Greeks - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Over 97 percent of Greece's population belongs to the Hellenic Orthodox church, a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy. Since the Byzantine Empire, and particularly after the schism between eastern and western Christianity in 1054, Eastern Orthodoxy has been part of Greek ethnic identity. Proselytization by other religions is legally forbidden. There are only small numbers of Muslims, Roman Catholics, other Christians, and Jews. The formal theology of Eastern Orthodoxy is often mixed with informal beliefs in fate, the devil, and other supernatural forces.

Religious Practitioners. During the last few centuries, various nationally based Eastern Orthodox churches separated from the patriarch of Constantinople, among them the Hellenic Orthodox church, established in 1833. Each of these fifteen autocephalous churches runs its own affairs, while recognizing the historical and spiritual importance of the patriarch. Except for a few regions, the Hellenic Orthodox church is governed by the Holy Synod convened by the bishop of Athens. The church hierarchy includes bishops of the approximately 90 dioceses, as well as monks and nuns. While these clergy are celibate, priests may marry. Most priests have families, and many continue to practice a trade or farm in addition to performing their religious duties. Members of the local community voluntarily maintain the church building and assist with weekly services.

Ceremonies. The Sunday liturgy is the most significant weekly ritual of the Hellenic Orthodox church. There are also twelve annual Great Feasts, of which Easter and the Holy Week preceding it are the most important. Other rituals mark various points in the life cycle, particularly birth, marriage, and death. Baptism and confirmation of infants are performed simultaneously, and infants can then receive communion.

Arts. Displays of ancient and Byzantine art in museums, public archaeological sites, and reproductions permeate the Greek landscape, attracting tourists and symbolizing Greek identity. Contemporary artistic expression draws from folk, religious, and international traditions in varying ways. Weaving, knitting, embroidery, carving, metalworking, and pottery remain active crafts in most regions. Dancing demonstrates individual and group identity and is an integral part of most celebrations. Contemporary composers work with the instruments and motifs of folk music, particularly the more urban bouzouki, as well as the clarinet, santouri (dulcimer), violin, lute, and drums. Contemporary literature, film, and theater echo pan-European styles, and Greece counts two Nobel laureates among its modern authors, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. Television and cinema, both foreign and domestic, are prevalent and very popular.

Medicine. Scientific medicine is well developed and accepted. Hospitals and clinics exist in most towns, and the National Health Service sends doctors to more remote areas. Hospital births have largely replaced the use of midwives. Abortions performed by both doctors and lay practitioners are a major means of birth control and may equal live births in number. The belief that illness stems from emotional, moral, and social causes coexists with the formal medical system. Folk healers, generally women, are sometimes called to use divination, spells, and herbal remedies against both sickness and such forces as the evil eye.

Death and Afterlife. Death practices follow Hellenic Orthodox ritual modified by other beliefs, regional traditions, and contemporary circumstances. Upon death, a person's soul is thought to leave the body: at first it remains near the house, but gradually it moves farther away, until finally, after a year's time, it reaches God, who pronounces judgment and consigns the soul to paradise or hell. The body is buried within twenty-four hours of death with ceremonies at both house and local church led by the priest and female mourners who sing ritual laments. Important rituals are performed at the grave both forty days and one year after the death. After several years, the bones generally are exhumed from the ground and placed in a community ossuary.

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