Popular Festivals of the Past in Lesvos: The "Fton" of Vatoussa

By Vangelis Gdontellis

Translation by Joanna Michalakelli*

[Greek version]

We could observe that we, the people of Greece, seem to be the most fond of festivals in the entire world. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that, in the past, we used to live and, to some extent, we still continue to live looking forward to festivals. A great number of these festivals were domestic and family celebrations, on the occasion of several social events. We seek to gather in order to drink, to eat, to sing, to dance, to rejoice, to amuse ourselves with a chat. However, we should admit that more than anything else, this inclination for celebration and amusement has been most vividly expressed by popular festivals, which have been associated with our religion. We should make this statement because in these popular festivals, our people’s psyche, their faith, and their conscience were so naturally and spontaneously revealed in the most collective fashion. It was the genuine continuation of a time-honoured tradition, which reaches into the past, extends to ancient times, where a great number of our customs, devotional ceremonies and other activities have their roots.

Thus, we are going to seek the roots of our popular festivals in Greek antiquity. In their celebrations and their festivals, our ancestors celebrate the twelve gods of Olympus on a Panhellenic level. However, in every place and every city, they also celebrated many other deities and heroes that their vivid imagination had created. They sacrificed animals to their gods, they organized formal banquets, they drank plenty of wine. They frequently held races with certain familiar Olympic sporting events. Very often, they offered their celebrations an elevated intellectual import with orations, musical and poetic contests, theatrical performances, a decipherment of their historiographies, an exposition of their thoughts. Throughout the year, on fixed dates and years, they continuously organized celebrations and festivals. Besides, those people had declared and put into practice the adage “life without celebration is a long way without an inn.”

See also:

Grand Opening of St. Nicholas-Papoutsy Park and Amphitheater in Lesvos and

Christos Stavrakoglou Addresses Inaugural Crowd at St. Nicholas-Papoutsy Park in Lesvos

When Christianity came to the fore, it encountered all this opulent cultural heritage, with its celebrations and festivals, the expression of our people’s psyche. In the beginning, the Christian Church attempted, with teachings and admonitions, often with threats and punishments, even with impious intervention and condemnation, with vehement abolition of celebrations, and with the destruction of temples and sanctuaries, to eradicate the old habits, the devotional customs and activities which recalled idolatry. A great number of Byzantine emperors were strong supporters of this attempt on the part of the Christian Church. However, its efforts frequently proved futile. Many customs and activities were deeply rooted in people’s souls. So, Christianity was often obliged to withdraw and adopt customs and devotional ceremonies, actions and deeds, which were not only unfamiliar but also wholly opposed to the spirit of Christianity because it could not do otherwise, if it wished to win the faithful’s hearts. This withdrawal reached such an extent that the Church tolerated and blessed “bloody” sacrifices that were being offered. A clear confirmation of this fact is the survival of bull sacrifices on our island in the festivals honouring Saint Charalambos in Agia Paraskevi and Archangel Michael in Mandamados. In short, we could state that, in the place of the twelve gods of Olympus and the host of other deities and heroes, Christianity set Virgin Mary and Christ and especially the innumerable hosts of the saints of our Church and ascribed to them features and qualities possessed by the former worshipped figures. Prophet Elias has taken the place of Zeus on the mountaintops and Agioi Anargyroi (Saints Kosmas and Damianos) have taken the place of the Dioskouri.

So, along broad lines the events occurred in this way, and during the two thousand years of Christianity the ancient tradition of celebrations and popular festivals continued almost immutable until the 20th century. M. Nilson, who comes from Sweden, and is considered the most significant researcher of both our ancient and contemporary popular religion, notes: “The Greek popular festival of today recalls ancient festivals. The worship of Virgin Mary or the saints is new, but life remained the same…Religion has lost its sacredness, but it can satisfy people’s need to gather, to amuse themselves, to rejoice. It is essential that we cease and mitigate the monotonous pace of everyday life. The ancient Greek religion satisfied certain social needs and, to this extent, it has been preserved more than anything else.” At another point, the same author notes: “an ancient Greek would feel as if he/she were at his/her homeland, if he/ she attended a modern festival.”

Our island has always been the paradise of popular festivals. At no other place of our country did they organize so many and varied popular festivals. Every village had its own festival on the feastday of the patron saint of its church, and sometimes it had more than one festival. However, every village within the borders of its region organized other festivals as well, in honour of Virgin Mary, Christ and more frequently the saints of our church, especially in the summer, but also in the spring and the autumn. In all the festivals there was a large concourse of people. Men and women of every age attended the festivals with their pack animals, donkeys, mules and horses, adorned with an ensemble of flamboyant items and armaments, beautiful packsaddles covered with colourful carpets and mats, saddles and halters embellished with beads, talismans and little shells (we called them “tsilikia”). They loaded the animals with well-made, coloured nosebags with all the essential means. They were wearing their best clothes, often the local attire, the island and Oriental knickerbockers, their adorned waistcoats and their shalwars, their shirts made of calico, their best shoes. Everyone wanted to show their beauty and their fearlessness. People also came from the neighbouring villages and crowds overflowed the whole place.

We have already mentioned that every village organized popular festivals; however, a great number of festivals were familiar to the entire island. Celebrants and roisterers from remote places attended the festivals, taking into consideration the standards of former times. The first and best hosts of festivals were the residents of Mandamados who organized a great number of festivals. Of course, the most familiar festival which attracted a large concourse of people from the entire island was the festival dedicated to Archangel Michael on the second Sunday after Easter with the bull sacrifice and the production of “kiskek” (food made from mutton and wheat). The residents of Agiasos commemorated the Dormition of the Virgin on the 15th of August with the largest gathering of people of any festival, but they also celebrated with impressive splendor the festival dedicated to Prophet Elias on the peak of the mountain Olympus. The ascent to the chapel and the descent with their pack animals was particularly impressive.

Nevertheless, the ploughmen of Agia Paraskevi organized the most interesting and unique popular festival in honour of their patron saint, Saint Charalambos. It was a festival which took place in the beginning of the summer and lasted three days; its most unique feature was the sacrifice of the bull. On the morning of the first day, on Friday, the master ploughman would take the bull, which would be sacrificed to the saint, the priest would bless it, they would adorn it with ribbons, wreaths and all sorts of flowers and they would take the bull over the streets of the village. They would also take the icon of the saint from the master ploughman’s house and with all their paraphernalia (kettles, wheat, etc.) on their horses, they would head for the chapel of Saint Charalambos, crossing forested mountainsides and ravines for many hours. On Saturday, they would clean up and whitewash the place; they would adorn it with oleanders and wild flowers; they would carry wood; they would set up a fireplace. From the village, the parties of young people would ascend to the mountain. Everyone was dressed gallantly, singing and carrying lambs, food, raki (strong home-made alcoholic beverage) and candies. The priest would bless the bull again. They would sacrifice it to the saint and its blood would become a precious amulet with magical properties. Songs and dance would ensue and the celebrants would revel all night. On Sunday morning, they stopped. They would distribute and eat the kiskek and they would come back to the village, where the people who had not ascended to the chapel would await them. Crowds of people, happy voices and horses would fill the streets. And outside the village, at a glade, a horse race would take place. The winners would receive their prize and be crowned with olive branches. Once more, happy voices, horses and crowds of people would fill the village and the icon of the saint would return to the master ploughman’s house.

In our region, on the western part of the island, a great number of popular festivals had been organized. The best-known festival, which gathered people from the entire island, took place at Leimonos Monastery on the 14th of October in honour of Saint Ignatius. The residents of Anemotia organized a very successful festival with a large concourse of people in honour of Christ on the 6th of August. Teloniates, the residents of our neighbouring village Antissa, organized many festivals. They did not commemorate just their own two churches, but even more, they organized festivals within the region of their village. They organized two festivals, one with us, the residents of Vatoussa, at Perivoli, and the second one at Liota, with a large concourse of people. Because of their great inclination for organizing festivals, we, the people of Vatoussa, called the residents of Antissa “panegyrists” (merrymakers).

I would also like to add another element that characterized many popular festivals, the simultaneous organization of trade fairs, in order to conclude what I would like to say concerning popular festivals in general. A great concourse of people, even from remote places, provided an opportunity to carry on very significant trade in many festivals, in the context of the financial and commercial development of these times. The merchants and the tradesmen could sell tools and implements for agriculture, stockbreeding, arboriculture, equipment for pack animals, all sorts of utensils and furniture for the house. The residents of Agiasos were most eminent in this kind of trade. People would also trade foodstuffs produced in every place, as well as articles of clothing and footwear. Cattle trade also occupied a very significant position at those times. People bought and sold all species of animals, though mainly they bought and sold pack animals, mules, donkeys and horses. It is not an exaggeration to say that many people attended the festivals solely in order to sell and especially to buy the products and goods they were in need of. The most popular festivals for this element of their trade fair were those of Saint Ignatius in Leimonos Monastery and Archangel Michael in Mandamados.

Last, I will only briefly mention here an equally significant element of popular festivals, the musical troupes, the musical instruments, the festive dances and melodies, as well as the songs that constituted the basic structural element of the recreation and amusement of the popular festivals. I will also pass over discussion of the drinks, the dishes and the snacks offered, because this is not the aim of this speech.

At this juncture, before referring to our own “Fton” in the second part of this speech, I would like to proceed to an essential digression which is imposed by a significant characteristic of our festival. What I would like to emphasize is that, apart from the elements of amusement, music, dancing, drinking and singing which characterized all festivals, the “Fton” also highlighted its fighting and sporting connection with Olympic sports. This element did not characterize the other popular festivals on our island, with the exception of the horse races that took place in some of these festivals elsewhere. It was precisely that element of our own festival which necessitates a brief reference to the tradition concerning the fighting part of the popular festivals. Undoubtedly, we could claim that we have also inherited this element from our ancestors. Apart from the significant Panhellenic celebrations and contests, the main characteristic of which was their fighting contests (Olympia, Pythia, Isthmia, Nemea), our ancestors also organized a variety of celebrations and festivals, which included Olympic sports as well. Christianity encountered all this heritage in the Hellenic world. The Christian Church and the Byzantine emperors of the first period intended to stop the conduct of contests, in the same way they abolished the Olympic Games. In the Church’s opinion, athletic and physical contests were closely associated with idolatry, while the faithful had to devote themselves to spiritual contests. Nonetheless, certain accounts confirm the survival of athletic and physical contests, even in this case. Theodore Stouditis, abbot at the renowned Stoudiou Monastery of Constantinople, who lived during the period of iconoclasm (8th and 9th century), a fanatical iconolater and a fervent supporter of monasticism, in his attempt to highlight the spirit of Christianity and monasticism, notes that it is not suitable for monks to “overeat, overdrink, to jump and throw the stone.” We could observe that the elements he mentions are the elements of popular festive recreation and athletic contests.

During the period of the Turkish domination, Rigas Feraios (18th century), in his text “Olympia,” i.e. Olympic Games, and in his attempt to highlight the Olympic spirit, which is the verification of the historical continuity of the Greek people, the invigoration of their self-consciousness as descendants of ancient Greeks, a dynamic encouragement of the convictions of the unredeemed Greeks and a strengthening of their psychological preparations for revolution, mentions that, in his birthplace Thessalia and in the rest of Greece, Olympic events were held. Among these events, the triple jump and the stone-throwing were still held in his birthplace until 1950 at the festival in honour of Saint Charalambos. Didot, who comes from France, vividly describes the athletic contests at Kydonies (Aivali) in Asia Minor on Easter days (1816-1817), and at Megara in 1829, three events (race, jump, shooting) were held. In 1878 on our island, the “Veniamin of Lesvos” Literary Club was established in Plomari. During the Turkish domination, this club exhibited remarkable activity and organized athletic events and boat races on Easter Friday. And, of course, in many festivals, namely the festivals in honour of Saint Charalambos in Agia Paraskevi and the Holy Trinity in Kalloni, horse races took place. With all this data I managed to uncover without particular effort during the last few days, it is confirmed that Olympic events survived from the ancient times up to the 19th century; we can make the same observation, as far as our festival “Fton” is concerned.

The “Fton” was celebrated on Easter Tuesday at the place where we are now gathered, consecrated to Saint Nicholas, although the little chapel has been dedicated to Virgin Mary. The chapel of Saint Nicholas is a little above, on the top of the knoll. Apparently, the chapel of Saint Nicholas is older. That’s why they named the place after this chapel; this name was retained even after the erection of the chapel in honor of Virgin Mary. Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, had never faced the sea in his life; however, he has been the patron saint of the oceans and of sailors. His celebration coincided with the outset of winter, very bad weather and storms; thus, it was a matter of course that seamen invoked his help at hard times. In that way, Saint Nicholas became the saint of the seas. However, this saint is also worshipped on land, as it is evident from the Cephalonian utterance: “Of Saint Nicholas, who is the saint of land and the sea.”

It is not possible to specify precisely when the celebration of the “Fton” started, as there is no written source regarding this issue, nor can the verbal information we possess enlighten us on this matter. We consider it possible that this festival started in the middle of the 19th century; in any case, the culmination of the celebration coincided with the last decades of this century and the first decades of the 20th century. It seemed that Dr. Georgios Gogos, who participated most actively in the matters of Vatoussa, provided for this celebration. During the years between 1920 and 1940, this celebration persisted in a declining course. After the end of the Second World War, an attempt to resuscitate this festival was unsuccessful and without continuance. As far as the origin of the name “Fton” is concerned, the only interpretation that has been formulated is that the name “Fton” is derived from the word “fthonos” (envy), if we attribute the semantic nuance of competitive spirit to the meaning of this word.

The celebration of the “Fton” had a vivid and clearly festive and recreational character and objective. It was an exclusively Vatoussan spring festival, as we celebrated our other two spring festivals together with our neighbours, the festival at Perivoli with the residents of Antissa (Teloniates) on the first of May, and at Vritera--that festival was more recent--with the residents of Pterounta. The “Fton” had never contained elements of trade fairs and halvah [a pastry] shaped in patties was the only item that was sold. People normally attended the festival on foot because of the short distance and laid their rugs under the oak trees and then, laid the table with all the edibles they took with them, stuffed vine leaves, meatballs, omelettes, cheese, Easter eggs and other foods of flowery spring. They also set up one or two coffee-shops with musical troupes under the oak trees. One of the last people who set up a coffee-shop under the oak tree that no longer exists was Panagos Samaras. The raki [local alcoholic beverage] and the wine streamed and the feast lasted the entire day. People returned to the village in the evening laughing, singing and holding wild flowers. When they became merry, they started dancing to the strains of music. There were many Vatoussans who wanted to exhibit their dancing abilities. Panagiotis Malamellis retains a clear memory of many dancers during the period between1920 and 1940. Among them, we could recall many refugees from Asia Minor who were wearing knickerbockers. He mentioned the names of Aristeidis Pitatzis, Malis Staras, Theofilos Tsakiris, Dimitris Katechos (Kapalos), who was dancing with a glass of raki on his felt cap, Fotis Konstantellis, Antonis Mystikos, Vangelis Fanaras, Vangelis Kougious, Giannis Pitatzis, Giorgos Ntais and many others. They were mainly dancing island and oriental dances: balos, aptalikos, karsilamas and sousta. Sometimes, because of the merriment and the drunkenness, people’s blood boiled and the most hot-headed men, as well as those who had been involved in disputes with others, made a row. It seemed that this was also an element of the festival.

The enjoyable character of this festival is also evident from the fact that a number of pleasant events took place, with the aim of entertaining people, and especially young children. Two such cases have been mentioned. When Ignatios Pitzis returned from the United States, I suppose around 1920, he set up a makeshift horizontal bar with two wooden posts and a long horizontal round iron and performed various exercises and acts; people found those routines entertaining. Later, at the end of the 1930s, Panagiotis Karvelas, who worked at the post office of our village, constructed a hot-air balloon and managed to hoist it with the help of the smoke power he created from the straw he burned. The balloon rose high enough and then crash-landed on the opposite hillside in the strewn fields. He had done the same thing in Chania as well, on the celebration of the 4th of August.

At this juncture, it is of importance to cite a very interesting element of the festival, its competitive fighting. Two events were certainly held on a permanent basis, wrestling and racing. Wrestling was free and particularly satisfied the public. The wrestlers were Vatoussan people, but as long as the island was inhabited by Turks, Turkish wrestlers, even from Parakoila, attended the event. Pantelis Christodoulou, Achilles Malamellis, Giorgos Konstantellis (people called him Giorgos Athanasellis), Elias Chapsis, Giorgos Kapetanellis had a particularly good reputation as wrestlers. Our fellow-villagers gave Pantelis Christodoulou the nickname “Bixlivan’s” (wrestler). They did not use his surname; instead, they called him by his nickname. Vatoussans’ recalled a struggle between two great wrestlers, Pantelis Bexlivanis and Giorgos Athanasellis. However, as the “Fton” was drawing to an end, wrestling had lost its glamour and acquired a flamboyant and amusing, rather than a formal character. Panagiotis Malamellis remembers that his father Achilles was challenged to a duel by the rural constable Michael Mitrakas; they fought for some time, offering the public great entertainment.

There were two race contests, one covering a long and the other a short distance. Pertaining to the long-distance contest, the following route has been mentioned: Saint Nicholas- Perivoli- Saint Nicholas, which covered a distance of almost 12 kilometres. In this athletic event, Christos Konstantellis (or 'Babel’ as they called him), excelled. The short-distance race started from the corner below Saint Nicholas and continued until Tsismidelia.

The verbal information we possess mentions the performance of two more athletic events, the horse race which covered the same route as the short-distance contest, and stone-throwing. Stone-throwing was an official, Olympic event; this event was held until approximately 1960 in our country, but then it was abolished.

The most reliable written evidence we possess with respect to the “Fton” is a register which Christos Stavrakoglou found in the archives of the village council and refers to the prizes that were offered to the winners of the events in the “Fton” of the year 1900. This written record is rather significant as, apart from the prizes, it informs us about the athletic events that took place that year. “Proodos”, which was the most important club in Vatoussa, offered the following amounts of money as a prize:

For the first winner of the race a sovereign, i.e. 178 piastres

For the second winner of the race 4 silver medjidies (Turkish coins), i.e. 132 piastres.

For the third winner of the race 2 medjidies, i.e. 66 piastres.

For the first winner of wrestling 4 medjidies, i.e. 132 piastres.

For the other wrestlers 2 medjidies, i.e. 70 piastres.

For the tabor player one medjidie, i.e. 33 piastres.

For the policemen one medjidie, i.e. 33 piastres. (Total: 644 piastres)

Ladies and gentlemen, I have attempted to present the main elements of our folk festivals, as these had been formed during our long-standing tradition from ancient times up to the 19th century as concisely as possible. I have also concentrated on our own Fton,” a well-known festival, with a unique distinctiveness that surprises us. Its fighting component did not exist in any other folk festival of our country. Unfortunately, these folk festivals were drawn in the vortex of contemporary life conditions and lost their spontaneous, popular, unalloyed and traditional character. Some of them were abolished, as it was the case with the “Fton,” while for others there have been some attempts to revitalize them. Some other festivals have succeeded in surviving, after adapting to the new circumstances. Those of us who have had the experience of this festival, can retain a clear memory of an authentic expression of our people’s psyche, an expression that cannot be resurrected in the conditions of contemporary life.

(Posting date 6
October 2008)

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