The Dance of Life

by Juliet du Boulay

Fresco from the Monastery of Koutloumousou, Mount Athos

This is an extract from the last chapter of a newly published book, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village, a work that explores the cosmological and religious ideas in the region of north Evia. The author uses material gathered from the village between 1966 and 1973, but also draws on people’s memories of the past. The book is a sequel to Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village, which discussed the ideas and values of the same village but from the perspective of the village’s social organization and institutions current at the time. Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy seeks to illuminate the villagers’ fundamental relationship with God and the world – with the divine and the diabolical, with earth and water, work and bread, house and stranger, time and death. The overlap between the “folk” culture and the tradition embedded in the liturgical offices of the Orthodox Church emerges as considerable, although there are areas in which pre- or non-Christian beliefs still exercise an influence. This extract illustrates the tension between the fallen and unfallen visions of the world which underlie the depth, variety, and extraordinary vitality of the villagers’ understanding of life. (Editor’s note: These pages have been edited to conform to our house style.)

In exploring first the symbolism which serves to order the main course of life in Ambeli, I have taken as my starting point a village cosmos which at first sight could be taken for a static three-dimensional map of the world – something whose relevance to village life might seem far from clear. But the map has turned out, as pre-Copernican cosmologies often do, to be something more – a plan for a journey towards the good.

The nature of the journey becomes evident when the story of the fall from paradise is told: paradise, in village thought, is our origin and (in a different form) our destiny, but the fallen world in which we find ourselves has intervened, and our task is to redeem the consequences of the fall and to keep re-making this world as the garden which it still, in glimpses, is.
Thus time is also part of this cosmology, and liturgical time in particular, which, as a “moving image of eternity,” is intended to link the present moment with our origin and destiny in the eternal world.

These ideas about the cosmos, paradise and fall, and time, are therefore preconceptions which set the context for the villagers’ collective enactment of symbols, which tell them where they are and what at each point they must do – symbols which guide the meaning given to work, marriage, hospitality, kinship, community, death, mourning, and their relationship with the natural and the divine worlds. So in order to see the force of these central symbols, it is necessary to retrace, in brief, the nature of the cosmic preconceptions which form their context.

The most important function of the village cosmos is to define the dual world of good and evil where man is placed, and at the same time to identify those aspects of the cosmos which give hope that these all-pervading opposites can be reconciled.
This dualism exists within a cosmos which is perceived on three levels: the divine powers in the heavens above the earth, the demons in the caverns below, and the world of nature between the two which is the dwelling-place of man and the meeting ground of God and the devil. In this sacred cosmos, holiness is increasingly present towards the further reaches of the sky, and evil increasingly towards the depths of the earth: God has his habitation at the outer limits of the universe among the sun, moon and stars, whereas Satan, the author of evil, lies down in the center of the earth. While God is One, however, the Almighty and Creator of All, “everywhere and at all times” (παντού καὶ πάντα) as the people say, his power is also diffused in an infinity of spiritual presences – saints and angels, seraphim and cherubim. Satan also is not confined to a single unique presence but has under his command legions of demons who speed about the world doing his bidding after which, as it is said, they report back to him and are awarded medals for good work.

There is in this way a hierarchy according to which spiritual good and spiritual evil inhabit the highest and the lowest levels of the universe, and these areas again consist of a number of subordinate levels inhabited by ranks of angelic or infernal powers, and also, both above and below, by what is termed “the other world,” that is to say the world of the hallowed or unhallowed dead. The darkness of the earth is the first destination of the newly-dead, where the body, now symbolically dissociated from the blood which is the defining substance of fleshly life, is given over to corruption. By contrast, however, the bones of the long dead, cleaned and purified by the earth, are brought up “into the air” and their souls by the same action freed to go “elsewhere.” ...

The middle world of man and society thus has a complex spiritual nature, for at the same time as being man’s home in the universe it is a place of physical and spiritual danger, highly charged with divine or diabolical influences, a place morally and spiritually ambiguous where the outcome of the battle between the various forces is from moment to moment uncertain. Even though the devil is not autonomous but exists only by permission of God, his existence is real enough as part of the freedom God gives to man to decide whether he will follow the good or the evil path. At either end God or the devil, heaven or hell, are the final outcomes of the battle for each individual soul.

However, this uncertainty built into the cosmos is, ultimately, relative only, for an essential part of its ordering is the absolute dominion of God over all things including the power of evil. And this reality, too, enters the structure of the cosmos in that while the devil cannot enter the heavens, the voice of God is able to penetrate the underworld and summon the skalikandzoúria (dialect for kalikándzari, hobgoblins) from their work of destruction, and even in his dominion in the center of the earth the devil is said to lie “bound.”

Again, in the world of men, the devil’s power is always defeated if Christ is summoned. Thus for all the tension that exists between good and evil, both in the ordering of the cosmos itself and in the battle between God and the devil within it, there is an in-built presumption in favor of the supremacy of the good and the triumph of life over death. The universe, although harboring demons and devils and containing awesome powers of destruction, is a place also where man can at all times receive blessings, and can find rest.

With man’s cooperation, too, the reign of God, already supreme in the upper level, can also be extended over the middle level of the cosmos, presaging the final defeat of the demonic hosts beneath the earth; and this consummation can be realized through the communication which exists between these cosmic levels. Not only do incorporeal beings such as the saints, the angels, and the dead, find passage between them, but also the spirit of man, in prayer and in visionary or prophetic experience. Means of access allowing vision into the other worlds through wells and from mountain tops figure in the symbolism of communication between the worlds, and at certain random moments, and at midnight in particular, the veil separating the middle world from the divine world is especially thin.

These channels are built into the cosmos, even if such communication between the visible and the invisible worlds remains for the living incomplete, a question of partial vision, an orientation towards the good, but one which always confronts the uncertainties of living and the mystery of the other world.

This orientation towards the spiritual world is one which pervades daily life, in a number of oppositions which comprise a symbolic language for openness to good or evil – describing things which are up or down, straight or squint, right or left, oriented towards order or chaos. The demons issuing from holes in the ground present man with a realm of seductions, dangers and temptations; the angelic powers entering the world from on high help to repel these evils both by direct assistance and by calling man’s attention to the divine world in which alone his good is to be found. Man, desperately weak but placed nevertheless in charge of his world as the “the superior intelligent creature,” stands at the center of the battleground, capable of orienting himself either towards the higher or the lower worlds, providing the link between the natural world and God, or the link between the natural world and the devil. In this way man, a feeble but free being at the center of the cosmos, caught up in the moral and spiritual drama being played out within it, and with the power to choose between good and evil, is the pivot on whom all things turn.

Man’s freedom is, however, compromised by the fall. Central to the cosmos is its original nature as paradise in which Adam and Eve, representing the human race, lived in a communion with God which held all things in harmony. Snakes walked upright, trees bore fruit in abundance, the world gave food without work, stones were bread and there was abundant water. But with the eating of the fruit, that is to say with the wilful separation of human will from the will of God – in village terms the seduction of Eve by the serpent and of Adam by Eve – paradise was lost, and man became an outcast in the creation of which he had been intended to be the head. The natural processes of the earth were set against men, the process of birth against women, relations of power and authority of the stronger over the weaker became part of the natural order.
Human rebellion against God thus precipitated the rebellion of the rest of the created world against man, and instead of an easeful and blessed life in a paradise in harmony with itself, toil and sweat in a divided world, pain and suffering, became the hallmark of man’s struggle for existence.

This view of things underpins the villagers’ life, especially in their work in fields and forest, and, because of the theme of gender in the story of the fall, in sexual relations. It is a view which above all claims realism. For the origin of man’s present plight, people look no further than God’s judgement, “With toil and with sweat shall you till the fields,” for the comment this evokes is unanswerable: “Do we have things otherwise now?”

In relations between the sexes the association with the fall is expressed with still greater disillusion. Women are referred to – and refer to themselves – as “Eves,” imaging their prototype who betrayed her man and initiated the loss of paradise. Thus women are thought by nature to lack responsibility and self-control, showing a tendency to gossip and quarrel, and revealing the consequences of the fall directly in the “disgrace” of their menstrual periods.

The exercise of self-discipline and obedience within a life-long marriage is seen (with the rare exception of entry into the monastic life) as the only answer to this innate weakness in woman’s character, and in this marriage she must be in all things subordinate to her husband.

Man as “Adam” is also associated with the fall, and his toil in fields and forest that resist him is an image of this. But in contrast to Eve’s opportunism and weakness, he is felt to retain an element of intelligence and moral strength, and to regain his due place in the order of creation he must exercise the authority which he abandoned in the fall – tilling his fields, providing for his family and children, and keeping control of his wife.

It is a scheme of things in which relations between the sexes are unequal, dominated by men’s use of physical and economic power; and while this can be for the protection of women it is also easily misused, leading to a society in which young brides can be systematically overworked and neglected, and wives must accept without question their husbands’ sexual demands, and may have to absorb as a matter of course the irritation and blows of a husband who happens to be drunk, anxious, or displeased.

These power relations between men and women do not occur in isolation, for they are part of an entire world view of which sin against God is the basis, so alongside the struggle between man and nature and that between the sexes runs also the struggle against neighbors for limited resources, the battle against death, and a view of sacred relations in which the Almighty Power rules by a dictate whose logic, known only to himself, is inspired not only by justice but also by whim.

Within the house, aside from the possibility of initial tensions between in-laws, mutual trust and support are expected and in the main achieved, and it is the house which defines the sacred center around which all revolves. Thereafter, however, relations with people outside the house become subject increasingly to some degree of competition, either over tangibles like land or intangibles like reputation and honor, and though this can be fiercest between siblings and over inheritance, it becomes more prevalent as “kinship decreases.” Thus with “strangers” – those who have passed beyond blood relationship at second or third cousin – competition becomes the norm, so much so that the many quarrels and disturbances of village life are described by the people as due to the “enmity” which they feel to be endemic to their society.

In this scheme of things, marginal theft – of sheep, of land by shifting a boundary stone, of firewood or random articles left lying around – is all part of the way life goes on, and scandalous accusation, speculative gossip, or laughter at others’ expense, is part of the spice of everyday conversation.

All this is the product of a view of life as continual struggle, of one man’s harm being another man’s good and vice versa, of survival as involving the conquest of the weaker by the stronger, and of the pursuit of “self-interest” as a morally justified activity even if it involves damage to others.

Yet self-interest itself is ultimately pointless in the face of the archenemy, death, who comes with drawn sword on his black horse, deaf to cries for mercy, slaughtering old and young and consigning their bloodless shades to the underworld. In the face of this ultimate reality, the world in all its color, violence, passion, and beauty is shown to be “deluding” or “false,” a world that tricks people with an appearance of permanence, and then snatches all away.

This reality, which is the reality of the fallen world, must in this view be faced unflinchingly. Survival is a prize gained in the teeth of competition from others, and the answer to death is a life lived with panache in glorious defiance of its inevitable end. The earth that will eat the dancers must be trodden down under their feet while they still have strength to do so, for in the end there is no avoiding the embrace of the earth’s “black mantle” and the dancer’s own reduction to “a handful of little bones,” and even the soul is in peril from desecration of the body by animals or by a careless action between death and burial.

Life is a struggle, intense but ultimately doomed, and it reaches its tragic culmination in the great image from Greek folk poetry – the “struggle” with Charos on the marble threshing floor.
Just as in this fallen view of the world death is victorious, so in the same view relations between man and God tend to be seen in terms of power play in which man is invariably the loser. God Almighty who made a world innately predisposed for the survival of man and beast, nevertheless permits the devil to operate within it, and gives man free will to make his own choices.

While mercy is built into this economy in the idea that “God doesn’t lose you,” so too is justice in the idea of punishment for the wrong choice: “Is that what you’re like? Take that!” And since there is in the fallen world such a strong predisposition in man to sin, what might from one perspective be seen as justice, in another is seen as the exercise of tyranny, so that a common reaction to the hardships of life comes in the form of the reflection, “That’s how God has made us – to suffer.”
This is the God who himself appears to be the author of man’s calamities, who exacts retribution from those who are too fortunate, and acts through motives so inscrutable as to turn men simply into objects of his play.

This idea of an unpredictable and all-powerful God is given its most complete articulation in the idea of fate, where every detail of a person’s life is “written” at birth and “cannot be unwritten.” All characteristics and events, however random and unconnected, are in the last resort explained by this force acting in the lives of men, a force inseparable from God himself. Thus ordained, a person’s fate – his or her share of fortune and misfortune – carries with it a kind of acceptance simply because it is to do with that element in God which is beyond argument or resistance.

This, then, is the fallen world, and it is in this world and with the attitudes consistent with it that people live for much of the time. This view is dominated by the idea of the hostility of nature to man; the dominance of men over women; the competition of neighbors; subjection to an inscrutable and tyrannical God or fate; and the triumph of death.

Yet this world is perpetually countered, challenged, and penetrated by another world, and another view of things, in which all these elements are configured differently. The presence of this other world within the fallen world reveals the fallen world not as the final reality but as something waiting to be transformed; and in this way it exposes the realism of the fallen world as transitory and ultimately insubstantial – as itself a fallen consciousness which produces the reality that it describes. A greater reality transcends this fallen world and its characteristic view of things, and it is made present by liturgy – that is to say, the creation of a way of life as a symbolic whole, a “work of the people,” made manifest in all those areas of life where village symbolism echoes the liturgy of the Church.

The first vital shift which liturgy makes between these two views of the world is in the understanding of time. The fall as a once-and-for-all event trapping succeeding generations into a causal sequence of sin and punishment gains its power in part because in this mode it is seen as an event in the past, inevitably conditioning all events which follow it.
The power of the liturgical understanding, however, lies in the way it apprehends a many-dimensional reality through its freedom from sequential, or linear, time. It does not negate the reality of the fall, but it presents against it the reality of the kingdom of God, and it places both the fall and the kingdom of God in the present, as opposite poles in a continuing drama in the life of each person.

The key to this understanding of the presence of the kingdom of God, not in some unthinkably mysterious future but pervading this present world, is the practice, both in village life and in the liturgy, of returning through a circle of time to a familiar moment, and of doing so in cycles which nest one inside the other, so that the day, the week, the year, and cycles within the year, each come back to the same sacred event and to the same company of sacred persons who enact that event.
These are the circles of eternity in time, through which a remembrance takes place which is not a memory of the past, but a recovery of an encounter with the divine which is ever-present, continually unearthed from the forgetfulness engendered by the fall – the recovery which is intimated in the Greek and English Church term anamnesis.

The entry into linear time of the sacred persons of the eternal world thus occurs through the inter-penetration of the two orders of time, first in the story of Christ, and then in the nested cycles of the liturgical year by which his life, death, and resurrection and the lives of the Mother of God and the saints are celebrated and seen to be reflected in the material world. The concurrence of these two time schemes opens up for those involved in them two worlds of experience – fallen and unfallen, which are themselves two ways of looking at the world.

Both world views are simultaneously available, so that from moment to moment each person can slip into the one or the other, and it is this that allows deeply contrasting philosophies of the destiny of man to co-exist in a vital symbiosis, and this that is amongst the factors that provide the extraordinary vitality and complexity of conversation and discussion and argument in the village.

In a café, for instance, the edict of fate counterposed with the idea of personal responsibility can occasion a roar of the most lively debate about unforeseen results from apparently chance circumstances, or mention of life after death can provoke a prolonged discussion in which a natural scepticism about the destiny of the soul after death – “No one’s come back to tell us” – will find in another habitual sceptic an unexpected rebuttal: “There are all these teachings and writings in the Church, they wouldn’t be there for nothing. Something exists.”

At a memorial service a bystander will rebuke a mourner who bursts into a moirológi for her son, arguing that it “doesn’t do” to sing a lament “in front of Christ,” but arouse a scornful rejection of such reticence from the mourner, sotto voce, later on, “A lot she knows.”

In a house, a woman, weighing the speculative enjoyments of divination by throwing beans against an uneasy sense that this is forbidden, ponders: “Is it a sin? Isn’t it? I don’t know. I haven’t an idea.” And then, in decision: “Shall we?”

Again, people will ponder the value of spells, which they carry out themselves and which they feel certain are effective, against the value of the “reading” from the priest which is enjoined by confessors, at the same time weighing the presentiment that they should desist from incantations if they are getting old and nearing death, or wish to take communion, which “takes precedence.” Or in discussion they may follow out with ruthless honesty the implications for salvation of sins in which they know they are complicit: “Will Christ save us?” “Only if we are good and follow Christ’s road.” “Do we follow Christ’s road?” “We don’t.”

This rich awareness of opposing choices arises in part from the complexity of a culture which has long roots back into the pre-Christian past, though its insights have to a great extent been incorporated and baptized by Christian tradition; it also arises from knowledge of the fundamental choices posed by human life in any circumstances, which are especially clear in the circumstances of subsistence living face to face with the natural world.

The fallen world, then, is a living presence alongside the unfallen one; but it is felt to be possible at any time to make a reconnection with the timeless world beyond this middle ground of the cosmos and of time, and this in turn brings about a series of radical transformations.    ❖

Cosmos, Life and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village can be ordered via the web site of the publisher, Denise Harvey:

Spring Issue IC 56/ PASCHA  2010