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Kollyva – Honouring our deceased


Memorial. (Gr. Μνημόσυνο Mnemosyno – mnee moh see no). A special service held in the Orthodox Church for the repose of the souls of the dead. Memorial services are held on the third, ninth and fortieth day; after six months, and after one or three years after death, then annually. Boiled wheat is used as a symbol of the resurrection of everyone at the Second Coming of Christ.  From Dictionary of Orthodox Terminology.

My mother died on February 23rd 1996 and each year my sisters in Cyprus arrange to make the Memorial Service at church.  This is usually done on the Sunday preceding the date of death but it can be held earlier, so before going to Cyprus we decided that it would be a good opportunity to make it earlier so that I could attend as well.

The day before the Memorial we prepare kollyva.  The “Kollyva” is made of boiled wheat grains. Wheat-based foods, usually sweetened, are highly symbolic of rebirth and regeneration and thus have always been associated with the foods served in honour of the dead.   Let’s not forget the word “macaroni” which comes from the Greek words “makaria” (meaning food made from barley”) or “blessed” and “aeronia or “eternal” and were offered in ancient Greece after funerals.   The word “kollyva” also stems from the Ancient Greek word κόλλυβο (kollyvo pr. koh-lee-voh) , which originally meant cereal grain.  In the Ancient Greek panspermia, a mixture of cooked seeds and nuts were offered during the festival of the Anthesteria.   The association between death and life, between that which is planted in the ground and that which emerges, is deeply embedded in the making and eating of kollyva.  The ritual food passed from paganism to early Christianity in Byzantium and later spread to the entire Orthodox world.

To make kollyva, the wheat is boiled from the previous day until it is soft and then placed in cold water and then drained overnight.   It is then spread on a clean towel and covered with another one, so that all the moist is absorbed.   The following morning, before going to church, It is mixed with several ingredients: Finely chopped parsley or cilantro or fresh mint (a few tablespoons only), cinnamon, anise seeds or crashed coriander seeds and nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pine nuts or hazelnuts are some of the ingredients which are added.

After the mnymosyno service is over people gather outside the church, all the ingredients of the kollyva are mixed well together and offered to the people in small paper bags or cups and a spoon.  The people attending in their turn will say “May God rest his/her soul”.


My post coincides with PsychoSavvato (Saturdays of the Soul).  Saturday 21st February is the first PsychoSavvato,  and it will then be celebrated on the 28th February and on the 7th March.  The dates are not the same every year but the Saturday of the Souls are celebrated on the Two Saturdays before Lent begins: the First Saturday of Lent and the Saturday before Pentecost.  The third is celebrated on the day of St. Theodore’s miracle.   On PsychoSavvato a special service takes place in church where kollyva are taken for the resting of the souls of our deceased.

In John 12:24, Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The boiled wheat is used in the Orthodox Church as a symbol of our hope in the Resurrection. From the grain that died comes the fruit of eternal life. Why, then, do we call the wheat ‘kolyva’? This name comes from a term commonly used during the fourth century, particularly where the following miracle occurred. The Emperor Julian the Apostate tried to have the fruits and vegetables, for use by Christians who were fasting during Great Lent, contaminated! In a dream, Saint Theodore the Tyron appeared to Patriarch Evdoxios and told him to instruct the faithful to consume only boiled wheat (‘kolyva’). The faithful responded accordingly and were able to continue the fast! This miracle is commemorated annually on the third Saturday of Souls.

Information from: The Greek Orthodox Church of Holy Resurrection.

Apart from the religious, ritual background behind this food, this is really something which you should try.


In my cookbook  Mint, Cinnamon & Blossom Water, Flavours of Cyprus, Kopiaste as well as in Volume 2 of the e-cookbook, it is listed under desserts because it is sweet and very delicious and it is such a pity we only make this during such unpleasant occasions.

Kopiaste and Kali Orexi,

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14 Responses

  1. A wonderful custom! Thanks for the detailed and highly interesting information!

    Cheers and have a nice weekend,


  2. This is a wonderful celebration of life Ivy. It is also a perfect way to remember our loved ones in a special way.

  3. What an interesting tradition !! In Sicily they make somthing similar with wheat in honour of Santa Lucia.

  4. Whilst “mnymosyna’ aren’t the happiest of moments, the kollyva are delicious. I love all the combination of ingredients…I’m so glad you covered this Ivy.

  5. Ivy, what a lovely, lovely tradition and custom. Honoring our parents and anyone who has “crossed over” I believe blesses you and yours. May you be blessed with the remembrences of your beloved mother. The dish looks beautiful.

  6. Thank you for sharing your beautiful custom. This delicious dish is a great way to honor our parents and to remember our deceased loved ones.

  7. Nice piece of info…

  8. Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece of Greek culture with us Ivy. I enjoyed reading about it very much.

  9. Interesting folklore. Thanks for sharing it. Very similar to a Syrian dish I’m familiar with.

  10. giz

    I learned alot from this post. I find most interesting all the symbolism embedded with each date and ingredient. Although this must have been a difficult post for you to create, you certainly did help the rest of us understand things a little more.

  11. Diana

    I am a romanian. We are also greek orthodox, even there are a lot of things different from Cyprus church related traditions. When I tasted for the first time this version of kolyva(coliva in our language) I though it was disgusting (and I still think it is). I mean no offence, but is so different then romanian version. Ours you can eat like a sweet after dinner, is that good. Our recipe is with whole wheat, walnuts, biscuits, candies, sugar or honey, no other seeds are added.
    I am really intrigued, is the greek version different then these also?

  12. Nautus

    Just a note, kolliva comes from the ancient Greek kollybo which was part of the ancient Greek ritual of offering the mixture of seeds/grain/barley/dried fruit during the funeral. It predates Christianity.

    • Ivy

      Thank you for your comment. I agree with you that a lot of Christian traditions come from ancient Greece, this one originating from panspermia and pankarpia.

  13. Jannet

    I just love reading about different traditions from different beliefs. It is remarkable how much effort people will put into the death and memorial of a loved one. Let us not forget those who were so dear to us.

    Thank you!