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Greece Submits Ancient Greek blessing Custom to UNESCO

Eleusis, Elefsina ancient ruins, Greece
Site in Elefsina where the ancient blessing custom has recently been revived in Greece. Credit: Carole Raddato / Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

On Thursday the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport made a formal request to UNESCO for the inclusion of an ancient pre-Christian blessing custom into the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

The blessing ceremony has its roots in ancient Greece and was closely associated with fertility, agriculture and the harvest. Although the ceremony was originally held to honor the pagan gods of ancient Greece, the tradition evolved with changing beliefs to instead venerate the Christian saints.

The custom, which was celebrated across Greece until the 19th century, was typically marked by the preparation of a dish called Polysporia, which consists of mixed legumes and grains made into soup or salad. In recent years, the custom has enjoyed a revival of sorts.

The Polysporia blessing custom in Greece

The Polysporia blessing was practiced until late in the 19th century. Its last holdout is believed to have been in the city of Elefsina in Western Attica.  The custom is especially closely associated with the Church of Panagia Mesosporitissa.

In the centuries since the Greeks of the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, it is believed that the blessing custom gradually changed to reflect Christian beliefs.

According to tradition, Polysporia is prepared on November 21 to celebrate the day of Mary’s consecration to God in Jerusalem’s Temple, as observed by Orthodox Christians. Legend has it that after her consecration, Mary’s family distributed beans and grains to the waiting crowd, and some believe that Polysporia is a representation of these same beans and grains.

Before Christianity took root in Greece however, the blessing custom was probably associated with pagan customs. According to the author Diana Farr Louis, the origin of Polysporia may go “back thousands of years and may even have been made by the Minoans. Psilakis [a popular Greek cookbook writer] compares it to the panspermia (all seeds) offered by both the Minoans and ancient Greeks to their gods in thanks for a successful harvest.”

Early Greek converts to Christianity may have substituted the Virgin Mother for the goddess Demeter, the latter of whom was strongly associated with fertility in the ancient Greek religion.

Modern revival

According to the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport, the Folklore Association of Elefsina “Adrachti” have made a concerted effort to revive the practice in their local area, where the custom may originally have taken place during the Eleusinian Mysteries in honor of Demeter.

The announcement by the ministry describes the Polysporia dish associated with the ceremony as being “prepared with boiled cereals and legumes, to which petimezi, pomegranate and raisins are added.”

During the modern day reconstruction of this ritual the dish is distributed to all the participants of the celebration when they leave the archaeological site of Eleusis.

Paganism and Christianity

That an originally pagan custom could be absorbed by Christianity should not come as a major surprise. Many scholars theorize that several pagan customs were adapted and altered by Christians as European civilization gradually transitioned from polytheism to monotheism during the late Classical and Medieval periods.

Other religious practices now associated with Greek Orthodoxy may have connections to the ancient pre-Christian past. For example, some historians think that early Christian icon painters may have drawn inspiration from earlier pagan panel paintings.

Thomas Mathews, a professor in the History of Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts,  argues that depictions of Christian figures on icons were largely derived from earlier pagan depictions of their gods, largely from the Greek, Egyptian, and Roman pantheons.

Similarly, the historian Judith Herrin suggests that “Christian icons gradually replaced ancient ones,” as the old gods of the Classical pantheon gave way to the new religion.

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