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Marriage Customs Of Greece

( Originally Published 1897 )



FROM the ancient civilisations of the East, and from the customs of primitive races, we now turn to modern Europe.

The unfortunate Greeks having so long been under the yoke of Turkey it is not surprising to find that some of their marriage customs resemble those of the Turks. But the reader who follows this account will very soon perceive other ceremonies similar to those observed in China, India, Russia, and among the gypsies ; while here and there we shall note some relics of classical times. Hence the marriage rites of these people—to whom England has always been friendly—possess more than ordinary interest.

Parents in seeking husbands for their daughters require the aid of a professional match-maker. When the amount of the dowry has been satisfactorily arranged, the first betrothal takes place (an exchange of rings, called arravon) and the future husband declares in the presence of witnesses that he is satisfied with the amount. Notice that this is a reversal of the custom of Hindoos and other peoples who demand a sum of money from the suitor.

He may now visit the girl at her home. Friends call to offer their good wishes, and are received by the bride-elect standing with much affected humility and downcast eyes. Hence the Greek saying, As affected as a bride." As in Turkey, so here, the girl kisses the hands of the friends of her future lord. They present her with sweet basil and gold coins.

Marriages take place at all seasons, except in the month of May ; as a rule late in the autumn after the olives have been gathered in. The day is usually a Sunday, and by preference the next one after the full moon. There is considerable variety in the customs observed in rural districts, and even in the larger towns. Weddings are attended with a good deal of ceremonial. The marriage takes place some time after the betrothal, and the interval may be a long or short one.

We will first take Southern Macedonia, where the customs are especially interesting. For instance at Vodhena, the ancient Macedonian capital Edessa, the festivities last a week. On the Sunday a copy of the marriage contract it sent to the bridegroom, who in return sends his fiancee a few trifling presents, such as sweetmeats, henna, rouge, &c., and a jar of wine for her parents.

During the next four days, i.e. from Monday to Thursday, the ceremonies observed are all connected with the wedding cake and unlike anything to be met with in those countries of which, so far, we have spoken. On the Monday and Tuesday the grain for the cake is sifted and carried to the mill by the bride and her girl companions. On Wednesday they bring it home, and the friends come to the house to help to knead the dough. The kneading is done in a trough at one end of which sits a boy girt with a sword, while at the other end a little girl pretends to help, but in reality is endeavouring to avoid being seen while she hides in the dough some coins and the wedding ring. No children who have lost any relatives may perform the ceremony, otherwise it would be a bad omen. It is easy to see the drift of this symbolism. The boy with the sword stands for the husband, whose duty is to guard and defend ; the little girl is a reminder of a wife's domestic cares. The cake is made, and on the Thursday portions of the dough are given to the company. Of course each one hopes to find the wedding ring, just as English children still expect to find one in a birthday cake. The lucky one who gets the ring surrenders it to the bridegroom in exchange for a present. In the afternoon of the same day the wedding cake is placed over a bowl of water, and the youths and maidens dance three times round it singing " the song of the wedding cake." After this they break up the cake and throw the pieces over the happy pair, together with figs and fruit—emblems of plenty and fruitfulness.

On the next day (Friday) the presents given by the men are carried in procession through the streets, as in China. They are mostly articles such as a young couple starting in life would require. On the Saturday evening (the day before the wedding) a feast is held, and on this day the bride is pre-pared for the morrow by her maidens (as in Turkey and elsewhere), who sing to her while attending to her toilet.

At all Greek weddings an important part is played by the koumbaros, as he is called, an influential friend or relative, who, among the poorer people, provides the entertainment, and is saddled with a number of other responsibilities should the wife and children be left destitute. The same name is applied to godfathers by their godchildren, and reciprocally to the godchildren by godfathers, and is intended to apply to all the members of families between which such a tie exists. Thus an important relationship is created, and one which is most solemnly regarded, so that a man of influence may be a kind of protector and counsellor to all the young people of the country side. The head bridesmaid too plays her part as a kind of godmother, and is called koumbara.

Now Sunday has come, and the actual wedding ceremonies begin. First of all the bridegroom and his friends leave the house as he departs his mother pours water out of a jar before him, and lays down a girdle in his path, over which he steps. A procession starts from the house of the koumbaros, and from there go to the bride's house, his friends singing as they walk along. Arrived there the priest receives them, and presents the marriage contract to the parents of the two parties, after which the second exchange of rings takes place. Sweet basil is presented by the bride's father to the father, or nearest relative of the bridegroom, on a plate, with these words thrice repeated,

Accept the betrothal of my daughter to your son," and a similar ceremony is performed on behalf of the bridegroom, in accordance with the custom in ancient Greece (compare the Brahmin custom, p. 2). Then a glass of wine, a ring-shaped cake, and a spoon, are given to the bridegroom, who, after he has drunk the wine, drops coins into the glass, and gives the spoon, together with half the cake, to the best man, who keeps them, but gives the half cake next morning to the bride. The bride's shoes, given by the bridegroom, are put on her feet by the best man, and as she leaves the threshold, her mother pours out a libation of water for her to step over (which custom may perhaps be another form of the Arab sacrifice of a sheep and the bride stepping over its blood before entering her new home). At the church door the mother says three times, " Bride, hast thou thy shoes ? " On entering the church the bridal pair proceed to the altar carrying decorated tapers. (In many parts of Greece a priest performs the ceremony at the bride's house.) Then takes place the third exchange of rings, or third arravon, presided over by the priest, who reads a portion of the ritual, then makes the sign of the cross with the rings, three times over the heads of the bride and bridegroom and places them on their hands, saying, " Give thy troth, servant of God (adding the man's name) to the servant of God (adding the woman's name) in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." They are then formally betrothed : the actual marriage ceremony is as follows :—Both bride and bridegroom are crowned with wreaths of flowers (orange blossom) by the priest, who places them on their heads with these words, " Crown thyself, servant of God (name) in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." Three times the sentence is repeated while the best man changes the crowns three times. After bridegroom and best man have drunk the consecrated wine, the pair are led three times round the altar, the best man following. The priest removes the crowns and gives his blessing. The pair are now duly married. Kissing and congratulations follow, the best man having the bride's first kiss. On arrival at the bride's house her mother welcomes them both, placing a loaf of bread on their heads, while the rest of the company throw sweets at them. Then the feasting begins, and healths are drunk, the glasses being thrown over the left shoulder ; and it is unlucky if they remain unbroken.

The bride on quitting her home takes away with her half a loaf, the other half being kept by the parents. Then the party adjourn to the village green, where there is much dancing and music. They have, of course, no honeymoon, and the pair presently leave for the husband's home. Next day that important person, the best man, appears again, bringing with him the half cake and the spoon, delivered into his care on the previous day. The bride eats the cake and then takes the first mouthful of food with the spoon. After breakfast she and her friends pay a visit to the well, in order to observe a custom that prevailed with the ancient Greeks, the object of which is to propitiate the Water-deity, the " Naiad of the Spring." A coin is dropped into the well from the lips of the bride, who then draws water and fills her pitcher. On arriving at the home she pours some of this water over her husband's hands, and he gives a small present in return. The rest of the day is spent in feasting and dancing. After a few days the newly-married pair return to the house of the bride's father, where they remain for a whole day and night ; and the visit is repeated a few days later. Judging from a somewhat similar custom in parts of India, we should say the object of the visits is to show that there is no ill-feeling, as there might have been in earlier days when brides were captured. And speaking of capture, it may be mentioned here that among shepherds in the mountainous parts of Greece, there still remains a survival of that ancient way of marriage. A large armed party come to fetch the bride ; her friends pretend resistance, and a mock combat takes place, as with Arabs, Druses, Turcomans, and others. The bride, who knows her own mind, allows herself to be carried off by the friends of the bridegroom, whence the Greek proverb, "Drive on, and never mind my tears."

Greek parents are very anxious to see their daughters married. The girls all work at the loom and spinning-wheel, and help to make a trousseau for their eldest sister, who is a favoured person, and inherits the family dwelling. She does not, however, take all their work, but from each piece of finished stuff reserves some lengths for the younger ones. On the father's death the brothers, or eldest male relatives, are expected to support the daughters and provide the dowry when one of them marries. Nor may the brothers marry until their sisters are provided for. This custom is said to have begun after the conquest of Mytilene by the Turks, when nearly all the men were slain, and husbands consequently very scarce.

Some of the curious local customs of this country may now claim our attention. The peasants, instead of throwing sweetmeats at the newly-married pair, smear the lintel of a bride's door with honey. In Northern Greece, and in Epirus, an engaged couple must not be seen together until after the betrothal. On this occasion the fiancee is introduced to her future husband at the priest's house, veiled, and attended by her parents. The priest, after giving his blessing, bids them not to meet again or converse until the wedding-day. On that day the bride takes leave of her parents and starts on foot, or on horseback, or on a mule, for the house of the bridegroom. After two or three days they are both led to the village fountain, where the bride throws sweatmeats (not a coin) into the water, and fills a new jar. In the district of Mount Pelion, the loaves for the wedding are publicly kneaded on the Thursday (the wedding being on a Sunday, as before). A young man chosen from among the bridegroom's friends does the kneading, while the others stand round and throw money into the trough.

In the Morea, the mother of the bridegroom, standing at the door of the house, gives the bride a glass of honey and water to drink, in the hope that her lips may become as sweet as honey," and the lintel of the door is smeared with what remains, " that strife may never enter in." One of the company breaks a pomegranate on the threshold. Solon, in his laws, prescribed that the newly-married couple should eat a quince together, so that their converse might for ever be sweet. In Rhodes we find the same idea, only with a somewhat different ceremony. There the husband (after the wedding) dips his fingers in a cup of honey and traces a cross over the door, while the friends cry out, Be good and sweet as this honey is," a piece of advice apparently intended only for the wife. The husband then crushes a pomegranate with his foot as he passes the threshold, and the guests throw corn, cotton seeds and orange-flower water on the bride, just as we in England throw rice.

In Cyprus the village girls and women assemble at the riverside some days before the wedding to wash the fabric of the bed. The filling up of the mattress is also done in public, and friends put in pieces of money, which remain there until the end of the first year, when the money may be taken out and spent. In some parts of China a somewhat similar custom prevails. Here in Cyprus, if the bridegroom hails from a distant village, he arrives on horseback. The young men meet him and endeavour to dismount him, while his friends come to the rescue to prevent this, and it is considered a triumph if he manages to ride all the way to his bride's house. Should the young men succeed in their object, the friends of the bridegroom must make a chair for him with their hands. Then follows a sacrifice, reminding us of Arab customs ; a fowl is held up, which the bridegroom kills by cutting off its head with an axe before entering the house.

The Albanians of the Orthodox creed have a curious custom connected with the kneading of the dough. One of the girls of the village is allowed to put on clothes belonging to the bridegroom, as well as his weapons, and thus attired chases him about, with the object of smearing his face with some of the dough from the trough. His friends throw in money, which the girl keeps, instead of the bridegroom, or his best man, as in Macedonia (see p. 177). Another of their customs is for the bride's mother to sprinkle the bride-groom with water, when he arrives at her house ; and she also places a handkerchief on his left shoulder. The bridegroom's man (the vlam) puts both her shoes and girdle on the bride ; and is also obliged to steal two spoons, or other articles (compare Tyrol). On the day after the wedding the newly-married couple sprinkle each other with water. (For a cognate Russian custom, see p. 201). Brahmins also use water in a similar way.



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