Tassos Karanastassis remembered

Sadly, Tassos (Anastassios) Karanastassis passed away at 55 on March 18, 2010, after a brief struggle with pancreatic cancer. As much as we knew from the beginning that his chances were minimal to none, we still struggle with the facts and his untimely passing: Tassos was full of humor, passion, and energy, much younger than his age, with so much more to offer to family, friends, colleagues, and the study of Medieval Greek.

I came to know Tassos in the early 90's thanks to my interest in the "Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds", and curiosity about two words ("apofoumistades" and "gagkladoradatos") I had found in a small segment of that poem in particular: "he may stop by if he has any further questions", he simply and generously told a common friend, starting a friendship of over 15 years. It turns out that I had many more questions over the years, and so did my coauthor-to-be, Nick Nicholas: Tassos generously adopted our project -- like several projects of others, it must be said -- and remained keenly supportive even after the publication of our book in 2003, always sending us news and facts related to the Tale; incredibly, for example, it was from him and his endless sources that we first learned something missing from our book but widely known to this day, namely the use of water-buffalo milk for the production of Southern Italy's mozzarella cheese!

Tassos' brief notes kept arriving over the years and provided further incentive for visits to his office during my annual or semiannual trips home from America. Each such visit was like a journey to a wonderland, with all that philological material dotted by improbable small items that Tassos avidly collected over the years. (These collections overspilled to his apartment and even bedroom, and we cannot forget him showing us his trophies a couple of hours after midnight with childish enthusiasm.) I still remember a small present to me, a Henry-Matisse-with-nude-model bookmark with the comment "simple things are hard to explain". And how excited he was to find a cardboard box from the days of U.S. emergency aid to Greece in the mid-40's. And how proud he was of the cactus plant he transplanted to his small office balcony from his native Lamia (already almost too north for it, me thinks) and the single cactus fruit he tasted from it. But, above all, it is impossible to forget the way he so knowledgeably and intelligently discussed all things Byzantine and Medieval, lively and detached at the same time, sounding both centuries old and eternally young. He would for example report on a medieval priest's improper offer of baptizing oil to the godmother (for application to a very special part of her body, that is) with a naughty gaze and a firm smile, that's all.

Early in 2003 Tassos' professional affiliation changed, and he moved to the Centre for Byzantine Research, located in a 'neoclassical' building in Eastern Thessaloniki, close to the waterfront. A sizeable garden there offered new opportunities, and Tassos soon became the benefactor of numerous cats, delivering yet another blow to the myth of the exclusively female stray cat feeder. Feeding the cats on his way home -- Tassos typically worked in his office from early afternoon to late evening -- was a nightly ritual I was lucky to participate to on a number of occasions. And we are talking about choice leftovers from home, not friskies! (Hence his immortal comment "but, George, you eat so little anyway, how could you ever save for cats?!") It is such memories that enriched my waterfront walks in the past and make them so painful nowadays: before he fell ill, I would always think of Tassos working in his wonderland as I walked by, and I could on occasion drop by (for a few minutes, in fact hours); now the Centre is still there, but the bastion of Greek that he was has fallen...

For over twenty years Tassos was the driving force behind the ongoing Dictionary of Medieval Greek of Professor Emmanuel Kriaras. He has not been given the due credit for his silent contribution, for which the best testimony in this writer's mind are two vases full of pencils shortened beyond future use. Luckily, Tassos found the time for several publications and, mainly, his 2003 dissertation: in a work requiring a deep knowledge of both medieval culture and living tradition that only he could produce, Tassos argues persuassively for the massively scatological 'liturgy' of "Spanos" ("Beardless Man") being a hostile reaction of local Greeks toward the influx of Sephardic Jews from Spain in the early 16th century; sadly, this work remains unpublished, for Tassos was distracted in recent years by zillions of likewise unpublished emendations to Trapp's ongoing Dictionary of Byzantine Greek (a few of which he has described to me in unimaginable detail).

One more sign of Tassos' devotion to his work was his total abstention from the joys and sorrows of the internet: he never used e-mail and he briefly acquainted himself with the blogosphere, and the blogs of Nick Nicholas and Nikos Sarantakos in particular, only during his illness; the similarity he pointed out, over the phone, between the obscure "lagogeros" and the exotic "ippopotamos" was probably one of his last intellectual exercises.

Tassos is survived by his wife Chryssoula (they married at 19), sons Apostolis and Yioryos, daughter Katerina, brother Vaggelis, and sisters Eleni, Frosso, Christina, and Maria. The funeral took place in Nea Kallikrateia (Chryssoula's hometown and Tassos' swimming heaven), and snow-capped Mount Olympus across Thermaikos Bay did its best to bid farewell.

George Baloglou -- Thessaloniki, March 24, 2010

Tassos Karanastassis and Nick Nicholas (photo and more)

Tassos Karanastassis and the history of Serres (in Greek)