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EU > Greece > Athens

Religion and superstition

Athens, GR (View on map)

Greece is known to be a very conservative country when it comes to religion and traditions. Although young people are turning away from the Orthodox Church, especially in Athens and on some of the islands, the influence of religion resonates in their everyday behaviour and in the way they take the important choices of life.

Maria (30):

`Greek babies are nameless until they get baptised`
The Greek Orthodox faith is a Christian religion, just like Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The Orthodox Church however does not recognise the Pope as its spiritual leader. It is headed by a national archbishop instead, and represented by church buildings and religious leaders across the country. Both religious buildings and religious leaders are treated with a great deal of respect. When walking past an Orthodox Church, religious people make three cross signs and if they walk into a priest, they may well ask for his blessing and kiss his hand.

According to Orthodox theology, man`s aim in life is to attain theosis: the mystical union of man with God, which is reached by going through the Mysteries, the first one of which is administered to a baby when he reaches the age of 40 days.

Nameless children
Maria (30, photo) tells me that tradition further prescribes that a baby be baptised within the first year following birth. During the baptism, the baby is fully immersed in water three times, each time followed by the priest making the holy cross sign with the baby in his hands. `That`s when the baby actually gets a name. Before being baptised, the child is only called Beba for a girl or Bebis for a boy, with no further specification. After baptism, the child is given his often one and only first name. That is probably one of the names of one of its grandparents. So far, we have not had newborn Britneys, Kylies and other Western names`, Maria says.

Maria assures me that the namelessness of the child does not produce any problems in announcing the birth: `Closest friends and family will come to the hospital as soon as the mother is about to deliver the baby. Which by the way is oftentimes a highly predictable moment, because more and more babies are born by caesarian section. It`s not a matter of risk assessment or anything, it just serves the hospital financially as they can make more money on that than on a regular birth.`

Those who rushed to hospital to see the newborn will wait outside the ward to be the first to see the baby and bring presents. Maria says: `We do not send out cards, so we do not need to put down the name anywhere. Only the few people who do not have their child baptised will go to the town hall to register the kid and its name. That is not very common though. If you are not baptised or, at a later stage, married in church, it may be difficult to find cemetery that accepts to bury you by the time you die. This reason, and the simple one of traditions, decides that even many people who do not consider themselves religious, have their children baptised and opt for a church wedding. It also serves to show respect to the older generations, who in many cases would not appreciate their child getting married without God`s blessing.`

Close relation
Maria says that state and religion are officially separated, but they are very closely intertwined: `Priests are considered civil servants, so their salaries are paid from our taxes. Also, the archbishop likes to express his opinion on political affairs. Whether his views are accepted are not, they are at least made public and certainly do influence the public opinion. The previous archbishop, who recently passed away, was particularly known for this. The priest who now replaces him is fortunately a little more liberal and less extrovert about his religious convictions.`

`Generally speaking, the Orthodox Church is less dogmatic than the Roman Catholic one. We can easily compensate for our sins, just by praying a little more or fastening for a while. Also, the church definitely has an opinion about complicated issues like abortion and homosexuality, but here again, it doesn`t impose its will. It`s the conventionalism of the people that makes both issues hard to deal with. Homosexuality is acceptable on some islands which are known to have a bit of an anarchist approach to life, like Mikonos and Ios. Athens is also a lot more liberal, but anywhere else, people will be unpleasantly surprised if not shocked to see two men kissing`, Maria says, `Our way of dealing with behaviour that may be subject to taboos is to joke about it. It serves as a bridge between something what is acceptable and what is not. And so, there are many jokes about homosexuals and calling somebody gay is quite a bad offence.`

According to Maira (25), the Orthodox Church also officially respects other religions, but it does want to have say about religious buildings where congregations are held: `There is a Mosque in the very centre of Athens and they are being very difficult about that.`

Maira thinks that, especially in Athens, people are more and more starting to find their way around the church. `Most of our primary schools are still orthodox and start every day with a prayer, but parents who do not want their children to join those activities can just opt out. That used to be exceptional, but is becoming more common nowadays.`

Regardless of whether they consider themselves religious, many Greeks believe in something beyond the reach of the Orthodox Church: bad energy. Mariana (22) says that it is caused by people thinking about you in a negative way: `If they envy you, or talk behind your back, they will send you bad energy, which can make you feel stressed, give you head aches or an upset stomach. If you want to prevent it from touching you, wear a light-blue eye or some stone of the same colour. If you don`t, you need to have an older woman pray for you to release you from the bad feelings. The contents of the prayers are secret. They are only supposed to be transmitted from mother to daughter when both are in an advanced stage of life.`

Panos (25) tells me that many Greeks believe in horoscopes as well. `I don`t read them a lot, but I do believe that people from different star signs have different personalities. It`s a good starting point for psycho-analysis`, he says. Maria (26) doesn`t really know whether to believe in horoscopes or not: `I usually read them and then cross-check backwards whether they made sense or not.`

In spite of its deeply religious part, Greece has many officially accepted superstitious beliefs. Like in many Western countries, some Greeks may get nervous at the sight of a black cat, when walking under a ladder or when breaking a mirror. Peter (29) jokes that the former prime minister Mitsotakis also brought back luck. `We called him Dracumel, which is the Greek version of Gargamel from The Smurfs.`

Luckily for Greece, there are also many ways to get luck on your side. Eating the end of the bread means that your mother-in-law will like you. Drinking the last drop of beer or wine out of a carafe means that you will get married and if you spill coffee onto the saucer under the cup, you will become rich. Garlic will protect you from bad energy and putting salt behind the door means that your unwanted guest will soon leave the house. Smashing a piece of Paradise Fruit at the beginning of the new year will allow you to expect for good things to happen.

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