Ancient Respect for Health Helps Modern Greeks Face Coronavirus



Greece has received a bounty of praise from world figures and international media for its quick and effective response to the coronavirus pandemic. First for the rapid response of the Greek government, which took draconian measures immediately, and second, for the discipline its citizens have displayed in complying with them.

However, it was another, much more crucial factor and that has to do with the respect Greeks have for health, a value that has been inherited by ancient Greeks.

A recent  article in Britain’s The Independent, titled “How Greece Managed To Flatten the Curve,” emphasizes this particular factor that contributed greatly to the limited spread of covid-19 and the low number of deaths (106 at the time of writing).

“The streets are pretty well deserted here. Someone commented that it’s a surprise Greeks have been so disciplined — but really it’s not. When you say hello in Greek you say ‘health’, when you say goodbye you say ‘health;’ the general benediction in conversation is health.”

Indeed, when Greeks say “Γεια σου” (Yia sou) when they greet or say goodbye to you, they are literally wishing you good health (Υγεία) in both cases. Also, when they make a toast by raising  a glass, they say “Στην υγειά σου” (Ι drink to your health).

Even when a Greek agrees wholeheartedly with something one says or does, he or she says “Άϊ γεια σου”, meaning “You are right (or rightly said), good health to you.”

Also, when a Greek sneezes, people near him say “Yitses!” which is the diminutive of the word “Hygieia,” who was the Greek goddess of health.

When Greeks make plans for the future, they usually complete the sentence with the phrase “If we have our health then.”

Ancient Greeks used to say: “A healthy mind can only reside inside a healthy body,” a maxim that is still used by many today.

The word “Υγεία” is so ingrained in the language and the Greek subconscious that most people use it in greeting without realizing what it really means.

The Greek goddess Hyigeia

The Ancient Goddess Hygieia

Ancient Greeks worshipped, among many other gods and goddesses, Hygieia, who was one of the daughters of the god of medicine, Asclepius, and his wife Epione. Hygieia was the goddess, and the ultimate personification of, health, cleanliness and personal hygiene.

Hygieia played an important part in her father’s cult. While Asclepius was more directly associated with healing, she was more associated with the prevention of sickness and the continuation of good health. Her name, of course, is the source of the word “hygiene.”

Hygieia was known to have been worshipped in Athens by a number of people since at least the 7th century BC. “Athena Hygieia” was also one of the cult titles given to Athena.

According to Plutarch, during the construction of the Parthenon (447–432 BC), one of the builders, known to be the most competent and assiduous, slipped and fell down from a great height. He was in an extremely bad condition, and doctors had lost hope of healing him. The goddess Athena Hygieia appeared to Pericles and ordered a course of treatment, which he applied, and in a short time the man was cured and healthy.

After that near-miraculous incident, Pericles set up a brass statue of Athena Hygieia in the citadel near the altar. The renowned sculptor Phidias wrought the goddess’s image in gold.

However, the cult of Hygieia as an independent goddess did not begin to spread until the Oracle at Delphi recognized her, and spread further after the devastating Plague of Athens (430–427 BC).

Health and love for life

Modern Greeks are well-known to love life and enjoy it to the fullest. They live for today and worry little about tomorrow. They like to say that “I work to live, not live to work,” when they are accused of laziness. And they love to be outdoors and take time to enjoy their way of life.

They also love family. In Greece, family ties are very strong. Many young Greeks live with their family until they get married, even today. In many households in the provinces, grandparents still live within the family.

So when covid-19 came along to threaten their very lives, and the lives of their family members, the collective subconscious kept them at home, taking all the precautionary measures that the health authorities advised.

Let’s be honest — even on a good day, Greeks are not the most disciplined of people. And most will go to any length to keep traditions alive. Greek Easter is a tradition that goes beyond religion to become a national rite and custom enjoyed by all. It is by far the most revered feast of the liturgical year.

Yet, during the coronavirus pandemic, with very few exceptions, Greek citizens showed remarkable restraint and a sense of responsibility and stayed home, just as the government ordered them to do. It was a time in which the Greek spirit of philotimo prevailed.

And there is no better proof of this than the findings of a poll, the results of which were released on Wednesday. An amazing 94.6 percent of Greeks have a positive opinion about epidemiologist and Health Ministry representative Sotiris Tsiodras, and 84.3 percent feel the same about Deputy Minister of Citizen Protection Nikos Chardalias.

They are, at this bizarre moment in time, the most popular Greeks in the country. In other words, the very same people who appear on television every day at 6 pm and repeatedly admonish them to stay home are the most appreciated.

By any measure, this new reality is something that would have been completely unthinkable two months ago. But the response to the coronavirus harkens back to the time-honored tradition of the respect ancient Greece had for health and reflects how deeply it continues to be ingrained in Greek culture.