It’s obscene, cheeky and a little bit risqué. Stav Dimitropoulos encounters a Greek celebration in Athens that takes phallic festivals to a whole new level.
As I climb the stairs to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the stone theatre located southwest of the Acropolis, about 30 people – pagan celebrators – are putting the finishing touches on their tight-fitting costumes. Some are satyrs; others are dressed as Bacchides or in maenad costumes. Most are sporting Dionysian masks, some with pointy horns. Both men and women wear furry boots and wreaths of ivy, but it’s the male pagan outfits that come with a distinguishing addition – a leather phallus is tied around their pelvises. It’s a somewhat obscene look that enhances the sight of the colossal bright red and leatherbound phallic-shaped pole that stands before a cheeky figurehead of the Greek god Dionysus.
This is all part of Falliforia, a wild celebration thrown by the paganist communities of Athens to honour Dionysus, the half-man, half-goat god of wine, theatre, fertility, religious ecstasy and orgiastic joy. It’s a yearly festival held at the end of each winter that turns the historic centre of the city into an unhinged inferno.
“The phallus is not just the male part,” says Manthos, a pensive man with a grey mane of hair. He is a leading member of the Labrys religious community, the Greek polytheistic group behind Falliforia, a procession honouring freedom and rebellion, solidarity and joy, fertility and hedonic mania, and the Dionysian spirit.
“The phallus symbolises fertility, the vigour of life,” continues Manthos, who has been disguising himself as a satyr for every Falliforia festival since 2013. “This is where all carnivals started, even the Rio one,” he adds while a Bacchis butts in, holding a plate full of raisins. Apparently, these were the favourite snack of Dionysus, to whom ancient Greek mythology attributes the birth of the grapevine.
Falliforia literally means to carry a penis and is a religious celebration dating back 2500 years. In classical Greece, worshippers of the goat-footed god Pan wore masks, brandished torches and wooden sticks adorned with leather phalluses, danced like demons, and drank until they dropped to commemorate the triumph of spring over winter and the resurrection of nature.
The blood of the festival-goers is now boiling. Young maenads are banging drums and mature animal-print–wearing shepherds are playing their bagpipes. Dionysus worshippers gather, as do a potpourri of curious locals and tourists from all corners of the world.
“Hail, Bacchus,” the revellers chant, forming a tight circle around the master phallus while stomping their feet. Manthos, now arch-satyr, drops wine in front of the Dionysus xoanon (a wooden image of a Greek deity), and a man wearing a Bacchus mask burns incense. The procession commences through the historic city centre, with four men holding a rope stretcher the titanic phallus temporarily rests upon. First stop, the Acropolis Museum.
“Everything well?” asks a sassy satyr, putting his hands uninvited around my shoulders as I stand in front of the parade to take photos. Another satyr offers a posh-looking lady, who probably just happens by chance to be in the vicinity of the acclaimed museum with her husband, a wooden stick upon which a particular male organ hangs from the top. “No, thanks,” the lady nonchalantly answers, while the glasses-wearing husband tries to conceive what just happened. A few Bacchi chase two young girls, who scurry away, laughing, while a couple of Dionysians lightheartedly threaten a middle-age man idling on a bench at the foot of the Parthenon with penises made of plastic. Indecently teasing the passers-by is part of the ritual.
“It is not about obscenity,” says Vasilis, a polytheist assuming the identity of – you guessed it – a satyr. “It is the Dionysian mania and its scoptic character.”
For the next five hours or so, the nostalgia-riddled centre of Athens transforms into a demented yet luring asylum. Bystanders better get used to it.
In front of the Acropolis Museum, the porters of the master phallus carefully prop it up for worshippers to gather around. It’s time for the first Kordakas dance. Kordakas is an ancient Greek comedy dance believed to have first appeared in Greek playwright Aristophanes’ comedy, The Clouds, in 423BCE. The etymology of the word Kordakas stems from the Greek infinitive kordakizein, which means, sarcastically, to blow your own trumpet. As a dance, it is inherently provocative and salacious, but at the same time humorous, and is thought to be the predecessor of the famous tsifteteli dance, a rhythmic, lustful jig that has predominantly been associated with Anatolia and the Balkans.
Alongside the lewd jerk of the thighs, the Kordakas dance demands revellers must also sing the gamotragouda, a selection of Greek folk songs with intense sexual content that “survived Christian influence”, says Vasilis.
Falliforia merrymakers then weave their way through the cobblestone alleys of Plaka, commonly known as the Cyclades of Athens (the district of Gods), showering dumbstruck tourists with wine and fake penises. Onlookers respond with a barrage of smartphone photos. When the frenzied march reaches Avissinias Square, the focal point of the Baroque Monastiraki neighbourhood, the phallus being hauled on the backs of the masked rabble-rousers is erected once again, as the Kordakas dance and gamotragouda songs are performed with enough gusto to shake the spirits. The scene is surreal. Monastiraki is famous for its flea markets, but it’s also a hot spot of friction.
Situated in the heart of Athens, Monastiraki’s Avissinias Square is where everybody – the trendiest local hipsters going clubbing in the nearby Psyrri district, Latin street dancers basking in attention, international socialites craving a taste of Greek folk, recently displaced refugees and migrants from Muslim countries puzzling over the European way of life – meets. Imagine what happens when you mix all these with deranged satyrs in front of Panagia Pantanassa, a Byzantine church, one of the oldest in Athens and a landmark on Avissinias Square.
It’s now about 10pm, and the Falliforia parade heads back towards the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. This year the festival will conclude with a hymn expressing devotion to the gods – all 12 of them – and the removal of the Dionysian masks, which will be deposited under the nose of the Dionysus xoanon.
Kiki and Maria, two prepossessing Bacchides, hold on to their masks, stating
the festival fills them with joy. “I feel connected to nature, to my true self,” says Kiki, a petite and curly-haired woman, who works as a public servant by day. “It’s the reversal of identities,” adds Maria, who studies history and archaeology. They both agree the Dionysian mask does not hide but rather releases their true self, and they can’t stress this message enough.
“Falliforia is about fertility, the victory of spring over winter,” reiterates Patronios, a chubby man who has not missed the festival for 10 years. “It is about nature’s virality.” Patronios’s huge grin can both entertain and swallow you, and he may have drunk one too many glasses – a bottle, perhaps – of wine. But there is no residual guilt, because every reveller lived it up today. After all, their god Dionysus has blessed the rampage.
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Find out more about the historical sites and places to explore in Athens and beyond on the Greek National Tourism Organisation website: visitgreece.gr