Corfu Easter – local traditions with a dark history
Corfu’s Easter celebrations are famous, attracting as they do tens of thousands of tourists, from all over Greece, and beyond
There are processions and brass bands and services galore, with large swathes of the local population involved in processing, singing, marching, praying – culminating at midnight on Easter Saturday with a spectacular firework display to welcome the news of the resurrection.
The entire carefully choreographed spectacle clearly has profound religious meaning for the Orthodox flock, and their gloriously garbed priests. For those not of that persuasion there is the fascination of ceremony, symbolism, music, choirs and mystery.
I want in this particular posting to focus on one aspect of the proceedings – the 11am Saturday smashing of pots, that is a highlight of the Corfu Easter, something quite unique to the Island.
There are various interpretations as to just why apparently sane people (including my family and I) hurl earthenware pots half full of water, from great heights, at precisely this hour …… while ten thousand or more people stand and watch (see photographs).
Here’s one set of explanations taken from DailyFrappe :
“By 11am on Easter Saturday the majority of Corfu’s population are eagerly awaiting the end of the morning service. As soon as the botos (church bells) sound, it’s a signal for every man, woman and child to hurl earthenware vessels from their windows on to the streets.
This noisy custom originated in Corfu town but has extended to the villages. It is derived from the Venetians who, on New Year’s day, used to throw their old things from the windows in order to receive new ones for the New Year. The Corfiots adopted this custom to celebrate the most important Greek holiday, the Greek Easter. Nowadays, the old things have been replaced by pots and jugs full of water, which make for an even louder noise upon impact.
It is thought that the peculiar custom may also have roots in the biblical passage “Thou, O Lord, raise me up, that I may crush them as a potter’s vessel”, and as Easter falls in the beginning of the plantation season, the time when newly-harvested produce from the land was stored in new pots and the old ones were destroyed.”
How much of that is accurate? Indeed is any of it true?
Here are other variations of the story, this time with a little more background:
“If Apokria, Kathará Deftéra and Lenten Sunday feasts are the preliminaries for Greek Easter,Holy Week is the peak of these activities. On Holy Thursday the bright dyed red eggs that are symbolic of Easter in Greece are prepared. Tradition says that the Virgin Mother, Mary, dyed eggs this color to celebrated the Resurrection of Christ and to celebrate life. Every Greek family prepares these eggs as part of the Easter Sunday Resurrection Table.
Otherwise, the women in Greek families are busy baking kouloúria – dough cookies and Tsouréki – traditional sweet bread for the Easter feast. In Corfu and Zakynthos earthen water pitchers, Stámnes, are thrown into the street to bring luck.
On Good Friday or Great Friday, flags at homes and government buildings are set at half mast to mark the mournful day. The Procession of the Epitáphios of Christ, the Ritual Lament that has survived from Homeric times, mourns the death of Christ on the Cross with the symbolic decorated coffin carried through the streets by the faithful. On Corfu, the procession of St. Spyridon is held on Easter Saturday.
Holy Saturday is filled with anticipation of the religious celebration of Easter and the Resurrection. People begin to gather in the churches and squares in cities, towns and villages by 11 p.m. for the Easter services. Large white candles, lampáda, are carried by just about all of the faithful. At midnight the church bells toll as the priests announce Christós Anésti…Christ is Risen! Fireworks are set off, in some areas gunshots are fired and the each person in the crowd answers with the joyous responses of Alithós Anésti – Truly He is risen and Alithinós O Kírios – True is The Lord.”
So are the pots and jugs smashed for luck?
…or for Biblical reasons?
…or is this strange happening a pagan echo, to do with fertility?
…or could it be a hangover from the 400 years of Venetian rule….somehow shifted from New Year to Easter, smashing the old just because new crockery is about to arrive?
Which of these is least likely?
Or are they all simply rationalisations for a darker story altogether?
The fact is that nowadays hardly anyone knows or cares why the whole event started….. it’s become a spectacle, a tourist attraction, and has very little potency left, except perhaps for scholars of the history of such customs, and for those who are aware that at one time it had antisemitic overtones.
Take for example the legend that Judas Iscariot derived from Corfu.
“In Corfu, for instance, the people at a given signal on Easter Eve throw vast quantities of crockery from their windows and roofs into the streets, and thus execute an imaginary stoning of Judas. At one time (according to Mustoxidi, Delle cose corciresi) the tradition prevailed that the traitor’s house and country villa existed in the island, and that his descendants were to be found among the local Jews.”
For a touching personal description of the tragic history of the Jews of Corfu, read a recent (2005) article by Sam Boardman-Jacobs.
I suppose it’s possible to find hints of uncomfortable truths behind many modern day customs , and this is no exception.
Do tourists goggling at the Corfu pot smashing understand that 120 years ago – or so – the local Jewish population did not dare leave their houses on Easter Saturday for fear of their lives?
Or is their any widespread awareness that the Orthodox hierarchy, to encourage civil stability, issued a message to the Greek population in the 1890s, to cease shouting ‘anathema to the Jews’ when breaking their crockery in this way. To achieve compliance the Church used the not too subtle message that this practice had been encouraged by the hated Ottoman rulers, from whose clutches Greeks had only recently escaped ….. a message that the Church correctly calculated would make Greek do the opposite.
So – today – the 11am Easter Saturday ritual has no dark meaning – unless some choose to remember it for the sake of those who endured so much in the name of religion.