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ETHNONYMS: Krites (formal), Kritiki (demotic), Kritiči (dialect)


Identification. The Cretans, overwhelmingly Greek Orthodox Christians, speak dialect forms of Modern Greek and inhabit the island of Crete, which is midway between the Greek mainland and Libya. Unofficially, the country dwellers are divided into plains folk (kambites or katomerites ) and mountain dwellers (aorites or anomerites ).

Location. Crete is located between 34° and 36° N and 23° and 27° E. There is a rainy season from October through March, with hot summer days at around 26° to 38° C at mid' day. Winter snows fall in the more mountainous areas; the Messara Plain, with relatively high winter rainfall and a dry summer, is especially fertile, but many areas of higher ground are rocky and deforested.

Demography. In 1981 the official population of Crete was 502,165. The three largest towns accounted for 32 percent of this figure (Iraklio, 101,634; Khania, 47,388; Rethimno, 17,736). While most rural communities have suffered continual demographic depletion since the early 1960s, mostly through emigration to West Germany and to Athens and Iraklio, a few highland communities on Psiloritis have actually increased in size because this trend has been offset by a high birthrate. Jewish communities in the main towns, small before World War II, were destroyed by the Germans; a small Catholic presence survives in Iraklio. The Armenian population, much of it composed of Asia Minor refugees, largely departed for Soviet Armenia in the late 1940s. There are a few Jehovah's Witnesses. Among the Greek Orthodox is a significant though scattered number of Old Calendrists (Paleoimeroloyites) who reject the adoption of the Gregorian calendar and celebrate religious holidays accordingly. No Muslims are left; after the compulsory population exchanges that followed the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), the significant but already depleted Muslim population (which had been about 36 percent of a total population of 279,165 in 1881) departed and was replaced by a far greater number of Orthodox Christian refugees from Asia Minor; this population increased by about 15 percent between 1913 and 1928, as against 20 percent in the previous thirty-two years. The refugees, although formally assimilated into the larger population, still retain a discernible identity and are treated by some indigenous Cretans with dislike.

Linguistic Affiliation. An early form of Greek appears in the later fifteenth century b.c., using the Linear B syllabary. Some pre-Hellenic toponyms still persist. Greek inscriptions appear again in the Archaic period and suggest the Persistence of a pre-Dorian (Eteocretan) population until as late as the third century b.c. Some scholars believe that the modern Cretan dialects betray evidence of Doric derivation. While Cretan is clearly closer to Cypriot or Dodecanesian than to standard Greek, which it influenced through its literary renaissance under Venetian rule, it has retained a number of archaic syntactic forms and has borrowed heavily from the lexical stocks of both Venetian (Italian) and Turkish. City dwellers speak a more standardized form of Greek, and the local dialects, having no formal status in the educational system or the media, are increasingly yielding to social Pressure and official indifference. The Greek alphabet, used even for dialect publications (mostly of folklore or local literature), does not represent all local phonological features successfully.

History and Cultural Relations

Neolithic remains from Knossos date back to about 6000 b.c. After the collapse of the Bronze Age Minoan civilization, during which Greek was introduced in the fifteenth century b.c., the Dorian invasionswhich appear not to have eradicated the preexisting local culture entirelywere followed by a cultural efflorescence that continued into Roman (from 67 b.c.) and early Byzantine times. Muslim Saracen invaders, who came from Spain by way of Egypt in about a.d. 823, may have presided over the development of the Cretan dialects into roughly their present form. They were driven out by the Byzantine Emperor Nikiforos Fokas in 961. Alexios Comnenon I allegedly brought twelve noble families (arkhondopouli ) from Byzantium to repopulate the ravaged island. Some of their names still survive, as do surnames of Venetian settlers who arrived after the collapse of the short-lived (1204-1210) Genoese occupation. The Venetian period was one of great cultural revival, with Italian-influenced literature and art incorporating local verse traditions and Byzantine iconography; after the collapse of most of the island in 1645-1646 and of Iraklio (Candia) in 1669, refugees carried this literary culture to the Ionian Islands. The Turkish period was marked by bloody revolts and fierce repression. In 1898 Crete, under the joint supervision of Britain, France, Italy, and Russia, became a semiautonomous protectorate, and in 1913 it was united with Greece. The 1941-1944 German occupation was extremely harsh and revived the traditional Cretan values of warlike independence. Despite the prominence of Cretan politicians in national life, Cretans have felt excluded from the centers of political power in the larger national entity. They have been strongly antimonarchist and prosocialist, the latter tendency being only slightly offset by powerful liberal and right-wing political patronage in the rural areas. Despite sporadic separatism in the past, Crete now appears solidly embedded in the national political structure, although cultural and political hostility to Athens persists. The more isolated mountain dwellers' tradition of especially active resistance to authority may account for some distinctive local cultural forms, some of which suggest links with much earlier periods.


Rural communities range in population from less than 100 to several thousands. Some small but spatially distinct villages are absorbed into larger communities for purposes of local government and church affairs. Most villages are constructed on a cluster pattern, often around a church and plaza, although the excellent road system has induced an increasing tendency toward the development of areas along the roads, or "ribbon development," often leading to the absorption of smaller subsettlements (metokhia ). Houses, commonly grouped in patrigroup-based neighborhoods, often have small adjoining vegetable gardens; terraces, formerly used for grain cultivation and now mostly given over to grazing, rise above many mountain villages. Plains dwellers have direct access to fields in adjacent areas; many highland pastoralists who have turned to agricultural pursuits have purchased lands in the more depopulated, lower-lying villages. Village houses used to be single-story, with a single room to house the entire family at night; these have been replaced largely by two-story concrete structures. Many urban dwellers live in apartments, while othersmostly in Khania and Rethimnoinhabit refurbished houses of Turkish and Venetian date. Front balconies on all kinds of dwellings provide a view of surrounding social activity and a place to entertain less formal visitors.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Rural Crete is predominantly agricultural, with transhumant pastoralism (now being sedentarized) among the mountain villagers who rent winter pasturage in the coastal areas to the north and northeast. Goat- and sheepherding are common and increasingly commercial pastoral activities. Cattle are now rare, but pigs and chickens are raised for food and mules and donkeys remain an important mode of transporting produce and People over short distances. Major crops include vines (for wine, table grapes, and raisins) and olives; the latter increasingly predominate because of their greater ease of cultivation and high yield. Little grain has been grown, especially since Government subsidies to certain areas since 1964 have discouraged further investment. Fruit production includes bananas, pears, and citrus (mostly oranges); the avocado has recently been introduced and seems destined mostly for export. In the fertile Messara Plain, huge tomato-growing greenhouse nurseries have proliferated, providing wages for poorer villagers from all over the island. Carobs are an important item, and some tobacco is grown (especially in areas populated by Asia Minor refugees). Coastal communities are extensively engaged in fishing; the Asia Minor refugees introduced nighttime fishing with decoy lights.

Industrial Arts. Urban occupations include an extensive carpentry tradition; metalworking and boot making, once important, have decayed. Until about 1960, Rethimno was a major producer of soap, utilizing the large resources of olive oil from the rural hinterland. Today there is an extensive cottage industry in some (mostly mountain) villages producing woven goods for the tourist trade, and tourism is also the major source of income for the coastal towns and villages near archaeological sites.

Trade. Small all-purpose stores predominate in the Villages; in the towns, supermarkets are threatening their survival. Itinerant vendors, often Gypsies from the Greek mainland, provide cheap goods and also work as metalworkers and chair makers, but they are treated with contempt. The village woven goods, produced by women at home, are distributed to tourist markets by wholesalers from the home villages. Produce is distributed through Cooperatives and markets.

Division of Labor. There is a strong sense of sexual division. Men tend the flocks and engage in political life; women may work in the fields, but growing "embourgoisement" reduces this involvement in fieldwork and tends to close them up at home. Women do all domestic chores, including cooking (although men may roast meat on certain occasions). In the towns, women may take on domestic labor in the tourist sector. Both sexes tend shops, even the male-only coffeehouses.

Land Tenure. Cretans of both sexes inherit land from both parents in a system of equal, partible inheritance. Some lands belong to monasteries. Urban dwellers mostly own some ancestral village property, which they either tend themselves or work on a fifty-fifty sharecropping basis (simisako ) with local kin. Land tenure in the towns is largely through Recent purchase or inheritance, and renting of houses and apartments is common.


Kin Groups and Descent. Although Cretans formally adhere to the officially and ecclesiastically sanctioned kinship mode of the cognatic kindred, mountain village men emphasize segmentary, agnatic loyalties at times of crisis or during municipal (and sometimes parliamentary) elections. Households are nuclear in both town and country, sometimes with the addition of a widowed (grand) parent.

Kinship Terminology. Cretans commonly use the Standard Greek system, which is essentially the same as the English, except that the term for daughter's husband is the same as sister's husband but different than wife's brother, and the term for sister's husband is the same as brother's wife but different than husband's sister. Contrary to the Greek system, however, Cretans use separate group terms for agnatic loyalties. The terms kouniadhos (male) and kouniadha (female) are sometimes used as reciprocals in remoter villages for sister's husband and wife's brother and brother's wife and husband's sister as well as for cousins of any kind. This usage appears to be derived from a tendency to large-lineage endogamy (and, in the case of men, the solidarity of those who collaborate to raid others' flocks).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is monogamous, and divorce is strongly disapproved. In the villages, couples sleep together from the time of engagement, and they may await pregnancy before proceeding to the church ceremony. There is a strong preference for village and large-lineage endogamy, but this preference must be set against strict incest rules that formerly precluded marriage between third cousins (although the church's restriction extended only to second cousins). In the villages of western and central Crete, residence is in a house provided by the groom's father and furnished by the bride's family; in eastern Crete and in virtually all urban areas, Residence is uxorilocal. Couples usually assume independent Residence at marriage. Abduction and elopement remain common, especially in the rural areas.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is almost universally the residence unit throughout Crete.

Inheritance. Flock animals are mostly passed from father to sons. Land is divided equally among all children of both sexes, although daughters may receive an additional amount as dowry. Division of the parental property is often done by lot, usually at the death of the parent in question, except for dowry lands for daughters (who receive them at marriage). In the towns, the legal requirements of equal partible Inheritance may render small properties practically worthless, Especially when many of the coheirs have emigrated, and agreements to sell in order to divide the income are common in such cases. The youngest son often receives the parental house in the mountain villages of central and western Crete.

Socialization. Children are raised in the mountain villages to be aggressive and teasing and to defend their personal integrity against all comers. Sexual segregation is encouraged rather than enforced in the earliest school-going years. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends provide a demonstratively affectionate counterpoint to occasional displays of paternal strictness. Mild corporal punishment is Common, but unfulfilled threats are far more frequent.

Sociopolitical Organization

Crete is an integral part of the administrative structure of the Hellenic republic. The four prefectures (nomi ) are divided into districts (eparkhies ), in which communities (kinotites ) each comprise a single village with smaller residential units occasionally attached; larger units are called demes (dhimi ).

Social Organization. Household autonomy is strong. Patrigroups, at various levels, engage in feuding and raiding in the Milopotamos district. Patronage is endemic, with powerful political leaders protecting those who engage in such activities. An egalitarian social ethos does not prevent the emergence of extremely strong local patrigroups; in Sfalda (southwestern Crete), the sharp discrimination between upper (kalosiri ) and lower (kakosiri ) shepherds is based on wealth and social reputation. In the highland villages, most pastoralists affect to despise full-time agriculturalists as unmanly, although there is an increasing perception that sheepherding is a rough life that lacks the economic and social advantages of an educated existence. Civil-service jobs are much coveted. Urban merchants engage in patronage based on mutual advantage with village suppliers, but the encroachment of nonlocal entrepreneurs is gradually undercutting this system. A cosmopolitan urban "aristocracy" has largely yielded to new wealth from land speculation and tourism. Lower clergy often serve in their home villages. Cretan policemen, who comprise a high percentage of the Greek force, are largely drawn from the rural population but may not serve in their home communities.

Political Organization. The kinotites (communities) have some autonomy in day-to-day government, with elected mayors and councils. In an increasing proportion of villages, the voting follows national party lines, although agnatic loyalties remain fierce in the western and central mountain Communities and kinship, spiritual kinship, and neighborhood ties continue to influence choices elsewhere. Village councils are responsible for purely local road building and municipal improvement; other services, including major roads, electricity, water, and health and police services are furnished by the state, which is also responsible for tax collection and market regulation. The village priest often mediates in disputes; in general, mediation by intimates is preferred to police intervention. Law courts are located in district and prefecture capitals, and they often seem more concerned with drawing conflict away from its original locus and reaching an acceptable settlement than with precise attributions of guilt.

Social Control. Gossip is a powerful factor, reinforced by the power of envy symbolized by the evil eye. Public ridicule is rare but effective; the fear of feuding is also a strong deterrent.

Conflict. Many rural Cretan men carry knives and often also guns, but they avoid quarreling except where othersincluding womencan be expected to exercise restraint. Most quarrels arise from bride theft, animal raiding, politics, or insults against manhood, household, and patrigroup; married women may echo their husbands' quarrels among themselves. Feuding is endemic, and in extreme cases only a Marriage alliance can stop it. Men who do not avenge the slaying of close agnates are despised. The police usually attempt to intervene using the traditional idiom of reconciliation (sasmos ) wherever possible, in order to obtain longer-lasting (Because socially sanctioned) results.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Orthodox Christianity accounts for the overwhelming majority of religious affiliations. Religion and ethnicity are often identified, so that pre-1924 "Turks" were often Greek-speaking Muslims.

Religious Beliefs. Many Cretans are vociferously anticlerical, acknowledging the existence of a higher power but despising the (especially higher) clergy and accusing them of venality. Despite their skepticism, Cretans do seem to recognize a wide range of ambiguous supernaturals in official doctrine.

Religious Practitioners. The priests and a dwindling number of monastics of both sexes are recruited largely from the local population. Women are given custodial tasks around the church but are barred from the inner sanctum. Committees of local people oversee the daily management of church affairs. Nonecclesiastical rituals such as curing of evil eye and other ailments are conducted by informal local experts, who receive gifts rather than money for their services.

Ceremonies. In most rural and urban communities, the most important ceremonies are those of the Easter cycle and the local saint's day. Christmas and Epiphany are also Important, as are the commemorative ceremonies of the state; Independence Day (March 25) coincides with the Feast of the Annunciation.

Arts. Crete is famous for its music and dance, and for its woven goods. Some village artists and wood-carvers have achieved local fame. There is a lively tradition of informal assonant distich (mandinadha ) contests, to which improvisatory skills are central.

Medicine. Despite official opposition, local practitioners (praktiki ) continue to do bonesetting, and evil-eye curers seem concerned with primarily psychosomatic conditions.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals, although conducted by the priest, also give women in some villages the opportunity to express their grief through improvised keening verses (miroloya ). Memorial services are held at statutory increasing intervals after death, and they also may be accompanied by female keening. The death of an unmarried person is celebrated with wedding symbolism; the death of the old is often treated as "less serious." Interment is preceded by a wake. Despite Christian teaching, a vague notion of "Hades" (Adhis ) persists.


Allbaugh, Leland G. (1953). Crete: A Case Study of an Underdeveloped Area. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Burgel, Guy (1965). Fobia: Etude géographique d'un village crétois. Athens: Centre des Sciences Sociales d'Athènes.

Greger, Sonia (1988). Village on the Plateau: Magoulas A Mountain Village in Crete. Studley, Warwickshire: Brewin.

Herzfeld, Michael (1985). The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.