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Carnival on the island of Naxos: Koudounatoi, Kordelatoi and other adventures


Picture this: a tapestry interwoven with ancient Greek traditions, local customs, the unmistakable Cycladic ambience, Aegean hues, boundless revelry, and a feast for the senses. The Naxos Carnival, dubbed the "Dionysian Carnival," orchestrates an authentic celebration across the island during the days of Apokries (Greek Carnival period). Learn about the old customs of Koudounatoi and Kordelatoi and get inside the distillery of "Kitron Naxou"

Carnival on the island of Naxos, Greece: a unique odyssey.

In Naxos Town, a spectacular Dionysian spectacle unfolds, drawing inspiration from ancient Greece. Think Dionysian games, satyrs, maenads, dramatized myths, torchlight processions, traditional music, dance, and an abundance of wine against the backdrop of the mesmerizing Aegean. Yet, the island's vibrant Carnival spirit extends beyond Naxos Town, permeating the villages with their own traditions and unique customs.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
Men dressed as Kordelatoi at Filoti village

Koudounatoi Carnival in Apeiranthos Village, Naxos

In the heart of eastern Naxos, a mesmerizing spectacle unfolds every year on the Sunday of Tyrophagi, drawing both locals and visitors into the age-old tradition of the Koudounatoi. Apeiranthos, the renowned mountain village, provides the perfect stage for this ancient Carnival celebration.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
The Koudounatoi of Apeiranthos village

Discovering Apeiranthos

Nestled in the picturesque landscape of Naxos, Apeiranthos sets the backdrop for the Koudounatoi Carnival. As a curious wanderer, my journey begins with meticulous planning, aiming to unravel the essence of the custom, its origins, and the rituals that define it.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
A girl running around the alleys of Apeiranthos

A Prelude to the Spectacle

The festivities kick off at three in the afternoon, and as I explore the village, a two-story house with a small backyard becomes the heart of preparation. Here, the bell bearers and their entourage gear up for the event, offering a warm welcome to curious onlookers.

Amidst the aroma of freshly baked bread, I meet the homeowner. The hospitality extended includes local wine, cheese, olives, and casserole beef. It's a delightful introduction to the rich culture that permeates Apeiranthos.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
Preparations before the custom of Koudounatoi

The Koudounatoi Unveiled

As the anticipated hour approaches, the Koudounati emerge, men adorned in the distinctive "Ampadeli" cape. Numerous bells, fastened to a rope around their waists, create a symphony of sound. In their hands, they hold the "somba," a sturdy dry branch of a fig tree symbolizing fertility and the Dionysian phallus.

Behind the Scenes of Dressing

Witnessing the meticulous process of dressing reveals a blend of jests, offerings, and skilled techniques to secure the bells snugly on their bodies. The profound love of the locals for their tradition becomes evident, and the preparation takes place at the village's highest point.

A Symphony of Characters

Carnival participants, including a mock bride and groom, sponsors, and a little donkey laden with dowries, gather for the grand descent towards the square. Drums, pipes, and violins accompany their noisy journey, creating a captivating atmosphere.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
Music during the custom of Koudounatoi

Ancient Legacy Shrouded in Mystery

The roots of this event are deeply embedded in the past, shrouded in darkness and magic. References to pirates, ancient Greek Dionysian origins, and semi-mad shepherds add layers of mystique, forming a tapestry of tradition that captivates the imagination.

Rhythmic Revelry

Winding through alleys, the Koudounati initiate a ritualistic dance, their bells creating a symphony to the beat of bagpipes and drums. The strenuous dance, accompanied by traditional Naxian music, is a testament to the weight of the bells.

Dance of Interruptions

The dance is not a solo act; it intertwines with groups of grown-ups, children, and characters surrounding the mock wedding. Interruptions by the Koudounati add an unpredictable twist to the festivities, creating a dynamic spectacle in the heart of the village.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
The Koudounatoi of Apeiranthos on Naxos

A Ritual's End

Lasting approximately a few hours, the custom transforms the central square into a bustling hub. As the energetic dance concludes, the Koudounati pay homage to the departed at the village's graveyard, marking the poignant end to the event.

Sunset and Farewells

As the sun dips below the horizon, the Koudounati disperse, concluding the Carnival tradition. The village square, once teeming with life, returns to tranquillity, echoing the ageless spirit of Apeiranthos.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
Koudounatos at the local cemetery

The Elixir of Naxos: Unraveling the Mystique of Kitro Liqueur

In the heart of Naxos, an island steeped in history and tradition, lies a secret elixir that has captivated connoisseurs for centuries. Kitro of Naxos, a Greek liqueur born from the fragrant leaves of the Citrus medica tree, weaves a tale that intertwines agriculture, commerce, and the artistry of distillation. I have had the fortune of meeting the owner of the distillery who kindly provided a tour of the facilities.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
A vintage poster for Kitron Naxou

A Storied Heritage: Citrus Medica in Naxos

For at least three centuries, the cultivation of Citrus medica and the trade of its precious fruit flourished on Naxos. The fruit, carefully preserved in seawater enhanced with extra salt, was a pivotal element in the island's rural economy. Yet, it was the leaves of the citrus tree that held a special allure, used to impart their delicate and distinctive aroma to the local grape-based spirit, known as "kitrorako."

Historical records attest to the presence of kitrorako in Naxos as early as the 19th century, suggesting its widespread use among viticulturists. Official documents indicate that the production of Kitro of Naxos, the liqueur derived from citrus leaves, commenced at least two centuries ago, with the inaugural export occurring in 1928.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
The owner of the distillery at Kitron Naxou

Timeless Craftsmanship: The Art of Kitro Distillation

Today, Kitro of Naxos stands as a testament to traditional Greek craftsmanship, exclusively produced on the island of Naxos. Securing its place in communal legislation has paved the way for this authentic liqueur to potentially make a mark on the international stage.

The meticulous process of crafting Kitro begins with the harvest of citrus leaves when they reach their full fragrance, typically from October to February. Enduring the biting cold and the sharp thorns of the tree, workers carefully select and clean the leaves, combining them with water and wine spirits in traditional copper stills for a minimum of 12 hours. The distillation process yields 100% citrus distillate.

Depending on the desired quality, a second and third distillation may follow, intensifying the aroma and flavour. Subsequently, the distillate is diluted with water, sugar is added, and natural colours are introduced to distinguish the types of Kitro of Naxos.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
The owner next to a traditional still

The Culmination: Kitro Naxou Unveiled

Kitro of Naxos emerges as a sophisticated and aromatic libation. Upon serving, it releases elegantly sweet citrus notes, tantalizing the senses and transcending into a palate experience. Best enjoyed chilled in a snifter, this elixir is not only a sippable delight but also remarkably approachable, appealing to those who shy away from more potent spirits.

In its variations—ranging from the dry and robust at 36 degrees to the intermediate alcohol content with 33 degrees of sugar and the sweetest, lowest in alcohol at 30 degrees—Kitro of Naxos showcases the diversity within its family.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
The owner of the distillery

The Kordelatoi Phenomenon at the villages of Filoti and Eggares

In the heart of Naxos, a vibrant and timeless custom, known as Kordelatoi, weaves its way through generations, carrying with it the spirit of celebration and community. This age-old tradition, meticulously passed down from one era to the next, stands as a testament to the island's rich cultural tapestry.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
Men dressed as Kordelatoi at Eggares

Unravelling the Origins: A Blend of Orthodoxy and Paganism

The Kordelatoi tradition traces its roots back to the years of Venetian rule, embodying a unique blend of Orthodox and pagan influences. The centrepiece of this ritual is the "Bayraki," a robust pole adorned with a colourful scarf symbolizing abundance and joy, crowned by a cross embellished with locally sourced fruits, particularly oranges.

This ritual served as a means of communication among the Orthodox locals, who found themselves suppressed by the Catholic Venetians holding sway over the fertile lands of the Eggares Valley. 

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
At the local café in Eggares

The Dance of Colours: Attire and Symbolism

During the festive Carnival events, the young men would dress elaborately, donning a unique ensemble. Instead of trousers, they wore improvised "fustanellas," crafted from materials found around the village, adorned with lace and embroidered monograms. Beneath the fustanella, they sported the "grandmother's trousers," also embellished with lace and thick knee-high socks. A colorful vest, adorned with vibrant ribbons (kordeles, thus Kordelatoi) obtained from the dancing "brides," completed the ensemble. A red fez, adorned with a distinctive pin, graced their heads.

The Kordelatoi, exclusively a male tradition, featured the strongest participant as the "Bayraktaris," entrusted with carrying the Bayraki. These Kordelatoi would venture into neighbouring villages, leaving the women behind to welcome and care for the Bayraki alongside their group.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
Men dressed as Kordelatoi at Eggares

Rituals Beyond Merriment: Cultural Exchange and Guardianship

Beyond the revelry and camaraderie that blossomed among the youth during these festivities, the companions of the Kordelatoi engaged in a unique form of cultural exchange. Laden with various products, bartered with the inhabitants of the villages they visited. The Bayraktaris, in addition to coordinating the Fustanellades, safeguarded the Bayraki. In case of convergence with another group of Kordelatoi, a ritualistic crossing of Bayrakis and prayers ensued to avert any conflicts.

Interestingly, a monetary offering to another Bayraktaris demanded repayment at double the amount, adding a nuanced economic dimension to the tradition.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
Man dressed as Kordelatos at Filoti

The Sanctity of the Fustanella: Peace, Happiness, and Progress

The Kordelatoi considered a small army, upheld a strict rule - no one was permitted to touch the fustanella. The fustanella was believed to bring peace, happiness, and prosperity to the community. Kordelatoi played a role in the liberation of the people. The triangular-shaped handkerchiefs tied to their vests held a mysterious significance, enveloping the very essence of the Bayraki.

In conclusion, the Kordelatoi tradition of Naxos stands as a living testament to the island's cultural resilience, blending religious and pagan elements in a tapestry of celebration and community. As the Bayraki continues to weave its way through the ages, the Kordelatoi dance on, preserving a heritage that transcends time.

Carnival on the Island of Naxos, Greece. Black and White Photography by George Tatakis
Koudounatoi & Kordelatoi at Filoti, Naxos