It is well known that the Christian religion ‘borrowed’ some of its symbolism and ceremony from Pagan beliefs and this is the case with the tradition that we all know today as Carnival or ‘Apokries’, as we say in Greece.
The word ‘carnival’ has been linked to the Latin ‘carne levare’ which means ‘the discontinuation of eating meat’. The Greek word ‘Apokria’ has the exact same meaning. Other sources suggest that the word comes from the Late Latin expression ‘carne vale’ which means ‘farewell to meat’, signifying the last few days when one was allowed to eat meat before the fasting period of Lent began.
The roots of carnival reach back to the Greek Dionysia festivals, held in ancient Athens in honour of the god Dionysus and second in importance only to the Panathenia. This event took place in early spring, and although the official celebrations were commemorated by the best theatrical performances of the day, in essence it was a celebration of fertility and re-birth.
Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, was often seen as the god of everything uncivilized. He represented liberation from formality and from one’s normal self. His mission was to mingle wine and music and bring on transformation by inducing a state of ecstasy. This was typically a
time to let go of all inhibitions, challenge boundaries, values, hierarchies and established laws. His followers would race through the streets
dancing wildly, some brandishing giant phalluses, banging drums, singing rude songs and causing a general ruckus. This was done for two reasons; to banish harmful spirits and to wake up Mother Nature and provoke her from the bowels of the earth to come back to life.
Many of these rites have survived into Christianity as a way of maintaining balance between man's connection to nature and the divine. In early Christian times, the most famous traditions, including parades and masquerading, are first noted in medieval Italy. The mask is thought to be a descendant of the ancient clay masks worn by actors in ancient Greek comedy and satirical drama, an element of role-reversal from the Dionysian cults. The Romans made many different masks representing the various types of comedy. Centuries later, in Northern Italy, the Commedia dell'Arte was developed, introducing the characters of Harlequin and Columbine with their respective masks and guises. The mask was – and still is – a very important element of carnival because it allows the wearer to remain anonymous and thus lose their ‘respectable self’ and relive the passion and frenzy of Dionysia.
Carnival today is celebrated zealously all over the world, the largest and most famous of all, of course, being Brazil's spectacular annual Rio
Carnival. In Greece, Apokries begins 60 days before Easter and lasts for the three weeks called the ‘Triodion’. This word comes from ‘tris odes’ meaning the three hymns that are sung in church during this period. The first week is called ‘Profini’ (announcement) because traditionally, someone on a tall hill top would announce the beginning of Carnival. The fun starts on the second week which is called
‘Kreatini’ (meat week) and on that Thursday we celebrate ‘Tsiknopempti’ which I like to call ‘stinky Thursday’. Traditionally everyone must cook meat until the smoke or ‘tsikna’ permeates the air so that everyone knows it’s a feast day. Not a good day for practicing vegetarians!
On this day the first masqueraders make their appearance and the carnival season officially begins. Apokries ends on ‘Kathara Deftera’ or ‘Clean Monday’ and the 40 day period of Lent begins; a much needed rest from the merriment and necessary purification of body and spirit.
The festival in the city of Tyrnavos is one of the most famous carnivals in Greece. Faithful to the old traditions, the people of Tyrnavos still honour Dionysus with various festivities, the most famous being the ‘cooking the bourani’, a vegetable soup served on ‘Dirty Monday’.
During the cooking of the soup, the ‘bourani people’ do a lot of teasing and parading about with phallic symbols.
In Naoussa (Northern Greece) ‘boules’, or masqueraders put on wedding gowns and hide their faces behind masks. They then parade through the town with kilted men called ‘vianitsari’ and create an enormous racket, whipping everyone into a frenzy of song and dance.
The traditional ‘dance of the elders’ is still practiced on the island of Skyros by young men in shepherd’s costumes, masks and wearing a unique belt made of 50 or 60 large bells around their waists. They perform an ancient dance passed down from one generation to the next. The steps of the dance are very important because they control the sound of the bells.
Another unusual tradition of carnival is practiced in the seaside village of Galaxidi, better known as the flour fights or ‘alevromata’ of Galaxidi. On Clean Monday, residents young and old jam the streets and engage in a fight with coloured flour. The end result is a whirl of bright colour. One can certainly say that the people of Galaxidi do not lack originality!
Last, but by no means least, there are the carnival celebrations held on Naxos. The island is considered to be the birthplace of Dionysus, so the islanders feel a kind of kinship with him. The celebrations start on the first Saturday of carnival, with the slaughter of pigs and other festivities. At noon on the last Sunday of carnival in the beautiful, traditional village of Apeiranthos, the ‘Koudounati’ (people wearing bells) make their appearance wearing cloaks and hoods as they parade through the village making as much noise as they can. There are also the ‘Kordelati’, the ‘Yeros and the Gria’ and the ‘Levendes’ who grab the local girls and make them join in the dancing and celebrations until dawn.
Visitors can also admire a number of unique festivities held in various villages around the island such as ‘the brides wedding’, the ‘resurrection of the dead’ and the ‘plowing’ fertility rite.
Carnival is a very important cultural tradition, rich with social and spiritual symbolism. Those of us lucky enough to be in Greece during this time should take advantage of the many celebrations taking place, almost certainly, somewhere nearby. We must also support local efforts to keep these traditions alive; they will serve as rites of passage for our children and generations after them. How can we hope to progress successfully into the future without preserving a living memory of our past, of our ancestors, because that is exactly what cultural heritage is; a living memory, a vital testament of where we came from, who we are, and what we can become.