Fascinated by ancient pagan (Dionysian) customs, I have been too intrigued to meet the Arapides of Volakas, frightful bell bearers that come out on January 7 every year and scare away the "Kallikantzaroi". Kallikantzaroi are malevolent goblins found in Southeastern Europe and Anatolia folklore, who are believed to dwell underground, only to come to the surface during the 12 days of Christmas. That is from December 25 (winter solstice) until the sun will cease its seasonal movement (January 6).
The Arapides of Volakas are frightful bell bearers that come out on January 7
January 7 marks the day that the sun starts to move again, so its time for the kallikantzaroi to go back underground and finish sawing the Tree of the world, only to find out that the Tree has healed itself back and they have to start all over again. That is the day when the Arapides of Volakas have to do their job and scare them away to where they belong.
I arrived at the village much earlier than the time of the event. In such events, no one is too punctual with time anyway. I've heard that the Arapides will come out in the afternoon, somewhere between 14:00 - 15:00. My idea was to be there at around 10 to 11 in the morning, to make some pictures of the Arapides getting ready. I left Drama at around 9:30. It's an approximately 45 minute drive from the center of Drama, so I actually arrived a few minutes after 10 in Volakas.
Volakas is an approximately 45 minute drive from the center of Drama
We were three people all together, myself, my girlfriend Elpida and Anna, another photographer who was tagging along. When we arrived, there was no one to see outdoors. Everything was too calm and quiet. Of course it was a bit too cold for anyone to dwell in the open for no good reason, with even some hints of snow decorating the street corners, so we took shelter inside a cafe that was next to the central square. Well, here is everyone after all. The cafe was crowded, maybe even more than ten people inside (!). The plan became clear now. We would have had a nice hot coffee in the cafe and tried to get some information on the event's schedule. Girls sat in a corner table and I started making acquaintances with the locals. I saw two men sitting by the bar, bearing some instruments. A bagpipe and a drum. So I figured that these two would be the best to approach from the lot, to get appropriate information. Indeed, they confirmed that the main event will start in the afternoon and also hinted to where I should be looking for houses that Arapides were getting ready.
The cafe was crowded, maybe even more than ten people inside
I went out and started exploring the village. I was too lucky to find too quickly an old garage where maybe the largest Arapides gang (known as "Cheta" locally) was getting ready. The garage door was closed and the same was true with the wooden door by the side, but I could hear all the fuss inside and also knew that it was Arapides getting ready in there, because I've already been hinted on that. Therefore, I banged the side door without hesitation and a man opened. As soon as he laid eyes on me he looked puzzled, as he wasn't expecting anyone he didn't know. That made me a bit hesitant but nevertheless inquired:
- Hey, I am a photographer and I traveled from Athens to see your custom. Is it OK if I hang out with you guys while you are getting ready and make a few pictures along the way?
- Well... OK, I guess.
That was the first step, although he was still reluctant, I was sure that they would gain confidence after some time.
- Do you want some whiskey? the peculiar man asked.
Wow, that was an ice-breaker. It was still 11 in the morning, but anyways...
- Sure, I'll pour it myself, thank you!
These guys started drinking probably at 9, I could see the cheer in everyone's face. I gave a quick look around the place. Wow, that was a great place for pictures. An old garage with tools on the walls, a large pile of fire logs for the winter and many people all getting ready to dress as Arapides. Small windows on one side provided an excellent lighting atmosphere creating light rays and beautiful light pockets here and there.
Participants start pouring whiskey down their throats probably since 9 in the morning
The Arapides of Volakas wear a hump made of a sack of straw and paint their faces, hands and arms pitch black. They bear bells around their waist as Arapides in other places also do, cover their head in goat’s fleece and hold a thick wooden crook that helps them keep the pace while moving, striking the bells.
This whole outfit takes about two hours to make ready. They have to put on many layers of blankets around their body so that they look bigger and keep warm when outdoors. Friends are helping each other to tie everything too tight so that they don't get loose with all the bell banging that takes place later on.
The Outfit of Arapides takes about two hours to put on
All of that took place inside the garage and the Arapides got ready to get their faces painted. Children of course go nuts and wait the whole year for the event to take place.
The painting of course takes place outside so that they don't make a mess of the houses and garages. In every Cheta there is usually one man who paints everyone's face and arms. Everyone has made a patent on how to better do that. You may use whatever will make a good result, being coal, shoe paint, pitch or anything you can imagine.
Visitors start to gather in the afternoon and the place gets quite crowded, with maybe 200-300 visitors being around us during the peak of the event. The Arapides all meet up in the main road, stand in formation and bang their bells in a synchronized manner. The bells from construction are tuned in certain frequencies in order to sound nice, so the whole thing sounds in sync. The banging is quite loud and the Arapides do look fierce and impressive. I am sure that any Kallikantzaros left would have gone back to the place he belongs.
The Arapides all meet up in the main road, stand in formation and bang their bells in a synchronized manner.
The bells cease after 2-3 hours and everyone hides inside nearby taverns to have warm, winter-comfort food. The roast goat is the number one dish.