One might be tempted to think that it’s all doom and gloom in Greece these days, but you don’t know much about this country if you’ve never experienced Greek carnival. And for a group of people who really know how to party, you need look no further than Naxos...
It’s believed that the roots of Carnival in Greece can be traced back to antiquity and the cult worship of Dionysus, the Greek god synonymous with wine and merrymaking. And since it’s well known that Naxos is considered the birthplace of Dionysus, it comes as no surprise that carnival customs seem to be related to ancient celebrations in honour of the god himself.
The word ‘carnival’ – Latin in origin – corresponds with the Greek word apokries, which refers to the three week period (Triodion) before the Orthodox ‘Clean Monday’, the beginning of Lent. Apokries literally means to say goodbye to the meat eating period (apo=away from, kreas=meat), in the same way carnival can be defined as carne=meat and vale=to take leave of.
Although carnival is not itself an element of Christianity, nevertheless it is firmly linked to the customs and traditions pertaining to the Lenten period signaled by Clean Monday and, in the Western church, Ash Wednesday. It has come to be closely related to the cultural heritage of each region, many of the dominant themes being satirical and with the frequent representation of phallic symbols. Apokries is celebrated with much gaiety and enthusiasm as the ‘last fling’ before the asceticism and austerity of Lent.
Festivities on Naxos begin in the first week of the Triodion with the slaughter of pigs (xoirosfagia) which will be consumed following the Lenten fast. During the three week period there is a spate of fancy dress (costume) parties and other events. Children mostly, but adults too, dress up in masquerade and make the rounds of the neighbourhood. It all culminates with wild celebrations over the final carnival weekend (Tyrinis).
In Melanes, there is a carnival procession of men of all ages wearing costumes adorned with coloured ribbons, accompanied by attendants carrying banners and, of course, musicians. The men are known locally as the Kordelatoi (from the Greek for ribbon, kordella). On Sunday the banner is carried in another parade, this time accompanied by rifle fire signaling the start of festivities. The banner usually carries an image of Markos Botsaris (1790-1823), a much revered hero who died during the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. Men of all ages are dressed by the women of their family in white shirts, short women’s pants with a lace trimming (vraki), and a waistcoat (gileko) with multi-coloured silk scarves and ribbons attached at the back. Red bows adorn the arms, a lacy cotton pleated knee-length skirt (giros) is combined with a multi-coloured tie and necklaces. To complete the costume, each of the Kordelatoi wears a pair of colourful women’s knitted socks, black shoes and a red fez on his head embellished with a gold tassel, various ornaments and artificial flowers!
Starting at the local village café, they dance to the music all the way to the nearby villages of Potamia, Kinidaros and Engares. At each village they visit, locals await them with food and drink. At first the men independently dance the Ballos, a high-spirited dance to the accompaniment of violins and lutes, before encouraging the women to join in. They are sometimes followed by the ‘robbers’ who try to wrest away the local girls and force them to reluctantly join in the celebrations.
In Apeiranthos some of the villagers masquerade in local costume with rows of bells tied with chunky rope around their waists. Accompanying these Koundounatoi (from the Greek for bell, koudouni) is a procession of interesting characters: a parade of men (Ambelades) wearing thick felt capes with a hood and a thin piece of cloth covering the face plus a scarf tied around the neck. Each carries a long, lightweight, wooden distaff (somba) similar to a Dionysian phallus in one hand. It is fashioned and cut from the centre of the Agave americana cactus plant (in Greek, athanato, or ‘immortal’) This large Century Plant can be found growing throughout Naxos and other parts of Greece. The men hit whoever happens to be in their path with their stick, and many bystanders provoke them in a playful manner. In the other hand they carry a basket of eggs gathered from the houses as they go about teasing and provoking residents. The Koundounatoi dance, jump and run as the bells clang in a deafening racket, enticing one and all to follow and join in the celebrations. As they run into the main square they encounter a circle of young girls and youths in costume, dancing to the rhythm of the local bagpipe (tzampouna or gida) and the tempo of a handheld drum – the doumbaki – that accompanies it.
Performances take place as the Koudounatoi run and jump in between the dancers. Other carnival characters join the revelers: the Old Man (Yeros), and his wife (Gria) – the Gria is usually a man masquerading as a woman. Along with them comes the Bear in full shaggy sheepskin, with a large bell (bouka) hung around its neck. The Bear leader drags the Bear in on a rope, encouraging not only the Bear but everyone to dance. Spectators are also witness to the ‘Ploughing’ (a type of fertility rite). The arrival of the Bride (again a man masquerading as a woman) on a donkey accompanied by the Groom signals the acting out of the ‘Wedding’, ‘Death’ and ‘Resurrection’. Last of all come the Paliomaskaroi with heavily smudged and blackened faces, who also tease and provoke bystanders and procession characters. This ancient ritual appears to awaken and revive some primaeval heritage buried deep in the psyche of present day villagers.
Further evidence of this legacy can be seen on the last Saturday of carnival when the Lambadifories (the torchlit procession, from the Greek lambada=torch and fories=bearer) takes place. A relatively modern tradition, begun in 1995, the Lambadifories has continued to grow in popularity year by year and has become one of the main carnival attractions in Naxos Town. Participants, many carrying lighted bamboo torches, are dressed in white sheets tied with raffia around the waist. They wear a white bandana and their faces are painted white with black shadows around the eyes and lips.
As the procession slowly wends its way to the main road by way of the narrow streets leading down from the Castro, the participants beat drums, dancing, shouting and lighting flares. Emerging onto the paralia, the procession pauses, and an effigy is burned to signify an ending and a new beginning. Street and shop lights are dimmed or extinguished en route. The high energy dancing continues all the way along the paralia as far as the main square where revelers and spectators imbibe hot rakomelo (raki mixed with honey) and keep dancing to the rhythm of the tzambouna until they are completely exhausted. Angeliki Efstadiou, one of the organisers, describes it as: “Giving rise to the untamed in the soul.” Amen!
The spectacular Lambadifories (torchlit procession) in Naxos Town is planned to take place this year on Saturday 5 March, starting just after sunset. Don’t miss it!
See video clips of the Lambadifories on Youtube at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-Ehfx_ukNk and on Facebook - search for “labathifories”.
For a more detailed description of the Lambadifories see Kathy’s article in the March 2009 issue of Paros Life & Naxos Life at www.paroslife.com