The fractured nature of the Greek landscape has separated the people who inhabit it from one another for long stretches of time, with the result that different regions have developed their own strongly individual styles of folk traditions such as dances, weaving, woodcarving, silversmithing, icon painting and pottery production.
The rapid development that rural Greece has undergone since the Second World War has meant that many of these traditions are no longer as obvious to casual visitors as they used to be. Although there are some excellent museums (the Centre of Folk Art and Tradition in Athens being an outstanding example), the following are probably the most iconic folk traditions of Greece that can still be regularly viewed, experienced or purchased.
Greek pottery can be seen everywhere, from museum display cases to tacky souvenir shops. It is illegal to take home ancient pottery, and modern replicas are normally of low quality, so it’s the pottery produced over the last few centuries that is best sought out. Each island and mainland region has developed its own unique decorative pattern, colouring, or style over time, so it is worth visiting the local shop to see if there is something that catches your eye, even if the last town had nothing of interest.
There are very few active potters still working in the traditional way (with a potter’s wheel turned by hand or foot) so demonstrations of technique can be hard to come by. If you find yourself in Athens, the Museum of Traditional Pottery is well worth a look. It’s small, with a tiny upstairs gallery for exhibitions, but often hosts a resident potter, who demonstrates his craft, and sells his produce after it has been fired in the oven.
Music and Dancing
Traditional Greek musical instruments are more closely linked to the east than the west, so their sounds have a certain Arabic or Persian timbre to them. The best time to hear these instruments being played, and see the dances that are associated with them, is in the summer when every village in Greece holds a festival to celebrate their saint’s day, or the day of the Madonna (the 15th August).
If your visit doesn’t happen to coincide with a celebration, the best way to listen to some Greek music and join in the dancing is to go to a Rebetika club. Rebetika is often compared to Blues music (much of the similarity lies in the lyrics), but this moniker doesn’t quite do it justice. It needs to be heard to be appreciated: preferably in a dark club, filled with Greeks, after a good satisfying meal!
Icons are images of a religious figure (the Madonna, Jesus and the Archangels being particular favourites) painted on flat panels of wood, or cast in metal, and used in Greek Orthodox religious rituals. They are also used to decorate and sanctify the houses of believers. Greek Orthodox Churches are full of them, and the best and oldest have become collectors’ items that can command eye-watering prices in auction catalogues. They continue to be painted and, as with all other forms of Folk Traditions, a variety of different regional styles developed, with the Cretan school becoming one of the most popular and easily recognised.