Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State

If This Baoulo Could Talk
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IF THIS BAOULO COULD TALK

This item was donated to the Greek American Historical Museum of Washington State by Joanne Meras & Harieklia Meras Bryant in February 2012. According to Joanne, “This now 81-year-old baoulo or mpaoulo (hope chest or trunk) ended its trip in Bellevue, Washington, in 1995. Where it originated (was made) I do not know. However, in the fall of 1937, my father George John Meras left Havre, Montana, for Hostia, [now Prodromos] Thevan, Greece, to find a wife. He met and married my mother, Stavroula Golemati (Meras), who lived in a neighboring village, Thisvi. When they came to America, the trunk went from the horio (village) to the train station in Athens, onto the Orient Express to Paris, France, and then to Cherbourg to be loaded onto the Cunard Line ship QUEEN MARY which is now docked at Long Beach, California. On to a New York City train station, to Havre, and finally to Bellevue. That the key [to the trunk] survived is pretty cool.”

THE BAOULO AND THE DOWRY

The legal definition of dowry is given in the Greek Civil Code of 1946 (articles 1406-1437). Dowry is the property which the wife or someone on her behalf gives to the husband to alleviate the burdens of marriage. According to article 1495 of the Code, the parents are required to provide a dowry for the daughter who is about to get married in proportion to their means, number of children, property, and their social position as well as the social position of the future husband.

The dowry property given to the daughter as a gift to her (and through her a gift to her husband) is what she is legally entitled to inherit from her parents. All children have the equal rights to the parents’ property. The sons acquire their share through inheritance, whereas the daughters acquire it sooner by getting their “dowry.”

Ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Roman parents gave dowries to their daughters, as the custom required the bride to bring money and property into the marriage. The dowry, or prika, consisted of the money, land, and possessions that a woman’s family promised to their daughter’s betrothed.

Traditionally, Greek parents prearranged their children’s marriages for both sons and daughters. Some still do today. Marriage was a practical business based on the background of the respective families. Friends or family members would help arrange the match, or proksenio. At times, a matchmaker called a proksenitis or proksenitria would prearrange the marriage and even negotiate the terms of the prika. The matchmaker would approach the family and advise that there was a suitable match for their son or daughter. If the family was interested, the matchmaker would advise the family of the fee and negotiate the prika with the intended’s family.

To facilitate the prika, young girls would establish a baoulo. At a very young age young ladies were taught to sew, to embroider and crochet linens, and to knit. The projects they made became part of their prika and were proudly displayed just before the wedding. Young women also collected bedding, kitchenware, and household items to augment their prika. Aside from the above items, parents would provide other items for the prika. For example, if they owned orchards, vineyards, wheat fields, garden fields, or livestock, these assets would be apportioned to the daughters in the family and would become part of the prika given to the newlyweds. If a family lived in the city and had no agricultural properties, they must provide their daughter with a house or an apartment, even if it was only a one-room dwelling. Of course, it must be completely furnished, including all the necessities for starting a new life together. Not only did the gambro (groom) receive the prika as a gift, the bride was also required to bring a gift for the father and mother-in-law, and to provide the gambro with apparel for the wedding.

Village weddings were, and still are, huge celebrations. The day before the wedding, the groom and his male friends would decorate a horse, preferably white, or a mule to go to the bride’s house and retrieve the baoulo when it is taken to the groom’s house. Of course, there is food, drink, singing, and dancing. Single women and friends of the bride accompany the groom’s party to the groom’s house to prepare the wedding bed. At the groom’s home, the party scatters koufeta (Jordan almonds), rice and honey on the bed. This symbolizes fertility and good fortune. An old custom is to roll a baby on the bed (of course, a baby boy) so that the couple will have male children. At one time girls were so unwelcome that the wish for married women was that they “have male children and female sheep.” In today’s Greek families, sons and daughters are equally loved, but in the family the desire still lingers for the birth of at least one male to carry on the grandfather’s name.

In a typical family, the bride and groom moved in with the in-laws after the wedding and the in-laws ruled the family, with the bride having no say in any matters. Consequently, life could be pretty difficult if she married into an unhappy family. If the groom had sisters, the money he earned from his wedding prika would be used for his sisters’ prikes. Failure to provide a prika for the daughter or daughters resulted in loss of philotimo (sense of honor) for the entire family. Brothers were pressed to provide prikes for their sisters before they themselves could marry. In fact, many Greek men went to America and other countries to work and earn money to meet this obligation. In Greece today, parents of the bride help as much as they can but it is voluntary and not legally required.

Compiled by John Nicon with material from Joanne Meras and Carol Mykris, September, 2018
PHOTOS by John Nicon
SOURCES
A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America, by Marilyn Rouvelas; The Marriage Bargain: Women and Dowries in European History, by Marion A. Kaplan