The year I lived in Athens after I finished university, I had my first glimpse of the Greek version of carnival or Apokries in the Plaka district; I remember Athenians in bright costumes, happily spraying one another with streamers. Then, with a few days off from teaching, I took buses north to Kalambaka to see the Meteora, those strange stubby rocks that rise so sheer from the flat plains that monks of old saw fit to build monasteries on top. On Kathari Deftera, Clean Monday, people picnicked outdoors although the snow was only just melting, and there was a whiff of ouzo on sunny café terraces, while at night the town smelled of woodsmoke from the roaring fires that made bars cosy and warm.
I’ve written before here about the Apokries, the three weeks (or Triodion) before Lent. This year it began on 21 February, and lasts until Sunday 13 March. Traditionally it’s a time for revelry and celebration; this weekend there will be parties where people wear funny or spooky fancy dress.
Here on Tilos, it began with the Gaitanaki, a dance around a pole with intertwined ribbons like a maypole. The event – which has only been brought back into practice in recent years – was scheduled to happen on the Sunday but delayed, perhaps because the strong winds made it impossible; it happened instead in a rather impromptu way a few days later, when the crew from Alpha TV were here getting documentary footage for their 60 Lepta Ellada programme (perhaps to be aired later this month). So the performances by the Tilos dance troupe and the schoolchildren were filmed by the drone flying overhead. It was a small but happy crowd gathered in the square, drinking red wine from Petrino and eating pork souvlaki sticks from the barbecue. For me, having missed Greek dance classes for a while, the best part was joining in a few dances again. Though once the firecrackers started going off, Lisa was shaking with fear so we retreated to Megalo Horio...
While the religious festivals and the big, contemporary carnival parades that take place in certain cities have an appeal of their own – and in ancient times the worshippers of Dionysus would apparently run around waving giant phalluses to encourage the earth to be reborn after the winter, which must have been quite funny - I am fascinated by the pagan roots of these springtime rites. It’s all to do with driving out the bad spirits to make way for the good. It’s also to ensure health and fertility and the fruitfulness of the land.
A century or so ago, the masquerades were darker and more raw and mysterious, with animal masks and fur hoods. And even today in some parts of the north of Greece it's still the same, in Kavala and Drama, where the masquerades happen during the twelve days between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, just before the winter equinox when the days are shortest. I first learned about these traditions at the Museum of Greek Folk Art and you can see a couple of costumes on their website (http://www.melt.gr/en/collection/the-collection/masquerades/, while I also found some wonderful photographs online by Georgios Tatakis:
At Sohos, north of Thessaloniki, at Apokries people walk through the streets wearing long, twisted goat horns, bells and wigs, blowing horns. In Drama, they dress as ‘Arapides’ in fur and feathers, as I found in photos by Lefteris Zopidis:
The ‘Karnavali’ character dresses in goatskins, a tall hat covered in streamers and a mask with a horse-hair moustache. In the final week of Apokries people roam the streets offering ouzo, dancing and jangling bells. Making a noise is important – to frighten off bad spirits, it seems, and awaken the sleeping earth.
The closest thing to mummeries on the islands seems to be on Skyros, technically one of the Sporades but far from Skiathos and Skopelos, nearer to Evia. It draws huge crowds from Athens for the celebrations; locals dress as ‘Yeri’ or old men, their faces blackened or hidden with goatskin or cloth, fur costumes, belts hung with huge bells which clang as they troop around the streets. There’s drinking and traditional dancing, of course.
While researching all this online I learned of the festival of ‘Boules’ that takes place at Apokries in Naoussa, the well-known wine-producing region of Macedonia. Men dressing as women and women as men is a common element of the carnival, but it has a special twist here during the masked dance of the ‘Yanitzari’ or Janissary and the ‘Boules’, the Bride. Masks are made of cloth and beeswax with a horsehair moustache, and covered with a trailing turban; costumes are covered in jangling coins.
The Janissaries were soldiers of the Ottoman sultans. Greek boys were taken by force from their families when young and brought up as Muslims. Although the village of Naoussa was for a long while exempt from sending its sons to be Janissaries, in 1705 the Ottomans came to recruit from there too. The locals rebelled and killed those who had come to take away their children. It led to harsh and violent reprisals on the community by the Ottomans.
From then on, the masked dance had a special purpose among the people of Naoussa. It enabled them to hold secret meetings to plot their uprising against Turkish rule, since rebels could slip down from the mountains secretly in disguise. The event, dressed up as a wedding ritual, allowed people to slip money, food and messages to the rebels, and for others to join them. Naoussa rose up against the Turks in 1822 – and was totally destroyed in further reprisals. A sad tale, but one of courage too and the determination of the Greek people to seek their freedom.
Here on Tilos, it feels as though the dark days of winter are over – in fact, this year, we’ve barely had any. The sky and the sea are often blue - which is lovely, although locals have said if it doesn't rain more, animals might die, and we'll have a problem with our own water supply. The fields are full of flowers and awash with colours, red and purple, yellow and white; my favourites are the poppies that glow in the sunshine, and the white and pink spikes of cyclamen, though there are delightful splashes of mauve and pink everywhere you walk.
Last week there was another celebration in the Dodecanese – the day of liberation when this group of islands finally shook off the days (the centuries!) of occupation and repression. After the Ottoman Turks, the Italians, and the Germans - then three years of transition under British rule after World War Two - the Dodecanese became united with Greece on 7 March 1948.
I'd like to sign off here saying 'I'm off to put on my goat horns and bells, blacken my face and join the party!' But it's all quiet here on our little sokaki of Megalo Horio...
Thanks to an article by Mela Kubara and to the ‘Dance Archive’ which I used as sources for some of this research, as well as the Museum of Greek Folk Art.