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Land of the Virgin Mary: An Ethnography of Monastic Life on Mount Athos

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  • Political Science


This thesis is an ethnographic account of contemporary monastic life in two monasteries of Mount Athos, the ‘Garden of the Virgin Mary’ (o kipos tis Parthenou). Athos is an autonomous Christian Orthodox monastic republic of twenty monasteries with only male monks, situated in northern Greece. The material is based on fieldwork carried out between 2002 and 2004 in the monasteries of Vatopaidi and Esfigmenou. By focusing on Christian monastic life, the thesis aims to contribute to the opening of a cultural and historical study of Christianity. It covers a number of themes, beginning with how the notion of ‘virginity’ (parthenia) informs ideas about the landscape and the daily life of the monks, as well as providing a central point of reference in the process of striving to become a monk in Vatopaidi. This is explored through a detailed account of practices of faith, such as ordinations, prayer, and confessions, focusing on the Vatopaidian notion of the ‘economy of passions’. Through this, the thesis considers the personal and communal regimes of life and prayer, obedience and labour in the monastery. Further, the thesis explores the organization of time and space in Vatopaidi, drawing on ideas about tradition and the unchanging quality of time in the monastery, and of the importance of private and collective practices. Finally, the thesis compares the social life and values of Vatopaidi to its rival neighbour Esfigmenou, which represents a contrasting and competing view of monastic life. The most salient differences over ‘matters of faith’ (themata pisteos) are a contrasting relationship to the landscape, different sets of priorities and understanding of the aims and nature of monastic life, and a contestation of the same tradition based on a different way of counting time. Externally, Esfigmenou has a very different attitude to Vatopaidi towards recent changes on the Mount, such as its attitude to the importation of technology, the rise of religious tourism, and impact of EU funding. It maintains an extremist political agenda within the Orthodox world, and consequently, a different set of motivations for becoming a monk in this particular monastery. Here too, the contrast between internal and external is fundamental to the identity of Esfigmenou, even though it is approached as an explicit criticism of Vatopaidi. Interestingly however, both monasteries find themselves entangled in conflict-ridden relationships with the Greek state. In this way, the material investigates how the external vocation of each monastery is connected to their respective internal regimes; the material also examines the agency of the monks and their impact in public life, as well as, the heterogeneity in the understanding of the aims and priorities of Athonian monastic life.

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