Every year in Northern Greece, Dionysian traditional events take place over the Christmas days, from 23 December to 8 January. Spanning back centuries, these activities, customs and ceremonies have their roots firmly fixed in the traditions of this region and comprise key elements of the local culture. In this article, we explore the rituals that I happened to be present and photograph, over a course of four years; events which not only unify a community but also offer insight into its spiritual heritage. Here then is my experience with Pagan / Dionysian customary festive practices in Northern Greece.
Fires of Achlada
The fires of Christmas is an ancient custom that is very widespread in the villages around Florina in Greece. Large bonfires are being set in central squares and each village tries to make a bigger and better fire than their neighbours. These fires usually take place on 23 December each year.
The initial idea was to go to the fires of Florina and make images, but I always like to find more surreal places that are less crowded and maybe more original. I set to travel towards some villages that I saw on the map near the borders of North Macedonia. I liked the scenery while travelling to the village of Achlada, which at times was surreal enough for me.
I was lucky enough to spot the wooden construction set on the square of Achlada, so I stopped the car to ask when they were going to light it. A group of children had prepared the place and set the construction to be set on fire. The chief of the gang was Dimitris.
We had fun with the kids and they even gave me a tour around the village.
A small shack had been set up nearby the woods by the children with any materials they could find. Nylon, old mattresses and plywood.
The fire was due to start at midnight and everyone was anxious, especially the children. People had gathered around a fire drinking wine and eating local delicacies, such as roast sausages. Soon, it was midnight and the fire started.
Everyone sat around the fire and had fun until the fire started to go off. Some of the people would go to the local bar and have a few more drinks. I had to go to sleep as I had a very early start the next morning.
Fires of Giourouki
While waiting for the fire of Achlada to start at midnight, the people I met there told me to go together to the next village, Giourouki, to see the fire there as well. They would start that earlier than Achlada, since that was a smaller village and most of the local people there would visit the big fire of Achlada later.
I went on foot since it was less than a kilometre away. We met the people there who were very friendly and inviting. They invited me inside the basement of a local home. Everyone was sitting there as a table had been set and there was plenty of food, mainly sausages and meat as well as plenty of local wine of course. I joined them at the table and took some drinks and food.
It was around nine in the evening, that everyone started to gather outside. There was a large pile of branches and other wood. The fire was lit and soon a large bonfire was at play.
It was a very nice and cosy experience and when the fire started to go off, we made our way to Achlada.
Fires of Sotira
On another occasion, I visited a village nearby the famous Pozar warm springs, called Sotira. I was passing by while searching for fires around the Florina vicinity when I noticed by chance this big pile of wood that was being built. The people who were working on building that pile told me that they would light the fire during the night. I thought to stay and take some photographs and then come back later at night to take some more.
Indeed, on the same night, 23 January, people had gathered around the pile, and at some point, maybe around 10pm the pile was lit and a large bonfire started. Since many people prefer to visit Florina at midnight which is a bigger city to see the fires and meet up with more people, many fires in smaller places tend to be lit a bit earlier so that you still have time to visit Florina as well. There was some wine and food to go along while watching the fire burning up.
The Fires of Florina
I personally prefer to visit smaller places than Florina during the Christmas fires on 23 January each year, since they tend to produce better photos. Florina is a city, so the cars, streets and crowd do not help much with this purpose.
However, I have visited Florina, as it has a long tradition of these fires and most people know of this custom. The municipality also helps to build huge piles of wood, by bringing in heavy machinery, so the city shines with fires, as many different ones light up at midnight.
Purpuris at Issaakion
Didimoticho is a city in Greece near the Greek-Turkish borders. I am always intrigued by places that at least sound remote. It is a rather long trip to reach there if you are travelling by car. It takes three and a half hours to reach there from Thessaloniki. I found shelter in a guest house, owned by the local municipality which is a renovated old mansion in the city. This was really nice and cosy. It could probably sleep over twenty people, but I had it all to myself. The custom would take place on 27 December in the nearby village of Isaakio. Each year the date changes, but is always around the 27th. That was only two kilometres away from the city so it was very convenient. Luckily, I went to a tavern to have lunch in Didimoticho and overheard two men talking about the custom. I talked to them and one of them, Apostolos, was the president of the Isaakio cultural club, the organizing party of the custom. This was very useful as we learned a lot about the custom.
It is true, that many of the Thracian traditions and customs are not widely known to the rest of Greece. This makes it very interesting for me as a photographer, as I feel I am discovering something new. It is always useful to look at something with fresh eyes, thus being able to make images of things that a local may oversee. Early in the morning, I arrived in the village and the weather was very cold. I looked for shelter and found the local cafe. At first sight, I thought it was closed but on my second round by car, I saw a couple of people inside. I stopped the car and went inside. A big wooden stove was sitting in the middle and the place had the sweet warmth of the burning wood.
I had coffee and chatted with a local, Christos, about the custom. These villages had been originally built by refugees coming from Turkey across the river Evros, following the Lausanne Treaty in 1923. They had chosen this place so they would be able to see their old houses across the river. They had brought their customs together, one of them being Purpuris.
Purpuris would get dressed inside the local cultural club, whereas the dancers would dress up in Didimoticho. Purpuris has to wear a mask at all times and never show his face. This mask is made of a pumpkin and the original purpose served to guerrilla soldiers that wanted to visit their families during the fight for Independence. They would dress up like that and pretend to serve the custom, they were able to come and visit their loved ones.
After they are all ready, the music starts and the parade will visit the church of the village to get a blessing from the local priest. Two people were dressed up as Purpuris. In the old days, they used to have five of them, because the village was formed of five different groups. Each one of them would have its own Purpuris.
The group will be visiting the houses of the village and dancing around their yards. They will wish prosperity and fertility for the year to come and the house owner will treat them with food and drinks, usually Tsipouro (a Greek alcoholic drink made from distilled grapes).
This custom had ceased for a long period of time and started only a few years ago again. It is interesting to see some old people's happiness and sentiment at seeing this custom being revived.
The custom will continue in the same manner and late in the afternoon, it will end with a dance in the church's square until late at night.
It was a great day and made me curious to get to know more about the customs of Evros throughout the whole year. I am sure I will be back there very soon and explore more of the local peculiarities.
During my stay at Didimotichon, I had the chance to take some photos of the local female traditional costumes of the area. Specifically, Apostolos arranged to shoot the costumes of Makra Gefyra, Issaakion and Metaxades.
Kastoria & Prespes lakes
As I have visited Northern Greece on several occasions to photograph the traditional Dionysian customs that take place during the Christmas period, I would have days where no event would take place. This gave me the opportunity to visit places and enjoy the scenery in several towns. Kastoria is a really beautiful lake town and a great opportunity for a quick getaway. The Prespes lakes that are not too far away are a feast for one's eyes.
During my stay at Kastoria, I managed to also photograph the local traditional costumes. I have shot both the urban costumes around the city of Kastoria, inside traditional houses and mansions, as well as the rural costumes in the village of Lefki.
At Lefki, we had to break inside the house to do the shooting as the owners were not at the village at the time. Of course, they gave us their consent over the phone to enter their house which gave us an interesting backdrop for our photographs.
New Year's fires of Psarades, at Prespa lake
During one of these trips, I wanted to visit the two Prespa Lakes which have a great reputation for landscape beauty. I am not too much of a landscape guy, but since I had a few spare days, I thought it might be a good idea. The visit was really worth it since the landscape is indeed surreal and beautiful. The serenity and calmness of the place really take you over. I visited the small village of Psarades, which is the only village on the shore of the Great Prespa lake. This lake is shared between Greece, N. Macedonia and Albania.
The idea was to pay a small visit and leave on the same day, but I really fell in love with the place. To make things even better, there were some big wooden towers set on the shore of the lake and children were carrying branches and filling them up. I suspected they were up to something so I inquired. They said they were preparing the Fires. These are two bonfires that are lit on New Year's Eve to welcome the New Year. One of the towers was really high, probably around 10 meters from the ground, so that really looked like it would be interesting.
Therefore the one-day trip quickly changed to a four-day stay. During those days I enjoyed strolls along the lake, boat trips to the nearby caves and a very interesting visit to the Small Prespa lake and an islet inside, Saint Achilles. This small island has many medieval ruins on it, even with an old ruined Cathedral. There are also many animals like sheep and pigs.
I even came across some fishermen pulling their nets full of fish on the wooden bridge that connects the islet of Saint Achilles to the mainland.
If you are visiting, make sure that you will have the local giant beans dish. The area is very famous for the production of giant beans. All dishes were actually magnificent and you can actually taste the lake fish which are very tasty and meaty. The children were very anxious to start the fires because last year they couldn't because of the rainy weather. If you want to see the fires, make sure that you visit a few days before, as the weather forecast might shift the date of the event by a few days. They were going to start two fires. A smaller one first and a huge one second. I arrived on time, but the children were too anxious to wait for the correct time. I saw the small fire burning from afar.
Everyone was standing around enjoying the fire, listening to the crackling sound of the fire, and waiting for the tower to collapse. At last, they could see the result of their effort.
Soon after they lit the biggest pile. They used wooden sticks with cloth wrapped around the top and lamp oil.
The fire was soon lit and the burning was so intense that you could not stand to a radius of probably 30 meters away. Everyone enjoyed the magnificent fire and its warmth with music, food and Tsipouro (a traditional alcoholic drink made from distilled grapes). The fire burned for over half an hour before collapsing. The wood was probably burning until the next morning.
During my stay at Prespes, I had once more the opportunity to photograph the local traditional female costumes of the area. I did several shootings around the lakes, at St Achillios islet, but also at a local farm in one of the villages of the vicinity.
Christmas period at Florina's cafés
If you happen to be in Florina around this period, you can experience a nice custom inside the local cafés. There are several small bands with brass instruments that move around and enter local cafés, entertaining the customers with Balkan beats. It is a kind of carol but in a different manner. People in the cafés cheer up and will give money to the musicians.
New Year's Eve in Argos Orestikon
I had been staying in Kastoria around New Year's Eve and the weather was really fit for Christmas. It was rather cold and some snow had made its appearance around. In Kastoria downtown, a big Christmas tree made out of bulbs was in place which made the city look very cosy.
I had heard about a nice way of celebrating the New Year in the nearby town of Argos Orestikon. This is a feast that did strike me as odd and at the same time was a very pleasant surprise. In Argos Orestikon they celebrate New Year's Eve with a crazy carnival on the streets around the town.
There is an interesting story that happened in Northern Greece, after its Independence from Ottoman rule. Ottoman people, interested in European culture, had started forming bands with orchestral instruments, mainly brass ones. After the Greek Revolution, the Ottoman people fled the country and of course left these instruments behind. After some time, Greek people were opening warehouses and kept on finding brass instruments inside.
Therefore, they started playing and taking ideas from neighbouring countries they developed an ear for Balkan music. Even nowadays people in Northern Greece like to play and dance to this kind of music. That's what they do during the festival for the New Year in Argos Orestikon. People are wearing carnival costumes and small groups with brass instruments are forming around the streets, playing and dancing to Balkan music.
When midnight is near, everyone is gathering around the central square and dances. At midnight there are fireworks and whatnot and everyone hanging and kissing. It was probably one of the most interesting New Year Eves I had. I am quite fond of Balkan music so it made my night very beautiful. It was probably one of the most interesting New Year Eves I had.
Because the night is quite cold, everyone goes inside the nearby bars and continues to dance till the morning. However, there is still fun outside!
New Year's Eve at Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, is packed with people during both Christmas and New Year Eves. During one of my visits on New Year's Eve, several groups visited the city to present their local customs. One of them was the group from Palaiokastron, presenting the custom of "Fotarades". A group dressed in the local costume, holding wooden swords, dancing in a ritualistic manner.
Another group was also present on the same day, which was the "Kotsamania" from the villages around Kozani. Similarly, they dance in a ritualistic manner, wearing special costumes for the occasion. You can find out more about Kotsamania, in another blog post, dedicated to this custom. See the relevant posts at the bottom.
One of the local customs during these days at Thessaloniki, is for people to gather around the local grocery market of Kapani downtown, to have lunch and drinks and enjoy local bands passing by, playing Balkan rhythms with brass instruments. The place is overcrowded and is even difficult to walk around due to the crowd.
New year Carnival around Klisoura
I got to know the carnival in Klisoura after having some small talk with the owner of the hotel I was staying at Kastoria. I stayed there because I had some time between the New Year's festivities at Argos Orestikon and the Bell bearers' customs at the villages of Drama. On the first day of the Year Argkoutsaria (Carnivals in the Vlach language) are celebrated in the historic town of Klisoura.
Klisoura is a traditional Aromanian (Vlach) settlement and a former municipality in Kastoria regional unit, West Macedonia, Greece. On 5 April 1944, the German occupation forces executed 280 inhabitants as retaliation for the killing of three Nazi soldiers by ELAS guerrilla forces operating under Alexis Rosios just outside the village at the location Ntaouli.
The clothing since 1904, the beginning of the Macedonian revolution, has changed to the Macedonian warrior’s one, which includes the cloak, fustanella, a stiff white kilt, worn by men in Greece, and tsarouchia, a type of shoe, which is typically known nowadays as part of the traditional uniform. Tsarouchia are typically made of a number of pieces of stiff leather hand-sewn together, in the moccasin fashion. They have a characteristic pointy nose, usually covered by a large woollen pompom.
The only difference in the carnival version of the uniform is that the participants wear a mask (face) as well. They all prepare in an opening about 200 meters away from the central square and help each other wear their masks. When everyone is ready they start parading/ dancing towards the central square of the village.
Around the square, the dancing begins. The men in uniform start to dance. There are certain roles as well, that of a bride, a Turkish tax collector and some more. They dance to traditional Vlach music and as soon as they finish at the square they start entering the surrounding cafes and tavernas making some noise and making everyone dance. While dancing everyone around is cheering and asking for certain dances to be performed by the dancing team.
Buffalos at Lake Kerkini
In the region of Serres, lies the lake of Kerkini, which is a nice day trip to enjoy the scenery and the serenity of the lake. Nearby the village of Keriki, there is a buffalo farm, which can be visited by anyone to see the buffalos up close. I made this trip on one occasion and managed to take some photographs of the animals.
Another interesting lake in the greater vicinity, is lake Doirani, at the Greek - N. Macedonian borders. The lake has an otherworldly, eery appearance, enhanced by the trees grown inside the water.
Wedding representation at Galatista
On a very snowy day today, I could hardly move the car out of the highway. I was looking for a custom I'd heard about in a village near Galatista, Ayios Prodromos. After arriving at this village, which was covered in thick snow, I left my car rather far from the centre as I couldn't move it further and went on foot. The village was oddly quiet, so I opened the door of the first tavern I saw from afar which chimney was smoking and inquired. This custom had stopped for over 10 years now. "Oh, there is the wedding at Galatista however, I think", the owner said. I had never heard of this one, so I said why not?
These wedding representations take place in many places in Greece, but this one had the peculiarity that all actors were children. Since this is a Dionysian custom, as in all Greek ancient drama, all actors are males, therefore the bride's role is also performed by a male actor, in this case by a boy.
Carnival wedding representation in Germas village
While staying in my hotel in Kastoria, I had no clue about the customs taking place in the surrounding villages. The main idea was to spend a few days in this beautiful town and then go to Drama during the Epiphany to make images of the Pagan customs that take place over there. My last stop was Argos Orestikon to experience the New Year festivities, so Kastoria was the nearest town with sufficient lodging. Chatting with the hotel owner, however, revealed that there were more things to see in the villages around Kastoria. He was the one to tell me about the Klisoura carnival as well. This guy was born and raised in the nearby village of Germas. Thus, he mentioned that another peculiar event takes place over there. On 2 January each year, a carnival wedding representation takes place. There is, of course, dancing and drinking involved, as well as music played by brass instruments. Germas is a 30-minute drive from Kastoria and the road is quite easy, following valleys between mountains. It was easy to find where the event takes place because there is only one square in the village, where three huge trees, a big church and a café live. Obvious, right?
I was as always a little bit earlier, the wedding was due between 1 and 2 pm, so I had some time to hang around, and see the village and the café with the locals.
After a while musicians came by to prepare for the event. At some point, someone came over and said, "Hey photographer! The bride is coming!". I went out and saw The groom carrying his bride-to-be on a donkey and, alas! the bride was a man too, a bearded one for all that matters.
The instruments had already started playing and at soon as the bride and groom arrived, they went inside the café. A fake wedding takes place with the priest and all at the square, but I didn't stay for this part outside, as I was more fascinated by what was taking place inside the cafe. In Greece, we are not too used to attending festivals with Balkan rhythms like Bregovic and so on so that was a very pleasant surprise for me. I really enjoyed the fun inside the cafe and all the dancing and drinking.
Most of the men were dancing solo with the rest cheering and clapping to the rhythm around them. There was a lot of shot of drinking and tipping the musicians.
After the fake wedding was finished outdoors, the party moved to the central square where everyone danced in a big circle, the bride at the front, to traditional Greek music. A lot of free wine was available for everyone. It was like a real wedding!
Blessing the water at Koronea Lake
On Epiphany, 6 January, the water is blessed and a cross is being cast in the sea, lake or nearby river for that purpose. Some men will dive in to catch the cross. The one who gets it will have luck in the following year.
I was looking for a nice place to go on this day and maybe take a picture or two. I thought I would start with villages along lakes and rivers. I started my quest on the previous day of the event. Koronea is a lake near Thessaloniki, where I have seen the small village of Aghios Vassilios. I have decided to go and see this village. When I arrived I really liked the place, especially nearby the lake. The only problem was that I couldn't see the actual lake. I wasn't aware that Koronea lake faces the danger of drying out. However, that fact made the scenery even more surreal.
I have met Vassilis, a local man who told me that there is work taking place to try and restore the lake's former condition. In the old days, the place where I stood to take the portrait of him used to be a lake. Many people would come and visit and take walks by the lake. Nowadays there are hardly any visitors and most of the taverns are closed. There was a small pond nearby where the cross would be cast the next day. That looked really nice to me, so I decided I would come again the next day.
Indeed, the next day I started early and went down the village. The weather was terribly cold and there was some snow around the place. The temperature was near the minus-five Centigrade range. I really couldn't believe that someone would actually dive into the freezing water to catch the cross. After the morning Mass ended in the central church, everyone headed around the pond and parked around it. They would wait inside the cars for the priests to arrive because of the cold.
After the priests came along, they went on with the blessing, I think a bit faster than usual and cast the cross into the water. Two men actually jumped in and one of them caught the cross and kissed it. They came outside the water fast and tried to dry out with a towel before getting the blessing from the priest.
Charapides of Pagoneri
I have been around Pagoneri village the day before the event. I had arrived in Drama early, so I wanted to explore the places and check out the distances. Pagoneri was the most secluded village of all that I was going to visit for the Arapides custom. I really liked the place, especially its architecture. The road as you enter the village has a row of very old houses that are most of them two stories high and look as if they are going to fall down. Because of the location, at the Nevrokopi municipality, it is very common to be snowy during Epiphany, or at least foggy.
The event starts at around three o'clock in the afternoon so you even have plenty of time to start your day in Volakas village and see the custom of taking the newlyweds for a dance inside the waters of the main square's fountain. The name of the custom here in Pagoneri is "Charapides" instead of the most usual "Arapides" of the nearby villages. At the main square of the village, there are some tables and music by local music players and you can have roast sausages or other meat and drink as much wine as you want. Everything is free of charge, but it is good manners to offer a small donation to the village club.
Charapides spread themselves around the square making noise with their pastoral bells that are tied up around their waists. They wear scary masks that are made of goat skin and hold wooden swords in their hands.
More roles are also present in the event. There is the doctor who also wears a mask but his outfit is made of lighter colour fabric. He also has a wooden horse under his legs. Finally, there is the bride, this is actually a man, dressed as a bride.
The peculiarity in this village, compared to similar customs in the nearby villages is that participants play sick/injured and drop on the floor in unsuspected moments. "Chatlis" (doctor) hastens to heal them.
Charapides, are supposed to be the bride’s brothers. Many visitors to the event are stealing the bride and trying to hide her from her brothers. As soon as Charapides realise the imminent danger, rush to get her back.
At some point, they stop for a few minutes to rest but also to visit the local fountains to chase away the Kallikatzaroi from over there. Kallikatzaroi are malicious creatures found in Greek folklore, who dwell underground only to come out during the twelve days of Christmas to cause trouble to humans. This is what Arapides try to scare away and send back to where they belong, underground. This point was very interesting to me as a photographer, because I could make some images without surrounding cars and at a moment when Charapides were more relaxed.
Annual night party in Pyrgi village
I spent the day in different villages, Volakas and Pagoneri and enjoyed the customs of Arapides. Still, I was leaving Pagoneri village and wanted to continue having fun. What fun is there to going back to the hotel room? I had heard about something going on in the village of Pyrgi, which was on the way back to Drama and not too far away. I thought I should give it a go and see what is all about. I parked the car nearby the central square of the village and moved around to see if the villagers are up to something. I saw some people sitting around a table inside a tavern in the central square. One of them turned around and waved inviting me in. I got inside out of curiosity and they told me to sit at the table with them.
These guys had won the cross during Epiphany. It is a custom in Greece and all Orthodox countries to throw a cross into the water after their blessing and people try to catch it afterwards. The winner will have a lucky year. They told me that this is where the party happens but it was too early yet. They had decided to start early since they were happy about catching the cross.
People started coming in slowly and soon the whole place was packed. A small band of traditional instruments started playing songs and even some small girls sang very nicely indeed!
Soon the party was going hot and dancing started. The dancing continues until the morning as the local tradition dictates. It was really fun and I would suggest the place to anyone going there. The locals are very inviting and welcoming and will treat you like a king.
Arapides of Monastiraki
I was only informed about this early morning start the night before. I was having the traditional hot soup with casserole goat in the commencing event of the Pagan Carnivals of the place. I asked around to see where I should be going the day after, as I had arrived in Drama on 5 January. I was already in Monastiraki since this is the place where it all begins. I also travelled all afternoon around the villages to get a feeling of the distances and the different places I was about to visit during the customs. What I learned, was that in Monastiraki, Arapides start visiting houses at around 6 a.m. so I decided I should give it a go. Photographers love the morning light, as well as the light before and during sunset. Especially the ones interested in colours prefer the light of the dawn because the atmosphere is cleaner, therefore the colours more saturated. The last days had been rather cold, at least as far as Greece is concerned, and there was snow by the sides of the roads. The morning frost and fog made the scenery look really nice. Following this custom during that time I think is the best you can do, as the first houses Arapides visit are located on the outskirts of the village and they are on rural grounds. This makes everything look more beautiful. Try to wear good shoes, maybe boots, as the path will be off the road sometimes and you may have to walk on muddy dirt roads for a while.
If you are willing to wake up even earlier, you may be able to catch them getting dressed. They usually do that in a certain house owned by the local cultural club. Arapides walk around the village and have to visit every house in it, to bid good luck and prosperity to the homeowners for the new year. With them, instrument players and dancers follow along, who will dance around the yards of the houses. The homeowner will have offerings for the group (Cheta) to thank them, which most of the time is food and Tsipouro (an alcoholic beverage made from distilled grapes). You are free to grab a bite and have a drink, as long as you too wish them luck and prosperity.
During the whole event, arapides will be banging the large pastoral bells they have attached around their waists. This is to scare away the Kallikantzaroi. Arapides also visit the cemetery to honour their deceased ones and to light their candles. After the visits are finished, a large dance is held in the village's central square.
Babugera during Epiphany
In the village of Kali Vrissi, the custom of “Babugera (or Babugeri)” is revived during Epiphany days (6 to 8 January). These guys are disguised in zoomorphic faces and bear five major pastoral bells around their waistlines. Babugeri dance around the village, teasing people around, by hitting them with a small sack full of ashes.
The village of Kali Vryssi is quite near Drama, the town I had as a base and the largest nearby town at the same time. I had a terrible fever and an over 39 Celsius body temperature, which would make the whole thing a bit more difficult. More specifically, my greatest difficulty was not being able to drink wine from the "Kali Vryssi" tap. The local public spring tap had been connected to a barrel of really nice wine produced by a nearby famous winery (château Lazaridis). The result was a tap that was actually dripping wine instead of water! All you had to do is take your glass and fill it up. That is for free of course.
The place was really crowded on 8 January that I visited. This is the final event that takes around Drama and marks the end of all Christmas - Epiphany festivities. There are local channels, journalists and many many photographers. I could not be too meticulous this time because of feeling too terrible to even move away from my chair but nevertheless did my best to take a few photographs.
A wedding representation takes place on 8 January as well, but the Babugeroi were much more interesting to me. There are different roles and you can also see people dressed up and dancing in traditional costumes. There is even a guy that carries two other guys dressed as bears chained.
The chief of the party is of course Dionysos, the ancient God of wine and fun, who walks around with a pot full of wine and dances along to the rhythm! The chief of the party is of course Dionysos.
Arapides of Profitis
On 6 January, the day of Epiphany, in a village nearby Thessaloniki, called Profitis (Prophet), the custom of Arapides also takes place. The people of the village are dressed in goat's skin, wear colourful long hats and hang large pastoral bells around their waists to scare away the Kallikantzaroi.
I was staying in Thessaloniki at the time, so this was a perfect event to attend. I had visited Koronea lake before to see the blessing of the water since this takes place on the same day earlier in the morning, so I arrived at Profitis just on time. Everything was set up around the central square. A nice stage with musicians was in the centre and they had already started playing music.
Arapides started to gather, coming from all sides of the square. Each one gets dressed up in his place and maybe finds a couple more along the way before getting to the square. The dancing soon starts. Apart from the Arapides, there are many locals dressed in traditional dancing clothes.
When all of the Arapides have gathered, they move off to another place where they will be starting a parade. Traditional instrument players follow along and start a short parade towards the central square.
The party goes on with a lot of dancing, drinking wine and eating local delicacies, including souvlaki and grilled sausages.
Arapides in Volakas
Fascinated by ancient pagan (Dionysian) customs, I have been too intrigued to meet the Arapides of Volakas (Volax), who are amongst the most famous of all, frightful bell bearers that come out on 7 January every year to scare away the "Kallikantzaroi".
January 7 marks the day that the sun starts to move again, so its time for the kallikantzaroi to go back underground and finish sawing the Tree of the World, only to find out that the Tree has healed itself back and they have to start all over again. That is the day when the Arapides of Volakas have to do their job and scare them away to where they belong.
I arrived at the village much earlier than the time of the event. In such events, no one is too punctual with time anyway. I've heard that the Arapides will come out in the afternoon, somewhere between two and three. My idea was to be there at around 10 to 11 in the morning, to make some pictures of the Arapides getting ready. I left Drama at around 9:30. It's an approximately 45-minute drive from the centre of Drama, so I actually arrived a few minutes after 10 in Volakas. When I arrived, there was no one to see outdoors. Everything was too calm and quiet. Of course, it was a bit too cold for anyone to dwell in the open for no good reason, so I took shelter inside a cafe that was next to the central square.
Well, here was everyone after all. The cafe was crowded, maybe even more than ten people inside (!). The plan became clear now. I would have had a nice hot coffee in the cafe and tried to get some information on the event's schedule, thus I started making acquaintances with the locals. I saw two men sitting by the bar, bearing some instruments. A bagpipe and a drum. So I figured that these two would be the best approach from the lot, to get appropriate information. Indeed, they confirmed that the main event will start in the afternoon and also hinted at where I should be looking for houses that Arapides were getting ready.
I went out and started exploring the village. I was too lucky to find too quickly an old garage where maybe the largest Arapides gang (known as "Cheta" locally) was getting ready. The garage door was closed and the same was true with the wooden door by the side, but I could hear all the fuss inside and also knew that it was Arapides getting ready in there, because I'd already been hinted at that, and I could also hear some bells ringing. Therefore, I banged on the side door without hesitation and a man opened it. As soon as he laid eyes on me he looked puzzled, as he wasn't expecting anyone he didn't know. That made me a bit hesitant but nevertheless inquired:
- Hey, I am a photographer and I travelled from Athens to see your custom. Is it OK if I hang out with you guys while you are getting ready and take a few pictures along the way?
- Well... OK, I guess.
That was the first step, and although he was still reluctant, I was sure that they would gain confidence after some time.
- Do you want some whiskey? the peculiar man asked.
Wow, that was an ice-breaker. It was still 11 in the morning, but anyways...
- Sure, I'll pour it myself, thank you!
These guys started drinking probably at 9, I could see the cheer on everyone's faces. I gave a quick look around the place. Wow, that was a great place for pictures. An old garage with tools on the walls, a large pile of fire logs for the winter and many people all getting ready to dress as Arapides. Small windows on one side provided an excellent lighting atmosphere creating light rays and beautiful light pockets here and there.
The Arapides of Volakas wear a hump made of a sack of straw and paint their faces, hands and arms pitch black. They bear bells around their waist as Arapides in other places also do, cover their head in goat’s fleece and hold a thick wooden crook that helps them keep pace while moving, striking the bells. This whole outfit takes about two hours to make ready. They have to put on many layers of blankets around their body so that they look bigger and keep warm when outdoors. Friends are helping each other to tie everything too tight so that they don't get loose with all the bell banging that takes place later on.
All of that took place inside the garage and the Arapides got ready to get their faces painted. Children of course go nuts and wait the whole year for the event to take place.
The painting of the face naturally takes place outside so that they don't make a mess of the houses and garages. In every Cheta there is usually one man who paints everyone's face and arms. Everyone has made a patent on how to better do that. You may use whatever will make a good result, be it coal, shoe paint, actual pitch or anything you can imagine.
Visitors start to gather in the afternoon and the place gets quite crowded, with maybe 200-300 visitors being around us during the peak of the event. The Arapides all meet up on the main road, stand in formation and bang their bells in a synchronized manner. The bells from construction are tuned in certain frequencies in order to sound nice, so the whole thing sounds in sync. The banging is quite loud and the Arapides do look fierce and impressive. I am sure that any Kallikantzaros left would have gone back to the place it belongs.
On the final day of Babiden at Petroussa
Babiden is a three-day celebration that takes place between January 6 and 8 in the village of Petroussa, near the city of Drama and is similar to the Arapides custom. I was staying in Thessaloniki at the time, looking for customs around these days. On 8 January, I decided to make the 160km trip to Petroussa since I had never been to Babiden before.
By the time I arrived in the village, I could feel the tension building up as everyone was getting ready for the celebration. Some of the people in the village would dress up in goat's skin and carry large pastoral bells around their waists, in a similar manner to the Arapides customs. The preparations were taking place inside the local cultural club.
The ones who got ready would go outside to wait so that they would leave more space for the rest. The whole preparation takes rather a long time for each one to get ready. Music by traditional instruments follows along inside the club and of course a lot of wine.
Soon after everyone was ready to go, a parade started and the "Arapides" started to march around the town banging on their bells to make noise. They even had a huge camel with them. The Camel is called "Zacharias" and lives in the village along with a dedicated veterinarian to look after her and is taken out only to march along during the custom of Babiden.
After the first round is finished, the company is gathered outside the club and starts off once more for a second round, following a different route. They will end up at the local school.
Most of the visitors have gathered in the school's yard by now, waiting for the company of Arapides to arrive. When they do, the dance starts. There is also warm stew being served and plenty of wine.
When night falls, a bonfire is lit so that they can dispose of the decorative branches and also warm up the people. The fire starts at an empty plot of land attached to the schoolyard. Everyone helps by feeding the fire with branches.
After the fire has settled, everyone moves away from the school to go back to the local club. Everything that was set up at the schoolyard has to go down now because the next day is a normal school day.
The night goes on inside the club and everyone comes along to dance in the Dionysian trance rhythm, have some wine and get together with other people. The party goes on until early in the morning.
Gynaekokratia at Monokklisia of Serres
This is a custom that takes place on 8 January each year at the village of Monokklisia in Serres, and is the time that women get the "upper hand". It is also known as "The Day of Mpampo". Mpampo is the elder woman who traditionally was the wisest and would also serve as a doula to help local women give birth.
Gynaekokratia is a more modern term, and a bit misleading at the same time, as it means "the ruling of women", but in reality has nothing to do with matriarchy. It is a day dedicated to women, where men have to stay inside and women go out and have fun with their female friends.
Traditionally, the unmarried women of the village will prepare and bring to Mpampo offerings, such as food, wine, as well as towels and soap with which she could wash her hands, signifying the moment that she helps during a birth.
The event then goes on with plenty of dancing, drinking and singing or telling risqué jokes. The whole event and partying take place all around the village. Although meant only for women, visitors are always welcomed!
The Arkoudes of Volakas
This is another event that takes place at Volakas in Drama, this time on 8 January each year, a day after the "Arapides" custom. This custom resembles carnival, as the participants are dressed up as bears (Arkoudes) using animal skins. This time they wear only one bell on their belt, called "Trakarntaki".
I have managed to make some portraits of the Arkoudes before starting off their way to the main square where they would perform the custom. As with any such custom, there is plenty of wine and food to go around and music to dance to.
A wedding representation at Volakas, costumes, and death
On the same day of the Arkoudes custom on 8 January, the wedding representation also takes place. I managed to take some photographs during the preparation of the bride at her home. The friends of the bride-to-be would sing songs to her and the wedding will take place in the main square, where the Arkoudes will also be, amidst lots of music and dancing.
During one of my visits to Volakas, I arranged to also shoot the local traditional female costumes of the place, which are beautiful and very detailed. I was lucky enough to have plenty of snow in my background which made for some nice photographs.
I have also met Yorgos, a local farmer who owned sheep and horses and I tagged along to his farm to take some photographs, while he was herding his stock.
Finally on this same occasion, while Volakas was covered in snow, I happened to witness a funeral. The whole service seemed to me quite ritualistic and traditional and combined with the snow on the landscape, created an epic yet eery atmosphere altogether.
Since the customs we describe surround the circle of the year and the circle of life, I think this is the most appropriate way to close our journey.
Until next time
A few more places that caught my eye
In an effort to become less macabre, I found it a good idea to present a few more photographs around Northern Greece from places that have caught my attention while travelling around, so I picked my camera to take a shot: