Epiphany in Northern Greece

Searching on Internet you can find activities you never expected they existed. And when you read it, your heart begins to beat faster. So we made the trip “Travelling to Hellas following Dionysos” organized by Greek people who know a lot about the traditions in the villages Volakas, Petrousa and Kali Vrisi not far from Drama! It is said that these traditions go back to very early times told in Greek Mythology and resulted in beautiful stories!


Greek Mythology

If you know something about Greek Mythology you can better understand why people still celebrate New Year with customs from the past. Greek Mythology explains the change of the seasons, the eternal cycle of the Nature’s death and rebirth in the story of the obsessive love of the mother Demeter for her daughter Persephone.

Zeus, the king of the Greek gods and Demeter, the goddess of harvest and fertility had a lovely daughter Persephone, attracting the attention of many gods. Hades, the god of the Underworld, middle-aged man, living in the dark among the shadows of the Dead was very much in love with Persephone. He asked Demeter to marry her daughter, but Demeter got furious and said there wasn’t the slightest chance for that to happen. Hades was heartbroken and decided to kidnap her.

One day, Persephone was out in the valley and saw the most enchanting narcissus she had ever seen. As she stooped down to pick the flower, the earth beneath her feet suddenly cleaved open and through the gap Hades himself came out on his chariot with black horses. Hades grabbed the lovely maiden and descended into his underworld kingdom while the gap in the earth closed after them. No one had a clue for the sudden disappearance of Persephone. Only Zeus, father of the maiden and brother of the kidnapper, as well as Helios, god of the Sun had witnessed the incident. Demeter was desperate seeking for her daughter and got advise from her friend Hecate, goddess of wilderness and childbirth to seek help from Helios. Helios felt sorry and told her that Persephone was now queen of the Dead and the wife of Hades. Demeter was furious and very angry at Hades and Zeus. To punish the gods and to grief, Demeter decided to take a long and indefinite leave from her duties as the goddess of harvest and fertility, with devastating consequences. The earth began to dry up, harvests failed, plants lost their fruitfulness, animals were dying for lack of food and famine spread to the whole earth, resulting in untold misery.

The cries of the people who were suffering reached the Olympus and the divine ears of Zeus. He knew he had to do something to force Hades to bring Persephone back to her mother. Hades agrees with his brother, but tricks Persephone to eat a few seeds of the pomegranate fruit the night before she shall leave. For every seed of the pomegranate she has eaten she would miss a month of life. Zeus decided that Persephone would spend half months with her husband in Hades and half months with her mother on Olympus. According to the ancient Greeks, these were the months of Autumn and Winter, when the land is not fertile and does not give crops. Whenever Persephone went to Olympus to live with her mother, Demeter would shine from happiness and the land would become fertile again and fruitful.

Folklore stories

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Kallikantzaroi – Greek Christmas goblin

Kallikantzaroi, plural (Kallikantzaros singular) are mischievous Greek goblins, elves or gnomes, they appear during the twelve days of Christmas, from the end of December until Epiphany, January sixth. These twelve days are also known as the winter solstice.

Kallikantzaroi are said to be small, black and male, mostly blind, with long black tails. They speak with a lisp and eat small creatures, such as, worms, snails and frogs. They only come out at night, and, are afraid of the sun, fire and holy water. The rest of the year, they live at the centre of the Earth, where, they spend their time, chopping down The World Tree, or The Tree Of Life, that holds up the World, using a large saw.

At the beginning of the twelve days of Christmas, also the winter solstice, when the sun will not move again, until, sixth of January, Kallikantzaroi come up to the surface of the Earth, where, they cause all sorts of trouble and mischief. Rather than being evil, they are considered impish and stupid. They come out of hiding at night, to enter houses, anyway they can, through windows, down chimneys, through keyholes, and any cracks that they may find, in walls and around doors. Once inside they cause havoc.

It is said, that if you leave a colander on your doorstep, at night, the Kallikantzaroi, who can only count to two, and consider the number three holy, will kill themselves, before pronouncing it and will spend all night counting the holes. They only ever reach the number two, and start again, so as not to utter the word; three! At sunrise, they disappear. Another form of protection, is to mark your door with a black cross, on Christmas Eve. Yet another, is to burn a smelly shoe on the fire, the foul smell will keep them away!

Now here is an interesting way to stop the Kallikantzaroi from coming down the chimney. A very large log is found and burnt for twelve days, until the sixth of January, when the Kallikantzaroi will go back to the center of the Earth.

In Greek folklore, the Kallikantzaroi, disappear on the sixth of January, Epiphany, when Greek priests, go through all the houses, blessing them, with holy water, splashed around with a bunch of fresh basil.

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Greek priest, Epiphany, and The World Tree

By the way, when the Kallikantzaroi, arrive back, at the centre of the Earth, they find that The World Tree, has fully grown again! Out comes their large saw, and they start to chop it down, all over again.

Volakas – Arapides

Volakas is a small quiet village in the Nevrokopi mountains near the Bulgarian border. The inhabitants, around 1000 work in the marble industry, tourism and agriculture. Many Volakas people, who worked in Germany in Stuttgart and Wolfsburg returned home when they retired. Around the 5th of January Volakas is not quiet anymore. The tradition of Epiphany starts! After dinner in our hotel around midnight men came in with black painted faces, dressed with animal skins and with many heavy bells around their waist. What a noise! They were “the Bears” from Crete and cheated each other and the guests . Many people got black stripes on their faces being touched by them . Some minutes later the “Arapides” from Volakas came in. They looked the same as the “Bears” from Crete, but their bells were much heavier and even noisier. They jumped around wildly and guests who had not yet been touched got the black markers too on their face. The old year is over, everyone is prepared now for the New Year! Καλή Χρονια, χρόνια πολλά!

Next morning 6th of January the New Year’s Vesper starts in the church of the Prophet Elias. It’s a tradition to bid on the church’s icon after the Vesper and the one who bid at the moment the time is up (that means the moment the egg timer rings!) may have the icon in the house for the coming year. The lucky one had to invite in return all the inhabitants at home New Year’s Eve for a drink! After the celebration in the church the priest and his acolytes came to the little pond on the village square to bless the water. After sanctifying the Holy Cross the priest threw a little cross in the pond. As quick as a haze a young boy jumped in the water and got the little cross. He got his special blessing for 2018!

Everyone who wished to be blessed could now go into the water. People at the square start singing and the circle of dancers becomes wider and wider. On top of the circle the lucky woman with the icon and the man with the Holy Cross.

To start the ritual of the young couples the musicians with gaida and dacharedes arrive. In 2017 three young couples married. We all went slowly to the house of the first couple, singing and dancing. We got small drinks and snacks from the family and the procession returns to the pond with the first young couple. There they walk into the knee deep water to be blessed for the New Year. And we repeat our trip for couple two and three.

The 7th of January early in the morning the village is full of activity. Many households prepare the dressing of the “Bears”. The “Arapides” wear black pastoral cloaks that cover the entire body and impressive goatskin head masks. On their waist they place three large bells, “batali” (large bells) or “kypri” (smaller bells), which are harmonically matched. They also hold a large wooden sword and a small bag of ashes, which they gathered during the Twelve Days of Christmas. It takes hours to have the bells in the right way around shoulders, back and waist. Other people are preparing the mountain tea and the chicken tomato soup at the village square. And tsipouro and wine is free available to keep you warm.

According to the tradition like the kallikantzaroi this night different stuff is “stolen” and exposed on the village square. We see chairs, lamps, a fenche, toys for children, etc. The owners can get their stuff back for small money.

The first “Arapides”and the accompanied masculine bride and groom arrive after noon. They move in a typical way around each other. It´s a kind of waddle and toddle. The bells sounds as a mantra. More groups arrive from other directions. The climax is a “clash” between the different groups and the trophy is a kidnapped bride, who was exposed to the people on the balcony of a nearby house. Victory for one of the groups. And victory had to be shared. More drinks, more snacks! More singing and dancing! So for many people it was a long and happy night!

Volakas 2017

Petrousa – Babiden

Petrousa is located 14 km northwest of Drama on the foot of mount Falakro and has around 2000 inhabitants. We were there in the afternoon to celebrate their Babiden.

Like in Volakas many men are dressed in costumes made of animal skin. Here the masks are more impressive, because of the horns on the masks and the bells around their waists. The people told us that a set of those very heavy bells could weight more than 50 kg and were made in Epirus. The main element of the celebration here is the procession of a camel. We saw a virtual camel, however, during the day is was a real one! We walked through the village following the musicians playing here the lyra and dacharedes and the men with their impressive masks and bells. The procession stopped at every tavern, the men went in, made a lot of noise, asked for drinks and dropped off. Late at midnight they made a big bonfire at the outskirts of the village. At that time we were lucky and sat warm in the bus back to Volakas!

Petrousa 2017

Kali Vrisi – Babougera

Kali Vrisi is a small village 23 km northwest of Drama on the northern foothills of Menokia opposite Mount Falakro and close to the cave of Aggitis. About twenty years ago the remains of a Dionysos temple were excavated 2 km from Kali Vrisi.

We were in Kali Vrisi the 8th of January. The day of the satiric wedding, part of the worship towards the God Dionysos, the God of blossoming, pleasure, grapevine and theatre.

In the morning it’s already noisy in the village. At the village square preparations have been made for the barbeque; the well is decorated with leaves and really no water comes from the well but real red wine! The Dionysos is already walking around in his white dress with a jar of wine! The sound of the gaida and the dacharedes comes from the sound boxes. Babougera, men and boys (and women and girls too nowadays) wear masks made of goat skin and thick fabric tied with big bells. They jump around to scare the people. We find the Groom higher up in the village with his family, relatives and musicians. Also the masked midwife is there with bones, herbs, straw and ashes around the neck, the waist and the wrist. The figure burns good smelling things. The best man is there and the Babous, two men with the mask of an old man and an old woman crooked and stiff. And not to forget the horse carrying filled boxes. After the shaving of the Groom the whole procession is moving to the house of the Bride. Dionysos has been drinking already a lot of wine and he spoiled it too. It’s a red line in the middle of his dress! The Bride is a beautiful man in a white dress. She is very much in love with her Groom. In front of the house they start dancing on the everlasting melody of the gaida and dacharedes. Everyone is joining them.

After some time the procession moves to the main square in the village. Dionysos dress is more red than white. He now tries to bless the couple with their marriage. Suddenly all the Babougera run to the Bride and try to steal her. Panic and noise. Luckily the Groom can free her. After that the party really starts and continue till dawn.

The representation of marriage is a common and beloved sight of the folk rituals. Before it gets the today's cheerful nature, virtual wedding ceremony was a magical act that intended to evoke the fertility force for the crop’s fruition and the herds to increase. In ancient times, there was a historical element of the symbolic sacred marriage for having a successful harvest as being a part of the official Dionysus cult.

Kali Vrisi 2017, short version

Kali Vrisi 2017

Kali Vrisi 1981

Kali Vrisi 1965