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The shepherd’s crook

Evangelos Karamanes
p. 47-52

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The elders of the village Drossochori / Tiflosseli in Aspropotamos area, Department of Trikala (photo Demetrios K. Papatheodorou, 1961)

The elders of the village Drossochori / Tiflosseli in Aspropotamos area, Department of Trikala (photo Demetrios K. Papatheodorou, 1961)

Source: Tiflosseli. Men and images, places and stories [in Greek], edited by Georgios Volas, Educational association of Tiflosseli Trikala, Karditsa 2014, p. 18

1In my first fieldwork in Northern Pindus (mainly in Grevena area), as a young student in the early 1990’s, I could not ignore the fact that most men, at any time of day, shepherds or not, were holding a shepherd’s crook. The object is commonly known in Greek as [a]glitsa, referring to the curve shape of the crook’s handle and bears different names depending on the region (katsoúna in Western Crete and Icaria, katsóna in Limnos, k[tz]ipódi in Cyprus, lagorávda in Gortynia, tsobanika in Epirus). In these mountain areas practically every household possesses some animals, sheep and goats, and family members take care of them during most of the year (from springtime to July animals are attached to larger flocks grazing by specialized shepherds). Without focusing too much on it by that time, I realized that it is a material object, related to the male body, both during the grazing of animals but also during social interactions and life of men, as phrased in the proverbial expression “where I stand, my rod stands”. I had learnt as a student that this simple and modest object, is, however, an extension, literally, of the human body. Equipped with a simple wand, man multiplied the power of his hands against his opponents, which explains the importance it received in most cultures as a magical object and a symbol of prestige and power.

2Later, as a research associate at the Hellenic Folklore Research Centre, Academy of Athens (HFRC) since 2002, I continued working on semi-nomad and transhumant shepherds, pastoral production, dairy food products, land uses in mainland Greece and in the islands. My point of view of material culture is that of cultural technology, as is the case with many ethnologists and folklorists in Greece. Shepherd’s crook, with or without carved decorations, did not catch my attention as it was placed in my mind in the topic of “popular art”. This topic was established in the 1920’s and 1930’s by the influential Greek folklorist Angheliki Hadjimihali in the context of the concept of Greekness’ (Hellinikotita) – meaning the effort and desire to retain a unique Greek cultural identity. In 2010 I was invited to give a lecture on the occasion of the presentation of a private collection of shepherd’s crooks from many Greek areas. I returned to my ethnographic material and also searched on the HFRC’s manuscript archive and its library recordings, the handbook of the HFRC on traditional material culture (by St. Imellos and Aik. Polymerou-Kamilaki, 1983, Traditional Material Culture: Questionnaire) discovering a rich material on crooks, its variety of forms and names in Greek. Recordings referred to mainland Greece and the islands, especially the big ones as Crete but also Cyprus and others, smaller but with strong pastoral traditions such as Skyros in the central Aegean and Naxos in the Cyclades. References about crooks in the proverbial speech, in legends, etc., can be found nowadays in the digital repositories of the HFRC (kentrolaografias.gr) and the Greek aggregator for digital culture content (searchculture.gr) along with photos coming from museums and collections.

3The shape and length of the shepherd’s crook varies considerably (in Crete, it is sometimes three meters high). To make it, two or three-year-old shoots of ash tree, maple, kermes, olive (especially wild olive), heather, strawberry tree and especially cornel-tree but also other flexible trees, are cut from the root. These shoots are left cut (depending on the weather) for a few days. After drying them for a little, the maker (often the shepherd himself) heats one end of the stem to break its bark. After the crook heats up well, it is placed between two parallel sticks or in a fork, and carefully, slowly the maker turns the heated part, until it takes the shape of a semicircle suitable for catching a sheep by the leg, neck or mouth. During the bend, he alternates the point where the pressure is exerted, so that the curve is close to the perfect circle. After creating the desired bend, he ties the end of the rod with its trunk with a rope or crops or tree bark. The rod remains tied until it dries completely as if the wood gets moisture for any reason (morning dew, rain), its curvature relaxes. Then, with the help of the fire, the knee and the spinner, he flatten those parts of the trunk of the rod that show imperfections to turn the wood into pastoral or even urban rod.

4The handle of the crook (called kefali-head) presents many variations. Very often is made of a separate piece of wood and has a wood-carved decoration. In some cases, is made of iron, as the pastoral staff of Cyprus, also found in Epirus and the Peloponnese. It is useful for keeping particularly unruly goats. There are also animal horn handles. The head of the shepherd’s crook in the Pindus Mountains is made by resilient, shiny and hard wood that can be easily carved. It is mainly used to support the shepherd and to easily catch the animals, as said. In the past the rich wood-carved decorations (dragons, snakes, animals, human faces of shepherds and gun-carrying bandits, ram-heads, wild animals as wolves, sheep and popular motifs) were reserved to wealthy chief-shepherds who possessed eventually thousands of animals. They used such crooks in their daily social gatherings to signal their social status and in formal occasions such as weddings, fairs, etc. Especially the nomadic Sarakatsani pastoralists were famous for the elaborate wood-carved decoration on their crooks and other utensils. Folk museums preserve many examples of their art. On the other hand, the Vlach shepherds in the Aspropotamos area (Southern Pindus) and the village of Syrrako in Epirus prefer the simple uncurved glitses, although I have met skilled woodcarvers in these areas with good knowledge of local woods and curving composite forms. The stick of the glitsa in Pindus is also made of well-chosen woods. My informants in Grevena and Aspropotamos emphasized their abilities to spot the right wood from the right part of the tree and to cut it the right time of the year.

5Considering the techniques of the body, when leading the herds to the pastures, the shepherds tend the crook up and with pastoral exclamations lead the herd in a certain direction, also by throwing it or turning it with the same purpose and also to catch specific animals from the neck or from the hind leg. Other occasional uses include hanging objects and transporting them, hanging utensils (pots) to boil food or milk, pulling branches to collect fruit (figs, cherries, etc.), protection against various threats as dogs, wolves, etc. Also, in the past it was used for hare hunting. Shepherds noted their lambs on it: those born in the winter semester and delivered to them in the beginning of their contract in April and casualties due to illnesses and wolf attacks during the spring-summer semester while grazing in the pastures. Some of these uses tend to disappear as, by the late 1980’s, roads were open even in remote areas and 4WD trucks were massively introduced. Shepherds, when they stand with the glitsa and supervise the grazing animals or when they talk to a passerby or another fellow shepherd, put the handle of the staff under the armpit and lean on it. They also lean forward so that the handle reaches their chest or jaw and then place their palms on it and rest. Shepherds, especially the elders, are not accustomed to leaning on the staff when walking. They usually bring it thrown to the neck horizontally and hang their hands from it.

6A well-known popular narration about a shepherd who entered a church holding his crook refers to the way in which it is held. When he decided to leave the church, he threw the long crook on his shoulders. The door of the church was small and he could not get out. In his eagerness, he turned to the icon of the Saint the church was dedicated to and begged to be allowed to leave. Eventually he lost his patience and shattered the icon of the Saint as well as his crook in pieces. Because he no longer had a crook, he left the church with all ease, believing that he had managed to intimidate the Saint by following the popular expression “Even a saint needs to be threatened”, meaning that someone must use all means to be respected.

7As I already noted, in pastoral communities, nowadays, men, at any time of the day, hold a staff especially in their public appearances. Professional shepherds use the glitsa on the pastures, but they tend not to take it with them in the cafes (kafeneia) in the square (plateia) of the villages, main places of male sociability. Visitors to the villages and especially the townspeople tend to hold a pastoral crook in public spaces. They have personal or family origins in the villages as they had moved to the cities or emigrated abroad in the past decades. The mountainous Greek regions had a tradition of centuries of emigration, for commerce and studies, in the Balkans, Central and Western Europe and urban metropolis of the Black Sea and the Ottoman Empire, but after the devastation of World War II and the bloody Greek Civil War (1947-1949), a brutal rural exodus to Greek cities and a wave of emigration to Germany, USA and Australia took place, deserting these areas. Many immigrants have strong ties to their place of origin. They form associations in Greece and abroad, invest in the construction of houses (sometimes in excessive size and forms to gain social status), intervene in local (and sometimes national) politics as they have voting rights. They visit their villages especially in summer and in some cases retire as pensioners. It is easy for the ethnographer to locate them in kafeneia and in the plateies from their clothing, their haircut, their pale and soft skin and, very often, by the rich “traditional” ornaments of their glitsa. Shepherds and villagers in general have rough, sun burnt faces and hands, dress modestly and tend less to carry crooks in cafes.

8When they go to church on Sunday, everyone carries his crook but leaves it outside before entering. I realized during my field trips, and I was not the only ethnographer that did so, as mentioned above, that in certain mountain communities people did not appreciate the decoration of the handle at all. They use simple non curved pastoral canes of elementary forms. They laugh at townsfolks, especially when they appear in public holding impressive canes with colored, industrial curved “traditional” forms bought at shops for tourists in mountain towns. Villagers consider them as ignorant or even worse as people who have lost their local affiliation and identity. If one appears in public in cafes or public events with such an object, risks rude remarks. Of course, everybody can distinguish a glitsa made by a local craftsman. Personally, it occurred to me to look for a crook, an informant to make one for me, but I never did it. While on the field, the locals advised me to hold a cane to protect myself from ranchers who become sometimes aggressive with strangers. Till now I did not feel the need to do so. For the participation to the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Etnográfica I avoided museum crooks and asked my dear friend Athanassios I. Moustakas from Aspropotamos to ship us a shepherd’s crook, which he gladly did.

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Título The elders of the village Drossochori / Tiflosseli in Aspropotamos area, Department of Trikala (photo Demetrios K. Papatheodorou, 1961)
Créditos Source: Tiflosseli. Men and images, places and stories [in Greek], edited by Georgios Volas, Educational association of Tiflosseli Trikala, Karditsa 2014, p. 18
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/docannexe/image/12669/img-1.jpg
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Evangelos Karamanes, «The shepherd’s crook»Etnográfica, Número especial | -1, 47-52.

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Evangelos Karamanes, «The shepherd’s crook»Etnográfica [Online], Número especial | 2022, posto online no dia 22 dezembro 2022, consultado o 28 janeiro 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/12669; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/etnografica.12669

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Evangelos Karamanes

Hellenic Folklore Research Centre, Academy of Athens, Greece

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