Fables and Customs of Death

Written by Soula Tosca-Kampa

The purest water

of the earth are tears

For it is the distillation of the soul

at the edge of the eyes.

A special place in our traditional folk songs is occupied by the Dirge Songs, since people cannot come to terms with the idea of death and thus loss of their loved one, they face it with anguish and heartbreak, as they come to the final farewell to life, with death.

“As you have decided to go, never to return

open your little eyes and say farewell to me.”

“Don’t repeat my sigh, echo,

“for you’re breaking my heart with that “Ah!” you cry”

Death is the great bitterness, a bitterness that not even time can heal, and only memory can soothe. It is so for close relatives, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, who by their support, show the love and solidarity that existed between them. The expression of pain in the face of death creates spontaneous, impromptu, sincere, and full of emotional dirges. The creations of the simple and griefstricken people, in personal confessions. They are expressed with indignation, love, pain, bewilderment, memories, advice, complaints about the reaper wishes for a good journey.

“The wound of our separation, who will heal it, there is no medicine that can cease the thoughts”

“Life is a lightning bolt, which, as soon as it is lit, goes out, and in its glow leaves but few joys, if it has time.”

They are considered among the truest and richest in sentimental content of all of our modern Greek folk poetry.

The announcement of death, the villagers learn from the sad chime of the church bell. On hearing it, they stop work, whether ploughing or sowing they will make the sign of the cross three times saying: “God forgive his\her sins”

The mournful sound fills their souls with pain, they exchange hugs, trying to comfort or give courage to each other.

The women, dressed in black, carrying flowers and a candle, go to the house of the deceased light the candle at the entrance, place the flowers on his body, and all sit down together for the night. They mourn, talk keep company to their relatives while at the door there is a black cloth, which is often hung on the curtains. Often, these black clothes (a sign of mourning) remain up to a year or more.

If the person who has passed away is young and unmarried, they will put black cloth on them. a bridal veil, dress him or her up as a groom or bride, give wishes, wish him or her well, and generally talk around his\their merits.

“Open my wings, O foolish one, my windswept wings,

“Open your little eyes and take me too.”

“Great is my pain, from the mountain above

“My old heart has no place to go”

“Open your windswept wings my eagle,

Open your little eyes, earth take me too”

The elderly, usually, prepare their own clothes for departure, this journey of no return! “Do you hear,” they say to their children, “when I die there in that little chest, I have the clothes you’ll put on me. I say, my child, we must all be ready, for when God  calls us.”

They will sit by the deceased all night until the next day of burial, mourning, drinking coffee, and having various conversations. The men, usually, sit in the next room, wear a black shirt and stay unshaven for forty days.

The burial usually takes place around noon. When they all return home, they are… necessarily accompanied by the priest, who is considered the main consoler for the relatives.

They mourn on occasion when they are engaged in various chores, such as in the fields, knitting, weaving, etc. They improvise by recalling the person who has passed away, asking them how they are doing when they will come, “the Recollections”, as they are called.

“All over the world clouds, all over the world rain,

“and in my own backyard, lighting has struck”

“All that is born shall perish, all that is kindled shall be extinguished,

And always the sunset follows the sunrise

“I sit, light and embroider, remember and regret

I see the birds fly past, but where is mine?”

The dirges are said in a slow and mournful tune, with sighs in between:

“Ah, bitter sorrow,” “Ah, what sorrow” “I wish I had not been born,” etc.

“You go away and where do you leave me, desolate and destitute?

How to fight in life, my offspring, the dreadful storms, my companion”

K.P. Cavafy, in his review of N.G. Politis’ book “Selections from the songs of the Greek people”, states: “I would much more prefer the series of dirges to contain more songs. Of all our folk poetry, the dirges I am most attracted to. To the emotion of the lamentations they surrender and the exaggeration of the lamentation is such as my soul desires, before death that’s the grieving I’m looking for.


Soula Toska-Kampa was born in Kypseli, Arta. She graduated from the “Homer” School of Journalism. She learned dance at the Lyceum of Greek Women, attended music lessons with Simon Karas, and participated in the folk dance group of Dora Stratou. She is an employee of the Greek National Library.

She is involved in ethnographic research, the study of tradition, and specifically Greek traditional dances. Her books include “Ethnography of Argythea in Thessalian Agrafa” (1981), “Island Traditional Dances” (1991), “Traditional Dances of Epirus, Thessaly, Sterea, Attica, Evia, Peloponnese” (1996), “Traditional Dances of Macedonia, Thrace, Asia Minor, Pontus” (1999), published by Filippos Publications. This third volume, which was honored with the “IPEKTSI” award in 2001, completes the trilogy on dances of the Greek region in its broader sense. Her work has been published in the “Laografia” magazine as well as in other periodicals and newspapers.

She has presented announcements on ethnographic topics, mainly on traditional dances, at various conferences. She is a member of the Greek Folklore Society, the Association for the Dissemination of National Music, as well as the Greek Society of Folklore Museology.

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