The last of the mourners
Even at 84, Eleni Rozakeas is an imposing woman. Now slightly stooped, her once 1.8 metre frame is still lean, her movements fluid. In the customary widows’ black garb, her dark, hooded, intense dark eyes are both steely and compassionate. Her countenance is one not to be messed with, yet despite this Eleni possesses a keen sense of humour and enjoys a good belly laugh.
In the Mani region and in fact in all of southern Greece, Eleni is one of the last of the Moirologia – professional mourners or wailers.
In a funeral tradition dating back to biblical times and depicted in the Iliad and Shakespeare, Eleni will spend up to three days beside the body wailing, reciting laments and compulsively crying. She may also pull her hair out and beat her chest. The extreme and continuous wailing is to send the deceased’s spirit or soul off on a safe journey to the other side.
Religion still plays an important role in the lives of Kastanea villagers – however, even though there are forty-three churches in the small mountainside village, they struggle to get a priest to conduct services each month. Despite this, Eleni Rozakeas is still active as a professional mourner, something she has performed for decades. Sadly, she’s at an age where many of her friends and relatives are passing on, and the small cemetery high up on the mountain overlooking the village is cramped for space.
When Eleni was born, the village’s population was over 1200. These days it numbers just 84. Nobody knows for sure how old the village is, but some say it dates back over 3000 years. It has survived numerous invasions and upheavals throughout the centuries, from Ottoman invasions to WWII and the Civil War, which had an especially devastating effect on the village and its people.
The people of Kastanea were renowned for their fighting spirit – however, after the Civil War when the times were extremely tough, many of the villagers were forced to seek a new life outside Greece. Kon and Eleni Rozakeas (the mourner’s cousin) left Kastanea in the 1950’s and eventually settled in Brunswick.
When their children Diamond, Roula and Stratis visited the village last month, they decided to use Skype to reconnect their parents with their cousins. It was the first time in twenty five years that they had seen each other. There was plenty of reminiscing and joking as well, especially from Eleni senior.
For Kon and Eleni’s children, it was a slice of history and an insight into the future. While the art of moirologia may not survive in a few years, they hope their parents’ village will survive and hopefully thrive, despite the ageing of the village and the current economic woes besetting the country.
Moirologia is the vocalization that goes with Greek ritual lament, or Klama. It’s a violent sort of mourning, and was often done by professional women mourners armed with knives. American singer Diamanda Galas with roots in Mani, Greece, performs an extreme rendition.
The word moirologia derives from the ancient Greek Tragedy, with the arch-singer and the choir following the mourning. Unfortunately very few women arch-mourners have survived, and the custom has been almost eliminated.
In ancient times, the most important part of the prothesis (the part of the funeral when the body is laid out) was the ritual lament – which is what we know today as moirologia. While singing, the persons involved would move around in a pattern resembling a dance. They would improvise lament sung by friends and relatives. Another type of lament was sung by professional mourners – similar to modern day moirologia. The hired singer would lead off the lament followed by the family. A chorus of women cried out in accompaniment.