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Apokreas / Carnival (Pre-Lenten rituals)

The Masquerade Carnival with pagan roots
which lasts for three weeks

Both the Greek term Apokreas and the Latin one, Carne vale, mean abstinence from meat. The three week period that begins seven weeks before Easter (Greek Orthodox Easter, which is on a different date than that of Catholic Easter) culminates with its most intense celebration on the last Sunday before Kathari Dhevtera (Clean Monday), which begins the seven week pre-Paschal fasting.

It is during Apokreas, more than at any other time of year, that one sees the most dramatic juxtaposition of the two poles that still exist in the Greek consciousness and which exactly parallel the switch from the long pre-Christian era (which simultaneously included both 'pagan' deities such as Pan and Dionysos, as well as Apollo, who represented restraint and pure intellect) to the Christian era that followed, with Christian churches built on top of the old temples, or built with their masonry following upon their demolition. Indeed, annual Apokries customs in Greece much resemble Dionysiac rites.

During Apokries, one sees the indulgence in the earthly passions of wine, food ( and especially meat), dance, song, and open bawdiness.

During the past decade, a noted collector of Greek traditional music, Dhomna Samiou, issued a CD with recordings of some of the bawdy songs sung during this time in various regions of Greece, some of which would make even the most liberal westerner blush (assuming that the listener understood Greek).

The link with the pagan past, and with ancient phallic and fertility rights, is further emphasized by the wearing of animal skins and large goat bells, the latter often chained together around the waist, and which set up a terrific clanging as the wearer moves about or shakes them with his hands, and also with the playing of traditional shepherd's instruments (see instruments, below).

In some places, groups of young men, masked to conceal their identity, roam the village, stopping at houses to sing to the householders, sometimes reviling them in song, much as they did in ancient times.

The masked figures are known as 'maskaradhes' (masqueraders) or 'karnavali' and are often dressed as certain archetypal figures, which include a bride (a man dressed as a woman), groom, old woman, doctor, Gypsy, bear, and others. In a fascinating book entitled 'Traditional Dance in Greek Culture', researcher Yvyonne Hunt ( describes some of the regional Apokries/Karnival customs. A few of them will be mentioned here, just to give an idea of the richness of this custom.

In the Greek Macedonian city of Naoussa is held one of the best of the celebrations involving masqueradhes . The men wear masks, with facial features painted on them, and the short pleated skirts known as fustanellas, with chains of silver coins (florins) and various trinkets across their chests which ring out (like the chains of goat bells mentioned above), with appropriate movements of the wearers' torsos. The din of the silver, like that of the bells, was meant to 'awaken the earth'.

One can easily see the symbolism of these rituals which occur just before the resurrection of the earth in spring (which preceded the Christian version of the resurrection). Though the ritual dress in Naousa preceded the Turkish occupation, it now commemorates the first forced gathering of male children in the city by the Turks in 1705, from which the elite Ottoman guard of 'Janissaries' were taken (Yanitsaria, in Greek).

The following year, youths wearing their guerrilla uniforms wore the traditional masks of the Apokries period, but with the added intent of disguising themselves from the Turks, and the coins on the chest doubled in purpose as body armor. Hence, in Naoussa, the name of Yianitsari is given to the masqueradhes during the Apokries celebrations up through present times.

The 'boula', or bride, accompanies the yianitsari, and is always a man in women's clothes who wears a mask similar to that of 'her' companion. Bands of yianitsaria, often 10 of them with 2 boules, making up a total of 12, which may symbolize the 12 months of the year, roam in bands throughout the city.

In a Peloponnesian village, the celebration itself is known as Yianitsari and resembles the one in Naoussa, but the participants are all male, some of them dressed as women, and they dance with swords. In Sohos, 30 km east of Thessaloniki, the masqueradhes wear an entire costume of animal hides with the fur on the outside and heavy sheep bells hanging from a leather belt, sometimes weighing as much as a total of 25 kilos (55 pounds), and a fitted black coth mask around the head, colorfully embroidered (though goatskin was used in the past). On the head is a tall conical headpiece adorned with colored streamers, trinkets, and the like. A sequined scarf is worn around the neck and crosses over the chest. The participants are called 'karnivali' and carry a shepherd's crook or sword in one hand and bottles of sweet liqueurs in the other, from which they offer drinks to the villagers as they wander about, periodically jumping up and down to set their heavy bells clanging.

The connection of bells and conical with fertility is very strong, with similar customs well known also in Bulgaria (including the wearing of animal hides). During the 1930s in Naoussa, the village president prohibited the custom, but relented for one day, due to the intense local reaction. Local belief in the custom was only reinforced by the very bad year for both crops and livestock that followed this truncated performance of the ritual.

The 'Goat Dance' of Skyros is now a famous example of Greek carnival customs. Here there are teams of men in pairs comprised of the 'geros' (old man) and 'korella' (young girl) . The geros is dressed in shepherd's clothing with a goat skin mask (though of paper or cloth before the 20th century) and the bells tied around his waist in this case may weigh up to 50 kilos (110 pounds). These pairs are accompanied by other characters wuch as a 'Frangos' (Frank, or European), and the 'kyra' (lady), and by gangs of children.

The Patras Annual Carnival

The huge carnival celebration in the Greek port city of Patras is world renowned, and is televised all over Greece while it is occurring. It is famous for being outrageous, with the large local gay population of the city making itself fully visible during this time.