Every year, in Tyrnavos, a small town in the centre of Greece, a tradition is revived, which comes from the ancient Dionysian rituals, the “Bourani” or the phallus festival! Thousands of visitors from all over Greece but also from abroad come to participate to the Tyrnavos Carnival, one of the most important in central Greece, but especially to the unique Bourani celebration.
The festival takes place in the beginning of spring, on the first day of the Easter fast, “Kathara Deftera” (Clean Monday) and immediately after the end of the carnival period. However, apart from this aspect, the celebration includes no other Christian elements, but rather some which originate from ancient pagan rituals and mysteries, which celebrated the fertility of the earth and the revival of nature. The town becomes full of phalluses of various sizes and shapes and the townsfolk pour into the streets, wearing masks and various phallic symbols as well as holding oversized wooden or clay phalluses, teasing passers-by with various gestures and obscene language. Moreover, the “victims” must kiss the phallus to escape. These “initiated” will then have their faces smeared with charcoal as a sign that they went through this challenge.
If you think you have just read the word phallus too many times, hold on tight, because the phallus is the centrepiece of this celebration and throughout its duration you will encounter various phallic representations at every turn. Phallus statues of immense sizes are placed in crossroads, on the traders’ stalls there are lollypops in the shape of a penis, phallus-shaped bottles filled with the famous Tsipouro Tyrnavos (a strong distilled spirit produced made from pomace) or with wine, ribbons decorated with two phallus horns, candles, sweets and other items, all being sold in the shape of this fertility symbol.
Well, everything starts the day before, on Sunday, with the preparation of the Bourani porridge, from which gave this famous holiday derives its name. Bourani is a Turkish word which refers to a dish made of spinach with rice or cabbage with rice. In Tyrnavos, bourani is prepared from nettles, spinach, flour, a little vinegar as well as other edible greens growing in the yards of the locals, but no oil is used at all. Courtesy of the Gaitanaki Bourani Tyrnavos Association, which organizes the whole event, we were lucky enough to take part in the preparation of this green porridge, which is a special ritual in itself.
Men are the ones who prepare this porridge, in a large cauldron placed on a fire made in the open air, in the yard. Previously, all the greeneries that make up its ingredients must have been cleaned and washed by women, a procedure which takes more than 10 hours. The porridge is boiled and stirred continuously for at least 5 hours. During all this time the “cooks” take turns in mixing the porridge. The next in line may have the surprise of getting a wooden phallus between his legs and then of being lifted several times in the air and subjected to various “word of wisdom” and teasing by the other participants.
Cheerfulness dominates the entire ritual, during which the people drink a lot of tsipouro and wine, listen to folk music, and grill meat. Sexual teasing is ongoing and no one is excused, whether public figures or mere visitors, males or females. There is also some sort of a bard tasked to create new comic poems-hymns with obscene lines, to be used the next day, during the celebration. Once prepared, the porridge will be served free of charge the following day, to all willing spectators who will participate the next day to the event organized by the association. Even though everything looks like a party before entering the difficult period of the Easter fast, nevertheless all the elements of this celebration have a special meaning. The free offering of porridge made of greenery has the role of a communion, bringing together all the participants in the celebration.
The next day, the members of the association disguise themselves, wearing bells and holding the wooden phalluses as sceptres and climb to the Monastery of the Prophet Elijah, located on a hill in the north of the city. There, on a small plateau, the main Bourani show takes place. In the middle of the plateau the so-called “gaitanaki” is placed, a pole from the top of which hang 12 ribbons of various colours. These will be held by twelve dancers representing the twelve months of the year. As they dance around the pole, the ribbons will intertwine and untangle, creating various colour combinations. The rotation around the pole and the movements of the ribbons represent the cycle of life and the transitions from winter to spring, from the death of nature to life, from sorrow to happiness.
Apart from the gaitanaki, various phallus toys are also placed on the plateau, such as a phallus horse, which spectators are invited to ride, and of course, the Bourani porridge cauldron. A folk music orchestra accompanies the entire event with traditional music. The bard also does his duty during the breaks between dances, by reciting the obscene poems and songs prepared so diligently before the event or by teasing the spectators who are invited to mix in the cauldron but also the officials present. However, no one may get upset, on the contrary, they are encouraged to respond in kind, the fun continuing until late in the afternoon.
Obviously there is no shortage of food, sweets and drinks of all kinds, but above all of fun and cheerfulness. One main character is the so-called Kamvoukas, who has the role of a “policeman”, spurring the Burandists to participate more enthusiastically in the dances and the feast, and making sure the laziest do not get away unpunished, by applying them a correction over their bottoms with a wooden instrument which looks like a clamp. Then everyone descends to the central square of Tyrnavos which is flooded with people of all ages, continuing to have fun with music and dancing. The teasing and obscene expressions continue there as well.
The beginnings of this tradition can be found in the great festivals of ancient Greece, such as those of the god Dionysus. The phallus was a symbol of the rebirth of nature, of the fruitfulness and fertility of the earth, of animals and people, and for this reason it played a leading role in all these rituals. In Tyrnavos, people lived from ancient times from the fruit of the earth and from animal husbandry, and thus these millennial traditions have been passed down from generation to generation to the present day.
Should you want to participate in this unique event, you will have to book your accommodation in advance because on the days of Carnival and Bourani, Tyrnavos and Larisa, the neighboring city, are flooded with tourists from all over the world.
Special thanks to:
Hotel Metropol 3* located in the centre of Larisa, close to all tourist attractions, which also has underground parking.
Grecotel Larissa Imperial 5*, an exceptional hotel located outside the centre of Larisa, offering true luxury accommodation
The Mandelas Tours travel agency which provided us with transport services during our stay.
The Greek National Tourism Organization – Romania Office and especially its director, Georgios Stafylakis, who made this trip possible.
My travel companion for this event, Eddie Tone, the owner of the travel site tuktuk.ro.