Saturday 7 December 2013

A is for Anathema


Anathema ( ανάθεμα, a curse, a suspension) is the greatest degree of separation from the faith that the church can impose and is reserved for unrepentant heresy and  enemies of the faith. The word excommunication somehow lacks the awesome emotive oomph of the word Anathema. Those given over to anathema are considered to be completely torn away from the church, beyond the Christian pale unless they acknowledge their error and repent(1)

During the Byzantine era anathema was a powerful tool used by the Church both as a punishment and a warning. One can only imagine the fear and terror of an anathematized  person living in a society composed entirely of believers.

 The ceremony itself was a solemn one and the anathema pronounced officially on Orthodox Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent.

Excommunication and the Greek Church

Anathema is still ‘on the books’ in the Greek Church although hardly used. What worked in Byzantine times has not translated well into the modern era. Given the nature of the close ties between Church and State, anathema has often been perceived as a ham handed mix of politics and religion.   When it has been pronounced, controversy and worse –ridicule – have often followed. Three outstanding examples come to mind: Andreas Laskaratos,  Eleftherios Venizelos and  Nikos Kazantzakis.

Andreas Laskaratos ( 1811-1901)

  Andreas Laskaratos was a Kefalonian, an enlightened lawyer, poet, and social activist who relentlessly satirized the Church and the flaws of nineteenth century aristocratic rule in the Ionian Islands. Kefalonia was and still is famous for its appreciation of ironic wit and his writings had plenty. He had a large following. In 1856 the local bishop had had enough and proclaimed his excommunication. Laskaratos’ response became famous:

 I’m grateful to the bishop for excommunicating me, but I’d like to ask him to excommunicate my children’s shoes, too, so that they will never wear out.

To get the joke you have to know he was extremely poor and that one of the terrors of anathema was that the body of a person cursed would not disintegrate after death!

 The ceremony of anathema against him took place on March 2, 1856 and it was a dramatic affair:  bells rang the funeral dirge, the clergy in procession were dressed entirely in black and carried black candles as  anathema was officially declared.  One popular account has it that the crowd had became so worked up during the ritual that the poet was in real danger of being hunted down by a frenzied mob. After this, he was shunned and treated as an outcast by many in Kefalonia, but his popularity among the intelligentsia grew and grew.
 By 1900 the Holy Synod of the Greek Church saw fit to end his excommunication. Just in time too. He died in 1901 and was given an Orthodox burial.

Eleftherios Venizelos 1864 1936

In 1916 Greek Prime minister Eleftherios  Venizelos did not see eye to eye with the king and formed a separate government in Thessaloniki. The Church supported the king.  Again the mix of religion and politics rears its head. Anathema had historically been considered a just punishment for traitors or enemies of the state in the belief that an act against the emperor was an act against the icon of Christ and therefore a threat against all of the Church’s teachings (2). You will not read this on the Church’s website (  today – rather difficult without a monarchy, but the Greek Church had no such qualms in 1916.  Clerics in full regalia anathematized the prime Minister in Athens’ Episcopal Cathedral and added insult to injury by parading a decapitated bull’s head (in lieu of his) through the streets and ceremonially stoning it in a public park.  J. G. Frazer, the famous folklorist and author of the Golden Bough found this nasty incident right up his alley and gave a detailed description of the rite in a periodical dedicated to folklore, comparing it to a magic ritual common to savages all over the world. (3) His treatment of the event as a throwback to barbaric practices was far more damning than taking it seriously. He ends the tale on an upbeat note. He writes that the bull’s head under its pile of stones was left overnight and during the night it was covered in flowers and a note was left on top “From the Venizelists of Athens”.  And Venizelos did “come up roses” in the end. When he regained control in 1917, He ousted the Archbishop and most of the Synod.

 Not surprisingly (Church and State again!)  the Supreme Ecclesiastical Court decided to declare his anathema as anti-canonical and invalid in that same year. (4)

Nikos Kazantzakis 1883-1957

50 years later years later it was the turn of Nikos Kazantzakis, famous author of Zorba the Greek. This brilliant and spiritual writer, got into trouble with the church for The Last Temptation of Christ  (1951)  a novel which the church immediately condemned.  He was formally excommunicated in 1955 and responded by saying:

 You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I.

When he died two years later he was buried outside of the walls of Heraklion Crete since he could not be buried in holy ground.  And here it gets interesting. In spite of the anathema, his body lay in state in Ay. Minas, Heraklion’s cathedral church and, although only one priest officiated, the Archbishop of Crete and fifteen other members of the clergy were there as was the Greek Minister of Education and a host of political heavyweights.  This anathema was already boomeranging on the Church and they were hedging their bets even two short years after it was pronounced.

  By 2003, no one really wanted to take the credit. According to some, the Greek National Church still supports this anathema  but the Cretan church has found a way to get out from under… it belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and not to the National Greek Church and in 2003 the Patriarchate pointed out that they had no record of this anathema…

On Kazantzakis’ tombstone (still outside the city’s walls) are the words I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free, a reminder, if we needed one that anathema in modern Greece has provided an opportunity for deathless quotes and not much else. Anathema is supposed to be final unless the sinner repents but the Church left a loophole by affirming that God must be the final judge. Wisely, they seem to be leaving it up to Him from now on.

 It is interesting to note that these three men, in spite of what happened, either have a cross inscribed on their tombs or one beside it, -  rather  amazing when you think about it.

 (1) Other penances can be imposed for smaller transgressions  and communion not allowed temporarily, but the person excluded is still considered a member of the Church. The best distinction I read between the two forms of separation is the Greek word aphorismos  (αφορισμός), anathema being the big aphorismos (μεγάλος αφορισμός) and temporary expulsion the small aphorismos (μικρός αφορισμός). That seems to work.  See (

(2) This is according to the Byzantine Dictionary

(3) Get the entire Article by Googling, Anathema, Venizelos,or from  It is a great read!   There is a wonderful photograph of the bull’s head if you Google anathema of Venizelos in Google images.

(4) From P Kitromilides book Elefterios Venizelos, The Trials of Statesmanship.

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