The photograph from Thessaloniki in 1936 that moved Yannis Ritsos to write his Epitaphios
I was unsettled last month when once again the Irish State marked Easter Day with a large military parade staged to commemorate the 92nd anniversary of the Easter Rising.
Nothing should take away from the Church’s celebrations of Easter, the most important day in the Church calendar. It would have been possible for the state to stage this parade either on Easter Monday (the rising began on a Monday) or in April, when the diary-date anniversary of the rising falls. But it was wrong to do damage to Easter in this way.
And yet, the timing of those commemorations, like the timing of the Easter Rising itself in 1916, shows how the symbolism and language of Easter speaks with very strong resonances in political and secular society.
Culturally, we find the same too, for example, in the world of cinema and movies. ET is a wonderful film that has many echoes of the Christian story of incarnation, resurrection and ascension.
Almost 30 years after it was first made, ET remains Barbara’s favourite movie. But one of my favourite oldie movies is still Z by Costas Garvas.
For many, Z is a cult movie, evoking memories of popular protests and student activism in the 1960s and 1970s. Watching the movie once again recently, I was still enthralled by the script, by the acting of Irene Pappas, who remains a heroine in Greece to this day, and by the music of Mikis Theodorakis.
But I was disappointed a few years ago to realise, years after first seeing Z, that Epitaphios – the one song and piece of music by Theodorakis that has been associated with the events dramatised in the film – does not feature on the soundtrack.
Epitaphios was one of the first pieces of Greek music I bought and, for our younger son Joe, it was the first piece of Greek music and poetry that he heard. At the age of three, as he sat on my knee, he bounced to its rhythms, picking up its deeply moving passions and emotions before he could even understand the words. And he demanded an explanation for each verse as it was sung.
The poem was first written over 70 years ago by the great poet of the Greek left, Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990), in May 1936. Over seven decades later – despite being set to music by leading Greek composers such as Manos Hadzidakis and Mikis Theodorakis, and performances throughout Europe in the 1960s and 1970s – Epitaphios still waits ro be translated fully into English and is largely unknown outside the Hellenic world. Yet it has its own mystique and stirs the heart of every Greek who hears it sung.
In May 1936, the northern Greek port of Thessaloniki was paralysed by a widespread strike against wage controls. When workers in the tobacco factories took to the streets, the police were called in and opened fire on the unarmed strikers. Within minutes, 30 people were dead and 300 were wounded.
The next day, the daily newspaper Ritzospastis published a front-page photograph of a mother dressed in black and weeping as she knelt iver the body of her slain son in the street. Moved by this Pieta-like image in the newspaper photograph, Yannis Ritsos, then aged 27, locked himself away in his attic room and set to work immediately. In two days and two nights on intense creativity, he produced his greatest poem, Epitaphios.
The poem was deeply influenced by the Good Friday liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, and also shows influences from the funeral speeches of Thucydides and Lysias. The Epitaphios Trinos is the lament chanted in Greek Orthodox churches on the evening of Good Friday. But Ritsos’s poem moves at the end from Crucifixion to Resurrection, and culminates in an abiding hope that grave injustices can be conquered.
At first, the bereft mother, like Mary with her crucified Son, grieves inconsolably. She extols her son’s virtues and recalls his gifts. She cannot understand why he died; nor can she understand his political convictions. But she gradually changes and begins to apply his local struggle to the universal struggle for social justice.
Her grief is sustained as she recalls how her son pointed to the beauties of nature and of all creation. She challenges the values of a society that claims to be Christian while killing those struggling for justice.
But darkness turns to light as the realisation unfolds that her son lives on in the lives of his comrades as they continue his struggle. At the end, her vision is of a future in which all shall be united in love. And in a stirring finale, she vows to take up her son’s struggle and to join his comrades in arms.
The first edition of this poem appeared on 12 May 1936, with a dedication to the workers of Thessaloniki. A second edition with a print-run of 10,000 outsold the works of Kostis Palamas, the father-figure of modern Greek patriotic poetry.
Later, Ritsos was to become one of the most prolific poets of his time in Greece, with over 100 volumes of poems, dramatic works, essays, fiction and translations to his name, and he was nominated on 10 occasions for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The strike in Thessaloniki, was part of the unrest that led to the Metaxas dictatorship seizing power in the weeks that followed the publication of Epitaphios. The regime banned the poem and publicly burned the last 250 copies available in Athens in front of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus.
Epitaphios was not seen in print again until the 1950s. In the intervening years, Greece suffered a brutal German occupation and went through two bitter civil wars – events that are portrayed movingly in the film and book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. In the years that followed, Ritsos was held for four years in concentration camps and forced into internal exile.
The final definitive text of Epitaphios was published in 1956, and runs to 324 verses, divided into 20 parts or cantos, each with 16 verses in eight couplets, except for the last two, which run to 18 verses in nine couplets.
Robert Frost once said a true poem memorises itself, and so it could be said a true lyric sings itself and harks after a melody. Epitaphios is lyrical and Ritsos achieved its lyricism by grafting his earlier elegiac mode and his political fervour onto the rootstock of Greek folksong, the demotikó traghoúdi. He employed 15-syllable lines and rhymed couplets, reaching back into the racial and mythical past of a people continually invaded, cheated and raped.
Two years later, in 1958, Ritsos sent Epitaphios to the composer Mikis Theodorakis, who was then living in exile in Paris. Theodorakis, who is best known in this part of Europe for his score for Zorba the Greek, set parts of the epic poem to music, employing the quintessential instrument of poor, urban Greeks, the bouzouki of rembetika, and using rhythms drawn from the folk songs and folk music of different parts of Greece, including the klephtic ballads, the songs of Epiros, the dirges of Mani, the songs and dances of the islands, and the rizitikas of Crete. At the time, the bouzouki was out of fashion among middle class Greeks, who associated it with brothels and hashish dens.
Yannis Ritsos was apprehensive when he heard that Epitaphios – with its sacred allegories drawing on the deeply religious emotions surrounding the Greek Orthodox ceremonies of Good Friday, including ta Aghia ton Aghion (“The Holy of Holies”) – was going to enter the music halls and the nightclubs of Greece. “I thought it would be sacrilege,” he said. “I was wrong.”
Nevertheless, the setting by Theodorakis stirred intense debate in all sections of Greek society. It was soon recorded by the great performing artists of the day, including Grigórios Buithkótsis and Yiannis Thomopoulos and the poem quickly acquired a political career of its own, becoming the anthem of the Greek left.
In 1963 – once again in May and once again in Thessaloniki – the young left-wing deputy Grigorios Lambrakis lay dying in hospital after a murderous assault that provided the dramatic story for the Costas Garvas movie Z. Hundreds of people kept vigil in the streets and they were joined by Ritsos and Theodorakis as they sang Epitaphios in their martyr’s honour, vowing to ensure his struggle would live on.
After the funeral in Athens, the dirge was sung again by the crowds in the streets, and graffiti began appearing on the walls: “Lambrakis Lives.” The events surrounding the assassination of Lambrakis and the subsequent efforts at a cover-up inspired the author Vassilis Vassilikos to write his thriller Z – pronounced in Greek the letter “Z” means: “He lives.”
When the colonels seized power in Greece in 1967, Ritsos was quickly arrested and sent into internal exile on the island of Samos. The poetry of Ritsos and the music of Theodorakis were banned once again, but Epitaphios was soon being presented at readings and concerts throughout Europe as a rallying poem and anthem of opposition to the junta. The political force of Epitaphios had acquired a new dimension directly from its lyricism and the new setting by Theodorakis.
The director Costas Garvas turned the book by Vassilos Vassilikos into a movie – although filming in Greece was impossible under the colonels and he had to make the movie in French in Algeria.
The colonels’ junta began to collapse with the student occupation of the Athens Polytechnic on 17 November 1973, and democracy was restored in Greece the following year.
Epitaphios still moves me every time I hear it. It is still a stirring musical and poetical reminder that death does not conquer all, that those who struggle against injustices and those who become the victims of violence and oppression do not necessarily die in vain, that death does not have the last word. The story of the murdered young tobacco worker in Thessaloniki, and the story of events recalled in Z are reminders that the demand for justice does not die when its advocates are beaten, silenced, murdered or die.
But Epitaphios and Z are also challenges to all Christians at Easter. In many ways, we have become all too folksy about Easter. Today, Easter is less a time of Death and Resurrection, and more a time for chocolate eggs and an early week’s holiday in Spring.
Both Epitaphios and Z are reminders, are challenges to us in the Easter season.
This morning in chapel, we were reading the Epistle reading appointed in the lectionary – the Apostle Paul’s opening greeting to the Church in Thessaloniki (I Thessalonians 1: 1-10), telling the church in Thessaloniki about the centrality of the Resurrection in Christian faith.
In his poem, Ritsos juxtaposed the forms and poetry of traditional mourning with political catastrophe. The continuing power and widespread popularity of Epitaphios since it was written in 1936 shows how there has been little split between popular and formal poetry – and music – in modern Greece. But more importantly for us, the events in Thessaloniki in 1936 and 1963 that have so influenced and been interpreted in modern Greek culture – in poetry, music and film – serve to illustrate how significant the themes of death and resurrection can be in the political and secular world today. Are they equally significant for us in the Church today?
Do we really believe not just that Jesus died and rose again, but that his vision for a new creation is a task to be carried out by his disciples today, and that he lives as the Church when that Church is pointing to that new creation through our liturgical life, our preaching of the Gospel, and our service of Christ in the world?
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes for a seminar in the Year III course, Spirituality for Today, on 15 April 2008. It also draws on material that first appeared in The Irish Times on 18 June 1996 (Patrick Comerford, ‘An anthem confined to home’) and in Newslink (Limerick) in April 2002 (‘Even the secular world can find a meaning in Easter’).
Excerpts from the Epitaphios of Yannis Ritsos translated by Amy Mims:
1. Where did my boy fly away? (Poú pétaxe t’ agóri mou;)
From Canto I:
Son, my flesh and blood, marrow of my bones, heart of my own heart,
sparrow of my tiny courtyard, flower of my loneliness.
From Canto VIII:
Where did my boy fly away? Where’s he gone? Where’s he leaving me?
The birdcage is empty now, not a drop of water in the font.
Whatever made your dear eyes close and you are blind to my tears?
How are yon frozen in your tracks and deaf to my bitter words?
2. Your sweetly scented lips (Cheíli pou moschomíristo)
From Canto III:
My fingers would slip through your curly hair, all through the night,
while you were fast asleep and I was keeping watch by your side.
Your eyebrows well-shaped, as if drawn with a delicate pencil,
seemed to sketch an arch where my gaze could nestle and be at rest.
Your glistening eyes reflected the distances of the sky
at dawn and I tried to keep a single tear from misting them.
Your sweetly scented lips, whenever you spoke, made the boulders
and blighted trees blossom and nightingales flutter their wings.
3. On a day in May you left me (Méra Mayioú mou misepses)
From Canto VI:
On a day in May you left me, on that May day I lost you,
in springtime you loved so well, my son, when you went upstairs,
To the sun-drenched roof and looked out and your eyes never had
their fill of drinking in the light of the whole wide world at large.
With your manly voice so sweet and so warm, you recounted
as many things as all the pebbles strewn along the seashore.
My son, you told me that all these wonderful things will be ours,
but now your light has died out, our brightness and fire are gone.
4. My star, you’ve set (Vasílepses astéri mou)
From Canto XVII:
My star, you’ve set, fading out in the dark, aIl Creation has set,
and the sun, a black ball of twine, has gathered in its bright light.
Crowds keep passing by and jostling me, soldiers trample on me,
but my own gaze never swerves and my eyes never leave you.
The misty aura of your breath I feel against my cheek;
ah, a buoyant great light's a-float at the end of the road.
The palm of a hand bathed in light is wiping the tears from my eyes;
ah my son, the words you spoke rush into my innermost core.
And look now; I’ve risen again, my limbs can still stand firm;
a blithe light, my brave lad; has lifted me up from the ground.
Now you are shrouded in banners. My child, now go to sleep
I'm on my way to your brothers, bearing your voice with me.
5. You were kind and sweet of temper (Eísoun kalos k eísoun glykós)
From Canto VII:
You were kind and sweet of temper, all the good graces were yours,
all the wind’s caresses, all the gillyflowers of the garden.
You were light of foot, treading as softly as a gazelle,
when you stepped past our threshold it always glittered like gold.
I drew youth from your youth and to boot, I could even smile.
Old age never daunted me and death I could disregard.
But now where can I hold my ground? Where can I find shelter?
I’m stranded like a withered tree in a plain buried in snow .
6. Whenever you stood near the window (Sto parathíri stékosoun)
From Canto XV
Whenever you stood near the window, your brawny shoulder-blades
filled up the whole entranceway, the sea and the fishermen’s boats.
The house overflowed with your shadow, tall as an archangel,
and the bright bud of the evening-star sparkled up there in your ear.
Our window was the gateway for all the world, leading out
towards paradise, my dear light, where the stars were all in bloom.
As you stood there with your gaze fixed on the glimmering sunset,
you looked like a helmsman steering a ship, which was your own room.
In the warm blue twilight of evening – ahoy, away –
you sailed me straight into the stillness of the Milky Way.
But now this ship has foundered, its rudder has broken down,
and down in the depths of the ocean, I’m drifting all alone.
7. If only I had the immortals’ potion (Nácha t’ athánato neró)
From Canto XIX
If only I had the immortals’ potion if only I had
A new soul to give you, if only you’d wake for a moment,
To see and to speak and delight in the whole of your dream
Standing right there by your side, next to you, bursting with life.
Roadways and public places, balconies, lanes in an uproar,
young maidens are picking flowers to sprinkle on your hair.
My fragrant forest full of tens of thousands of roots and leaves,
how can I the ill-fated believe I can ever lose you?
My son, all things have vanished and abandoned me back here
I have no eyes and cannot see, no mouth to let me speak.
8. My sweet lad you have not been lost (Glyké mou, esí de cháthikes)
From Canto XX
My son, what Fate has destined you and what Fate was my doom
to kindle such burning grief, such fire inside my breast?
My sweet lad, you have not been lost, you live inside my veins.
My son, flow deep into all our veins and stay for ever alive.
© Yannis Ritsos - Translation: © Amy Mims