from Nike in Katerini, Greece: a Danse Macabre

12 November 2021

I wish to share a story with this group where we share our Covid experiences. Here in Greece, things are tough. Our case counts are going up in spite of strict restrictions. Our vaccination program is good but not good enough, and I am still locked out of my home in Australia for a bit longer. So that’s my news. Covid is still the boss. Almost two years since Covid-19 found us, we still have trepidation, suffering, and death. I’d love to have written a more humorous piece but this is how life here is right now.

So, I’ve decided to tell you about a tradition called Sasmos. SASMOS Greece is locked in a Danse Macabre. It might help others understand why we dance so much. We have danced with Death throughout history.The very design of Greek grammar with its feminine, masculine and neutral permits anthropomorphism. Greek mythology and culture are built on it. Death, in Greek, is Thanatos. Thanatos, masculine, and Greece, feminine, dance a macabre waltz which without the intervention of medical technology would have only led to a conclusion such as in Ofis and Krino* by Kazantzakis (*also known as Serpent and Lily)Thanatos is carrying out a vendetta. A Latin term but, hey, Greece has given so many words to the world she has every right to borrow one now and again.

So, Thanatos in his frenzy is carrying out his vendetta through this virus with speed and skill. The vendetta, revenge crimes and killings, are alive and well and still being carried out in Crete. Not the touristy Crete of beaches and tavernas but in the remote villages of mountainous Crete, where police dare not go and the men still wear breeches tucked into stivania, knee-high boots, and bind their heads with the sariki, the knitted black bandana with knots hanging down that once symbolised how many Turkish heads their family had taken, nowadays they say it’s the tears shed from the pain of the vendettas. Some of these untameable Cretans found the vendettas ruled life instead of nature and realised balance had to be restored.

One story of such a restoration was during WW2 and the Nazi Occupation. Vendetta activity had calmed down a little because there was a common enemy to be dealt with. Still, two men came to blows over a rustling issue. One stabbed the other and he was taken to hospital. The wife of the injured man feared once he was out of hospital, he would seek revenge. Widowhood had no appeal nor did raising her new-born alone. She wrapped her infant in her shawl and dared to go to the house of her husband’s attacker despite Nazis patrolling the streets. His wife opened the door and let her in even though they were in vendetta.

The young mother walked over to her husband’s enemy. ‘My husband will be out of hospital tomorrow, and he will come straight here to make your wife a widow.’ She handed him her baby. ‘I want you to baptise my child. My husband might want to turn on you, but he will not turn on the canons of the church. The bonds of baptism are sacred.’ The priest was woken, and the ceremony took place in the middle of the night before the husband was released from hospital.

Sasmos was born. Today Sasmos is handled by brokers. Seriously. These brokers are usually people held in high esteem in their communities. Often, it’s the village priest or an elder who has overcome many obstacles and remained dignified throughout their trials. Brokers are asked to mediate between the warring parties to commence the path to Sasmos. Their every word is measured to avoid any slight whatsoever. It is a delicate process of diplomacy. Sasmos. A unique word, a small word, with a big meaning. It comes from ‘sazo’ which in Cretan dialect means ‘to fix’. It means more than reconciliation, cessation of hostilities, ceasefire or compromise. It’s a manmade – sorry – woman-made miracle where bad things are dematerialised to leave a clear road ahead. Not forgiven. Forgotten. Completely.

If only we could broker a Sasmos with this virus here in this land of contradictions and passions. We don’t have all the elements to create a Sasmos with this virus. We have brilliant scientists and medical professionals who have enlightened us with facts and a vaccine and have attempted to broker a Sasmos but on the other side, we have a hostile virus that will not give up. Our total vaccination numbers are only at sixty percent. And the many anti-vaxxers and the deniers, without realising it, are allies of the virus giving it more power, making the battle twice as fierce. Sasmos needs both sides to participate. We are far from Sasmos.

So, we continue our lives of extreme caution, of accepting the strict measures, and of watching our every step. Any Cretan will tell you Sasmos cannot be forced. It happens in its own time and only when both sides are either too exhausted to continue or are ready to accept change. Oh, and from now on whenever you see a lively Greek dance where there is much leaping know it is a victory dance.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Repentance

June 4. As an historian, I’ve had a nagging feeling that something is missing from the menu of responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Where is the National Day of Fasting?

In part, my sense of omission merely reflects the secular bubble in which I live.  When I enquire, I find that the World Evangelical Alliance designated 29 March as a Global Day of Prayer and Fasting.  ‘The theme of the initiative’, explained the Alliance, ‘is “Lord help!”’  Its impact on Britain passed me by.  On the last Sunday of the month there must have been more people watching their diet because of their waistline than as a form of spiritual apology.

There is a long Christian tradition of responding to outbreaks of infectious disease in this way.  Fast days were instituted in Britain during nine plague pandemics from 1563 to 1721. The theological rationale derived from the concept of special providences and divine judgments.  Natural disasters were seen as God’s punishment for the sins of a community, and required petitionary prayers and promises of repentance if they were to be averted.

During the nineteenth century the growing salience of medical explanations of infectious diseases marginalised this reaction.  According to Phillip Williamson, an authority on this subject, a decisive moment came in 1853, when the Home Secretary Lord Palmerston publicly rejected proposals for a fast day against an outbreak of cholera, arguing that the solution lay in better sanitation and public health.  Now the churches have left the centre of the stage.  Whilst car showrooms have just been re-opened, religious buildings, together with public houses, remain closed for at least another two months.

My view of the marginal role of the Church of England was increased by its response to the Flight out of London.  The Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, was reported as threatening to sever relations between church and state.  “Unless very soon we see clear repentance,” he said, “including the sacking of Cummings, I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic.”   I don’t know why the church of Cranmer and the Prayer Book is now reduced to a twitter hashtag, nor can I understand why any bishop should suppose that Johnson is going to repent of anything.  It’s like asking him to take up ballet dancing or synchronised swimming; it’s just not something he has ever done, knows how to do, would ever want to do.

And yet.  As a Christian, the Bishop had a perfect right to speak of repentance.  It is central to the spiritual rule book of his calling.  There are values, and a structure of faith, forgiveness and redemption to cope with their inevitable infraction in a fallen world.  For all the political excitement, Cummings encountered a basic moral dilemma.  Unlike his employer, he is, by report, a deeply committed family man.  When the virus entered his home, he was faced with a choice between the wellbeing of his immediate social unit, and that of society more broadly.   His panicked solution may have been the wrong one, but he is scarcely the first to make such an error. 

In the event, repentance would have been not only morally but also politically the better course of action.  If in the Number 10 rose garden Cummings had explained his actions and then asked for forgiveness for a mistaken judgment, most of the subsequent damage to his government, and, more importantly, to the public’s trust in the state, would have been avoided.  

We still have a shared moral discourse, the remains, in part, of a Christian heritage.  It is worth reinforcing.