In the northeastern Greek town of Didymoteicho (just two kilometres away from the Greek-Turkish border), December 27 is the day of Purpuris—a character who visits the houses of neighboring villagers, dances around their yards, wishes prosperity and fertility for the year ahead. The house owners must treat him with food and drinks, specially Tsipouro, a pomace brandy.
Athens-based photographer Michael Pappas travelled all the way to the administrative region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace to meet Purpuris, a funny and frightening masked and bearded figure that seemed to me part-Santa Claus, part-Billy the Puppet of the Saw horror movie franchise.
Michael—born in 1980 in Kirinthos village, Euboea island and educated at the Academy of Leica, Athens—is dedicated to exploring local Greek customs and events. These could be weddings, christenings, litanies, processions, firewalking, Easter celebrations, feasts of the Holy Spirit and a variety of saints, boar sacrifices, national days, the plight of gypsies and refugees. Michael’s portfolio reflects the complexity and richness of modern Greek culture, displaying a mix of rituals that may be Orthodox, Shiite, pagan or syncretistic in origin. Purpuris is something of a “Dionysian” practice that is blended with the festivities of the Christmas season. In the shots presented by the photographer, we find a small community coming together in a cold, grey-brown landscape that is animated by bright red, yellow and green fabrics. A genuinely joyful theatre is executed amid a simple life of limited resources. A spirit of gratitude and unity, a positive outlook despite one’s hardships is easily evident.
Many Thracian traditions are not widely known in the rest of Greece, and Michael thought in Didymoteicho he might be able to capture images of things that a local might overlook. “I am always intrigued by places that at least sound remote,” he writes. “If you are travelling by car, the trip to Didymoteicho is rather long. It takes three and a half hours to reach there from Thessaloniki. When I visited the place with a companion, I found shelter in a guest house owned by the local municipality, which is a renovated old house of the city. It was really nice and cosy.
“The custom took place in the nearby village of Isaakio, only two kilometers from the city. Luckily, we went to a tavern to have lunch in Didymoteicho and overheard two men talking about the custom. We conversed with them and one of them, Apostolos, was the president of the Isaakio cultural club, the organising party of the custom. This was very useful as we learned a lot.
“Early in the morning we arrived in the village and the weather was very cold. We looked for shelter and found the local café. At first sight we thought it was closed but on our second round by car, we saw a couple of people inside. We stopped the car and went inside. A big wooden stove was sitting in the middle and the place had the sweet warmth of burning wood. We had coffee and chatted with a local, Christos, about the custom.”
Michael learnt that Isaakio and related villages had been originally established by refugees coming from Turkey across the river Evros, following the Lausanne Treaty in 1923. They had chosen this place so they would be able to see their old houses across the river. They brought their customs with them, one of them being Purpuris.
The photographer continues: “Purpuris would get dressed inside the local cultural club, whereas the dancers would dress up in Didymoteicho. Purpuris has to wear a mask at all times and never show his face. This mask is made of a pumpkin. Its original purpose was to hide the faces of the guerrilla soldiers who wanted to visit their families during the fight for independence. They would dress up like that, pretending to serve the custom, and they were able to come and visit their loved ones.”
After everybody is ready, the music starts and the parade arrives at the village church to get the blessing of the local priest. By late afternoon, after the houses have been visited, the custom ends with a dance in the church’s square that continues till the night. There are two people dressed up as Purpuris. In the old days, there used to be five of them as the village was formed by five different groups. Each one of them would have their own Purpuris.
“This custom was stopped for a long period of time and has started again only a few years ago,” Michael adds. “The revival has made the old people very happy. I enjoyed the day. It was great, and has made me curious. I would love to know more about the customs of the Evros area held throughout the whole year. I am sure I will be back there very soon and explore other local peculiarities.”
Check out more of Michael Pappas’ projects in the links below. He has worked for organisations like Loumidis (Greek coffee), Goethe-Institut Athen, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) and Trioo Οptical Eyewear from Paris. Some of the publications in which he has been featured are National Geographic, VICE and the International Street Photographer Magazine. In 2011, his set of colour photographs entitled “Peace is: Human Diversity” was awarded at the 3rd International Photo Contest. In 2012, he was a winner of the People & Planet International Photo Competition.
Images used with permission.