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Origin of Koliva (memorial offering)

koliva memorial death

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#1 Paul C

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Posted 15 February 2015 - 06:01 AM

Greetings in Christ!

 

I have often wondered about the origin of the koliva, or memorial "dish" made of boiled wheat, pomegranate, nuts, Jordan almonds, etc.  It is a very common sight at my parish, as we have memorial services almost every Sunday (and especially at the services of the Saturday of Souls).  It seems to be an established part of Greek Orthodox culture, and great care is given in its preparation.  In fact, I have often noted that, on a given Sunday, more parishioners will partake of the koliva than of the Holy Eucharist!

 

The little I have seen about it points in two different directions:

1) The ingredients of the koliva are representative of life, resurrection, or rebirth; thus koliva serves as a reminder of the eschaton.

2) The koliva is an "import" from pre-Christian pagan culture that Hellenic peoples simply did not relinquish upon their entrance into Christendom.

 

I would love to see some explanation of the offering of koliva at the memorial service; Why is it used? Is it a pagan "import"? What are the analogues (if any) in other Orthodox cultures? 

 

In Christ,

Paul

 

P.S - I do hope that I have posted this in the proper section...


Edited by Paul C, 15 February 2015 - 06:02 AM.


#2 Olga

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Posted 15 February 2015 - 11:06 AM

The origin of koliva is entirely Christian in origin. It began with the miracle of St Theodore of Tyre:

 

In 361, Julian the Apostate was doing his utmost to restore pagan customs. Knowing that the Christians were accustomed to sanctify the first week of Lent by fasting and prayer, the wily tyrant told the Prefect of Constantinople to have all of the food set out for sale in the markets sprinkled with the blood of animals sacrificed to the gods, so that no one in the city would escape the contagion of idolatry.

 

However, the Lord did not abandon His chosen people, but sent His servant  Theodore to outwit the tyrant. Appearing in a vision to Patriarch Eudoxius (360-364), the holy Martyr informed him of what was happening and told him to instruct the Christians not to buy food from the markets but instead to eat kolyva made from grains of boiled wheat. Thus, thanks to the intervention of the holy Martyr Theodore, the Christian people were preserved from the stain of idolatry.

 

Wheat is also symbolic of death and resurrection, as seen in John 12:24:

 

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.



#3 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 15 February 2015 - 05:56 PM

A Romanian family had a memorial at our church this morning and it was very tasty! I have never seen koliva or any other food offering at memorials after the liturgy in churches in Russia. When I remarked on this to my wife, she said she had never heard of koliva until she came to England, so it is not found in the Russian tradition in Russia.



#4 Paul C

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Posted 15 February 2015 - 10:08 PM

Thank you very much for your responses. The story of the miraculous intervention of St. Theodore certainly helps explain the significance of boiled wheat in Christian history. However, I am more interested in the origin of the use of the koliva at memorial services.

While it is certainly not a definitive source, the article on "Orthodox Wiki" (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Kollyva) seems to indicate that the use of koliva in services in remembrance of the dead "passed from paganism to early Christianity in Byzantium and later spread to the entire Orthodox world." However, a citation for this statement is not provided.

Does anyone know if this is true and, if so, how the transition occurred?

In Christ,
Paul

#5 Olga

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Posted 15 February 2015 - 10:20 PM

Thank you very much for your responses. The story of the miraculous intervention of St. Theodore certainly helps explain the significance of boiled wheat in Christian history. However, I am more interested in the origin of the use of the koliva at memorial services.
 

 

The passage from John 12 I quoted surely establishes the link between wheat and commemoration of the dead, and the hope of their resurrection to the heavenly life.



#6 Kosta

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Posted 16 February 2015 - 12:51 AM

There is the theory that the teachings of Jesus in Jn 12.24 and Pauls teaching on the same was not said in a vacuum. That there may have been some meal for the departed refered to as panspermia and pankarpia. The listeners would have understood what the evangelists related.
Basically the ancient greek origin taught a reciprocal action, sperma-seed, karpo-grain. You sow the seed and reap the grain. Or the living eat of the fruit and discard the seed which goes back into the earth in a cycle.

It may have started as an ancient greek proverb, then overtime a dish may have been added for funerals.

#7 Father David Moser

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Posted 16 February 2015 - 05:02 PM

A Romanian family had a memorial at our church this morning and it was very tasty! I have never seen koliva or any other food offering at memorials after the liturgy in churches in Russia. When I remarked on this to my wife, she said she had never heard of koliva until she came to England, so it is not found in the Russian tradition in Russia.

Not to discount your wife's experience, however, many of my new Russian (post soviet immigrants) have the tradition of offering koliva - using a variety of grains depending on their heritage (e.g. boiled wheat in the west, boiled rice in the east) and a variety of "recipes".  Perhaps this was not an experience that your wife had in Russia, but from what I have seen, it is quite prevalent.

 

Fr David



#8 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 16 February 2015 - 06:12 PM

Interesting. I've been in many churches around Russia and never seen it. What I have seen is people leaving non-perishable foodstuffs in a box, churches operating a sort of food bank for the poor. Such gifts are in the name of a departed person but there is no individual blessing on them. I wonder if it is a regional thing - I have not been south of Moscow, only east (as far as Diveyevo) and north (as far as the White Lake and Feropontovo).



#9 Alice

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Posted 17 February 2015 - 06:44 PM

Andreas,

 

At the Russian Cathedral in Athens, Greece, which I found myself on a Saturday of the Souls, the Russian ladies had brought bakery type foods such as cookies and cakes. Each one brought her own offering and the Priest had a long table set up on which they placed them. After the service, as is also the Greek tradition, they offered them to whomever they could (I am presuming this is alms for the deceased)..

 

It was most touching that particular day, and in the spirit of how it was intended, when a beggar happened by the outside of the church and the ladies practically accosted him with a plate and many of their sweets! I do not think that he was Orthodox (many non-Christian beggars in Athens)), because he seemed confused, but it was delightful to see the 'spirit' of the offering and alms for the poor put into action on that day. 

 

Alice



#10 Paul C

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Posted 17 February 2015 - 11:43 PM

There is the theory that the teachings of Jesus in Jn 12.24 and Pauls teaching on the same was not said in a vacuum. That there may have been some meal for the departed refered to as panspermia and pankarpia. The listeners would have understood what the evangelists related.
Basically the ancient greek origin taught a reciprocal action, sperma-seed, karpo-grain. You sow the seed and reap the grain. Or the living eat of the fruit and discard the seed which goes back into the earth in a cycle.

It may have started as an ancient greek proverb, then overtime a dish may have been added for funerals.

This is a good point.  I suppose there are many other instances of the "evangelization" of a practice that was not necessarily Christian in order to speak to those familiar with the practice.  Additionally, St. John Chrysostom's homily on John 12:24 (available here: http://www.newadvent...hers/240166.htm)  certainly points to an interpretation of the "dying" of the wheat as applying not only to Christ's death and resurrection, but to our own as well (and to the fruits that result from any sacrifice we make). 

 

It is simply interesting to me that, in my own experience, there is such an emphasis on the koliva among the "laity," especially those from Greece.  People will arrive at the Divine Liturgy just to take part of the koliva offered for someone they knew, but not prepare for or partake of the Eucharist. 



#11 Kosta

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Posted 18 February 2015 - 04:07 AM

Kolyva is huge in greek tradition its also given at the graveside of an Orthodox funeral. The Kolyva is different than the Eucharist as there is no need to prepare in any way to eat of it. Its like getting coffee at the coffee hour, and if prepared correctly tastes great.
I know a woman in my church who takes some to her co-workers. She gave some Kolyva to them one luch time and they were addicted kept telling her bring more.

Edited by Kosta, 18 February 2015 - 04:08 AM.


#12 Alice

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Posted 28 February 2015 - 07:04 PM

After making Kolyva last night, I thought what a healthy treat it can actually be! I did not add sugar as I felt the ground graham crackers which are traditionally added to it gave it enough sweetness. Instead of a layer of confectioner's sugar on top, I borrowed an idea from some Russian women in Athens and made a layer of white on top with sweetened coconut flakes instead!

 

Instead of jordan almonds, which I did not have, I made a cross on top with red pomegranate seeds! This was not exactly traditional in the Greek sense, but it looked nice and tasted lovely, if I may say so myself! 

 

Of course the beauty of kolyva is that there is no one set recipe, and one can add what one has handy--some use cumin, others cinnamon, and others parsley. Some add pomegranates, others add walnuts and others almonds! 

 

At the end of services, in Greek churches in the U.S. and in Greece, all the individual kolyva bowls brought and prepared by the faithful are mixed together in a large bowl which really makes for a really interesting and tasty recipe! 

 

In any case, today was a beautiful Saturday of the Souls service in my parish--all were dressed in black, there were many individual offerings of kolyva set before the iconastasis with candles lit in the middle of each one, and all the names of the faithful deceased were read and prayed for. There were many congregants and one could truly feel the spirituality and holiness of the day. 

 

May the memory of all those who we love and who have passed on be eternal in God's kingdom. May their sins be forgiven and may God have mercy on them.


Edited by Alice, 28 February 2015 - 07:05 PM.


#13 Olga

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Posted 28 February 2015 - 10:11 PM

Instead of jordan almonds, which I did not have, I made a cross on top with red pomegranate seeds! This was not exactly traditional in the Greek sense,

 

On the contrary. Pomegranate crosses on kolliva are very common amongst Greeks. Blanched almonds are often used as well. :)



#14 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 01 March 2015 - 08:33 AM

No doubt because they are red.



#15 Olga

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Posted 01 March 2015 - 10:02 PM

No doubt because they are red.

 

 

Indeed. I have also heard of two other reasons for the use of pomegranate in kolliva: it is made up of many "seeds", like the wheat it is added to, and it is not a very sweet fruit. Being a food associated with mourning and penitence (as it is also made for funerals), kolliva should not be overly sweet - a hint of sweetness is all that is needed.



#16 Mark Harris

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Posted 02 March 2015 - 09:09 PM

I am no Egyptology expert but there are depictions of Osiris the Egyptian god of the afterlife with wheat growing from his body as a sign of resurrection  so these ideas may predate Christianity.



#17 Kosta

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Posted 04 March 2015 - 12:04 AM

Thats interesting, I wonder if the Copts have this tradition? The NT does single out wheat as the grain of "choice".

The very little that I have come across in the pre-christian greek is generic reference of 'seeds' and 'grains'.




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