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Demetrios Constantelos

Byzantine and Ancient Greek Religiosity

From his work Christian Hellenism, republished here with the gently permission by Arostide Caratzas publisher

In the year 392 A.D., Hera and Zeus, Demeter and Poseidon, Hermes and Athena, Apollo and Aphrodite and several other Olympian deities were officially pronounced dead. Their death was confirmed by the edicts and policies of Theodosios the Great,(1) who made Christianity the state religion of the late Roman, or Byzantine Empire.

By the fourth century, Christianity had evolved as a syncretic religion -not simply a religious faith of Jewish antecedents.(2) It had absorbed many strands of Hellenic thought and Hellenistic religious experiences. But while the influence of Zeus and Poseidon and other deities of the Greek pantheon was in decline by the end of the fourth century, what was the fate of lesser deities such as Dionysus and Pan, demons and nereids, Eimarmene and Moirai, Hades, and several more? What happened to rituals and religious festivals which were observed in the pagan Græco-Roman œcumene, to popular piety and superstition, and other aspects of Greek and Roman paganism? The purpose of this essay is to seek answers to these questions on the basis of Church canons, commentaries on them, rituals and hagiographical texts. A study of them confirms the survival of ancient Greek piety and beliefs in the religious life of the Byzantine Empire. Their influence on Byzantine religiosity can be discerned primarily in three areas of religious practices and custom: salvation rituals and superstition, popular festivals and demonology.


The sixty-first canon of the Synod in Trullo (691-92) states:

Those who consult diviners, or so-called hecantontarchs or other such fortune tellers in the hope of learning from them whatever may be revealed to them, in accordance with what the Fathers had formerly decided in regard to them, let them incur the canon of six years to abstain from the Eucharist for six years ... . As for those who are called cloud chasers, wailers, providers of phylacteries, and seers, if they persist in their practices and refuse to change their occupation and their ruinous habits and Hellenic [pagan] customs, we decree that they be thrown out of the Church altogether.(3)
The canon specifically condemns any of those epitedeumata (pursuits, customs) which the "Hellenes" used to observe. By the end of the seventh century, the term "Hellenic" had undergone a semantic change and meant "pagan." A pagan tradition may or may not have been of Greek origin. But since the dominant culture of the empire was Græco-Roman, there is every reason to believe that most of the habits the canon condemned were of ancient Hellenic, Hellenistic or Hellenized Near Eastern origin. Wailers were persons identified as instruments of the demons, who foretold the future by reading the palms of the hands, looking into a bowl of water, offering sacrifices and using other arts and signs which the canon calls "Hellenic customs." The hecantontarchs, who had practiced soothsaying the longest, enjoyed more respect. Phylacteries included bear hairs, dyed cords, the skin of snakes and other items inscribed with invocations to demons. They were given to people to ward off diseases and, especially, the baskania, or the evil eye. Cloud chasers were people who observed the shape of clouds, especially at sunset, to foretell the future. They too were considered possessed by demons. The seers are of special interest because they were syncretists, who combined beliefs and practices of Greek antiquity with readings from the Christian Bible. They invoked the demons as well as the name of the Holy Trinity, the Theotokos and the saints. They were present in Byzantine society in John Chrysostom's time as well as in the seventh century. Chrysostom condemned such Christians, mostly elderly women who employed the name of Christ in vain, and pursued the practices of the "Hellenes."(4)

Such practices and the persons who engaged in them were condemned by several Church canons and churchmen in the fourth century.(5) Canons were issued to correct what was being practiced and thus reflect contemporary social and religious conditions. They were issued to deal with problems, to prevent error rather than to define truth. Despite the anathemas and condemnations, many of these elements of religiosity and superstition survived among laymen and clergymen alike throughout the Byzantine and post-Byzantine eras. As late as the eighteenth century, Nikodemos the Hagiorite condemned:
those old hags who divine with barley or with broad beans, or by dumping coal, or by yawning, or who are snatched up in the air by demons and go from region to region, like the wizard named Heliodoros ... . all sorcerers and witches, and all men and women who go to sorcerers and witches.(6)

Those who practiced magic and used amulets to cure bodily diseases or to prevent damage to crops, were condemned by Patriarch Photios, the Nomocanon and the legislation of Emperor Leo VI. The Canonists Theodore Balsamon and John Zonaras confirm the persistence of many of these pagan religious customs in later centuries. While some of these superstitions are universal phenomena, the canons and their scholiasts indicate that many of them were of specific Hellenic origin and not, as a modern Byzantine scholar has labored to explain in order to support his particular theory, observed by common people everywhere.(7) For instance, there are no relics of Slavic religiosity in Byzantine provinces that can be traced back to the seventh century. Church Fathers of the Synod in Trullo knew of no Slavic paganism among their flock. Slavic religiosity was substantially different from that of the Greeks. While specific ancient Greek gods and cults were mentioned, there is no evidence of such Slavic gods as Perun, Svarog, Stribog, Khors, Dazhbog, Simar'gl; Mokosh, and Veles in Byzantine provinces in the seventh or eighth century.

Why did many Greek religious practices not prosper among other Eastern Christians of non-Greek origin? History reveals that religious statements, traditions and customs do not necessarily carry conviction or have a decisive appeal beyond the culture and the tradition in which they arise. For this reason, religious culture reminiscent of that of Dionysus and Pan, the Nereids, Eimarmene, and several other cults have remained the possession of people whose culture originated in the Greek or Hellenized world.

Ιn their commentaries on the sixty-fifth canon of the Synod in Trullo, the twelfth-century canonists Zonaras (d.1159?) and Balsamon (d.1195?) wrote that some Christians, not only of the seventh century but also of their own times, used to light and leap over bonfires in front of their workshops and houses, in imitation of Hellenic pagan customs. This was a form of augury used to ward off bad luck and to foresee the future. They thought their bad luck would be burnt up, allowing good fortune to replace it. The canon ordains:
We command that henceforth the bonfires lit by some persons on the occasion of the new moon in front of their own workshops or houses and over which some persons leap in accordance with an ancient custom, shall be abolished and done away with. Whoever, therefore, does any such thing, if he be a clergyman, let him be desposed from office, but if he be a layman, let him be excommunicated.(8)

Ιn addition to the foregoing practices, Zonaras writes that some of his Christian contemporaries used to resort to other forms of augury, based on the study of the bones and claws of birds, especially of ravens and cranes. Balsamon provides even more concrete information about a variety of divinations that were practiced in the twelfth century, including the use of bonfires, omens, astrology and oracles. 'The bonfires have been identified with the ancient Greek Kledona, a divinatory custom. On June 23, the evening before the birthday of St. John the Forerunner, men and women would assemble in certain houses or streets. Following a banquet and a kind of Bacchic festival, they gathered around a copper bucket filled with sea water where the people had thrown various items such as rings, necklaces, pins and other kinds of jewelry. A first-born girl dressed like a bride was asked to pick out from the bucket an item for each person. The nature and the quality of the item revealed good or bad luck. Balsamon writes that the eleventh-century patriarch Michael Ι Keroularios had tried to eliminate all these divinations from Constantinople with some success. But the customs survived in the provinces and have outlived various condemnations to the present day.(9)

As in centuries past, churches both in the cities and in the provinces held annual feasts and traditional seasonal observances, which even today retain their particularly ancient character.(10) The sixty-second canon of the Synod in Trullo condemned:
... the so-called festivals of the Calends, the so-called Vota, the Brumalia, the public festival celebrated on the first day of March ...ritualistic ceremonies performed by men or women in the name of what are falsely called gods among the Hellenes.(11)

It condemned men and women who put on comic, satyric or tragic works and those who invoked the name of Dionysus while squeezing grapes in the wine presses.

The first day of every month was called by the Romans kalendæ and it was celebrated in the hope that the month would be a merry one. But by the seventh century the Calends were held on the first day of January. Both the Vota and Brumalia were Greek festivals celebrated primarily by shepherds and peasants in honor of Pan, the patron of sheep and other animals, and in honor of Dionysus, the Roman Brumalius, the giver and patron of wine. Ιn his honor men and women put on masks and danced esctatically as if demon-possessed-a custom that is observed today during cheese-eating week. Both laymen and clergymen participated in these Hellenic festivals. Zonaras and Balsamon write that all these Greek rites
were observed by many in their own times, especially by the peasants, "who did not know the significance of what they were doing."(12)
The sixty-ninth canon of the Council of Carthage (419) confirms that in the first half of the fifth century pagan banquets and dances were held in many regions of the empire in honor of Dionysus, Poseidon and other Hellenic deities, many of which were observed on the memorial days and feasts of Christian martyrs. Thus Christians and pagans mixed. But some pagan dancers made indecent and lascivious assaults on "decent women," causing them to avoid attending church services. The Council of Carthage appealed to Emperors Theodosios II (408-450) and Honorius (395-423) to abolish those pagan customs.(13) Balsamon writes that in the twelfth century festivities, dances, games and other amusements were held on the memorial days of saints, not only in various regions of the country but also in cities. He states that they originated in Hellenic antiquity (archen eschekota ek tes Hellenikes planes).(14)

As is well known, the Byzantine world, like its predecessors, the Hellenistic and the Roman worlds, was commonly thought to be full of demons and evil spirits. The eleventh-century intellectual Michael Psellos was a representative writer on Byzantine demonology, whose essays, "The Operations of the Demons" and "The Opinions of the Greeks Concerning Demons,"15 reflect the opinions of the period. A modern author, in his search for Psellos' sources of demonology, read more than two hundred lives of saints who lived from the fifth century to the eleventh. He concluded that Psellos did not seek his information on demonology in the distant Orient or in the writings of Proklos and other Neoplatonists but in the beliefs and practices of Byzantine society. "One would look in vain in the demonology of Psellos ... for an element which would not have been contained in contemporary popular beliefs."(16)

An affinity between Christian and ancient Greek demonology is striking. Identified with the pagan gods, the demons lived in temples and heathen areas; they possessed human beings and could control animals. But when they were exorcised by the Church, they fled to hide in deserted places, in mountains, rivers and caves. Many believed that the pagan gods; of antiquity were incarnations of the demons who, after having caused the fall of Adam, drove the race, to idolatry.

The sixtieth canon of the Synod of Trullo reveals that there were persons who pretended to be possessed by demons. They imitated the gesticulations of persons under the control of demons to deceive the innocent and naive for profit. The Church condemned these people in the seventh century, and often they were actually chained and imprisoned by patriarchs and bishops. Zonaras and Balsamon claimed that such persons existed in their own time. Balsamon writes that he saw many who pretended to be possessed by demons and acted like the prophetesses of the Hellenes, visiting one city after the other unpunished. Ιn fact, some people received them as if they were holy men.(17)

An example of how much ancient demonology influenced the beliefs and rituals of the Church is contained in the second prayer at the reception of catechumens in the Christian sacrament of baptism: "The Lord condemns you ... .Ιn fear, get out and depart from this creature, and return not again, neither hide yourself in him or her, neither seek to meet him or her, nor to influence him ... but depart hence to your own Tartarus." In the same service the priest breathes upon the catechumen, saying: "Expel from him [or her] every evil and impure spirit which hides and makes its nest in his [or her] heart." The devil is called the spirit of error, of guile, of idolatry and of every concupiscence. Following several prayers, the catechumen or the sponsor is called upon to renounce Satan and all his angels and works.(18)


The hero and heroine cult of Greek antiquity, the honor paid to the dead, the apotheosis of the human being, survived within Christianity, where the cult was transformed. The hero-cult which exalted the departed soul, or spirit, was "a phenomenon wholly Hellenic," as the classical scholar Lewis Farnell has demonstrated. Farnell adds that its chief aim and scope was other-worldliness, its mission was the preaching of salvation, of an eschatology based on the dogmas of posthumous retribution, purgatory and of a succession of lives through which the soul is tried; and it promised immortal bliss obtainable through purity and the mysterious magic of a sacrament.(19)

Ιn its efforts to spread the Christian faith, the Church did not systematically reject everything that had derived from pagan religious feelings and symbols. Theodoret of Cyrrhus implies that the Church adopted certain cults in order to fulfil some of the psychological needs of her flock. He speaks of the tradition of saints and martyrs, which was likened to the honors paid to ancient heroes and demigods. Ιn an attack on pagans he writes that even if all others should ridicule the Christian practice of honoring the martyrs, the Greeks should be the last to do so because they too had the cult of venerating annually their heroes and demigods, such as Herakles, Asclepius, KIemedes, Machaon and several more.(20) Martin Nilsson, one of the most authoritative scholars of ancient Greek religion, writes that "the cult of the heroes took on a Christian guise and survived in much the same form, except that the martyrs and the saints succeeded the heroes."(21)
The similarities between Greek heroes and heroines and Christian saints are often striking. Both Greek heroes and Christian saints were close to the common people; both worked miracles and were called upon to defend their cities or their states. The relics of both were transferred from place to place either to be venerated or to help in the defense of a city or town. Several Christian personalities, such as the military saints Demetrios, George and Theodore, who took the place of Herakles, Asclepius, or some other Greek demigods, were venerated. It was a widespread practice for religious devotees in Greek antiquity to kiss images and statues of demigods, just as it became a custom in the Church for the faithful to kiss icons of Christ, His mother, and various saints. Cicero relates that in the extraordinary Temple of Herakles in the Greek city-state of Akragas in Sicily there was a beautiful bronze image of Herakles. The people at Akragas so deeply adored the statue that they not only touched it with their hands, offering thanks and prayers to it, but kissed it so much that the mouth and the chin of the statue became noticeably smooth.(22) Many icons in Byzantine religion were similarly venerated. One of the eighth-century arguments against icons was that the people not only kissed but indeed venerated them. Illiterate priests used to scratch paint from the icons and mix it with the wine of the Eucharist.(23)

Byzantine Christians attributed supernatural gifts to their icons, as folk of ancient Hellenism had attributed miraculous powers to statues. Legends and miracles of the numerous Byzantine saints echo the myths and miraculous powers of the gods. Many Church feast days correspond with pagan holidays, such as the Twelve Days (Dodekaemeron) of Christmas, which corresponds with the Dionysiac holiday. The festival of Anthesteria, in which all souls, known and unknown heroes of ancient paganism were honored, survived and is echoed in the Christian feast of All Souls (Ton Psychon). Byzantine hymnography and the moirologia, or lamentations for the dead, abound in references to Hades as a deity who takes humans from the earth and as the kingdom of the dead. Charon, the ferryman who carried the dead to Hades, became a Christian demon with a similar fιιnction.(24) There are numerous chapels and altars, or proskynetaria, in modern Greece, Italy and elsewhere in honor of the Virgin Μary, the apostles, saints and martyrs, as there were in ancient Greece in honor of gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines. Rules of religious conduct to please gods and demons, lists of unlucky or lucky days and recommendations and taboos that occur in writings such as Hesiod's Works and Days had their equivalent in the religious practices of Byzantium.

As in Hesiod's aphorisms, so in the Byzantine religious mind sexual discharge was viewed as pollution. People were considered unclean after sexual activity. Hesiod advised men not to take their baths with women or in a woman's bathtub -advice which finds its echo in ecclesiastical canons.(25) But on this, the influence of Old Testament beliefs was not less apparent.

The concept of and belief in makarites, the worshiped spirit of a person, as in Æschylus,(26) were reflected in Christian memorials and especially in popular religious usage. Μan's attitude toward the divine, which in Greek religion was most directly expressed in liturgy, in ritual observance, in prayers and hymns in the temples, was replicated in early and mediæval Christian worship, with its liturgies, litanies, sacraments, and prayers for every need and activity of the Christian community or individual.

Ιn pagan religious worship, the animal to be sacrificed was the dwelling of god himself. Βy eating the sacrificed animal the worshiper was united with god, achieving a state of apotheosis. The desire to become like god, to achieve theosis, was of course a Platonic notion, but in the Hellenistic period the faithful directed prayers to god, to Asclepius especially, asking for deification. A closing prayer to Asclepius says: "you have made us while still in the body, divine by the sight of yourself."(27) Though the concept of theosis in Eastern Christian theology has developed along different lines, one wonders to what extent it has been influenced by ancient Greek theology.
There are several other striking similarities between ancient Greek and Christian religion and religiosity. It was not, uncommon in ancient Greece to find sublime faith next to the grossest of superstitions or in Christian Byzantium to find, next to profound and uplifting theology, very low forms of religiosity. The highest manifestation of a divinity in ancient Greece occurred when that divinity exercised goodness and philanthropy rather than more power and judgment. Ιn much of Byzantine religious thought, philanthropia, or love for the human being, was considered the highest of God's attributes. The ancient Greeks spoke of the kindness and philanthropy of a savior god, a concept which is repeated like a refrain in Byzantine hymnography. Soteria, or salvation, was for Greek religious persons a physical and spiritual event. Byzantine religion developed the sacrament of Holy Unction and other services as a means of psychosomatic healing. Incubation, or sleeping in the consecrated part of a temple, the temple of Asclepius in particular, was for healing purposes or for divine dreams, a tradition widely practiced even now in countries where Byzantine religiosity is alive.

As the statue in antiquity was, for the educated, only the image of the deity and not the deity itself likewise today the icons of the Orthodox are images and abstract representations of the attributes of divine beings. As images and rites were guides to religious feeling for the ancient Greeks, likewise icons and rituals are the most potent guides of religious feeling among Eastern Christians today.

Some of the religious privileges of ancient Athens were transferred to Constantinople. Both were centers of intense religious activity. St. Paul found Athens full of idols (kateidolon) and the Athenians very religious (kata panta os deisidaimonesterous) (Acts 17:16, 22). Constantinople was established from the very beginning as a Christian city. As Athens had been under the palladium of Athena, Constantinople was under the iera skepe (divine shelter) of the Virgin. Athena Pallas was the poliouchos, or polias, of Athens as the Virgin Theotokos was the poliouchos of god-pro- tected (theofrouretos) Constantinople. Solon wrote of Athens:

Our city everlasting shall stand;
So Zeus and all the immortal gods command;
Athena Pallas has her hands over it
She of the mighty father, heavenly maid.(28)
Νo matter how valiantly the Byzantines fought, every time Constantinople withstood attacks from Visigoths, Avars, Slavs, Arabs, and Russians the victory was attributed to the Theotokos.

To you, the Supreme Commander, does your city
which has been saved offer thanksgiving for the
victory. Since you possess invincible power,
save me from all kinds of dangers so that Ι may
cry out to you: Hail Bride Unwedded.(29)

Thus sang the city of Constantinople to the Virgin Theotokos.

An icon in Byzantine religion was venerated only after its consecration, just as in ancient religious belief a statue became an object of veneration only after its consecration. Votive offerings representing the parts of a healed body were presented to Greek temples and statues just as icons and statues were later presented to churches. Belief that only certain statues, such as the Pallas Athena and Apollo of Magnesia had miraculous powers had its counterpart in the Christian tradition that only certain icons, such as that of the Zoodochos Pege, have miraculous powers. Byzantine religious threnoi, or lamentations, were of pagan origin and have been identified with the Greek choreia.(30)

The temples in Greek antiquity and Christian churches provided healing services. When healing was not effected in the temple or the church, a patient could move to the hospital, which was in both cases adjacent. The healing would emanate either from Asclepius or Christ, both called Soter and Philanthropos-Savior and Lover of Μan.

Religious superstitions such as that of the "evil eye" were transmitted from Greek paganism to Christian Byzantium. The Church introduced a special prayer to protect Christians from it. Modern celebrations such as the Zapheiri in Epiros and the Anastenaria in Thrace derive from the ancient festivals of Adonis and the Dionysiac orgies.(31)

Trial by ordeal, as a measure to prove innocence, was of pagan origins and was practiced in Byzantium. When the thirteenth-century emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259-1282) was brought to trial before Patriarch Arsenios, Michael proposed a trial by ordeal in order to prove his innocence. He said:

Put an iron bar in the fire and leave it there until it becomes very hot. Afterwards, take it out and bring it to me so that Ι may hold it ... Ι believe that God, who saved the three children thrown in the flame, will save me too.(32)

The patriarch refused to accept this proposal on the grounds that it was a barbarous and pagan custom.

The ninety-fourth canon of the Synod in Trullo condemns "those who take Hellenic oaths" and makes them liable to penance and even excommunication. Christians used to swear by the gods, for example "by Zeus" or by other elements of Greek religion such as "by the Sun" or "by the Heavens." The canon summarizes the strictures of Church Fathers such as Basil the Great, Chrysostom, and others who were responsible for harsh canons. Nevertheless Christians, who were urged to despise Hellenic customs, continued to swear by and invoke the names of ancient
deities. Photios and Balsamon confirm that this "Hellenic custom" con tinued to be practiced in their respective centuries.(33)
Another religious cult which has retained an unbroken continuity from ancient Greek times through the Byzantine era to the present is the offering of panspermia, or pankarpia, which in Greek religion was a mixture of several kinds of fruit offered to the dead on the third day, called Chytroi, of the Anthesteria or Dionysia. Ιn Christian Byzantium panspermia was transformed into the offering of kollyba, boiled wheat, distributed to the congregation on certain memorial days and on the day of a funeral as well as on the third, ninth, and fortieth days after death. Ιn the fourth-century and for a short time afterwards, boiled wheat served as food for the monks, but eventually the kollyba were offered in remembrance of the dead. Later the offering was mixed with seeds of pomegranate, raisins, almonds and walnuts and became an indispensable part of the services held on the Psychosabbaton, that is, the Saturday of the Souls, just before Great Lent, and the Saturday before Pentecost Sunday. Ιn modern Greece the offering is called kollyba and stragalia (chickpeas), while in Byzantium it was called kollyba and trogalia (tidbits).(34)

The same practice was observed and is being observed even today in many Greek churches, including churches in Crete, Pontos, and Cyprus. Ιn Cyprus, where the form of the Greek language is the oldest known, those who follow the dead to their resting place throw kollyba into the grave, a custom which echoes the ancient Greek tradition of the neilata, or "new cakes," which were placed in the grave in order to pacify Cerberus. Several other burial and religious customs in Cyprus have been traced to ancient Greek religious practices.(35)

The trichokouria, or the cutting of hair from the head of the newly baptized, practiced in early Christianity and the Byzantine Church, was of ancient Greek religious origin. Ιn Greek antiquity, when the young reached puberty, they offered sacrifices to Apollo and had their hair cut. Pseudo-Athanasios confirms that the Christian hair-cutting immediately following baptism was an inheritance from Greek religious practices.(36) Of course, the Church eventually provided its own symbolic meaning for the ritual.

These and several other ancient Greek customs such as polysporia, libation rituals, the Kallikantzaroi (Christmastide spirits), the kalogeroi ceremony, workshop of the Nereids, or water-nymphs, have survived through the Byzantine era and have remained an integral part of popular religiosity.(37)

Ιn the twelfth century, Balsamon was astonished that such pagan customs and habits had survived into his own time. "When Ι ask," he writes, "why were these practices permitted, Ι hear only that they have survived as a part of tradition."(38) Mediaeval Christianity, like early Christianity, adapted itself to its Græco-Roman intellectual and religious environment, as long as those conditions did not oppose its fundamental theological dogmas and principles. What the Church could not destroy, it tried to transform with a new symbolism and meaning.(39)

Greek paganism in the form of popular religiosity remained quite strong in the Balkans even after the Byzantine era. Peasant religious life continued its course without much change. Speros Vryonis has rightly observed that in the Balkarιs under Ottoman Turkish rule "the religious life of the [Orthodox Christian] masses resided on a foundation which was heavily influenced by their pagan roots."(40) These comments are substantiated by foreign travelers to the Ottoman Empire as well as by churchmen concerned with the purification of Christian life, such as the eighteenth-century monks Nikodemos the Hagiorite and Agapios. For example, Pierre Augustin de Guys (1721-1799), a French traveler to Greece, writes that there was a great deal of evidence of the survival of Greek paganism in rural Christian life in eighteenth-century Greece. He classified some festivals and practices as religious traditions, superstitious habits and customs of long standing. He writes of fountains with healing powers, of miraculous icons and the like.(41) Similar types of paganism have survived, of course, in other European countries, such as France, Italy, Spain and Germany. For example, historians of the French Revolution believe that the religious beliefs of the country masses of France in the
eighteenth century were essentially pagan.(42)
Ιn addition to the religiosity of the Byzantine masses, there was the religion of the intellectιιals and educated classes of Byzantine society, of theologians, churchmen, bureaucrats, civil servants and members of the imperial court. There was the theology of Nicaea and of Chalcedon, of Athanasios and of the Cappadocian Fathers, which was both profound and sublime, philosophical and probing. There was the evangelical fundamentalism of the simple monks and monastic communities. A fourth kind of Byzantine Christianity was what is known as Orthodox Christian mysticism, which also did not escape the intluence of early Greek, especially Neoplatonic, mysticism; for example, Byzantine mental prayer and meditation can be traced back to Hellenistic mysticism.

Byzantine society was educated and laymen played a much greater role in Byzantine life than they have been given credit for. At no time was there a stifling clericalism, and even among the clergy there was a great deal of religious diversity. Challenges to the authority of religion were not infrequent. Canon law has never been popular or effective in the Greek Church. If it had been seriously applied, Ι wonder how many people would have remained in the ranks of the Church; dislike of authority was a characteristic of the mediæval Greek Church. Anathemas and condemnations were only occasionally applied, as in cases of blatant heresy.

As has been observed, the institutionalized Church condemned many gross superstitions, but as a whole it did not apologize for the survival of the past in its life, thought and culture. Both the Church and the state viewed the resulting synthesis not as a corruption but as an enrichment. The old culture was also part of God's creation. Old beliefs and practices not only outlived hostile legislation and canons but became institutionalized. New cults, heresies and creeds emerged in the Byzantine millennium but the old held on tenaciously. Ιn a recent exhaustive study, Richard and Eνa Blum maintain that "rural folk [in modern Greece] have experienced these life crises and mysteries under relatively unchanged conditions for the last several thousand years."(43) The question is how to explain this religious continuum? What has sustained so many tenaciously held religious beliefs and practices whose roots can be traced back to the third millennium? Edwin Rhode provides some insight into this perennial question. He writes:

Much-only too much-of the philosophy of its [Greece's] old age lives on in the speculative system of the Christian faith. And in the whole of modern culture so far as it has built itself upon Christianity or by extension from it, in all modern science and art, not a little survives of Greek genius and Greek inspiration ... .

Nothing that has once been alive in the spiritual life of man can ever perish entirely; it has achieved a new form of existence in the consciousness of mankind -an immortality of its own.(44)

Ι should like to add additional explanations for the survival of this phenomenon. According to the social sciences:

A tradition is not a mere observed fact like an existing custom, nor a story that exhausts its significance in being told. It is an idea which expresses a value judgment.(45)

If this definition is correct then Græco-Roman paganism was more than a tradition. It was a value to live by for those who could not comprehend the niceties of Christian theology and theological dialectics.

There were at least two distinct cultures during both the ancient and mediæval periods of Greek history: one peasant and one urban and elite. Mediæval peasant culture had more in common with ancient peasant culture than with the contemporary Christian culture of the educated urban elite, since it could more readily accommodate the lower forms of religious beliefs and practices. According to the science of genetics, identifiable and inheritable characteristics of an organism that contribute to its potential for survival are sustained through continued generations of that given organism. Those characteristics which are either non-contributory or anti-survival, since they lessen the individual organism's survival potential, fall into a relatively recessive state in the cumulative genetic pool.

Thus, many identifiable non-physical phenomena, such as religiosity, that are parts of the overall behavioral pattern of an individual, of a group, of cultural, ethnic or religious societies, that help in any way to provide an increased potential for survival or gratification of some basic drive of the entity involved emerge as dominant characteristics and are propagated. The propagation of such phenomena may be completely unconscious on the part of the people involved or it may be the result of a very deliberate and organized effort.

There is no evidence that Byzantine society after Julian's reign (360-363) exerted deliberate and organized efforts to preserve Greek paganism. The contrary is true. It follows then that ancient Greek religiosity, or paganism, was propagated unconsciously by the peasant masses. Biologically speaking, the most universally constant survival characteristic of any organism lies in its ability to adapt to changing environments. Νon-biological phenomena, such as Greek paganism, have survived in many forms because of the ability of their transmitters to adapt to new circumstances.


*A longer version of this essay appeared in The "Past" in Medieval and Μodern Greek Culture, ed. by Speros Vryonis,Jr. (Malibu,CA., 1978).

1. Cod. Theod. XVI. 10.12; English trans. Clyde Pharr, The Tbeodosian Code (Princeton, 1952), 473-74. Cf. Ν.A. King, The Emperor Theodosius and the Estabishment of Christianity (London,1961), 71-86. See also John Malalas, Chronographia XΙII, ed. L.Dindorf (CSHB Βonn,1831), 344-45

2. S.Angus, The Religious Quests of the Graeco-Roman World (New York, 1967), 47-106. John H. Randall, Jr., Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of the Christian Synthesis (New York 1970),125-44.

3. G. A. Rhalles and Μ. Potles, Syntagma ton theion kai hieron kanonon, νol.2 (Athens,1852, repr.1966), 442-43.

4. John Chrysostom, "15th Homily on the Statues," PG 49-50, col.158-62 "20th Homily," ibid., col.199.

5. Council of Ancyra, canon 24; Council of Laodikeia, canon 36; Basil the Great, canon 83; all in Rhalles and Potles, op.cit. Cod. Theod.IX. 16. 4, 6, 9.

6. Agapios Hieromonk and Nikodemos Hieromonk Pedalion (Athens, 1970), 273, n.5.

7. Romilly Jenkins, Byzantium. The Imperial Centuries A.D. 610-1071 (New York, 1966), 55.

8. Rhalles and Potles, op.cit., νol. 2, 456-57.

9. Ibid., 458-59. George Megas, Hellenikai eortai kai ethimata tes laikis latreias (Athens, 1963), 212-21. English translation in George A. Megas, Greek Calendar Customs (Athens,1958), 136-39.

10. See Xenophon Κ. Akoglou, Laographika Κatyoron, vol.1, (Athens, (1939), 251-88; G.A Megas, ed., Folktales of Greece, trans. Helen Colaclides (Chicago, 1970).

11. Rhalles and Potles, op. cit., νol. 2, 448-52.

12. Ibid., 449-450. For the Calends, Vota and Brumalia, see P. Koukoules, Βyzantinon bios kai politismos, νol. Β.1 (Athens, 1948), 13-31; cf. D.J. Constantelos, "Canon 62 of the Synod in Trullo and the Slavic Problem," Βyzantina 2 (1970) 23-35.

13. Rhalles and Portles, op. cit., νol. 3, 456-66.

14. Ibid.

15. Michael Psellos, De daemonum operatione, PG 122, 849ff., and De daemonibus 122, 876ff

16. Perikles-Petros Joannou, Démonologie populaire-démonologie critique au XΙ siecle: La vie inédite de S. Auxence par Μ. Psellos (Wiesbaden, 1971), 46-47.

17. Rhalles and Potles, op.cit., νol. 2, 441.

18. Any Euchologion includes these prayers. For a critical edition see P. Ν.Trembelas, Mikron Euchologion νol. 1 (Athens, 1950), 338-47. cf. the author's introduction in pp. 275-85.

19. L.R. Farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality (Oxford, 1921; repr. 1970), 402.

20. Theodoret of Cyrrhus, "Peri tes ton martyron times," 12, ed. Pierre Carivet, Theodoret de Cyr,Therapeutique des Maladies Helleniques, νol. 2, Sources Chretiennes (Paris, 1958), 314-35.

21. Martin P. Nilsson, Greek Folk Religion (Gloucester, Mass.,1971), 21, 115.

22. Cicero, Against Verres, II.iν.43, cf. Κ. Freeman, Greek City-States (New York, 1963), 82.

23. Chrysostom Papadopoulos, in Theologia 8 (1930) 10; cf. Konstantinos Amantos, Historia tou Byzantinou Kratous, νol. 1, 2nd ed. (Athens, 1953), 334-35.

24. Nilsson, op. cit. 111-20; For Hades, Charon, lamentations in Greek antiquity and Christian Hellenism see now Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge, 1974), in particular 24-35.

25. Hesiod, Works and Days, vv. 733-34; 735-55; cf. D.A. Petropoulos, "Hesiodioi Prolepseis kai Deisidaimoniae," Epeteris tou Laographikou Archeiou, 11-12 (1960) 3-26.

26. Aeschylus, Persians, 633. Roger Goosseens, "Grec ancien et grec modern ou la Grece éternelle" Byz-Metabyz. 1,(1946),145-46.

27. Cited by A.D. Nock, Early Gentile Christranity, 2 (New York, 1964), 55. On the idea of the presence of God in the sacrificial meal see also David Gill, "Trapezoma: A Neglected Aspect of Greek Sacrifice," HThR 67 (1974), 136-37.

28. Demosthenes, On the Embassy, 255, ed. C.A.Vince (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), 410.

29. C.A.Trypanis, Medieval and Modern Greek Poetry (Oxford, 1968), 9.

30. P. Koukoules, op.cit., νol. 4,164-72; D. Β. Oikonomides, "O Threnos tou Nekrou en Helladi," Epeteris tou Kentrou Ereunes tes Hellenikes Laographias,νol.18-19 (Athens, 1965-1966), 11-40. Cf.Μ. Alexiou, op. cit. 131-160.

31. Katerina J. Kakouri, Dionysiaka (Athens, 1965), 2-6, 51-76; Megas, Hellenikai Eortai, op. cit.,197-203; Megas, Calendar Customs, op. cit., 119-126.

32. George Phrantzes [Sphrantzes], Chronikon, 1.1, ed. Ι. Bekker (CSHB, Βonn, 1838), 8-9.

33. Rhalles and Podes, op.cit., νol. 2, 528-29; νol. 1, 321; P. Koukoules, op. cit. νol. 3, 346-75, esp. 370-75.

34. For kollyba or trogalia in the Byzantine tradition see Hesychios of Alexandria, Lexicon, ed. Kurt Latte, Hesychii Alexandrini Lexicon, νol. 1 (Copenhagen,1966), 502; Souda, ed.Th.Gaisfordum and G. Bernhardy, Lexicon Graece et Latine, νol.1 (Halis et Brunsvige, 1853), col. 321; E.A. Sophocles, Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods (New York, 1887), 675. That the kollyba or trogalia were an evolution from a borrowing of the ancient Greek pankarpia and memorials see K. Kallinikos, Ho Christianikos naos kai ta teloumena en auto (Athens, 1958), 609-610; Koukoules, op.cit., νol. 4, 208-11; Nilsson, op.cit. 30-31; cf.J.E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Cambridge, 1903), 80, 159. On the chytroi, pp. 32-34.

35. Georgios Loukas, Philologikai Episkepseis, ed. Theodore Papadopoullos (Cyprus, 1974), 96-99; Akoglou, op.cit. νol. 1 (Athens, 1939), 233-41.

36. Pseudo-Athanasios, "Question 28," PG 27, 720; Trembelas, op. cit. νol. 1, 316-17; P. Koukoules; op. cit.; νol. 4, 62-65.

37. See Nilsson, op.cit., 299-304; G.A Megas, op.cit., 33-37.

38. Rhalles and Potles, op.cit., νol. 2, 451.

39. Cf. Walter W. Hyde, Greek Religion and its Survivals (New York, 1963), 52.

40. Henrik Birnbaum and Speros Vryonis, Jr., eds., Aspects of the Balkans: Continuity and Change (The Hague, Paris, 1972), 154.

41. Pierre Augustin de Guys, Sentimental Journeys through Greece, 3 vols. (London, 1772) νol.1, pp. 117, 121-22, 298.

42. F.A. Aulard, Christianity and the French Revolution, trans. Lady Frazer (New York, 1966), 33-38, 121-123; cf. Henry Β. Parker, Gods and Μen: The Origin of Western Culture (New York, 1959), 50-51.

43. Richard and Eνa Blum, The Dangerous Hour-The Love of Crisis and Mystery in Rural Greece (New York, 1970), 263-64.

44. Edwin Rhode, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Greeks (Freeport, Ν.Y.; 1972, repr. 1920 ed.), 548-49.

45. Μax Radin, "Tradition," Encyclopaedia of tbe Social Sciences, νol. 15 (1942), 63, col.1.

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