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The Greek Passion

The Greek Passion or Christ Recrucified

(Ο Χριστός Ξανασταυρώνεται ‘Christ is Recrucified’) is a 1948 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis

Jules Dassin‘s film He Who Must Die (Celui qui doit mourir, 1957) is based on the novel.

The story concerns the attempts of a Greek village community to stage a Passion play. It takes place in a Greek village (Lycovrisi. “Wolf-tap”) under the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire, in the 1920s.

The village holds Passion plays every seven years and the Elders of the village decide on choosing among the villagers the characters for the play. Manolios, who is chosen to play the role of Christ, is a humble shepherd boy who was once a novice in a monastery. Yannakkos becomes Apostle Peter. He is a merchant-peddler who travels with his donkey through the villages and sells his items. He is warm-hearted, naive and loves his donkey above all else. Michelis, the son of the wealthy nobleman, old Patriarcheas becomes Apostle John. Kostandis, the owner of the village cafe, is Apostle James. He is good-hearted, willing to share, but confused. Then comes Panayotaros, who is chosen to be Judas. He is a wild, passionate man, waiting for revenge. The widow Katerina is Mary Magdalene. She is the village’s prostitute. She is beautiful, but of course an outsider in the village, not caring about anybody’s opinion. But she is the most generous one and in the end gives her life for what she believes in.

Then the Elders of Lycovrissi are introduced. There is the Priest Grigoris – a domineering man who bends God’s will to his own. Archon Patriarcheas is the leader of the village. He only lives for his own pleasure. Old Ladas is a miser who is obsessed with his money but lives in poverty so that he doesn’t have to spend any of it. Hadji Nikolis is the schoolmaster, who means well but is ineffectual, haunted by fear of his brother the priest.

The whole story is made colorful by the Turkish household consisting of The Agha, the Lord of Lycovrissi. He lives surrounded by his Oriental splendor, drinks himself crazy and enjoys raki and pretty boys. Hussein is the guard, a giant Oriental who does everything his master asks of him.

Another character is the Priest Fotis. He comes to the village with a whole group of starved villagers from a devastated village which has been overrun by the Turks, and they are looking for shelter in Lycovrissi. Denied this by the priest Grigoris, the refugees retire to the barren slopes of the nearby mountain Sarakina, where they continue to starve.

The villagers, simple, earnest people who are fond of Manolis, who plays Christ, Yannakos, Apostle Peter, Michelis, Apostle John etc. are indoctrinated by the elders. The main factor is a real saintly priest, Father Fotis who comes to the village to ask for help with hundreds of hungry and dying people and who is turned away from the village and finds a refuge in the barren mountain. There he tries to survive with the help of Manolios, Yannakos, Michelis and Konstandis. Father Grigoris is afraid to lose the power over the village and starts his hate campaign first against the priest and his people and then against the rest of the group. At one point Manolios offers his life to save the village, but in the last minute he is saved. The venom of the village elders appalls even the Agha, but he is too comfortably and too afraid to lose his power to do anything.

Manolios ends his engagement and lives up in the hill praying to God and follows his voice. Michelis gives up his riches and comes to live with Magnolios. This of course infuriates and in the end kills his father. One main character, Panayotaros, Apostle Judas, doesn’t really change in character, but he becomes very dangerous and a real Judas. He doesn’t care for his life anymore after widow Katerina dies, for whom he has a crazy desire. He is the one who spies on the people up in the mountain and on Michelis and Manolios and reports it to Father Grigoris, one of the main villains.

In the end a mob consisting of the villagers kill Manolios:

“For an instant Manolios’s heart failed him, he turned to the door – it was closed; he looked at the three lit lamps and, under them, the icons loaded with ex-votos: Christ, red-cheeked, with carefully combed hair, was smiling; the Virgin Mary, bending over the child was taking no interest in what was happening under her eyes. Saint John the Baptist was preaching in the desert. He raised his eyes toward the vault of the church and made out in the half-light the face of the Almighty, bending pitilessly over mankind. He looked at the crowd about him; it was as if in the darkness he saw the gleam of daggers. The strident voice of old Ladas squeaked once more: “Let’s kill him!” At the same moment, violent blows were struck upon the door; all fell silent and turned toward the entrance; furious voices could be heard distinctly: “Open! Open!” “That’s the voice of father Fotis!” someone cried. “Yannakos’s voice,” said another; “the Sarakini have come to take him from us!” The door was shaken violently, its hinges creaked; there could be heard a great tumult of men and women outside. “open, murderers! Have you no fear of God?” came the voice of father Fotis, distinctly. Priest Grigoris raised his hands. “In the name of Christ,” he cried, “ I take the sin upon me! Do it, Panayotaros.” Panayotaros drew the dagger and turned to father Grigoris. “With your blessing, Father!” he asked. “With my blessing, strike!”

Priest Fotis and his people bring the dead body of Manolios to the mountain. He kneels next to him and holds his hands.

“Toward midnight the bell began ringing, calling the Christians to the church to see Christ born. One by one the doors opened and the Christians hastened toward the church, shivering with cold. The night was calm, icy, starless.”

“Priest Fotis listened to the bell pealing gaily, announcing that Christ was coming down on earth to save the world. He shook his head and heaved a sigh: In vain, my Christ, in vain, he muttered; two thousand years have gone by and men crucify You still. When will You be born, my Christ, and not be crucified any more, but live among us for eternity.”

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Bohuslav Martinů wrote an opera in four acts, also called The Greek Passion (Czech Řecké pašije), based on the novel, with a libretto by the composer.

Jules Dassin‘s film He Who Must Die (Celui qui doit mourir, 1957) is also based on the novel.

The stage and BBC radio play Not to Send Peace by Derek Carver was also based on the novel.


by Nikos Kazantzakis

New York: A Touchstone Book, 1953

Translated by Jonathan Griffin. 432 pages

This is a very challenging philosophical-theological novel set in Greece during the last days of the Turkish occupation, in the early 1920s. On Easter Sunday morning the “notables” of the small and remote village of Lycovrissi gather. They have decided to have a live passion play on the next Easter and they select villagers for the key roles of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the apostles including Judas. The villagers are to prepare for this honor by living lives which will bring them close to their characters during the coming year. They are notably silent on how this is to impact Judas, though the villager Panayotaros who has been chosen, is teased within minutes of selection by the villagers.

In clever twists on the theme, the selected villagers do more than “prepare,” they fully become their characters and the mutilevel passion is played out in bloody detail.

The novel is a tour de force for Kazantzakis’ version of what we would today call a liberal, even liberation theology, version of Christianity.

A particularly clever plot twist by Kazantzakis widens the philosophical theme beyond Christianity to the philosophical issues at root, taking this novel beyond Christianity to universal themes of justice, individualism and the relationship to the transcendental world.

Early on the village is visited by a band of refugees whose village has been leveled by the Turks. They are homeless, landless, hungry and poor. They first come on Easter Sunday and beg food, but are driven out when the local priest, the arch villain of the novel, incites the people to turn them away. The band, led by a firebrand radical priest of their own, leads the people to a nearby mountain where they settle in to scratch out a living.

As the passion play village characters slowly begin to assume their role, their leader, Manolios the Christ, until then a lowly shy shepherd, begins to articulate a rather literalist Christian moral code: embrace all people, share fully of your wealth, treat all people the same and other such radical notions.

One thinks of “The Grand Inquisitor” story in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In that tale the brother Ivan is telling his younger brother Aloysha about a time when Jesus reappeared in Spain during the heart of the inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor has him brought in, knows who he is, and lectures Jesus on the impossibility of his radical Christian message. The Inquisitor tells Jesus humans are not capable of such behavior and that the church has careful moved them away from such a radical gospel message. He tells Jesus that he must leave immediately since he will destroy the church if he stays, and Jesus leaves.

In Kazantzakis’ tale the center of opposition is the priest of the village of Lycovrissi, Priest Grigoris. He widens the story beyond just Christianity when he reveals that Manolios isn’t just a misguided Christian, but that actually he is a Bolshevik as is Priest Fotis, a sort of John the Baptist figure. Both are taken to be agents of Russia.

Kazantzakis paints little subtlety here. He despises Grigoris and the village “notables” and he idealizes the Christ Manolios and his version of radical communistic Christianity. However, he does put two of the most challenging arguments into the mouth of the arch-enemy Grigoris.

The village is actually ruled by a Turkish official, the Agha. He plays the role of Pontius Pilate and stays out of the disagreement and growing crisis, only at the last minute, in extenuating circumstances, washes his hands of the whole situation.

However in an interview with the Agha, when Grigoris is trying to get the Turks to step in and rid the village of the refugees, he reminds the Agha that life hangs by a delicate thread. Disturb that thread and the entire village, all life known to them, might well collapse.

In the context of this novel and the material situation they live in, this is a fascinating argument and I must say, moved me deeply. The village of Lycovrissi is indeed well off for the time and place. They had good fields, a safe political situation and relative prosperity in the village. Yet looked at from where we are, their situation was very tenuous. There is not larger protective social system to undergird them. Let there be a significant change in the weather or let the Turks decide to do to them what they did to the village of the refugees and they are lost. Relative to where most of us are today, indeed the village hangs by a tenuous thread.

A significant part of that thread is the very social fabric of the village, their tradition life in which the Agha, godlike, dispenses protection from on high. Inside the Greek community life is closely regulated and the village notables, all men, and headed by the Priest Grigoris, watch closely over an ancient order. Mess with this and who knows? Life is a tenuous thread. The radicals are over and over described as dangerous revolutionaries. Change, when life is a tenuous thread, is frightening and genuinely dangerous.

The second conservative argument which Priest Grigoris trots out is that the good of the individuals, even the rights and life of the individuals, are secondary to the good and rights of the community. This argument certainly follows from the “Life-is-a-tenuous-thread” argument. This argument was a troubling one in the rise of Utilitarianism and the results that considering the greater good of the greater number seemed to lead to the conclusion that Priest Grigoris claims, namely that the good, justice and rights of the individual may be trampled in the name of the good of the group.

Priest Grigoris and the tradition life and Orthodox Christianity which Kazantzakis portrays are on the side of the group. The radicals, whose view certainly appears to be Kazantzakis’ favored one, is a very liberal, even Leftwing Christianity which leans strongly to the needs of the individuals.

The radical selfishness of Priest Grigoris contrasts with the altruism of Maniolis.

The action can be pretty reliably dated to the year 1922. The village of Lycovrissi is not in present-day Greece but on the coast of Turkish Anatolia not far from Smyrna (Izmir) but not “real close” either, because after World War I (Spring 1919 to Fall 1922) the area around Smyrna was occupied by Greek and Allied troops.

The Treaty of Sevres, imposed on Turkey after WWI, would have confirmed Greece in its possession of the Smyrna region, but the nationalist government of Kemal refused to be bound by its terms. Greece then launched an ill-advised war on Turkey, which resulted in their complete defeat in August-September 1921. (In the novel, this is what resulted in the destruction of the village of St. George.) In the fall of 1922 Turkey re-occupied the Smyrna region. In January of 1923, Turkey and Greece, during the discussions of what became the Treaty of Lausanne, agreed to a “mutual population exchange”, or what we might today call “mutual ethnic cleansing” – all Greeks in Turkey were dispossessed and deported to Greece, and all Turks in Greece were dispossessed and deported to Turkey.

Lycovrissi would have been located in an area which was never reached by the Greek army in 1921. But all of its inhabitants would have been deported immediately after the conclusion of the action of the novel, along with the refugees.

Although it’s not mentioned in the novel, or even hinted at, the Lausanne Convention stands as a huge ironic backdrop to the whole novel and its conclusion.

At the end of the novel, Fotis’ refugees head off into the world as refugees, while Lycovrissi is apparently left to re-establish “order”. But this “order” is a complete delusion.

The Greek Passion

The Greek Passion or Christ Recrucified

(Ο Χριστός Ξανασταυρώνεται ‘Christ is Recrucified’) is a 1948 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis


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