Good Friday — I ended up feeling like a friggin’ Talib — because she needed her protein and fasting reminded her of how oppressive her mother was during her childhood.  Just a couple of years ago, a cousin saw me go off to the first Nymphio on Palm Sunday evening and said to me: “You mean…like…you’re going to go be going to church…like…every night this week?  In Greece nobody goes.  That’s something left over in the diaspora…” she had the archidia to say to me.  It was never something they had lost; it was always something “left over” among us.  I said nothing.  But, as you can imagine — as opposed to the sentiment of “Next year in Jerusalem” — the idea of being stuck in Greece for Easter had always been my nightmare.  I only came this year because it was going to be one of the rare years professionally when I could go to my father’s village in Albania for what I knew would be a traditional Easter that wouldn’t infuriate me.

And instead I’ve been amazingly and pleasantly surprised.  I don’t know what Greece it is that this cousin of mine lives in where nobody goes to church, but all through Lent and especially this week, every church I’ve been in has been packed.  Tonight was the most moving “Twelve Gospels” I’ve ever attended.  The massive (as massive as a pre-Tanzimat church could be) eighteenth-century, stone cathedral of Jiannena was filled to the rafters — literally; it has a two-floor gallery where the women used to traditionally stand and even both of them were full.  The cantors were perfect.  The procession of the Cross immaculately pulled off.  I felt like Vladimir’s envoys in Hagia Sophia.

But what most moved me most was the breadth of age and sex of the crowd.  If anything, there were even more young people than there would be in New York — young guys, parea — following the text from the little black book carefully, people with that relaxed reverence that the best Greek — knowing how to be respectful, but comfortable in his father’s house — displays when in church.  Almost everyone stayed to the very end.  I really felt in my heart and gut what Yosef Eliya felt in his Purim poem when he writes: “Tonight the synagogues open their arms wide to the faithful children of my ancient people…”

Tomorrow it’s off to Albania.

Kale Anastase and Happy Easter…my ancient people.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com


13 Apr


…the Bridegroom’s come, the barren fig tree cursed, the annoying Pharisees silenced.  And so begins the voyage to the “great feast of the Greeks”: our Eleusinian Mysteries, our Hajj, our Bayreuth; our Chaucer; our Shakespeare; our Mozart, our Beethoven and Wagner.  A seven-night and seven-day oratorio; the central narrative of Roman civilization.  “Come and see” if you can.

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

25 Mar


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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