The most famous of the traditional Carnival celebrations is held on the island of Skyros. By far the most important and striking of the Carnival figures which make their appearance there is the yeros, or “old man”.
The costume of the yeros is very elaborate. Basically it is the traditional dress of an island shepherd: wooden clogs, the black woolen shepherds’ jacket with a hood, with the inside, or furry side, out; long, white, baggy, woolen trousers; white leggings fastened with black garters, and laced shepherds’ sandals. However, under his jacket at the back the yeros stuffs a pillow, to provide the appearance of a hump. His belt is joined at the front by means of a handkerchief.
Over his face, the yeros wears a mask with two eyeholes cut into it, made from the skin of a kid, either one still-born, or too weak to survive. The skin is tied by its back legs behind the wearer’s head, and the head of the animal dangles over his face and chest. Holes are cut for the eyes, but not for the nose or mouth. Since the skins are likely to have a very strong smell, they are frequently sprinkled with ouzo.
Long white goats-hair ropes, knotted at the back are crossed over the shoulders. Hanging from these are the goat bells. These are of three distinct types, each of which has its own range of sounds. Although each bell is unique, a shepherd could recognise his goats individually by the sound of the bells they wore, and it is said that out of the cacophony made by a herd on the move, he could detect a single missing bell. The hooped wooden collars of the bells are threaded onto the ropes and fastened with looped knots at a suitable distance from each other. These are placed in two series, with the larger at the back. The arrangement of the bells is made very carefully with two considerations in mind. The first is that they will not injure the wearer as they swing, and the second is determined by the different sounds produced by different arrangements of bells.
If the wearer is strong, he may carry as many as seventy or eighty bells, depending upon his strength and stamina; although thirty to forty, perhaps weighing forty or fifty kilos, is more usual. To steady himself, and also to tease and provoke onlookers, he carries a shepherd’s crook. Freshly cut wild flowers decorating the hood, breast and crook complete his remarkable outfit.
Not surprisingly, it is very difficult to move at all in this strange costume, and the first few steps he takes will determine whether or not he will have to be completely redressed. Traditionally, six “gaits” are recognised, by which the yeros makes his way about the town. Some seem to be designed to allow for mobility, and others to help him create the greatest possible cacophony with his bells. Thus a yeros will occasionally stop, either alone or in a group, stand with his legs firmly planted apart, and his staff stuck in the ground in front to steady him. He then bends over backwards and forwards from the waist, while at the same time shaking his shoulders. The result is an incredible din.
The bells on the yeros are like a local dance. Can everyone dance well? The yeros must be a … craftsman or expert, his steps must be … jumpy or springy; he must calculate in order to make the sound … have the right beat, and to … thunder or boom correctly… Exceptional yeri are famous across the island. One such, yeri were supposed to be anonymous, the occasion frequently would be taken to settle old scores over stolen animals, or animals thought to have been stolen, pasture rights, the disputed results of card games, and women. The most deadly insult which could be offered to a yeros was to cut the ropes holding his bells. Outbreaks of fighting, sometimes between large crowds of yeroi and their supporters, were a common occurrence.
During the twentieth century the atmosphere mellowed. With the decline of shepherding and large-scale emigration from the island, there are fewer yeroi. Such is the strength and stamina required to be a yeros, it had already long been the practice for strong men to adopt the role, whatever their occupation, and to borrow the bells of shepherds unable to act as yeroi themselves. Hundreds of yeroi would once appear in town on the last two Sundays of Apokreas, whereas now they are numbered only in tens. Yet every year men still return to their home island from Athens to take part in these festivities. But, as Joy Coulentianou points out, these townsmen are neither so rude, nor so tough, as their ancestors.
Today the ubiquitous plastic masks are also worn by revellers, and the children dress up in fancy dress, as elsewhere in Greece. The younger boys, aspiring yeroi, walk the streets with goat bells tied around their waists. Women today sometimes take the part of the korella, or even, occasionally, as a yeros.
A curious and singularly unconvincing story is told by the islanders to explain the strange appearance of the “goat dancers”. It is said that many years go there was a particularly cold winter, and snow lay thick on the ground for several weeks. When a goatherd went out to retrieve his animals following the thaw, he found every one of them dead. Afterwards he entered the town, accompanied by his raggedly-dressed wife, with all his valuable sheep and goat bells tied around his waist. On that day during the next year, someone re-enacted the scene, and the practice grew in popularity.
Clearly however, the goat-dancers of Skyros are a local version of the carnival figures found throughout the north. In any case, there are many tantalising traces of a close connection between this rite and the cult of Dionysos. In ancient times, the goats of Skyros were proverbial for their productivity, being lauded for it in the odes of Pindar, so that a particularly productive person was known as a “Skyros goat”. King Aegeus, from whom the Aegean took its name, (the name is said to mean ‘goatish’,) was believed to have thrown himself to his death into the sea which took his name from the cliffs of Cape Sounion. His son Theseus, was believed to have suffered a similar, but involuntary, fate on Skyros, by being pushed by a treacherous host, from a cliff.
The goat was the animal most commonly associated with Dionysos, who is frequently depicted in art with satyrs, or goatmen, as his attendants. According to myth, the god was disguised in infancy as a kid and nurtured by nymphs to escape from the wrath of Hera, and reared in disguise as a girl. In a similar manner, Achilles was sent by his mother, Thetis, to Skyros, to be brought up as a girl, in a vain attempt to prevent him from going off to his doom in the Trojan war. The korella shows that cross-dressing plays an important role in the Skyrian carnival. Although part of the general pattern observed across northern Greece, this is evidence of an ancient cult of Dionysos as a goat-god on Skyros, traces of the ritual of which have survived until today.