Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Christian Orthodox religion in Greece supporting the theories set forth by Micrea Eliade

At the basis of Micrea Eliade’s theories lies the concept of the sacred, as in sacred time and sacred space. This is the axis mundi around which religion is built and religion functions “on its own terms”, religion is in fact the cause of social dynamics and it is not as reductionists proclaim a by-product of other societal forces like economics. For Eliade religion can in fact be explained historically through phenomenology and through symbolism. By exploring the example of the societal organization in Greece it seems that Eliade’s theories have a solid ground to stand on. Greece is a country that today exists as an independent country because of the unity that Greek Orthodox Christianity provided over the centuries. It is the Orthodox Christian religion that provided unity when Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Even the revolution in Greece in 1821 that reinstated its independence and in fact reinstated the independence of all the Balkans, was started with the blessings of the church in the historical Hagia Lavra in Kalavryta in the Peloponese. Greece is a country with a rich history of religions that have determined its fate over thousands of years and yet for the purpose of this paper we will only explore the theories of Eliade as they can be applied in the modern state of Greece in the villages where the traditions are much more visible and prevalent.
Eliade’s strong stance against reductionism is supported very easily through the example of Greece. Eliade proclaims that religion must always be explained “on its own terms”, as religion is a cause of social dynamics (social, economics, art, music) and some of the most beautiful traces of history are evidence of the influence religion has had through many periods of Greek development. We can see an example of how religion influences culture through the example of Byzantine music (Βυζαντινή μουσική), a vocal religious music that was the precursor to the Western solfeggio and is oldest genre of extant music. The term Byzantine music is commonly associated with the medieval sacred chant of Christian Churches following the Constantinopolitan Rite. The notation developed for it is similar in principle to subsequent Western notation, in that it is ordered left to right, and separated into measures and so not only it influenced the culture of Greece but in some ways the culture of the world. And so as Eliade describes religion can be shown to be a strong cause of an important part of cultural development since before the solfeggio was developed in the West with the music notes as we now know it, music notes were developed in Byzantium in order to melodize the hymns that were produced there and this is what provided the basis for the Western music later.
For Eliade religion is not a mere by-product of another reality as other theorists like Durkheim, Marx, or Freud proclaim, rather Eliade believes in an independence (autonomy) of religion. In terms of method, religion is in fact something independent that needs to be explained through phenomenology and the historical study of religion. Eliade’s prolific writing does not make a specific point on his own personal views, yet three themes that can be explored are: the concept of archetypes, and of the “axis mundi” as observed in the construction of the villages and cities in Greece; the concept of the symbols and myths in the oral and written traditions of Greece; and the exploration of time and history in the yearly celebrations of Easter or in general of the religious calendar that Greece observes, a calendar that is tied to the religious holidays and celebrations.
Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane (1957) explores the concept of religion and of “archetypes” and the how the authority of the sacred controls all. He explores the concept of “axis mundi”. The intense desire of the people to imitate Gods stems from a desire that archaic people have not only to mirror the realm of the sacred, but to actually be in it. In the Greek poleodomy this can be easily seen because in a village the first thing that is built is the church. People congregate around the church as close as they can and the village sprawls in a circular fashion around the church, with little windy streets that used to be the pathways of the mules and carts in the old days. There is always a church in the center of the village and around the church is a plateia (πλατεία) (central plaza) where people gather. In fact cities, even Athens in a much larger scale, are built as a collection of villages. What determines the neighborhoods are the churches and this is how people know each other and create the geitonia (γειτονιά) or neighborhood. Around the plateia are built the kafeneia (καφενεία) or coffee houses where the men would gather in the afternoon for a coffee and tavli (backgammon) and into the night for an ouzo and a good meal. The people are invited to gather to church in the morning for the prayers of the hours and certainly in the evenings at 6pm. The kampanes (καμπάνες) or church bells ring inviting the believers to come to church where esperinos (εσπερινός) or vespers is said. Even in the smallest village there is a priest that may or may not sit with the men at the kafeneia but when the time comes he is transformed into the gatherer of his flock and all people come to church. He wears long black robes that easily distinguish him from his fellow villagers even though he is allowed to marry and have a family. In fact in the villages there is a deep sense of belief and for Sunday morning even the people who work during the week would wash up, wear their good clothes, traditional or not depends on the village, and go to church. After church everyone gathers again in the kafeneio to drink the coffee after church and this is how the society is held together. If there is a funeral then it is the family of the departed that will organize a mnimosino (μνημόσυνο), a memorial service and the people eat the kolyva (κόλυβα) a form of sweet made our of boiled grains of wheat, and then again the village gathers in the kafeneio where next to the coffee is served a form of brandy or the traditional raki (ρακύ) a strong distilled spirit that is made out of grapes in abundance in Greece. In a small village of 30-50 people it is hard not to go to church, although some people choose not to go. To this day for Easter there is hardly any Greeks who would not go to church even if they live in Athens, even if for the rest of the year they are hard core atheists. You will see them outside church in the common place smoking or joking but they will be there. In Greece there is the concept of
theosevoymenos (Θεοσεβούμενος) he one who respect God and of theofovoymenos (Θεοφοβούμενος) the one who fears God. In the old days in a country where 98% of people were Greek Orthodox it was hard not to be one or the other. Since the 1970s when they tried to secularize Greece this unity of religion was broken and this is fact broke the very fabric that sustained the Greek community together. In Greece religion used to be the core value, in fact children when they were small learned the concepts of Theos, Patrida, Oikogeneia (Θεός, Πατρίδα, Οικογένεια) as the core concepts that held the society of Greece together.
Figure 1: two examples on how a village or a city are built around the church.
The understanding of symbolism and myth for Eliade is discussed in Comparative Religions (1949). For Eliade symbols, that are material, give a clue to the supernatural. And in the same way myths are symbols in a narrative form. As he explores the symbolism of the sky, the sun and the moon, water and stones, or other symbols as the Earth and fertility, vegetation and agriculture, in order to create a framework, a world that is a complete, connected system rather than chaotic. In Figure_1 above two very distinct symbols of Greek culture can be seen: the symbol of the cross and the Greek flag. In the church that is always the center of the village the troulos (τρούλος) is clearly visible because of the characteristic dome and the kampanario (καμπαναριό) or bell tower next to the church. Also a Greek flag can always be seen as it is a part of the church compound and the cross is always visible at the top of the dome, both symbols that hold the unity of the culture. In Greece every day of the week commemorates a saint and all people who are named after that saint celebrate their name day. In the present people celebrate both their name days and birthdays, yet in some ways name days are more important than birthdays. In the calendar the name of the saint is clearly marked and that day the people who have a name day invite their friends and treat them to a sweet if not also a meal. In the workplace or at school the person whose name day it is brings a box of sweets and offers them and people receive the sweet treat and wish them Xronia Polla (Χρόνια Πολλά) or many happy returns. In days like November 21st or August 15th or March 15th when the Panagia (Παναγία) or Virgin Mary is celebrated, the most significant figure of them all in Greece there are multiple persons in every single place offering
sweets. There is hardly any family in Greece that will not have a person named after Panagia in one form or another (Maria, Panagiotis (saint above all saints) Despoina (holy lady) etc.) so in those days every single family celebrates and if by chance there are no members in one family then it is almost certain that there is a friend that will be inviting the people for their own celebration. Those days are in fact national holidays tied to some event of the Greek history of independence from the Turks.
In his exploration of time and history in The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949), one of his most significant books Eliade explores the events of archaic profane life claiming that people would be out of history and in the perfect realm of the sacred, to escape the “terror of history”. There is a longing for an eternal return to the beginning of time because they wish “to live in the world as it came from the Creator’s hands, fresh, pure and strong.” In Greece the most significant religious holiday is Easter. It is a holiday where for one week the whole Passion of the Christ is commemorated, with the betrayal, the torture, and the death. On Holy Friday the burial of the Christ is commemorated through the epitafeios (Επιτάφειος) a symbol of the tomb of the Christ in the form of a decorated with flowers table that holds the body of the Christ in the form of an embroidery. The whole village follows the procession chanting the laments of the week and people wait in front of their homes as the procession goes by to put their carpets on the ground where the possession goes by to get the blessing for their home through the passage, creating a carpeted pathway for the body of the Christ to be carried through. People have been fasting for 40 days waiting for the time of Easter, some only fast for one week, certainly though they fast on Friday, some people go as far as only drinking water on Holy Friday. The rites culminate at night on Holy Saturday where the resurrection of Christ occurs at church, where people gather for the one moment at midnight where all the lights go dark and then suddenly the priest comes out of darkness chanting: "Δεύτε λάβετε φως εκ του ανεσπέρου φωτός και δοξάσατε Χριστόν τον αναστάντα εκ νεκρών". (Come receive the light, the unexpected light, and come celebrate Christ, the one that is risen from the dead. Subsequently the people gather around the priest who came out of the sacrosaint with a light that comes to the churches directly from the Holy Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem and travels the world in planes to be distributed through the churches to the believers at midnight. This light is then carried to the homes and gives the fresh light for the kantili (καντύλι) an oil lantern that is always lite throughout the year, using the olive oil that is always in abundance in Greece.
For Eliade the sacred is contrasted with the profane, as the sacred expressed the supernatural whereas the profane expresses ordinary life, the struggle and tribulations, framed by birth and death. And in Greece the whole rhythm of the society is centered around the birth of the Christ and then again His death and rebirth for Easter. There is also a separate and yet parallel calendar for the Virgin starting on November 21st for her entrance to the monastery at age 3 and her death and ascension on August 15th all of which are public holidays.
In conclusion Eliade is seems to give a natural explanation on how the fabric of society is woven in Greece. Critics attack him as a theologian even though he never expressed his own personal opinion, because for a scientist maybe there seems to be much too much respect towards the concept of the sacred itself. He may or may have not succeeded in making the study of religion a phenomenological and historical enterprise, yet using comparison in hugely varied time and space events and theories Eliade makes a strong case. And as we observe how easily the whole of Greek society and the very fabrics that hold the Greek culture together can be explained thought Eliade’s theories it is hardly a surprise to understand as Eliade professes that religion does stand “on its own” as a driver in social dynamics.

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