Cretan Customs and Traditions
Because Crete is located at a considerable distance from the other Greek islands and the mainland, it has not been able to rely on other Greeks to come to its aid in times of invasion or distress. This has created a strong degree of independence in the Cretan character. Many Cretan traditions and customs are specifically of the island and cannot be considered Greek as such. In fact, Cretan history has to be studied as a separate field of knowledge from the history of mainland Greece and that of the smaller Greek islands of the more northern parts of the Aegean Sea.
The Cretans are among the tallest people in Greece and in Europe. This can be noticed especially in the isolated mountain areas where the population has remained unchanged by outside influence. The tall stature of the Cretans must in large part be due to the Cretan diet, a vital element of Cretan customs and traditions. No Cretan occasion, be it a wedding, a baptism or a village or family gathering of any kind can be considered complete without the preparation and consumption of plentiful amounts of food and wine. In fact, the Cretan diet has been much studied by scientists and medical experts and has become globally renowned for its remarkable health giving properties.
Cretans are a proud and independent people. Their behaviour and their traditions are a reflection of their long history, their determination to pass on their specifically Cretan customs to following generations and their struggles against occupying forces.
Many traditions are preserved in the villages of Crete, especially in the more isolated ones. However, even Cretans in the island’s largest cities and towns such as Heraklion, Chania and Rethymno keep their age old traditions and will return to their ancestral villages for family occasions, be they weddings, baptisms or village festivals, known as panaghiria. In fact, Cretan weddings and Cretan baptisms are special celebrations that may continue for several days. In the west of Crete, they are characterized by the “rizitika tragoudia”, which are very old songs, (these words have the meaning in Greek of something similar to “songs from the roots”) some being of Byzantine or even earlier origin. As well as singing, dancing, eating, drinking, and, contrary to the law, the shooting of guns into the air are all part of the celebrations.
Another strong poetic tradition which is followed by Cretans of all ages even today, often using new technological innovations such as SMS messaging to disseminate freshly crafted literary creations to friends and family, is the creation of extemporised verses often using a satirical or joking turn of phrase to express strong emotions of joy, regret or love. These poems are called ‘mandinadhes’.
Wine, Distillation and Olives
Grape-gathering, wine-making and the distillation of tsikoudhia, the specifically Cretan strong distilled liquor which is also known as raki, are activities enjoyed in the autumn every year. Wine-making involves crushing the grapes in special stone constructions which are called “patitiria”. This is done by several people taking turns, walking, dancing or jumping across the length of the patitiria to squash the grape juice out of the grapes. Part of the enjoyment that Cretans appreciate most in the production of wine is the consumption of plentiful amounts of food and wine at these joyful grape-crushing family gatherings. Tsikoudhia, or raki, is a strong local drink made from the remains left behind in the patitiria, after most of the grape juice has been removed. This is allowed to ferment and then it is distilled. Traditional methods and machinery are still used. The licensed owner of the still that produces the tsakoudhia will often take time off his regular work to fulfil his function as village distiller during the autumn months. Very often the still has been in his family for generations. People who come to make their tsikoudhia at his still often bring food to barbecue on the fire and the fresh tsikoudhia is sampled copiously.
From October through until January each year, Cretans who own olive trees, a very large proportion of the population, will be involved in the picking and processing of the olive harvest, taking it to be pressed at nearby olive oil mills into their high quality olive oil, the mainstay of their renowned Cretan diet, the secret behind the longevity of so many Cretans. Part of the many secrets as to why Cretan olive oil is of such high quality is due to the fact that the time between the picking of the olives and their being milled and becoming oil is so short, usually less than a day. When this is combined with Crete’s exceptional climate, especially its cooling summer breezes and warmer winter temperatures ensuring that the olives mature on the trees in the perfect conditions and also considering the age and maturity of so many of the trees in the island’s olive groves, the Cretans rightly feel proud of their excellent olive oil. Some years, there is a freak storm in late summer or a spell of warmth too early in the year and the olive harvest will suffer but in good or bad years, the winter months for so many Cretans are spent ensuring that there are plentiful supplies of oil and olives for all their family members throughout the year. In fact, almost as important as the production of olive oil is the work involved in preserving and making this delectable fruit palatable and so exceptionally tasty.
Local Wedding Customs
In the villages of Crete, the parents’ consent, particularly that of the father, is necessary for one to get married. The couple thus asks their parents’ consent and blessing. The first step is the “pledge” or engagement ceremony, which takes place at the house of the bride-to-be and is blessed by a priest. After that, the marriage contract is drawn up and signed. A few days before the wedding, the guests sent their “kaniskia” or presents, usually oil, wine, cheese or meat. Before the ceremony, the trousseau is carried from the house of the bride to the groom’s house. It consists of hand-woven or embroidered articles, sheets and household furnishing.
The trousseau is accompanied by relatives and friends in a joyful parade, to the sounds of the lyre, singing and the firing of guns into the air. At the bride’s house, a woman sings a mandinadha to persuade the family to open the door. On the day of the wedding, the bell calls the newly-weds to the church. After the ceremony, the couple goes to the groom’s house where his mother feeds the bride with honey and walnuts and makes a cross at the front door, while the bride pours honey and breaks a pomegranate at the front door and then walks over the broken pomegranate and honey as she enters the house. These actions are taken as a way to symbolise her, hopefully, fecund future married life with her husband, the multiple seeds of the pomegranate and the sweet taste of the honey highlighting the wish for a contented, fulfilling, sweet-tasting marriage.
Celebration starts with the couple dancing. Soon the guests join in. The drinking, eating and dancing usually end, next day, in the daylight hours but may continue for days.
The traditional ceramics industry has continued on the island since Neolithic and Minoan times with little need for outside influence, though it seems from archaeological evidence that pottery was first introduced to the island through new arrivals from the mainland of Anatolia, as early as 6500 BCE, though the evidence is not yet strong enough on how and from where with certainty pottery was introduced to the original settlers who had arrived from Anatolia over 9000 years ago.
The production of the very large jars, known as pitharia, originally used by the Minoans to store olive oil, wine or honey, was an exceptional achievement for such an early civilisation and the technology needed to produce each pithari, being such large pots as they are, is still today an area of expertise in which the Cretans excel. Pitharia can be seen in gardens or at hotel entrances or indeed almost anywhere on the island and have come to be seen as an essential element of traditional Cretan decoration. Their antecedents go back to and are displayed in their original positions at the palace at Knossos in the storerooms that came to be mythologized as the labyrinth. In fact we believe that the labyrinth was a vast underground store house for the produce offered to the king. It seems likely that all the kings of Knossos were named Minos, similarly to how the ancient Egyptian kings were Pharaohs. Later generations created the myths of the labyrinth and the Minotaur in an attempt to explain how and why these vast labyrinthine mazes of store rooms came to exist.
Crete offers its visitors and its people a vast selection of beautifully designed pots, plates and jugs, all made of the best quality clay, moulded or spun on the potter’s wheel and then fired. They are renowned for their original shapely outlines and their resistance to extreme temperatures. In more recent years, pottery-making has evolved so that now there is a vast array of decorative and utilitarian items being produced in certain villages across the island where the mainstay of the economy is the production of ceramics. The most important pottery centres are Margharites in Rethymno prefecture and Kendri near Ierapetra while the best-known pottery centre, however, is Thrapsano in Heraklio prefecture. In these villages, one can find ceramics for almost every possible use.
In Crete, basket-weaving is part of the local folk tradition. Agricultural work forced the Cretans to develop the craft of basket- weaving, in order to make their rural and domestic chores easier. The secrets of basket weaving are taught by the old craftsmen to the young ones. Utilising material from the Cretan flora, such as reeds and other plants combined with wooden splinters, basket-weavers create original and attractive designs which can be admired throughout Crete.
The making of cutlery is part of the Cretan folk tradition. The island’s disorderly history forced the locals to fight for their freedom and be constantly armed. Today, the knife tied around the waist is an essential part of the traditional Cretan costume. The craft of cutlery-making is taught from one generation to the next, with the elders teaching the youngsters how to make and decorate knives. The majority of Cretan knives have elegant designs, carved on the knife itself or on the handle which is made of silver or animal horn. The sharpened steel blade, for safety reasons, is put into a sheath made of wood, leather or silver. A knife with the words of a “mantinadha” curved on its handle is a beautiful souvenir from Crete.
In the past, wood-carving was primarily concerned with the making of items of religious art; icons, icon-stands, pulpits, candlesticks and other ecclesiastical objects, still decorating churches. Today, only few wood-carvers are still to be found, mainly constructing folk musical instruments with an ocasional request for a commission of a religious nature. However, in the village of Axos, on the slopes of Mount Idha, in Rethymno Prefecture, a talented wood sculptor named Yiorghos Koutantos works and has his own museum called the Museum of Wooden Sculptures. His dedication to his art make this museum one of most outstanding places to visit on the island. The personal self taught nature of his talents combined with the understanding of Cretan culture that are displayed in his art make this museum in its remarkable mountainous village setting worth the visit for all who come to Crete. Still, today, though, all across Crete, and especially in the mountainous regions, talented amateurs create small works of art such as spoons, forks, wooden stamps for impressing designs and shapes on dough before it is baked to become bread, for example, or, in the traditional manner, they continue to produce lyres and various other musical instruments and household objects.
Cretan women are known for their skill in weaving, as in other crafts. The old traditional Cretan houses were characterised by the loom – vertical or upright – where women spent a large part of their day. It was the place where they made the daily clothing of the family, blankets, towels, rugs, aprons and tablecloths. Although fewer women are occupied with weaving today, one can still purchase the famous Cretan woven fabrics, unique samples of folk art, in beautiful colours and original designs. Many families are occupied entirely with weaving, from breeding the stock to weaving the wool. The materials used are flax, cotton and silk which are dyed red by the weavers themselves, who gather for this purpose and teach their craft to the younger ones.
Music, Musical Instruments, Song and Dance:
The Cretan musical tradition has had many influences and has, over the centuries, produced a distinctive sound that even for other Greeks seems specifically Cretan. The rhythmic patterns, the control and usage of the musical instruments, the creation of specific musical instruments which are of Cretan origin and invention and the frequent use of atonality in the music itself all help to give the island’s music its unique range and sound. Although its origins may go as far back as the Minoans, and there certainly was a strong Cretan element within ancient Greek music, the historically traceable elements within Cretan music can be seen to have been much influenced by the Byzantine musical traditions, both religious and secular. This influence came both during the Byzantine period when Crete was part of the Byzantine Empire or more especially, maybe, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when many Constantinople-based musicians sought refuge on the island which was then ruled by the Venetians.
Even though the “mantinadhes” songs, with their distinctive rhyming couplet of fifteen syllables being their base, were first recorded towards the end of the fourteenth century, the arrival of Byzantine musicians on Crete after the 1453 fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks helped to add that sophisticated and especially Byzantine flavour to these songs and also to the “rizitika” songs of western Crete. Even today it can be said that the songs which catch the Cretan character most illuminatingly, full of fun, panache and vocal and musical improvisational surprise, as they are, are the “mantinadhes” which are sometimes accompanied by the lyre and the lute. The singer adjusts the lyrics to the circumstance and the themes of mantinadhes vary from love songs to satirical, historical, or social content songs. The rhymesters compete with each other for the best, most successful verse which will be greeted with great enthusiasm by the audience. Another important category of Cretan songs includes the historic songs which narrate facts and the Cretans’ sad and soulful reactions to them from the island’s disorderly history, praising Cretans’ heroism in confronting invaders and their willingness to struggle and to fight against their oppressors.
Among the regional songs are the “rizitika”, sung in western Crete. They are thus called, some say, because they originate from the foot or “roots” (rizes) of the mountain range of Lefka Ori, the White Mountains. There are two types of rizitika: there are “table” songs (tragoudia tis tavlas), sung without musical instruments at feasts and dinner parties, and the “songs of the road” (tragoudia tis stratas), sung by travellers along the way. Unlike mantinadhes, rizitika are not improvised, expressing an emotional state, but they are the result of a long tradition, ever since ancient times.
The most characteristic musical instrument in Crete’s musical tradition is the “lyra” (the lyre), a three-stringed instrument with a small bow, similar to a fiddle-bow. Cretan lyre-players, self-taught in their majority, improvise and sing the Cretan mantinadhes, adjusting the lyrics to the needs of the occasion. The Cretan lyre is played along with the Cretan “laouto” (lute), an eight – stringed instrument, similar to a guitar. Other traditional instruments are the “outi”, an instrument that is very similar to the Arabic oud, and which may have first been brought to the island as long ago as the time of the Emirate of Crete in the ninth and tenth centuries, also the “askobandoura” – something like a bag-pipe – and the “khambioli”, a wind instrument played most frequently by shepherds, alone or sometimes with an askobandoura attached to it. The playing of these instruments is taught by one generation to the next while Cretan musicians are also usually taught by their elders the technique of how to make the instruments. Playing or listening to music for Cretans is essential and music pervades every aspect of their daily lives.
The traditional Cretan dances constitute an expression of the bravery and dynamism of the Cretan character and were highly influenced by the island’s often chaotic history. The turns of the dance known as the “Siganos” are reminiscent of the convolutions of Theseus in the maze, the labyrinth of Knossos. The dancers have their arms intertwined at shoulder level and take small steps. As the lyre-player accelerates, the dance becomes more animated including more bouncing steps. It is then that the “Pendozalis”, the most famous Cretan dance, begins. Dancers dance in an open circle, move away from each other, then back together and perform many improvisations and spectacular jumps. The “Sirtos” or “Chaniotikos” is danced in a different way from town to town, being a variation on the theme of the “Sirtos” of mainland Greece. The “Sousta” is a rhythmic, courting dance, danced by men and women facing each other. Men also dance the “Kastrinos” or “Maleviziotis” in an open circle. One can see people performing these dances at fairs, festivals and local events.
Cretan Traditional Clothing
Cretan Men’s Costumes:
Although the Cretan traditional male costume is not as popular as it was in the past, in some villages or on formal occasions, there are many older men who still can be seen wearing it. The costume is very impressive. The traditional everyday dress for the men of Crete consists of a wide pair of breeches tucked into boots called “stivania”, that are usually black but white ones are worn for special occasions. A black or light rough woven shirt is worn under the black “meindanogileko” or waistcoat. A black or red, very long sheet of silk is tied around the waist while headgear consists of a very characteristic black lace and fringed kerchief that is either wrapped around the head or draped over the shoulders.
In winter, this is covered by a long, warm cape. The more formal attire is very similar, but is made from finer fabrics like silk and has rich embroidery. The costume varies slightly from region to region of the island; for example in Sfakia traditional headgear is a red fez with a tassel called the “sfakiano.”
Cretan Women’s Costumes:
The female traditional costume can be seen today at feasts, cultural events and folklore museums but generally women in Crete do not now wear their traditional clothing for everyday wear. The most usual type of costume consists of a kind of vraka (a type of broad under-breeches,) topped by a blouse-like under-garment, with the “sakofoustano”, a coloured dress, on top and the beautifully embroidered and decorated apron called the “brostopodia”. On the head, there is a kerchief (known as a tsemberi) or, in some places, a little red fez called a “papazi”. Women also wear low heel boots called “stivania” or high heel black shoes.
The women’s costumes vary from area to area with small variations in certain villages. Generally, though, the mountainous areas prefer the variation of Anogia, while the plains and urban areas prefer the style known as the “soforia”. Soforia replaces the blouse-like under-garment with a red skirt, while the shirt is covered with either of two types of sleeved jacket, both finely embroidered, the “meindani” or the “saltamarka”. The costume of Anogia also includes an embroidered double apron, tied round the waist, decorating the sakofoustano. The formal costume has more ornaments, gold coins and embroidery on the apron and the kerchief, than the daily one.
Whereas in almost all other parts of Europe, so many customs and traditions have been lost or forgotten, Cretans, even with the strong influences that tourism has brought to the island over the last few deades, have managed and are still proud to retain their individuality, their special love of music and dance, their craft and agricultural expertise and their strong adherence to their age old way of life which they insist will continue, due to their proud natures, for generations to come.