By Stella Tsolakidou
The Apokriés, or Carnival season, is about to begin in Greece once again, and people of all ages are looking forward to disguising themselves in masquerades, celebrate and engage in pranks and general revelry, and burn the effigy of King Carnival on the last Sunday of the celebrations. The Apokriés celebrations last for three weeks and commence 60 days before Easter, biding farewell to meat consumption and preparing the faithful for the Lent.
The season is also called the Opening of the Triodion, named after the liturgical book used by the church from then until the Holy Week. The first week is called Profoni or Profonesimi (because people would loudly announce the ar), in which people prepare their pigs to be slaughtered for the coming Meat Week.
That includes one of the season’s most anticipated day, the so called Tsiknopémpti, when people traditionally go to taverns and eat roast beef or any other meat in big portions to fulfill themselves for the third and last week, when no meat is allowed, although for many that’s symbolic and they continue eating meat anyway. This week, right before Lent begins, is called Tyrini (tyri is the Greek word for cheese) because eating meat is not allowed, but dairy products are. The Great Lent begins on Clean Monday, the day after Cheese Sunday.
Tracing the past of the Greek carnival, its cultural connection to the ancient cult of Dionysus, god of wine, celebration and ecstasy according to the Greek Mythology, is evident. The pagan rituals celebrating nature’s rebirth during the famed ancient festival of Dionysia taking place in Athens were passed on to the Romans who honored Dionysus’ transformation of Bacchus with the Bacchanalia, an equally important event as the Saturnalia.
Especially during the Lanaea, one of the Dionysia festival parts, followers of Dionysus would dress up as satyrs (the goat-like companion of Dionysus) or hid their faces behind masks and run wildly through the streets of the city acting obscene or silly, while there were also theatrical performances to attend.
The Dionysia aimed to celebrate spring’s return and regeneration. As such, the festival included rituals dedicated to the souls of the dead, who the ancient Greeks believed that joined the living world approximately on March 1st. As Christianity spread and dominated over the pagan cults, the Orthodox Church tried to subdue the importance of pagan rituals and substitute them with the new Christian practices and ways.
Thus, it incorporated many once pagan ceremonies, which are still performed to our days. During the carnival period the Orthodox also pay tribute to their dead with the Psychosavata or Soul Saturdays offering prayers and koliva (ritual food of boiled wheat) for the departed relatives and friends. The Soul Saturdays occur on the two Saturdays preceding the Meatfare Sunday (second week of Carnival, when meat consumption ends) and the Tirini Sunday, as well as the first Saturday following Clean Monday.
There are different etymological approaches of the word Carnival between those that see a link with the Italian word “carne” (meat), and those that argue a link with the word “carrus” (car.) The link with carne would suggest an origin within Christianity, while the link with carro with earlier religions.
Those who support that the origin derives from “carne” point to variants in Italian dialects that would suggest that the name comes from the Italian carne levare or similar, meaning “to remove meat”, since meat is prohibited during Lent. Others claims the word comes from the Late Latin expression carne vale, which means “farewell to meat,” signifying that those were the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent.
The word carne may also be translated as flesh, so suggesting carne vale as “a farewell to the flesh,” a phrase actually embraced by certain Carnival celebrants who encourage letting go of your former (or everyday) self and embracing the carefree nature of the festival. Other scholars argue for the origin from the Roman name for the festival of the Navigium Isidis (ship of Isis,) where the image of Isis was carried to the sea shore to bless the start of the sailing season.The festival consisted of a parade of masks following an adorned wooden boat, that would reflect the floats of modern Carnivals.