Finding Folk Orthodoxy

26 03 2009


A couple of years ago, I wrote a provocative piece on my experiences with Eastern Orthodoxy in this country. In it, I wrote that in my past encounters with Orthodoxy, what I usually found was a boutique religion for the white middle class, or alternatively, an ethnic church closed off from the rest of society, and not much else in between. In terms of the former, the most likely suspect to convert to Orthodoxy is a (usually white) religious maverick who wants to re-discover the “New Testament Church” as founded by Jesus Christ without the “popish” baggage that Roman Catholicism has to offer. Compared to the suburban white-washed suburban mega-parishes and the “supersitious” masses of the Latino barrio parish, Orthodoxy seems to have all of it i’s dotted and t’s crossed. There is, of course, the presence of the ethnic Orthodox, who often don’t come to Divine Liturgy on time or only grace the shadow of the church for a baptism or wedding, but they are a small price to pay for being in a church that doesn’t have “idolatrous” statues or the “Filioque” (that sum of all errors). The convert can thus enjoy his “true religion” detached from all of the cultural baggage of the “old country”. He may even seek refuge in an old, long fogotten past, being nostalgic for an “Orthodox Western Europe” that never was.

My own religious project since I wrote that polemical essay two years ago has changed substantially. It is very easy to find out what the Church says about itself. One only need look at such books as Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma or a similar book to find out what you should believe. That is the religious center of the Faith; the safe region, the core of what the clergy say is to believed by all. But what role, if any, does the periphery hold; what is the role of belief that grows spontaneously outside of the control of the “official Church”? And what relation, if any, does the official Church have with these beliefs? Living in the 21st century, and having passed through the paradigm shifts of early modernity, it is very easy to dismiss half of the things that our grandparents believed in as superstition or remnants of a pagan past. My nagging suspicion, however, is that without these things that were at the periphery ( or underground, unofficial, or quasi-forbidden), the center cannot hold. The death of the religious imagination of our forefathers is leading to the death of religion itself.

So far, my focus has been the faith of my own ancestors: Roman Catholicism. Recently, I wrote a piece on folk saints for a Catholic website, and sent the link to a good friend, an ex-monastic collegue of mine who has a doctorate in Byzantine theology. He wrote back that if I was interested in this kind of thing, I should also read Karen Hartnup’s book, On the Beliefs of the Greeks: Leo Allatios and Popular Orthodoxy. Having spent a couple of days in the library (the volume itself costs about $150), I read the book all the way through. To say that I was amazed by what I read would be an understatement. If I thought that Latin American folk Catholicism was bizzare and exotic, it was nothing compared to the beliefs that pious Greek islanders had in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some of these beliefs were forbidden by the Church. Others were creations of the Church herself. And others were seen in their time as perfectly normal phenomena, but they would no longer fit in with our preconceived notions by which we see the world.

The book centers around the figure of Leo Allatios (1586-1669) and his work, “De Graecorum hodie quorundum opinationibus”. Though born on the Greek island of Chios and raised an Orthodox Christian, he later moved to Rome where he converted to Catholicism and became a high level official in the Vatican library. He lived at a time when the relations between the Orthodox and Catholics in the Venetian-occupied islands were very irenic and pourous. He himself committed much of his time to explaining the theology and liturgy of Orthodoxy to the Western Church, and believed that the main things that separated the chuches were matters of discipline and culture. In the work cited above, which translates roughly as “On some current superstitions of the Greeks”, Allatios recalls many of the stories that he was told growing up of the spirits and monsters that haunted the countryside of Chios. A medical doctor first and foremost, he ties these phenomena into ideas of pathology, dismissing some but affirming others, and revealing to the modern reader the religious minds of the common folk of the Greek Orthodox world.

The list of creatures that Allatios describes goes from the frightening and macabre to the extraordinary and benign. It is as follows:

1. the gello: A cross between a demon and a vampire that tended to attack unbaptized infants. Mothers would protect their children against the gello by hanging talismans or containers of holy oil from the cot where the baby slept. Since the Orthodox Church does not baptize babies until forty days after birth, the child was seen as particularily vulnerable at this time.

2. the babutzikarios: the Christmas gobblin. Both Allatios and the Byzantine writer Michael Psellos considered it to be a hallucination, but it was said that those who were born at Christmas were temporarily possessed by this creature every year between Christmas and New Year’s. Those prone to this type of possession were kept busy at this time by counting holes in a sieve. Distraction was the only real cure.

3. the vrykolakas: A plague bringing zombie whose very presence was deemed fatal to the inhabitants of a village. The only way to get rid of one is to burn the corpse. The Church obviously fought vigorously against this belief, and sought to exorcise the corpse instead, with mixed results.

4. the tympaniaios: an undecayed, unsightly corpse that had turned all black and was swollen to the point that its skin resembled a drum (hence the name). This phenomena was seen as the result of people dying in the state of excommunication without having received absolution. It was said that when the priest recited the words of absolution over the body, the corpse would begin to crack and decay immediately. Hartnup believes that this phenomena was tied into the spiritual power struggle that the Orthodox Church had to wage in the Ottoman period against Catholicism and Islam: only the Orthodox clergy could cure the tympaniaios.

5. nereides: nymphs who inhabit watery and wooded places. They were seen as being lustful after young men, and would often deform their victims. Special care had to be taken while defecating in a field by spitting three times before the act.

6. stoicheia: household spirits and the spirits of various places, often taking the form of a lizard or snake. Allatios saw with his own eyes how a stoicheion predicted both his arrival and departure from his home by appearing in the form of a snake. When his mother found a snake in a pantry, an old woman next door told her that this meant that Allatios would be arriving from Italy after a long absence. Sure enough, this came to pass within a few days. When Allatios himself in the same home felt the snake slithering under his pillow some time later, he was told by the same woman that he would be departing again soon, which also came to pass. People also told of a stoicheion who dwelled near the well that appeared in the form of an “Ethiopian” boy. He would cause no harm to people: people would either greet him or ignore him completely without much consequence. When building a new house, people would offer sacrifices to the stoicheion of the place when setting the first corner stone, seeking permission from the spirit to build the house. Allatios, having some formation in Renaissance Neoplatonism, believed that the stoicheia were spirits that descended into all things from the planets, giving them a virtue far beyond the status of “inanimate objects”.

There are other stories of miraculous exorcisms and healings, but these can be discussed another time. In the range of creatures described, we see the presence of a cosmos other than our own, one that is often hard to square with what we would call Christian “small o” orthodoxy. In our own minds, we have been trained to think of the universe as a very strict and neat hierarchy: God-angels-men-demons-animals-plants-inanimate matter. Such a paradigm is a recent invention, as I have been saying lately, and by no means the only alternative. The bonds between the human world and the preternatural one were seen in the past as much more complex and dynamic than our own very strict divide between the sacred and the profane.

In the gello, we see a concept of embodiment and human identity that now seems to us counter-intuitive. Hartnup believes that the reason Eastern Orthodoxy waits forty days to baptize a child has little to do with theology and more to do with ancient ideas of the development of the human person. Since ensoulment was not seen in the ancient world as taking place until forty days after conception, so the child was not seen as being fully human until forty days after birth. The child was thus not fully ontologically separated from his mother, and since the mother was unclean for forty days after childbirth, so the child was seen as partaking of the mother’s unclean state. At this time, the gello was a danger since the child, being in an ambiguous ontological state, was vulnerable to attack. After baptism, however, this demon was no longer a threat.

In the cases of the vrykolakas and the typmaniaios, problems are encountered at the other end of life’s spectrum. Both phenomena were perceived as the result of violent or irregular death over which the Church had control. In the popular Orthodox consciousness, the process of the soul leaving the body was seen as something gradual, as indicated in the Orthodox services for departed souls at the third day, the fortieth day, etc. If the soul “gets caught” in the body due to an unforeseen violent death or an excommunication by the Church, it could not escape the body and could wreak havoc and plague on unsuspecting villagers. This also has to do with the controversial “toll house” theory in Orthodoxy advocated by the late Seraphim Rose using old monastic documents. Needless to say, these are far from our own ideas of the relationship between soul and body.

Lastly, and most importantly, we have the stoicheia, or the household spirits. In Hartnup’s presentation of these beings, it would seem Allatios was the least dubious about their existence, having encountered personally their benevolent or benign nature. In the common orthodox Christian narrative of the cosmos, the stoicheia would really have no place. Are they angels? Demons? Some sort of miscellaneous creatures with preternatural powers? Or none of the above. We must also keep in mind that Allatios was not at all a person given over to superstitions or unorthodoxy. He was working right in the heart of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and when confronted with things that were demonic or the product of hallucinations, he would be the first to express doubt. On this and other phenomena, however, he was thinking with another mind than the one that we have today. In his attitude towards these household spirits in particular, there is another approach to the invisible world that we have long ago left behind.

There are of course other phenomena in the Orthodox world that we could cite, such as the charms against the evil eye attached to icons that we see in the above picture, werewolves, ghosts, and many other things that we place now unambiguously in the category of “superstition” rather than religion. The question that must be asked is, absent these phenomena, do we believe in the same context as the one that existed when our doctrines first came about? If we don’t, it is no wonder that many would place our own articles of faith and legitmate miracles (the Resurrection of Christ, the miracle of St. Januarius, apparitions of the Virgin Mary) in the same category as the “superstitions” cited above? Perhaps the main problem is not one of the discernment of the legitimacy of the phenomena themselves, but rather of developing again the internal logic behind all of these preternatural events. It is a problem of no longer seeing the universe in strict quantatative categories and viewing it through the lens of ancient wisdom and cosmology.

In terms of Orthodoxy in this country, the spiritual seeker must realize that Orthodoxy was not any more pristine than Roman Catholicism in any of these questions. There were just as many ghosts, superstitions, and “deviations” from what we would consider proper in the Christian East as there were in the West. For me, citing abstract doctrines is far from helpful in either case since religions that exist only on paper are not religions worthy of belief. You cannot abstract the doctrinal aspects of the Church from the daily lives of the people, just as it is much, much harder for us to abstract “faith” from “superstition” than we would care to admit. Obviously, the clergy help, but they are by no means infallible regarding these questions. As in all things in life, a well-formed conscience in dialogue and humble submission to the rest of the Church is what is needed to face a world full of things that we do not understand.

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14 responses

26 03 2009
J.S. Bangs

As a crypto-Orthodox Anglican, I couldn’t agree more. I was originally attracted to an Orthodoxy as Catholicism without all that “other stuff”, but this is a naive view that’s unlikely to survive contact with actual old-world Orthodoxy. Since my introduction to Orthodoxy was through my Romanian wife, this phase didn’t last very long. I’ve sort of come full circle, and now I appreciate the “superstitious” native elements of Orthodoxy more. One of the most treasured Orthodox prayers for me is the invocation of the Holy Cross against the devil; it’s one I put to good use just last night when my son was suffering from nightmares.

(Still don’t agree about the Pope, though. There’s a reason I’m not Catholic.)

The Romanians also have a vârcolac (vyrkolakas), but it’s a werewolf-like monster that eats the sun.

26 03 2009

Very interesting and much I agree with. You might find this article published by Dumbarton Oaks worth a look:

Folk belief surrounding the state of the soul after death clearly entered the mainstream beliefs of the church.

This being Lent also, the Purple Demons are out in force.

26 03 2009

Just FYI, _On the Beliefs of the Greeks_ is available on GoogleBooks, though you may not be able to read the whole thing. The URL is crazy-long so I ran it through and got this:

Hope that helps. Looks like an interesting book; thanks!

26 03 2009

Great Dumbarton Oaks article, AMM … And, of course, many thanks to our guide through the wild and wonderful world of all things folk religion, Arturo, for an informative post, which I think I will whip out next time some six-month-old convert starts lecturing the hierarchs and ethnics about “authentic” Orthodox Tradition and Orthopraxis.

26 03 2009
Lord Peter

I think you are probably correct. Recall that Christian Faith is faith or trust is ultimately in a person. Thus, even people unable to form coherent abstract thought systems about that person — children, the handicapped, Calvinsist, and Roman Catholics — can still be authentic Christians. Moreover, we must recall that our received dogmatic traditions, whether Ott (the more Germanic/Latin heterodox version) or Meyendorff (the more Hellenic/Greek orthodox version) are both essentially apologia’s within the broader idiom of the Greco-Roman Philosophic milieu, which breathes in a quite rarified atmosphere. So, we should not be surprised that systematic dogmatics is more “sanitized,” whereas folk religion is more “earthy.” Each is the expression of the same thing in differing, but not inconsistent, idioms that comprise the (fallen) human experience.

28 03 2009

Yes, the orthodox needs the heretic. And the heretic needs the orthodox.

30 03 2009


welcome … to the REAL world! 8) [sounds of thunder clashing]

30 03 2009
31 03 2009

Is this real or is this like the Onion.

2 04 2009
Alice C. Linsley

Arturo, I saw these evil eye amulets everywhere in the villages of Greece and in the Greek Isles. They covered outdoor shrines with icons and home shrines. Many of the older Greek women were upset with me that my babies didn’t have the amulets around their necks.

8 12 2009

Wow loved reading your post. I submitted your rss to my blogreader!

28 10 2013

Arturo, I saw these evil eye amulets everywhere in the villages of Greece and in the Greek Isles. They covered outdoor shrines with icons and home shrines. Many of the older Greek women were upset with me that my babies didn’t have the amulets around their necks.

They would those amulets among the deceased Byzantines of the middle ages. Also, Procopius the fame Byzantine historian talk not only about God but also the old Greek-Roman force of Fortune.

28 10 2013

I mean the Byzantines wore those amulets as well.

28 10 2013

Also, back to Procopius when he criticized Jusitnian and Theodora there is a lot of demonology. Justinian’s mother is inform that a demon not her husband was Justinian’s father. Justinian could remove his head and carry it. He could be above the ground. Most of the political criticsim of Justinian and Theodora had to be that they were blood thirsty demons So, 6th century A.D. Constantinople had a lot of belief in the power of demons. A lot of Orthodox converts are not familiar with the secret history but orthodox in the old country are, if they were some might not convert since Justinian and Theodora who Procopius made out as demons are considered Saints in the Church.

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