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CRETAN CULTURE

 

THE PEOPLE


It was not until 1913 that Crete officially became part of Greece again, after almost 2,000 years of occupation by a variety of neighbouring countries and empires, whose dominance rose and fell during that time. It says much for the character of the Cretan people that they have held on to their identity and not succumbed to assimilation with any of the occupying cultures. In the United Kingdom a succession of invaders from the Romans onwards have left their cultural influence and DNA to create the mongrel race that we are today. Native Cretans have stoically avoided such integration with invading cultures down the centuries.Indeed far from any attempt at convergance they organized over 300 revolutions against Turkish rule alone. Today the people of Crete are Greek citizens, and proud to be so, but they are resolutely Cretan first, and then Greek. The slightly anarchic, stubborn, and perverse qualities that have brought the Cretan people and their culture through the centuries to where they today still remain. They have their own unique take on every aspect of life, and a somewhat perverse and contradictory element to their nature, in that they have developed a fearsome reputation for both warrior like aggression, and conversely, hospitality that is almost competetive in its intensity.
This fundamental dichotomy within the Cretan character manifests itself in often fatal family feuds and vendettas, whilst embracing close family ties and religous observance.They have a forged a reputation throughout the rest of Greece and the Mediterranean for breeding fierce fighting men, and have provided foreign armies with greatly feared mercenaries over the centuries. When the Germans began their paratroop invasion of Crete in 1942, the local civilian population could have dashed home and locked the door, and left it to the occupying allied forces to deal with the situation. This however is not the Cretan way. All over the island local people dug out weapons old and new from their hiding places. Ancient muzzle loading muskets last used against the Turks, to more modern firearms were pressed into action, along with improvised weapons from barns and kitchens. Many German parachutists were beaten or knifed to death as they landed, then their captured weapons used against them. Such was he zeal of the civilian reprisal that allied commanders had some difficulty in trying to quell the blood lust to acceptable levels.

Following the German victory resistance movements took to the mountains with support from local villagers, who took a huge risk in doing so, and many paid the ultimate price.
The chances of  their dislike of invaders having mellowed in the intervening years between now and the end of world war two would seem unlikely, and their current love of ordnance is evident in almost every road sign. All of which contrasts rather sharply with the family oriented, religious side of their character, and an unprecedented reputation for hospitality of which they are rightly proud. The author Peter Trudgill described his Sfakiot neighbours as being “hospitable to the point of insanity”. The family, and often extensions to it are the foundation of Cretan society. Most of life’s material requirements can be supplied by some relative or other, and daily life is in many aspects not far removed from the rose tinted vision of 50’s Britain that is so beloved of English Sunday evening television.


The following assessment of the Cretan character is from Msgr Louis Petit. |The French Roman Catholic Bishop of Athens (1912 to 1926), who writes somewhat more eloquently and concisely than myself. -
" They are a truly admirable people who learnt to hold on stubbornly throughout the tumultuous events of forty centuries to their native character and local speech. Courage, mingled with an independent spirit that is often close to downright disobedience, a lively wit, vivid imagination, and a language full of images, spontaneous and unaffected, love for every kind of adventure, an indefatigable urge for freedom, that goes hand in hand with an insatiable desire for bravado... A fertile land that has always given birth to the worthiest of men both in Church and State, in science and letters, in the economy and in war..."

MUSIC


Few places on our planet have escaped the influence of Los Angeles’ global dominance of popular culture, and Crete is no exception. However a glance through the CD racks of any Cretan music store shows that tinsel town isn’t having all its own way, there is a healthy market for Greek and Cretan artistes. Most of these performers fall pretty much within the euro pop genre, but there is a small but significant market for Cretan traditional music
Cretan traditional music has evolved over millennia and absorbed influences and instrumentation from the variety of cultures that have passed through, but remains an entity in its own right, and is not to be confused with Greek music. Cretan music is led by the lyra, a three stringed fiddle like instrument that is held upright on the lap and bowed. The music betrays an eastern influence, and largely comprises of improvised variations on basic themes, often in intricate time signatures and gathering momentum as it progresses. Greek music on the other hand is far more formal in structure and is led by the bazouki, a plucked guitar like instrument.
The lyrical content of Cretan music, is as most folk music the world over, concerned with life, love and death, the changing seasons, and more locally pertinent, the occupying empire of the day.

DANCE
There is a very strong tradition of dance in Crete, kept alive, along with the accompanying music, by the camaraderie of village life. Weddings and baptisms are big communal affairs with music and dance a central part of proceedings. Fuelled by the odd tipple, and punctuated by sporadic gunfire into the air. The dances date back centuries and are meant to represent various stages of war and the indomitability of the Cretan spirit.
There are many “traditional evenings” of song and dance on offer to tourists, and whilst I can’t speak with any kind of authority on the authenticity of such events, I’m sure the performers have not gone to the trouble of rewriting their culture just to irk the tourists, so much of the evening should be indicative of traditional dancing. However any performer will play to the audience, and no evening is seemingly complete without at least one rendition of “Zorba’s Dance”. Written for the film “Zorba the Greek” by  Mikis Theodorakis.