Greek Carnivals

There are two distinct periods of Carnival in Greece (as if one were not enough), the first formerly stretched over the «twelve days» of Christmas, and the second takes place during the three weeks before the beginning of Lent.

The first, the «Carnival of the Twelve Days,» was widespread throughout northern and central regions of the mainland, and unknown in southern Greece and the islands. At the beginning of the twentieth century, A. J. B. Wace collected evidence of these celebrations. The observance of the festivities had at that time already begun to break down, and they were performed only for part of that period, taking place at different times in different places. In some locations they were held on the eve and festival of Saint Basil, in Southern Macedonia and Thessaly on the vigil and day of Theofania. In some districts the carnival was observed on several other occasions.

Despite many local variations, the basic form of the festivities seems to have been essentially the same. Teams of revellers would go from house to house in costume, singing carols and sometimes dancing. The costumes would represent human and animal figures, and sometimes they would be mere disguises, their original significance no longer remembered. The revellers would be fortified by spirits, and rival teams would sometimes engage in friendly combat with clubs or poles when they encountered each other. This practice was variously known as Rogatsaria, Lykokatzaria or Kallikantzaria.

The revellers might also perform crude dramatic sketches, their costumes being dictated by the requirements of the drama. This was everywhere essentially the same, and in its fullest form, had three distinct parts: «the Death and Resurrection,» «the Wedding,» and «the Ploughing.» The details of the actual plays, together with their manner of performance, differed from place to place, and the names given to the characters and their appearance was subject to considerable modification. In some places one element might be more prominent than another, and in most places some of the features of the general pattern had disappeared.

The following description, in which the drama of «the Death and Resurrection» was the most prominent element, was recorded by a A. J. P. Wace from a local informant at Kokkotoi, a small village in Othrys, south of Halmyros, during the last years of the nineteenth century, at a date when that part of Greece was comparatively unaffected by the corrosion of modern ideas and attitudes.

Towards sunset on the eve of Theofania the youths and boys of the village would assemble in bands, usually of about twelve in number. Each group would select four of their company to play the acting roles, with the remainder being divided into two equal choruses. The acting parts were the Bride, Bridegroom, Moor and Doctor. The youths would dress for their part as their resources allowed. At Kokkotoi, the Bridegroom would wear a fustanella, a red fez, tie sheep bells around his waist, and carry a «sword». His Bride would be a boy dressed in the customary bridal costume of the district. The Moor wore a black mask of sheep or goatskin and a sheepskin cloak. The Doctor was dressed in a black coat and hat, so as to resemble a contemporary educated middle class professional gentleman.

When suitably prepared, the band would go from house to house performing their play. At each stop, the «bridegroom» would hammer with unnecessary force on the door with his sword. When admitted, the chorus would stand in a semi-circle with the actors in the middle. All would then sing a carol: «Today is Theofania, and the enlightenment, and great joys for our Lord. At the river Jordan they praise Him, and they worship Him. And there is the Virgin Our Lady, and in her wonder-working hands she carries swaddling clothes, and holds a child, and she entreats Saint John, `Saint John! Forerunner, can you baptize a divine child?’ `I can and I will, and I worship, but let Him wait till the morning. To-morrow the heavens will open, and dews will fall, and He will cast down the idols, and will bless springs and waters.»

Then the two choruses would sing one of a variety of different songs addressed to the householders and chosen for their suitability. Each chorus would sing two lines alternately, and at the end the Moor would shout «Ha, ha, ha!» and stamp his foot.

o a prominent man, they would sing: «Master, master, five times master, this village does not befit you. Only the factories in the cities befit you; that you may handle gold and sift small change. Treat the lads with the siftings, master treat them. They are stained with mud. Treat them, that they may go to the wine shop and wish you well; that you may grow white like Olympus, and white like the pigeons. «

o a farmer they would sing: «Master, when you begin to sow, may your plough be of apple-tree, or pomegranate, and your yoke of quince, and the ox-goad you carry a rose branch; your black oxen in the yoke, the white oxen in the plough, and the brown oxen in the heavily-loaded threshing floor; that you may reap a hundred tallies, and three thousand okes. And again, it is little that we have said: may God make them better. «

o a shepherd: «In these marble-paved courts may there be given a hundred sheep, and three thousand goats, and the countless active kids run like ants, and buzz like bees. «

o a youth recently engaged, they would sing: «Do you hear, my vigorous, slender boy with the arched eyebrows, do you hear your loved one’s bidding? Go and take your kiss, lest it rain or snow, and the river come down and carry away the bridge. «

The actors would then begin their dramatic performance. The Moor would approach the bride in an over-familiar manner and steal a kiss. The Bridegroom would object to his taking such liberties, and he and the Moor would quarrel. This would culminate in the Moor killing the Bridegroom. The Bride would first fling herself onto his body, grieving loudly; then recover somewhat, and hurry off to get the Doctor. He would arrive with all the fine airs of a professional gentleman, and there would be a lot of humour in his performance: feeling the victim’s pulse, vigorously thumping his chest, forcing soap into his mouth, and so on. After this pantomime, the Bridegroom would suddenly recover, and, leaping to his feet, dance with the other actors. Wace concluded his account tersely: «The play usually ends with an obscene pantomime between the Bride and Bridegroom.»

The performers expected to be rewarded for their trouble with money, food or wine: «but if there are any chickens about they do not hesitate to steal them,» Wace reported. This was the accepted practice.

If the mummers were not received, and the door was kept closed against them, they would sing a suitable song outside the house:

«Master, in your dirty house, full of crows, half are laying eggs, half are hatching them, and half are pecking out your eyes. » The mummers would also exact revenge by doing at least some token damage to the owner’s trees and vines before moving on.

Wace was himself able to visit the area himself in 1910, when it had been incorporated into the Greek kingdom. He found that, «Since the days of Turkish rule the festival has lost much of its former glory; education, the desire to be European, and the police, who object to chicken stealing, have all contributed to lessen its importance.» At Platonos he witnessed bands of boys trying to carry out the traditional custom while being harassed by the police. Under these circumstances, the performers especially dressed for their parts had been reduced to two, the Bride and Groom. The boys who played the Bride were by this time dressed only in the ordinary clothes of a girl, or even with just a token girls’ kerchief tied around the head; although the Groom had managed to retain his traditional finery. At that time, the spectators would themselves «take liberties» with the Bride, and would themselves «kill» the Groom. Mostly, however, the bands simply waylaid passers-by and sang their songs to them, while the Bride flourished an orange or apple in their faces and the Groom threatened them with his sword until they had paid something. In that district, the drama had already begun to disappear.

Clearly this ritual, or some form of it, lies behind many of the customs which survive across Northern and Central Greece today and are observed during this period and into Spring. In some places the drama has declined into mere masquerading, while in others it has developed into a form of folk theatre, with a variety of stock situations.
The performers believe that what they do is not merely a matter of recreation or amusement, but it is «for good fortune» in the coming year, and is intended in some way to secure a good season for the crops.

The twelve day period of the mid-winter holiday, beginning with Christmas and ending with Epiphany or Theophania, had been a period of special celebration throughout large parts of the ancient world. At the winter solstice in the Roman Empire the celebration of the popular festival of the Saturnalia took place. Identifying the Roman god Saturn with the Greek Chronos, the Greeks called it the Chronia. As Lucian described it, on those days only bakers and confectioners would work. No class differences should be evident, and roles might even be reversed, with servants being served by their masters. He wrote that during this period, «Old men should become children again.» Presents were customarily exchanged.

In Greece these festivities were held under the strong influence of the cult of the god Dionysos, widespread throughout the north and centre of the country. This merrymaking continued into the Christian era, for the Synod of Trullo of 652 condemned masquerading, drunken merry-making, and calling out the name «Dionysos» during the winter festival season.

Having failed to suppress the festivities, the Church attempted, by the introduction of Christian celebrations, to take over and hallow them, but this was only partly successful. It is clear that the ancient spirit long continued everywhere. In particular, the country people, the original pagani, or «pagans», resisted any attempt to erode their customs, and clung tenaciously to their old ways. In consequence, they have survived into the twentieth century, particularly in Thessaly, Macedonia, and Thrace.

Curiously, however, in each district, there seems to have arisen a unique «explanation» for the origin of the festivities in that particular place. Although these pseudo-explanations differ from one place to another, they tend to attach what are clearly local survivals of a widespread ancient practice, the real purpose of which may have been lost to the folk-memory, to some concrete historical, or pseudo-historical, event. The folk-lore scholar George Aikaterinides points out that these different «explanations» cannot account for what are clearly local variants of a general, and ancient, pattern. Pseudo-explanations have been produced in order to account for customs which had been observed from time immemorial, but which were frequently subject to very hostile pressure from a Church which saw them as both licentious and evil. The attaching to them of some harmless «historical explanation» seems not merely to be a product of the ever-present desire to explain what may not be at the time explicable, but also a defence against ecclesiastical pressures. To celebrate a «historical event» would seem a harmless and unobjectionable practice, quite innocent of any pagan associations.

o Volaka, Drama: On January 7th, teams of five or six «Moors» (arapides) roam the streets of the town with blackened faces, wearing sheepskins and bells, and holding short swords. Each team includes a Groom and a Bride. On the next day these two participate in a mock wedding, which is followed by a communal party.

o Neo Monastiri, Domokou: People wearing animal masks dance in the village square and parade with a «camel».

o Pyrgi, Drama: On Theophania and the next day revellers party with blackened faces, wearing animal skins and bells.

o Kali Vrisi, Drama: Communal meals are held on the evenings before Christmas and New Year. At dawn on Theophania the householders go around their houses with ashes from the midwinter fire to exorcise the kalikantzari, the demons of winter. After the liturgy, men dressed in animal masks gather outside the church and go from house to house in teams. Later, children dressed in white bull-like head-dresses with horns and wearing pantaloons dance around a bonfire.

o Galatitsa: There is a procession of masqueraders which prominently feature a mock «camel.»

o Grevena: Youths take out the icons from the Church, and run through the streets with them, led by a cross bearer. Later, they dance around a bonfire.

o Palaiochori, Chalkidikis: Men dressed in foustanellas perform a dance with mock scimitars.

o Lowland Thessaly: On the vigil of Theofania, young men in costumes representing the Grandfather, Grandmother, Groom, Bride, Bear-keeper and Bear go from house to house, where they are offered food and drink. Afterwards they hold parties in their houses.
The «Moors» (Arapides) of Monastiraki, Drama On Theophania, January 6th teams of masqueraders pass through the village of Monastiraki, near Drama. Here, as in many places, the element of masquerade takes the most prominent role in the celebrations.

The figures take four forms. The most impressive, the «Moors» (Arapides) take their name from the dark character of their impressive costume, which takes some considerable time, and the help of friends, to put on. They dress in the long, black, shaggy shepherds’ overcoat and a tall goatskin mask, and wear three heavy sheep bells around the waist. In one hand the Moor holds a wooden sword, and in the other a pouch full of ash taken from the hearth fires which have burned continuously over the twelve days of Christmas, which is used to tap passers-by for luck. They are accompanied by the gilinges, men dressed in female clothes, the papoudes, dressed in the stylised clothes of the rural male, and the evzones, or tsolides, who wear the national costume of the foustanella.

To the accompaniment of local instruments, the lyra and daires (a large tambourine), the teams of masqueraders make their way through the streets of the town, visiting all the houses in turn, wishing householders a «good year», and receiving treats in return. When the various groups arrive in the main square, they all take part in a communal dance. During this part of the proceedings, a mock bear with its keeper traditionally makes its appearance. Finally, a ceremonial ploughing takes place, the arapides drawing the plough and one of the pappoudes guiding it, to ensure «a good new year.»

On the slopes of Mount Pangaion in Macedonia lies the small township of Nikisiani. Each year on the feast of Saint John (January 7th) the «Moors» walk the town, in a variant of the same custom observed in Monastiraki. A little after noon, companies of between three and six, frequently led by a character dressed in the foustanella, may be seen abroad.

The Nikisianis «Moors» wear shoes manufactured from hide, the calves above wrapped in fabric of ewe’s wool, bound with leather strips of sheep or goat hide. They also wear the loose woollen pantaloons, usually white, which were once local dress. Above, they have a knitted woollen vest with long sleeves, and above this a short, shaggy shepherds’ cloak which reaches below the knees. Under this, at the back, are stuffed sufficient leaves of the maize plant to form a distinct hump. Hanging around the waist by a rope, which also sustains the hump above, are four bells. Three are small, of different sizes and taken from the goats. The fourth and largest, of wrought iron, is worn in the middle, with another one immediately on either side. Each «Moor» wears a black mask of animal hide, finished off with a conical-shaped headdress. This is sustained by a wicker framework inside, and stuffed with maize leaves. From it is suspended an embroidered kerchief. A large wooden knife like a sword completes his accoutrements.

When the «Moors» roam through the streets of the town preceded by a large drum, the noise of their bells echoes across the countryside. They progress along the alleys using small dance steps, ringing their bells rhythmically, and brandishing their «swords». At intervals the group will pause and frisk about in a particular spot. Suddenly two moors will pretend to fight, and one will fall down as though dead. All the others will lie on top of him and lament. Then he will get up as though risen again. After some time, they converge onto the main square, where they reenact the drama of «Death and Resurrection» once more. Afterwards, there is dancing, which lasts until the evening.

Formerly this custom took place on three days, January 151, 6th and 7th but now it is confined to the afternoon of the last day, although in memory of the former practice, on the other days small companies of children roam the streets ringing sheep and goat bells.

There are many local «explanations» advanced for this practice. The dress of the «Moors» is said to represent John the Baptist, who wore bells at the baptism of Christ to make known to the world what was happening. Others say that the bells represent the victory of Alexander the Great over the Indians, when bells were used by Macedonian soldiers to frighten the elephants, causing them to panic and unseat their riders.

It is said that when, on this day one year, the inhabitants dressed up in their animal costumes and emerged from their homes making demonic noises, they so frightened the Turks that they fled, abandoning the village to the Greeks.

For millennia many Greeks known as Pontians, from the Greek name for the Black Sea (Pontos Efxinos) have lived on the shores of north-eastern Asia Minor. In their isolation, they have preserved many interesting variants of ancient Greek customs. Threatened by genocide during the years following the First World War, many of them left their homes and settled within the boundaries of the national state bringing their customs with them.

At this time of the year in Pontos the element of drama was the most prominent part of the Twelve-Day Carnival festivities, and had been developed into a distinctive art form. The Momoyeroi, or mummers, would perform a variety of short plays which had broken free from the traditional limited stock of plots normally found in Greece proper.

This is striking evidence of the power of the Dionysian religious festivities to evolve into recognisable drama in different places at different times and in different ways. The Dionysian festival, which was transmuted into the high drama of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes in the theatre of Athens, evolved many centuries later into a tradition of popular satirical drama among the countrypeople of the Pontus region.

This form of popular theatre lapsed in many places during the 1950s, but it has been revived during the 1970-80s, and today traditional performances are staged in several villages in the neighbourhood of Drama.

Although Greece was, until recently very much a male dominated society, on the January 8th, the day of Saint Domna, patron saint of midwives and old women, in some of the villages of northern Greece inhabited by refugees from Eastern Thrace, the weaker sex traditionally asserts itself.

In these villages the sexes exchange roles for the day. Those women who are old enough to have children congregate in the village squares and sit in the kafenions, while the men stay at home and, theoretically at least, busy themselves with housework. Any men who dare show their faces in public on this day, other than the musicians required to entertain the women and accompany their festivities, are chased and doused with water, or otherwise harassed and intimidated. It is said that the women use their time of liberation to gather in the kafenions, sing bawdy songs and tell off-colour jokes.

In some of the villages near Nigrita, the women take presents to the midwife. She used to receive them seated on a throne decorated with orange blossom, and hung about with onions and garlic, and wearing a necklace of figs, grapes and carobs. Today, however, the women put flowers into her hair. They then hold a rowdy party. Four women hold the midwife by the sides and armpits as their leader dances before her. At the end, they process with her to the village spring with song and dancing, where they soak her with water.

It is known that similar festivals were held in ancient times. At the Skira in Athens, for just one day the women left their homes and met together in a mock parliament, in imitation of their husbands. It was this institution which was the basis of Aristophanes’ comedy The Parliament of Women. It seems likely that today’s custom is a survival of that ancient tradition.

Saint Athanasios day in January 18th is a day for the performance of public animal sacrifice, followed by a communal meal, in many parts of northern Greece.

As Saint Tryfon is the protector of farmers and their crops, Saint Tryfon’s Day (February 1st) is an important occasion in the countryside. Holy water from the church is taken to sprinkle the gardens and fields, especially the vineyards.

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