History of Greek Food


As a puff of wind, the psyche leaves the body at the moment of death. 


Marble grave stele of a little girl, ca. 450–440 B.C (commons.wikimedia.org/)

 Then, either enjoying the easy life in the Elysian Fields or wandering as weeping shadow among the pale asphodels or ascending to “a place of light, a place of green pasture, a place of repose” *  the psyche  needs honors. In an unbroken continuity from ancient Greek times through the Byzantine era to the present, offerings of food hold an important place among the dead  honors.


Funerary banquet scene, IVth  cent. BC

(Nat. Mus. Istanbul, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki)

On the days that departed souls return to the upper world, they cannot find peace if  not  treated graciously. Because there is a popular belief that souls return to earth. They freely roamed the ancient Athens on the third day, called Chytroi (Pots), of the Anthesteria, a   festival in honour of god Dionysus. They wander at the places they had loved during their lifetime and they sit in the trees watching the living, according to Greek folkore.  On Psychosavvata (Saturdays of the souls), that is the two Saturdays before the Great Lent and the first Saturday after it, the dead are the breath of wind and the shadows at the Carnival feast. 

Though traditions vary from town to town, its a common place that souls cannot find peace if not treated graciously. Therefore, people have to act accordingly. Beautiful flowers and burning candles decorate the graves;  bread and kollyva, a mixture of grains which  echoes the ancient Greek  pankarpia (all fruits) or panspermia (all seeds), are  offered to the neighbours or brought to cemeteries. Cheese, cheese-pies, halvas etc. are included in small lunches at the grave sites (Crete)  in remembrance of those who cannot be seen.



4 cups  hulled wheat

2 cups  ground blanched almonds

3/4  cup ground toasted hazelnuts 

1  cup crushed toasted sesame seeds

2  cups  toasted and powdered chickpeas 

3/4 -1 cup pomegranate seeds

1 /2 cup confectioner’s sugar

1 cup currants  

2 1/2 teasps  ground cinnamon

2 tsp ground cloves 

3 tsp finely chopped parsley

1 tsp  salt

1 small bay leaf

Clean, wash and  boil the wheat with the bay leaf and salt until it’s soft.  Drain, place under cold water,  drain again and let cool. Spread it on a clean towel and cover with another one to dry overnight. The next morning add cinnamon, ground cloves, parsley, 1/2 cup of powdered chickpeas, nuts, currants and pomegranate  in the wheat. Mix very well.  Place the mixture in a tray and cover it with sesame seeds and 1 1/2 cup powdered chickpeas. Press it smooth on the top. Shift  sugar over kollyva and press smooth with a wax paper. Mix well before serving.

*Book for Commemoration of the Living and the Dead.



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18 thoughts on “FOOD FOR THE DEAD

  1. Maria

    Very interesting post indeed. Kollyva do in fact vary greatly among the regions of Greece but also among families. Their meaning and symbolism, however, are universal.

  2. Ozlem

    Mariana, although it differs on regional basis, halva is generally served only right after the funeral ceremony. But then on 7th, 40th, 52th day/s and on each anniversary we generally serve lokoumades (much smaller than the usual ones, simply to show that the cooks d prepared something harder to make/that will take longer to do -as it is not supposed/expected to be easy- again to show their respect to the dead.)

  3. admin Post author

    Ozlem, is it halva the desert you serve in memory of the departed souls?
    In Greece, certain foods and drinks are associated with the period of mourning and memorial services. Meals are very common too, and vary according to the traditions of a region. Some foods have highly symbolic meaning, however meals also mean to honor the dead and to assuage grief by feeding the grieving.

  4. Ozlem

    Great post Mariana! You ve reminded me of a funeral that I took part last winter in Greece when a Turkish friend s Greek father in law had passed away. Anyway, as soon as I got the sad news I took the first bus and passed the borders to help my friend who didnt know any Greek by that time as she communicates with her husband in Italian so she did not have any idea of the things that she had to do to during the funeral. Naturally her husband was busy with the paperwork. I didnt know anything either, but I asked to the neighbors, checked all online koliva recipies and finally prepared it. By this side of the Aegean we serve a desert made of semolina and pine nuts on the 7th, 40th and on the 52th day. Except the sweets, whoever comes over is not asked if they want to eat, they are supposed to pick up a plate consisting of at least four or five diffrent types of food. Although I am against this show off, probably it helps the remaining family members psychologically to be busy at all times serving food.

  5. admin Post author

    #Giorgo, there are several variations of the ingredents of kollyva. Depending on the region where they are made they contain hazelnuts (Pontus, Epirus), boiled lentils (Joumerka, Asia Minor), a mixture of almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts (Crete) etc.
    In Crete, many islands and Arcadia, kollyva are covered with powdered chickpeas and sugar; Ivy covers them with “… dried breadcrumbs or crushed biscuits, or icing sugar or roasted and powdered sesame seeds” (http://kopiaste.org/2009/02/kollyva-honouring-our-deceased)

    #The offerings of boiled wheat-panspermia-kollyva are associated with the commemoration of the souls, and also with agricultural celebrations. Do the restaurants offer kollyva or panspermia/ pallikaria?
    #I believe that there many modern city women who prepare kollyva… and this is a sign of come back in religion.

  6. admin Post author

    Steve, actually there is food as showing off. But that’s the subject of another post.:)

  7. George (Athens)

    One more comment: I can remember at cemeteries the positive effect among the older women who prepared koliva when they were offered a koliva portion that contained all those many materials! The rich content of an offered batch was a sign of wealth of the house that made it, and of course much appreciated by the others whose preparation was not so posh.

  8. George (Athens)

    As a grandchild of an orthodox priest I did tasted hundred of times several kolyva batches from many different people…Well, I cannot recall ever any kolyva preparation with ground toasted hazelnuts or with powdered chickpeas…of course, almonds and walnuts were ample, but the above mentioned nuts were always missing…Indeed a very filling preparation with many symbolisms for each one of its materials…In the recent years at some highly “gourmet” restaurants of Athens kolyva have come to be offered as some kind of dessert!!! Probably they are not aware of the their usage through ages…On the other hand I ‘m wandering: would there be any modern city Greek people to devote time just to prepare the wheat grains for koliva? I bet they don’t even know to tell wheat grains from other grains!!! Or am I so exaggerating?
    Thanx Mariana for this challenge!

  9. Ivy

    Great post Marianna. I wrote about Kollyva last year this month when it was my mother’s memorial. In Cyprus it’s quite different as there is no food at funerals or at the graves.

  10. Steve

    Beautiful post.I love the food-centredness of Greece: food as comfort, food as religious observation, food to remind you of your roots – not food as theatre or showing off. Μ’αρέσει πολύ το μπλογκ – γειά στα χέρια σου!

  11. admin Post author

    Thanks Cynthia. Rituals celebrating death (and rebirth) are common in many civilizations, aren’t they?

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