Fertile soil of festive Greece

The kallikantzaroi are coming. Now the month of December is here, the countdown has begun to Christmas Eve when these mischievous creatures will emerge to create mayhem for the next 12 days. The solution – to keep a fire burning in the hearth – is not for those who lack a fireplace. But at least it is provided, along with other customs, in «Festive Greece, A Calendar of Tradition,» by John L. Tomkinson (Anagnosis Publications, 2003). Divided partly by season (starting with mid-winter) and partly by festival period (such as Carnival and Eastertide), the book is precisely what its title says it is: a calendar of the various celebrations that occur all over Greece, with the stress on the fascinating folk observances that still dot the country. So, apart from the need to learn the exact starting date for kallikantzaroi-related trouble, why should one buy the book? In a modern world, what the reader gets are the last remaining traditions of a vanishing pastoral and agricultural world whose prime concern was fertility. Tomkinson plausibly makes the case that many customs today are survivals of old pagan – particularly Dionysiac – rites of which the kalogeros Carnival rite that takes place in some villages of Macedonia is described in detail. During this celebration, a villager playing a king is drawn along in a chariot. He goes from house to house, offering wine to the householders and is preceded by the kalogeros, who is dressed in «a rough sack… down to his knees, a belt… hung with bells… a mask made from a pumpkin and shaped like the muzzle of a beast with holes for the eyes and mouth. Hide is fastened round his neck…» A grotesque figure indeed, who smears everyone with a wet oven cloth on a stick while the king’s bridle-holder makes coarse jokes. The parade arrives at the village square where the king’s carriage is placed in mud and is the center of a tug-of-war between the old men and the young. The latter, who always win (good luck is thus ensured), then draw the plough, steered by the kalogeros. On the second circuit, he hands over a basket of seeds, corn and beans to the king who then scatters the grains on the earth, praying for a harvest of plenty. The invocations are coarse, and the book refrains, out of delicacy, from giving them in full: «May the maize grow as long as the king’s…» is an example. In the horseplay that follows, the kalogeros is thrown into a water tank before he takes off his hat of hide to lead the men in a dance around the square. For Tomkinson, the car or chariot «recalls the carts used to pull Dionysus into town for this time of the year» (the modern Cheese Monday, during the Carnival period) while the plough and the scattering of seeds are obviously fertility rites. «The death and resurrection of a sacred figure» – the risen kalogeros – «is also a very common representation of the annual cycle of vegetation.» One can also overdo the connection. Can the lewd phallic display in the Thessalian town of Tyrnavo (p. 53) really be a survival of Dionysian revels? And is there a connection between Bacchic rites and the Anastenaria, the well-known fire-walking ritual conducted by refugees from Eastern Thrace at Aghia Eleni near Serres (which also hosts the kalogeros festival)? The fire-walkers, or Anastenarides as they are known, who dance on hot embers in a trance-like state on May 21st, the feast day of saints Constantine and Helen, might or might not be the modern successors of the Bacchic Maenads – Dionysiac/Orphic ecstatic rites that were particularly associated with Thrace – but Tomkinson admits that «there is no evidence in ancient literature of fire-walking rituals associated with Dionysus.» Fire-walking and ecstatic religious rituals, are of course, very widespread in the world, so the roots of the Anastenaria, or the Nestinarstvo in Bulgarian, are lost in the mists of time. Bulgarian websites tend to stress an ancient Thracian origin, and call it a relic of an ancient solar ritual. Take your pick, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. While the book traces the continuity with an ancient past, backed by the ancient vase paintings accompanying the photos, it also shows the changes wrought by the twin forces of the Orthodox Church on the one hand, which attempted to suppress, or at any rate tame, pagan rites, and modernity in the form of the State on the other, which, sometimes understandably, suppressed the «more uncivilized» elements. Indeed, the photographs in the book are fascinating in the contrast between the stiffly formal, military parades of modern origin and the bawdy, anarchic, animalistic celebrations of old. As old, richly complex folklore elements become crudely oversimplified and the commercialized, plastic modern world tightens its hold, one needs to grab as many of these books as possible. Tomkinson is the author of a series of books that shed light on a lesser-known Greece, such as guides to Athens and Attica that deal with their more uncommon aspects; this is one of them. A clear presentation, with different headlined sections for each day or festival and bullets introducing the different customs in various places, to some extent compensates for a rather uninteresting layout and the uneven quality of the photographs – some look like snapshots. The book itself feels as though it has been rather hastily cobbled together from other sources; there is an overall thematic unity, but some sections (the Anastenaria) are over-long chunks without any breaks. The terms have not always been correctly translated: Great Week is used for Holy Week, and it should be the Dormition, and not the Falling Asleep, of the Virgin. A good proof-reader could have ironed this all out, together with the «hose races» at Plomari (on the same island) – the ordinary quadruped is implied (p. 107). An index is also a sore necessity. These are perhaps quibbles, and for someone wanting to know where to go and more particularly, when, this is the book for them.