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An Expose Of Cultural Practices & Beliefs Of Modern Greeks An Expose Of Cultural Practices & Beliefs Of Modern Greeks
by Nikos Laios
2022-05-27 07:16:13
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The Greek Identity

Now,  when one thinks of modern Greeks, one thinks of a positive picture of an exuberant joyful people bursting with life, and celebrating life like it’s their last day; shop owners business people, diaspora Greek communities integrating into their adopted homelands seamlessly. This image that we have of Greeks is all true, but there’s also a negative side to modern Greek culture, and a discussion and a candid revelation is necessary here for the growth of modern Greek culture and its further integration into a prosperous modern western world. The inspiration for this article was the death of the writer’s mother in October of last year, the unconventional funeral choices that the family made, and the subsequent strident criticism and ostracism that this writer and his family accordingly received from the Greek diaspora community here.

Now for the purposes of compositional efficiency and authenticity, this writer at times will write in a first person voice. But this article is not a confessional article, but a serious review of various cultural practices and beliefs in modern Greek culture. In writing this article, there will be repercussions for this writer; a loss of Greek friendships and also relations with certain relatives severed. so the risk to this writer is great in writing and publishing this article. But the views, practices and facts exposed by this writer here are all true, and it comes from someone who has been a part of the Greek community back in Greece, and now as a member of the Greek diaspora community, an insider. Many Greeks both in Greece and in the diaspora also think and support these same views, but do so in silence out of fear of retribution from their own families and of the potential ostracism from their own Greek communities. Here, I am the voice for all these silent Greeks that dare not speak out.

Historians identify the Greeks as both western and eastern leaning due to the fact of the geography of Greece; on the edge of Europe, straddling both Europe and Asia. This has been the case since the ancient times till modern times. This dichotomy is very important in explaining the modern Greek psyche. Unlike the rest of Europe that went through the renaissance, reformation, post-reformation, the great ages of enlightenment and humanism, the industrial revolution and the Belle Époque; modern Greece missed all this. For most of modern Greece was under the subjugation of Ottoman occupation since the fall of the Byzantine empire. This resulted in a loss of national confidence for modern Greeks, and the modern traits of hyper-nationalism and jingoism as expressed by modern Greeks, are a direct reaction to this insecurity of identity.

celestial_web_400Also the Modern Greek propensity for corruption-  the ‘fakelaki’ syndrome -  also has its roots from the Ottoman occupation. Stuffed envelopes (fakelo) full of cash for buying favours and advantages. It’s this same theme of corruption and sycophancy that has infected the very core of Greek politics, and why Greece will never have a true modern functioning government until these deleterious habits are cleansed from the national psyche. The modern Greek psyche is slowly recovering from the trauma of Ottoman occupation, but has a long way to go yet, and only by recognising and jettisoning bad habits will modern Greeks go some way in recapturing the intellectual ethos and revolutionary spirit of their ancient ancestors.

If one looks at Greece’s performance on a political and economic level, the results are appalling and far behind that of their fellow European nations, and this can be directly attributed to the injured modern Greek psyche. If we compare Greece to a nation geographically opposite to Greece, say Finland, the comparisons are stark, Finland with a population of 5,554,960, has a Debt to GDP of 67.0%, and an unemployment rate of 7%. While Greece on the other hand with a much larger population of 10,316,637, has a Debt to GDP of 199.44% and an unemployment rate of 13.4%, and also rates high on the corruption index. Politics in Greece is a complete failure, with cliques and family alliances offering the solutions to Greece’s ills via the antiquated 20th Century prism of a left/right political dichotomy. Yet until corruption, sycophancy, and the archaic tribalistic virtue of philitomo are completely eradicated, Greece will continue to be a political and economic failure.

To understand the modus operandi of this writer in composing and publishing this article, one has to understand a brief history of his family. Where the ancestors of the maternal side of the family lived on the Ionian Islands, which were under Venetian occupation, unlike the Ottoman occupation of the rest of Greece. My family over hundreds of years were all western leaning, an educated aristocratic merchant class, and secularists. Poets, artists, academics, politicians and generals.

Therefore the flag for this writer is that of the European Union, and the flags and Greece and Australia subsequently are second. The flag of the European Union, those yellow stars linked in a circle against a blue, like a line of relay runners linking ancient Europe to the present; the light of civilisation sparked in Ancient Greece, then the torch passed on to our Roman brothers and sisters, then to the Germans and the Franks, to England, the Dutch, Spain and Portugal, modern France. That’s my Europe, that's my identity, a cosmopolitan poet, artist and intellectual revelling in the delights of our shared European heritage.

Whilst I’m very proud of my Greek heritage and ancient ancestors and their civilisational accomplishments, yet in relation to the modern construct of the nation state, the fact is that the more educated one is, the less importance nationalism and jingoism suddenly become. Where the overarching human story spanning the hundreds and thousands of years becomes much more relevant and salient, and especially for this modern age. That Europe is a winning civilisation, and a potential light for the progression of the rest of humanity is evident. But here archaic and antiquated beliefs and practices have to be recognised as such and that they are no longer relevant in the modern world, which can act as anchors holding back both individuals and nations. On which this writer on a personal basis has put into action by the abandonment of certain archaic and antiquated cultural practices and beliefs, as a free thinking individual living in a secular democratic western nation.

Philotimo, Shame&Funeral Rites

In considering the funeral rites of modern Greece, one has to understand firstly how conservative society is in Modern Greece, and that equally applies to the other Mediterranean cultures of Italy, Spain, and Portugal; and how this conservatism affects cultural practices and beliefs. There are certain beliefs and cultural practices in modern Greece for instance that date back to Ancient Greece.  The concept of ‘Philotimo’ (φιλότιμο) for instance dates back to Classical Greece, where the first recorded mention of the word was in Plato’s book The Republic through the word Philotimon (φιλότιμον) which meant ‘covetous of honour’. Later, the word developed a more positive and noble sense, and by the beginning of the Christian Era, developed the meaning that is used today in Modern Greek culture, a ‘love of honour’, a personal honour code. The concept of Philotimo forms the basis in modern Greek culture of one’s personal integrity, be it male or female, and it influences every aspect of life.

Shame is a concept that is closely connected to the concept of Philotimo, where one feels dishonoured and shamed in the eyes of one’s community and friends. The concept of Philotimo defines the connection between shame and honour, and whether any corrective action needs to be undertaken to restore one’s besmirched and sullied honour. On a societal level, it is the possession of Philotimo that makes a Greek conform to Greek public opinion, and to conform to traditional norms of conduct. This concept is equally strong today both in Greece and the Greek diaspora, coupled with the patriarchal nature of Greek society and the historical misogyny, influences all aspects of life, whether overtly, or subtlety.

These concepts are perfectly illustrated in the Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel titled ‘Zorba The Greek’, where the concepts of philotimo and shame were some of the central themes of the novel. One particular scene perfectly showcases these concepts in a modern setting, with a scene regarding a young window in a small Cretan village. Where an attractive young widow is coveted by the single men of the village and where the married women are guarded by their husbands, and the unmarried women are guarded by their fathers. The young widow represents one of the few sexual outlets for the men, and her community felt that she disgraced them with her refusal to remarry, and when one of the men of the village commits suicide due to her rejection of him which caused the injury to his philotimo, the young man’s father killed the widow by slitting her throat in front of the whole village.

This episode underlines the primitive tribalism, patriarchy and sexual politics where women were treated as possessions and second class citizens. Until recently, vendettas in Greece where very common due the the concept of philotimo which was born in an ancient and primitive tribalism. Concepts and behaviours which no longer have a place in the modern world. Misogyny and femicide in Greece are big problems, and on average 11 femicides are recorded per year. Where According to the deputy minister for gender equality Maria Syrengela, a special hotline for abuse complaints had received nearly 7,000 calls last year. Macho culture in Greece has deep roots where Greek education, justice and the church are built on patriarchal models. 1) Where patriarch attitudes that lead to violence against women are yet to be dismantled, and on a micro level, these patriarchal attitudes are replicated in Greek diaspora communities overseas.

In respect to funeral rites in modern Greece, one would have thought that the eternal rest of the dead would be undisturbed, but due to land shortage, strange burial customs have developed in Greece. The bodies of dead loved ones are only kept in the ground for three years - enough time for the bodies to decay - then the families have to pay for the exhumation of the bodies, the bones collected and stored in an ossuary, yet here many families cannot even afford the storage of the bones. This writer has heard harrowing first accounts from family and friends who have had to personally dig up their own parents and relatives, wash the bones and store them. Graves are now usually rented on a three-year lease with an escalating price scale for any additional years. The prohibitive costs are meant to act as a deterrent so that the space can be reused. In a small country like Greece, one would have thought that cremation would be the perfect solution to the burial problem.

Meanwhile in the rest of Europe, for example more than 75% of people in the UK and Denmark opt for cremation rather than burial. While in Greece, the Greek Orthodox Church vigorously opposed a law that was passed in 2006 allowing for crematoria to be built in Greece, and where the church will not conduct a funeral service if it knows that the body will be cremated. The few Greeks who choose cremation do so by going to neighbouring Bulgaria. 2) The reason for this opposition to cremation by the church is that the Greek Orthodox Church believes that in life after death, the soul is reunited with the body and with Christ — and a deceased person hasnt just died, hes fallen asleep.” Yet the hypocrisy here js that bones eventually decay to dust and that bodies are exhumed and bones stored in ossuaries, and priests in Greece refuse to believe that exhumation happens and turn a blind eye. Along with the concepts of Philotimo and shame, the concepts of patriarchy, misogyny, machismo, corruption, the power of the church, and Greek funeral practices are but some of the many outdated and backwards cultural practices in Greek society that have to be challenged and changed.

The Wollongong Greeks - A Case Study

When my mother died on the 8th October of last year, that was one of the most traumatic events that I have gone through; a grown adult to lose their parents is a tough thing, and an event which this writer shall discuss shortly, but first an overview is required of the town and Greek community that she was a part of. My mother lived in a suburb of a town called Wollongong. Wollongong is a coastal city located south of Sydney with a population just over 300,000. It’s located on a thin strip of coastal land, bounded by an escarpment to the west, kilometres of ocean to the east. Wollongong has a provincial feel, yet the main industry is Australia’s largest steel works. Wollongong’s heyday was during the 70’s and 80’s, but now it has a tired feel, full of methadone and drug addicts, and burned out Sydneysiders moving there for some coastal living. Greek migration to Wollongong started in the 50’s and 60’s, to provide steelworkers for the growing steelworks there. The Greek migrant community in Wollongong was a reasonable size and mirrored the same cultural practices and beliefs of back home.

After a few decades of life in the city of Wollongong, the Greek diaspora grew prosperous and tried to keep in tact their Greek identity, the sense of what it is to be Greek. They considered - like most other diaspora communities around the world that they were more ‘Greek’ than the Greeks back home, but this writer can confirm that this is completely ridiculous. The question has to be asked here, what is the definition of ‘Greekness’, and what type of ‘Greekness’? The diaspora constructed this strange mutation of Greekness, mythologising certain aspects, including ethics and morality. Yet this writer being a Greek from Greece, and travelling back yearly to Greece can attest that this is not the case. But this diaspora community not only carries the same aspects of gossip, small village syndrome, misogyny, peer pressure, patriarchy and a belief in the concepts of shame and Philotimo, but have magnified them. This writer has lived in Wollongong from the age of ten to twenty three, that’s thirteen years of his life spent there, was an active member of the Greek community, and witnessed firsthand the Greek community and the results of its actions and way of living.

The Greek diaspora of Wollongong has two churches which at one time were in opposition to each other, one officially recognised by the church back in Greece, and the other a previously rebel church, due to the bitter infighting amongst the Greek community there. One strange cultural phenomena that this writer has observed amongst some members of this community over the last decade is the development of a strange literalist hyper-religiosity. Now the Greeks back home, whilst all professing to be members of the Greek Orthodox Church, attend the annual important services, and pay lip service to the church and it’s traditions, and especially the young people, are becoming more secular and growing away from the church.

Now in this diaspora community, this writer has observed a growing number of people, ‘churchie boys’ and ‘churchie girls’, who have a literal belief in the old and New Testament, the Ten Commandments, fast for 40 days during certain times of the year, and attend church every Sunday. Some have even given up their professions, where their professions clash with their strict literalist religious beliefs. Many during the Covid pandemic refused to be vaccinated because the vaccine was the ‘fangs of the devil’ ( first hand accounts that this writer has heard), and that Bill Gates is the agent of the anti-Christ.

0013_400This writer was an altar boy during the ages ten to twelve in one of the Greek churches of Wollongong. Sitting behind the closed doors of the altar with my fellow altar boys and the priest. The droning sound of Byzantine changing hovering in their air mingling with the aroma of frankincense, the sunlight streaming through the stained windows high up on the wall falling on the gold and silver icons. It was a grand and mystical experience for a boy of ten, one’s soul would become lighter, and listening to the liturgy in the original koine Greek, it was a great experience to be a part of. Yet that was then and now, the liturgy in Greek churches around Australia are chanted mostly in English, because the younger generations here have a weak grasp of the Greek language. This writer is fluent not only in modern Greek, but in Koine and Ancient Greek, and this loss of Greek language here in Australia by the diaspora to this writer is completely unacceptable and pathetic, and why - amongst many other reasons - this writer will never step foot in a Greek church in Australia. Back in Greece, in thousand year old-plus churches, the liturgy in Koine Greek remains unaltered, and only when in Greece will this writer ever dare to enter a church.

When my mother died last year, I and my family decided on cremation as the funeral rite, and here I have to qualify what I mean by ‘family.’ The family here that I am very close nit and united with, are my older sister Amalia, and my younger brother Socrates: we do have another sibling, but they are estranged and where we have no relationships with them for good reason. We decided on cremating our mother because we felt that this was the best choice for our family, that it would release our mother’s soul onto her journey, and that it would be a better choice than having a big fat Greek funeral according to the expectations and pressure of the church and the Greek community. Our estranged sibling disagreed, but it was a democratic and unanimous decision, and the best thing we did. It gave all of us closure, and was a far better option than sticking our mother in the ground for her body to rot.

But the response and vicious vitriol that we received due to our family decision by sections of the Greek diaspora of Wollongong was completely shocking, yet not unexpected to this writer. When my older sister Amalia called one of my mother’s friends to tell her the news, as soon as my sister called this lady, the first thing this lady exclaimed was “you burnt your mother!.”No respect or commiserations to our family was given at all. The upshot here is that it was our estranged sibling who outed our family via their own Facebook page, revealing to the Greek community that we had cremated our mother. Throughout the Mediterranean world at the moment, from Greece to Italy, Spain and Portugal, many families are secretly cremating their deceased family members to escape the withering criticism and ostracism of their conservative communities. Let’s be sure on one thing here,  that the present Mediterranean world - compared to the rest of Europe - is indeed very conservative.

Now to understand this writer’s motivation in choosing to cremate his mother, a brief candid explanation is required here of his own religious and philosophical beliefs. Here let this writer preface what is about to be said by stating that he greatly respects peoples’ freedom of religion and beliefs, and that this is in no way an insult to their beliefs in any way. But this writer is a secular existentialist, living in a secular western democratic country, where freedom of speech is paramount, including the freedom to critique and express opinions on religion. In relation to the cremation of this writer’s mother, the concept of the resurrection of the body was the last thing on the minds of the family. Here this writer feels that it is appropriate to use the Australian linguistic patois of using swear/coarser words to give a firmer full-stop and exclamation to certain comments. Here one thinks of James Joyce and his utilisation of vulgar words to give a linguistic authenticity to his writing in his novel ‘Ulysses.’  The concept of the physical resurrection of the body to one day meet Christ is ridiculous. Note that this writer has gone through an after-death experience many years ago in a head-on collision, where ten people died and this writer was in a coma for months. What did I see? A tunnel and bright warm light, that there is something there. From this experience, this writer formed the opinion that a physical resurrection is fantasy.

In regards to the Old Testament, while this expresses quaint myths and stories, they are the myths and stories of the Jewish people, and not this writer’s people, and accordingly this writer completely dismisses the Old Testament as a load of rubbish. In respect to the New Testament, while it has some warm parables on love and forgiveness, this writer cannot accept the patriarchal tribalism and misogyny that is expressed in this book. That priests in the Greek church can only be male, that the world was made in seven days, really? More bullshit! That religious texts are accepted as literal truths is astounding, for all they were ever meant to be is metaphorical; the symbolisms and myths of these stories to provide a didactic moral lesson. Also the fact that the Christian churches have built these empires of stone, marble and wood, constructing  hierarchical political, rigid patriarchal structures, this is also ridiculous and has to change.

This writer is a European secular existentialist, and indeed god is dead, and we have killed him for good reason, for we have grown up and stopped listening to the stories of children. For this writer, a total submission to god -  in the context of Abrahamic religions - is an act of cowardice, a rejection of our free will. Mankind is alone on this world, and we make of this world, or destroy it through our own actions, and not by some invisible god. Does this writer believe in God? On the basis that it’s more logical that’s there is a single creative force in the universe instead of multiple creative forces, yes. But we do not need all that bullshit of churches, a priesthood, hierarchy, canonical laws and traditions. Religion is a personal thing, and all of the above is superfluous, one can pray in the privacy of one’s own home.

Does this writer pray? Sometimes, more out of habit, more out of hope, have some icons in my place, light some incense, put on some Byzantine chanting, and get my mystical hit, like a drug. But this writer also has a profound respect for the rich archetypes of the Ancient Greek gods, and find a reflection here just as mystical, a reflection on Buddhism also brings a sense of calm serenity. In respect to the Ten Commandments, why these primitive, tribal and backward commandments, when one has the rich tapestry of the vast ethical and moral guidance as expressed in the works from Platonic, Aristotelian, Cynic philosophies, right through to the modern European schools of philosophy and psychology; a far more richer source of guidance than any Abrahamic religion can provide.

Much has to change in modern Greek culture, from a separation of church and state in Greece, to  a complete rejection of the primitive and tribal concepts of Philotimo and shame, the concepts of patriarchy, misogyny, machismo, graft, greed, corruption, sycophancy, the power of the church, and outdated funeral practices. Greece has to become a modern secular society where the rule of law, gender equality, the primacy of science, and the promotion of the betterment of all of its citizens regardless of ethnic backgrounds through self-actualisation, becomes the societal focus. A vigorous refreshed modern culture and nation, and only then will Greece prosper - and for once - have a modern, efficient, fair and functional political system. The weight of history and the legacy of the ancestors on modern Greeks is a very heavy burden indeed and one that is becoming a toll, and it is indeed difficult for modern Greeks to escape the shadow of their ancient ancestors. Only through a clear break, a reboot, a modernisation can Greeks walk tall in the world again. Here, a quote by Diogenes comes to mind, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” How very true indeed!

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France 24. 19-4-22. ‘Greek Women Confronting Macho Culture Fuelling Femicides.’
BBC News, Greece. 26 November 2015. ‘Why Greeks Are Exhuming Their Parents.’

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All digital paintings including the cover page & photo  from Nikos Laios

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Don't miss Nikos Laios eBook
The Silent Symphony
A collection of poems and paintings,
you can download for FREE, HERE!

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Also check Nikos Laios' EBOOK
Ida & Her Magic Camera
is online now and you can download for FREE HERE!
 
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