Chasing the epitaph

Following on from our “mourning in the mountains” experience, it seems fitting to tell you about Μεγάλη Παρασκευή as well (and in doing so give you a small taste of just how different the Greek language looks). Μεγάλη Παρασκευή actually means Great Friday in English and is more commonly known as Good Friday. It is a day of continued mourning during which flags are hung at half-mast and church bells ring throughout the day in a slow, mournful tone.

Devout followers of the Greek Orthodox church fast all day, although most people simply refrain from eating meat and dairy products, some even olive oil (but for some reason, other vegetable oils are allowed). In the morning a reenactment of Jesus’ burial takes place in churches across the country and the epitaph in each church is decorated with flowers – we stopped by the little byzantine church near Vicky’s place to take a look:

Decorated epitaph

The church is minuscule, and it was apparently built on the ruins of a temple dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. It’s now called Παναγία Νεραντζιώτισσα, or Our Lady of the Bitter Oranges (after the trees that line the little street on which it stands).

In the evening the epitaphs are taken out of the churches and carried around as part of a procession. Here’s where the chasing part comes in: Vicky and I were all dressed up and ready to roll but had to wait for her sister so that we could head to a nearby church together. Now, it just so happened that Mara and her housemate Voula turned up rather late. In fact, they turned up so late that when we arrived at the church the procession had long since gone. Hmm.

So we continued into Maroussi, a northern suburb of Athens, down various backalleys and side streets, asking people along the way where the procession was headed so we could catch up with them. In the end we managed to cut ahead of it so that I could finally get a few photos:

The priest

The epitaph passing by

The procession actually moves fairly quickly and if you want to keep up you can’t stop every couple of minutes to take photos (especially since people keep adding to the masses), or so I was told by the girls every time I made them wait. My constant pauses soon caused frustation amongst my female companions and I managed to lose them – or they just left me behind; I’m not sure. So I decided to take my time and go with the flow. The girls, on the other hand, appeared intent on being as close to the epitaph, and the hundreds of people around it, as possible. Maybe it’s a Greek thing?

Letting the others catch up

I didn’t realise it at first, but there were three epitaphs moving around Maroussi at the same time that evening. The processions leave their respective churches and come together in a central square close to the train station.

A pause for reflection

When the epitaphs came together a priest gave a speech to everyone in attendance (and, from what the girls told me, scolded us all for not taking the funereal aspect of the procession seriously enough). The epitaphs were lifted high by the men carrying them (apparently they usually climb on each other’s shoulders to lift the epitaph as high as possible, to the crowd’s great amusement – but the church authorities forbade it this year, precisely so that we’d learn to take things seriously), and then I spotted Vicky waving to me in the crowd – pretty lucky considering the hundreds of people who were there.

I found Vicky

The procession we were following then started to make its way back to the church where we were supposed to start from. The most moving moment was when it stopped in front of an old people’s home, where everybody had gathered on the balconies to watch it pass and throw flowers. When the epitaph finally arrived at its church, it was lifted high so that people could walk underneath it – nobody could tell me exactly what it symbolises though. Any thoughts?

Chasing the epitaph

Take a look at this video to see the event in a little more detail and hear the sombre tones of the church bells:

The processions snaking through the streets of the city, accompanied by the chanting and funeral marches being played by brass bands, the hundreds of people holding candles or lanterns and the sombre church bells made the chase (and the resulting sweat!) all worthwhile.

Tell us what you think!