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island conversations
podcast series

Maria HnarakiIsland Conversations
00:00 / 49:45

Welcome to SICRI’s “island conversations” podcast series.

The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands’ research, arts, and culture landscape.

The podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece.

"Island Notes" composition in Cretan Flat Mandolin by Christophoro Gorantokaki @"Melody Box"


Maria Hnaraki

Cretan Couplets/Mandinades

The good mandinada isn’t randomly built;

It must contain stone, soil and water from Crete!

Η μαντινάδα η κρητική δε χτίζεται όπως λάχει

Πέτρα και χώμα και νερό τση Κρήτης πρέπει να’χει!


Wherever I go I carry with me soil from Psiloritis,

To spread it so that the whole world becomes Crete.

Όπου κι αν πάω κουβαλώ χώμα του Ψηλορείτη,

Να το σκορπίσω να γενεί όλος ο κόσμος Κρήτη!


Τhe branches should never forget their roots,

Because if the roots perish, the branches will also wither!

Ποτέ δεν πρέπει τα κλαδιά τσι ρίζες να ξεχνούνε

Γιατί αυτές αν μαραθούν, κι εκείνα θα χαθούνε!

Dr. Evangelia Papoutsaki

Welcome to SICRI’s Island Conversations Podcast Series. This is Evangelia Papoutsaki, the host of this podcast and today we will be speaking with Dr. Maria Hnaraki, a Professor of Anthropology, Folklore, and Ethnomusicology and an accomplished scholar in the field. Maria has extensively researched cultural identity expressions, traditions, and customs such as music and dance events in the Mediterranean, as well as investigated topics in nissology, experiential learning, and hybrid educational environments. She holds a Ph.D. in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University in Bloomington and is currently the director of Greek studies and an Associate Teaching Professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA. While at Cornell University, she founded a study abroad program on the Greek island of Crete, which she has been expanding, and enriching since then. Her 2007 Book, Cretan Music and Unraveling Ariadne’s Thread has received the Young Academic Writer and Researcher Price from the Pancretan Association. Welcome today to our podcast and thank you so much for giving us your time.

Dr. Maria Hnaraki

Thank you for inviting me.



Overviewing Preveli Beach on the south side of Crete. Credit: Maria Hnaraki

Maria, we're both from Crete, and today, it so happens that we are here in Heraklion, the capital of Crete. It gives me so much pleasure to share with you some of your insights as a fellow Cretan, an Islander, and also a scholar, not only of islands, of mythology, but of this particular island that we both come from, and we're so proud of. Let's start on a personal note. What are some of your earlier memories of growing up in Crete? How did that shape you think your view of the world?

Well, to start with, I was not born on the island of Crete; I was born in Athens, which is the capital of Greece and is considered of being a capital, a mainland place. My parents were born on the island of Crete, but they happened to be students then. So, I was transferred as a baby to the island of Crete, and I consider Crete being my home because this is where I went to school. And then, of course, I ended up being in Athens again as a student at the university level. But when the question came, where to do my graduate coursework, and being from an island and always curious to go to other places, and of course, have been exposed to traveling by boat, and very familiar, to getting out of the island, using the waterways, it was easy for me and I would say easier for me, being an islander, to go to the United States. Back at a time when the internet did not even exist, we could say that the water functioned as the internet of that time. So, my connection with Islanders and water being around me, and the hardship it had given me back at that time, the airfare being so expensive, and having to take the boat to go to Athens and, of course, being stuck either in Athens or on Crete, just because the winds were so strong and the boats could not travel, this gave me a very DNA-rooted you can say idea of what an islander really is.


Of course, nowadays, with technology and the advancement of vehicles and everything, things have been much easier. But there were times that I recall while being a teenager and while at the college where we didn't have any water; for example, we didn't have food that was not produced on the island of Crete just because it could not be transported here. And precisely because of that, the people of Crete have been struggling to produce their own things in every aspect like islanders usually do, and that has given them the idea of being self-sufficient and independent. And this is something else I've gained by growing up on an island like Crete.


And of course, walking downtown Heraklion, which is my hometown on the island of Crete, and of course visiting other towns in Crete, major towns like Rethimno and Chania for example, or even Agios Nikolaos to the west and the east of the island, you can witness on the architecture, all the traces and the elements of a past; even today, you can see this coexistence of Ottoman with Venetian and Arabic, and then Minoan, ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, you name it. So this idea of amalgamation and growing up as a contemporary teenager with my Walkman back at that time and my motorbike, and then finding myself at the Lions Square, which is like the central point of meeting up with people and just looking around and seeing all these traces of the past really intrigued me to find out what is this Crete really about? Because we live in the present but with the remnants of the past.


Drexel University students at the Cretan Village of Agioi Deka (“Ten Saints”). Credit: Maria Hnaraki

Was that a motivation, let's say, to study cultural anthropology?


Yes, that was the motivation, also the fact that I was always interested in the roots of my family and where my parents came from. And my mom's family comes from Asia Minor, which is nowadays western Turkey. And then my father's family, even though my father grew up in the center of Crete, you can say, stemmed from the western part of Crete. And they left from there due to some wars and revolutions that existed at that time. So, even though Crete is a rather small island, compared to other parts of the world, you can really see that there is a very strong sense of locality and everybody is very unique depending on whether you come from a mountain or the plain, from the west or the East, the north or the south. So this you can see multiculturalism, which includes within one culture which then is within another culture; talking about Greek culture overall, made me very curious to see Crete, both in history, in time, like going back in the past, but also in geography-space, because I realized that Crete is one island in the Mediterranean, and there are many similarities among islands in the Mediterranean.


We used to joke with Professor Baldacchino, that back in the old times, you could just take a boat to go from Crete to Malta, for example. Whereas nowadays, you need three plane rides to get there, how easier was for people in the past to communicate with each other using boats, and why the Minoan civilization from Crete really flourished. People from Crete were sailors, they were exposed to other cultures. They were extroverts in that sense, and you can see even in their artifacts, that they are using those techniques and art histories that they have come across by going to other parts of the world. So I wanted to see why do we have this contradiction of wanting to be one, but at the same time, being very hospitable, being very open, and being very welcome.


And how is this related to the Mediterranean, because the Mediterranean is a crossroads amongst three continents, Asia, Africa, and Europe, and really Crete is at the crossroads of all those three continents. In the past, when people did not have the means of flying from one place to the other had to stop by Crete, in order to go either from the west to the east, or the east to the west. And of course, when you stop in a place, you stop for a longer period of time, and you leave some of your character and identity there as well. And that was what intrigued me within Crete, and then more specifically, because I am trained in music, on the music and the performance of the people of Crete.


Drexel University Mediterranean Ensemble and the Society of Ethnomusicology “A Mostly Balkan Party…Philly Style” Concert.
Credit: Cosmos Philly

What are some of the key characteristics of the Cretan music? What has shaped it over the centuries and what are some of its contemporary manifestations?


Well, the fact that it uses instruments that belong to all of those traditions, you can say, you can find the instruments used in music from Crete, to the Arab countries, to countries in the east, but also to the west, like, for example, the mandolin, or the lute. But at the same time, they have their own character and their own way of being performed and played, which made me think, that perhaps all people all over the world are just using the same thing but in different ways. And this is what makes us common, and that's why we are one all over the world. We shouldn't argue and fight against each other because, after all, we all want the same thing, things, we all want peace and the place, you know, to live happily and have the essentials to go on. So, what intrigued me and what I find very interesting about the music of Crete is the so-called syncretic way of having many elements coexisting in yet very harmonious and melodious ways. And then, of course, language, and dialects from the island of Crete, being very focal on the performance by having the characteristic poetry from the island of Crete being performed. And I would say, this way, excluding non-Greeks and non-Cretans, understanding what your performance is about.


Are you referring to Mantinada?


Yes, Madinades, which is an Italian word from mattina, morning serenade.


That is just another expression, example rather, how the Cretan cultural music bears all these influences.


You know, frequently, people claim ownership of things. And to me, it's not really to whom this belongs but how do you make use of that thing to come up with something that really expresses who you are, your identity, and gives you pleasure, gives entertainment to your soul, ψυχαγωγία [psychagogia]” as we would say, using a Greek word.


At Matala, on the south of Crete, where… “Today is life, tomorrow never comes!” Credit: Maria Hnaraki

Was that the focus of your Ph.D study?


Yes, my Master's thesis focused on dances from the island of Crete. Dances performed at weddings, and how by seeing people performing in the circle, observing the male and the female behavior, and also the older and the younger generations and children joining in; how dancing on the island of Crete tells you a lot about the society, and what people are and how it is like speaking without words, which is the case of dancing and performance in many other parts of the world. But, of course, my conclusions were specific to the island of Crete.

My Ph.D. related to music on the island of Crete, a Mediterranean island, and how music from the island of Crete relates to the kinds of music surrounding Crete.

I did case studies, for example, the mandolin, the instrument, which is an Italian instrument, and how it's used in music from Crete. A tune, a specific song that we find in three different languages: Arabic, Turkish, and Greek language, and how all these three cultures are using the exact same song and claim ownership of that song


I also studied Ross Daly, who is a very interesting case of a musician who belongs to different backgrounds because ethnically, you may say, he's Irish. But because his father was an ambassador, he lived in several parts of the world. Therefore, he's using Crete as his home base but invites musicians from Asia, Europe, and Scandinavian countries, you name it, and makes all these interesting musical experiments in his performances. So you can see Indian music coexisting with Cretan music, Persian-Iranian music coexisting with music from Crete, and Norwegian-Scandinavian music just because using a stringed instrument doesn't mean it has to be a specific instrument from the island of Crete but it can come in a dialogue with another instrument in a way of translating or trying to translate the sounds, and the music intervals, phrases, and so on.


Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan invited by Ross Daly at the Cretan Village of Houdetsi. Credit: Maria Hnaraki

And that gives also new life to traditional cultural expression.

Exactly! So I liked the idea of  Crete being a very hospitable Island, and I would see many tourists, because tourism is a great source of income for the island of Crete, as is the case with other islands all over the world, being the exotic, you know, destinations, having those nice beaches and so on; — but I liked how people of Crete would welcome those non-Greeks to join in the dances and identify with their music and how they would not pay attention to how they would perform, but they would welcome their willingness to join the dance and perform with them.


This is very much part of, and correct me if I'm wrong, the Cretan character, where joy,  in a festive way, is very important.


And how it shows how anthropocentric is the approach on the island, I believe of Crete and how important the notion of hospitality and philotimo, the so-called “love of honor,” how people from Crete want to show that they are from Crete, and how they feel they are from Crete because they know how to perform those dances and how to compose that traditional poetry but at the same time, they would not close the doors and keep it to themselves, that they would like to share and spread it out to become even more popular. And it's something that adjusts as well because you will see, you would think that, because what I'm talking about is something we would say traditional, but yet people who belong to the younger generation also bring in technology, and they adopt and use it. So you will see younger people exchange messages and send in texts, composing those folk poetry lines that are characteristic of the island. You would see how the traditional instruments would join in rock groups and other alternative music styles. We would see nowadays women also performing those instruments, even though traditionally it would be men only, and how this music still functions as a way of communicating but yet adapting to the current trends and the times.


At Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, a spiritual sanctuary that serves as a refuge for all peoples.

Virgin Mary Byzantine Icon: Historic Arkadi Monastery.

Credits: Maria Hnaraki

Tranquility: At the lake of Zaros or Votomos, located on the southern slopes of the tallest mountain of Crete, Psiloritis-Idi.

I found the title of your book rather interesting as it relates to this crossroads that you referred to and the communication of Ariadne’s Thread. Can you tell us a little bit about that title?

I used the myth that originates from the island of Crete, and I really found myself lost in the labyrinth, trying to see where we are in the center. What does this mean? Why is Ariadne, a feminine woman, handing the thread to a male to go into the labyrinth and save us from this minotaur? I saw music because the Greek language also has genders, the word music in Greek is feminine in gender, so I saw music as being the Ariadne that leads us through to the world because the cosmos is masculine, and how by listening to music and performing dances, also, because dances on the island of Crete are communal dances. We hold hands with each other, and they are performed in a circle. So being in a circle with people shows that those ties with community and the sense of belonging, a strong sense of belonging, which is proven to be very beneficial, psychologically. So, the pictures of the labyrinths and the mazes are circular, and we know we usually walk them in parks, and we try to envision ourselves getting lost and finding the way out. Also, the thread is circular, as well, being a circle, like the circle of life, you would say. So I like this metaphor and how it's a metaphor for life itself because we all have troubles and problems in life. Yet, people from islands like the island of Crete would not put it down; they would not surrender, but they would rather defend and support and try to get, you know, a way out of the labyrinths.


It's an interesting metaphor, part of that collective memory that shapes the Cretan identity. Some of the words you use have perhaps shaped the Cretan identity, that of coming to terms with the people who come through the island, but also, at the same time, a strong sense of who they are… that word that you use, defense. I wonder how those two centrifugal, centripetal forces kind of shaped this island's character.


I think it is because the people of Crete have been under different types of oppressors. I don't want to name the cultures, but historically, different people wanted to take over the island. And because the people of Crete essentially defended their freedom, their independence, they have this very strong connection with the land. So there are certain types of songs, for example, the rizitika, in which the word riza means root, we have in English the word reason rhizome, that they show this connection of man to the land and the rizitika are the songs of the foothills if we were to translate the name of the song genre into English.


So people have used metaphors in those songs borrowed from nature, which is a thing that shows sustainability and green values on one hand. Still, on the other hand, because things in nature are free, they showed their idea of wanting to be always independent and free, saying, hey, we are here, and you cannot step on our land. It's our land; it belongs to us, and we are here to defend it. So, using songs of music after some period of time as a metaphor was also a way of secret, secretly communicating among them without the oppressor understanding what they were talking about. For example, they would say look at this eagle, because eagle is like the characteristic bird, one of the characteristic animals, being a bird on the island of Crete but eagles fly the highest, so who wants to fly the highest? The person who wants to really be free and independent. So you sing about this eagle who is on the top of the mountain and the feathers of the bird are covered with snow and ice and is asking for the sun to mark them down so that they can fly free, then the oppressor doesn't necessarily understand that they are talking against him. But at the same time, they are cultivating this sense of resistance and independence to themselves and the younger generations.


A Green Story: Chronicling the life of “ECOS-Earth Friendly Products” owner and CEO Van Vlahakis at Drexel University. Credit: Cosmos Philly

What comes to my mind is a book by Kazantzakis, the island author, which is about eleftheria i thanatos, freedom or death, or rather what Captain Mihalis (one of the book’s characters) said, not freedom or death, but freedom and death. Because what Captain Mihalis was saying is that freedom comes with a certain price.

Yes, and also for people from the island of Crete is not worthy to live enslaved and free, but to live, to rather die without having anyone on top of you, but living the way you want to live.


On that note, how did you find living in the US so far away from Crete, studying Crete and the islands?


It might be the same way, Odysseus spent ten years in Troy and another ten years coming back so it was an adventure; it's a different world, it's very beneficial and I recommend to everyone to get out of their islands, because, you know, we are all Islanders after all, this is the only way to appreciate your own culture; if you don't go outside of your borders, then you can't really see what's going on in your part of the world, you cannot appreciate it. So I feel I have the privilege of being both an insider and an outsider to my own culture. As I mentioned earlier, I studied in Athens, so I already saw Crete from a distance, being in Athens, but yet I was still in the country of Greece. But being able to go to the United States and study with professors that had never been to Greece, and I would do fieldwork and bring them back samples of my research. We would sit down together and listen and explain and analyze and contrast and compare them with, you know, African music, Indian music, South American music and see the similarities, the differences. Of course, language was a barrier, but yet the melodies and the sounds and the instruments, you could find commonalities, or even contrasts, not necessarily commonalities there. But those raised all sorts of interesting discussions.


And what they all appreciated very much was this sense of ‘islandness,’ which was very unique from what other students would study, because most of my classmates at the time would do mainland studies in several parts of the world. The difference was to see what made music from the island of Crete part of what today we call Island studies. And not only from the point of view of a cultural anthropologist studying a different part of the world, a different culture, but where were, what were those elements that made music from Crete, an island culture versus a mainland culture.


Drexel University students on a TV Creta “Talk Show”. Credit: Maria Hnaraki

Let's stay on this for a little bit because your training is as a cultural anthropologist, and subsequently, you did your research on an island, your island in a comparative research mode. At what point did you feel that you departed from classical cultural anthropology and became an island studies scholar, and what is the difference, if there is any?


There is a difference because when you turn in, as a cultural anthropologist, you do the characteristics, you see what exists there, what makes this culture unique and different, what are the ways, the technical details, the instruments, the poetry, the music, the dances, the movements, whatever you each one chooses to focus on, but then as an island studies scholar, you tend to see what's the role of water and how water has shaped and, those traditions and cultures, because I think when we speak about an island culture, the thing that shapes an island culture is mobility, is the fact that things change and do not remain the same. Being from Greece and having loved philosophy and Heraclitus and his notion of fluidity and that you cannot cross the same river twice, I viewed music from the island of Crete precisely like that. Because I would see that there is isolation, self-sufficiency, and a connection with the land, but at the same time, there is this notion of fluidity. Things changed because people from the island of Crete came across other cultures and other parts of the world, either themselves by being outside, going outside of the island, or because others would come and stay on the island for extended and certain periods of time. So this notion of fluidity and mobility and change, things changing because water would enable that sort of communication and encounter, was, to me at least, what made the Cretan music culture an island music culture.


Drexel University Students Visiting “Europe Direct-Region of Crete”. Credit: Maria Hnaraki

Can you tell us what you're working on right now in terms of island research? Also, you are an education consultant. You have been the director of the kind of Greek Studies Center at Drexel University; you bring students from around the world who study in the US here to Crete. Tell us a little bit about that and how it connects to you as a scholar, and as an Islander, and why it is meaningful and important to have these educational experiences for younger people.


These days, I'm mainly focusing on study abroad programs. So, I'm using educational methods based on primarily experiential learning. I do use technology a lot. So I'm doing what I'm saying: hybrid teaching. But being an anthropologist, I want students to eyewitness things. So, ideally, I would like them to come and see what I'm talking to them about. Also, because of the extensive use of technology, these days, we tend to forget the real, the actual thing.I think it's very important to keep the connection with that. A very simple metaphor is, you know, I cannot feed you through the cables, you're not going to taste the food, you really, I really have to give it to you. So I focus on that method of teaching. I do use notions, I challenge artificial intelligence for replacing it with tradition and I do have students who work with video games and programs and things that have to do with technology, but by providing them with traditional materials, so we use the Minoan mythology, for example, Greek mythology, history, stories, and we make certain projects. I don't know if you're familiar, for example, with Minecraft, which is an educational game developed by Microsoft, and all children go crazy about that, teenagers too. So we use the metaphor of the labyrinth that we mentioned before, and we build labyrinths, and we challenge students to find their ways out of the labyrinths this way, learning the myth and learning what a labyrinth, for example, is. We have students that play with notions of food, the traditional Mediterranean diet, and how we can today create modern dishes yet healthy, and, you know, sustainable as well. I'm interested in healing practices because community dancing and belonging to a group and dancing in a circle really have benefits. And I believe that's one of the secrets of the people here on Crete, at least traditionally, the idea of feeling that they belong to a community and they, therefore don't feel isolated, as would be the case in other parts of the world. And also, conscious mobility. 


I find people, even though technology has progressed so much, today, are more hesitant about traveling and going to other parts of the world and getting to know. They prefer staying in their room and connecting through a computer and learning things through the internet. And, surprisingly, younger generations do not have this curiosity, so to say. Still, I see in myself a continuation of the Homeric you know,  adventure of the Islander that really wanted to get out of Ithaca and go and explore what it is out there, even though there were so many problems in the way, Cyclops, monsters, you know, storms, Poseidon, you know, you name them. So I think having to encounter those things traveling, as Greek poet Cavafy would say, always teaches you something. You feel you’ve reached the destination, but you're never at the destination; you keep going because you want to keep going. I think it's this sense of nostalgia, the pain that is created within you and want to go back and return, I think it only becomes better if you keep traveling and learning and knowing that any place can be home. As I said, in the very beginning, everything is everywhere the same. People are the same; we all want the same thing. And only if we understand that we express it in different ways, yes, I'm not saying all things are the same; But if we perceive this correctly, then I think we can all live harmoniously and exceed borderlines and use water as a bridge to connect us and not as something to disconnect us.


And also celebrate that, that we all express that sameness in very distinctive, you know, cultural ways.

Maria, at what point this cretin Islander, living in the massive mainland of the USA, decided that you need to return to your Ithaca, and why was that?

It's because my own research had to do with the island of Crete, so it was very hard. Yes, I was teaching classes that had to do with Greece and Crete in the United States. And that was very beneficial for the majority of my students over there. But I felt that I really needed to show them the authentic, the actual thing. And I saw myself as an ambassador, you could say, a cultural ambassador of my island. And I wanted to do that with by providing people firsthand experiences. I'm not only working with students, but other groups, executive MBAs, for example, that they want to see how smaller businesses and not the massive ones that they have in the States work on the island of Crete; I work with people on, that they want to see why the diet on the island of Crete is healthier, and why feeding yourself with olive oil and things that are, you know, slowly, processed, and produced and cooked in extense are more beneficial. And whether, of course, something like that can be reintroduced to urban societies, with herbal practitioners, that people that they want to use herbs, and herbal remedies, with musicians. I wanted to be with Cretans but work with people who are not from Crete because I felt I needed to show them my culture, and having been in the States for approximately 20 years gave me I believe the benefit of being this outsider and gained several things from being outside from his home and being objective while presenting home to the others, having a more objective and not, you know, the stereotypical idea, we are the best without having seen what else exists out there. And also being able to draw parallels because, for example, Native American culture is big in the United States and Native Americans are like, you know, the Minoans or, you know, people from Crete used to be in the past, they had, for example, of rain dances where they would dance, they would perform to call for rain because they need it for land. Similarly, the people elsewhere in Greece, but also on the island of Crete, have specific types of performances, because there, and even today, more than ever, those extended periods of times where there is drought, and there is no rainfall, and we need water.


So, being exposed to a country like the United States, where you could see so many cultures, all in one, I would treat those cultures as a salad bowl and not as a soup. So I would try and see what are the characteristic elements of the Germans, of the Japanese, of the Koreans, of the Vietnamese, the Indian, and so on. And what are the parallels? For example, I would have a student who would work on Indian weddings, and I would see that Cretan weddings and Indian weddings religiously might not be the same, but yet, they had similarities in the extensive hours of performing dances, the abundance of food, the rituals that had to do with the bride and the groom, and everybody else. So it was very interesting for me to be able and be exposed to all these other parts of the world by just being, you know, in one part of the world.


Discovering the town of Agios Nikolaos with authorities from the Region of Crete. Credit: Maria Hnaraki

But you felt that you could do that, at this stage in your career as a scholar and as a practitioner by being based in Crete, that you couldn't do that as a scholar in a university far away.


I wanted to; I'm not an expert in other cultures of the world. I felt I was… my expertise was on the island of Crete within the Mediterranean and I wanted to be able to be more on this part of the world; I still go back and forth to the United States. And you know, I work on research projects and other things with my students and colleagues there. But I wanted to have Crete as a base source to be able to bring more and more people and attract more and more people here. And it's interesting because several of my students who come here, would come back later with their families, they would come back, they would get married, they will want to bring their children and introduce them to this part of the world as well. It would be interesting for me to hear from them how they would start to cook with olive oil, for example, because that's something they would find beneficial on the island of Crete. Or they would follow up some of the Greek, you know, ways and introduce some of those things into their busy American lives as well.


So you do act as a true ambassador of the Cretan culture. An example of that is in your role as an island Innovation ambassador from Crete; tell us a little bit about that.

Well, I worked with James, you know, the Island Innovation, and I was very happy that he granted me that award for Island innovation! I think what I tried to do is to show that islands do not stay isolated and tied to one certain item that belongs to the past, but they keep growing, adding more and more elements to the discussion, the discourse, and the scientific discourse of everyday life. And because islands these days become, you know, the sources, they give the example of sustainability, of renewable energies, like the island of Crete with solar energy and wind power, and how I see islands being the solution to the problems we are currently facing. For example, with the so-called era of the Anthropocene. That brings us to climate change. And we end up seeing that water is the solution to everything. There is a fire, we need water, there is drought, you know, we need water. You know, for everything, we need water. And this is what I mentioned earlier, too. That's what makes islands different from mainlands, water. Nowadays, I really want to focus my research more on water because what I found is that many lyrics within Cretan performances have to do with water as well. So, for example, my grandmother used to say, I wonder why the sea is salty, but the fish, like the product of the sea, is saltless? So, the role of water in the realm of life and how we need water for everything.

I wonder whether you can tell us that in Cretan, how your grandmother would say it.


Kids Love Greece” cooking workshop

She would say…

Στέκω και συλλογίζομαι, ωσάν το συναξάρι, γιατ’ είν’ η θάλασσ’ αλμυρή κι ανάλατο το ψάρι;

Like I stand, and I wonder, as if I were a church, a religious book, why is the sea, the water salty, but the fish, the product of the sea, is saltless?

The reason why I asked you to say that in the Cretan dialect is because that dialect is still alive today, and there are multiple dialects, one would say, in Crete. Is that so?

Yes, there are idioms within the dialect. So depending on whether it stems from a mountain, or the sea area, the West or the East, those are all the influences that came into the island because the East had more relationship with, we could say at that time, a Syrian-Egyptian population; these days would be Turkey, the Arab countries and then Egypt, to the south, Palestine, Israel, Syria, and so on. Whereas the West would be more associated with Italy and the so-called West. So you would have different sounds within the local dialect that would tell you, and it's actually interesting because the dialect from the island of Crete and then Cyprus resemble they have thick consonants, like the “ch” and the  “sh.” 

So, you can say someone is from Crete because in the English they speak, they can pronounce chair and she, whereas people in the rest of Greece do not have those formations in their mouth that they can actually perform the “s,” the “sh” and the “ch” sounds. But it's not only the sounds; it's also words. So we find words within the language, the dialect of the island of Crete that takes us back to the Homeric period of time. Like we say, for goat, we say αίγα [ega], and for hen, we say όρνιθα [ornitha], which are the exact words that we would find in Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. And then we have words that are taken from the Venetians, like mantinada, which is from mattina which means morning. We have Turkish Ottoman words; we have Arabic words. My grandfather used to say bakaloum (“μπακαλούμ”, namely “we shall see”), for example, ameti muhameti (“αμέτι μουχαμέτι”, namely “stubbornly”), and those are all interesting things because we perceive when we adopt something, we perceive of it as being Greek, but then playing the devil's advocate in several discussions, you find out that what you think is yours, it's really not yours. So, whom does this really belong to? So to me, it's the use you make of something and not really, where it originated from.

All these influences in Crete have resulted in a unique dialect with distinctive idioms. I remember, during COVID times, we were having this conversation about how is the Cretan dialect manifesting in COVID times. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Yes, and we found that there were lots; we actually presented together at the ISISA conference. We found out that they were still using this, you can say old fashioned, because sometimes people feel like they will be characterized as villagers if they use the dialect of their island that they come from, but we would find that they will use them in commercials on the TV. When they would want to urge people to get vaccinated, for example, they would use those, or in cartoons, they would give, they would use the distinct alcoholic drink of Crete called raki, because it has alcohol and alcohol is something that disinfects, they would spread out the news that if you spray your house, and if you drink, you know much of it, you will get rid of any sort of viruses, of course, jokefully.


But by being… it's like the ancient Greek tragedy; you're being tragic, but then you end up being cathartic. Because this is a nice thing about Greek and then, of course, in extense, culture from the island of Crete, you have both the Apollonian, the very reasonable, very logic, but then, of course, you also have the very Dionysian, the funny, the entertaining one. And this is why Kazantzakis, the writer that you mentioned before, with his character, the famous world-known Zorba the Greek is trying to do. He has the boss, who symbolizes this very rigid Western way of looking at the world. And then we have Zorba, who is definitely an Eastern character, the Dionysian side of things, and yet both are met on the island of Crete, and Zorba is trying to teach the boss to be extrovert and perform a dance. And then, the boss is trying to teach Zorba how to work and how to follow up with a rigid schedule. And it's funny because going back to what I initially said, with Crete being at the crossroads of West and East, you see, like what makes distinct this part of the world really is that people can be both serious and funny, at the same time. And, of course, all the expressions and their cultural expressions bear this characteristic as well.

Are there any examples that come to mind?

Well, the fact that in memorial services, for example, here on the island of Crete, —which are mournful events, they happen 40 days after someone has died,--- you may see people dancing, performing music, consuming huge quantities of food, because people believe that the deceased… this is what the deceased would like to do. And you would see that they would go on the grave, and they would perform music there, and they would have those celebrations, you can say, because really, what's celebrated is the life of the deceased, not what’s after, what comes after, the deeds and the life. So you try to be as good as you can and benefit as many as you can while you're still alive. And that's the point to live life to the fullest, and as Kazantzakis says, never leave, and it's also in folk poetry that comes from the island of Crete, never leave nothing to death. The only way to beat death is by leaving nothing for him to consume when you know he comes across you.


A very Zorbaesque way of living life!


Nikos Kazantzakis: “I said to the almond tree, ‘Friend, speak to me of God,’ and the almond tree blossomed.”


Crete: Silver Linings

Credits: Maria Hnaraki

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George Seferis: Whether it's dusk or dawn's first light the jasmine stays always white.

Looking at the future, what are some of the projects you have in mind, and how do you feel they can contribute to a better understanding of the Cretan culture?


I would like to collaborate and see things collaboratively with other islands of the world. Recently, I visited the Big Island, in Hawaii, for example, and I always have this sense of going to Okinawa, Japan, just because of reading the similarities on the diet, and the way of, when I say diet, I don't mean only what people eat, but diet as a way of life. I would like to find scholars who research other islands and do comparative projects to see where there are similar threads and lines. And of course, this is not only to fulfill my own, you know, desire and expectation to meet more cultures and go to other parts of the world, and just be more adventurous that have already been, but to benefit humanity. As I've said several times, to see that we are the same, all are the same after all, and especially today in a world of migration, and, unfortunately, you know, people don't learn from their mistakes because they don't look at the past, same mistakes are being repeated. And, you know, we focus too much on the external differences and how we look different instead of focusing on how within us we are the same; I really want to focus more on comparative work and see how we can, you know, thread common lines among different islands of the world; one more time, I think we are all islands. And if you look at the continents, the so-called continents, I don't think they are continents; I think they are islands because they are all surrounded by water after all.


Indeed!  So you have started your career as an island scholar, as a cultural anthropologist on that comparative note. I see that Ariadne’s thread continues to be a key and personal theme in your scholarly investigation.  I deeply feel that you cannot separate the two. There is an islander's curiosity in knowing what the world is out there, but also for a better understanding of who you are in your own eyes.

Yes, exactly. Now, if I may end with an interesting note, Epimenides was a philosopher from Crete who said that all people from Crete are liars. So, I don't know if your audience will believe what I'm saying because I'm also from Crete!

It's true, but perhaps it was an oxymoron.

It's a paradox.

Maria, thank you very much for this conversation and for hosting me [in your home]. I feel we could have kept talking about Cretan culture [for a lot longer]. Just this morning, I was observing my parents taking a leaf out of the calendar, and at the back of that, there is always a Cretan couplet. I don't know how many places in the world you can look at what day is today, and look at the back and find an island expression.

Yes, it's like how some people would pick up a flower every morning; you know, instead of that, you have a poetic line to go by for that day.

The fact that this tradition continues to this day is a miracle, given all the things that have contributed to modernization in our lives, etc. Maria, is there anything else you would like to add before we complete our conversation today?

I think people need to realize that we all come from water. And we need to respect this earth that used to be water at once upon a time and be a little bit more careful about how we use the water because, on the island of Crete, we are not going to have lots of water this year. It didn't rain much. And with all the fires, the wildfires all over the world, and the climate change and all these challenges that we're facing, pay a little bit more attention to water and understand that yes, no man is an island. But as I said earlier, we are all Islanders! 


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