Nikos Gatsos played a great role, as a poet, in Greek song. He wrote lyrics for major Greek composers, including Manos Hadjidakis, Mikis Theodorakis, Stavros Xarchakos, Dimos Moutsis, Loukianos Kilaidonis, Christodoulos Chalaris and Eleni Karaindrou. He wrote lyrics for several films and for the Elia Kazan's "America-America". His lyrics are known over the world because of internationally renowned singer Nana Mouskouri, with whom he frequently collaborated.
In addition to his work as a lyricist, Gatsos was also a prolific poet in his own right. His poetry is characterised by a surrealistic, dreamlike quality, and explores themes such as love, loss, and the search for identity. Some of his most famous works include the poetry collections "Amorgos" and "Radical Summer," as well as the play "The Royal Banquet."
With a few exceptions, many of Gatsos's lyrics had not appeared in print, and both their number and literary value had not been fully appreciated. This changed with the publication of a large collection of his songs, including lyrics, a few months after the poet's death in 1992. The 166 songs / poems were selected by the poet himself and organised into groups, each with a general title.
Contained within this collection is the six songs of the Holy Week sequence, "Days of the Epitaph," a tribute to Christ. The poet feels that Christ's sacrifice was the ultimate manifestation of God's love for people. All six songs are interspersed with frequent quotations, sometimes slightly modified, from the Bible and other religious texts, such as "He came upon this earth to bear witness to the truth" or "He is the life, the light and the peace of the world," expressing the poet's conviction that Christ is the only hope for mankind.
In "Holy Monday" the poet uses quotations from the New Testament and the Holy Monday mass to profess his belief that the coming one is "the Alpha and the Omega" (Revelation 1:8), "the architect of the infinite, the shepherd of the stars." Christ, anticipating his death, asks his mother to wait for him near the well of the abyss, by the gates of heaven.
"Holy Tuesday" is a very crucial song. The poet again uses quotations from the Revelation and the poem of the nun Kassiani which is part of the Holy Tuesday mass and presents an antithesis between Christ and those who spoiled love ("you, a lamb for slaughter I and we, the rams of sin"). Thus he reveals the dark side of love. While in many of his songs love is unrequited, here he sheds a different light on the subject of love and sensual pleasure. The song, though, ends on a note of affirmation, the words of Christ "I have come as a light into the world, so that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness."
In "Holy Wednesday" the poet again uses imagery and quotations from the Revelation and more specifically from the part that presents the conflict between the celestial forces and the demons and the defeat of the evil spirits. The song starts with the appearance of the demons emerging from mountain caves and, after a hint of the impending abolition of death in the first stanza, it proceeds with the description of a "sea of glass like crystal" which in the Revelation is before the throne of God (4:6) . Then the poet points out that the time to honour the savior has come and recalls Saint Paul's message of Love (Corinthians 15:13): "Faith, Hope, Love. These three. Love the greatest of all."
Although the angels in the Revelation destroyed the forces of evil, the poet sees on earth the wounds still open and wonders:
When will the sun light the fires
to burn Herod's palace
so that the flower of evil become a pomegranate?
This image of the burning sun is again an allusion to the Revelation: "the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given to him to scorch men with fire" (16:8). Gatsos chooses as a personification of evil Herod, the king of Judaea, who committed one of the most abominable acts in human history, the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem.
The song ends with another quotation from Saint Paul (Philippians 2: 14,15), an admonition to become "blameless and harmless in the midst of a corrupt and perverse generation," implying that on earth the struggle against evil is not over.
In "Holy Thursday," the day of Christ's death, the poet again uses quotations from the Bible and the Holy mass. He starts with a note of praise, "His works are true and His ways straight" and continues with another quotation which points out that Christ's crucifixion made it possible for the children of Adam to return to Paradise from which he was expelled. The poet expresses the hope that all people on earth will be born again. The song ends with the most important among the quotations, in which Christ personifies peace: "He is the life, the light and the peace of the world."
"Holy Friday" is the day of the epitaph and of the expression of deep sorrow. The quotations the poet uses in his song of that title are from the Holy Thursday mass, Holy Friday mass and the Revelation. He addresses Christ as "the first among the first" and "the greatest of the great" and he offers lilies of the Spring, laying them on the cross. The poet sees the day of Christ's burial as the day that "Hades opened up" and "Calvary became a bridge" between Hades and Earth.
"Holy Saturday" refers to another day of mourning for ·the death of Christ. In his song, the poet conveys this feeling of mourning by creating an atmosphere of sterility where the doves fly slowly over thirsty gardens and fields. The song starts with the word "Remember" and then the poet returns to it using Christ's own words, as quoted by Saint Paul, only changed from the first to the second person, to appeal to Him not to forget his children: "Remember the children God gave You." In the second stanza, three children alone by the seashore, as if neglected, symbolise those in need of help.
He pleads for an end to the storm and a return of the sun and professes his faith in Christ using again His own words changed to the second person: "The words that You spoke to us are spirit and they are life" (John 6:63) and "For You are the truth, the life and the resurrection" (John 11:25).
The six songs of the Holy Week sequence are not followed, as one would have expected, by "Easter Sunday," the day of Resurrection. In fact, in another of his poems mentioned before, "Song of Old Times," Gatsos writes that "Resurrection will be long in coming," meaning a symbolic resurrection with people themselves bringing peace to the earth.
Instead, what follows after "Holy Saturday" is "Gloria Aeterna." In this song Gatsos, after a retrospective look at the past, referring to the Greek and Roman civilizations that have almost disappeared and to the chaos of Babylon, mentions the enmity among people and portrays the world in dark colours. Thus he implies that the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ did not much change the face of the earth, as it should have, and did not abolish hatred and discord among men. However, the poet ends the song by professing his own faith. He addresses God and he wants to use God's stars "to light [His] eternal glory / with rays of light."
With thanks also to The Charioteer. An Annual Review of Modern Greek Culture, Number 36. New York: Pella Publishing Company, 1995-1996 for assistance with interpretation.