(2013), Theophania in Northern Greece: Men’s Dance Rituals of Blessing and Protection

© Laura Shannon 2013 (This article first appeared in Neue Kreise Ziehen Heft 1/13)

At the southern edge of the Rhodope Mountains, skirts of rock sweep down to the Drama plain. In six tiny villages where mountain and valley meet, an ancient Twelfth Night tradition endures(1). On the 6th of January, Theophania, masked men in goatskins and sheepbells dance through the streets to dispel evil spirits, awaken the fertility of the earth, and ensure a good year. These are the koudonofori, the bell wearers, also called Arapides, the Black Ones or Moors. Wrapped in goatskins, skin smeared with burnt cork as a sign of fire, they will dance at crossroads, at the cemetery, in the plateia and in front of every single house, in a ritual of blessing and catharsis which has roots in age-old worship of Dionysus, god of fertility and wine.

Their preparation starts the day before, in the House of the Arapis, a reclaimed ruin which slowly fills with the joy of friends and acquaintances greeting one another. Red wine flows, and traditional goat soup is served free to all. Dozens of musicians will play lyra and daïre all through the night,(2) while people dance the same few dances over and over: the three-measure pattern in various styles and names (Teska, Ramna, Lekka, Hasapia); the simple Syrtos-type steps of Evzonikos and Levendikos, typical of this occasion; and a few slightly more complex dances such as Mantzourana, Pardales Kaltses (Tsourapia), Kori Eleni, the unusual local Paidouska in 3/4 time and the special antikrista steps once danced back and forth by young men and women facing each other on the threshing floor. As on all ritual occasions, the repetition of familiar simple patterns frees the dancers to focus on the inner work of raising good energy (kefi) to bless the community. The dance rhythms penetrate the very timbers of the house, as if to awaken the masks and furs waiting in adjacent rooms. Carefully balanced atop the piles of furs, the tall conical goatskin masks have such a presence, one glance at them instantly raises the hair on my skin.

After dancing and drinking all night, the tseta - the group of male celebrants - help each other dress in the early hours of dawn. The Arapides are fearsome in shaggy dark skins, tall conical masks, and wide leather belts from which swing three pairs of heavy double bells. Brandishing long wooden swords, they appear fully capable of driving out malevolent forces such as the kallikantzari, the mischievous spirits which wreak havoc during the twelve nights of Christmas.

It has always been men's task to protect the community, and the phallic headdresses and swords leave one in no doubt that the Theophania rituals are men's rituals. However, the ability to give new life, to enter the realms of the dead, and to bestow the blessing of fertility are essentially women's powers. To claim these powers, some of the men must dress as women, as Dionysian revellers have done since ancient times. These are the Gilinges, or Brides. Wearing women's clothing may be a means for men to temporarily gain access to the realms of life and death, where normally only women may go, or to symbolically give birth to the life-affirming fertility and joy which bring renewal at this dark and hungry time of the year. In an additional affirmation of this power, the Brides' costume is rich in goddess embroideries, while all the members of the party wear louloudia ('flowers'), beaded and fringed amulets in the lozenge-shaped symbol of female fertility going back to Neolithic times. Goddess symbols are even stamped on many of the bells themselves.

As well as the Arapides and the Brides, the tseta includes the Pappoudes or Grandfathers, in Thracian men's traditional dress; the Evzones or Tsoliades wearing short white foustanellas and the tsevres, a special garment made of twelve large white kerchiefs sewn together, densely fringed with beads, sequins and coloured threads, which takes four months to prepare; and an occasionally appearing Bear, who some say represents ancient worship of the Goddess Artemis. They journey together through the village, dancing at every single house throughout the day. The Arapides leap and stamp, swinging their bells back and forth in an apotropaic din - this will indeed awaken the earth! - almost drowning out the archaic sound of the lyras and daïres. The Evzones dance with athletic half-turns whose momentum sends their short foustanella sailing up to their waist, emphasising (so the Archigos assures me) the fertile power of the male generative organs, without revealing the organs themselves. In their hands, they twirl long, beaded snake-like kordonia which give power and definition to their dance movements and fulfill the ritual function of the handkerchief normally held by the lead dancer. At every house the entire tseta is rewarded with abundant food and drink, in the living tradition of sacred hospitality which is the most powerful blessing of all.

By three o'clock, the whole village gathers at the plateia to dance. Hundreds of people spiral into a single circle with one leader, keeping the large centre open as a sacred space for the tseta to enact their ancient rituals of death and resurrection, plowing and planting, the sacred wedding, stealing and rescuing the bride.(3) The dancing goes on for hours, until dusk and then continuing at a taverna for a second consecutive night.

That's how it is in Monastiraki; each village has its own variation of the Theophania. In some places, children and women also participate in the rituals: in Ksiropotamos young girls dance through the village in traditional costume; while in Petrousa, all the daïre players are teenage girls. I do understand the unease with which some traditionalists view this change, but I also must confess my pleasure at seeing thirteen young women lined up like priestesses of Cybele from the time when the drummers were women. Here too, the villagers dance at crossroads, springs, sacred trees and finally around an enormous bonfire.

Fire is important in all the Theophania rituals. In Monastiraki, the hearthfire in the House of the Arapis burns for twelve nights and days, producing holy ash which they will use to bless people for the coming year. Cauldrons on open fires are a key part of the festivities everywhere - another symbol of women's power adopted for this occasion by men (traditionally, only women cooked in pots; men roasted meat over an open fire).
In Petrousa the Dance of the Cooks, in honour of these cauldrons, can still be seen. Although it is no longer danced around the cauldrons themselves, the symmetrical step pattern still focuses the energy or 'fire' of the dancers in a particular way.

It seems to me that all of these fire-focused rituals hint at the unnamed presence of the Goddess Hestia. Hestia's domain is centred on the hearth, source of light, warmth, food and all that is beneficial to the home. The nikokira, the lady of the house, was seen since ancient times as Hestia's priestess. Her role is to tend the sacred fire through practical and ritual work and to literally focus its brilliance (estiazo, from Hestia, means 'to focus') so that it may bless the household and all its inhabitants. In ritual activities such as the Theophania, through the mediation of men dressed as women, this focused fire can be brought once a year from the private space of the home - the realm of the women - into the public space of the village, the realm of the men. This union of men's and women's fertile powers is the holy spark of blessing which ensures health, wealth, happiness and abundance for all in the coming year.

(1) In Monastiraki, Ksiropotamos, Petrousa, and Pyrghi, the lyra and daïre are played, while in Volakas and Kali Vrysi it is the daïre and gajda. Only in Monastiraki do they sometimes play both gajda and lyra together.

(2) the Macedonian pear-shaped bowed lyra, also called kemene, is tuned and played differently to other lyras in Greece, producing a uniquely archaic sound; the daïre (or defi) is a very large goatskin frame drum with metal jingles set into the sides of the wooden frame. These are the only instruments. Their overall effect is all the more hypnotic as the musicians play in absolute unison; even the singing is monophonic. The musical structure thus emphasises old values of community and coherence, in contrast to modern-day ensembles where each individual instrument aims to make itself distinctly audible within the whole.

(3) Similar rituals with these elements appear all over Thrace and Eastern Macedonia where Thracians settled, through the Balkans and Central Europe as far as the Swiss Alps. In Greece, these ritual customs (for instance the Kaloyeros of Ayia Eleni, Karnivalia of Sohos, Baboyeroi of Flambouro, Tsekekia of Pondismeno, Boules of Naoussa and the Bulgarian Survakari and Kukeri) are performed either at Theophania or during Carnival.

Thanks to: Katerina Asteriou-Kavazi, Nikos Papadimitriou, Angelos Keras, Kyriakos Moisidis, Panayiotis Zikidis. Lenka Harmon's photos can be seen on Facebook: <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

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