Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Feast of the Circumcision

2008 Vasilopita, with a glass of wine for Agios Vasilios, to show hospitality, and a £20 note, in the hope that in the forthcoming year, with St Basil’s blessing, the money will multiply.

Καλή Χρονιά (Happy New Year) to everyone, and Χρονιά Πολλά (Best Wishes) to all Vasilides and Vassoules, since today is also the name day of Agios Vasilios o Megas/St Basil the Great (between 329 and 333 to 1 January, 379) bishop of Caesarea, theological genius; one of the three Cappadocian Fathers – the other two being Gregory Nazianzus and Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa; defender of the Nicene creed – the essential statement of Christian faith; liturgical innovator; delineator of monastic and ascetic life; and paradigmatic Christian, renowned for his charity and efforts to redeem sinners.

Indeed, Basil’s charitable nature, his eager disposal of his worldly goods, meant that – before the emergence and predomination of the northern European St Nicholas (Santa Claus) tradition – ironically, St Nicholas is another Greek saint from Cappadocia known for parting with his worldly goods – New Year and not Christmas used to be the pre-eminent Greek gift-giving festival.

(Still, the Greek tradition of the Vasilopita [the New Year’s or, literally, the Basil cake] continues, with the ritualised cutting of the cake – cross the cake three times with the knife, cut the first piece for Jesus, the second for St Basil, the third for lady of the house, the fourth for the youngest in the house, then the next youngest and so on; and the placing of a coin (flouri) in the cake prior to baking – the winner of which is granted good fortune for the forthcoming year – which apparently recalls the incident when Basil saved the church treasury from plunder by baking coins in small loaves and then distributing the bread to the congregation).

Today is also the Feast of the Circumcision, commemorating Jesus’ circumcision, the first occasion on which he shed his blood for humanity, performed, according to Jewish law, when a boy was eight days old.

Of course, circumcision did not catch on among early Christians, and for this we must thank the Greeks – first targets of the Jewish apostles and evangelisers – who regarded the ritual as barbaric, something akin to castration.

Indeed, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, when the Greek Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires flourished in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, circumcision became one of the symbolic issues which split the Jews, between the so-called Jewish Hellenisers – those Jews attracted to and influenced by the more prestigious and hegemonic culture of the Greeks – and the Jewish nationalists, resisters of the Greek way of life.

One of the most important components of Greek culture (which the Greeks took with them to the colonies and conquered territories) was the gymnasium, an open-air public arena that combined physical and intellectual training and, in later manifestations, came to resemble a gentleman’s or country club, where city elites gathered to relax, socialise and discuss politics and business.

During physical training, the Greeks, as is well known, liked to exercise gymnos (nude). As such, male gymnasts valued their foreskins – a long, tapered foreskin was regarded as the most attractive – and regarded exposure of the glans as obscene. Greeks, therefore, were offended or amused when Jewish gymnasts turned up in the gymnasium and exercised with their glans on display.

Ambitious Jews, to make their presence more acceptable in Greek gymnasia, would often undergo an epispasm, a surgical procedure that stretched the foreskin to cover the glans, a circumcision in reverse; proof to fundamentalist Jews of the erosion of adherence to Jewish law and the penetration of Greek cultural standards. Jewish reactionaries were also scandalised by the brazen nudity on show at Greek gymnasia, which they regarded as immoral and shameful.

The tension among Jews induced by contact with Greek culture reflected Jewish class conflict, between a Jewish urban elite – more attracted and susceptible to syncreticism and Greek culture – and the more fanatical anti-Greek Jewish masses and rural population.

Eventually, increasing resentment and agitation among the Jewish lower classes prompted a crackdown by the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, which led to even fiercer Jewish resistance to Hellenism and the Maccabean war – which has gone down in Jewish history as a triumph of Jewish purists over Jewish Hellenisers and is the basis of the annual Hanukah festival.

Anyway, in the early years of Christianity, this Greek aversion to circumcision – reflecting residual Greek sensuality and love of the human form, horror at bodily mutilation and concern that the practice was too Jewish – meant that some of the worst Jewish prejudices did not find their way into Christian ritual and thinking – if circumcision was an act of ritual cleansing, as the Jews maintained, then, according to Christian propagandists, such as St Paul, it is the heart not the penis or any other bodily appendage that should be circumcised/cleansed – of pride, vanity and all the rest of it.

Nevertheless, six centuries later, Jewish doctrine and practice found more fertile ground in the Arabian desert, among Mohammed and his followers, who accepted with a vengeance the Jewish repulsion for the human body and fear of human sexuality.


Stavros said...

Kali Xronia and Best wishes to you, your family and Hellenic Antidote. Keep on blogging.

Ardent said...

John this certainly is an interesting post. I had no idea that the 1st Jan was the Feast of Circumcision ... you learn something new all the time.

But what I found amusing about your post John, is that some Greeks certainly like to toot their own trumpet and are extremely critical of other religions or practices.

Your article is biased and has no supporting evidence - for a male to be circumcised does NOT mean repulsion for the human body and fear of human sexuality - LOL

God created all individuals and before people started dividing into certain religions, people were all Pagans. Religions are supposed to make people bond together, religion is not supposed to be a vice to show superiority.

Being Greek you have no doubt read the Play 'Oedipus' by Sophocles.
Oedipus’s arrogant nature and overwhelming pride, sets off a tragic sequence of events that sends him headlong towards his misery. Oedipus Rex's fall from happiness to misery is a warning against arrogance and indifference. Oedipus's hubris was the cause of his downfall.

This is a great play with immense meaning - Personal qualities that can make someone great can also contain the seed of their downfall.


john akritas said...

Happy New Year, Ardent.

I think it’s OK to criticise religious practices – those which belong to you and those of other religions: otherwise we’d all be saying there’s nothing wrong with the human sacrifices of the Aztecs and female genital mutilation which some Arabs – in the name of Islam – carry out.

I think the Muslim tendency to cover their women and restrict their roles in public suggests a religion not comfortable with human – particularly female – sexuality and the human body. Strangely – at least this is my impression – Turkish Cypriots must be the most liberal Muslims in the world and headscarves, burkhas and all the rest of it are not common for TC women. I don’t know why this is the case.

john akritas said...

Happy New Year, Stavro. I hope 2008 is a peaceful and healthy year for you and your family. MGO remains the best blog on the blogosphere and I hope you find the time and energy to realise your plan to write a book. I also hope Anna’s Vasilopitta was as tasty as the one above.

Ardent said...

John, I need to clarify a point: female genital mutilation which some Arabs/Africans carry out is NOT performed in the name of Islam. When the Ottoman Empire was spreading so did the muslims religion. In doing so many different cultures adopted the muslim relgion. When the muslims religion was adapted some races did not give up their cultural practices. The Koran does NOT even mention female genitals, but it is part of our religion for men to be circumcised. Female genital mutilation is NOT a muslim practice.

Turkish-Cypriots and Bosnians tend to be more liberal Muslims. But you need to remember that there are many sects within the Muslim religion. Just like in Christianity you have the Catholics, Prodestants, Mormens, Jehovahs, Orthodox, there are also different sects of Muslims. The are Sunni, Shite, Alevi, Sufi, etc. Alot of the Arabs have tended to mix culture with religion.

As for headscarves, women in Cyprus once upon a time did wear them, both Greek and Turkish. Alot of the old women still do, as they do in Romania and parts of Russia. It was customary to wear a scarf when a woman went down the street or to Church. However times have changed, but the Arab culture seems reluctant to do that, which is a great shame for the women.

john akritas said...

Circumcision for both men and women was conceived as a means to control human ‘lust’. Here’s a quote from a rabbi I found on the net explaining the rationale behind the ritual:

‘It is a foundation of Judaism that we are to control our animal desires and direct them into spiritual pursuits. Nowhere does a person have more potential for expressing "barbaric" behavior than in the sex drive. That's why the Bris [covenant of the circumcision] is done on this specific organ. If we bring holiness into our life there, then all other areas will follow.’

You’re right about headscarves in Cyprus; but I was thinking more about Islamic headscarves and Islamic dress among TCs generally. It seems rare to me. Actually, to your knowledge, given the rise of the Islamists in Turkey and the influx of conservative Turkish settlers into occupied Cyprus, is Islamic dress making any sort of comeback among Turkish Cypriot women? My understanding is that one of the areas of friction between Turkish Cypriots and Turkish settlers is the less advanced attitudes and codes of the latter, which the TCs find alien.

Ardent said...

John, I would not believe everything you read on the Net. Male Circumcision was devised for cleanliness not to control desire. If that were the case men would be castrated not circumcised.

Rise of Islamists in Turkey? I don't know if I believe this either. That was a political concept used by the opposition party during the elections. To put fear into the nation that should Erdogan win Turkey will become like Iran. This was just fear mongering, so the other party would win more votes, which did not happen anyway.

I was born in Australia and my last holiday to Cyprus was 19 years ago, so I do not really know exactly how the TC feel about Turkish mainlanders in Cyprus. But of course they would be different.

Having said that, when I was litte my mother worked as a machinist sewing Government uniforms, hats, etc. Well there were alot of Greek ladies who also worked at this factory. My mother would always stress that the Greek ladies from Greece were a different breed from the Greek ladies from Cyprus. What she meant I am not sure. Likewise Rural Turks would be alot different than TC's.


john akritas said...

Regarding Jewish law, forgive me if I take more seriously the exposition of a senior rabbi from Israel on the covenant of the circumcision rather than that of an accountant from Melbourne.


As for the 'pretend-medical discussion of penile hygiene' read this:


Generally, it's a good idea not to take things at face value; and to look for deeper meanings, what Aarononvitch calls the anthropological and psychological nature of rituals, particularly those associated with religion.

Regarding your mother's observation about Greek women from Greece and Cyprus being different; I've often heard it said that Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have more in common with each other, in terms of mentality and attitudes, than with Greeks from Greece or Turks from Turkey. I'm not convinced that this is true or how important it is if it is true; but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't heard it many times.

Hermes said...

Nearly every Greek mainlander I know feels a very strong affinity towards Greek Cypriots. The feelings towards Turks are usually lukewarm or suspicious. Judging by recent events with good reason.

john akritas said...

Sure, Hermo: I was just referring to a trend in Cyprus, particularly among leftist Greek and Turkish Cypriots, which mythologises the pre-1955 situation in Cyprus – before Greek and Turkish nationalisms – and stresses what Greek and Turkish Cypriots had in common. Like I said, even if such a common way of life, temperament, etc, can be proved, I think it's largely irrelevant – as are the common features of Serbs and Croats in ex-Yugoslavia or Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. The problem in Cyprus concerns Turkey's invasion and occupation, not relations between Turkish and Greek Cypriots.