“Saturdays of Souls” are days set for commemoration of the dead in the Greek Orthodox Church. Jesus Christ lay dead in the tomb on a Saturday that is why Saturday was chosen for prayer for the dead.
There are several Soul Saturdays throughout the year:
- The second Saturday before Great Lent
- The second Saturday of Great Lent
- The third Saturday of Great Lent
- The fourth Saturday of Great Lent
- The Saturday before Pentecost
These days are devoted to prayer for departed relatives and friends. Ιn fact, these Saturdays are memorial services to all dead people, known and unknown. During these memorial services, a certain cake called Kolliva is offered to all people participating in the memorial service.
Koliva (also kolliva or kollyva) is made with wheat seeds which symbolize the souls of the dead. They are soaked in water for at least 10 hours then boiled and sweetened with powder or plain sugar. Sesame seeds, almonds, ground walnuts, cinnamon, sugar, pomegranate seeds, raisins, anise and parsley are added to make them taste really good. Then a cake is formed covered all with powdered sugar where we inscribe the name of the dead and decorate it with silver looking sweets or nuts such as almonds or walnuts.
Wheat-based foods, usually sweetened, are highly symbolic of rebirth and regeneration and thus have always been associated with the foods served in honor of the dead. Kolliva, a word which in Greek is derived from the Classical Greek word Kollivos which meant a small coin or a small gold weight.
The past and the present
Most of the ingredients have symbolic meaning and the custom despite being Christian has its roots in ancient times and is related to the Myth of Persephone. She was the goddess queen of the underworld, wife of the god Hades. She was also the goddess of spring growth, who was worshiped alongside her mother Demeter in the Eleusinian Mysteries. This agricultural-based cult promised its initiates passage to a blessed afterlife.
Persephone was titled Kore (the Maiden) as the goddess of spring’s bounty. Once upon a time when she was playing in a flowery meadow with her friends, Kore was seized by Hades and carried off to the underworld as his bride. Her mother Demeter despaired at her disappearance and searched for her throughout the world accompanied by the goddess Hekate bearing torches. When she learned that Zeus had conspired in her daughter’s abduction she was furious and refused to let the earth fruit until Persephone was returned. Zeus consented, but because the girl had tasted of the food of Hades–a handful of pomegranate seeds–she was forced to forever spend a part of the year with her husband in the underworld. Her annual return to the earth in spring was marked by the flowering of the meadows and the sudden growth of the new grain. Her return to the underworld in winter, conversely, saw the dying down of plants and the halting of growth.
If you do the Food Tour with the Athens Walking Tours you will have the opportunity to see the Kolliva cake and your tour guide will speak about it!