Western Easter has come and gone, and I missed it this year, by design. I went to Athens for the weekend, where Easter this year won’t come until May 1. In the Greek Orthodox Church, Easter is reckoned differently, so that sometimes (like next year) Easter falls on the same date in both faiths and sometimes (like now) the celebrations are several weeks apart.
In contrast to the UK, where Easter now seems to be mostly about chocolate, Easter in Greece is the main festival of the Christian year, much more important than Christmas. Throughout the Lenten period, fasting foods – ‘nistisimo’ – are available everywhere (heaven for vegan visitors).
And many Greek Easter customs intertwine Christian and pre-Christian beliefs, revealing the changing layers of belief and custom here throughout history.
On Friday we attended the Chairetismoi (‘Rejoicings’) in the tiny candlelit church of the Holy Sepulchre in Plaka, where a group of male cantors with beautiful voices sang the haunting Byzantine Akathistos Hymnos. Sung on the first five Fridays of Lent, this 6th-century hymn of praise for the Virgin Mary is full of exquisite epithets echoing ancient Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts in praise of goddesses such as Athena, Isis and Inanna: She is the ‘seven-branched lamp stand’, ‘the golden jar with manna’, ‘the fortification and the citadel and protective wall and sacred refuge for everyone’.
Many representations of the Panayia (lit. ‘All-holy’) [image 1] show her with hands upraised in blessing, in the stance familiar to us from Goddess figurines of Old Europe such as this Mycenean ‘psi’ Goddess figure ca. 1300 BCE [image 2], this one from Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, ca. 5000 BCE [image 3], or the Egyptian Goddess from 3500 BCE.
The public respect for the divine feminine in her current Christian form, with her pre-Christian identity showing forth, gives me a sense of peace, connection and continuity with Goddess traditions which predated Christianity.
On March 25th, the feast of the Annunciation is celebrated with an icon procession in the village of Kalyvia near us in Attica. Women are in charge of these ritual events, just as in antiquity: they clean and decorate the church, bake large round loaves of ritual bread, and tend to myriad other practical preparations. The miracle-working icon of the Virgin, adorned with fragrant lilies, is carried through the town, while women emerge from their homes to receive its blessings and offer incense, burning in small censers or on bits of broken tile. At a three-way crossroads near the church, women set a censer at the foot of the mulberry tree growing there, a gesture recalling the tree-worship of antiquity. A few young women at the head of the procession wear the ritual bridal dress of Mesogeia, stunning heirloom garments embroidered with goddess motifs, trees of life, and other sacred symbols of fertility and the life force which date back thousands of years.
The icon of the Annunciation has an interesting detail, the red cloth draped over the top of the temple. In Orthodox iconography, this red cloth is a statement of a joyous event; I am intrigued by its similarity to cloth garlands frequently depicted in classical vase paintings and reliefs such as that on the circular altar from the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia in Delphi. The icon also typically shows the Panayia with spindle and distaff in her hand; the act of spinning is the act of creation, creating something out of nothing, creating form out of formlessness. It’s an obvious metaphor for conception, pregnancy and birth.
Marguerite Rigoglioso has written about pre-Christian cults of divine birth, which she contends refer to spiritual practices of parthenogenesis for which she believes virgin priestesses, including Mary, were specifically trained. In the ancient world, Mary’s story of divine birth was actually only one of hundreds of similar accounts. Carol Christ observes that the divine birth legends may also refer to the lack of importance given to fathers in the matrilineal societies of Old Europe researched by Marija Gimbutas and others. The divine birth mystery also survives in the repeating refrain of the Akathistos Hymn: ‘Rejoice, unwedded Bride!’
The Easter story has roots in pre-Christian spring resurrection myths including that of Persephone, whose descent to and return from the Underworld was the central story of the Mysteries of Eleusis for over a thousand years. Because my stepdaughter lives in Eleusis, I often visit the archaeological site there; Persephone’s cave sanctuary always has fresh offerings – flowers, candles, stones, shells – showing that others clearly still consider the place an alive and active link to the chthonic power of the underworld and the life-giving miracle of rebirth and resurrection.
Women’s ritual dances performed at Easter in Eleusis (as well as nearby Megara and Salamina) reflect, in their costumes, dance steps and dance songs, key themes, images and patterns descended from the Mysteries of Eleusis. Another Easter dance song from northern Greece tells an obliquely familiar story of a mother, son and daughter, death and resurrection; but the one who dies ‘yet is not dead’ is the daughter, not the son.
The Easter story – and its living pre-Christian roots – provides a container to hold people’s sorrow over all that is happening in Greece. Particularly now, in the 8th year of economic crisis, people feel the archetypal story very keenly, and are sharply aware of the need for the country’s resurrection.
The current refugee situation, too, awakens both compassion and memory, in the case of those (such as my in-laws) whose grandparents came as refugees from Asia Minor in 1922. People feel heartsore and helpless in the face of the wars in Syria and elsewhere which are producing the stream of refugees, but the values of hospitality and honour, sacred here since antiquity, are alive and well. It is deeply touching to see the kindness shown by people (who themselves have very little) sharing what they have – food, blankets, shelter – with those passing through. For their phenomenal efforts in recent months responding to tens of thousands of refugees, Greek islanders including the inhabitants of Lesvos have been nominated for the Nobel Prize.
When Greek Easter finally comes, on May 1, I will be back on Lesvos, my favourite island, where I have spent part of every summer for 17 years. For anyone who wishes to explore the traditional Easter dances and customs mentioned here, there are still places on my Greek Easter Dance and Cultural Holiday at the beautiful Milelja Island-Garden retreat centre near Molivos, April 27th – May 11th. Our presence in Molivos at a time of diminished tourism is welcomed as an expression of compassion, solidarity, and practical support for the local community.
As we dance the ancient sacred dances, at the ancient sacred time, in the ancient sacred places, we strengthen our sense of the dancing body as our true homeland, and pray that all people everywhere, whatever their circumstances, may also know that sense of inner home. This is a resurrection which transcends all religion and all ritual.
Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987. She is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement and gives workshops regularly in over twenty countries worldwide. Laura holds an honours degree in Intercultural Studies (1986) and a diploma in Dance Movement Therapy (1990). She has also dedicated much time to primary research in Balkan and Greek villages, learning songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which have been passed down for many generations, and which embody an age-old worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura’s essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’, was published in Dancing on the Earth. Laura lives partly in Greece and partly in the Findhorn ecological community in Scotland.