Care for the Elderly
Cannibalism to the Greek Way

by Christopher Xeneopoulos Janus


It is said that you can judge a country or a tribe by the way it treats its elderly. In ancient Greece this was very simple. It was the sacred duty of the children to look after the elderly. Greek law laid down severe penalties for those who failed to discharge their obligations. In Delphi, for instance, anyone who failed to look after his parents was liable to be put in jail. In Athens those who neglected their parents or grandparents were deprived of their citizen rights. There were no public facilities for the aged - the very idea would have been alien to the Greeks.

The Greek way is indirect contrast to the way many other countries treated their elderly. Among Eskimo families in Alaska when a person becomes old and not able to care for himself one night he simply goes out at night and freezes to death and afterwards the family buries him in the snow.

In New Guinea when a person becomes elderly and helpless, he's put to sleep wrapped in a cloth and sent down a waterfall which reaches the sea.

The most bizarre custom for the treatment of the elderly, which I have witnessed, is on the Amazon. Here was a cannibalistic tribe not far from Manaus. Two missionaries lost their lives trying to reform this cannibalistic tribe. Their custom was when a person became too old and helpless he was put to sleep with a drug the cannibals developed and then prepared for a feast. The heart was given to the family. The chief took the brain, but I just could not bring myself to eat anything, though everything smelt good and I was really hungry.

The chief of the tribe was a bit upset that I didn't eat anything and I think he felt insulted. The head of the Indian Society who brought me to this cannibalistic feast suggested we leave just in case the chief decided to make me part of the festivities! This is an experience I'll never forget.

I never did learn the name of this tribe. For safety reasons that is the way they wanted it. However, we knew they were part of the WARI tribe of the Amazon rain forest. Upon consumption of the deceased group member, the spirit of the dead was believed to be absorbed by the entire tribe and was considered by them to be the most respected way to treat a human body.

The exact origin of cannibalism is a mystery and will most likely remain so. Some anthropologists believe that cannibalism began in earliest human history and proliferated with man's increasing attempt to appease the gods, survive famine, or exact revenge on or control his enemies. To date, archaeological evidence suggested that cannibalism was practiced as far back as the Neolithic Period and Bronze Age in what is now Europe and the Americas.

To return to the care of the elderly in Greece, special attention was paid to the disabled - and here I quote from Robert Garland's excellent book on "THE DAILY LIFE OF THE. ANCIENT GREEK."

Even in the aristocratic world evoked by the Homeric poems, the elderly seem to have been concerned about the degree of respect that they received from the younger generation. Harking back to a supposedly Golden Age when youth were inherently deferential to their elders, Nestor remarks at the beginning of one of his long speeches, "In former times I associated with better warriors than you and they never made light of me."

Though Athenians were required by law to look after their parents, contempt of the elderly seems to have become sort of a national characteristic by the late fifth century B.C. This was in marked contrast to Sparta, where old people were held in high esteem. This difference in attitude is in part a reflection of the conservative temperament of the Spartan people. In Xenophon's Memorabilia, Pericles despairingly demands, "When will the Athenians respect their elders in the same way that the Spartans respect theirs instead of despising everyone older than themselves, beginning with their own fathers? According to Herodotos, it was a characteristic of Spartan youths to stand aside for their elders when they passed them in the street and to rise when they entered the room.

Probably most Greeks became affected by the least partial disablement by the time they had reached middle, let alone old age, due to the demands and stresses of life in the ancient world. The price of survival to what we would identify as middle age for the average man or woman was an unpalatable assortment of rotting and rotten teeth, failing eyesight, increasing deafness, constant back pains, vicious stomach ulcers and unpredictable bowel movements. Disorders of the foot were the commonest form of injury, as we know from the fact that these inspired the largest number of votive offerings in healing sanctuaries. As there were only a very limited means of alleviating any disability whether slight or severe, a relatively mild disability like, say astigmatism or a badly set fracture, would often be as constricting as a major one. Among the poor, the onset of disability would have contributed further to the pace of their decline. It goes without saying that those who were most at risk of becoming disabled as a result of both sickness and injury were slaves.

I understand that George Papandreou is preparing a proposal to Parliament that will make Greece a world market for caring for the elderly. It would still be the responsibility of the children but they would have financial help and special experts of the government. The heart of the proposal is, not nursing homes but expert individuals who would come to the home of the elderly and care for them as if they were members of the family.

Greeks are hopeful and optimistic that this bill will become law. We will know this year.



(Posting date 21 July 2006)

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