03 July 2024

The Greeks have a word for it:
45, democracy, δημοκρατία

The term democracy first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am hoping to exercise my democratic right and to fulfil my democratic duty tomorrow [4 June 2024], voting in Stony Stratford. And then, I plan to stay awake all night, into the early morning, wating for election results, and hoping for one ‘Portillo Moment’ after another.

In what I hope are the dying days of the Tory war on ‘woke’ or Tory stoked-up ‘culture wars,’ I should point out too that the Greek work δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) is feminine.

The word democracy comes from the Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), a compound of δῆμος (demos, people) and κρατία <(i>kratía, power or rule). In other words, democracy is – or ought to be – a system of government in which state power is vested in and answerable to the people or the general population.

With a minimalist definition of democracy, rulers are elected through competitive elections while more expansive definitions link democracy to guarantees of civil liberties and human rights in addition to competitive elections.

The word δῆμος (demos) refers not simply to the people, but to the common people as well as the assembly of the common people. This was abhorrent to some thinkers in classical Greece. Was it not Aristotle who said democracy is the rule of fools?

Plato said: ‘If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools.’ Socrates, for his part, suggested the rule of the majority could literally be rule by fools.

‘Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it,’ Henry David Thoreau once said. There is an old maxim that says: ‘Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.’

For words with the suffix -cracy derived from the Greek, think of aristocracy (rule by the best and most noble), autocracy, bureaucracy, gerontocracy (rule by the elders of those chosen by criteria of age), plutocracy or theocracy (rule by a religious elite). As the 14 years of misrule by the Tories grinds to a halt this week, it seems as though we have endured a decade and a half of rule by autocracy, bureaucracy, gerontocracy, kleptocracy and plutocracy by a group of people who imagined, in their own deluded way, that they are the new aristocracy.

But I wonder what the proper Greek word would be for ‘government by clowns.’ This week I have come across or even resorted to inventing some options.

How about bomolochocracy? In the classical Greek theatre, the bômolochos (βωμολόχος) was one of three stock characters in comedy, corresponding to the English buffoon. The bômolochus is marked by his wit, his crudity of language, and his frequent non-illusory audience address – a role for which Boris Johnson is well-fitted. In modern Greek, the word refers to a foul-mouthed person. The verb bomolocheuomai means to ‘play the buffoon, indulge in ribaldry, play low tricks.’ So perhaps a new word for ‘rule by clowns or buffoons’ could be bomolochocracy.

Or, perhaps, we have had 14 years of parasitocracy? The word parasite comes from the Greek παράσιτος (parásitos), a ‘person who eats at the table of another,’ from παρά (pará, ‘beside’) and σῖτος (sîtos, ‘food’). Since they have lived at our expense, leaving many impoverished families having to choose between eating and eating, how about a word that means ‘rule by ones who eat at the table’ – parasitocracy.

My third invention is onoicracy. The word ὄνος (ónos, (plural ónoi) is the Greek for ass or donkey, and onoicracy may be a shorter word, needing less explanation.

The term democracy first appeared in Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The term democracy first appeared in Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens. The first attested use of the word democracy is found in prose works of the 430s BCE, such as Herodotus’ Histories. But its usage was older by several decades, and Aeschylus strongly alludes to the word in his play The Suppliants (ca 463 BCE), in which he mentions ‘the demos’s ruling hand.’

Athenian democracy took the form of a direct democracy, and it had two distinguishing features: the random selection of ordinary citizens to fill the few existing government administrative and judicial offices, and a legislative assembly consisting of all Athenian citizens.

All eligible citizens could speak and vote in the assembly, which set the laws of the city state. However, Athenian citizenship excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and youths below the age of military service. Effectively, only 1 in 4 residents in Athens qualified as citizens.

The Monument of the Unknown Soldier outside Parliament in Central Athens bears quotations from the Funeral Oration by Pericles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During the run-up to this week’s election, I have been re-reading one of the greatest Greek speeches about democracy and democratic values. For many years I had a T-shirt, bought in Athens, with quotes from that funeral oration by Pericles in the cemetery in Kerameikos in Athens at the height of the Peloponnesian War.

The funeral oration by Pericles has been handed down in history by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. He tells us Pericles delivered his oration in the cemetery in Kerameikos – not only to bury the dead, but to praise democracy.

There are excerpts from the speech on the Monument of the Unknown Soldier on Parliament Square (Plateia Voulis) on Vasilissis Amalias avenue, facing onto Syntagma Square. The monument, designed by the architect Emmanuel Lazaridis in 1929-1930, includes a large bas-relief of a dying Greek soldier by Kostas Demetriadis (1881-1943) and the Greek text of funeral oration delivered by Pericles in 431 or 430 BCE.

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the Acropolis Museum in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Pericles was a Greek leader and statesman and a supporter of democracy during the Peloponnesian War. He was so important for Athens that his name defines the age – the Periclean Age – during which Athens rebuilt what had been destroyed during the recent war with Persia.

The people of Athens, including those from the countryside whose land was being pillaged by their enemies, were kept in crowded conditions within the walls of Athens. Near the start of the Peloponnesian War, a plague swept through the city. Pericles succumbed to this plague and died.

Before he died, though, Pericles delivered his rousing speech about the virtues of democracy. Thucydides puts in Pericles’ mouth key democratic values that are worth remembering today:

● Democracy allows humanity to advance because of merit instead of wealth or inherited class.
● In a democracy, citizens behave lawfully while doing what they like without fear of prying eyes.
● In a democracy, there is equal justice for all in private disputes.

Pericles, in his ‘Funeral Oration’ in Athens, uses ‘the many,’ οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi), in a positive way when praising the Athenian democracy. He contrasts them with ‘the few’ (οἱ ὀλίγοι, hoi oligoi), who abuse power and create an oligarchy, rule by the few. He advocates equal justice for ‘the many’, ‘the all’, before the law, against the selfish interests of the few.

And that’s what the exercise in democracy tomorrow should have at its heart: equal justice for ‘the many’ and ‘the all’, before the law, against the selfish interests of the few.

A grave in Kerameikós, Athens, where Pericles delivered his funeral oration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Previous word: 44, catastrophe, καταστροφή

Next word: 46, beginning (ἀρχή) and end (τέλος)

A sculpted grave stone in Kerameikós, in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
55, Wednesday 3 July 2024

The icon of Pentecost in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity V). The Calendar of the Church of England today commemorates Saint Thomas the Apostle (3 July), whose faith was described in my reflection on an icon in this prayer diary yesterday. But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon depicting the Pentecost is ninth from the left among the 12 feasts depicted in the upper tier of the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

John 20: 29-27 (NRSVUE):

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

A detail in the icon of Pentecost in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 18: Pentecost (Πεντηκοστή):

In recent weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Traditionally, the upper tier has an icon of the Mystical Supper in the centre, with icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on either side, in two groups of six: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September), the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

In Stony Stratford, these 12 icons in the top tier, on either side of the icon of the Mystical Supper, are (from left): the Ascension, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion; and the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, the Presentation and the Annunciation.

The ninth in this top tier of 12 icons in Stony Stratford is the icon of Pentecost, or Πεντηκοστή.

The Day of Pentecost is the fiftieth day of the Easter seasonand celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and the fulfilment of the promises of Easter. You could say it is the birthday of the Church.

The word Pentecost is Greek in its origins, and comes from the Koinē Greek πεντηκοστή (pentēkostē), which means literally ‘fiftieth’.

In the Septuagint, the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, one of the meanings of Pentecost refers to the festival of Shavuot. It is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover, according to Deuteronomy 16: 10 and Exodus 34: 22, where it is referred to as the ‘Festival of Weeks’ or ἑορτὴν ἑβδομάδων (heortēn hebdomádōn).

The Septuagint uses the term πεντηκοστή (pentēkostē) in this context in both the Book of Tobit and II Maccabees. The translators of the Septuagint also use the word in two other senses: to signify the year of Jubilee (see Leviticus 25: 10), which falls every fiftieth year, and in several passages of chronology as an ordinal number. The term is also used in Hellenistic Jewish literature by Philo of Alexandria and Josephus to refer to the Festival of Shavuot.

The festival of Shavuot is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals in Judaism and is celebrated seven weeks and one day after the first day of Passover (see Deuteronomy 16: 9), or seven weeks and one day after the Sabbath (see Leviticus 23: 16). It is discussed in the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Arakhin. The actual mention of 50 days comes from Leviticus 23: 16.

The Festival of Weeks is also known as the Feast of Harvest in Exodus 23: 16 and the Day of First Fruits in Numbers 28: 26. In Exodus 34: 22, it is called the ‘first fruits of the wheat harvest.’

At some time in the Hellenistic period, the ancient harvest festival also became a day of renewing the Noahic covenant, described in Genesis 9: 17, established between God and ‘all flesh that is upon the earth.’ After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, offerings could no longer be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and the focus of the festival shifted from agriculture to the Israelites receiving the Torah.

By that time, many Jews were living in the Diaspora and were Greek-speaking. According to Acts 2: 5-11, there were Jews from ‘every nation under heaven’ in Jerusalem, possibly visiting the city as pilgrims during Pentecost.

The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 includes numerous references to earlier biblical narratives such as the Tower of Babel, and the flood and creation narratives from Genesis. It also includes references to certain theophanies, particularly God’s presence on Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses.

Some scholars identify the οἶκος (oikos, ‘house’) that was the location of Pentecost in Acts 2: 2 with one of the 30 halls of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, the text is lacking in specific details, and other scholars suggest that the author of Acts could have chosen the word ἱερόν (hieron, sanctuary, temple) if this meaning were intended, rather than ‘house.’ Some suggest that the ‘house’ could be the ‘upper room’ (ὑπερῷον, huperóon) mentioned in Acts 1: 12-26. But there is no literary evidence to confirm the location with certainty.

The events in Acts 2 are set against the backdrop of the celebration of Pentecost in Jerusalem. The author of Acts notes that the disciples ‘were all together in one place’ on the ‘day of Pentecost’ (ἡμέρα τῆς Πεντηκοστῆς, imera tis Pentekostes).

The gathered disciples were ‘filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’

The languages are difficult to enumerate, but the vast majority of these people, including the Jews and proselytes living in the diaspora who have come to Jerusalem from Crete, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia Minor, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, north Africa, and perhaps even Rome, may have been Greek speakers.

The largest Greek-speaking cities at the time were Alexandria and Ephesus, and at the time Latin was regarded as a vulgar language. Greek as a language had cultural prestige among the Roman upper class, and Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans is written in Greek. It was not until after 200 CE that the Church in Rome produced documents in Latin, and the first Christian theologian to write in Latin was Tertullian, a North African, writing in the early 200s.

Orthodox Pentecost is celebrated in Greece seven weeks and a day (50 days) following Easter, and marks the end of the Easter cycle that began 92 days before with Orthodox Shrove Monday. This means Orthodox Pentecost usually fall in late May to mid-June in Greece, and the feast traditionally lasts for three days – on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – and with a public holiday on the Monday.

This year, in the Greek Orthodox Calendar, the Day of Pentecost was celebrated on 23 June. Pentecost is one of the Great Christian Feasts of the year, being second in importance only to Pascha or Easter. It is celebrated with much fanfare in Greece, so much so that it seems like ‘a second Easter.’

Traditionally, the icon of the Feast of Pentecost is an icon of bold colours of red and gold signifying that this is a great event. The movement of the icon is from the top to the bottom. At the top of the icon is a semicircle with rays coming from it. The rays are pointing toward the Apostles, and the tongues of fire are seen descending upon each one of them signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit.

The building in the background of the icon represents the upper room where the Disciples of Christ gathered after the Ascension. The Apostles are shown seated in a semicircle which shows the unity of the Church. Included in the group of the Apostles is Saint Paul, who, though not present with the others on the day of Pentecost, became an Apostle of the Church and the greatest missionary.

Often the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are also included holding books of the Gospel, while the other Apostles are holding scrolls that represent the teaching authority given to them by Christ.

In the centre of the icon below the Apostles, a royal figure is seen against a dark background. This is a symbolic figure, the κόσμος (cosmos), representing the people of the world living in darkness and in sin. However, this figure carries in his hands a cloth containing scrolls that represent the teaching of the Apostles. The tradition of the Church holds that the Apostles carried the message of the Gospel to all parts of the world.

In the icon of Pentecost we see the fulfilment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, sent down upon the Apostles who will teach the nations and baptise them in the name of the Holy Trinity. Here we see that the Church is brought together and sustained in unity through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, that the Spirit guides the Church in the missionary endeavour throughout the world, and that the Spirit nurtures the Body of Christ, the Church, in truth and love.

Pentecost depicted in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó, in the hills above Hersonissos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Wednesday 3 July 2024, Saint Thomas the Apostle):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Saint Luke’s Hospital, Nablus.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Wednesday 3 July 2024, Saint Thomas the Apostle) invites us to pray:

Creator God, grant to us, like Thomas, who have not seen, that we may also believe and confess Christ as our Lord and our God.

The Collect:

Almighty and eternal God,
who, for the firmer foundation of our faith,
allowed your holy apostle Thomas
to doubt the resurrection of your Son
till word and sight convinced him:
grant to us, who have not seen, that we also may believe
and so confess Christ as our Lord and our God;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
by the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Pentecost depicted in a fresco in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.