In contemporary Greece, arranged marriage, also known as “synikesion,” or “proxenio,” is no longer widely practiced. The matchmaking term proxenio originates from the word proxy.
If you are looking for love today, you need go no further than your smart phone for an arranged marriage. However, for your Greek grandparents, the matchmaker, the “Proxenitis,” was the key to wedded bliss — or not.
Matchmaking, the practice of putting two people together for the purpose of marriage, has existed across many cultures of the world for untold thousands of years.
In an arranged marriage it is the parents, with help from family members, who choose a spouse for their child. Arranged marriage, however, is not a form of forced marriage; however, they do not always include consent. Parents have been known to arrange marriages without consulting their children or pressure children into marrying against their own wishes.
In the not-so-distant past, Greek parents arranged their daughters’ marriages by proxy and offered substantial dowries to suitable grooms. While this may no longer overtly be the case, the practical notions of what makes a marriage work still apply, and stem from ancient Greece where only men — not women or children — were Athenian citizens.
Today it is difficult to find Greek couples who are still alive who had arranged marriages.
There are several black and white Greek film comedies from the 60s that feature matchmaking as a source of slapstick as well as cultural conundrums. From dropping vases off balconies in Corfu to well-meaning aunts who arrive on vacation from Chicago, the films demonstrate the lighter side of the cultural reality of the day.
Contemporary India ascribes to the age-old practice of matchmaking. A whopping 90 percent of current marital unions have occurred through arranged marriages in India.
In Netflix’s documentary series “Indian Matchmaking,” singles search for life partners with the help of a professional matchmaker. Some of these singles are Indians living in Delhi and Mumbai, while others are Indian Americans living in Texas and New Jersey. The lockdown and binge watching of the series has prompted many a conversation about arranged marriages.
In India, it is primarily families, not individuals, that form the building blocks of society. These families are intergenerational and defined by the male line. A conventional family consists of an older couple, their married sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. Daughters are members of their parent’s families only temporarily. When a daughter marries, she joins her husband’s family.
When asking about arranged marriages in Greece, the responses Greek Reporter received about the reality of arranged marriages were identical. “They didn’t divorce, they didn’t separate,” even if the couple was unhappy, they said, because “What would people say?” (“Then xorizane etotes, ti tha pi o kosmos?”)
Half of Today’s Marriages Around the Globe are Arranged
According to Compare Camp, a website that analyzes statistics, 55 percent of marriages that take place across the globe today are arranged unions.
In some countries, either the man or the woman can reject the chosen spouse. The divorce rate of arranged marriages globally is a very low six percent.
There are 26 million arranged marriages annually across the world, according to the statistics website. The groom is typically five years older than the bride in an arranged marriage.
Surprisingly, many of these arranged marriages survive quite literally until death makes them part. Couples who did not know each other whatsoever on the day they were married can often boast of a happy shared life of 40 and 50 years together.
But there are also disasters that end in divorce — or are simply endured. One such couple is Yiannis and Dora, who live in Aigaleo, a western suburb of Athens. They spoke to Greek Reporter without using their last names.
Theirs is not a happy tale of marital bliss. But they have chosen to remain together because of their deep faith in the Greek Orthodox church.
Yiannis, 55 years of age, has been married to Dora for 20 years. They have a 17-year-old daughter together. Dora is a public servant with the Public Power Company. He is a physical therapist who works in a public hospital.
Following his mother’s death in 2000, Yiannis did not want to live alone but had never actively dated. He turned to a family friend who “knew a nice girl from a good family.” At 30, Dora had steady work, was attractive and wanted to have a family.
They met, felt a connection and two months later, they moved into Dora’s home, an apartment directly above her mother’s. They rented out Yiannis’ family home as an additional source of income.
All was well initially, but once their daughter was born, Dora’s mother became a continuous presence. As is typical in Greece, she provided care for the baby so that Dora could return to work. She managed the household as well as the couple’s finances. Yiannis was not happy about this invasion, but for the sake of his daughter, he tolerated it.
Once their daughter went to school, he assumed his mother-in-law would begin to loosen the stranglehold she maintained on the young family. It didn’t happen. And so began countless arguments and showdowns.
Yiannis told Greek Reporter, “I could have left years ago, but I have made my marriage vows to God. I cannot break them. I cannot divorce my wife even though in essence she is married to her mother.”
There are other stories of arranged marriages with happier endings, however.
Angie Kokalis-Zarikos shared with Greek Reporter her mother’s tale of her arranged marriage.
At 33, Despoina Bertou was an only daughter still living at home with her aged parents. Home was the outback of a 1950s Mykonos Island, a 30-minute donkey ride to the hamlet of Ano Mera and another hour in the saddle to Chora. There was no electricity and no running water.
She was considered an old maid by the social standards of the time. Her six siblings had given up all hope of marrying her off. Although she wanted to get married, the suitors that had arrived did not meet her requirements. “The one smelled and the other stank,” was how her daughter Angie describes it, using the colloquial Greek expression (“O enas tis mirize, O alos tis vromouse.”)
The small island community afforded few opportunities because most unions did not venture to cross the social divide. The “wealthy” farmers had land and livestock that kept their families fed whereas the “lowly” fishermen lived in tiny dwellings in town, dependent on the whims of the often unhospitable sea to sustain their brood and provide a livelihood.
Despoina wanted to escape her life of toil with early morning risings and tending to livestock and a variety of farm and household chores. She would climb the mountain behind her remote island homestead and occasionally she would see a plane passing far overhead. And she uttered aloud the wish, “Let an American come and take me from this.”
Nikos Kokalis, with roots from Santorini, had lived in the US following WWII. He was a recent divorcee, with two children, and had returned to Greece on a mission to “find a wife.” Kokalis was in Piraeus, where by chance, he met Despoina’s brother, Vasilis Bertos.
The 50-something Kokalis told Vasilis he had come back to Greece in search of a bride and would soon be off to his native Santorini to find a woman from the island. Vasili naturally saw an opportunity and told Kokalis about his sister.
Kokalis was indeed interested, so word was sent back to the family that an American was looking for a wife — just picture in your mind’s eye a phone call to whoever might have one of the three phones on the island, relaying a message to anyone going to Ano Mera, and then by donkey to Despoina’s homestead.
Despoina had finally found her opportunity to escape. She packed her bag and boarded the boat for Piraeus. Two weeks later she was Mrs. Nikos Kokalis.
Despoina found herself weeks later at home nearly half a world away in San Francisco. Kokalis had to explain to Despoina about how the modern household functioned.
There was the box that “talked” — the television and the box that was “cold” — the refrigerator. The “talking” box developed her language skills — she learned to speak English thanks to afternoon daytime soaps, with a special nod to “General Hospital.”
Two years later, Angie was born. Despoina was 35 and Kokalis was 55. Angie said her parents’ happy union lasted for 25 years, until Kokalis’ death. Every few years, Angie and her mother would return to Greece in the summer to visit the family, both on Mykonos and Santorini.
Angie reminisced that the early trips still included the donkey as the preferred method of transportation then.
Today, Despoina lives in her original home in San Francisco, independently, at age 96. She has some mobility issues that still challenge her, but remains active, occasionally making dinner for her grandson, Angie’s son, Nikos.
Kelly Rekoumis Karaminas, a Canadian native who lives with her family in Easton, Pennsylvania, offered the backstory on her parents’ arranged marriage to Greek Reporter.
“They met on Tuesday, were engaged on Sunday and married on Thursday,” Karaminas relates. On September 9, 1976 in the town of Kyparissia, Messinia, located on the Ionian Sea in the western Peloponnese with a population at barely 5,000 even today, Eleni and Kosta Rekoumis began a life together.
That coupling would send them across the Atlantic to settle and raise a family in Quebec, Canada.
The 30-something mother of two young boys said that her parents have had a wonderful relationship. They began their life together as strangers in a foreign land — with limited language skills. With the normal ups and downs of married life, Karaminas said they are still happily married today.
“Maybe facing the same challenges in a new country together made their bond stronger,” Karaminas added. Greek culture and language was ever-present in the Rekoumis home, according to Karaminas, as she related her parent’s story, alternating easily between Greek and English.
Karaminas learned by example, as she herself married and immigrated from her native Quebec to Pennsylvania to join her husband Kosta. It was not an arranged marriage, but she also faced the challenges of newly moved and married, as did her parents.
For North America, most brides traveled individually through the collaboration of friends and family members to put couples together. However, Australian migration agreements actually created mass migration for matrimony. Greek and Italian populations in the late 50s and through the 60s actually were part of organized programs for arranged marriages abroad.
Arranged marriages from Greece to Australia
For a period of 25 years, Greek “proxy” brides were the norm for Australia’s Hellenic community. The signing of a Migration Agreement between Greece, Australia and the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM) in 1952 prompted the subsequent mass migration from Greece to Australia during the period 1952 – 1972.
This chain migration helped to address socio-political and economic problems post-World War II as well as the individual needs of host countries.
The first Greek immigrants to Australia during this period were young, single males. Once men found steady employment and made the decision to stay they sought brides from home.
Greek female immigrants predominantly immigrated as dependent siblings, daughters, wives or brides. The ship “Patris” made 91 voyages to Australia between 1959 and 1975, transporting Greek immigrants to Australia and became known for uniting brides with their future husbands and new lives in Australia.
Often termed “proxy” brides, women immigrated to Australia following nomination by families; their fare was either assisted by the government or privately paid with women marrying and starting a family upon arrival in Australia.
Feminism — or the Lack of it — in Arranged Greek Marriages
Females in Greece were oppressed in their arranged marriages and that included even the goddesses. Even Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was trapped in a loveless marriage.
Athena, although considered the wisest of beings, always deferred to the god of gods of Olympus, Zeus. Hera, the goddess of marriage and wife to Zeus, ironically was wed to a god who was infamous for his adultery. The Greek goddesses shared in the oppression of ancient mortal women, and their example is important to the history of feminism and matrimony.
Many of the Greek goddesses accepted their given roles within the society of the gods. The myths were a reflection of the social dynamic present in archaic society. Examples of rebellion to oppression are apparent in Hera’s attempt to overthrow Zeus, Aphrodite’s continual pursuit of Ares despite her marriage to Hephaistos, and Athena’s manipulation of Zeus through her wisdom.
These goddesses fought against their restraints. The Greek goddesses exerted what free will they could.
Marriage, in ancient Greece, had not much to do with love, however. It was a social obligation and was usually arranged by the parents or professional matchmakers.
For the marriage to be legal, the woman’s father must give his permission to a man who had the means to keep her in the manner to which she was accustomed.
Orphaned daughters were usually married to uncles or cousins. Marriages, then were intended to be monogamous.
According to Plato, any man who was not married by age thirty-five was liable to lose his civil rights. He also said that when choosing a wife, men should always consider the interests of the state, and not their own desires.
Contemporary Marriage Has Roots Based on Ancient Greek Ritual
The ritual and ceremony of contemporary matrimony is rooted in ancient practices. There were essentially three parts to the rites of marriage in ancient Greece.
The proavlia is the first ceremony of the ancient Greek wedding, comprising a pre-wedding ceremony, held at the home of the bride’s father. The bride spends her last few days of maidenhood in her family home, with her mother, female relatives and friends, preparing for the wedding.
The bride would present offerings, called the proteleia, to gods such as Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
Toys would be dedicated to Artemis by young, unmarried girls, in the hope that Artemis would help them ensure many offspring.
Before the marriage, the bride would cut off a lock of her hair, and along with the girdle she had worn as a young girl, would offer them to these goddesses. These offerings represented the bride’s departure from childhood and her entrance into adulthood.
They also created ties between the bride and the gods, who protected the bride during this transition of childhood to womanhood.
The gamos, the second ceremony, was the actual wedding day when a series of rituals were performed during the bride’s journey from her father’s home to that of her new husband.
The first ritual of the day was a nuptial bath given to the bride, symbolizing purification as well as fertility; the water would have been brought from a special location in a container called the loutrophoros. The bride and groom then visited the temple where they made offerings as a safeguard to producing many children.
The wedding feast was held at the home of the father of the bride, where both families made an appearance, but men and women sat at different tables. The women would sit and wait patiently until the men had eaten before putting even a morsel into their own mouths.
The most important ritual of the wedding day was the anakalupteria, the lifting of the bride’s veil, which signified the bride was now essentially the property of her husband.
The highlight of the day was the marriage procession; a chariot driven by the groom brought the veiled bride to his home, followed by relatives laden with gifts for the couple. The route would be lit by torches and the wedding presents would often be decorated with romantic images of marriage and newlyweds.
Once home, the couple, were greeted by the mother-in-law and would be showered with dried fruits and nuts to bless them with fertility and prosperity. And then the groom would lead the bride to the bridal chamber.
The epavlia, the post-wedding ceremony, took place on the day after the wedding. Gifts were given by the relatives of the couple and formally carried into the house. The gifts often lent reference to the new sexual and domestic role of the wife. The usual gifts were jewelry, gowns, perfume, pots, and furniture.
And if the Arranged Marriage Required Divorce in Ancient Greece?
Divorce was not frowned upon in ancient Greece, so Greek historians tell us any stigma around divorce back in the day would have been related to any juicy scandals rather than the divorce itself.
In ancient Athens, both husband and wife had the right to ask for a divorce; the husband could simply boot out his wife and send her back to her father and that was the end of the marriage.
For the wife to obtain a divorce, though, she had to appear before the archon, the equivalent of today’s divorce court. The archon had no power to make any decision on the matter, only to record it.
Luckily for the wife, she was financially protected by laws stating that she could get her money back, for dud goods, so to speak; her dowry must be returned in cases of divorce.
Arranged Marriage in Greece: Dowry and Marriage Contracts
In Greece, until the new Family Law of 1983, dowry was a strong and mandatory institution, whether you had an arranged marriage or not. And a good dowry was the deal sealer for most arranged marriages.
In modern western societies a bridal dowry is a long outdated concept but in many parts of Greece it still exists. Parents, when they have the means, provide an entirely furnished home as a dowry, fully paid for, to the newlyweds.
The bride’s family and the future groom signed the wedding contract before the marriage in the presence of witnesses. This contract included a detailed account of the property or money and household objects that were to be transferred to the groom.
If material obligations were not met, the wedding could be cancelled. The wedding contract also ensured that if the couple separated or if a spouse died before the birth of any children, the property was returned to the bride’s father and his heirs.