Fasting: Custom of the world, old as history

It is clear that from the time man began to believe in some higher entity, making appeals to its power and assistance, he also felt the need to support his entreaties with some temporary abstinence from certain material things in order to thank or to placate the Supreme Being through sacrifice. The first to teach this were the Buddhists and the Brahman priests. The Egyptians took the custom from them and passed it on to the Jews and the Greeks. Neither in the eastern religions nor those of Greek Asia Minor was there a formal fast for the faithful, only for the priestly castes. Herodotus tells us that Egyptian priests were obliged to fast in order to prepare for the religious celebrations of the festival of the goddess Isis. This was optional for the faithful. There are no references in the Old Testament to any obligatory fast on the part of the faithful in the period before Christ. Priests and commoners fasted by choice, in order to participate in specific events. Moses, for example, went into isolation and fasted in order to be worthy of receiving the Ten Commandments. John the Baptist followed a strict fast in preparation for the baptism of Christ, while the Prophet Elijah was known for his strict fasts. Even Christ went into the desert for 40 days of isolation, following a strict fast in order to conquer temptation and prepare for the crucifixion. Eleusinian mysteries In his «Thesmophoriazusae,» Aristophanes informs us that the women of ancient Greece would fast during the festival of the Pyanepsia, and one of the days of the festival was named the «fast.» Aside from abstaining from food, women would put ashes in their hair as a sign of mourning, would remain seated flat on the floor and were forbidden from coming into contact with their husbands. It is clear, then, that this «fast» was for much broader cleansing. Even though the initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries have disappeared, taking the secrets of the ritual away with them forever, bits of evidence that we find here and there indicate that the 20th day of the month, Boedromion (one of the days of the ritual), was dedicated to fasting and rest, while the archon-basileus (the head-king, who took over the religious functions of the old kings), assistants and the curators would offer sacrifices and proffered blessings for the city of Athens. The fast at Eleusis aimed at the cleansing and purification of the body, and it was conducted in memory of Demeter’s abstinence from food until she had found her lost daughter. The initiates oversaw the maintenance of the fast, at the end of which they drunk kykeon, a drink of barley water flavored with mint which the goddess Demeter had drunk at the beginning of her stay at Eleusis. It was offered along with pelanos, a special kind of bread made of wheat and barley cultivated on the Rarnos plain. What is observable in every civilization, irrespective of whether the fast is an institutionalized obligation or not, is that it is considered as something that elevates man, strengthens his spirit by liberating it from degrading carnal binds, demonstrates his spirituality and contributes to his union with the Supreme Being. But the fast also has other dimensions: The strict Spartans would declare a 10-day fast during their preparations for an important campaign or crucial battle. The Romans later did the same. This custom adds another element to the picture, expanding it. Fasting is not just used by humans in order to bring them closer to God, but also to help them accomplish important human deeds. In addition to helping us to transcend the material, fasting is an exercise in self-discipline and helps us to concentrate and more decisively focus on our goals. Let’s take a look at the fast that is followed by the Eastern Orthodox Church and how its final form at the end of the 10th century evolved. For the early Christian communities, the fast symbolized their diet as a whole; a diet which consisted of only one meal a day eaten at around the ninth hour, or 3.00 p.m. in contemporary terms. On weekdays this was a dry meal, that is, without oil. On Saturdays and Sundays, they would also consume oil and seasoned foods. Around the second century, a fast, consisting of a dry meal, began to take place every Wednesday and Friday. Later, a fast was established for each of the four seasons, i.e. three days of fasting at the beginning of each season, as well as a fast on the eve of each religious festival. By the time of the first Ecumenical Synod of AD 325 the Tessarakosti, the 40-day Lenten fast (i.e. a fast for the duration of the 40 days before Easter) had already been established. Its beginning is dated to around 300 and its duration was determined according to Christ’s 40 days of isolation in the wilderness, which in the more formal ancient Greek language took the name Tessarakosti from these 40 days. The use of this word by the common people, who count using saranta, the less formal word for 40, resulted in the first syllable being dropped. Later, another week of far stricter preparation for Easter was added, so that Lent continued to be called sarakosti (i.e. 40) even though it lasts for 49 days, i.e. seven weeks. The word sarakosti is now synonymous with the idea of fasting regardless of the duration. The fast prior to Easter is the longest and the oldest in Christianity. The 40-day fast before Christmas is a later development. Also of later date, but of importance for the Church, is the two-week-long fast beginning on August 1 for the great festival of the Virgin Mary. This is not the only summertime fast, having been preceded by the All Saints Day fast, which does not have any specific duration as it is linked to Easter. It begins on the day after All Saints Day and ends on the eve of the festival for the saints Peter and Paul, on June 29. All Saints Day, always a Sunday, is linked to the post-Easter festivities and is thus a movable feast, varying in duration. In 2000, it lasted for only three days, last year it was 18 days, while this year there are no fast days, as All Saints Day falls after the festival of the Holy Apostles. If we add the Wednesday and Friday fast days of other weeks, then we have around 170-175 days of the year when no animal produce is consumed. Of the non-fasting weeks of the year, the Wednesdays and Fridays of three are excluded from the fast (Carnival week before Lent, Easter Week, and Pentecost). If one were to calculate the total number of days of fasting, they would exceed 170, which means that, in line with the Greek dietary model, no animal produce is consumed at all, while not even oil is consumed on many of these days. Kolokotes (Lenten squash pies from Cyprus) This recipe, wonderfully prepared, was given to me by Soula Mougi, a refugee from Karavas in the district of Kyrenia. The following are ingredients for 12 portions. Dough: 2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour 1/2 cup olive oil 1/2 teaspoon salt Filling: 1 kilo yellow squash (cleaned before weighing) 1/2 cup fine bulgar wheat 1 coffee cup olive oil 1 tablespoon salt 1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon 1 coffee cup sugar 3/4 cup sultanas Chop the squash into small pieces. Add salt, mixing in the bulgar wheat. Leave the mixture to stand in the bowl for 3-4 hours. Empty into a strainer and leave to strain while you prepare the dough. Put the flour and salt into a bowl, add the oil and rub the mixture in your palms so that the oil disperses evenly. Add as much water as is needed to create the dough. Cover the bowl with a towel and leave for half an hour. Roll into a thick strip and cut into 12 pieces. On a lightly floured surface open each piece to the size of a dessert plate. Lay the squash mixture in small balls in the center of each piece and fold over the dough so that it covers it. Fold over the edges with your finger and firmly seal the seams. Cook the kolokotes in an oven at 200C until they are completely browned.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.