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Greek Fire
2. The fire of incense and the Tree of Life

Thursday, December 3, 2020

One of the things I love most about life in Greece is the way women burn incense to sanctify their homes and holy icons. With this tiny act of sacred offering, along with the lighting of the kandíli or olive-oil lamp, the lady of the house takes on the role of priestess, turning her home into a temple, a place of prayer, as women did in ancient times. 
Incense sticks are not used here. Chunks of pure frankincense or scented resins are placed on little charcoal disks called karvounákia, in a special burner, a thymiatírio. When money is scarce or shops are far, women burn olive leaves, as they have done in Greece and Cyprus for thousands of years.

[photo, clockwise from top: thymiatírio; olive leaves; frankincense (liváni); thymíama, karvounákia.]

The offering of incense dates from pre-Christian times, and is now a central component of Orthodox Christianity. The thymiatírio, the chalice-shaped burner, symbolises the womb of the Panayía, the Virgin Mary, while the process of burning reflects spiritual rebirth and transformation. In the 5th century, St. John Chrysostom wrote: 'When incense is good and fragrant in itself, the fragrance is revealed when the fire speaks. In the same way, our prayer, good in itself, becomes even more fragrant when the soul is as an incense burner, fire is kindled fiercely and the incense of the soul is born'.  

This powerful metaphor – of spiritual birth through fire in the womb of the Divine Mother – reminds me of Rumi's parable of the chickpea in the pot: it tries to escape, but the housewife knocks it back into the pot: 'Don’t you try to jump out. You think I’m torturing you. I’m giving you flavor, so you can mix with spices and rice and be the lovely vitality of a human being.' [1]

The Greek word for frankincense, liváni, derives from the Arabic word for milk (laban): the white resin of the frankincense tree flows like milk from cuts in the trunk, and frankincense with the colour of milk is held in the highest regard. The frankincense tree is thus connected with the nourishing milk of the Divine Mother and the pre-Christian Great Goddess once revered throughout the ancient world and symbolised by the Tree of Life. 

The flowers of the frankincense tree (boswellia sacraform a 5-pointed star, ancient symbol of the Goddess and planet known as Ishtar, Aphrodite and Venus, whose orbit seen from Earth makes a 5-petalled mandala. The pistil or gynoecium, the seed-bearing female part of the flower, resembles an abstract female form. Along with the Tree of Life, this female figure or Goddess figure is a common motif in archaeology as well as folk art and embroidery.

Incense, karvounákia and even thymiatíria can normally be found in any supermarket or corner shop, but when I first came to live in Greece 15 years ago I preferred to buy mine in the little religious supply shops tucked away in secret streets off the tourist trail in central Athens. Here you could purchase karvounákia by the carton and incense by the kilo, either liváni, pale cloudy clumps of pure frankincense from the Arabian peninsula, or thymíama, with the colour and fragrance of rose, jasmine, cedar or dozens of other flowers and trees.

I was puzzled when I heard one shopkeeper call these two types of incense arsenikó and thilikó, 'male' and 'female'. When I asked him why, another customer, an older lady, answered: 'The thymíama is thilikó because it is scented and coloured, like makeup and perfume! The liváni, the arsenikó, is naked, like a man – what you see is what you get!' 

The best thymíama is made by hand by nuns and monks, and certain monasteries are renowned for their incense. At the Monastery of Faneromeni on Salamina, thymíama is made to the old recipe by the elder nun Sister Lavrentía, who says: 'Incense is a sacred and holy work. It must be made with the cooperation of all four elements of nature: fire, water, air and earth. Put a pot of water on the fire and place the container with the resins and the distilled essences inside, stirring until they set.' When asked where the element of earth comes in, she replied: 'Earth is the main thing! The earth element in the incense comes from the human being who makes it.' She went on: 'After the incense has partially set, while it is still hot, we remove it from the container and mold it into long thin strips. We add magnesia powder so it won't stick, then cut it into small pieces and place it into small containers. The incense is now ready for use.' [2]

The highest grade of thymíama is made from flowers of the finest quality, carefully combined in exacting blends for specific church holidays. The thymíama burned for the Salutations to the Most Holy Theotokos on the first five Fridays of Lent, for instance, must be made only from white flowers such as gardenia, lily, jasmine, frangipani, lemon blossom, and white rose.

Those little church shops are also good places to buy blue glass 'eye' beads and charms to protect yourself and your children, house, shop, fruit trees, car or donkey against the máti, the evil eye.
(In Greece, this is considered a very real danger.) One day when I was looking for these, early on when I was still struggling with the language, I made a terrible blunder; instead of asking for phylaktá (amulets), I requested prophylaktiká (condoms). The shop lady's icy glare was the very definition of the evil eye, but as soon as she saw that I was an ignorant foreigner, she smiled and gave me a rather nice amulet for free – it must have been obvious that I needed all the help I could get.

I slunk off to cheer myself up in one of my favourite haunts, the Museum of Greek Folk Art on Kidatheneion. That day I was the only visitor, and the sole recipient of the attention of the museum's only guard. She followed me from floor to floor, watching from a discreet distance while I marvelled at the magnificent jewellery, textiles, and most of all the folk costumes. I tried to imagine how it would feel to wear them and to dance in them, seeking to better understand both the costumes and the dances of each region.

While I gazed at the costumes, the guard gazed at me. I think she thought I was casing the joint. Eventually, however, we got talking and she perceived that my passion for these treasures was both innocent and genuine. She asked why I was in Greece and where I was living. When I told her, she led me over to the case with the bridal costume from my area of Attica, Mesogeia – easily the most stunning costume in the entire museum, with a floor-length skirt richly embroidered with geometric Goddess figures, a long silk veil embroidered with gold, and many other elements of breathtaking beauty. [3]

I asked if anyone ever wore this type of costume still, for weddings or feast days – hoping I might some day have an opportunity to see this exquisite ensemble come alive in movement – but she scoffed. No, nobody wears it anymore, no, not for feast days, not for weddings, not for dancing, not even for dance performances, no, those days are long gone, you are a hundred years too late.

That evening, Kostantis and I went to have dinner in Kalyvia, a shepherds' village a little ways inland from Daskalió. It was March 25, the feast day of the Annunciation, and the evening was mild, with a hint of spring. Kalyvia's main church is dedicated to the Annunciation, so a service was taking place, and I slipped in to light a candle. The interior was dimly lit, aromatic with incense, awash with the resounding waves of Byzantine hymns. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I was astounded to see before me a young woman fully arrayed in the bridal dress of old Mesogeia, a true original, just like the one I had been admiring a few hours earlier. Her full-length gold-embroidered silk veil reflected the flickering light of the beeswax tapers lit by the faithful, in a shower of dancing glints which fell over me like rain.

We sat down to eat in the 100-year-old taverna just along from the church. The owner filled our glasses and brought dish after dish of classic Greek food in enormous portions: crisp cabbage and carrot salad, wild mountain greens, local feta, tomato and herb croquettes, succulent beets with their tops, velvety tzatzíki, tender grilled lamb, delicate chips hand-cut from local potatoes and freshly fried in pure olive oil. Half in trance, I gazed out the window at an enormous mulberry tree which rose in the centre of a small triangular plateía at the meeting of three streets. Just as Kostantis was telling me how mature mulberry trees in a village were a sure sign of silk production in earlier times, an elderly grandmother came shuffling out of her house nearby with a smoking thymiatírio in her hand, and set it down carefully at the base of the tree.

The incense smouldered, offering its aromatic smoke in silver streams dancing up through the branches to the night sky. A sudden sound of chanting from the church preceded a straggle of priests and acolytes carrying candles and icons, surrounded in clouds of incense. With them came the maiden in the magnificent Mesogeian bridal dress – but now there were three of them. The little procession circumambulated the tree and halted to one side. The three maidens joined hands and began to dance. 

Accompanied by their own a cappella singing, they danced slowly and gracefully around the mulberry tree in a simple three-measure pattern – the oldest and most widespread dance form in the Balkans, which I believe to be an encoded expression of the Tree of Life and the ancient Goddess. Three long veils of golden silk wafted in the gentle breeze, interwoven with skeins of sacred smoke and the melodic thread of the women's song. Three young women, attired in the antique bridal dress of their own great-grandmothers, kept the sacred spring rituals alive. Leaning against the stone wall of her home, the grandmother watched them, her expression sober yet softly shining.  I watched too, alight inside with the revelation that all is not lost, it is not too late, the ancient forms can come alive again, and maybe I can be their witness.

'May my prayer be set before you as incense, the raising of my hands as the evening offering.' – Psalm 141:2

[1] From 'Chickpea to Cook', translated by Coleman Barks. 
[2] Archimandrite Father Damianaki Damaskinou, 'Incense, Yesterday and Today'.
[3] This photo is from the Benaki Museum, as the Greek Folk Art Museum is now closed. See also Angeliki Hatzimichali, The Greek Folk Costume vol. 1 (1977), andΦορεσιά_της_Αττικής 

To read Part 1 of Greek Fire, 'We give thanks for fire and food in lockdown', 
please click here.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2023 Laura Shannon, All rights reserved.

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