Greece - The Alter Of The Home
( Originally Published 1899 )
A Hotel is not a home any more than a pension is a hotel. In neither of them can one see Greek domestic life. If I had lived in them long, I should not have known Spiridion, the faithful butler and factotum, Elizabeth, the cook, with her island brogue, nor black-eyed Laurette, nor Louise, nor Helen, nor the Kyria, my landlady.
" How many cigarettes, Kyria, do you smoke a day? " I asked once. " Not many; only twenty-five." She was the only Greek woman whom I ever saw smoking, and she had acquired this accomplishment in Paris.
Athens resisted the invasion of the Goths in the third century, but it welcomes the Gauls in the nineteenth. When it forgets its past and wishes to become fashionably modern, it imitates Paris. Thus there is a Gallic Athens and a Greek Athens. The French capital has accidentally acquired a Greek name smelted from barbarian ore, and, as the most brilliant and beautiful city in Europe, may challenge imitation; yet, if you want Paris, you should see it in its native brilliancy, not in a pale Hellenic reflection. Hence fashionable life in Athens did not attract me, and I did not spend any time at the shrine of its goddess. Athens has nothing unique to offer in this direction. Its social conventions are European, and one can easily find them in any other city.
One may well, however, light a candle at the altar of the Greek home. The altar is by no means simply a metaphor. The Greeks, though good churchgoers, always reserve some of their religion for family life. In Ithaca I slept in a room where the pious house-holder kept a lamp burning night and day before a shrine of the Virgin set in a little niche, a common practice with the peasantry. Every home may thus become a sanctuary. I have stood too by an altar in the very centre of the home. Consecrated mirth followed the marriage service, which took place before it, and the girl was a willing, happy victim. But it is not always so. At first I could not fathom the sadness beneath the nonchalant air of my landlady as she lightly puffed her cigarette, but when she told me her history I could almost forgive her for turning herself into a chimney. Her cigarettes were simply to drive away care. She had never loved her husband; she had married him simply be-cause her father had commanded her to do so. In the Paris Bourse their fortune, like her tobacco, had gone up in smoke. Separated from him, she and her daughters were fighting the battle of life against heavy odds.
In the matter of marriage I find the Greeks too much like their forefathers. It is interesting to observe the persistence of some old Pagan customs; it is less gratifying to see others perpetuated which ought long since to have been buried. It was an old form of Pagan brutality for a father to arrange a marriage for his daughter, and even for his son, without consulting or heeding their inclinations. There was too much matrimonial bargaining and too much disregard of the affections. That happy marriage some-times resulted does not prove that the custom was a good one any more than wedded happiness in India justifies child marriage. Hence Plato in his Laws, among some radical suggestions, made the sensible one that " people must be acquainted with those in whose family they marry and to whom they are given in marriage ; in such matters as far as possible to avoid mistakes is all important."
Greek boys and girls are not without opportunities of seeing each other, but the dickering over the dowry still continues. The Greeks are not alone under its thrall, for it is a custom which prevails all over the continent of Europe. IIpoie, now current in the form, is an old Attic word for the marriage portion, and there is many a Greek girl today who wishes the word and the thing were not so modern. I have not discussed the subject with the high functionaries of Church or State, but I have talked it over with the Kyria, my landlady; with Nicholas, the cab driver; with Georgios, the law student; and with Helen, not of Troy, but of Athens. I did not find any great difference in their opinions, though occasionally some variation in their accounts of the customs. The usage at Zante or at Sparta may differ a little from that at Athens. It is Georgios who takes the Spartan view, which he confided to me as we were sitting over our loukoumi at a cafe near the Stadion.
"It often happens," he said, that a young man sees the girl he is to marry only once before the wedding. The great stumbling-block is when the parents do not agree as to the proika. The father of the girl gives the dowry, and with us it must not be less than a thousand drachmas. It runs up to ten or fifteen thousand sometimes, and of course the rich give fifty or a hundred thousand." At that time, a drachma was worth fourteen cents.
"When a father wishes to marry off his daughter," continued Georgios, " he calls in a relative, a woman, of course, and asks her to go to the father of the young man whom he would like to have marry his girl. If the father is not living she goes to the mother, and if she is not living the match-maker goes to the young man himself. The father thus approached immediately asks, not whether the young people know each other or love each other, for they are not yet considered in the transaction; he asks what the girl's father is worth, and how much he will give for the privilege of having a daughter married to his son. The go-between suggests ten thousand drachmas.
No,' says the man, 'it must be fifteen thousand.' And then the haggling begins. Sometimes they cannot make a trade and that ends the whole business. If the dowry is sufficient, it is not indelicate under the circumstances to ask the age of the girl. The father broaches the matter to his son, and, if he finds him inclined to marry, they go to see the girl. If they live in the same town the young man I will not say lover, for husbands in Greece frequently do not love their wives until after they are married the young man may have seen her before ; but if they live in different towns he may not know her, and may be pardoned for having a little curiosity as to her looks. So he goes with friends, --perhaps the old man goes along too, and they make a formal call. They do not say anything about marriage. They talk about the weather and the crops and avoid politics. If the young man does not take a fancy to the girl, the matter may be dropped. It happens frequently enough that he has ideas of his own upon this subject. He wants one girl and his father wants him to take another, and the father insists upon his taking the one who has the most money or threatens him with disinheritance." Georgios spoke with as much positiveness as though he were stating a proposition in mathematics.
" But suppose," I suggested, " the girl does not want the wooer."
" Oh," he said, dropping into Attic Greek, "that seldom happens. Frequently the girl learns that she is to be married at the last moment, after all the arrangements have been made. As a rule the girl marries the man that her father and mother choose for her." Had the Kyria, my landlady, been near when this was said she would have lighted another cigarette.
"But," continued Georgios, "the bridegroom has his sacrifices to make. It sometimes happens that he marries a girl who is cross-eyed or lame, or defective in some way, because he wants the money. The groom's father makes some presents to the bride, a silk dress, or something of that kind. The father of the bride gives a ring to the groom and the groom presents one to the bride, either at the hour of the marriage, or more generally when the compact is completed." The Greeks, by the way,do not deny musical significance to this word symphony, but they also apply it to the agreement which one makes with his hack-driver!
After the engagement the bridegroom-elect may, visit the girl's home every day, if he chooses, and may possibly fall in love with her. The betrothal is generally concluded at the house of the bride, and a priest is there to bless both rings. The engagement may last three months, six months or a year. Marriages do not take place during Lent, except under rare circumstances and by special permission of the metropolitan. Away down in Laconia (Mani), the big toe of the Peloponnesus, a still more Spartan austerity is observed. After the agreement is made the groom's father is obliged to give a little money to the father of the girl and some gifts to the daughter and to her mother; but even after the exchange of rings the bridegroom is not allowed to see the girl or to walk with her until the wedding day. In other parts of Greece, I am told, more freedom is allowed, and the bridegroom-elect is treated as a son.
It was through the kindness of Pater Anthimos that I was invited to an Athenian wedding, solemnized by this archimandrite; not a wedding in high life, but somewhere in the middle of the social crust. On the table in the centre of the room was a tray filled with candies and a large and beautifully bound volume of the liturgy. The archimandrite wore a robe of purplish blue with a gold sash. He was assisted by a deacon in red, likewise with a sash of gold. Candles were brought in, the two largest, about four feet in length, ornamented with long ribbons.
After the candles were lighted, the bride entered on the arm of her father, who did not wear a black coat as fashionable society would have required. The groom stood at the right of the bride, the best man on the right of the bridegroom, and the bridesmaid on the left of the bride her sister. The priest first addressed the groom, and after his response gave him a lighted candle ; the bride too responded with her modest " yes," and received a candle likewise. The priest and his assistant plunged into the liturgy and intoned the service, which was by no means short. A guest, though not arrayed in a wedding garment, was not cast into outer darkness, and there was no " personal plea for mercy in his prayer as he held the candle and sung Kyrie eleison. Two rings were laid by the best man on the tray in front of the priest, who took them both, blessed the groom three times, placed a ring on his finger and did the same for the bride. They did not rest there long, for the best man took them both off, and after exchanging them, replaced them on their fingers, over the white gloves, which were not cut. Taking two crowns of artificial flowers, the priest set one on the groom's head and blessed it, and the other on the head of the bride, and blessed that. The wreaths were then exchanged by the best man, who put the bride's on the head of the groom, and the groom's on the head of the bride. The communion was then administered. A glass of wine was set before the priest, and on it a plate with three pieces of bread, which he broke into little bits and dropped into the wine. Taking a spoon, he gave some of the moistened bread to the bridegroom and three spoonfuls of wine, the same to the bride, and the same to the best man. The reading from the liturgy which followed was prolonged until I feared that my good friend the archimandrite was going to read through the whole volume. But the end finally came. The priest, as described on page 140, took the hand of the best man, and the best man that of the groom and the groom that of the bride; together they went three times round the table, the company meanwhile pelting the pair with candies. The step was not a march nor a waltz, so much as a walk; the early dance has lost its elasticity in this service, just as it is fashionable in these days to walk out cotillions instead of dancing them.
The service was over and the members of the family and guests came up and congratulated the wedded pair, kissing the cheek of the bride and also her wreath, while the young man was kissed by the more intimate friends. Sweet wine was passed around, and bon-bons tied up in a gauze bag were given to each guest. The health of husband and wife was of course drunk, and it was an act of gallantry for a young man to step up to some young lady present, and with glass in hand to say " Here is to your own wedding," though Mr. Joseph Jefferson would translate it a little more elaborately.
I regret that Mavilla was not present to give a detailed account of the bride's dress. It was not wholly of white, but had spangles and flowers wrought into its texture, Orange blossoms adorned both dress and coiffure.
Was this a Christian service, or a pagan one? A little of both. The constant use of the number three, the threefold blessing of groom and bride, the threefold blessing of the ring and wreath, the three pieces of bread and the three spoonfuls of wine, the three times passing round the table, were all reverent introductions of the Trinitarian formula; but the bridal torches, the crowns of flowers, the shower of candies, and the dance round the table, to which I have before referred in the chapter on the Greek theatre, are all survivals of old Greek customs. The conjunctions of history are curious enough, and among them it seems passing strange that an ancient Greek dance subdued into a walk should have imperceptibly glided into the Christian ritual and be-come with priestly participation a festive but reverent ascription to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
In the country villages weddings are celebrated with something more of rustic cheer and conviviality. In ancient days the wedding customs in Sparta differed much from those in Attica, and I do not know how general are some of the following village customs described by my Spartan friend. Two days before the marriage the groom, with parents, relatives and friends, goes to the house of the bride, where all are received with the firing of pistols and with abundance of wine and sweetmeats. The dowry is paid over to the groom, and on the following Sunday the marriage is celebrated, usually at the house of the bride. When the ceremony takes place in church the bride is conducted by her brother or by the best man, and the service is concluded by the priest, the best man, the husband and wife forming a circle, when the shower of candies begins. In the congratulations which follow, it is common to kiss the bride's wreath, and for all who are present to throw money into the handkerchief of the priest.
A rustic habit, reserved for the nearest friends, is that of striking the groom on the cheek. In the dances which follow, the men take partners and form almost a circle. The bride and groom dance round a few times and take places at the end of the set; the next couple follow, and the next, until all have had a turn. Two or three musicians with their rustic pipes literally inspire the dance, but the harp of Demodocus is lacking.
A wedding procession also is common in the country. At Pyrgos we saw one winding across the plain. The bride rode in an open carriage, while the guests were on horseback. The costumes were highly picturesque, and the droning music of the pipers reminded me of Scotch bagpipes.
In Zante, as the Kyria told me, Thursday is the fashionable marriage day, and for the poorer classes Sunday, and the service is always held in the evening. In arranging the marriage the go-between is often a priest, because affairs must be conducted with the greatest secrecy, so that if the arrangement fails it will not be a matter of public notoriety. When the peasants are poor the dowry may be so many trees, say ten or twelve for the girl, or a vineyard. The amount of money dowry is small in the islands, sometimes not exceeding five hundred drachmas.
Nicholas, my driver in the Peloponnesus, said that in his neighborhood the girl must have two or three thousand drachmas, or a house, a vineyard or something else. "In America," I said, "we marry not for money, but for love," upon which he smiled, and said that there were some marriages for love in Greece, and elopements were not unknown.
In Zante repeated earthquakes may have shaken somewhat the stability of old customs, for a young man may make his approach to his future bride in a more romantic way. He may watch at the spring for the girl he loves, and as she comes to draw water or to wash clothes, he snatches the mandylion or handkerchief from her head and keeps it. It is soon known throughout the village that he has taken her handkerchief. This involves an offer of marriage. It would be a great insult if this offer were not soon made to her father. In such cases the wooer is generally successful, and he is obliged to accept just what dowry her father offers. This is more of a reversion to the Heroic Age, when the bride was captured by force, or to the gallantry of Homeric times, when bridal gifts or dowry were paid to the father of the bride.
The wife's dowry becomes a protection to the children. If she dies without having children, the amount of her dowry must be paid back to her father. If there are children and the man marries a second time, they receive from his estate the amount of the mother's dowry, and after a father's death the children of the first marriage have a prior claim on the estate for this amount. If there is anything left it goes to the children of the second marriage. It is not legal to marry more than thrice. The marriage of cousins is forbidden within the sixth degree, and the marriage of a deceased wife's sister to her brother-in-law, or of a deceased husband's brother to his sister-in-law, is forbidden.
It is not usually the custom to marry a second daughter until the first is married. This is well illustrated in Mr. Bikelas' humorous island tale, The Homely Sister." It is the story of a dry-as-dust professor of philology whose life had been saved by a young judge, and who had vowed to devote his life to that of his saviour. The younger man had fallen in love with the second daughter of a merchant who had decided not to give her in marriage until the older and plainer sister had first been wedded. It is in this emergency that the eccentric bachelor professor decides to sacrifice himself for his friend and marry the plain-looking sister. He rushes into the coffee-merchant's office in his busiest hour and tells him he will marry his daughter. He is received somewhat coldly, with the suggestion that such matters are usually arranged through third parties. A female cousin manages the affair more tactfully. A meeting of the professor and the homely daughter is arranged. The fussy trepidation of the old bachelor is amusing enough. His friend conducts him to the door of the house and leaves him to his fate. An hour later he comes out radiantly happy. No one knows just what has occurred, but he exclaims with delight, "Why, she isn't ugly at all." Of course a double marriage is the result, and though the professor looks somewhat comical in his wedding wreath, the crown of flowers does not become a crown of thorns.
It is easy to believe Georgios when he says that in Sparta the children who run to tell a father that the baby just born is a girl do not get much of a reward. " In fact," said Georgios, "he is angry." It is not etiquette for the mother to visit the neighbors until forty days after the child is born. Then the mother goes to church with the child and the nurse, and offers prayers with the priest, who takes the child up in his arms and goes round the holy table two or three times. The father does not go to church on this occasion. From this time the mother is free to go where she pleases. The birth of a child is an occasion for rural festivity. The neighbors bring in candies and dainties, which, being too strong a diet for the newcomer, are eaten by the rest of the family. If the child is sickly and in danger of death, baptism is administered at an early day. It is not valid without a priest, and unless some one is designated as god-father. If the child is well, the baptism takes place when it is forty or fifty days old, and is usually administered at the home; but frequently the mother wishes to christen the child in a church dedicated to some saint. The mother, nurse and child go with friends. When the priest reads the gospel before the holy door the nurse puts down the child beneath the picture of the saint to whom the mother has dedicated it. No sooner is it put down than there is a rush to get the baby's cap. He who gets it is the godfather (vouvos), or godmother. The mother usually chooses the godfather, and for the first child it is generally the person who has acted as best man at the wedding. Likewise, when a person has become godfather it is generally the rule to ask him to be the best man at the wedding of his godchild. The best man would be rather old in some cases for this duty, which is often transferred to his son. Of course the least the nounos can do is to buy a dress for the baby. He has also an important function at the baptism. At this service two priests officiate. It goes without saying that there is a crowd of relatives and friends. The child is completely undressed. The liturgy is read. The priest cuts with a pair of scissors a few hairs from the infant's head and throws them into the baptismal font. A small quantity of olive oil brought by the godfather is likewise poured into the font. The child is then held toward the west, representing the kingdom of darkness, and is asked three times by the priest if he renounces the evil spirit. The godfather replies in his behalf, " I have renounced him ; " and the exorcism of the devil is completed by blowing and spitting three times. The priest and the godfather, with the child, turn toward the east, representing the kingdom of light, and the sponsor is asked if he accepts Christ. A confession of faith follows. The priest then plunges the child three times into the font, the water of which has been mercifully warmed. After being dried by a nurse the infant is anointed by the priest, who touches its forehead, chin, shoulders, navel and feet. Of course other prayers follow. The child that does not kick and squirm during the operation must have the fortitude of a Spartan.
After the baptism the nounos gives two or three drachmas to the father or mother, flings a handful of pennies (lepta) among the children, and gives to each of the women present ten or twenty lepta. This money is called, that is, witness money that the child has been baptized and is a Christian. There are Greeks who do not have their children baptized until they are ten or fifteen years of age.
Adults are sometimes baptized in the river. To postpone the rite is regarded as a sin by more pious Greeks.
The descriptions I have given are mainly of rural customs and those which are least affected by fashionable or modern innovations. In the homes of the wealthy these festivals may be celebrated with pomp and elegance. It must not be inferred, however, that wealthy Greeks are necessarily any less Hellenic. It would be hard to surpass in any country the record for patriotism and fidelity to national traditions which many of the wealthiest Greeks have made. If some have sprung from the humblest walks of life they have learned to use wealth without vulgarity, and others reflect a fine culture like the beautiful polish which their fathers put on their best marble.
Two representative homes in Athens were always open to Americans. The Greek spirit which pervades the palatial home of Mrs. Schliemann is felt by the visitor when he is met by a servant in immaculate fustanella, who conducts him across the courtyard whence five other men-servants direct him to the great salon. Is this the palace of Menelaus? the visitor may well ask in the midst of these luxurious surroundings. It is at any rate the home of Agamemnon, and after he has recited with delightful enunciation some passages of the Odyssey in Greek, he will talk to you in good English and tell you that he is really an American citizen, and will take delight in showing you some of his father's valuable discoveries. But you will need to hear Mrs. Schliemann's own dramatic recital of her experiences with her husband at Troy. At no home in Athens does one get so vivid an impression of the vital relation of the old Greece and the new. The magnificent house is thoroughly modern, but it is adorned with old Greek gnomes and enriched with treasures of art, ornaments, jewels, trinkets, pottery and other fruits of the labor of the remarkable explorer who with a faith and perseverance not excelled by Columbus uncovered an old world as Columbus discovered the new.
The other home, which during my winter in Athens, as for many previous years, was the continual centre of hospitality, was that of the Prime Minister, the late Charilaos Trikoupes. In the salon, a veritable garden of flowers, Miss Sophia Trikoupes, the accomplished sister of the Prime Minister, was the gracious smiling presence who with supreme tact and courtesy received the innumerable guests that thronged her receptions and relieved her brother, overburdened with the cares of state, from the added pressure of the social ritual. In the bereavement which fell upon her and the country in the death of Mr. Trikoupes she had the sympathy of many who admired the genius of her brother and who had enjoyed her own kindly hospitality. I cannot forget the home of Pater Anthimos, the faithful archimandrite, a wise, broad-minded and admirable shepherd for his flock; nor the charming home of a lady who has helped to lead the women of Athens into new privileges and new duties,the editor of the Athens Woman's Journal, Madame Callirhoe Parren. No one can read that paper without feeling that the new woman of Athens, with her finer and larger culture, is to be better than ever equipped for her duties as mother and wife.
As I lived for months in a Greek home, I know it from the inside. I had no occasion to lock my drawers or my trunk against the curiosity or cupidity of Spiridion or Elizabeth, who were the souls of honesty, and I am not cynical enough to believe that the tears of the Kyria and her daughters and of my faithful servant when I left Athens were such as crocodiles shed on the waters of the Nile.
" Pray that you may not be in Greece in Lent," said a friend of mine; "you will starve to death." It is not only then that the lives of the people, especially in the rural districts, are marked by abstinence and frugality. Lent is no reaction from violent excesses. The simplicity and frugality of Greek tastes go back to days even beyond Lycurgus. Abstinence is not a virtue, but a habit confirmed by years of poverty. The peasant may not taste meat for weeks at a time. Black bread and cheese, olives and figs, and a little wine at his meals, with fish on the seacoast, and a few vegetables, furnish the staple articles of diet. The wine drunk by the peasantry is strongly flavored with resin, which is supposed to preserve the wine and the wine drinker. It is a curious draught to an unaccustomed palate. An American who learned to like it sent a barrel to New York. The custom-house officers were much perplexed, but finally entered it as turpentine! I have never seen a drunken woman in Greece at any time, and rarely a drunken man, though there are crimes of violence which come from wine-heated blood. Such terrible scenes as London furnishes of women and children crowding into bar-rooms and drinking from the same cup are unknown in Greece, nor can Athens furnish a parallel to Piccadilly or the Boulevard Poissoniere. The social evil is not flagrant, and the night-walker is almost unknown.
I have seen Greek homes under many aspects, those of the rich in Athens, and those of the poor in little villages, in the islands, in the mountains of the Peloponnesus and on the plains of Thessaly, and I have been impressed with the solidity of the virtues which support the family life. They have something of the strength and simplicity of the old Doric temples. Frugality, temperance, contentment, an unsophisticated rusticity which is not boorish, and a kindly but unostentatious hospitality, are more common than in the days of Baucis and Philemon. Reverence for parents, brotherly and sisterly affection, are the rule rather than the exception.
The onerous custom of the dowry is felt not only by the girls but by their brothers, who find in it, however, an opportunity for brotherly sacrifice and devotion. With a smile of satisfaction my friend Demosthenes who is not an orator, but sells fruit and candies in the Athens of America confided to me that he had made enough money to send home a dowry for one of his sisters. I have known young men to fulfil with heroism vows not to marry until they could give dowries to all their sisters. But the girls sometimes take this matter into their own hands. At Megalopolis I was surprised to find ten or twelve girls wheeling barrows of dirt in the excavations of the English School, not for love of antiquity, but to earn something for their proika. In this way they made two drachmas, or about thirty cents, a day, improving their health as well as their fortunes.
These country girls, with their brown or ruddy faces, have no need of the cosmetics advertised in the Athenian newspapers, which, modern though they seem, are but the perpetuation of an ancient form of vanity. In Xenophon's " Oeconomicus" Ischomachus relates a conversation that he had with his wife shortly after his marriage:
"I noticed that she was in the habit of using cosmetics, that she might seem fairer and ruddier than she was, and of wearing high shoes, that she might appear taller than she was by nature. " Tell me, my dear," said I, "should you esteem me more highly as a sharer of your fortunes, if I told you exactly the state of my property, or if I tried to deceive you by exhibiting false coin, and necklaces of gilded wood, and robes of spurious instead of genuine purple? " She replied instantly, " Heaven forbid ! Were you such a man, I never could love you from my heart." " Well, then, would you like me better if I appeared before you sound and healthy, fair and vigorous, or with painted cheeks and artificially colored eyelids, trying to cheat you by offering you paint instead of myself?" " Why," she said, " I like you better than paint; I prefer the natural color of your cheeks to rouge, and I would rather look into your eyes sparkling with health than with all the cosmetics in the world." "Then I would have you to know that I am more charmed with your native complexion than with paint. These false pretences may deceive the casual observer, but not those who live together. They are exposed before the morning toilette, or by perspiration, or by tears, or by the bath."
"' What in Heaven's name did she answer?' asked Socrates.
"'Why, she said she would not do so any more, and asked my advice as to the best means of making herself really beautiful. I advised her not to sit all the time, like a slave, but to be up and stirring; to look after the bread-maker, to stand over the house-keeper as she measured out the allowance; to run all over the house, and to see if everything was in its place; for this would combine both duty and exercise. I said that it was a good exercise also to mix and knead the bread, to shake out the clothes and make the beds; and that thus she would have a better appetite, and grow healthier, and would in reality appear handsomer. And now, Socrates, my wife lives and practises according to my instructions, and as I tell you.' "
Pascal had not invented the wheelbarrow when Xenophon gave us his interesting picture of the Greek household. It is not strange, therefore, that Ischomachus did not suggest the use of this mono-cycle. But many a young lady of Athens to-day is fulfilling the spirit of his excellent advice by a daily spin on her bicycle. The Athenians are as fond as ever of new things, and though the bicycle is not a Greek invention, Socrates would not fail to recognize its Greek name. Philosopher as he was, he would need no suggestion from Plato to see that this new instrument is but the symbol of the Greek woman's enlarging sphere of activity.