BMCR 2003.01.10

The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition. Second edition. Revised by Dimitrios Yatromanolakis and Panagiotis Roilos

Alexiou, Margaret., Yatromanolakis, Dimitrios., Roilos, Panagiotis., The ritual lament in Greek tradition.. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 1 online resource (xviii, 293 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9781461645481 $29.95 (pb).

The first edition of this book, published in 1974, sold out almost immediately: this new edition is most welcome. In the “Introduction to the Second Edition,” Yatromanolakis and Roilos explain their editing changes to this important book:

We decided to adopt an archaeological approach to Alexiou’s acknowledged classic, which would preserve its original scholarly and ideological framework: the methodology and almost all the interpretations proposed in the first edition have remained unaffected by our revision, despite frequent rewordings . . . Several passages have been reworked, and a few omitted. Many of our editorial interventions involve corrigenda and addenda that, although sometimes reflecting the state of scholarship since 1974, have by and large been made after a dialogue with . . . sources employed in the first edition. [xiii]

This edition of the “The Ritual Lament” is an addition to the Harvard series “Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches” edited by Gregory Nagy. Before revising the English text, the editors produced a revised Greek edition: it was not available for comparison. However, the editors’ statement raises expectations this edition does not meet. A close comparison of the new edition with the original indicates that, although the font and spacing have been improved, the book retains the same pagination and, in almost every case, the same text on each page. The reworking seems minimal, apparently for the purpose of maintaining the pagination since the original text was scanned for re-editing. What an archaeological approach means, apparently, can be seen in these two typical examples of reworked sentences, from before and after, for comparison:

1.”Finally, the preambles to laws from Katana purporting to be by the lawgiver Charondas (sixth century B.C.) include the restriction of funeral rites.” (1974, 17)

“Finally, the preambles of laws from Katana purporting to be by the lawgiver Charondas (sixth century B.C.) include the restriction of lamentation.” (2002, 17)

2.”More specifically, modes of address in the second person, most commonly with the verb to be. . . are frequent in the ancient hymns as part of a ritual formula which marks the culmination of a prayer after an address with the reiteration of the pronoun σύ.” (1974,172)

“More specifically, modes of address in the second person, most commonly with the verb to be. . . are frequent in the ancient encomiastic odes and hymns as part of a ritual formula which marks the culmination of a prayer after an address with the emphatic use of the pronoun σύ.” (2002,172)

The most extensive changes I have been able to identify are the following passages on funeral legislation in classical times. The alterations are indicated in brackets:

“The evidence is both epigraphic and literary. [del.: Since the literary evidence, even where it is late, is so directly supported by the epigraphic, it can be accepted as authentic.] The earliest laws known to us in detail are those of Solon, described in Plutarch’s Life of Solon and in a speech attributed to Demosthenes.” (2002, 14)

“From the third century . . . a law from Gambreion in Asia Minor . . . specified that the dress worn by women at funerals should be dark, not [del.: the usual] white, and that it should not be soiled [add.: (and presumably torn)]. Women are selected as the chief offenders, [add.: and are to be condemned] and punished for disobedience . . ..” (2002, 16-17)

These examples are enough to show what the owner of the 1974 edition is missing. What Yatromanolakis and Roilos have done of real importance is to add a supplementary 12-page bibliography of works in the field published after the first edition, up through 1998, nearly doubling the bibliographic material.1

After 28 years, Alexiou’s study still provides the only general historical analysis of the Greek ritual lament with a clear view of its continuity across ancient literature and epigraphy, Byzantine and contemporary folk sources. It makes extensive use of original sources, quoted both in Greek and in translation, and has four pages of photographs showing the visual continuity from the classical to the Byzantine to the contemporary. The rest of this review of The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition follows Alexiou’s outline and subheadings with a brief survey of some of the contents.

Part I: Lament and ritual

Tradition and change in antiquity

Alexiou recreates the ancient funeral with extensive use of sources from Homer, epigraphy, literature, vase painting, and legal documents and lays out a scene of mourning and burial which will be familiar to classicists—the γέρας or privilege of the dead. The circumstances of lamentation can be visualized with the depiction of mourning posture on Mycenean and 8th-century ceramics—a formal, public occasion, and then the vase paintings of offerings made at the burial site—a more private encounter of the family with the dead. The dead needed their privileges: the living might suffer if mourning and offerings were scanted.

The ancient offering of a lock of hair on the tomb mentioned as early as Homer survives in a seventeenth-century manuscript of the eleventh-century legend of Digenis Akritas: “Shed your tears, and cut your hair / upon the body of the brave Akritas,” and is reported in modern times (28).

From paganism to Christianity

There seems to be no evidence for the late antique period independent of critical Church sources, where fragmentary survivals suggest a perpetual conflict between the Church’s theology of death and popular religious practices with pagan associations.2 Alexiou quotes the traveller-pilgrim Buondelmonti’s experience in Venetian-occupied Crete in 1420 which suggests that Demeter was not forgotten:

After the man had left this life, singers went to his house and, standing before the corpse among the womenfolk, they burst out into lamentations. Then everyone fell silent until each had praised the dead man in song. All the women took turns, sometimes cursing the Fates. Finally they gave a last farewell . . . Then at last came that long night when they voluntarily live, a year or more, without light, like animals on the ground. There on the earth they eat, and late and early they never cease calling in shrill lament upon the man who has now descended to the shades. For three or four years, they shun the church, and choose to be in darkness and in solitude. (34)

John Chrysostom (4th C) wrote of the belief that the ἄγγελοι and δαίμονες are waiting for the dying soul:

. . . you can hear the common people tell of fearful sights and dreadful visions . . . the soul is forcing herself down, reluctant to be torn away from the body and unable to bear the sign of the approaching angels. (25)

This idea comes close to an echo of Plato’s souls in Phaedo 108.a-b, led away by their guardian spirits. The progressive Christianization of the idea is illustrated in the 12th century Sinai icon of “The Ladder of the Soul’s Ascent” with angels that watch and demons that snatch, sometimes successfully, at the souls climbing the ladder.3

Gregory of Nyssa’s description of the torch-lit funeral procession, farewell at the bier, and spontaneous lamentation over the grave of Makrina might equally well have been a description of a funeral I saw for a fisherman in Tolo in the Argolid in 1979. The early Church incorporated as much traditional practice as it could, where practicable reinforcing it with Old Testament tradition.

While innumerable ἐγκόμια have been preserved by the Orthodox Church, no complete early Christian laments have been preserved. Alexiou (35) believes that while the literary lament became divorced from ritual associations, the popular lament continued the ancient unity of poetry and ritual.

I had hoped this section would be expanded for a new edition with witnesses from the Byzantine period. The hagiographic sources, neither well known nor well regarded when the first edition was being written, could have contributed useful detail for the early and middle Byzantine periods. Because the hagiographical sources so frequently derive “from below”—however much shaped to suit Church topoi —they are useful evidence for popular observances. As it is, we move from the 4th with Chrysostom, to the 15th century in the report just cited, to the 20th century and post-World War II examples.

Modern survivals

Where possible, Alexiou demonstrates the evidence for the continuation of specific occurrences while not arguing for continuity: she finds little information from the Byzantine period generally.

Chrysostom criticized the custom of offering food at the tomb, and Ambrose forbade picnicking in graveyards: mourners today are offered bread on leaving the cemetery after the burial κολλύβα or commemorative food of boiled wheat grains and pomegranate seeds.4

Alexiou makes several comments about the separation of men and women during key points of ritual concerned with the dead: this is a striking aspect of Greek funerary observances where the women sit with the body of the dead fisherman while the men stand around the overturned fishing boat in the yard; men and women sit separately in the church for the service, and stand separately at the graveside. Alexiou also comments (47): “The formal service is led by the priest in the church, where men take first place; but it is the women who prepare and make the offerings, addressing not prayers to God but invocations to the dead, calling upon them by name.”

Ritual lamentation is eroding, irregularly, in Greece as social conditions change. Alexiou suggests that the constant and characteristic unity of poetry and ritual in Greek tradition, essential to the continuity of lamentation since antiquity, will continue in some other form, possibly popular poetry. It is appropriate in this context to mention the powerful “Epitaphios” of Yannis Ritsos, set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, which juxtaposes the forms and poetry of traditional mourning with political catastrophe. Its continued power and widespread familiarity since its composition in 1936 is evidence for there being little split between popular and formal poetry (and music) in modern Greece, unlike the traditional split between the literary inheritance from Byzantium and ritual poetry and lament. Modern poetry has found one of its most fertile sources in the traditional forms and, in allying them to the classical tradition, guarantees future continuity.

Part II: Gods, cities and men.

The ritual lament for gods and heroes

Alexiou sees the traditional lament for the dead as fulfilling two functions: of honoring and appeasing the dead and of expressing a variety of conflicting emotions. A convenient example of this comes in Andromache’s laments in which she mourns her husband, worries about her son, anticipates the violence when Troy falls, recalls her husband’s own violence, and remembers him in bed. The lament for the dead cannot be neatly separated from laments for the death of gods and heroes and laments for disasters such as the Fall of Constantinople or the forced migrations after 1922.

The historical lament for the fall of cities

After tracing a series of laments for various heroes and cults, many of which survived in traditional form well into the 4th century A.D., Alexiou considers the Virgin’s lament—a wish for suicide which, if not proper Church doctrine, still appears as a motif in folk ballads. She does not speculate on the degree to which the Good Friday ἐπιτάπηιος must have reinforced the practice or language of popular lament: rather, she suggests that while the Epitaphios has affinities with ancient laments for Adonis, both it and popular ballads draw on a common tradition. One fascinating and somewhat bizarre ballad from Asia Minor tells of Saint Kalé of varying identity who is cursed by the Virgin. (Saint Kalé turns out to be a survival of who later turns up as a sister of Alexander the Great.) (75)

Laments for cities are triggered by catastrophe. The earliest known appears in Aeschylus’ Persians and shares an important feature with an epigram on the sack of Corinth in 146 B.C. At least 100 laments composed and published for the Fall of Constantinople survive: here is one in which Aphrodite & Hermes weep for the City (89).

Ares came along with glowering looks on Tuesday
by the Church of St Romanos, all covered in blood,
bathed in the blood of Christians.
Aphrodite stood, her eyes filled with tears,
weeping for the fine young men, for the beautiful girls.
And Hermes, as if lamenting and comforting her, said:
—What is it, my Aphrodite, why are you sulking?
And the Moon keeps her distance and does not come near,
she sees and marvels, and she trembles from fear.
And the elements of Heaven weep and mourn for the City.

Many of these 15th century laments show an uncertain use of vernacular and dialect: there had not yet been the intentional creation of new and consistent poetic language as later happened in Cyprus and Crete. But the disruptions of cultural patterns after 1453 seems to have promoted the use of folk-style in formally-composed laments. There are, however, problems in dating these, and some laments for Constantinople appear to have been composed earlier or later for other cities.

One element of the formulas used in these laments for the fall of cities is the repetition of specific verbs, καλῖνε, φῆραν (they weep, they have taken). This observation particularly striking when compared with some of the contemporary, 15th century chronicles of the conquests of Mehmet II which repeat ἠπε (“he took”) over and over, a single line each year, year after year: “He took the Morea. He took Evripos. He took Kaffa. He took Skoutari. He took Agia Mavra.”5

The classification of ancient and modern laments and songs to the dead.

Here Alexiou gives a fairly technical analysis of a number of terms used in discussing these laments, spoken and sung, ancient: thrênos, góos, kommós, élegoi, skólia, epitáphios lógos, epikédeion, kêdos, and contemporary: anakálema, thrênos, moirológoi. This last, the “fate-songs,” the form of most contemporary interest, are a survival of the oldest ideas of Μοῖρα. The Byzantines knew that Μοῖρα and Ἔρως recorded a person’s fate at birth, and it is popular knowledge that the Μοῖρες with their spindle, distaff and scissors decide the time of death. A generation ago Alexiou was shown, in the seams of a skull, ραφές where “Moira” had written a man’s fate. (116) Modern historical laments

Part III: The common tradition.

Antiphonal structure and antithetical thought

Again, beginning with illustrations from Homer and the tragic dramatists, Alexiou shows how Byzantine konta/kia used the antiphonal form in dialogue to convey scriptural truths. The use of dialogue and antiphony is the most characteristic feature of modern laments, such as this one Alexiou recorded in 1963 (148):

Five days married, she goes, a widow, to her mother.
With the ritual garlands in her apron, she wept for her husband.
——Be quiet, daughter, do not weep and do not complain.
You are young and fair, and you can wed again.
——What are you saying, wretched mother, how can I wed again?
I have lost my first husband, dear as my own two eyes.

The antithetical style is illustrated first from Seven Against Thebes with the lament exchanged by Antigone and Ismene: “Stricken, you struck. / Killing you were killed. / With the spear you slew. / With the spear you were slain.” (153) The form is basic in Orthodox liturgy: “Immortals are mortal, mortals are immortal, living their death and dying their life.” (154) It appears again in a wrenching Maniot lament for an only daughter (159):

Forty-five lemon trees planted in the sand,
without water, without coolness, yet they are cool and fresh.
And a single lemon tree of mine,
with both water and coolness,
is parched and withered.
Listen, tree without fruit,
bee without honey . . .

Conventions, themes and formulae

Alexiou points out the strong self-centered character of many of the conventional formulae. Andromache lamented: “Husband, you were too young to die, and you leave me a widow in the palace!” and a Cretan woman reproached her daughter (183):

My child, where have you left your children so young!
Have you no pity for the orphans, that you should go and leave them?
You have left your children on the streets, my child!

This particular kind of lament may have a great deal to do with the prospective financial burden. In the fisherman’s funeral mentioned previously, I heard his mother crying, “You have left three children and no money, and now who is going to provide for those children!” The allusive method

Continuing the Homeric tradition of comparing dead youths to trees, the 11th-century writer, Michael Psellos, wrote a lament for Skleraina,6 the mistress of Constantine XI Monomachos (200): “Like a tree blossoming from the valleys of the mind, / Alas, alas, she has been harvested, uprooted before her time.” Psellos was a self-conscious intellectual and may have written this lament with Homer in mind, but the tree motif continues, as is illustrated with the lemon tree lament above.7

The non-intellectual and the illiterate create equally lovely allusions. This ambivalently poignant couplet on the death of a small boy, the last, treasured male of a family from Mani, intended to take up the family’s feud (187):

The hold has burst and the alabaster has shattered,
A small gun has exploded into pieces, but a fortress is disarmed.

I give a final quotation, in conclusion, taken from the section on formulae, for the beauty of the images (180).

I ought not to be happy, nor to drink wine,
I ought only to be on a desolate marble mountain,
To crouch down head forwards, to weep black tears,
To become a lake, a piece of glass, to become a cool spring.

The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition is a valuable study: we are fortunate that it has again been made available. It is difficult to read the final chapters dry-eyed.

[[For responses to this review see BMCR 2003.01.30 (by Panagiotis Roilos and Dimitrios Yatromanolakis) and 2004.11.37 (by Margaret Alexiou).]]


1. I note the omission of any reference to the Dumbarton Oaks Hagiography Database which is currently available only on-line, or at the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Library in Washington, DC.

2. This is confirmed for the centuries after the Fathers by the quotations in, for example, A. R. Littlewood, “The Byzantine Letter of Consolation in the Macedonian and Komnenian Periods,” DOP 53 (1999) 19-4, and Elena Velkovska, “Funeral Rites according to the Byzantine Liturgical Sources,” DOP 55 (2001) 21-51, which offer evidence for a nearly unbridgeable gulf between the aristocratic/literary/Church cultures and the popular culture.

3. A good image is available on-line.

4. It is now possible to buy disposable packets with napkins and plastic forks specifically for the κολλύβα served at the fortieth-day and one-year commemorations.

5. Peter Schreiner, Die byzantinischen Kleinchroniken. Vienna, 1975. Vol. 1, Chronicles 53, 54, and passim.

6. The lady was compared to Helen of Troy, at least by the court. “As they were on their way—the route led them to the Theatre and this was the first time the ordinary people had seen Sclerena in company with Zoe and Theodora—one of the subtle flatterers softly quoted Homer . . . ‘It were no shame. . .’ but did not complete the lines.” Psellos, Chronographia 6.61. edited by E.R.A Sewter, Yale University Press, 1953.

7. Young girls and women are frequently compared to lemon trees in contemporary laments: if this has to do with beauty and the bitterness of death, it is also because Greek lemons are large, breast-shaped fruit.