Culture – Tradition
According to several sources, the first amateur theatrical productions took place in Agiasos in the late 1800s. The very first recorded performance was Demetrios Byzantiou’s “Babylonia” in 1879, which was organized by the “Philoptohos Adelfotis of Agiasos”. Many more would follow, establishing an amateur theatrical tradition that continues until today.
As expected, the Anagnostirion continually adapted its performances to the styles of each period, with a repertory that has included idyllic dramas, patriotic themed tragedies, one act comedies and others.
One of the most famous performers of D. Koromilas and Sp. Peresiades works was Miltiades Sousamlis, aka Chronis, who also taught drama lessons and directed several plays for the Anagnostirion. That’s why he was later honored as a great benefactor of the organization.
As a result of the numerous theatrical productions that have been successfully produced by the Anagnostirion, hundreds of amateur actors, playwrights, and satirists have had a chance to see their works on stage, while many of them have achieved nationwide recognition and honorary pensions. Today, the Anagnostirion hosts an Amateur Theatre Company for adults, as well as an Experimental Company for children and adults.
Agiasos is the heart of Lesvos’ carnival celebrations, with thousands of visitors arriving every year to partake in the festivities. The Agiasos carnival is truly unique, as it incorporates many local spiritual and cultural characteristics. The beginnings of these celebrations have been lost in centuries past, but during the course of the last hundred years it has gone through numerous changes corresponding to the significant societal and economic changes.
The carnival of Agiasos stands out thanks to its highly caustic and playful satire, that’s recited in the local dialect and iambic 15-syllable rhythm by the areas folk poets.
The oldest tradition of “Apokria” (Carnival) was the “patinada”, where the young men would sing and dance through the town’s streets en route to the inns and coffeehouses, courting the local maidens. They would sing old traditional songs like “Sousa”, “Lygeri”, “Triantafyllenia” and others. Around 1900, the troupe’s lead singer started dressing in Ancient Greek warrior garb, impersonating Alexander the Great and fanning the flames of the local population’s patriotic fervor, as they were still under Turkish occupation.
The Anagnostirion took an interest in the carnival from the very beginning, and in a Board decision dating back to 1902, a fund drive was organized by its members to provide awards to the most impressive carnival performers. At the beginning of the 20th century, playful poems put to music begin to make their appearance at the celebrations, which typically poked fun at local personalities and situations.
After 1912, but even more so after 1922, many new folk poets begin to make their appearance, and they are typically local veterans of the recent wars. Through their verses, they expressed the people’s desire for peace, justice and societal change, using the local dialect in most cases.
The “anti-carnival” and carnival troupe competitions are traditions that date back to the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1938, the Anagnostirion makes use of the donation provided by Theodoros Dougramatzis or Koukouvalas, and establishes the “Valio” Competition, which provided monetary awards to the competing carnival troupes. This tradition, with few interruptions, was kept alive until 1984.
In 1944, the “Carnavalos” (the leader of the carnival procession) was the first …public figure that dared to mock the impending defeat of Nazi Germany, while predicting the imminent liberation of Greece. After the end of the Greek Civil War the carnival undergoes several changes, as the timing and location of its events is changed. Under the leadership of Ananias Karamanlis, the donkey drawn floats of old are replaced by mechanized floats. During the dictatorship era and the mid-seventies, the local carnival experienced one of its finest hours, even though it had to contend with the tight controls imposed by the government censors.
Today, the carnival maintains the structure that it assumed after WWII, which is that of a themed popular event with significant theatrical influences, numerous floats and provocative satire. The themes are typically drawn from the history of Ancient Greece and its mythology, as well as the local religious traditions, and via the artistic use of allegory and metaphors the carnival satirizes current events and personalities. Aside from providing the audience with a visual treat, the underlying purpose of the carnival is to critique all that is wrong with the world today and to set an example for its audience. As part of this effort, it pulls no punches and says things as they truly are. It is a provocative and oftentimes prophetic event, which provides an honest look at the ills of society.
The connection between the Agiasos carnival and the cultural traditions of Ancient Greece are more than obvious. The “Carnavalos” is a tragic figure, who attempts to come to grips with the cruel hand that fate has dealt him, and who hopes that by making fun of his plight, he will ultimately assure his survival. The ancient Bacchanalia celebrations that used to be organized in honor of the god Dionysus (who represented the eternal cycle of fertility and rebirth), were characterized by orgies that initiated the participants into the worship of this god, as it was believed that this was the means by which to achieve spiritual catharsis and perfection.
Remnants of this Bacchus worship are evident in the “tripsimata”, which are brief distich rhymes praising the human genitalia, as well as in the “mtzouromata” (“smearing”) performed by the “arhionti”. The verb “arhiomi” is a transliteration of the Ancient Greek “orchoumai”, which means participation in the “orchos”, the circle of dancers that participated in the ritual worship of Dionysus. These worshippers used to smear the deep red “trygos” (the leftovers of the winemaking process) all over the bodies. Up until the 1950s, carnival revelers used to smear their faces with red crayons, while in more recent decades smearing with charcoal has become more commonplace.
The carnival of Agiasos is a living cultural symbol; a unique example of local cultural and spiritual creation, that survives to this day thanks to the selfless contributions and endless creativity of the local populace. From 1984 to the present day, the carnival’s planning and organization is undertaken by the “Satyros” (“Satyr”) Cultural Club of Agiasos. Since 1999, the club has worked together with the Anagnostirion and the Municipality of Agiasos in researching the local carnival’s history, and resurrecting long lost traditions.
The traditional Agiasos musical troupe consists of six instruments: violin, santouri, clarinet, trombone, bass and coronet. Furthermore, there are also individual musicians (musicantes) that play the traditional zournas and daouli (drums). At the beginning of the 20th century, around 1916-17, a laterna (a portable mechanical music box) is imported from Smyrna, while a short while later mandolins and guitars also make their appearance in the hands of amateur musicians serenading their ladies. However, the mandolin is also the instrument of choice for several young ladies from wealthy families that have musical tendencies. After the war, the bouzouki also makes its appearance, and eventually displaces the santouri.
The musicantes were either hired by private individuals for weddings, christenings, etc., or simply showed up at festive occasions either on Sundays or on holidays. On the most important holidays, their services were employed by the large coffeehouses. The Anagnostirion used to employ the musicantes for its annual balls, while the craftsmen’s trusts used to employ them on their patron saints’ days.
Their fees were typically agreed upon in advance, as was usually the case with the larger coffeehouses, while the “tips” that guests used to hand the musicians were always welcome.
The musicantes were always in demand and had enjoyed a high social standing in Agiasos, owing to the fact that music and dance was always a big part of their lives. From the moment they would leave their homes in the morning, they would be called over to the various coffeehouses to spend the day, and as the day wore on they would end up at someone’s home, where a joyous event was being celebrated. On holidays and festivals, the musicantes would hardly sleep at all, and as a result many of them were heavy drinkers and developed serious alcoholism problems. In more recent years, the younger generations of musicantes have kicked the heavy drinking habit, and have a couple of “social drinks” to join in the fun.
The people of Agiasos rarely sing while they are dancing. Their songs are sung either sitting down, at weddings, engagements, and christenings, or they sing as an accompaniment to the leisurely Sunday stroll, as they follow the bride to the church, or as they follow the deceased to their final resting place, with specific songs for each occasion.
As far as the origin of the local songs is concerned, it is hard to distinguish between songs from Lesvos and songs from Asia Minor. Lesvos and the opposing coast were always viewed as being one and the same, and contacts between the two sides were frequent. Popular tunes were the Zeimbekiko of Aivali, the Smyrneiko, and the Pergamino. Perhaps the most popular of them all, which some have classified as the “national anthems” of Lesvos, are the “Xyla” tunes, which appear to have been derived from a military march, and the “Kioroglou” tunes, played to a 5/8 beat, which are usually played at the celebrations for Prophet Elias day. In addition to the local tunes, many European tunes have also gained a significant degree of popularity in Agiasos.
In this repertory, we can distinguish three separate categories:
The stereotypical dance order
The music starts with the “syrto”, progresses to the “balo”, then on to the “karsilama” and the “zeimbekiko”, and finally ends with the “mazomeno” or “pidihto” or “anigasko”.
The syrtos with a 2/4 beat is traditionally danced by two dancers, although more typically join in the fun along the way. From the syrto, the violin makes a turn, plays an “amane”, and progresses on to the balo, which is also a dance for two. This is followed by the karsilamas, at a 9/8 beat, which is an opposing dance for two. We then move on to the zeimbekiko, also at a 9/8 beat, which can either be danced by two, or as a solo.
Finally, the mazomenos or pidihtos is danced by a large group of revelers, at the height of the festivities, at an allegro pace, like a fast syrtos. This order was never changed, as it is considered an unwritten rule of the dance. However, on many occasions, the traditional kalamatianos dance was also performed, especially at the larger festivals.
This term refers to dances that were not part of the standard “program”, and as such were not that well known amongst the local populace. Although their sounds were quite familiar, whenever they were played they would lend an air of unexpected excitement to the festivities.
The “tsamkos”, played to a 2/4 beat, which is essentially a slow syrtos for two, also known as “the knife dance”. One of the dancers would hold a knife or other sharp utensil that would usually be taken from the bar, with which he would pretend to threaten the other dancer, who would remain seated and unimpressed. The dancer with the knife would then proceed to swirl the knife in the air, and pretend to cut off the nose, ears, head and genitals of the other participant, and would then motion as if he was supposedly throwing them to the rest of the audience. He would repeat these motions throughout the course of the dance, provoking the laughter and cheering from the audience. This type of dance would typically take place when the crowd was already heavily inebriated, and everyone was already “in the mood”.
The “putanikos” or “potirakia” was another example of a mimic dance where the men would pretend to be women, holding small glasses in their hands that they would tap together, while the orchestra would accompany the clinging sound only with the violin, the santouri and the bass, in order to accentuate the sound made by the glasses. This dance appears to have been brought to Lesvos by the soldiers that returned home from the campaign in Asia Minor in 1922, as it is essentially a parody of the belly dances that they saw in the “café-santans” of Smyrna and Constantinople.
The “Arkoudiaris” or “Arapikos” is another mimic dance that is also quite comical, performed by two, where the one dancer had the more significant role while the other played a supporting role. It was danced to a 2/4 beat, like a lively syrtos. The one dancer would perform wild movements with his hands and legs, jumping about mimicking a bear. This dance would usually be performed during the carnival season, and for a certain period of time, exclusively by a shepherd with the nickname “Maroula”.
Dances for special occasions
The “nyfiatikos” (bridal) or “nyfkatos” dance, which was performed by the bride’s female friends before the wedding. After helping the bride get dressed for the ceremony, the women would form a circle around her, holding hands in a criss-cross pattern, singing verses written especially for the occasion, while moving slowly to the right.
The “tripsimata” dance, which was danced in a circle, in the syrto fashion, by youths in costume during the carnival period, who would make up especially provocative and rude verses for the occasion. In many instances during the course of the dance, they would sit on the ground and roll around.
It should also be noted that at the beginning of the 20th century, the educated classes were especially fond of the latest Western dances such as the polka, the mazurka and the waltz, that would arrive in Agiasos either via Smyrna, that was oftentimes referred to as the Paris of Asia Minor, or from young students that attended colleges abroad. However, the vast majority of the population only knew the local dances.
The people of Agiasos would typically dance on Sundays, religious holidays, during the carnival period, as well as at balls, weddings, christenings and any other festive occasion, such as the end of the olive harvest, or whenever a particular group was feeling happy. However, the most common dance event was the weekly “patinada” that took place every Sunday, and was an integral part of the local courting rituals.
The young men, but many elders as well, would head down to the town center en masse, as these were the focal points of Agiasos’ social life. Accompanied by the local musicians, these groups would stroll through the neighborhoods en route to the “kioutoukia”, which were typically open only on Sunday and served alcoholic beverages like cognac and raki.
While traversing the neighborhoods, the young men could come into contact with the young women that were waiting to hear the music coming down their street. The women would then head down to their doorsteps, wearing their Sunday best and all their jewelry. However, they would rarely accompany the men to the kioutoukia, but would rather remain in their neighborhoods, chatting and knitting amongst themselves and watching the men from a distance as they continued their stroll through the town.
While the route followed by the revelers was usually agreed upon in a friendly fashion, sometimes misunderstandings would arise. When they arrived at the kioutoukia, the men would start dancing. On the rare occasions that a husband would bring his wife, or a father would invite his daughter, they would be given preferential treatment at the kioutouki, although they would refrain from dancing in front of the men. However, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t dance at all. Every Sunday during the patinada, while the music played, the women would dance amongst themselves, typically in the privacy of the closed courtyards of their homes. A common dance for the women was the “kalamatianos”.
The music at the kioutoukia would usually last until daybreak, while serenades under the young women’s balconies were not an uncommon sight. Unfortunately, the patinada died out after the end of WWII, when the last of the kioutoukia closed down.
The coffeehouses and the kioutoukia also served as the dance halls of Agiasos for religious holidays, while during the carnival period dancing oftentimes occurred spontaneously throughout the town and at any time.
While the annual balls were organized by committees at coffeehouses or kioutoukia that had been reserved exclusively for this purpose well in advance, in the case of weddings, christenings and engagements, the participants would oftentimes start dancing well ahead of “schedule”, inside or outside the bride or the groom’s home. At weddings, the bride and groom would kick off the festivities with their first dance. They would then invite the best man and their parents to join in, and then the rest of the guests would start streaming onto the dance floor, with generous tips being thrown at the musicians’ feet. In older times, the second day after the wedding, and once the consummation of the marriage had been confirmed; another day of festivities would ensue, which was referred to as the “antiwedding”.
Another excuse for dancing was the olive harvest, or “glitomata”. From September through Easter, the entire town was devoted to the olive harvest. The peak season would begin in November and last until January or February. On the last day of the harvest, the women of the village would prepare their best dishes and sweets, and with the accompaniment of wine or raki, a big celebration with dancing would ensue, either at the olive grove, or at Karini with its old oak trees where all the roads leading to the groves meet. If the olive groves’ owners who were footing the bill for the festivities were generous enough, they would hire an entire musical troupe for the day, otherwise a zournas (bagpipe) or a self-styled daouli (drum) would suffice.
After a few hours of merrymaking in the fields, everyone would head back down to the coffeehouses in the town’s center, where the celebration would continue well into the night. Men and women would participate in this celebration together, as it appears that the typical gender restrictions did not apply in this case, since everyone had spent months working together in the groves.
The dancing style
The dancing style in Agiasos was always rather reserved, as the town’s residents were never into showing off. Furthermore, it was extremely rare to see the locals performing any dances other than their own, while they would always look down upon any foreigners that would try to show off their dance skills. It wasn’t uncommon for altercations to erupt between the locals and their well-off guests from the Asia Minor coast, who would arrive on the island and flaunt their wealth.
All this began to change gradually after the end of WWII, and especially at the beginning of the 1950’s. The tremendous socioeconomic changes that took place at that time, as well as the successive waves of emigrants that left the island and the arrival of radio significantly altered the island’s traditions.
Today, the people of Agiasos still perform their traditional dances, but many new characteristics have been integrated into these traditions (the accordions, bouzouki, electronic synthesizers, etc.). The opportunities for dancing are now limited to a couple of religious holidays and club events each year, and dancing in Agiasos is no longer nearly a daily phenomenon as it once was.
The most distinctive characteristic of the traditional costume of Agiasos that dates back to the 18th century is the multi-layered “salvari” which is typical of other towns and villages on Lesvos, such as Plomari. This garment typically has six layers, which are divided into three parts. The two side parts form the “limbs” of the garment, which are known as “kalamovrakia” or “klapatses”, and are longer than the central piece of fabric, the “sela”.
The length of the kalamovrakia relative to the sela depends on the height of the woman, and is crucial aspect of correctly positioning the costume on the body. The kalamovrakia, which are usually crafted out of a simple cloth unless the costume’s owner is particularly wealthy, have a series of loops at the waist for the knit “gaitani” or “vrakozoni” belt to be fastened. On the bottom, the kalamovrakia are tied below the knees and covered by the main piece of vraka, which cascades down to the wearer’s ankles.
The salvaris are always an impressive garment, especially those that are worn by young women, featuring intricate knit patterns with warm, bright colors like reds and yellows. The patterns encountered on the salvari also include checks and stripes that combine the basic white with mauves, greens and pinks. The knit work was always done at home, requiring many hours of delicate handiwork.
Yet another characteristic of the traditional costume was the increased bulk of its lower part, or “vraka”, by overstuffing it with two, three or more similar pieces being worn underneath it. These undergarments, or “katovrakia”, along with the “mesofoustano” that was worn close to the body were an essential part of the outfits worn on festive occasions.
These supplementary garments gave the wearer a full and voluptuous look, corresponding to the style standards of the times. The outfit was completed with the “kamizari” and gold-knit “libade” that the women would wear over their finest shirts.
An elderly gent in traditional garb has nodded off to sleep, Young girls of Agiasos in their traditional outfits. Anagnostirion amateurs in their traditional outfits.
At the beginning of the 20th century, western style garments began to make their appearance in Agiasos, slowly pushing the traditional garments aside. This trend was started by the town’s wealthy residents that would import these new garments from Constantinople, Smyrna and other European cities. These new fashions became especially popular in the city of Mytilene, where the long western dress with its petticoats and interior ruffles was highly sought after by young women. Today, it is extremely rare to see a “vrakousa” (a woman wearing the traditional garb), with the exception of a few elderly women who maintain this tradition in the hills outside Agiasos. However, even the most modern women in the rural areas still wear the traditional loose fitting salvari pants when they head to the olive and chestnut groves for the harvest, as they are extremely comfortable, even though some view them as a museum piece.
Municipal Unit of Agiasos