by Thanasis Vasilaros & Sophia Eleftheriou – Gari
“It was without doubt the Ikarians who first danced around a billy goat”
Eratosthenes 240 B.C.
«Ικάριοι, τόθι πρωτα περί τράγον ωρχήσαντο»
My relationship with Ikaria could be described as erotic. I met the place in recent years, during my holidays. I loved it for its virgin landscape and the unadulterated lifestyle of its people, the “quiet Ikarians” – those simple in life and manners, as described by Dim. Miliadis in his poem “Ikarus and the offerings of myth”, who reverently guard the “Ark of the Greek Language”.
- Melas notes that the island of Ikarus witnessed “the survival of the ancient speech, clearer than in any other Greek region” and, elsewhere “Already from my first visit to the island, I gained an impression that was an amalgam of wonder and emotion. Talking with this modest people, and mainly those living on the west side of the island, I fell under the spell of the ancient morality and way of life that still survive on this island. In Ikaria, the historian is permitted a clearer look into the past, thanks to the island’s extreme isolation, its wild land and the absence of ports, which was its curse and blessing, the legend of its dire poverty that led to its disregard by all foreigners, visitors and invaders alike. Here, an ancient people managed to survive, preserving to the end both its ancient lifestyle and its linguistic purity. During his panegyric speech of April 25, 1926, at the inauguration of the Gymnasium of Aghios Kirykos, the well-read Ikarian, Char. G. Pamfilis – whom we shall meet again towards the end of this presentation – addressing his students, stated “… you shall learn and accept as a historic fact that our island, during the dark ages between the decline of the Minoan civilization and the birth of the Athenian, served as the tomb of the first and the cradle of the second”. May we note that Char. G. Pamfilis was not a self-complacent naïve farmer, but a man of learning. It was he who issued the “Pandiki”, a monthly newspaper in Ikaria from 1920 to 1930 with subscribers in Greece and abroad.
The following offering is registered as Athenian but, from a distance, seems much older than standard Athenian artefacts.
Mythology of Agriculture: The Ascolia or Ascoliasmus was one of the oldest agricultural feasts, celebrated mainly in Attica during the second day of the agrarian feasts in honour of Dionysus “jumped on sacs, in honour of Dionysus” (Plato, Symposium). During this feast, Athenian farmers would sacrifice a billy goat in honour of Dionysus “an animal that is the enemy of the grapevine”, whose skin, dried and covered with olive oil forms the object of the ascoliasmus. Ascoliasmus refers to the act of jumping and balancing on the bloated skin on one foot, in imitation of Ikarus, who, seeing a billy goat one day eating at a grapevine, killed it, made a sac out of its skin and started dancing on this, expressing the gaiety of early vine-harvest”.
The custom of Ascoliasmus is revived even today on the island of Ikarus. Thus, following the example of their fathers, the Ikarians jump up and down on the billy goat’s skin in mass celebration. This is located in the mental centre of a circle in which, accompanied by the sounds of the drums, the lyre and the bagpipe, they enact one of the most substantial symbols of their cultural identity; the Ikarian dance. On the island of Ikarus, ascoliasmus was never abased to the level of a mere game, but, maintaining a religious austerity, retained its identity as a mass celebration in honour of the events surrounding Dionysus’ theogony. Its religious roots are obvious, and its individual parts are of particular importance.
The musical introduction features a brief uplifting note, leading to a further rise. When this is close to its pitch, another starts anew. Thus, this endless musical melody leads and is lead to the end of time. This means that, whenever the musicians want to stop, not being able to find a musical pause, the interrupt the tune brutally and in dissonance. The strange thing is that, in Ikarian dance, the melody may not be accompanied by words. All efforts to enrich it thus are futile and ridiculous. The fact that the leading group moves clockwise, towards the auspicious right side, like all circular traditional dances, leads us to conclude that the Ikarian dance refers to the circle of life. Undoubtedly, this is a Dionysian dance, as all its sections express the perpetual circle of life, the decisive subject of the worship of Dionysus.
The circle as a whole, moves upwards. The scherzo, as an individual expression, aims to the earthly audience. The coryphaeus displays his skills with bacchanal zest, to convince the watching female for a common course in life and with his free right hand opens the way, adjuring all earthly and supernatural obstacles looming in the horizon. He oft brings his palm as a protective shield over his head or neck. No one though exposes himself in the leading position for long, as this in itself may be perceived as hubris. The whole group is moved by the erotic fervor of the leader. Given that all agricultural customs are established by women, those relating to Dionysus may form no exception. This is supported by the fact that, in all the versions of the myth, Dionysus is raised by women, his Nurses. The Ikarian dance, as a product of primitive Dionysian customs, was, in its initial form, a purely feminine expression of dance. Unique and frenzied, it gradually strives to express the emotional transition from the sorrow of death to the joy of the resurrection of Dionysus. As the sorrow of his passions precedes the joy of resurrection, we have a mournful argotsamouriko, followed by a lively allegro. The participation of men was imposed… by need, when the family and social reins passed into their hands (even though on this island this was mostly for show), probably during the early Homeric era (1000-900 b.C) when Dionysus is exiled to the heart of Egypt. At that point, the male expression, with the mournful tsamouriko, became the official and public face of dance, which was the Ikarian’s official display of emotion. During the period of early Christian zealotry, the male tsamouriko remained the official expression of dance. However, in the eyes of the female progeny of Dionysus’ Nurses, this exclusion was only for show. Nature itself imposed the necessity of the original mixed formation and preserved the race of the Nurses in the circle. This serves to express the two different approaches to the worship of Dionysus; the calm sophistication of men and the primitive impulse of women.
The Ikariotikos is perhaps the only dance of its kind on which we have information on both the reason behind its creation and its course through the centuries!
Let us follow the dancing tradition of Ikaria through the folk poetry of Charis Panahis. Excerpt from the newspaper “Pandiki”, published by Ch. Pamfilis, year 2, issue 6, Ikaria, Fleves, 1/1/1929….
We have reason to believe that Charis Panahis is but an alias used by Ch. Pamfilis. Let us read on and enjoy the Ikarian dialect.
Ai Vasilis* blessing, through our villages sweeps,
Sharing greetings everywhere, eating from our sweets.
Ai Vasilis comes, with company so fai’
Reaches Kioni, stands, stops to rest at Nea.
To bless Karneris’ jars, oh so full of wine,
And carries on his road, after he’s had to dine.
His road leads to Perdikin, to bless the village ewes,
To eat some chops of pork, along with wings of goose.
He breaks some walnuts dipping them in honey oh so sweet,
And takes a loaf of pie onwards, to villages he’ll seek
To Mavrikato, Mavrato, Oxe, Tsoudero, from there he runs
To Katafigi, stealing from the tables, the best of sugared buns
In his bag then he puts cake, walnuts, crusts and surely plums
Along with stuffed with nuts and spices homemade tasty buns.
These eating on he goes
Happy he reaches Fleves, the home of Panagis
At his house his lassie does not call him to dine
But offers him and toasts him with old fine Samos wine.
Upon which then he danced for both the Ikariotiko.
From there he takes his cart and heads to Karavostamo,
To Kiparissi, Kerame, where with the water of rodostamo
Blesses the lot and steal now and then some a muffin
Stops only there to do the Mesaritis dancing.
I’ve been around the whole wide world and nowhere have I seen
Such dancers like the race of Evdilos, i drink to you health of kin!
After some hesitation, upon an olive tree branch
The tune Perameritiko the saint was made to dance
They threw the lyre player money as he played away
Along with all their blessings for his every day
* Ai Vasilis – Saint Basil (the equivalent of Saint Nicholas)
Excerpt from the newspaper “Pandiki”, year 1, issue 3, Ikaria, Fleves, 15/12/1928:
Tholoou and Panahis, whispering while dancing
Unheeded by the crowd, slowly start romancing
In courting Panahi, take one step at a time,
Be pleasing and polite, don’t press the lass meantime.
Tholoou when I see your naked flesh so tempting
I lose my mind, I think I fear my sanity is emptying.
Look at your arms so white, your legs so purely fine,
Look at the little devils, truly they walk divine!
Look at your breasts and neck, oh they are so seductive,
To tell you but the truth, my dear I am their captive!
Like firm and juicy citrons, pointing in my direction,
Help me Tholoou, my mind is gone, I’ve lost my orientation!
Panahi you’re so full of lust but hen I take of my shoe,
You’ll fell it on your hide my boy, shoo, I tell you, shoo!
Tholoou, we’re in the carnival, will you please forgive me
if I sound boastful and grand, pray, do not heed me
I spoke without thinking but now just watch, as
I will speak of the people like an unmoved judge.
Go on then, don’t keep me in the dark
We see Nicholas Lardas, his wife Rodocleia on his side
Beside them are two bouncy girls
one large as an airplane, who clearly cannot hide
but dancing to the one-step modestly, with no frills.
They are the girls of Douzouglou I think, I swear to god
If I was young and single I’d like to be their groom.
Tholoou I’m going on a walk to see what is allover,
To enjoy beauty and, look, there I go
And stare with open mouth, my heart
They’re dancing to foxtrot and Charleston played by the jazz band.
Girls and boys, their faces close together
hand and foot look how they turn like tops!
With my neck craned like a gargoyle I see
And watch all around, all that was hidden once
Closely but lightly do the youths hold their dames
And their rhythm makes the circle wave,
Mothers oh so proud of their sons right in the air!
And so I say, youths hold the dance, youths revel in your mirth!
I bless you and I curse you, to ward the evil eye off!
Look at the youths what skills they have!
How they sweat and how they endure
Who it that tall one over there who looks like a string of thread?
Oh God, I recognise him, it’s Anagnostis!
And there’s Niko-Zaras, who, licking his tooth
Swirls his dame as perky as you will!
I would like to thank Mrs. Koumiotou Maki for the rare original issues of “Pandiki” she had the kindness to provide me with, and the author Mr. Dim. D. Miliadis, for his permission to use data from his book “Ikarus and the offerings of myth” on which I based this presentation I believe you shall find interesting.