views updated May 29 2018


ETHNONYMS: Eftanissiotes, Ioniennes


Identification and Location. The Ionian Islands lie off the western coast of Greece in the Ionian Sea, a northern branch of the Mediterranean. The group of islands has been referred to variously as the Septinsular Republic, the Eftanissa or Eptanissa, or the Seven Islands, reflecting the number of large islands in the group. Smaller inhabited islets bring the total number of islands to twenty-four. The main islands are Corfu (Kerkyra), Cephalonia (Kefallinia, Kefalonia), Ithaca (Ithaki), Lefkas (Lefkada), Paxos (Paxi), Zante (Zakinthos), and Kithira. Kithira, while geographically separate at some distance to the south, is culturally similar and shares most of its history with the rest of the islands. Following tradition, Kithira is thus included in the group. Spreading north to south, the islands are actually the tips of a submerged limestone mountain range. The soil is often thin and rocky; Exceptions to this include the Lixouri Peninsula of Cephalonia, the broad plain of Zante, and portions of Corfu. The islands receive 90 to 115 centimeters of torrential rains from November through February; the temperature seldom falls below 4.4° C. The hot, dry summer days reach temperatures above 32° C, and there is little precipitation from May through September.

Demography. The population of the islands is estimated at 120,000. An influx of tourists in the summer doubles or trebles the population in some areas. In areas where many men are employed in the merchant marine, the actual resident population is perhaps 80 percent of the numbers Reported in the census. Heavy emigration has resulted in a population pyramid that is both age- and sex-skewed, with a relatively greater proportion of women and elderly.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Ionians speak a variant of the Greek language that reflects Italian influence in vocabulary and intonation. Greek is an ancient branch of the Indo-European Language Family.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence indicates habitation of Corfu as early as 70,000 b.c. Historical mention of the islands begins with Homer; Mycenean colonization of the region took place in the thirteenth century b.c. In the late eighth century b.c., the Corinthians colonized Corfu. The Romans made Corfu a Roman protectorate in 229 b.c., the first Roman possession in Greece. Within forty years, the other major islands in the Ionian group fell to Rome. In a.d. 330, when the Roman Capital was shifted to Constantinople (Istanbul), Byzantine rule began. Like other parts of the disintegrating Roman Empire, the Ionian Islands were the site of major political and social upheavals for the next 900 years; wars and invasions were common. Urbanization was spurred by developing industry and commerce and by foreign invasions as people sought protection within city walls. Venetian expansionism and desire for control of Oriental trade led to the fall of Constantinople in 1204, as Venice persuaded the Crusaders to call first at Constantinople before proceeding to the Holy Land. The Ionian Islands became Venetian possessions; at this time the history of the islands became quite distinct from the rest of Greece, which eventually fell under Turkish rule. Feudalism developed and crystallized during the Venetian period as land and power were concentrated in the hands of Italian and Greek-Italian nobles. Commercialization of agriculture also took place during this period. Particularly affected were Cephalonia and Zakinthos, where the introduction of the profitable currant crop brought sudden wealth to the islands' large landholders. Vigorous export trade spurred the development of a middle class of merchants and skilled artisans. The peasantry, however, remained in poverty and suffered greatly when the market for currants declined periodically. At the end of Venetian rule, the islands passed through the hands of the Russians and the French before British rule began in 1815. Important roads and bridges opening up the rural hinterlands were built during this time. As the British penchant for social order and equality took over, the feudal structure began to disintegrate. By the middle of the nineteenth Century, a disillusioned nobility was emigrating, and Longstanding clamors for union with the recently formed modern nation of Greece increased. In 1864, Great Britain ceded the islands to Greece. The modern period has been characterized by heavy emigration and expanding tourism. When the Greek economy collapsed with the fall in currant prices at the turn of the twentieth century, opportunities in industrializing America expanded at roughly the same time, and many Ionians were affected. By the second half of this century, Ionians were scattered around the globe, with sizable communities in Australia, Germany, Canada, Zambia, England, and the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, European and American tourism to the Ionian Islands escalated, bringing needed jobs and cash to the local economies. Corfu has been a center for elite Greek tourism for some time, but as the number of foreign tourists has increased, many Greek tourists have begun to travel to the southern islands as well. The local communities swell in size with the influx of tourists and the seasonal return of migrants.


Villages dot the mountainous countryside, with larger settlements as ports and/or marketing and administrative centers. Homes and shops cluster around one or more main village squares or plateia. Numerous earthquakes plague the Ionians; in some areas, over 90 percent of the homes and other buildings have been destroyed by quakes in this century. Private homes are generally surrounded by a wall; the yards often overflow with flowers and herbs. In some rural areas, animals such as goats, sheep, chickens, and donkeys are kept in Structures attached to the home.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities; Industrial Arts. In the early 1900s, over 56 percent of the Ionian population was regularly engaged in full-time agriculture; the figure now is estimated at between 10 and 15 percent. Income is likely to be supplemented by migrant remittances and/or short-term employment in construction or seasonal agricultural labor. Agricultural production focuses on olive oil, wine grapes, and wheat. Bees are kept, and honey is produced and sold. Isolated pockets of currant cultivation are still found, particularly on Zante. Cephalonia has been known for centuries as an island of sailors, navigators, and captains, and as many as 70 percent of the men in some villages on that island and on Ithaca are or have been employed in the merchant marine. Migrant remittances and revenue generated through the sale of goods and services to tourists and emigrants returning to the islands during Christmas, Easter, and in the summer stimulate and maintain the local middle class of entrepreneurs. Rapidly increasing tourism has brought relative prosperity to the islands and has begun recently to stem the tide of emigration. Tourist shops proliferate, as do bars, discotheques, restaurants, and hotels in the larger urban areas. Many migrants returning to the islands for the summer open businesses or drive taxis during these months. Cottage industry for the production of local arts and crafts exists as well.

Trade. Small specialty shops with limited types of merchandise predominate in both urban and rural areas; stores carrying like products tend to cluster together. The past glories of the currant trade have vanished, and the Ionians now export human labor as a primary product.

Division of Labor. The male/female dichotomy is particularly evident. The women are associated with production in and around the home, while the men labor in the fields, on ships, or in shops. Increasingly, women are left in charge of family stores while the men of the household seek employment or conduct personal business elsewhere.

Land Tenure. Since Napoleonic times, partible Inheritance has been both the ideal and real practice in the Ionian Islands. As the population grew, increasing fragmentation of land plots plagued the islands; the situation has been reversed in modern times through depopulation. While legal records still show numerous owners of small, dispersed plots, actual access to land for those actively engaged in agriculture is greatly facilitated through leases from owners who have emigrated and no longer desire or require the use of agricultural land. Historically, large landowners held sizable fiefs throughout the islands; numerous land redistributions in the twentieth century have made small peasant landholdings more typical.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship, Marriage, and Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the most common social unit among Ionians today, although vertically extended families composed of an elderly couple and one child with his/her family are also found. Horizontal extended or joint families of married brothers with spouses and children are the ideal following the death of both parents, but in reality they are rare. In the twentieth century, residence has changed from a pattern predominated by patrilocality to mixed patrilocal and matrilocal households or neighborhoods, with some neolocality as well. The modern inclusion of a home, apartment, or addition to a home in daughters' dowries has led to the increase in matrilocality, as families build on their own or adjacent properties to provide this element of their daughters' inheritances. Bilateral kindreds are seen at personal and village celebrations. One of the most obvious facets of the nuclear family today is the absence of one or more principal members through migration; some villages have a high percentage of elderly couples who have no children in the village. The kin terminology is Eskimo, like that in the United States; terms in some areas reflect Italian influence. In the past, marriages were arranged by parents; the practice is still common today. An intermediary's advice is often sought; such an individual is expected to have full knowledge of available unmarried individuals, including familial background, familial and personal reputation, and any potential flaws in character. Success at migration is an Important characteristic contributing to the relative desirability of a potential spouse. It is increasingly common for individuals to be involved in love matches and to make their own marriage arrangements. Such romances often begin in Athens or elsewhere outside the islands. As a result, an earlier pattern of Regional endogamy is changing. Divorce is still rare but has become more common with the introduction of legal civil marriages and divorces in 1980. Divorce is frowned upon, however, and divorced women are unlikely to remarry. Women who have been partners in broken engagements experience similar difficulty in finding a husband. These situations increase the likelihood of a woman's migrating to a city where her past experiences are unknown.

Inheritance. A child's equal portion of the inheritance may take the form of funds for migration or higher education as an alternative to the traditional land and household property. Women receive at least a portion of their inheritance at marriage in the form of a dowry. Household furnishings and land were traditional dowry elements; modern changes include a home or attached rooms and cash. Land is less likely to be included, unless it is located in an area that can be developed for tourism. The division of the inheritance generally takes place at the death of parents.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Sex roles are clearly differentiated among Ionians. Women are associated with the private sphere of the home; men circulate in the public arena. Male presentation of self involves a stance of dominance over women and a love of honor or philotimo, which includes a willingness to defend familial reputation. Sexual prowess and ability to provide economically for the family are also emphasized. Women wield significant power within the nuclear Family; ties between mothers and children are very close. Traditional strict separation of unmarried men and women is giving way in the face of increasing tourism and the spread of urban values to rural areas through returning migrants. Decision making is undertaken by the family as a whole.

Political Organization. Ionians are actively interested in local and national politics; debate on political issues is Common among men in particular. Townspeople elect public Officials, including a mayor and town committee, to direct affairs. The positions carry prestige but can be difficult in a politically fractious community. Greece is divided administratively into nomes, which are further separated into eparchies. Lefkas and Zante are nomes; the nome of Cephalonia includes Ithaca as an eparchy. Kithira is now attached to a non-Ionian nome, and the eparchy of Paxos is part of the nome of Corfu. Migrant associations have formed in urban areas in Greece; they have become important and influential political groups in Ionian life.

Social Control. Gossip is the common means of social control; any activity in small communities is easily observed and closely monitored. An individual's and family's reputations are constantly scrutinized and subject to public discourse. The behavior of the women in the family is a common topic of local gossip, as are the economic abilities of the males.

Conflict. A man must be willing and ready to defend the honor of his family; arguments and overt fights occur frequently, and political brinkmanship reigns. A circular court system brings judges to central towns regularly; the most Common disputes involve landed property.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Despite centuries of Catholic rulers, Eastern Orthodoxy remains the primary faith; a number of Catholic churches are found in the urban areas. Also reflecting the Italian influence is the emphasis on processions associated with local saints. Most notable are the celebrations for Saint Spiros on Corfu and Saint Gerasimos on Cephalonia. Personal attachment to individual or local patron saints is a part of the Little Tradition. Village celebrations or panayiria are occasions for marked communitas and the return of migrants. Christmas, the festivities for the Virgin Mary on 15 August, and Easter Week draw returning Migrants as well. A declining belief in the evil eye is found among the elderly in particular, who believe it to cause illness, impotence, sterility, and death. Women and children attend church more frequently than men.

Arts. Traditional music and dance among Ionians reflect the Italian heritage through couples' dances and unusual rhythms; Western influence in modern music and dance is readily apparent in local discotheques. Artisans flourished in the Ionian Islands during the Venetian and British periods, and the architecture in urban areas is visibly Italianate. Clothing has shown European influence among the upper classes since the 1600s.

Medicine. The Ionians have long emphasized education, and students commonly specialize in law or medicine. Access to medical care is facilitated by a national program that installs doctors in small villages throughout the country. An emphasis among the elderly on medical care involving such practices as leeching, cupping, and bleeding is fading.

Death and Afterlife. Women are largely responsible for the care of the dead. Disinterment and placement of the bones in an ossuary is not as common in the Ionian Islands as it is elsewhere in Greece, where a shortage of land exists. It is typical to have a single family burial plot and to bury the dead without embalming and in simple wood coffins. Over time, the bones of the family mix together.


Ansted, D. T. (1863). The Ionian Islands in the Year 1863. London: W. H. Allen.

Costa, Janeen Arnold (1988). "The History of Migration and Political Economy in Rural Greece: A Case Study." Journal of Modern Greek Studies 6:159-185.

Costa, Janeen Arnold (1988). "Systems Integration and Attitudes toward Greek Rural Life: A Case Study." Anthropological Quarterly 61:73-90.

Jervis, Captain Whyte (1863). The Ionian Islands during the Present Century. London: Chapman & Hall.

Kirkwall, Viscount (1864). Four Years in the Ionian Their Political and Social Condition. 2 vols. London: Chapman & Hall.

Young, Martin (1973). Corfu and the Other Ionian Islands. London: Jonathan Cape.



views updated May 29 2018

Ionians In ancient Greece, inhabitants of Attica, Boeotia, and Ionia. They spoke a dialect distinct from that of the Dorians and Aeolians. The hostility between Ionians and Dorians, neither regarding the other as fully Greek, appears in the contest between Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars. The term is also applied to the inhabitants of Ionia alone.