The word Αποκριά or Απόκρεω (Apokria) literally means ‘without meat’ and the word carnival comes from the Latin ‘carnem levare’ meaning ‘without meat’. So what we are doing within this merriment today is preparing to fast during the Lent which follows, but the origins of this revelry can be traced in Greek paganism.

Apokries last for three weeks prior to Lent and covers twenty-two days and three Sundays.

First Sunday is the Sunday of the Prodigal son
Second Sunday is the Sunday of Small Carnival
Third Sunday is the Sunday of the Big Carnival (Shrovetide Sunday)

Or in Greek:
Κυριακή του Ασώτου
Κυριακή της Απόκρεω (μικρή αποκριά)
Κυριακή της Τυρινής (Μεγαλη Αποκριά)
This is called the Triodio (Τριώδιο)

Having lived in Greece for many years I found Apokries my favourite festive season because, apart from the organised carnival in Patra, every other celebration all over Greece seems truer to the origins. The Patra Carnival is the most famous one but also the most westernised, whereas the Tyrvanos celebrations are more authentic to the origins of Apokries. In Athens people have masquerade parties and the goal is to dress up so as not to be recognised. People wander the streets dressed in masquerade garb, hitting strangers on the head with a club (naturally only a plastic club). Friends get together and knock on other friends’ doors in dress-up and in this case as well as at a party one must guess who is hiding behind the dress-up and the mask.

To understand this festive season one has to look deep into antiquity to the Dionysian festivals and the celebration of rebirth. It is spring time and all over Greece it was important to honour Dyonisus, these festivities were held late February early March, the celebrations were over a period of three days whereas today it is over three weeks. In Athens, on the first day they would open the jars of the new wine and made libations to Dyonisus, singing to thank the god for the wine and on this day the Athenians allowed their slaves to drink with them.

On the second day there was a procession of entry to the city of Dynonisus on a boat with wheels, on the boat there were people disguised as Satyrs teasing the people with profanities creating joy. Other Satyrs were dressed in animal skins or evergreen plants and one man aimed to look like a billy goat with a high propensity to sexuality; this male goat symbolised the god Dionysus who was ‘married off’ to the wife of the archon of the city in a ‘sacred marriage’.

On the third day koliva (κόλυβα) were dedicated to the god Hermes, who accompanied the souls to the after-life and by doing this it was believed that the departed souls came back amongst the living on this day. But it was feared that dark souls would came back from Hades so the people surrounded their sacred places with a red thread, thus preventing them from entering.

While the list of what went on in these three days is vast, I have tried to give a short version so as to connect with what happens today in the modern version of Apokries.

Today the northern Greeks seem to be the custodians of the Dionysian rites. The material I have found tells that the celebrations are ‘muted’ today but I gather that this means that with Lent and Easter around the corner some things have changed but from my personal experience in Greece and my research the bawdy aspect has not changed much. There is demotic music that is only sung during the Apokries festivities. Domna Samiou was the greatest exponent of this music and the music can be found under ‘Ta Apokriatika’. I have the songs and they are seriously naughty and hilarious.

There are festivals all over Greece all taking different forms, I will mention only some of the most famous ones to give my readers an idea and I’ll start with Naxos, considered to be the birthplace of the god Dionysus. Each year, on the last Sunday of Apokries, Koudounati, men strapped with bells and carrying Dionysian phallic symbols known locally as somba (σόμπα), stir up a racket while parading through the village alleys in a procession held to welcome the spring season and exorcise evil spirits. The procession winds up at the village main square, where its participants join forces with other carnival-dressed revellers. Together, they plunge into celebration with singing and dance accompanied by traditional bagpipe (tsabouna – τσαμπούνα) and percussion (toumbaki – τουμπάκι) sounds for a party that lasts well into the night.

On the island of Skyros there is the ‘Geros’ and the ‘Korela’ and the ‘Frangos’. The Geros wears the typical woollen cape of a shepherd turned inside out, with the hairy side outward, and a mask made of small animal pelt that covers the face. The hood of the cape covers the head and he wears white woollen pants and white woven socks. His back is stuffed to create the impression of a hump. In one hand he holds a wooden curved shepherd’s stick and in the other a bag with flour or bran, necessary for his encounter with the people on the way to the square. But what is supposed to spread fear is the sound of 50-60 bells that are fastened with wooden hoops through a rope around his waist as in the Koudounati of Naxos.

The Geros is accompanied by the Korela, a man dressed in women’s traditional attire from Skyros. The performer who completes the cast is the Frangos, a young man dressed in old ‘European’ clothes. On his waist he has a shepherd’s bell while he teases people who are passing by.

There are many festivities all over Greece but the one that stands for me as being the closest to the Dionysian rites is the Apokries of Tyrnavo in Thessaly,
northern Greece.

The festival in Tyrnavos is one of the most famous carnivals in Greece. Faithful to the old traditions, the people of Tyrnavos still honour the god Dionysus with various festivities. Perhaps the most obviously pagan of these is found under the misleading name ‘cooking the bourani’, a vegetable soup, which is served on Ash Monday every year and brings a lot of Greek and foreign tourists in the area. During the cooking of the soup, the ‘bourani people’ do a lot of teasing with phallic symbols, while phallic objects are paraded through the town. This Apokries celebration in Tyrnavos is wild fun. There are people against it and during the dictatorship of 1969 – 1973 this festival was banned, but the festival has survived and every year, on Ash Monday, the town of Tyrnavos is jam-packed with fun-loving participants and spectators. People of all ages, Greeks and foreigners, participate.

The festival began centuries, if not millennia, ago. History is full of festivals associated with fertility symbols. Some archaeologists think that fertility rites are one of the oldest forms of religious rites in Greece.

Today Apokria ends on Clean Monday (Καθαρή Δευτέρα) the first day of Lent, which begins the 40-day fast until Easter Sunday. On Clean Monday, the koulouma (κούλουμα) are held where everybody goes off to the countryside, eats Lenten food and flies kites.

The recipes I’ve included are for those considering fasting during this time.