Conversations about the Resurrection

Xristos Anesti – Christ has risen in the Orthodox World.  In a world crippled by corruption and greed, yet filled with passion and lust for life beyond any measure of sanity. Today is Easter Sunday for the Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches.

There should be a candle burning in my kitchen representing the Resurrection service last night, but there is not. When I first moved to Durban my father would always ask on the telephone: “Are you going to church?”

“I’ll try. I’m on call.” In the beginning call was a nightmare at King Edward VIII Hospital, where I would be stuck operating through the night and work nonstop for thirty six hours. The call in private became more civilised but I stressed over it anyway. I am on call this weekend again.I did pop into church when Father Mina was there. He was a strong link with the family and being Greek, because he was our parish priest for many years in Alberton and officiated over many weddings, christenings and funerals. He knew us all very well.

I never brought a candle home in Durban. My father always brought a candle home in Alberton. It was the most important thing to do. I think he always completed the attendance at the church service after the Resurrection and then took the candle home to lie safely in a glass vase so that it could burn through to the next morning, and also safely so that it did not burn the house down as the kitchen in those days had flimsy flammable nylon curtains. After that he would arrive at Uncle Phillip’s house which was two houses and the hall away from the church, as everyone had finished Aunty Marina’s avgolemono soup, which was a light meal to break the fast in the early hours of the morning. He would eat alone as we all watched and talked.

After a few hours sleep he would rise to supervise the lighting of the fires at 6 a.m., and then after thirty minutes put the sheep on the spit. We usually tied them down on the Saturday afternoon and left them standing like dead soldiers with spears leaning against the kitchen wall. On the Sunday morning it was an appropriate funeral pyre for them to burn on, for us to celebrate six hours later.

Once the sheep were safely on and turning slowly on the fire, before any real smell came off them, my father would take us to visit the ancestors and wish them Xristos Anesti. At the cemetery we would clean out metal vases and place new flowers on the graves of my grandparents in honour of their resurrection. The fine red sand surrounding the graves would smell of Africa when we poured water onto it. The incense we burnt to carry their spirits and our prayers to God smelt of Greece.

Alithos Anesti – In Truth He has Risen.

Father Mina in the Friday with the Epitaphio following. Circa 1974

Conversations about Paraskevidekatriaphobia

My father was superstitious and spiritual. Sometimes the two became blurred and no logic or belief was evident.

He would never sit at a table with thirteen guests. It is an easy superstition to explain: Judas was the thirteenth guest at the last supper, and it was he who betrayed Jesus Christ and tagged the number thirteen as an ill omen. If you think about it, most of us betray Jesus and should place a thirteen cent coin in our mouths when Charon transports across the Styx. Our forebears in Mantinea would have carefully placed a coin in the mouth of their deceased relatives to pay the ferryman.

My father would always leave a house or building by the same door he entered. In open plan houses with free movement through verandas this would sometimes mean a tour of the house until he found the door he wanted. He did not believe in the mati – the evil eye, that blue beaded teardrop, as other Greeks and Mediterranean’s did, but he did believe that the soul could be possessed. He had a prayer incantation which he would repeat fervently while holding anyone that was possessed to free them of their chains.

Whenever anyone came around to show him a new car, he would always take money out of his pocket and place a few notes in the cubby hole. I still have the original notes he placed in my first Alfa Romeo, transferred from car to car. The envelope is dirty and frayed, but the good luck money lies safely inside. Not that I have had that many new cars, but over 30 years they tend to get worn out and need replacing. Especially Alfa Romeos.

He did not like giving knives as a gift. A knife was a tool that could sever a relationship. So when his good friend Rod Conacher introduced him to Piet Grey, who made beautiful handcrafted knives, he bought one for my brother and me. But in receiving it we had to pay him a token coin to prevent the knife from being used to sever the relationship.

Today’s mouthful of a title is a concatenation of a few Greek words: Paraskevi is Friday, dekatria is thirteen and we all know what phobia means.

Piet Grey's Beautiful Blade


Conversations about Calendars

The Jewish Passover celebrations began yesterday. The Passover commemorates God’s gift of saving their firstborn while the Egyptian firstborn were struck down in the plague. This Passover, in synagogues all over the world, the first born sons of Jews will recite thanks to God for saving their kind. It is an incredible tradition.

The Passover lasts seven days. At the end of those seven days in Biblical times the Romans crucified Jesus Christ. The Jews base the dates of Passover on their calendar which is lunisolar, or semi- lunar. They have an intercalary month which takes place seven times in 19 years; this is called the Metonic cycle, after the Greek astronomer Meton, who proposed it about 432 B.C. to express the relation between a lunar and solar year. The Jewish Diaspora traditionally added an extra day to their Passover just to be safe, in case the local calendar was wrong.

The early Christians based their calendar on the same lunisolar system which was integrated into the Julian Calendar, named after Julius Caesar and which ruled time from 45 B.C until 1582 A.D.. This calendar was not astronomically correct in that although it had a leap year, the actual variance was slightly less than the six hours per year that the Emperor calculated. So in fact as time progressed the calendar was being thrown out of pace.

The Gregorian calendar was adopted by the Western World in 1582, when by the political plotting and the use of the Julian Calendar Easter was falling too early in March. The principle of calculating this Spring Festival was, and still is, based, on the vernal equinox that occurs in March. Vernal implies spring (as it would be in the northern hemisphere) and the equinox is an astronomical description for that time of year when the sun is perpendicular to the equator. Easter is calculated on the first Sunday after full moon after the vernal equinox. The Orthodox Easter has to fall at the end of the Passover, which is historically correct. More importantly, the Gregorian calendar has fixed the vernal equinox on 21 March, when in fact it varies astronomically by a day each way. In addition, the Gregorian calendar uses an “ecclesiastical” full moon, and not the astronomical full moon in the calculation.

So this year the Orthodox Easter and the Catholic Easter should coincide by virtue of the moon and the vernal equinox, but in fact the Orthodox Easter is delayed by one week to fall at the end of the Passover.

Greece remained true to her stubborn nature in that she was the last to adopt the Gregorian calendar, as late as 1928, after the population exchange destroyed the Levant. The yellow beast, China, only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1949.

It is a fascinating moveable feast, the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter. The one Christian church follows the Jewish rite, while the other has chosen to rule the astronomical calendar with an average day, 21 March and an arbitrary full moon. The Jewish word for the Passover is pesach. The Greek word for Easter is pascha. Not too dissimilar in sound?

The Paschal Sheep in Alberton, circa 1970.


Conversations about Hellenism

Conversations about Hellenism

In March of 2003 my father faxed me a copy of a twelve page speech he delivered, I think to the Hellenic Federation of Communities, on “The Future of Hellenism in South Africa”. The cover page of the Stathoulis Group of companies, with its logo of the village house, was spotted with a secretary’s note “for your perusal”.

I perused the speech, and filed it away. I have revisited it a few times. When I went through all his other speeches that he had on file, this one stuck out in length and structure: I suppose it encapsulated his dream: Hellenism. The speech came at a time when the Greek Orthodox Church was actively recruiting members of non-Hellenic background and baptising them into the church. He starts off the speech with a preamble that hints at this issue, and reflects on the interwoven relationship of the Greek Orthodox religion and Hellenism.

He then defines faith, religion, folklore and organised Hellenism. The introduction states “religion and faith has become inseparable from custom and in some instances, folklore, as in all countries and nations”.  Before closing the introduction he says “it must be remembered that the Hellenes are an old nation having passed through many evolutions through to Christianity… therefore, it would not be correct to try and preserve Hellenism, when denying areas of tradition passed from ancient times.”

He then discussed the Orthodox Church in South Africa, and the interrelationship and interdependence of church and community and tradition. The following section discussed the changes since apartheid fell. It discusses the loss of many Greeks and the few that remain, in the realm of the churches newfound fervour of missionary work. “The perception of how the church is going about its business and how it is affecting Hellenism is creating a lot of concern and problems” is written in bold type. My father predicts that the church followers and benefactors in South Africa will become “less and less”.  Before he closes the speech he discusses missionary work, acknowledging the importance but falling back on the definition of Hellenistic roots.

In summary he stresses the importance of the church in the Greek community and the negativity of the church bargaining with communities by threatening removal of Greek priests who do not agree with policy. These were the same Greek priests who were the very foundation of Hellenism for the Diaspora.

He closes with an appeal that “the church must utilise its power and organisation to do what has been done for Hellenes in the past and not to be the cause of Organised Hellenism to become part of South African History”.

Like all things Greek, the failing strength of Hellenism in the Diaspora has multiple causes. In South Africa the church seems to have added to the problems.

I have uploaded the full speech below if you wish to read it.


Conversations about Arcadia

Arcadia is home to many famous ideas and people.

In modern times, anyone with a surname ending in -poulos is usually an entrepreneur extraordinaire. Both in Greece and as the Diaspora that flowed out of Greece to make a new life in the States, Australia and Africa.

Arcadia is home to the uprising of the Greeks against the 400 year old Ottoman Rule in 1821. The bodies of the Muslims lay so thick on the ground after the massacre at Tripolitsa, now Tripolis, that the hero Kolokotronis said his horse’s hooves did not touch the earth when he entered the city in victory.

It is home to the ancient City of Megalopolis. The not so famous historian Polybius was borne there, and wrote of the growing Roman dominance of the Greek states. His art as an historian lay in trying to explain the events rather than just recounting the events.

Argos, another ancient city, which means slow, is on the coast. Slow comes from the poor soil and the time it takes to grow crops. This ancient city belonged to Agamemnon. It is connected by an aquifer to the ancient city of Mantinea forty kilometres away. These ruins lie in the plains between our village of Kakouri and Tripolis. If you could follow the underground waters from a sinkhole near Nestani (a neighbouring village) you would arrive underwater at the Dini Spring in the Argolid Gulf. Normally we stand on the end of the cliff and look out over the gulf, and you can see the fresh water clearing the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

In fact, legend has it that Poseidon, god of the sea, was born and left at a sheepfold near a spring. His mother hid the birth from his father, the Titan Cronus who was eating his children in fear of a revolt by them. So Poseidon was born in a landlocked plain and made his way to the sea via this underground waterway.

Arcadia is home also to Virgil’s Eclogues. He established Arcadia as a pastoral Utopia in the arts. These inspired Nicolas Poussin’s famous painting Et in Arcadia Ego:   I too am in Arcadia. The three shepherds a looking at this inscription on a tomb, one of the discussing it with a beautiful woman standing alongside.

If you look at this painting it looks as if they are looking at the tomb as the doorway to another world, in which Arcadia will be within them.

Arcadia is a fascinating place. I imagine one of these shepherds looks like someone in the family. I just cannot place them.

Shepherds of Arcadia painting by Nicolas Poussin 1630: Et in Arcadia Ego