Masks of Charos in Modern Greek Demotic Songs: Sources, Representations, and Context

By Michal Bzinkowski. 2017. Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press. 171 pages. ISBN: 978-83-233-4330-1 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Maria Chnaraki, Drexel University

[Review length: 1214 words • Review posted on December 12, 2019]


[Cover ofMasks of Charos in Modern Greek Demotic Songs: Sources, Representations, and Context]

Charos, according to the usual Greek view, is an ancient Greek ferryman who transports the dead. As the burden of the classical past still lies heavily on the perception of modern Greece, Masks of Charos in Modern Greek Demotic Songs by Michal Bzinkowski is an attempt to deconstruct that image by bringing forth contemporary Greek culture through various contemporary, less familiar representations of Charos.

This book consists of three chapters. Chapter 1 treats the folksong sources in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Greece. It also places the term “folklore” in Greece as referring to a national attribute that became the subject of studies on national culture. The interest of West Europeans in Greece began at the time of the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1821, when Europe became mindful of the descendants of the ancient Greeks and their culture. This awareness resulted in the so-called Philhellenic movement, closely associated with studying folk poetry as an inextricable part of national consciousness and independence.

The approach to Greek folksong in this period was through the written and not the oral text, which was separated from the performative context. This preference for the learned rather than the popular, for written rather than oral poetry, makes Greek tradition seem diachronic and intertextual rather than “continuous.” Let us not forget that, in 1883, the pioneer of Greek folklore studies, Nikolaos Politis, coined the Greek term for folklore as laographia (from the Greek noun laos, people, and the verb grapho, to write), used officially from 1909, the year when the influential periodical Laographia was founded through his work (this was also the first year of the Greek Folklore Society).

The category of Greek folk songs that exhibit “lamenting” is called mirologia, namely, “songs of fate” (from the Greek noun mira, fate, and the noun logia, words): in other words, dirges. The songs of Charos and the underworld, however, are analyzed as a separate category in this book. Chapter 2 of Bzinkowski’s book discusses the various representations of Charos in Greek folk songs, where the underworld is depicted as an indeterminate hole. In general, one observes a harmonic coexistence of pagan beliefs with Orthodox Christianity, where the abode of the dead echoes without any doubt the ancient Greek representations of the underworld. This connection is confirmed not only by names and phrases denoting the abode of the dead, but more importantly, by the vision of the gloomy afterlife existence of deceased individuals.

In the modern Greek language, some fixed phrases revealed the existence of the hidden mythological and symbolical thinking that is characteristic of folk culture. Certain verbs and verbal phrases, and nouns and adjectives, speak of Charos’s general characteristics and could be analyzed into common conceptual areas. For example, Charos takes, catches, divides, destroys, kills, calls, invites, deceives, and is jealous and envious, overall a “wrongdoer” who does something bad or illegal. Charos, moverover, is depicted as a hunter, a horseman, a black rider, a reaper, a merchant, or a peddler. Attempts by scholars to decipher the origins of such representations so far have been in vain.

In chapter 3, the act of wrestling or playing with Charos, the so-called charopalema, that is, “the struggle preceding natural death,” is thoroughly examined as a mythological concept that has found its continuation in the language. Charopalema, a mythological pattern of universal human experience, intensely contrasts with the vivid Greek idea that life can be redeemed and death may be postponed. Bzinkowski, author of the book under review, argues that Charos today represents only partly what he did in classical times, when, specifically, he was a ferryman, the carrier in the dead to the underworld; in modern lore, he emerges as a psychopompos, that is, “a carrier of souls.” By so arguing, the author is syncretically connecting Charos and the angels, showing the way the folk imagination has absorbed elements from ancient, pre-Christian rituals and traditions. It has also assimilated different concepts coming from diverse epochs and places and thus, from time to time, has created images not exactly coherent or, one could say, not easily definable.

Furthermore, the author talks about Charos as nekropompos, “a carrier of the dead,” featuring the procession of Charos and the motif of the “ship of the dead” as well as Charos as a builder. Bzinkowski also raises the universal idea of cyclical time manifesting itself in the images both of decay and growth, dead bodies turning into soil and new flowers and trees growing from their ashes. Interestingly, as well, Charos’s family and wedding are also brought into play. Lastly, the mutual relationship between death and marriage, based both on similarity and opposition, a feature of all Indo-European mythologies and well rooted in European culture, is discussed as an attempt to reconcile the existing conflict between life and death and, consequently, to come to terms with death, creating a symbolic impression that it is not the end of existence.

Bzinkowski concludes that the attempt to analyze the complex personality of Charos in folk songs distinctly reveals countless possible cross-cultural influences that have contributed to the creation of intangible and enigmatic representations. All in all, the case of Charos and his different manifestations clearly proves that Greek folk culture cannot be fully separated from written and learned tradition, which is a feature of all European countries. Additionally, Bzinkowski depicts how the most ancient concepts coexist with the eschatology of Orthodox Christianity and are even more vital and meaningful for the Greeks than for other Christians, as the case of modern Greek folk songs convincingly demonstrates. Viewed in this context, then, Charos is not a single mythological personage who embodies one particular idea and manifests himself in different ways and through different imagery. In Charos, rather, one can discern miscellaneous concepts and ideas related to the teleology of the individual according to the folk worldview.

The book is accompanied by a bibliography which includes a collection of folksongs, references to dictionaries and secondary literature, as well as by an appendix with a sample of photos taken in two cemeteries in Greece. These pictures illustrate the vitality of somber eschatological convictions as well as the presence of Charos in modern Greek tradition. A criticism I could offer is that the book does not treat the ritual dimensions of the songs but rather the verbal texts alone (as in modern Greece, lamenting is mainly a musical performance set in opposition to ordinary speech, even though, in Greek, one does not “sing” but rather “speaks” a lament). However, that is not the intent of the author, who does admit that the songs bear both generalized (formal) and particular (person-specific) referents in the lifeworld.

Masks of Charos in Modern Greek is a holistic response to the questioning of the death figure. It is suitable for researchers and members of the lay audience who want to explore the relations between ancient, Byzantine, and modern Greek culture, and those interested in the folk traditions of Greece and the Balkans, as well as for those who are generally interested in the history of ideas. The book is an enticement to further explore the eschatology of modern Greek folksongs, and it deserves special attention as it goes back to the most archaic concepts of afterlife beliefs and, thus, to the archetypal culture of homo sapiens.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.