Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.47

Evy Johanne Håland, Rituals of Death and Dying in Modern and Ancient Greece: Writing History from a Female Perspective.   Newcastle upon Tyne:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.  Pp. xvii, 672.  ISBN 9781443861274.  £73.99.  

Reviewed by Tommaso Braccini, Università di Torino (


The objectives, and the potential for novelty, of the book under review are stated in its introductory pages. Håland, a researcher with competence in Classical literature and decades of ethnographic field experience in Mediterranean countries, aims at giving a broad overview of Greek “death cults” from antiquity to the present. The term “death cult” has to be understood in a very broad sense, including both the honors paid by family members to their deceased loved ones and the public rituals involving heroic figures or saints, up to the Panagia herself, the Virgin Mary. In carrying out her research, the author has chosen a gendered approach and a “gyno-inclusive perspective”, observing that, although the sources in our possession—above all those regarding antiquity—express a male point of view, nevertheless the most important role in funeral rituals is played by women. The study of modern Greek customs about the cult of the dead could therefore help us, in the author’s view, to integrate our knowledge of what actually happened in similar circumstances in the ancient world, allowing us to bypass the androcentric bias, often dismissive towards the world view and the values expressed by the female component of society.

From the first chapter (“Death Rituals and the Cult of the Dead in Greece”), the author shows herself well aware of criticisms made in recent decades, in particular by Loring Danforth, of “survivalist” approaches, which are accused of being mainly motivated by ideology.1 Her choice, however, is not to refrain from suggesting, when the concordance between ancient and modern practices allows it, a formal and ideological continuity in the relationship of women (and also, consequently, of men) to death and the dead. As for modern practices, in addition to the previous literature, the author draws on her own field work conducted in Greece from the 1990s to 2013, in particular on the islands of Tinos, Cephalonia and Aegina.

The second chapter (“Fieldwork: Modern Saints' Festivals”) is dedicated to a very detailed exposition of some festivals in which the author took part, often over a number of years. This allows her to document the evolution of the cult practices and their adaptation to the extremely severe economic crisis that has hit Greece in recent years. The festivals under observation commemorate the Annunciation of the Panagia and the Vision of Saint Pelagia (both in Tinos), Saint Gerasimos in Kephalonia and Saint Nektarios in Aegina, the latter a recent saint (d. 1920) whose cult is quickly spreading in Romania and Russia. In the first two occurrences, at the center of the “death cult” is the icon of the Virgin; in the last two cases, the focus is on the remains and the tombs of the two holy men. Gerasimos’ relics are carried in procession and literally “passed over” the sick, lying down along the road, while pilgrims to the feast of Saint Nektarios leave supplication letters near his tomb and put their ear to his coffin to hear the steps of the saint inside; some of them are convinced they saw him open one eye when his head was solemnly carried in a procession. This chapter, as well as the following, is illustrated by black and white photographs taken by the author, documenting the practices referred to.

The third chapter is entitled “The Cult of the Saints, Heroes, Heroines and Other Exceptional Dead.” Håland considers these figures as mediators with the supernatural (capable of both good and “malevolent” miracles), and substantially equivalent to each other (pace Brown and others). Major and minor divinities also enter the equation: so the Easter rites on Tinos (focusing on the death and resurrection of Christ), and the festival of the Dormition of the Virgin, are assimilated respectively to the ceremonies in honor of Adonis (but also to Dionysiac rites and the Eleusinian mysteries) and the Panathenaia in Athens. Sometimes some aspects of these ceremonies, like the throwing of wreaths in the sea during a Good Friday procession, have a “mythopoietic” value, i.e. they stimulate the creation of more or less unfounded aetiologies by the faithful, puzzled by their obscure symbolism. It also emerges how often, in modern festivals, there is a discrepancy between the prescriptions of the religious authorities and the actual behavior of the faithful, recalling how some cult practices attested in antiquity, usually those that were the prerogative of women or popular strata, were also frowned upon or actually discouraged by the ruling class.

This last aspect is discussed in detail (with a strong stance against “Detienne’s masculinist view” of the Adonia) in the fourth chapter, “Laments and Burials”, based mainly on fieldwork conducted in Tinos, Athens, the village of Olympos on Karpathos, and the southern Mani peninsula in the Peloponnese. Funeral lamentations, the author states, are an important female prerogative from Homer onwards, and since antiquity they have always been repressed (in vain) by male authorities. In addition to the written sources, Håland also draws material for comparison from ancient iconography, and makes extensive use of earlier literature, in particular of the work of M. Alexiou. Given the fact that Håland is placing Greek customs into a Mediterranean context, however, and considering her fieldwork experience in southern Italy, it is somewhat surprising that she does not refer, even in passing, to Ernesto De Martino’s work, especially Morte e pianto rituale: dal lamento funebre antico al pianto di Maria, first published in 1958 (new ed. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2000).

In the fifth chapter (“Tombs and gifts”), Håland describes the contemporary habit of bringing gifts to graves (for example, toy cars in the case of a dead boy) and food offerings for the dead in cemeteries. Primary occasions for these contacts between the living and the dead are the so-called psychosavvata (Saturdays dedicated to the souls of the departed). Cleaning the graves and bringing the appropriate food offerings are an expression of what the author calls the “poetics of womanhood”. The desire to excel in this area often leads to a real competition between women attending the rituals, a competition that is completely ignored by men – as perhaps happened also in ancient times. In fact, parallels with grave offerings in antiquity are evident; while discussing their literary attestations, the author also dwells on the figure of Clytemnestra and her role.

The sixth chapter (“The Cult of the Bones”) deals with so-called secondary burial, i.e. the modern custom (frowned upon by the orthodox Church, which considers it somewhat redolent of paganism) of exhuming and recovering the bones of the deceased some time after death (usually a year or more); the bones are then placed in an ossuary. The importance of the bones of ancestors (seen as mediators with the gods), both in antiquity and in modern times, is illustrated by the custom of transferring them in case of migration, or of burning them to keep them out of the hands of the enemy. Håland deals also with the bones of saints, which were distributed among the faithful to be worshipped as relics. The possibility that what was left of sacrificial victims could be similarly divided and used as talismans is also raised, in order to explain the lack of any skeletal remains on the site of Mount Lykaion in Arcadia, which according to Plato and Pausanias was the site of human sacrifices in honor of Zeus Lykaios.

The following chapter (“The Cult of the Deceased Mediators”) focuses, among other things, on the fertility rites that were dedicated in antiquity to deities like Adonis and Demeter, and now to “special dead” like Christ, the Panagia or the saints. The author notes that, at times, an actual continuity can be found in Greece between the local cult of a saint in modern times and the quite similar cult of a deity or a heroic figure in antiquity. Among other examples, she highlights the case of the Panagia church located very close to the Eleusis archaeological site, where the Virgin, on the occasion of the Panagia Mesosporitissa festival in November, “receives a similar offering in connection with the sowing as the Eleusinian Goddesses once did” (p. 426, see also p. 281-284). While this comparison is undoubtedly thought-provoking for the festival in general (which is celebrated, although under various names, in many other places in Greece), the specific focus on Eleusis, albeit fascinating, may be somewhat misleading. Eleusis was totally depopulated in the modern age, and was resettled by Albanians,2 making it extremely difficult to conceive of any actual continuity of the Eleusinian cult in loco. On the other hand, it is much easier to document the overlapping of saints, heroes and deities in the role of protectors of a community: the case of the rescue of Athens from the attack of the Visigoths in 395 CE, attributed both to the Panagia and to Athena (and Achilles) seems exemplary.

In the eighth chapter (“Communication between the Living and the Dead”), the author makes a strong point about the difference between the official tenets of the Church on the afterlife, and folk beliefs on the same subject. Food offerings, the idea that the soul wanders on Earth for forty days after death, grave gifts (with a sexual symbolism for those dedicated to young men and women who died before marriage), even the official rhetoric about “heroes fallen for their country”, all point towards a kind of continuity with pre-Christian conceptions.

The short final chapter (“Some Concluding Reflections on Gender and Death in Greece, the Interpretation of Greek History, and the Wider World”) sums up the research results, placing them in the context of Kristeva’s and Dubisch’s bipartition between the linear conception of time, typical of the male world, and the cyclical one, typical of the female world. The author, however, admits that the opposition between the two systems is not absolute, since female and male value systems are “both complementary and interdependent”. Moreover, Håland reiterates that the Greek case is not isolated, but must be placed in a wider context that extends to the Balkans and the entire Mediterranean.

The book is completed by a glossary of Greek terms, an extensive bibliography and a very useful index that spans more than forty pages and is absolutely essential in order to track down topics which tend to be taken up several times and discussed separately in the various chapters. Sometimes, in order to fully understand certain references (like the few but tantalizing hints concerning the Babo festival at Monokklesia), it may be useful to consult Håland's work on the Greek festivals.3

Rituals of death and dying in modern and ancient Greece is nevertheless a very informative work on its own, offering a very valuable and often overlooked point of view – that of women – on Greek death rituals and cults. The attempt to link modern practices with ancient ones places many irons in the fire and, as is only to be expected, some claims may need further investigation, while others have the potential for controversy. All in all, however, this is a welcome contribution to the field, and its vivid descriptions of modern practices, in my opinion, make it a real treasure trove for anyone who wants to study Greek religion, using a synchronic or diachronic approach, with particular reference to the funerary sphere.


1.   See L. Danforth, “The ideological context of the search for continuities in Greek culture”, in JMGS 1 (1984), 53–85.
2.   See G.E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 9-10.
3.   E.J. Håland, Greek Festivals, Modern and Ancient. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010