1 December 2015

Browsing in Byzantium: a lesson (1) in very simple liturgical Greek

Megas kai hieros SYNEKDEMOS orthodoxou Christianou is always a good book for browsing when you are at a loose end ... or even, to be serious, when a Latin Christian need something not quite within his own usual daily comfort zone. Something we all, from time to time, do need. I turned the pages until I got to Megale Paraskeue ... and stopped there, because, years ago, when I was a curate in Inner London, I used often upon that day to drop into the [Cypriot] Orthodox Cathedral along the Camberwell New Road. Since Archimandrite (later Bishop) Christopher Commodatos had no Deacon, he occasionally used me as a sort of dumb diaconal stand-in, not least on Good Friday. Happy days; happy memories of tottering through the wondering streets of Camberwell carrying the Gospel Book in the procession. I have never lost my love of the Orthodox peoples and their religious tradition. Dear Mr Putin! So, the other day, I revisited the Good Friday services between the covers of my Synekdemos.

Philologically, they provide good examples of the propensity of the Greeks (rather like the Germans) for constructing compound words. Many of you may already know one such Greek compound: Theotokos. Theo- is the Greek root for 'God'; tek the root for childbearing. So Theotokos means 'Godbearing'; the one who gives birth to God; the Mother of God. Along these lines, you get a Good Friday troparion which begins Olethrios speira theostugon, ponereuomenon theoktonon synagoge epeste. Spot the two compound words: theostugon and  theoktonon; again, each takes theo- and combines it with another root. stug is the root for 'abominate' (the Lexicon blandly says "stronger than miseo, to express abhorrence"). So theostugon means 'Godloathers'. kten is the Greek root for 'kill'; so theoktonon means 'Godkillers'. You get the hang of it? So, put together, the line means "A destructive band of Godloathers, a synagogue of wicked Godkillers, was at hand ..." ('Deicida' is the exact Latin equivalent of the Greek 'Theoktonos', giving the English word 'Deicide', which you may still find in some of the more old-fashioned English dictionaries, provided they lack a Nihil obstat from an English or German bishop.)

Let me explain to you about another compound. para, in combination with another word, often means 'against'. nomos is Greek for 'Law', and in a New Testament context refers to the Torah, the Jewish Law or Code of Life (those of you who have dipped into the study of the New Testament may remember dear old Ed Sanders' neat and accurate but revolutionary summary of Jewish religion as 'Covenantal nomism'). So paranomos, which occurs quite often in the Byzantine Good Friday services, means 'against the Torah'. The sublime poets who composed these services were, neatly and succinctly, suggesting "You may have prided yourselves on being enthusiasts for the Torah, but in fact by your collaboration in the Passion of the Messiah, you were great Torah-breakers". paranomos is used together with dussebes; seb is the root meaning worship, perhaps often 'pious'; dus makes it mean the opposite, so that dussebes means something like impious; irreligious. Hence phrases like Laos dussebes kai paranomos; kai means 'and'; I will leave you to guess what laos means! And a final phrase for you to agonise over: O! pos he paranomos synagoge ton Basilea ... katedikase ... The root dik relates to judgement. I suppose the juxtaposition of paranomos and synagoge is what you litcrit types would call an ironic oxymoron. Clever!

More liturgical Greek another day. Enjoyable, isn't it? I will delete unread any comments until I have published all of the three parts in which this post will, Deo volente, come to you.

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