LAMBADIFORIES: The torchlit procession in Naxos Town
By Kathy Koutelieri, March 2009
The torchlit procession in Naxos Town
Every year from the beginning of Triodio – the three-week period preceding the first Sunday in Lent until Clean Monday – (Kathara Deftera) Naxos renews its association
with Dionysos, the ancient deity of merrymaking.
The grass roots celebrations performed by the local people during this period often emulate ancient ceremonies once performed to honour Dionysos and his mortal conquest, Ariadne.
On the first Saturday of Triodio, along with the “slaying of the pig” (hoirosfagia) –
a longtime tradition in certain mountain villages – Naxos reverberates with the sounds of the goatskin bagpipe (tzampouna) and the handheld drum with its goatskin covering (doumpakia) echoing the traditional musical roots of the island. As Carnival progresses costumed bell ringers (koudounatoi), youths adorned in long white shirts swathed with lace and ribbons (kordylates), and people performing masquerades appear as if from nowhere. The ancient spirit of Carnival is revived, awakening a primeval heritage buried deep in the psyche of present day residents.
In the vein of this ancient spirit, during the Carnival period of 1995, an idea grew spontaneously among a group of friends and acquaintances. They were basically a team of Naxians who had banded together five months earlier to create the Naxos Cinema Club. There was no precise plan, all they knew was that they wanted to do something to express themselves in a way that would release them from their inhibitions and routine. They wanted it to be of Greek devising - a celebration (ksefantoma) that would be a way to get rid of the stress of everyday life, a psychological cleansing of the soul.
So an initial group of about 20 revelers gathered in the Cultural Centre in the Castro. Each of them carried a white sheet, the easiest prop available and the most convenient for disguise. No one knew where it would lead, or what would happen. First of all, they made holes in the middle of the sheets and draped them over their clothes. Then they impulsively tore strips from the sheets to make belts to tie around their waists. Other strips garlanded their foreheads. One member suggested they paint their faces white. Then they added black circles of ash and kohl to define the eyes and lips. Black and white, yin and yang, dark and light, they followed ancient and pagan patterns without being deliberately aware of what they were creating. Someone produced strands of straw which they also tied around their waists and foreheads. Ash and straw combined inadvertently to symbolize the earth and a bond with agricultural roots. Many held long bamboo torches, others percussion instruments, while some brandished black and white painted effigies on sticks.
A cloth wick soaked in kerosene protruding from the top of a tin can and wedged into the bamboo torch was lit and kept burning, lighting the way as they weaved through the narrow alleyways of the darkened Castro in a Bacchian dance that eventually spilled into the main road and ultimately onto the Paralia. The dance moved slowly to the accompaniment of deafening whoops and cries along with the percussion instruments and the beating of a couple of bass drums as well as several smaller handheld drums (doumpakia). Unsuspecting bystanders became alarmed as the revelers hopped and danced from sidewalk to sidewalk. At certain points outside the businesses of family and friends, the procession marked time.
Eventually the torchbearers (lampadifories - Greek for lampada-torch and foreas - carrier or conveyor) made their way to the port. From there they continued whooping and laughing all the way up to the Temple of Apollo. Lighted flares filled the darkened spaces, bathing the Portara in an eerie reddish glow. From there they turned around and headed back to the main square by the port. Those who were not exhausted continued dancing to the tune of the drums until they too had to finally give up!
That’s how it all started. Just like that. And that’s how it has continued, on the last Saturday of Carnival, more or less every year since 1995 – with the exception of one year when it was not held as a show of protest for funding. The Torchlight Procession (Lampadifories) is organized and funded by the Naxos Cinema Club with support from the Naxos Youth Group (Koinotita Neon). In recent years it has also received funding from the Cultural Organization of the Naxos Council.
Anyone over the age of 13-14 is able to join in the merrymaking. It has become something of a tradition, a rite of passage, for the young of Naxos, some of whom cannot wait until they are old enough to experience the Lambadifories for the first time.
That is part of the secret. While it is an amazing spectacle to watch, participation is the key to unleashing the primordial spirit. Since ancient times people have participated in lambadifories, especially in the northern regions of Greece – a number of these ceremonies have been adapted and are still carried on to the present day. The ‘panic’ of the torchlight procession seems to come unconsciously from pagan rituals to venerate Pan which may have been followed in Naxos in former times. Associated with pleasure and merriment, Pan played a flute while he danced.
Perhaps it is not by coincidence that those who participate in the Lambadifories say they are transformed by the ‘dance’, admitting:
“We weren’t ourselves. We were naked souls unmasked… light from light, true gods… free beings…”
“…I was existing in a universe where the only dimensions were torchlight, the beat of drums and inarticulate cries. A universe created from light. And I was there to exorcise, through dancing, an age-old fear, to forget… but don’t forget what I have told you must remain a secret.”
Perhaps too, it is the very combination of these ancient Dionysian and Apollonian elements (Dionysos is represented by intoxication and ecstasy, Apollo by the light, Pan by the dance) that makes the Lambadifories so unique and why it continues to thrive. Whatever secret it may hold the Lambadifories has become an integral part of Carnival in Chora. A book of photographs has been published by Vassilis Bakalos and several articles have been written for magazines. Eva Hatzaki also included it in “Sights and Sounds” – a short film documentary about Naxos.
It is certainly the most important event taking place in the Chora during Carnival and has captured the imagination of many residents and visitors. More significantly, since its inception, it has been embraced by each new generation of Naxiotes. Herein lays the vital link for the continuing success of the Lambadifories. If you missed it this time around, keep it in mind for next year. You just might discover the secret hidden within.
Many thanks to: Angeliki Efstadiou for allowing me to interview her and publish her poem and to Vassilis Bakalos for use of photographic material. Quotations from: 1) Archatos, tri-monthly magazine sponsored by SPEIRA Advertising & Publishing Services and other Naxos businesses, TEYXOS 3 December-February, 2006. 2) Bakalos, Vassilis Lambadifories (self-published) 2005.
Angeliki Efstadiou, (long time president and main organizer of the Lambadifories) was inspired to write this poem.
Wind, Rocks, Seas
Mountains, caves, Citadels
Byzantine churches and Holy Temples
Dimitra, Dionysos, Apollo
Artemis, Ariadne and St Nicholas
Gods mythic, heroes and Saints
On the same land
Giving rise to the untamed in the soul
And the need for expression inside
space-time, giving birth to the Happening