Dionysian custom in Volakas village

The Epiphany days in the village of Volakas. From newlywed couples dancing in freezing water, to scary animal looking masquerade of pastoral bell bearers
Photography / Text: Michael Pappas

I've decided to make the twelve hour trip by train to Drama.

The train leaves Athens at 23:55 and reaches Salonica around 06:00a.m. The train would not leave the station for another hour. I decided to go around the station to stretch my legs. I had taken this train many times in the past, but I wanted to see the Christmas decorations in the station. There were hardly any people and there was fog so I thought I might be able to make a few images. 

The train starts again an hour later with less people travelling to Thrace and Evros and many carriages removed. I had slept long enough so far, so I wanted to enjoy the rest of the trip, since it was my first time going through this bit of the journey. I really liked the scenery, villages and train stations. They do remind of a whole different era.

The scenery, villages and train stations are a feast to your eyes between Salonica and Drama when taking the train.

I reached Drama at around noon. I had already contacted the cultural club of Volakas and there was Trifonas waiting for me, who was a senior member of the club. He had a car to drive me there, since the village is around 30km away from Drama and there is no mass transportation available. The only means available is the school bus that travels to Volakas but I cannot vouch whether you can get on board or not.

The only means available is the school bus that travels to Volakas but I cannot vouch whether you can get on board or not.

After 20 minutes inside the car we were reaching the village, which is lying under Falakro mountain. He dropped me off at the main square as he had some errands to run and had to go. I started looking for a place to stay. I knew I had to stay for four nights at the village and that probably my budget was too short for that. I started asking the locals where I could stay and I found a place that cost 50 euros per night. That was near my budget ceiling but had no other choice.

Morning of January 6, day of Epiphany. I started my day off by going to the local church early in the morning. The church was packed with people who wanted to get the holy water. Soon after, people move towards a small pond in the central square. The priest will bless the water and some children wait for him to finish so that they can catch the cross cast inside.

It is rather cold, but nevertheless 4-5 children jumped in to catch the cross.

The winner gets a small golden cross pendant. More people went inside the pond as well to get in contact with the blessed water. They would take some water in their hands and throw it to the rest of the people who would gladly have it and who would wish to be able to do the same in the years to come. 

Dancing begins around the streets. People dance all over the village and they go fetch newlywed couples to take them inside the pond to get blessed and wish prosperity to them for the days to come. They first stop at the groom's house. The family would have already prepared snacks and sweets to treat people. They move on to the bride's house followed by music and dancing. More food and drinks await there. Everyone then goes back to the pond containing the blessed water and they take the embraced couples inside the water. 

While making images, someone grabbed my arm and took me inside the pond so I could join the dance. We stayed in for a couple of minutes and then went back to the street and kept on dancing. At first I was freezing and didn't feel like it, but someone suggested that dancing would keep my legs from freezing!!

[...] someone suggested that dancing would keep my legs from freezing!!

The day continued with loads of dancing and drinking and after nightfall, the party went on inside the village bars. I had to go back to my room to unload my memory cards. I hadn't look at the time so far and when I started my laptop I couldn't believe it was only 8p.m. I was sure there was something wrong with it and even called my mother to check. She thought I've been drinking, which was partially true of course, but not that much! I had lost track of time because of the day's fullness. The guys I had met were waiting for me at the bar, but I never joined as I was too exhausted and preferred to crash in bed. 

January 7 and fires are lit around the square of the village where pots will be placed to cook lunch. They were having meat. I went near and everyone was drinking something, either coffee, tea or Tsipouro (alcoholic traditional Greek drink made by distilled grapes). I had a strong coffee and then moved on to the house that people were dressing up as 'Arapides'

People carrying goat skin and large pastoral bells were moving around the home garden. That was the necessary accessories for the event. Friends were helping each other to get dressed up. The skin had an intense smell of the goat and looked like very warm for the one wearing it. Because of the usual temperatures during the winter time, the combination of goat's skin and Tsipouro helped people to stay warm. This year the temperature was 12 degrees Celsius, which was too hot for them. 

Because of the usual temperatures during the winter time, the combination of goat's skin and Tsipouro helped people to stay warm

At the same time they tie up really tight the huge bells around their waists, each one weighing several kgs. Inside the house a man is getting dressed as bride. They leave dancing towards the main square. At this time, Arapides from other houses also start the journey. As soon as they reach the square they start dancing, which makes the bells go off, competing on who is going to sound louder. There are people coming even from Salonica or Bulgaria to watch. Dancing and banging keeps on till late at night. I am to tired even by watching and following them and I wonder how can they keep on going. There is yet another event coming on the day after!

On  the morning of January 8, I find myself asking around the square in which house the wedding is to be held. There is a wedding reincarnation taking place which is a very old custom. The bride and groom wear the traditional costumes. At the same time people are getting dressed as 'Arkoudes' (bears) with real animal fur. Bears are out in the streets dancing and teasing people. 

I didn't stay up too late because I was too tired and I also wanted to work on my pictures. I sat by the fireplace in the hotel's reception and ordered a hot tea. I was editing pictures when the tea came and the lady who was the owner asked if those pictures came from the village. I told her I took them during the Epiphany events and she asked to have some to use in her website because she was very fond of them. I gladly obliged and just gave away some of them. The next day during check out the lady was kind enough to not charge me for 3 out of 4 nights of stay. 

I even met two couples staying in the hotel that had come all the way from Patras to watch the event because they enjoy traditions and they too are in the process of learning how to dance traditional dances. 

#photography #adventure #carnival #epiphany #Volax #drama #arapides #babuger #bell bearers #dionysian #pagan #custom #dancing #tsipouro #drinks #food #village


Dionysian custom in Volakas village

Unnamed Road Volakas
Volakas, Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, Greece