“May you live long, like the highest mountains.” (Old Greek saying)
Unaware their obsessions would beguile school kids studying Egypt 3500 years later, the ancient Egyptians made a major fuss about death. Spooky mummies and mysterious pyramids always fascinate.
Hopefully young scholars also learn that in history’s never-ending timeline and the progress which usually accompanies time, later arrivals, specifically the ancient Greeks, created a far more uplifting goal for humanity – celebrating life.
Remaining ancient Egyptian and Greek monuments illustrate the contrast. While narrow underground tunnels lead to the massive Great Pyramid’s dark burial chamber – Greece’s Golden Age temples on the Athenian Acropolis are situated as close as possible to the bright blue sky, forever inviting the glorious Greek sun to shine on them.
This deep love for living continues to infuse Greek culture and we express it in time-honored wishes we daily exchange with each other. The ‘kalo’ (good) in the Greek wish, ‘Kalo Mina’ (Have a good month!) expressed at the start of a new month, wishes good health, success, and life in the following 28-31 days; then it is repeated monthly for continuity throughout the year. ‘Kalimera’ (Good day or Good morning) carries a similar meaning.
‘Hronia polla’ wishes on a name day and birthday convey: “May you live many years” and are usually followed by ‘Na ta ekatostisis!’ – may you live to be a hundred: a life wish becoming more and more attainable in the 21st century.
The concept of a long life dwells in the core of the Greek wedding wish for the bride and groom – ‘Na zisete’ – which includes the desire for the couple to live happily and long, in peace, love, and prosperity. Surely, weddings are often followed by babies. Congratulations to new parents, in welcoming baby, include the Greek life wish: “Na sas zisi!” The words probably harken back to past centuries of tragic, high infant mortality and shorter adult life-expectancies; the words denote hope for baby’s good health, survival, and long life.
The Greek life wish can even be inspired by new apparel like a new suit, shoes, dress, etc. with ‘Me yeia’, meaning wear it in good health: good health always denoting … continued life.
Of course, life wishes are expressed at annual celebrations like Pascha, Christmas, Thanksgiving, 25th of March, the 4th of July, and all the rest – then enhanced by ‘Kai tou hronou’ (and again next year). This special life wish prayerfully expresses the hope for survival to celebrate the holiday together again, the following year.
Surprisingly for some, the desire for life is also included in Greek death rituals. ‘Syllypiteria kai Zoi se sas’ is somberly shared with the bereaved when a loved one has died. The words convey sympathy and wish life – ‘zoi’ – to survivors so the memory of their loved one will live on. In the chanted, Greek Orthodox memorial ‘Trisagion’ service, “May your memory be eternal” prays for the memory of the beloved deceased to live forever.
A deep love for life has permeated Greek culture since pre-history. While the Egyptians were hung up on making such a big deal about death, the Greeks came along and changed the narrative, placing their hearts, souls, and hopes on life.
During this year’s tragic violence and death in Ukraine, perhaps, after traditional family Easter dinners are shared, we might pray for peace in the world, and prayerfully bestow on one another the wish for life – ‘Kai tou hronou’ – trusting the old Greek words will instill added love and hope to our Pascha.
May we all live long, “like the highest mountains.”
Constance M. Constant is the author of Austin Lunch, Greek-American Recollections; Cosmos Publishing, 2005; and American Kid, Nazi Occupation of Greece through a Child’s Eyes, 2015, Year of the Book.