Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

Where are You From?

May 3, 2010

The summer season on my little island has begun – a Dutch charter flight flew past my window just a few hours ago and tomorrow the first British will arrive. It is always a strange feeling after a quiet winter but soon, the island will be buzzing and the sea will be warm enough for chickens like me to get in…

Because there will be all sorts of nationalities here now I thought it would be a good idea to produce a little list of what some countries are called in Greek. Many of them still go by their ancient names to the Greeks, such as Gallía – Gaul = France and Elvetía – Helvetia = Switzerland.

With the exception of Greece, which is Elláda, you will notice that all the countries end with –ía, which means you should pronounce them by emphasizing the -eeeeea at the end. Here we go:

Italy = Italía

Spain = Ispanía

England = Aglía

Wales = Oualía

Scotland = Skotía

Ireland = Irlandía

Sweden = Souidía

Norway = Norvigía

Finland = Finlandía

Denmark = Danía

Holland = Ollandía

France = Gallía

Portugal = Portogalía

Germany = Germanía

If your country is not listed here and you would like to know what it is called, please send an email:

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“Posh” Greek

April 19, 2010

Have you ever wondered why Greeks sometimes say lefkό krasί and sometimes άspro krasi when ordering white wine? If yes, you are entering the world of ‘posh’ Greek …

Modern Greek is a natural development of ancient Greek that was spoken by the predecessors that lived here 2000 and more years ago. Although there are many similarities, there are also enough differences to make it extremely hard for a Greek anno 2010 to get by if he had a time machine to travel back to his great, great, great, great, great grandfathers.

Some ancient words have survived in everyday Modern Greek and we tend to use them when we are talking about certain special things, like wine, for example.

The Modern Greek word for white is άspro but the ancient one is lefkό and so, when ordering that liquid sent from the gods, we ask for lefko krasi… If we want red wine, we use the modern word kόkkino (red) but if you look at most Greek wine bottles, it says erythrόs oinos, erythros being ancient Greek for red and oinos (pronounced eeenos) ancient for wine.

The ancient word for blue is galάzios or galanόs, which is why the Greeks call their flag Galanόlefki….sounds nicer that bleaspri, doesn’t it?!? The White House is Washington could be called άspro spiti in Modern Greek but because it is a unique, official building, it is called Lefkόs Oikos (ancient for house).

There are tons of examples: the island Lefkada, Lefcas, is named after its white rocks and the Red Sea is called Erythrά Thάlassa.  A blue blooded person is called Galazoaimatos (aima is blood) and if you want to compliment someone on their blue eyes, say they are galάzia or galanά…it will be appreciated.

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The Evil Eye

March 22, 2010

If you have been to Greece, you will surely have noticed the little blue eyes that many are wearing or hanging in their cars/businesses/houses etc. This is the amulet that protects them against To Mati – the Evil Eye, also known as Vaskania.

The Mati is an age-old belief that people staring at you can provoke all sorts of unpleasant symptoms such as headaches, constant yawning, falling over or just really bad luck. It usually happens when they stare in a sort of envious admiration, which is why young children and animals, good looking or successful people and new houses and cars are more likely to get matiasmeni – “evil eyed”. Usually, the matiasma – evil eyeing – is not intentional – it just happens because you are looking at someone or something that you admire – perhaps with a sting of jealousy somewhere deep inside.

If you have a really bad headache (and know it is not a hangover) you might be matiasmenos and to get rid of the curse you will need to find someone to lift it. The process is known as ksematiasma – un evil eyeing – and is normally done by elderly ladies. They will put you to the test by dripping some olive oil into a glass of water – if it stays on the surface you just have had too much to drink or are maybe coming down with something – but if it dissolves into the water, the Mati has gotten you! A series of prayers are then said, accompanied by spitting and sprinkling of Holy Water and that should do the trick.

Spitting is, incidentally, a way of protecting people you admire from the Evil Eye. When you pay someone a compliment you are, by definition, admiring them and that is exactly when you might give them the Mati. Rest assured, the solution is easy: pay the compliment and then spit on them three times (not actually spitting – more like ftou ftou ftou in the air) and they are protected by your counter spell. Good to know next time you want to flirt with a Greek!

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It’s Raining Chairlegs!

March 15, 2010

Being from northern Europe, I was brought up to talk about the weather and it came as quite a surprise to find out that the Greeks do the same. Although the main complaint here seems to be zeeeesth – hot – people in Greece seem to be just as fond of weather discussions as we are.

One difference, however, is that in Greece, the weather – o kairos – is talked about almost as an organism, a deity if you like, and perhaps this comes from the ancient ancestors who regarded every weather phenomenon and every wind as  god sent or even a separate god; Boreas being the northern wind and Zephyros the western, for example. Where you in English say “It is hot” the Greeks say “It does heat/cold” – it, being the weather (o kairos).  The weather does, in other words…

Another example is the old expression for raining: O Theos vrechi = God is raining. Speaking of rain we meet another difference from other European languages as hard rain is expressed with the English “cats and dogs” or the Swedish “sporegn” (whip rain). The Greeks say that it is raining kareklopodara, chair legs!

The astral bodies are named after the ancient gods, apart from the planets, whose names remain Greek in Greece (not Latin as in the rest of Europe): Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares etc. The sun is still called Helios, after the old sun god, and the moon Seline, after his wife. An old myth tells us that Helios was such as jealous husband that Selene only dared go out when he was away, which is why she comes out at night when the sun is sleeping. So if Helios is out tomorrow and it doesn’t do cold and doesn’t rain chair legs…do go out for a walk and enjoy the weather…

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The Language of the Gods, part 1

February 1, 2010

Greek mythology has influenced the world for millennia and much of it survives in our everyday language. For example, when someone predicts something bad (rain, failed exams, relationship break ups) we reply ¨Don’t be such a Kassandra¨. The Kassandra story goes back to Homer who tells us that Kassandra was a princess of Troy whom the god Apollo fell in love with. He gave her the power of prophecy but when she rejected him, he turned the blessing into a curse by making her prophecies incredible to anyone that heard them. When Kassandra saw what the Greeks were up to in creating the Trojan Horse no one believed her, with the fall of Troy as a tragic consequence.

¨Trojan Horse¨, incidentally, is another expression borrowed from Greek mythology. Used in computer language, it describes a virus that creeps into your system disguised as a friendly email, for example, just like the wooden horse the Greeks made the Trojans as a ¨peace offer¨. From Homer we also get the expression ¨Achilles’ Heel¨. Achilles was a young hero made immortal by his sea nymph mother who submerged him into a magic river. Because she held him by the heel this was the only body part that was not touched by the water and so, this became Achilles’ only weak spot. Today, we do not only use the expression about physical weaknesses but also about things we are touchy about or just really bad at.

The creation myths are full of names that we have borrowed into our own languages:

In the beginning was Chaos out of which Gaia, the Earth, was born. Gaia gave birth to Okeanos, the Ocean, and Uranos, the Sky and after an eternal embrace with Uranos she bore Chronos, Time. Chronos hated his father and severed the embrace between his parents by cutting off Uranos’ limb, which fell into the sea. Out of the foam that was created when it hit the surface, Aphrodite rose.

This is just a short summary of the creation myth but in it, we have a myriad of names that need attention. Chaos is the word for ¨nothing and everything¨ in Greek and we use it when describing something that is completely out of order: chaos, chaotic.

Gaia, the Earth, is called Ge in Greek and from her we have a huge amount of words and names, all to do with earth and origins: geography (charting/study of earth), geology (logic of earth), geometry (measuring of earth), George/Georgina (worker of earth/farmer), genuine (original, real), Genesis (origins), genitals (reproductive organs), generate (to create, bring forth) and progeny (offspring). The list could go on forever…

Mother Earth’s son Okeanos has given us the word for great sea, ocean and an oceanographer is someone who charts/studies the sea (compare with geography). Her husband/son Uranos still gives his name to the sky in Greek: Uranos, even though it only lives on in western languages as a planet.

Chronos is another good example of our languages’ mythological origins. Chronos means time (or year) in Greek and when we describe something in chronological order we are putting it in a certain line of events according to when they happened. If you have a chronic condition it is permanent as opposed to temporary. A chronometer is a machine that measures time.

For now, we will end with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Her name means ¨born out of foam (afros)¨ and when we speak of an aphrodisiac, we mean something that enhances our sexual desires. All thanks to Aphrodite!

Studying Greek is not just about grammar and vocabulary; it is also about mythology, history, philosophy and science. Much of it has survived in various western languages and as you learn it, you will discover how much of it you actually use on an everyday basis. If you have comments or questions about certain expressions or words, please get in touch. More about the Greek language next Monday!

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Note: I have intentionally used the Greek spelling for the names rather than the Latin (Kassandra instead of Cassandra, Chronos instead of Chronus etc.)

The Three Hierarchs (4th century)

January 30, 2010

The main church of Skiathos is located just above the Old Port and is dedicated to the Three Hierarchs (Tris Ierarches), the three bishops that shaped much of today’s Christian church (sermons, monastic life, creed): St. Basil, St. Gregory and St. John Chrysostom.

St. Basil is the Greek equivalent to Father Christmas and belonged to a deeply religious family where several members became saints. Suffering from ill health since his youth, St. Basil was especially interested in medicine and ended up founding the first public hospital in the western world. He wrote a series of texts about the importance of a good doctor-patient relationship, a topic as important today as it was then.  For a more detailed biography, please go to his individual post.

St. Gregory was a close friend of St. Basil’s and they had been fellow students in both Constantinople and Athens, where they were educated in law, geometry, philosophy, public speech and astronomy. After years of life as a desert hermit, St. Gregory went to Constantinople, where St. Basil eventually made him the archbishop. St. Gregory is often called The Theologist, as he wrote fervent speeches against pagans and scriptures for and about the church.

St. John was a priest who was so famous for his sermons that he earned the nickname Chrysostom, the Gold Mouthed (in English Silver Tongued is probably a better translation). His religious zeal often angered the emperor, who banished him on several occasions but his popularity with the people brought him back. In the end, the emperor ostracized him once and for all and St. John spent the rest of his life in Armenia.

Because the three saints were educated men of the church they are often depicted holding the Bible in one hand. Each saint has an individual name day (Basil 1/1, Gregory 25/1, John 13/11) but when a dispute broke out between their respective followers on who was the most important in 1100, it was decided they should also have a common one on the 30th of January. The three saints are patrons of students, teachers and of all education in general.

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Body Language – Just as Important

January 11, 2010

Speaking with each other, we do not only use words and facial expressions, but also our whole body. Being a very expressive people, the Greeks use their arms and bodies all the time when talking and anyone that has been to Greece can testify to that. Body language is not a universal language, however, which sometimes gives cause for misunderstandings when Greeks and other nationalities are communicating. For example, nodding when saying yes does not always work as the Greeks have two different head nods when saying yes and no, which are quite difficult to interpret for a foreigner: “yes” is a slanting, downward nod and “no” tilts the head backwards, accompanied with lifted eyebrows. Watch out with the latter, though, as that is generally considered a very arrogant way of saying no!

Another classic is the rudest hand gesture in Greece: thrusting one’s palm towards someone’s face, emphasized further by slapping the other hand on the back of the first hand. Do not attempt doing this unless you know someone incredibly well, not even as a joke. It is much, much worse than showing one’s middle finger, for example. This particular gesture even has a name: muntza, and a verb: muntzono!

Historically, this gesture goes back to the Middle Ages when sinners and criminals would be put on a horse and then paraded around town. People would pick up mud from the ground and slap in onto the horse and the unfortunate rider, thus showing their disgust with the culprit. Sometimes, similar slaps of mud or tar would be put on the walls of brothels. Fortunately, this custom was abandoned ages ago but the hand gesture remains, signifying one’s complete and utter loathing of someone. The muntza used to cause misunderstandings between Greeks and tourists, as tourists tend to use a similar gesture when a driver lets them cross the road. Nowadays, the Greeks are used to it, though, and know it is just a sign of gratitude.

On a more positive note, if you want to show someone your appreciation for, let’s say, their food there are two nice gestures. The first is simply waving your right hand around in the air whilst smiling and the other is kissing the tops of your thumb, index finger and middle finger. Joining these three fingers symbolises the Holy Trinity and is also how the Greeks hold their fingers when making the cross sign. The Orthodox cross themselves in the opposite directions from Catholics: head, heart, right shoulder then left.

January Saints: John the Baptist (ca. 6BC – 30AD)

January 6, 2010

There are several St.  Johns in the Greek Orthodox Saints’ calendar but the most famous one is arguably John the Baptist. The Greeks usually call him Prodromos, the Forerunner, as he was the one to prepare the way and announce the coming of Christ. It is no coincidence that his name day is celebrated the day after Theofania, the Blessing of the Waters, where thousands of Greeks jump into the freezing sea to honour the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist himself!

You have probably heard the story about John the Baptist a million times but just in case, here is a short recap:

John was the son of the priest Zachariah and Elizabeth, a cousin of the Virgin Mary. They were an elderly, child-less couple who had given up all hopes of ever having children of their own. One day, the archangel Gabriel announced to Zachariah that they were going to have a son, but as the latter did not believe that was possible at Elizabeth’s age he openly doubted the angel. As a punishment he was struck dumb and got his speech back only after John had been born.

John the Baptist dedicated his life to God and preached the imminent arrival of Christ on the banks of the river Jordan. In icons, he is often depicted with wings, which plays on the Greek word Aggelos, angel, which really means messenger (John was, after all, a prophet). King Herod was wary of John the Baptist and saw him as somewhat of a rebel and had him arrested. At a party Herod’s niece, the beautiful Salome, asked Herod for the head of John as a prize for dancing and thus, poor John was beheaded. In icons this is illustrated by John standing next to or carrying his own head on a platter. There is often an axe on the ground or leaning against the very tree it was made from in the background.

Because of his decapitation, John the Baptist has become the saint that cures you from illnesses of the head: headaches, migraines, epilepsy, mental illness etc., as well as fevers. An old tradition also has it that he comes to the deathbeds of those who have not heard the Christian gospels and so gives them one last chance to be saved. He is also considered the patron saint of Freemasons.

The name John is IoAnnis in Greek and in everyday language it is shortened to Yannis for men and Ioanna for women. Men can also be called Prodromos after him, a name quite common on Skopelos. John the Baptist is a very important saint to the Greek Orthodox and his icon can always be found to the right of Christ on the iconostasis, the screen of icons, in churches. He is honoured on several days of the year, but the 7th of January is the “big” one, where everyone named after him will celebrate. This day is called Synaxis of John the Baptist, which basically means “the gathering of saints and angels”, because of what had happened the day before.

Some of the other days are:

June 24: his birth

August 29: his beheading

September 23: his conception

On Skiathos, there is a lovely little church dedicated to John the Baptist not far from the Kounistra Monastery. It is called O Agios IoAnnis O KryfOs, St. John the Hidden, because it is hidden away in the forest. Alexandros Papadiamantis tells us in his short story The Murderess, that this was a place you could go to pray if you had done something so terrible or had such bad thoughts that you could not go to your normal church, thus giving the name The Hidden a second meaning.

Another church is situated not far from the Old Town, or Kastro. This one is dedicated to the Beheading and has several grim icons of the moment. This is also where the old cemetery used to be. It was at this church some locals were struck and killed by lightning in the 1920’s, while celebrating John on August 29. Local lore has it that they were being disrespectful of the saint and so got their punishment.

Nowadays, many people go to visit the church of John the Baptist on Skopelos, as this is where the wedding scene in the film Mamma Mia was shot. Legend has it that the Baptist himself had chosen the spot for the church on top of a big rock in the sea; by putting his icon there, the locals were convinced this is where he wanted it to be housed.

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Theofania – an Old, Cold Tradition

January 5, 2010

Talk about a Leap of Faith! In freezing January, on the 6th to be exact, thousands of Greeks jump into the sea, cold rivers and lakes to retrieve a cross the local priest has just thrown in. Covered in goose bumps, the shivering winner brings it to the priest and receives a blessing in return. This is the day of Theofania, or Epiphany, when the Blessing of the Waters takes place all through the Orthodox world.

Christ is baptised in the river Jordan. The dove symbolises the Holy Spirit and to the left of John an axe is leaning against a tree, waiting to decapitate the Baptist.

What is really celebrated on January 6th is Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist in the river Jordan, thus the significance of the water. John the Baptist would baptise people to wash away their sins but as Christ was free of sin, the waters became blessed instead when it was his turn. Tradition also has it that this was the day of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. January 6th is also held as the day when the three Magi visited the infant Jesus, which is why this day is also known as Epiphany, the Appearance.

The Greeks, however, call this day Theofania, which can be translated as the Manifestation or Revelation of God and stands for the moment Christ was baptised and so revealed to the world as one and the same with God. The baptism was one of the few occasions when the Holy Trinity revealed itself all together: Christ the Son, God’s Voice in Heaven and the Holy Spirit as a dove.

Another important reason to celebrate this day is that it marks the end of the dangerous twelve days of Christmas, when the evil Kallikantzari (see the article Christmas – A Dangerous Time of Joy) ascend from the depths of Earth to make life difficult for everyone.  These goblins are terrified of Holy Water and in the blessing of the waters, order is restored and the Kallikantzari retire to the underworld again. As the sea is now safe again, tradition has it that sailors can now return to their ships.

The Old Harbour, Skiathos 2009.

Sometimes the whole jumping-in-the-sea-thing goes terribly wrong and if you are in Greece on this day watch the 8 o’clock news on any channel as they usually show a few hilarious moments from the day: no one being able to find the cross, fights breaking out between the competitors or the priest simply being unable to throw the cross in.

Usually the cross is retrieved, though, and the winner goes from house to house to receive blessings and perhaps a little money. If someone knocks on your door and it turns up to be a freezing man with wet hair and a cross in his hand, give him a Euro or two – he deserves it.

On Skiathos, there is a service held at the main church of the Three Hierarchs in Skiathos Town, usually around 10, which is then followed by the Blessing of the Waters in the Old Harbour. See you there!

Greece – a Misunderstood Name

January 4, 2010

Wherever you go in the world, people tend to call the country versions of Greece. In Swedish we say Grekland, in German they say Griechenland and in French Grece. You can even go to Japan and they will say Girisha. For some mysterious reason, the Norwegians seem to be one of the few peoples in the world that have got the name right in calling the country Hellas. Because that is what it is: Hellas and nothing else!

In Greek, the country is called Ελλάδα, Ellaaaada, and the Greeks call themselves Έλληνες, Ellines, with emphasis on the first E, which is pronounced as in the name Ella. In an attempt to get the proper name out there, the Greek Coast Guard nowadays calls itself Hellenic Coast Guard and on some menus, it now says Hellenic Salad rather than Greek Salad. Generally, however, the Greeks seem to have reluctantly resigned to the fact that the rest of the world simply has got it completely wrong.

So how did this misunderstanding come about? You will be pleased to know that it is a more than two thousand year old blip! As always, there are lots of different versions to the story, but it is generally accepted that the mistake happened when some Romans met a Greek tribe that had settled in the south of Italy. Using body language and perhaps a rudimentary knowledge of each others language, the two struck a conversation. The Romans pointed at themselves and said “Romans”, much in the style of “me Tarzan, you Jane” and as the Greeks thought this was their actual name, replied with the name of their tribe, which was Grechi. The Romans did not understand this was a surname, and so started calling all Greeks Grechi, which then spread to the rest of the world in its different versions.

For more fun facts about Greek, this blog will be updated each week.

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