It was a hot and humid summer morning in Crete. A group of hikers had already started walking by the sea towards the castle of Frangokastello, near the town of Sfakia. Everything was quiet and all they could hear was the song of the cicadas and the relaxing sound of waves.
As soon as they reached the Venetian fort, they spent some time staring at the ripples forming on the sea surface. But it didn’t take long till they all instinctively turned their heads towards the nearby monastery of Agios Charalambos. What they saw left them frozen in fear. Tall shadowy figures holding medieval weapons started sprinting towards them. Some of these warriors looked as if they rode phantom horses.
The hikers couldn’t speak nor move; they stood there mesmerized by the group of phantom warriors that ran towards them. The closer the shadows appeared to be, the smaller they become. And just like that, few meters away from them, they disappeared. Later that day, they learned from the locals that they were lucky enough to experience seeing the Drosoulites, the phantom warriors of Crete.
The Greek Folktale of Drosoulites | Greek Folklore
According to a local legend, a group of Greek fighters who lost their lives during the battle of Frangkokastello, still haunt the area. They appear as ghost fighters on some spring or summer mornings, surprising those who visit the castle and the nearby area. There are countless reports of locals and visitors who have witnessed this phenomenon. Some of them, had never heard of the legend but still saw the shadowy figures approaching the castle. Their appearance usually lasts for ten minutes, according to reports.
The battle of Frangkocastello occurred during the years of the Greek war for freedom and specifically on May 17, 1828. The army consisted of 350 men and was led by Hatzimichalis Dalianis from Epirus. The army protected the fort for more than seven days and continued fighting even when victory seemed unrealistic. They all died in the battlefield.
Although this phenomenon is linked to the battle of 1828, the castle’s history is much longer than that. Just few kilometers away from Sfakia, Frangkokastello was built in 1374 to protect Venetian nobles from pirates during the Frankokratia, the era during which French and Italian states were established on the territory of the Byzantine Empire.
Since the appearance of Drosoulites has been reported multiple times over the past two centuries, it is more than a local folktale. Scientists have tried to debunk the myth, with the most common explanation being that it is simply a meteorological phenomenon.
To be more precise, it is believed that it is a mirage from the coast of North Africa. However, there is no definite or clear answer. What we do know is that it occurs on late May or early June, usually in the morning, when the weather is humid and warm.
What do you think of this folk legend? Is there a similar folktale where you come from? Leave a comment in the comment section.
Arta is a picturesque town in Epirus region in northwestern Greece. The area is rich in folktales from Greece’s recent past. Its vast green forests and gigantic mountains have inspired locals to tell stories of fairies and other mythical creatures. But there is one story that stands out the most: the story of the so-called haunted bridge of Arta.
The Bridge of Arta
A long time ago, the Romans built a bridge over the Arachthos river near Arta. This bridge was reconstructed many times over the years and is still standing in the 21st Century. Its most recent reconstruction was during the 17th Century, when a peculiar folk song that narrated the story of the bridge appeared for the first time.
The story talked about hauntings and human sacrifice, although the latter was not a local custom. Some people say that this folktale was meant to scare the Ottoman Turks away from the area, although others see a resemblance to other similar stories from around the world. But what is this story even talking about?
According to a 17th Century legend, when the Ottomans reached Epirus, they wanted to reconstruct some of the works of the Romans that had been destroyed over the years. Their project included a beautiful stone bridge that crossed Aracthos river near the town of Arta.
A group of local men was assigned with this difficult task, since the stone bridge was in ruins and only its foundations were still standing. The master mason was a young, skilled worker who was newly married. He was ambitious and determined to reconstruct the bridge as fast as possible. However, rebuilding the bridge was proven to be an impossible task.
One day, a nightingale flew over the builders and stood on a nearby branch. But the bird did not start chattering as expected. It started speaking with a clear human voice and revealed what should be done to complete the bridge. According to the bird, a human must be sacrificed on the spot to haunt the place. The haunting would keep the bridge stable and safe.
“(It shouldn’t be) an orphan, a stranger, or a traveler.”, the bird explained, but rather the beautiful and beloved wife of the master mason.
As soon as the man heard that, he started worrying and told the nightingale to tell his wife to take her time with preparing his lunch and come much later than usual to visit him on the construction site. But the bird misheard him and told his wife to get ready quickly and run straight to the bridge.
The young woman arrived at the scene and immediately noticed that her husband seemed sad and anxious. One of the builders told her that he accidentally dropped his ring in the foundations of the bridge and that is why he feels blue.
The young wife didn’t think twice before jumping into the construction to search for the ring. And that is when the masons started throwing mortar and lime and rocks at the opening to build over the old foundations. The woman realized that she was trapped into the building and the men continued with the constructions without hearing her cries for help.
And that is when she revealed that her sisters had a similar fate to hers, all being sacrificed in a similar manner across Europe. The woman started cursing the bridge and the masons, saying that it will shake and cause people to fall into the river as soon as they step foot on it.
“Maiden, change your word and give another curse
for you have a one dear brother who may cross this bridge.”, someone told her over the rubble.
The woman then remembered her youngest brother and immediately took the curse back. She couldn’t risk her brother dying too.
“May the bridge shake, like the wild mountains do
May crossing pedestrians fall, like the wild birds do
for I have a brother abroad who may cross this bridge.”, she exclaimed. And the bridge has indeed survived to this day.
This particular story and the folksong that goes with it, are of particular interest. Why would a Christian Orthodox population in the 17th Century come up with a story about human sacrifice? And why would a haunting keep a bridge stable?
People from Arta often say that the story was made up to convince the Ottomans that the bridge was haunted and therefore they should avoid crossing it. In fact, there is no proof or even speculation that people engaged in rituals that involved human sacrifice in Byzantine and Ottoman Greece. However, this folktale somehow involves the archetype of the beautiful maiden who is sacrificed for the greater good. A pattern that we find in many ancient legends that have survived over the years.
The folktale of Arta remind us of two ancient Greek legends in particular: the one of princess Iphigeneia and the one of princess Antigone. Iphigeneia was a legendary maiden that was going to be sacrificed by her father who wanted to sail safely to Troy, but managed to escape with the help of goddess Artemis. Antigone, on the other hand, was a young woman that was sentenced to death for disobeying the laws of her uncle – she was thrown alive into an underground cave to die slowly, just like the maiden of Arta who was captured alive in the bridge’s foundations.
Although human sacrifice was not a local custom at that time, small animal sacrifices did occur in many villages in the Balkan peninsula before and during the Ottoman occupation. Birds, chickens, or roosters were killed at the foundations or doorsteps of newly built houses to protect the owners from earthquakes, floods, but also ghosts and evil spirits. They believed that the animal would haunt the construction and the building would not collapse. These customs were not allowed by the Christian Orthodox Church, however, some people continued doing them over the years.
The foundations of buildings seem to be of particular interest in Greek and European folklore. In some Greek villages, locals would allow snakes to find refuge in the foundations of their homes. The snakes were considered protectors of the homes and were very much welcomed to co-exist with humans. They would eat all the rats and mice that would try to enter the house.
Believe it or not, stories similar to the bridge of Arta exist all around the world. Have you ever heard of the Irish-American song named “London Bridge Is Falling Down”? The song implies that no matter how good the materials the masons use are, the bridge of London will always collapse. What’s essential is a human to guard it all day and night – a human that will be sacrificed in its foundations. In Sweden, there is a folktale that says that children were buried alive to stop the spread of a disease in a small town.
Are these stories true or imaginative? Also, are there any similar folktales in the part of the world where you come from? Leave a comment in the comment section.
In ancient Greece, they were called “Nymphs”. In modern Greek folklore, they are known as “Neraides”. Described as “extraordinarily beautiful”, neraides are supernatural beings associated with the elements of nature. But who are they exactly? Are they nice or dangerous?
Apart from heroes and Olympian gods and goddesses, ancient Greek myths involve different mythical creatures, including fairies. Ancient Greek fairies were called “nymphs”. According to various legends, nymphs were very beautiful women who were related to gods, such as Zeus and Hermes. But they were also mortals. Nymphs often resided in sacred trees that people treated with great respect. These trees looked extraordinary and wise. When a nymph died, her tree also did.
Nymphs were divided into different subgroups:
Meliae, were the ash tree nymphs;
Dryads, were the oak tree nymphs;
Naiads, were the freshwater nymphs;
Nereids, were the sea nymphs;
Oreads, were the mountain nymphs.
There are countless stories featuring nymphs in ancient Greek mythology. Hylas, Hercules’ friend, was accidentally drowned by a nymph named Ephydatia who fell in love with him, hugged him, and dragged him down a lake, causing him to suffocate. Daphne is another well-known nymph; god Apollon was once chasing her in the woods, when the gods fell pity for her and transformed her into the plant with the same name. Nymphs would also spend a lot of time with the male nature spirits, the satyrs, who would often chase them into the woods.
As time passed by, nymphs started being called “neraides” and started being associated with the fairies of western European folklore. Since neraides are associated to nature, in Medieval times they were thought to be pagan deities.
Are Greek Fairies Dangerous?
Neraides are generally not considered evil but rather playful and sometimes mischievous. However, in some parts of Greece, they were often feared and there are countless stories across the country that present neraides as dangerous.
For example, in the Cyclades, such as Mykonos, the fairies of the wind dance in circles around midday, causing people to have sunstrokes and get dizzy. In other places, neraides may grab you to dance with them, which may result in you losing your senses, your voice, or even your ability to think clearly. A person who returned home from the woods looking dizzy and confused was often called “neraidoparmenos” (abducted by fairies).
In other parts of Greece, neraides manage to get into people’s homes and search for new dresses to steal. A soon-to-be-bride should be very careful at night. In some Greek villages, it is believed that bridal gowns that are not stored in wardrobes during the night can be stolen by the neraides. Neraides can also “steal” young men who wonder alone in nature. They will flirt with them and lead them into different realms. If the men return, they are not the same anymore.
This fear for the neraides often stems from the transition from paganism to Christianity, which often led people to associate mythological creatures to demonic entities.
The most common folktale from modern Greece, however, is that of the Neraida who got tricked into marrying a mortal man. Greek fairies normally like to roam freely away from busy towns and cities. They prefer staying with their own kind and dance and play by streams, lakes, and rivers. They sometimes flirt with mortal men but they never want to settle down.
According to some local legends, neraides usually hide their silky hair under a thin veil that supposedly holds some of their powers. If a man manages to grab the fairy’s veil while dancing with her, she is then bound to stay with him. He can ask her to marry him and she has to follow him home. A very common Greek folktale that you can hear in every Greek village goes as follows:
Once upon a time, there was young man who fell in love with a beautiful woman he met in the woods. The woman was a neraida and was not planning on getting married and moving to the world of humans. But the man, let’s call him Alexis, was determined to marry the neraida.
An elder man told Alexis that a neraida can be captured by stealing her veil. Her veil holds all her supernatural powers. Without it, she cannot disappear, fly away, or transform herself into a tree. After hearing this, Alexis run deep into the forest and watched the fairies dance in circles. He waited for the right moment and as soon as the girl he liked turned her back to him, he grabbed her veil.
That is when the neraida realized that all her powers were now in the hands of the mortal man. She agreed to marry Alexis and followed him to his house. Although hesitant at first, the neraida started liking her new life. She and Alexis had many children together and she made many new friends in the village.
Ten years had passed and the woman seemed very happy in her marriage. One night there was a big celebration in the village. Alexis’ wife wanted to dance but she suggested to use her veil that her husband was still hiding from her for “no reason” all those years.
“We’ve been married for so long and you still don’t trust me. Just let me wear my veil for once”, the fairy told him.
Alexis realized what a fool he was for believing that his wife would try to leave now after being happily married for years and after giving birth to their children. He went into the house and unlocked a cupboard in which he kept her veil. He handed it to her with a smile and saw her dance like never before. She was glowing from happiness. As soon as the dance stopped, he blinked for a second and saw his wife disappear in front of his eyes. He never saw her again. The fairy was waiting all those years for her opportunity to flee.
This story varies from place to place, however, it narrates the story of a man who tricked a fairy into marrying him and ended up all alone in the end. A neraida will always wait for the opportunity to return to her world, far away from humans. In some villages, you may find people who may tell you that they are descendants of such fairies who were tricked into marrying a mortal man.
Are their stories real or fake? What do you believe?
If you like learning more about the Greek history, language, and culture, make sure to subscribe to Helinika’s YouTube channel. You can always like and share with a friend who loves stories like these.
Small, chthonic creatures that resemble trolls, elves, or goblins. If they make it into your home, they steal your food, hide your tools and personal items, ruin your furniture, and make a mess wherever they go. Some fear them, others think they’re simply a bunch of tricksters. But, according to Greek folklore, they try to destroy the tree of life by cutting down its roots. We’re talking about the “kallikantzaroi” (kallikantzaros in singular), the legendary Christmas trolls.
Kallikantzaroi are supernatural creatures that, according to Greek folklore, cause all kind of mischief. They are chthonic, which means they reside in the underworld. Kallikantzaroi are also short, smelly, hairy, and objectively unattractive. They despise humanity and some say that they are minions of the Devil. They are not allowed to walk on the surface of the Earth.
According to Greek Orthodox tradition, between the 25th of December and the 6th of January, known as the twelve days of Christmas, they are allowed to roam freely. That’s because the waters are “unbaptized” or “unclean” during this time period. On the day of the Theophany, known as Epiphany in the West, the kallikantzaroi run back to the nearest caves, tunnels, and knotholes, and reenter the underworld.
Facts About the Kallikantzaroi:
Kallikantzaroi are supernatural beings similar to trolls and goblins.
They are Devil’s minions and are afraid of Holy Water, religious symbols, and fire.
Kallikantzaroi are chthonic: they reside under the surface of the Earth, where they try to cut the tree of life.
These creatures are able to visit our world between Christmas and Epiphany.
These days are called “dodekaimero” (12 days) – a term used since Byzantine times to describe the “dirty days” before the Epiphany.
Kallikantzaroi are part of Greek folklore; similar creatures are also part of other countries’ traditions (e.g. Bulgaria).
They are usually depicted as hairy, smelly, and deformed.
Kallikantzaroi eat insects, snakes, mice, and rotten fruits; they can also cause your food to spoil.
They harass people, destroy furniture, steal and misplace items.
If they see you walking alone at night, they might grab your arm and force you to dance with them until you pass out.
In some parts of Greece, they are considered evil and dangerous, rather than mischievous.
They have a “boss” who they call their “mother”; she is the one giving them orders on who to target.
Some people believe that kallikantzaroi used to be people who were never baptized or committed crimes that turned them into monsters.
To protect themselves, people used to leave food on their roofs and doorsteps to appease the kallikantzaroi; similar to how Western Europeans “trick or treat” during Halloween.
There are countless names and nicknames for them: “karkantzelia”, “verveloudes”, “kalkatzania”…
When Was the Legend of the Kallikantzaros Narrated for the First Time?
It’s not clear when this legend came to life. According to Nikolaos Politis, father of the Greek folklore studies, Kallikantzaroi could refer to how the first Christians described the pagan carnival-goers, who often dressed up as animals and looked for trouble.
Foreign historians and archaeologists find a connection between the modern Greek legend of the kallikantzaros and the ancient Greek myth of satyrs. Satyrs were male nature spirits; they resembled animals and caused mischief.
On the other hand, kallikantzaroi reside in the underworld and roam our world during the “dodekaimero”. This reminds us of the ancient Greek belief that the souls of the dead were able to visit the surface of the Earth during this time period. Some archaeologists see a connection there. Are there any similar legends where you live? You can leave your own stories down below! If you enjoyed watching this video, you can like, share, and subscribe. In Helinika’s YouTube channel, you can find plenty of videos dedicated to Greek history, language, and culture.
Greece’s geographic location and long history have enabled the establishment and adoption of various traditions. Some of them can be traced back to Greece’s pagan roots, others are related to the Christian Orthodox faith, and some have been adopted from other cultures and religions. Forget Christmas trees, Christmas carols, and Santa Claus. Let’s see some of the most unique Greek customs and traditions that are celebrated during the winter months.
Unique Greek Winter Holiday Traditions:
The Feeding of the Water Spring and the Unspoken Water
Nautical Christmas Decorations
The Smashing of the Pomegranate
Cutting the King’s Pie
The Theophany and the Great Blessing of the Waters
The Feeding of The Water Spring in Thessaly (The Silent/Unspoken Water)
If you have ever visited the picturesque villages of Thessaly, a region located in central Greece, then you must have noticed the traditional stone drinking fountains that are located in each villages’ central square and on some key-locations in the cobblestone routes that surround them. These water fountains, called «βρύσες» (vrises) in Greek, are being “fed” every Christmas eve or New Year’s eve.
The “feeding of the water spring” (το τάισμα της βρύσης) could be described as an offering to a deity that is connected to the water element. Young maidens walk towards the water fountain late at night and pour honey and butter to “please” it. Depending on the location, various other items, such as olive tree branches, are “offered” to the spring. The latter then starts gushing the “silent” or “unspoken” water, as they call it.
The young women fill in their clay pitchers and return home, bringing many blessings to their household. While carrying it home, they are not allowed to talk to each other or to anyone else, hence the name “silent/unspoken water” (αμίλητο νερό). This water is used similarly to “holy water”, mostly for “cleansing” the house on a spiritual level. In certain regions, the unmarried women use the water to make predictions about the future, usually revolving around their marriage and future family.
It is not clear when this custom was established in Thessaly. Its ritualistic nature and the act of making an offering to what appears to be an elemental deity can, however, lead us to the conclusion that it is rooted back to Greece’s pagan culture and religion. The “feeding of the water spring” bears close similarities to another Greek tradition, which takes place every spring or summer (depending on the region).
Klethonas (Κλήδονας) is an ancient Greek ritualistic custom that was re-established by the Christian Orthodox religion and takes place in certain parts of Greece to this day. The custom occurs in the span of two days and it entails the collection of the “silent/unspoken water” and the storage of this water in a container made out of copper. The women drink the water and sit outside, waiting to hear a voice that would reveal the name of their future husband. Another way to predict who they will marry is by falling asleep and seeing the image of their future husband in their dreams. This is not the only way to celebrate the Klethonas and the use of the “silent/unspoken water” may differ from region to region.
Today, Klethonas is connected to John the Baptist who is believed to reveal the future. However, ancient Greek historian Herodotus and the geographer Pausanias do mention Klethonas in their observations; in ancient times, the omens of the Klethonas were revealed by Zeus through Hermes.
Since many young people leave the countryside and move to bigger cities and since the traditional gender roles have evolved during the years, customs such as the ones of Klethonas and the “feeding of the water spring” are becoming less and less known.
Before we get onto the next tradition, it is worth mentioning that similar customs take place in other parts of the world. For example, there is a Scottish custom called the “Unspoken Water” that entails the collection of water from under a bridge late at night and under complete silence. The water is then used to heal someone who is sick. There is no proof that the Scottish custom has been inspired by the Greek custom nor the opposite, which makes the tradition even more fascinating. Perhaps, the answer could be found in Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious and the set of universal archetypes that are manifested in different cultures in similar ways.
Decorating a Christmas Boat Instead of a Christmas Tree
Nowadays, most Greek households associate Christmas with a decorated evergreen tree. This is a custom that was introduced in Greece in 1833 by the Bavarian prince Otto who ruled as the king of Greece for thirty years, but was adopted by the Greeks in the 20th century, after witnessing depictions of holiday gatherings in foreign movies and tv-shows. Since pine and fir trees are not common in the coastal areas of Greece, a lot of people use fake but realistic-looking trees that people store and re-use year after year. But what did the Greeks decorate before the adoption of the Christmas tree?
If you have ever visited Greece, then you know the importance of the sea in the country’s culture and economy. Greece, a country of 11 million people, is the world leader in maritime shipping, with the current value of the Greek-owned fleet standing at almost 100 billion dollars. If you are not new to this channel and you have watched Helinika’s playlists narrating the Odyssey and the Argonautica, then you already know that Greeks have been dominating the seas since ancient times. It comes as no surprise that Greeks have been decorating their boats -big or small- with Christmas lights for centuries.
This custom might be getting less and less popular today, however, it is well-established in the Greek islands and in the most important port-cities of Greece, like Piraeus. Since not every single Greek person owns a boat, it is very common to own a miniature wooden vessel. This vessel is put in display in the living-room and lit with various lights. Since many Greek families have members who work in maritime shipping and are often absent during the holidays, the wooden vessel symbolizes the love and devotion the whole family has for the seamen while waiting for them to return.
The Smashing of the Pomegranate
A panhellenic custom that survives to this day is the smashing of the pomegranate on New Year’s eve. When Greeks are invited to a NY’s eve party, they sometimes offer real pomegranates or objects depicting this fruit to their hosts. A pomegranate often hangs above the house’s or apartment’s main entrance, bringing luck and blessings to the household members and all of their guests.
During the countdown, minutes or seconds before the arrival of the new year, the hosts smash the pomegranate by hitting it with their right hand against their front door. In this way, the fruit’s red seeds scatter around the house, bringing luck to all of its members. If someone ends up getting red stains all over their clothes, he/she is believed to be the luckiest of the year. This tradition may differ depending on the region of Greece you visit.
Vasilopita (King’s Pie) is a pie that is prepared, blessed, and shared by families and organizations, such as schools and companies, on the 1st of January. The pie has a hidden coin, real or fake, and the person who finds it in his/her piece is believed to be the luckiest of the year. The recipe varies from region to region, but it usually looks and tastes like sweet bread.
The tradition is associated with Saint Basil’s (Άγιος Βασίλειος) day on January 1st, hence the name. Saint Basil the Great was the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia from 370 AD till 379 AD and he is believed to be the one who brings presents to children on New Year’s Day. He is the Greek Orthodox version of Santa Claus with the difference that he is visiting on January 1st instead of Christmas.
The tradition is common in countries that follow the Christian Orthodox religion, and its roots go back to the Byzantine Empire. The tradition of the cut of vasilopita resembles the tradition of the “three kings’ cake” that is established for the past three centuries in France, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and New Orleans. However, this custom is associated with the biblical three wise men (or Kings) who visited Jesus on the day of his birth rather than with Saint Basil.
It is worth mentioning that the name Basil (Βασίλειος) derives from the ancient Greek «βασιλεύς» that means “king”. Therefore, the Greek custom is translated into “King’s Pie” rather than “Basil’s Pie”.
On the 7th of January, people who follow the Greek Orthodox religion celebrate the Theophany, also known as “Phota” (Φώτα). This day celebrates the baptism of Christ and symbolizes people’s spiritual rebirth. There are several customs that take place in Greece on that day but the most common one is the “Great Blessing of the Waters”.
A priest from each village, town, or municipality visits the nearest coastline and sings hymns to bless the waters and protect the people working in the sea, such as fishermen, sailors, and mariners. On the rare occasion that a village or town is not close to the sea, the priests bless the nearest pond or river. The custom’s roots take us back to the third century AD and it is obviously associated with the Christian Orthodox religion.
In some parts of Greece, the 7th of January is also closely associated with the «Dance of the Goblins”. Goblins (Καλικάντζαροι) are believed to be chthonic tricksters that are only able to step foot on the Earth’s surface when the waters are “unbaptized”. According to the legend, they roam the streets between Christmas and the 7th of January, just before the “Great Blessing of the Waters”. In some villages, the locals scare away the goblins by dancing and singing loudly or by organizing bonfires.