Apokries - The Greek Carnival
babelmed - 23/02/2004
Να μαζευτούμ’ ολοί μαζί
τώρα τα καρναβάλια,
για να τα πούμε καθαρά,
του καθ’ ενός τα χάλια...
(Lets all gather together
now that carnival time is here,
every one of each other’s faults,
to sing clear...)
Carnival song from Skyros (Manos Falites)
Yianoula Koulourou was not a fortunate woman. A resident of Patras before the Second World War, she claimed to be engaged variously to a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Russian. These doyens of the Great Powers (perhaps due to more pressing engagements elsewhere) left her cruelly at the altar – that is if Koulourou ever got that far. Abandoned by her suitors and the ridiculed by the town, she may seem like a rather pathetic figure: but her delusions left their mark. Fifty years after her death, on the second to last Thursday before Lent, two parades of musicians, dancers and costumed revellers still compete for her affections. The first group - the ‘Beautiful’ - marching down Germanoy Street from north are led by Kefalonians in traditional Ionian costume, singing Italian influenced Cantades on mandolins and fortifying themselves against the biting cold with sweet Mavrodafni wine. The ‘Fat-ones’ walk up from the sea: some of the musicians are gypsies, others residents of the city, a few played daoulas and a group of percussionists from Athens play timberleki hand drums together with bigger, noisier instruments. They meet under the balcony of a neo-classical house in Agiou Giorgiou Square and play for this year’s incarnation of Yianoula Koulourou, the anti-carnival Queen of Patras.
“In a way, I think that we are bigger than Rio,” explains Haris Velaoras, artistic director of the 2004 Patras Carnival with a smile, adding, “proportionally, of course! If you look at the size of the parades: about 30000 people last year, it’s more than a fifth of the entire population of the city.” Fire-eaters, transvestites, popes, clowns and the world’s political leaders gather en masse to march, dance, drink, eat and party into the night. The city centre is transformed into a loud, hedonistic mass of revellers that seemingly erase the town itself and replace it with a transient circus. That a town should choose to so wholeheartedly dedicate itself to its festivities is one of the attractions of Patras carnival.
The Patras carnival has two histories that only came together in 1978. The first is the bourgeois urban carnival with its masked ball and musical events that date back to the early eighteen seventies. The Bourbouli Ball was a party that transformed the strict social codes of the time that did not even allow women onto the streets during carnival nights. The masks they wore together with the ‘dominos’, or black dresses with hoods, gave women an opportunity to escape recognition and enjoy flirting at the carnival, free from the surveillance of protective parents or jealous husbands. The tradition continues today though the costumes of both men and women have evolved significantly and the Bourbouli Ball is now spread out over ten evenings.
The other carnival evolved later, “the treasure hunt began as a challenge set by a pirate radio station in the mid 1960’s – at the time there were only two state channels – and groups of people would drive around in cars following clues from the radio. They might have to go up the mountain to collect a red pine cone or some other absurd object. The teams of four or five people in each car dressed up and decorated their cars. Eventually, around 1974 or 1975, the cars became part of a parade. Decorating them or turning them into floats with a satirical theme became an activity in itself for the revellers. Now the floats move through the city on special trailers and we start making them in May or June. They tend to mock political and national events. This year, for example, we have a giant athletics race where Greek political leaders fight to the finish. The municipality alone spends 300000 Euros on the carnival. The treasure hunt continues, but as traffic increased most people now use motorbikes and clues are given out on the Internet.” The history and expansion of this carnival reflects the history of urban Greece and its current mass appeal is a product of this mix. The Patras carnival is the biggest and best known in Greece attracting between 150000 to 200000 visitors in carnival month and temporarily more than doubling its population. The visitors are of course commercially important to the town, however, the scale of the event - particularly the parades and parties of the last Sunday before Lent - generate a chaos and frenetic energy that cannot be explained, let alone generated, by commercial motives alone. The pull of this carnival is such that there are traffic jams all along the 240 km road from Athens and the extra buses and trains laid on for the occasion are booked days in advance. Despite the upcoming election, the state owned television station ET1, has dedicated two hours on Sunday afternoon to broadcast the final parade and the carnival is a staple of the lighter stories on all channel’s news bulletins.
There are other notable carnivals in the north of Greece where local history is reflected in the form of the festivities: in Xanthi, at the end of the week they burn the effigy of a man in a ritual that was brought to the town by refugees from Samakov in Eastern Thrace. In a tradition dating back to 1705 the inhabitants of Naoussa dress processional idols with silver coins and wax masks and parade them through the town playing traditional music and drinking wine.
The goat-dance rituals on the island of Skyros, however, are some of the most distinctive: dressed in black goat skin capes, phallic leather masks and with fifty to eighty bells around their waists, the ‘Elders’ of Skyros go from house to house accompanied by the ‘Maiden’ a similarly masked, younger figure, dressed in woman’s traditional costume. Sometimes, a suited ‘Frank’ with a bell on his arse and a giant seashell in his hand follows. When they meet other groups, the Elder rotates his hips in a slow movement, ringing the bells in intricate and varying rhythms whilst islanders recite verses mocking the vanity, stupidity or eccentricities of other villagers. Feasts last for days, with participants sleeping in their chairs before waking to more wine, meat and sweets, before the austere days of Lent and more reserved everyday contact with their neighbours. Such traditions have become the object of increasing interest for the majority of Greeks who now live in cities where the reality of carnival is very different. Though children clearly love the opportunity to dress up and wander transformed through squares and parks, for adults the organised events of the cities (with the possible exception of Patras) are often disappointing mixture of crowds, bad music and unimaginative unconformity. In Athens for example, groups of adolescents exorcise the pent-up violence of city life by hitting pedestrians on the head with squeaky stone-age plastic clubs whilst other residents of the city in costumes run for cover in the safety of private parties. There, one of the distinctive Hellenistic twists to carnival transformations becomes apparent: a social transvestism that is not just sexual. Carnival is a time when one has a chance to reveal temporarily what is hidden within oneself. Whether dressing up as a foreigner, transforming oneself into an animal, world leader or someone of the opposite sex, the carnival is an opportunity to live out myths, not as tales that explain reality, but in order to recreate reality and temporarily erase the painful gap that separates us from fantasy. Leonidas Liambey