In the heart of Greece, nestled approximately sixty kilometres northeast of Thessaloniki, lies the village of Sohos. Amidst the serene landscapes between Lagadas and Nigrita, residents of Sohos intertwine their lives with the tradition of the Koudounoforoi. These enigmatic figures, known for their transformative impact, fill the streets, stirring both earth and sky, challenging nature and society.
Starting from the New Year, until Ash Monday every year.
Around the town of Sohos. Around 60 km northeast of Thessaloniki, Greece.
Sohos: The Koudounoforoi Phenomenon
The Koudounoforoi, or bell-bearers, present a spectacle like no other. Groups adorned in black goat skins, adorned with dozens of bells known as "koudounia," emerge from all corners, leaping and jingling their bells in rhythmic unison. Particularly striking is their visage, characterized by a mask-like headpiece, known as "kalpaki," which covers the entire face, culminating in a tall crest of ribbons. Crafted from black fabric, and adorned with intricate geometric patterns, these masks feature horsehair moustaches dangling from the mouth area.
I have found myself in the town of Sohos to photograph the portraits of Koudounoforoi, as well as the female local dresses, for my project 'Caryatis'. Our first photo shoot with the 'Foustanousses' took us to the local Museum of Folklore.
A Tradition Steeped in Antiquity
Boasting ancient roots, the carnival of Sohos is deeply entrenched in the fabric of its society. Locals firmly believe that the carnival's success directly influences the fertility of their crops and the fortunes of the year ahead. Its characteristics vividly echo remnants of spring festivals, celebrating fertility and the bountiful yield of the land. Central to this naturalistic narrative stands the figure of Dionysus, symbolizing the cycle of growth and fruition. The Koudounoforoi of Sohos, are a primal vestige of Dionysian worship and Bacchanalian revelry.
With the help of Fanis (no pun intended, this is a name in Greece), we found a few local old abandoned houses around Sohos, so that I could take photographic portraits of both the Koudounoforoi of Sohos, as well as the "Foustanousses", i.e. the women wearing the local dresses.
The Bells of Koudounoforoi
By visiting local houses, I learned that the locals believe that every house in Sohos should own at least a dozen bells. Otherwise, the owner is not considered to be a good family man. Some houses may even keep as many as five to ten dozen! Each one of them can set you back from a few thousand, to up to twenty thousand euros, so that is not a cheap sport.
The set weighs a ton, around twenty kilograms for the larger sets. The Koudounoforoi carry them and dance from day to night around the town of Sohos. I expect that drinking along the way helps you forget about that.
The Amorous Element
What sets the carnival of Sohos apart from other masquerades is its profound amorous essence. In bygone years, young men donned these disguises to court their beloveds, using the carnival as a backdrop to express their affections and attract attention. Various interpretations surround the origins of the carnival, with one narrative intertwining with the tale of Saint Theodore. Legend has it that in the 4th century AD, Saint Theodore, besieged by barbarian forces in a forest, devised a plan to dress his men in goat skins and bells, intimidating the enemy into disarray.
In the old times, when someone wanted to see his loved one, or someone he simply liked, he would visit her house dressed up. No one could say no to the Koudounoforoi, should they visit your house, so that did the trick!
Around the Fields of Sohos
Scouting the area for places to photograph, we drove towards the small chapel of the 'Saranta Martyres' (the forty Martyrs). Along the way, I spotted a couple of fields, homes to single trees, which I thought would make great sets for photography. The Koudounoforoi jumped on a minivan and came over to the spot, just before the sunset. We took some nice portraits with the Koudounoforoi and the Foustanousses of Sohos around those trees.
The cabin in the woods of Sohos
On my second day, the location scouting took us up in the mountains of Sohos. The shady parts along the way, as well as the mountaintop, were still covered with snow. There we found a wooden cabin made by the locals. It is used as a shelter for anyone who delves around the mountains. People who go hunting, want to do a barbeque or picnic, or simply want to enjoy nature, can visit and use this cabin.
I waited until the early afternoon when the Koudounoforoi gathered around the streets of Sohos and asked who wanted to come along to the photo shoot. There was great participation with many of them jumping on different trucks and coming up the mountain.
Embracing Tradition, Inspiring Awe
The carnival of Sohos stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of tradition and the indomitable force of cultural heritage. With each jingle of the bells and each leap of the Koudounoforoi, echoes of ancient rituals reverberate through the ages, reminding us of our intrinsic connection to the rhythms of nature and the depths of human expression.
The photographs below were made around the chapel of Saranta Martyres, at the end of day one. So much do the townsmen of Sohos love their traditions, that one of them, Menios, came from Germany for our photo shoot.
As the Koudounoforoi weave their magic through the streets of Sohos, they weave a tapestry of tradition, binding past, present, and future in a timeless dance of celebration and reverence.
In conclusion, the carnival of Sohos, with its Koudounoforoi at the forefront, stands as a living testament to the enduring legacy of ancient rites and the vibrant spirit of Greek culture.