from Nike in Katerini, Greece: a Danse Macabre

12 November 2021

I wish to share a story with this group where we share our Covid experiences. Here in Greece, things are tough. Our case counts are going up in spite of strict restrictions. Our vaccination program is good but not good enough, and I am still locked out of my home in Australia for a bit longer. So that’s my news. Covid is still the boss. Almost two years since Covid-19 found us, we still have trepidation, suffering, and death. I’d love to have written a more humorous piece but this is how life here is right now.

So, I’ve decided to tell you about a tradition called Sasmos. SASMOS Greece is locked in a Danse Macabre. It might help others understand why we dance so much. We have danced with Death throughout history.The very design of Greek grammar with its feminine, masculine and neutral permits anthropomorphism. Greek mythology and culture are built on it. Death, in Greek, is Thanatos. Thanatos, masculine, and Greece, feminine, dance a macabre waltz which without the intervention of medical technology would have only led to a conclusion such as in Ofis and Krino* by Kazantzakis (*also known as Serpent and Lily)Thanatos is carrying out a vendetta. A Latin term but, hey, Greece has given so many words to the world she has every right to borrow one now and again.

So, Thanatos in his frenzy is carrying out his vendetta through this virus with speed and skill. The vendetta, revenge crimes and killings, are alive and well and still being carried out in Crete. Not the touristy Crete of beaches and tavernas but in the remote villages of mountainous Crete, where police dare not go and the men still wear breeches tucked into stivania, knee-high boots, and bind their heads with the sariki, the knitted black bandana with knots hanging down that once symbolised how many Turkish heads their family had taken, nowadays they say it’s the tears shed from the pain of the vendettas. Some of these untameable Cretans found the vendettas ruled life instead of nature and realised balance had to be restored.

One story of such a restoration was during WW2 and the Nazi Occupation. Vendetta activity had calmed down a little because there was a common enemy to be dealt with. Still, two men came to blows over a rustling issue. One stabbed the other and he was taken to hospital. The wife of the injured man feared once he was out of hospital, he would seek revenge. Widowhood had no appeal nor did raising her new-born alone. She wrapped her infant in her shawl and dared to go to the house of her husband’s attacker despite Nazis patrolling the streets. His wife opened the door and let her in even though they were in vendetta.

The young mother walked over to her husband’s enemy. ‘My husband will be out of hospital tomorrow, and he will come straight here to make your wife a widow.’ She handed him her baby. ‘I want you to baptise my child. My husband might want to turn on you, but he will not turn on the canons of the church. The bonds of baptism are sacred.’ The priest was woken, and the ceremony took place in the middle of the night before the husband was released from hospital.

Sasmos was born. Today Sasmos is handled by brokers. Seriously. These brokers are usually people held in high esteem in their communities. Often, it’s the village priest or an elder who has overcome many obstacles and remained dignified throughout their trials. Brokers are asked to mediate between the warring parties to commence the path to Sasmos. Their every word is measured to avoid any slight whatsoever. It is a delicate process of diplomacy. Sasmos. A unique word, a small word, with a big meaning. It comes from ‘sazo’ which in Cretan dialect means ‘to fix’. It means more than reconciliation, cessation of hostilities, ceasefire or compromise. It’s a manmade – sorry – woman-made miracle where bad things are dematerialised to leave a clear road ahead. Not forgiven. Forgotten. Completely.

If only we could broker a Sasmos with this virus here in this land of contradictions and passions. We don’t have all the elements to create a Sasmos with this virus. We have brilliant scientists and medical professionals who have enlightened us with facts and a vaccine and have attempted to broker a Sasmos but on the other side, we have a hostile virus that will not give up. Our total vaccination numbers are only at sixty percent. And the many anti-vaxxers and the deniers, without realising it, are allies of the virus giving it more power, making the battle twice as fierce. Sasmos needs both sides to participate. We are far from Sasmos.

So, we continue our lives of extreme caution, of accepting the strict measures, and of watching our every step. Any Cretan will tell you Sasmos cannot be forced. It happens in its own time and only when both sides are either too exhausted to continue or are ready to accept change. Oh, and from now on whenever you see a lively Greek dance where there is much leaping know it is a victory dance.