Identification. The Sarakatsani are transhumant sheep- and goatherders of continental Greece. Their non-Sarakatsani neighbors refer to them as "Vlachs," a reference to their seasonal migrations in search of pasturage for their flocks. This term is, however, misleading, for it suggests a cultural or linguistic relationship with the Kousovlachs and Albanian Vlachs, ethnic minorities who speak an entirely different language than the Greek dialect used by the Sarakatsani.
Location. Sarakatsani live in the Pindus massif and the southern fringes of the Rhodope mountain range of Northwestern continental Greece. They are found in greatest numbers in the provinces of Epirus, Thessaly, Macedonia, and Thrace. The demands of their sheepherding life-style require them to spend half the year (May to November) high in the mountains, until the winter snows set in and they have to seek the more benign climate of the coastal plains on which to graze their flocks.
Demography. Census data do not specify figures for the Sarakatsani as a discrete group; firm population figures are not available. In the late 1950s their number was estimated to be somewhere in the vicinity of 80,000 throughout Greece.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Sarakatsani speak a local dialect of Greek.
History and Cultural Relations
Linguistic, cultural, and historical evidence indicates that the Sarakatsani descend from pre-Classical pastoralists Indigenous to the region in which they are found today. However, this evidence is by no means conclusive. There is a dearth of references to any peoples called Sarakatsani in any chronicles, even up to the eighteenth century. Scholarly interest in the Sarakatsani only arose around the time of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). Competition for the territory on which they grazed their sheep was played out by larger political interests: the Turks and Greeks have long vied for control over the region, and the Ottomans only ceded the last portion of the territory to Greece in 1913. Throughout these struggles Between the larger political units, the Sarakatsani maintained their identity as Christians and preserved their pastoral lifestyle, although not without a few concessions to the administrative demands of the national units under which they lived. Since the early part of this century, the Sarakatsani have been subject to Greek administration, which has had both positive and negative effects upon their way of life.
Traditional Sarakatsani settlements were located on or near their leased grazing lands both during summers and winters. Dwellings were of two types, with the most characteristic being a domed hut, framed of branches and covered with thatch. The second type was a wood-beamed, thatched, rectangular structure. In both types, the centerpiece of the dwelling was a stone hearth. The floors and walls were plastered with mud and mule dung. Since the late 1930s, national requirements for the registration of citizens has led many if not most Sarakatsani to adopt as legal residence the villages associated with summer grazing lands, and many Sarakatsani have since bought houses in such villages. During the winter, However, their settlement patterns still follow the more traditional configuration: a group of cooperating households, generally linked by ties of kinship or marriage, build their houses in a cluster on flat land close to the leased pasturage, with supporting structures (for the cheese merchant and cheese maker) nearby. Pens for goats and folds for newborn lambs and nursing ewes are built close to the settlement. This complex is called the stani, a term also used to refer to the cooperative group sharing the leased land.
Sarakatsani life centers year-round on the needs of their flocks. The demands of this pastoralist economy vary with the seasons, with winter being by far the most arduous and time-consuming because lambing occurs then. The protection and general care of the flocks, shearing, and milking are done by the men and boys. The women are responsible for building the dwellings, sheepfolds, and goat pens for the care of newborn lambs and kids, for child care and the domestic tasks of cooking and sewing, as well as for preparing, spinning, and dying the shorn wool. In addition, women try to keep chickens, the eggs of which provide them with their only personal source of income. That income is used to purchase dyes in the village. In summer villages, women keep household vegetable gardens, and in winter women and girls gather wild vegetables and herbs to supplement the family diet. The pasturage used by a stani is leased, with the head of each participating family paying a share at the end of each season to the stani leader (tselingas ), in whose name the lease was originally taken.
The Sarakatsani kindred is a bilaterally reckoned extension of the conjugal family: the descendants of a man's maternal and paternal grandparents provide the field from which his recognized kin are drawn. There is, however, a strong patrilineal bias, and when reckoning descent—as opposed to determining contemporary family relationships—lineage membership is calculated along the paternal line alone. Contemporary kin relationships are not counted beyond the degree of the Second cousin. Within the kindred, the family constitutes the significant unit and is, unlike the larger network of personal relations of the kindred, a corporate group.
Marriage. Sarakatsani marriages are arranged, with the initiative in such arrangements taken by the family of the prospective husband in consultation with members of the kindred. There can be no marriage between two members of the same kindred. The bride must bring with her into the marriage a dowry of household furnishings, clothing, and, more recently, sheep or their cash equivalent. The husband's contribution to the wealth of the new household is his share in the flocks held by his father, but these remain held in Common by his paternal joint household until some years after his marriage. The newly established couple initially takes up Residence near the husband's family of origin. Divorce is unknown and remarriage after widowhood is unthinkable.
Domestic Unit. The extended family has at its core a conjugal pair, and includes their unmarried offspring, and, often, their young married sons and their wives.
Inheritance. Inheritance, considered as the disposition of an individual's property and wealth at the time of his or her death, is largely through males: sons inherit a share of the flocks and property owned by their fathers and mothers. However, household goods may pass to daughters, and prestige—or lack thereof—of the family is visited on all surviving offspring, regardless of gender.
Socialization. When children are very young, child care is the province of the mother. When boys are old enough to help with the flocks, they accompany their fathers and are taught the skills they will someday need. Similarily, girls learn through observing and assisting their mothers.
Social Organization. The Sarakatsani kindred constitutes a network of shared obligations and, to a degree, cooperation in situations concerning the honor of its members. Within the summer villages they are conscious, as well, of their opposition to non-Sarakatsani neighbors. However, the organizational unit of most profound importance is that smaller collection of kin and affines that constitutes the stani, for survival depends upon the members of this group. Care of the flocks requires, minimally, the cooperative efforts of five or so active, adult men.
Political Organization. The Sarakatsani do not constitute an independent political unit within the larger Greek polity, nor even within the local village. Dealings with authorities, whether local or national, tend to be conducted in terms of patronage, which is sought, and extended, to individual families.
Social Control and Conflict. The concept of "honor" is of great importance to the Sarakatsani. The behavior of any member of a family reflects back upon all its members. Therefore, the avoidance of negative public opinion, particularly as expressed in gossip, provides a strong incentive to live up to the values and standards of propriety held by the community as a whole. Men have as their duty the protection of the family's honor, and are therefore watchful of the behavior of the rest of the household. In the wider field of village and national interests, the Sarakatsani are subject to local statutes and Greek law.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Sarakatsani are Christian and associated with the Greek Orthodox Church. However, their participation in the institutional forms of the church is not particularly marked. Although not particularly concerned with formal participation, Sarakatsani believe strongly in the concepts of God the Father, Christ, and the Virgin Mary. God is seen in strongly paternalistic terms, as protector and provider, as judge and as punisher of evil deeds. Folk beliefs in such things as the "evil eye," and in a complex of Panhellenic spirits, are interwoven with Christian beliefs. On the whole, religious life centers upon the family rather than the church, except for the observance of specific feast days in the liturgical calendar. Each hut shelters an icon or icons upon which family devotions focus.
Religious Practitioners. The family is thought to be a reflection of the relationship expressed among God, the Virgin, and Christ. The father, as family head, is thus responsible for the spiritual life of the family. The Sarakatsani do not have formally recognized religious practitioners, and each Household constitutes an autonomous religious community. There is a belief in the efficacy of magic (e.g., in the casting or warding off of the evil eye). Again, however, there are no formally recognized magical specialists among the Sarakatsani.
Ceremonies. The Sarakatsani honor the feast days of Saint George and Saint Demetrius, which fall just before the seasonal migrations in spring and early winter, respectively. For Saint George's feast day, a family kills a lamb in the saint's honor, a ritual that also marks Christmas and the Feast of the Assumption. Easter week is the most important ritual period in Sarakatsani religious life. Other ceremonial events, outside the formal Christian calendar, are weddings and funerals.
Arts. Sarakatsani folk art consists of song, dance, poetry, and some decorative sculpture in wood, as well as elaborate embroidery such as that which adorns their traditional costume. Principal motives used in sculpture and embroidery are geometrical shapes and human and plant representations.
Medicine. The Sarakatsani employ a number of folk Remedies that make use of herbs, honey, lamb's blood, or a combination thereof.
Death and Afterlife. Funerals are ritual occasions that involve not only the immediate family of the deceased but also the members of the larger kindred. Funerary practice is consistent with that of the church. Mourning is most marked among the women, and most of all by the widow. Beliefs in the afterlife are conditioned by the teachings of the church, though flavored to some degree by traditions deriving from pre-Christian folk religion.
Campbell, J. K. (1964). Honour, Family, and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Kabbadias, Georgios B. (1965). Nomadic Shepherds of the Mediterranean: The Sarakatsani of Greece. Translated by Frieda Shütze. Paris: Gauthier-Villars.
NANCY E. GRATTON
"Sarakatsani." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sarakatsani
"Sarakatsani." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved February 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sarakatsani
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