Demo kratia and Ecclesia

We fled back to the Cyclades Islands to escape the oppressive 107 degree heat of the mainland cities. The islands always have a breeze and because of the blue Aegean Sea all around, the temperatures are always moderated between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Here on the island of Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades, we took a bus tour of the island where you can learn about 6,000 years of civilization. One the highest mountain on the island (1,000 meters or about 3,300 feet), you can visit the Temple of Demeter. 
Demeter was the goddess of grain and the harvest. People believed it was Demeter who made the crops grow each year, so the first loaf of bread made from the harvest each year was offered in sacrifice to her (sound familiar?). More broadly, she was the goddess of the earth, of agriculture and fertility (including human). She also presided over the justice of sacred law and the cycle of life and death. Her cult predated the Olympian Pantheon by centuries.
So there we stood looking at an archaeological site with two temples to Demeter and a much later 6th century church of St. John. The oldest temple dated to 1400 BC while the later temple dated to the classical period around 500 BC. One of the biggest challenges to life on the islands was the constant threat of attack by pirates. Here, in the middle of a large island, a marauding pirate party would need to march two days through rugged, mountainous terrain to reach this site. I am sure that even with such challenges, the locals for miles around gathered at the top of this mountain as we were, but the men and abled-bodied women armed to defend themselves from the heights while the older adults and children were sent into the temple. The temple was literally a sanctuary – a refuge from harm.
In between pirate raids, the farmers from miles around gathered on top of the mountain to offer sacrifices of their animals and crops to Demeter, praying each year for a good crop or increased flocks and herds. The stone-lined, circular pits in the ground were used to burn the grains and the animals. Our tour guide explained this and said “and a pleasant odor went up to the Lord.” When she said this, I instantly recalled Exodus 29:18 where God commanded Moses to “turn the whole ram into smoke on the altar; it is a burnt offering to the Lord; it is a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord.”
The Israelites were observing animal sacrifice in Canaan about the same time the Greeks were doing the same across the Mediterranean. Both cultures emphasized the importance of the “pleasing odor” going up to God. In fact, one etymology of the Greek word “Theos” (translated as “God” in the Bible) is that it is based upon the older Greek word “thus” for smoke. Theos literally means “divine” and was always found with the definite article (the), so “o Theos” translates literally as “the Divine” meaning the pleasing smoke from our sacrifice. Whatever we sacrifice today, I wonder if the results of our sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Back to the farmers on the top of the hill. They gathered there during important dates of the agricultural cycle throughout the year. Since they lived far apart, the central gathering spot became an important time and location to discuss issues that were mutually important – defense, common boundaries, agricultural issues, water, winemaking, sale of livestock, and so forth. The people (“demo” in Greek), met periodically to discuss and decide on matters of mutual interest. When they decided important things that were beneficial to them, it gave them more power (“kratia” in ancient Greek). Hence the power of the people or the power to the people or the power for the people became “demo kratia” or democracy in English). The story does not end there.
The gathering was originally convened for religious purposes to offer sacrifices to Demeter. The discussions and local governance that derived from that were important but secondary. The gathering of the people was called the “ecclesia” in Greek. The term referred to an assembly of people for purposes of local government. A classical period temple to Demeter was erected on the site lasting about three centuries until the Romans defeated the Greeks around 146 BC. Greek temples were destroyed and Greek art was shipped to Rome to decorate the villas of wealthy Romans.
The site lay in ruins for a few more centuries until this upstart religion called “Christian” swept the Roman empire into the Byzantine period. At the height of Byzantium in the 6th century, a much smaller church dedicated to St. John (Patmos is about 200 miles away), was built using one remaining wall from the temple. Although it is small and only used on Good Friday, the church still stands. The overwhelming influence of the early church eventually morphed the term “ecclesia” from a gathering of people for purposes of local government to a gathering of people for religious purposes, which is why people gathered to sacrifice to Demeter in the first place. I think Demeter is proud. What goes around comes around.

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