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Magna Grecia - from tarantella to funeral dirges in the lands forgotten by Christ

29 December 2014 / 13:12:53  GRReporter
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Zdravka Mihaylova
For Grreporter exclusive
If Christ had stopped at Eboli, according to the novel by Carlo Levi, where the road and railway line ended and declined to continue into the interior of Lucania (today's Basilicata region), it is certain that He had never reached many other areas of the forgotten-by-progress Italian south, neither the River Amendolea valley in Calabria, where a population, an echo of the past of Magna Grecia (Μεγάλη Ελλάδα) is still living. The writer attributed the title of his novel to the inhabitants themselves, who had told him, "We are not Christians, Christ did not come this far, he stopped at Eboli." In the early 19th century, German researcher Karl Witte discovered the existence of discrete populations in southern Italy, whose mother tongue was Greek. The strong influence exerted by the Greek language on the southern Italian dialects was confirmed a century later by German linguist Rohlfs as well as by many other researchers, mostly Greeks and Italians, who had studied the origin of the dialects spoken in the Greek 'language enclaves' in Apuglia (the Salento peninsula - the heel of the Italian boot) and Calabria (mainly in the mountainous area of Aspromonte on the top of the boot). These studies have proved the existence of a unique language that has preserved words of the ancient Greek Doric dialect that have disappeared from, or are non-existent in, both the Byzantine and modern Greek language.
This confirms the origin and continuity that has existed from the time of Magna Grecia, in particular, from the 8th century BC, when the numerous Greek populations colonized southern Italy and Sicily, to the present day. The Greek colonies Rigion (today Reggio Calabria), Taras (Taranto), Varion (Bari), Vrundision (Brindisi), Epizefirii Locri, Kavlonia, Medma, Croton and Sivaris were established in that era in Calabria. Calabria is a region in Italy that in terms of geography, topography and environment resembles Greece more than any other. Therefore, it is no coincidence that four of the largest Greek colonies in the West were founded along the Ionian seacoast. The largest urban centre in antiquity, Thurii, was designed by famous Ippodamos of Miletus, and famous historian of antiquity Herodotus was buried there. Pythagoras’ contribution to the development of knowledge is remarkable, as was the school he founded in Croton. The "Tribune of Pythagoras" where the great mathematician preached his theories can be seen in the ruins of the ancient city even today.   
Reggio Calabria along with Naples remained the cradle of Hellenism in the western region until the era when it became a province of Byzantine Calabria. Today, its archaeological museum gives shelter to two unique statues, known as "The Warriors of Riace" and the bronze head of "The Philosopher of Porticello". The unique bronze statues of "the warriors" are two of the few examples of Greek art from the Classical era, pulled out from the depths of the sea that, for centuries, was a bridge between, rather than a space separating, Greece and Calabria. It was constantly crossed in both directions by traders, masters of art and their works. The sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, known from the adventures of Odysseus, the terror of ancient mariners, are actually allegorical mythological images of the dangerous sea currents in the Straits of Messina that separate Sicily from Calabria. It is also the habitat of Fata Morgana, not the fairy from the myth about King Arthur but the physical phenomenon of a reflective image, a mirage, over the Gulf of Messina, from which stemmed so many legends.  
The origin, history, traditions and contemporary presence of the Greek-speaking population in southern Italy are the topics discussed with ethnologist and social anthropologist Christina Petropoulou.
- You have been involved for many years in a field study of the Greek-speaking areas in Calabria, especially the village of Galiciano, which is the topic of your thesis work defended at the University of Thessaloniki. In the mid-Eighties, when you lived there, the villages along the River Amendolea valley were still inhabited by a Greek-speaking population. There are different theories about its origin and settlement there: the two main ones are that the people were Greek colonists from the 8th century BC, when a large number of them moved to southern Italy and Sicily, and the other one states that they were mostly settlers from the Byzantine era between the 9th and 11th centuries. Who are the "fathers" of these theories and which one do you consider closer to historical truth?

- For many years, the question of the origin of the dialects in southern Italy had split the scientific community into two opposing "camps", namely the so-called Byzantists and the archaists. The first camp, mainly Italian scholars, supported the Byzantine origin of this language. The latter faction, largely Greeks, shared the view that its roots were in ancient times, with emphasis on the Doric dialect of Magna Grecia. The contribution of A. Karanastasis, the compiler of the Historical Dictionary of the Athens Academy of Sciences, is considered as particularly significant. For some years after 1962, he carried out scientific expeditions in the Greek-speaking regions of Apuglia and Calabria, gathering rich linguistic evidence. The result of these studies is the publication of the five-volume historical dictionary of the Greek dialects in southern Italy, including the relevant historical grammar. His research activity has directed the scientific studies to a "sober" view of the origin of this language that is closer to historical reality. To summarize, Karanastasis recognizes the existence of the following language sub-layers in the Italian language spoken in the lower part of Italy: an Archaic layer teeming with Doric and Archaic elements, a Hellenistic layer, a Byzantine layer from the time of Byzantine domination in southern Italy and a layer of lexical loan-words from the local Roman dialect with which the Greek language coexisted for centuries. Obviously, all these sub-layers were the result of the successive Greek colonisations in the specific areas.
- In your text "Introducing the Greek-speaking villages" you mention the novel by Carlo Levi Christ Stopped at Eboli in which the author describes the life in the region of Lucania in the deprived Italian south, where he was interned in the period 1935-1936 by the fascist regime of Mussolini. You compare the living conditions in the Calabrian villages with the experiences and testimonies of an Italian doctor with leftist views. What was the economic and social reality in these places in the mid-eighties when you started your research there?    
- The conditions there resembled those in Greece in the 1950s. It would be enough to say that during the first three years of my stay there (1983-1985) there was no running water to supply the houses. The residents drew water from a well that the young people called the "Κάναλο της Αγάπης" ("Fountain of Love"), as idylls blossomed there when the girls went to fill the pitchers with water. I went to this "channel" too to wash my clothes, as my mother did in my birthplace when I was a child (in the village of Tourkoleka, Arcadia, the Peloponnese). After the first year, when I ended up in Galiciano, I looked for the book by Carlo Levi and I admit that I was impressed by the numerous similarities between Aliano, the village in Lucania, where he was interned himself (in the novel he called it Galliano as is its local pronunciation) and Galiciano. Levi wrote his classic masterpiece between 1943 and 1944, in the most dramatic moments of the war, and released it immediately after its end in 1945. The book shocked me so much that, at some point when I was in Rome, I took the train and followed the route of his journey, writing thoughts and impressions in my diary. As regards the economic situation of the Greek-speaking villages, it would be enough to mention that in 1979, according to a survey of the European Economic Community at the time, the income per capita of the population in the seven villages of the Greek-speaking area was the lowest compared with that in the 109 areas at the time and the 260 million Community citizens at the time. The economy was based on stockbreeding and the majority of the population had migrated to Switzerland and North Italy, especially to Milan. Those who had returned preferred to settle in Reggio (Reggio di Calabria), the largest urban centre in the region, since they could provide a better future for their children there. Even today, there are neighbourhoods in Reggio with a Greek-speaking population in its majority. However, at the time of my study, the village had about 250 inhabitants, a number dramatically reduced in the early 1990s, which has fallen further to just 15 families at present. Regarding the economic situation, I believe there has been no spectacular change to this day.
- In the 11th century Calabria experienced vigorous growth which would be interrupted by the appearance of the Normans there. They would be followed by the new conquerors as a result of whom the Greek element would decline. It, however, would again flourish after the conquest of Constantinople, due to the fact that many residents of the Greek space, terrified by the attack of Islamic Turks, sought refuge in the West, and particularly South Italy. What was the subsequent fate of these large centres where the Orthodox Greek population was concentrated?

- The fact is that there were over 150 monasteries, which followed the Greek Orthodox Typikon in Calabria in the 13th century. Over time, however, the Greek monastic communities, both in Calabria and Sicily, started to gradually decline. The majority of them did not even know Greek; few were able to read the Greek Orthodox Typikon (a book that sets the order of ritual during all days and holidays). Crucial for its formal abolition was the Council of Trent (1549), which imposed the Latin liturgy on the entire Catholic Church. The bishopric of Bova demonstrated the strongest resistance. There, Orthodox worship was abolished in 1573. The decision was taken by the last Orthodox bishop Ioulios Stavrianos who was of Cypriot origin. Following a secret agreement with the Archbishop of Reggio and the notables of Bova he urged the authorities and the people to attend a convivial liturgy. It was celebrated entirely in Latin on 20 January 1573, the day of St. Sebastian, whose memory was honoured by both the Latins and the Greek Orthodox Church. It is distinguished for the fact that the believers reprimanded the priest who celebrated the liturgy with such bitterness that he was assigned the nickname Judas. In 1579, Pope Gregory XIII organized the Greek monks in southern Italy in an order, which on the one hand saved the Greek monasteries from total decline, but made them more dependent on the papal church, which led to their rapid latinisation. The influence of the Catholic Church, the gradual retreat of the Greek language under the pressure of Latin and the illiteracy of the Greek clergy led to a lasting decline in Orthodoxy, especially during, and at the end of, the 16th century. There were attempts to restore Orthodox worship during the 1970s on the initiative of the Greek and Italian associations that fought to preserve the Greek language in Calabria. A small Orthodox church was built in Galiciano around 1992, dedicated to the Virgin of Greeks (Παναγία των Ελλήνων). Its foundation was dictated more by the strong tendency to "Grecisation" of the area and turning it into a tourist destination, rather than by the religious needs of the local population.
- The ban on the Orthodox rite, the more frequent contacts with the Italian population,  military conscription, the breakup of strict endogamy, education, the impact of media and the acute sense of inferiority that had been propagated for years in the Greek-speaking population led to a gradual decline of the language and customs. Prejudices and negative stereotypes, anyway, were valid not only for the Greek-speaking people but also for all Calabrians (and all southerners). Which villages still spoke the Greek language at the time of your research and how have things changed as of today? For example, Galiciano, where the Greek language had been preserved in its most lively form, was the most isolated and poor village in the entire region.
- In 1983, when I visited this area for the first time, all spoke "Greco" (γκρέκο, which is how the locals call their language) in the villages of Galiciano and Rogoudi. I will never forget the first day when I woke up in the village and heard two women talking loudly to each other outside, at my door, saying these striking words, "put his hand on her" ("της έβαλε χέρι"), mentioning some man who was bothering a girl. This expression is literally used in all parts of Greece. In those years, Greek-speaking people lived in Bova Superiore and in the coastal village of Bova Marina. We are talking about people who originated in the village of Rogoudi. A prominent figure among them was Angelo Maesano (Rogoudi, 1915- Bova, 2000), known as Mastr 'Angelo, a profound expert of the Greek language. While I carried out my study, he wrote one of the best songs in Calabrian Greek - "Come, come to me" («Έλα, έλα μου κοντά»). I was fortunate to be present during the entire composing process of this wonderful song. Our meetings took place at the house of another eminent figure in the Greek-speaking community - Elisabetta Nucera, who had fought for the official recognition of the "γκρέκο" language.
The main factors contributing towards the preservation of the language for so many centuries were the geographical isolation of the area, difficult communication with the outside Italian-speaking world, the closed agricultural and stockbreeding economy and illiteracy. Conversely,  more frequent contacts with the Italian-speaking population, natural disasters (floods and landslides) and subsequent displacements of populations from the mountains to the plains, as well as general changes (social, economic and cultural) after the 1960s have contributed towards the gradual retreat of the "γκρέκο" language. Today the majority of the people have moved to coastal centres, mainly in Kondofouri Marina.   
The cooperation with Sotiris Christakis, my partner during the years of my anthropological expedition, and later my husband, was invaluable. I owe to him the unique photographs of local people and customs. As part of the illustrations for this interview I am submitting photos made by him in the 1980s.   
- One of these villages, namely Rihoudi, is considered as an architectural masterpiece and it is present as an example for readers in manuals and textbooks on town planning. What distinguishes this village?

It is difficult for someone to describe the overwhelming impression of that village when he or she sees it! As its name suggests (from the adjective ρηχώδης = ακανθώδης, gnarled, thorny, steep) Rihoudi (Ρηχούδι) or Rogoudi (Ρογούδι) is built on the steep slopes of a cliff and is surrounded by gaps on all sides. The perilous location of the village hid such serious threats that mothers had to tie their children with a rope for fear that, while playing, they might roll down into one of the village´s two swift-flowing rivers (Amendolea and Fouria), at the bottom of the precipice. The history of the village describes such cases. It has become an object of study owing to its unique architectural interest. One of the most important Italian publishing houses, Einaudi, had even featured a picture of Rihoudi on the cover of its spectacular volume History of Calabria that appeared on the market in 1985. 
- During one of the stagings of the International Dance Festival in Kalamata ethno-musicologist Lambros Liavas had illustrated his lecture on "Tarantella pitsika: a music and dance spell of hellenofones from South Italy" with the performance of the dance ensemble Arachne Mediterranea ("Mediterranean spider") from the village of Martiniano in Apuglia, which performed the ritual dance. Its members are researchers associated with the University of Lecce, the capital of Salento, and their studies are focused on the culture of the nine Greek-speaking villages in Salento. In a letter, Mozart’s friend, the English composer Stephen Storas, described the dance of a "tarantato", whom he had watched while travelling in these lands during the 18th century and defined Tarantella as a 6/8 rhythm, which is present in the area even today. What are your observations on the origin and symbolism of Tarantella?
- Tarantella (the dance of the spider) is par excellence the traditional dance of southern Italy, especially of Apuglia, which is different from one area to another. It is associated with the phenomenon tarantism (tarantismo), i.e. the bite from a small poisonous spider - tarantula (tarantella, diminutive of the word taranta = spider). This bite provoked in the tarantato who suffered the bite a state of general discomfort, stomach pains, sweating, increased heart rate, and ecstatic delirium. In order for the affected person to get rid of all these symptoms, special musicians visited him or her at home, the expenses being borne by the family, and to the sounds of particular music, the person embarked on an hours-long dance, imitating the movements of the spider. The pace of the dance became more hectic, until the bitten person fell down exhausted on the ground, still in an ecstatic mood. Thus, worn out by the dance, he or she got rid of all adverse effects caused by the bite of the tarantula. It is a therapeutic ritual with music and dance, directly related to the economic and social conditions that prevailed in the Italian south until the 1960s, but also to the position of women in these societies. It is no coincidence that the tarantula "preferred" socially marginal people, usually young, unmarried women, victims of patriarchal society. The ritual dance allowed them to turn upside down the rules of everyday life, enabling them to attract the attention of others once in a year and to find a vent from their daily oppression, disappointments, impasses, concerns. Scientific studies have not proven the existence in Apuglia of any spider that causes such pain and ecstatic states. 
The reasons, as I said, are rooted elsewhere. Tarantism is the subject of numerous studies. Making an overview of a long history with all the changes that are due to the relevant historical, social, economic and religious developments, Tarantella and its varieties have survived to this day as a typical dance from the Italian south, mostly from the Greek-speaking region of Apuglia. Today there are numerous musical groups, in Italy, Greece and elsewhere, that frequently promote this dance. Even in Apuglia, the festival "The Night of the Spider" (La Notte della Taranta) has been held every summer over the past 16 years, with the participation of official institutions and many folk groups. There are many groups, the research of tarantism has intensified but without the proper respect and responsible attitude. Today, all are experts in everything. But regardless of the state of things, the conclusion from scientific research is that the ancient Mediterranean ritual dance with therapeutic properties is reminiscent of the deep mythological, language and musical roots of a common tradition, the bridge of which is the Ionian Sea.  
- Your comprehensive ethnographic research naturally includes the burial customs of the communities inhabiting the Greek-speaking villages in Calabria. What similarities and differences have you established with those in Greece?          
- The similarities are numerous, but the most characteristic one is κοπετού (from the ancient Greek κοπετός), the mourning, the heartbreaking wailing over the dead during which women hit themselves in the chest, claw their faces, tear their clothes and hair. I watched these scenes during the fieldwork, when two sisters were wailing over their deceased mother. When her mortal remains were removed from the house, they fell down onto the ground, hitting their heads and chests, clawing their faces. Another important similarity is the placing of the deceased person’s favourite objects (cigarettes, decks of playing cards, etc.) in the coffin. The main difference is that in Calabria only men send the dead to his/her last home. This is related to the attempt of the Catholic Church to suppress the ritual mourning (especially the dirges), which was considered a remnant of pagan times; since, as soon as the Lord had invited the deceased to himself the living ones should not be mourning. There is a difference between the designated day on which to honour the dead (2 November) and to perform the liturgy at the cemetery, which is followed by the wailing of the women over the graves, even though decades have elapsed since someone's death. Also interesting is the ritual that follows the laying of the body in the ground. It is believed that those who took part in a funeral are carriers of evil spirits and their transmission can cause a variety of evils and troubles. Therefore, they must return to the house of the dead and greet his or her relatives with a handshake. By the handshake they get rid of harmful mischievous spirits. It is a widespread custom in the Italian south. Who does not "clear" him/herself of the evil spirits can cause death, a fall from a high cliff, or natural disasters. This is the same as the belief in Greece that, during the first eight days after the death, the deceased is in an intermediate state between life and death, and only after the eighth day, does he or she leave for the realm of shadows. The relevant Greek and Balkan commemorative service on the ninth day after someone’s death takes place on the eighth day in Calabria. After that day, the closest relatives go to places in the open where the deceased had spent his life to mourn him or her. I remember such cases during the time spent in Calabria, which were shattering experiences.
- This year you visited Bulgaria, this time travelling not on business but as a tourist. What are your impressions of the few days you spent in Sofia and Plovdiv? Would you be interested in studying the Greek ethnic element and the Greek dialects along the Black Sea and in Eastern Roumelia?
- My impressions from both Sofia and Plovdiv are excellent. I am amazed by the beauty of these two cities, their architecture, their cleanliness, respect for history and the environment which you can feel while walking around. There are Greek researchers, experts in this field, such as Marianna Koromila, the author of The Black Sea Greeks (1991, revised edition 2001), awarded the prize of the Athens Academy. Having travelled almost all over Turkey, the Black Sea region and the Balkans, Koromila’s books have been released by Greek and foreign publishers, in addition to numerous publications in scholarly journals and television productions. Therefore, studies of the Greeks in the coastal areas of the Black Sea and Eastern Roumelia have been conducted but I believe that it would be essential to carry out an interdisciplinary expedition of scientists (historians, ethnologists, ethno-musicologists, anthropologists) to conduct an in-depth study of the centuries-long presence of Hellenism in these places, especially in the former Philippopolis/Plovdiv.

Tags: Christina PetropoulouZdravka MihaylovaCalabriaMagna GreciaItalyGreek languageTarantella
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