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 A short history of the social life on Skyros


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The town of St. George stands within a few miles of the NE extremity of the island, and covers the northern and
Western sides of a high and rocky peak (605 feet above the sea), which to the eastward falls steeply to the beach. The plain to the NW is grown with corn, vines, and figs, and is refreshed by a small perennial stream, watering many gardens as well in the plain as a little valley above it, where the oaks and planes, the walnut and other fruit-trees, which shade the bank of the stream, give this little district an appearance very different from that of the dry and naked Cyclades. It may 
be added that, in comparison with them, this island, in point of scenery and capability, is a Paradise.
Graves Thomas, 1849, The Isle of Skyros, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 19. , pp. 152-160.


In the North of the Aegean close to islands of Alonissos, Skiathos and Skopelos is situated the island of Skyros.[1] Skyros is almost 209 square kilometers while the population of the island is estimated to 2602 residents.[2] There are several mountains on the island as well as a big forest of pine trees. There are valleys used for agriculture and rocky landscapes where sheep and goat herding takes place. The island is actually divided in two different types of landscape. The northern part of the island is more fertile and less mountainous and the southern part full of mountains with relatively dry and rocky land.  

     According to the descriptions of West European travelers, Skyros was dominated by a religious sentiment and by the monastery of Saint George (Antoniadis 1990). Such views though were highly exotisizing and misleading because they were not based on systematic observation and research. The monastery was founded in 964 by the Byzantine emperor Fokas and became gradually the center of religious practice. The property of the monastery grew significantly and at different periods could be estimated between forty to fifty percent of the land of the island. As time went by and more specifically within the twentieth century the property of the monastery decreased dramatically for various constitutional and real estate factors. For more than five hundred years the land of Skyros was mainly property of the monastery and of the elite known as arhontes. The monastery and the noblemen would rent their land to the rest of the Skyrians such as shepherds and farmers and receive in return products and money. As a result the political and religious elite was able to keep their status and become wealthier without coming into conflict with the rest of the social strata who followed with religious devotion the rules of conduct.

 

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The social differentiation on Skyros was evident until recently with a hierarchical social stratification which was expressed with the local terms of arhontes (noblemen), tis agoras (men of the market) kotsinogonati (shepeherds), agrotes (farmers), xsipoliti (fishermen) and kohiliani (labourers). Each occupational group had a distinct identity which was expressed in clothing, residence and symbolic capital. The reckoning of bilateral descent in combination with a relatively flexible endogamic rule resulted in the reproduction of this hierarchical social stratification, which remained part of the social life of Skyros for hundreds of years (De Sikke 1978, Zarkia 1996).   Following the formation of the Greek state in 1828, Skyros became part of the national political organization. The governor of Greece appointed a commissioner for the island who tried to organize the political life according to the principles of the new state. The old political system of dimogerontia was gradually replaced by a state authority that resulted to a general decline of the elite structures of the island.

 

        The political power of a ruling group was evident through the political bodies that were constituted already from the sixteenth century. The noblemen called arhontes appear on a written source for the first time in 1515 (Zarkia 1991: 33). The noblemen were the only ones who could read and write, they were the first to wear western style clothes and their consumption habits were very distinctive.[3] Women heavily decorated their houses in a matter of display with expensive porcelains and silver pieces from all over Europe and Mediterranean, a custom that was later copied by the rest of the Skyrians. The distinction of the noblemen was also expressed in the prikosimfona (dowry agreements). The aloni was given from the mother to the daughter as part of dowry and still today constitutes symbolic and material capital in the form of antique European porcelains, plates, pottery and embroideries[4]. In addition houses and pieces of land were the regular gifts by the family of the bride. The groom was able to use the dowry but it was never totally his own property, which can be understood as a result of the matrilocal bilateral kinship system of the island. In many cases there was the condition that everything would be returned to the daughter in case of divorce or separation of the married couple. An example of a dowry agreement which dates back in 1616 is stating:

 

        “we give to Kali our daughter: first the mercy of God, and then God gives through us a house in the area of kastro […], another two houses […], one is given this day and the other one after my death […], the field in the area of nifiri, the fig trees close to the sea shore,   the field next to the field of Christ in ninon, the vineyard in kambos […], another vineyard in misokambia […], another vineyard in mavrounas […], all our bees and the rents from our farms in the areas of trahi, kalamia, psahra, sikamini, tremoutzi, lakkous, lole, bera kambo, hilidonia, aspous, paraskinia, ahili, kolithrous […]. And from our house four blankets, two made of silk and two imported bed sheet, ten pillows, […], large and small towels, […], two wooden bins, […], a pan, a wine container, half the louni (aloni) of the house […], completed dowry agreement in November of the year 1616” (Antoniadis 1990: 36, document 17).                  

 

The noblemen owned most of the land on the island, the best areas for pasturage, the farms, the oil tree fields and the vineyards. They were also those who owned the windmills, the olive presses and the cheese farms. Furthermore the noblemen were the only ones who were allowed to be elected members of the political committees of the island, they were responsible for exports and imports, they were the representatives of the island in the Ottoman and European authorities and they were those who would collect the taxes (De Sike 1978: 69-78). In short the noblemen had the economic and political power of the island and they were involved in different social spheres. They would decide for most religious, property, economic and legal matters.   They had the most expensive clothes, which were usually imported, and they were also known as megalostratites because they lived in the area of kastro, until the area of megali strata. Their Byzantine names possibly reflect an association and descent from Byzantine noble families but further historical research has to examine this possibility.[5] Surprisingly enough the life of the noblemen till the beginning of the twentieth century was dependant on the rent they would receive from the shepherds and farmers. (Zarkia 1991: 36).

 

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Until the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century there were six major groupings on the island whose position was based on their access to the means of production (De Sike 1978: 69-78). The mode of production for at least five hundred years from the fifteenth to the twentieth century remained unchanged and it was based on sheep-goat herding and agriculture. The means of production consisted of land and animals. The hierarchical social relationships of production between the ruling group of the arhontes, the shepherds (tsopanides), the men of the market (tis agoras), the farmers (agrotes), the fishermen (ksipoloti) and the labourers (kohiliani) were expressed in space. The arhontes lived in the area of kastro, the shepherds in the area of agora, the men of the market in agora and in kohilia, the farmers in kohilia and in the countryside (ekso) and the laborers in the area of kohilia. The few fishermen were always living close to the seashore. Among all these groups only the arhontes had the strictest endogamic restrictions in order to keep the means of production, a mentality that was gradually changed.[6] Still today remnants of this hierarchical past differentiation are reproduced through local sayings.[7] Furthermore until recently there were conflicts between the occupational groups and mayor Labrou is recorded stating in his election speech in 1951 that “we have to remember that the usual fights between the shepherds and the labourers-peasants in relation to agricultural damages, many times resulted in killings”.[8]

 


The distinct identity of each group was based on occupation-ownership, descent and residence. However the residence was not a necessary requirement of inclusion and wealth did not guarantee upward social mobility. In many instances people with higher income such as seamen and successful shepherds moved in the area of kastro but their status did not change. Similarly successful farmers tried to become shepherds but they did not succeed in being accepted as such. On the other hand arhontes who moved in neighborhoods with shepherds kept their status and the spatial mobility did not affect their identity. As a rule, the matrilocal residence in combination with specific endogamic rules, influenced to a large extend the special division of each group. Among all groups, a house close to the family of the bride was given to married couples and in case that the family of the bride did not own an extra residence, another floor would be built above the residence of the maternal nuclear family. This custom is still visible in space and has shaped the structure of the village to a large extent.[9]    

 

 

 

Another criterion of inclusion in the arhontes was the possession of symbolic capital objectified in the palea, meaning ‘the old objects’. The arhontes owned the majority and the most valued palea which were gradually passed over to the rest of Skyrians. The palea included the objects that were decorating the houses, known as aloni as well as embroideries, clothes such as the brides dress (alamena) and generally objects that were passed on to each generation. Their inheritance was matrilineal and they were considered inalienable like the aloni. The value was based on their age, quality and career. Objects for example that were acquired with divergences such as the case of the Second World War were not considered as valuable as the objects given by the mother who descended from a family of arhontes.

 

 

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Those who used to live in the area of Kohylia, the lowest part around the hill of the castle, were named kohiliani and they would take care of all kind of hard work, particularly hard manual labour. They were hired by the noblemen and the shepherds to cultivate their land and to assist in milking and other sheep and goat herding activities. They did not own any property or any land and therefore they were not able to have any access to the means of production. They would work as farmers, artisans, carriers with mules, woodcutters, builders and in any kind of heavy labor. Their payment was not always satisfactory. For example when they worked for shepherds they would receive yearly only ten goats and a pair of trohadia, the hand made sandals of the shepherds (Zarkia 1991).    

 

These laborers were considered to have less status in Skyrian society and they would be called grunia, which literally means pigs. The marriage with women coming from this area was not welcomed by the other strata on Skyros, as these women would have only “to mni sto heri”, which means the vagina in their hand, women with no dowry and as their only property their reproductive organs. The men were not honored as their wives would had to participate in the process of production and that was considered a shame as ideally women should focus on childcare, the household, in embroideries and religious ceremonies. Still today such terms are used by the shepherd families of Skyros to refer to the parakatianous (those without social status), who lived in Kohilia.

                       



 

[1] The island of Skyros is part of the group of islands called Sporades, which includes Skiathos, Skopelos and Alonissos. Skyros is twenty two miles far from the harbor of Kymi, on the island of Evia which is the daily destination of the only ferry boat of Skyros.

[2] Municipality of Skyros 2005

[3] Western style clothes were considered the Venetian style clothes that appeared after the third crusade and during the fifteenth century that the island came under Venetian rule.   A remnant of this mentality is the figure of fragos in the carnival. Fragos literally means “westerner” and this figure is dressed up in what locals consider “ridiculous clothes”.

[4] The aloni or luni is part of the dowry of each woman and is transmitted by mother to daughter. It includes what is known on Skyros as palea, such as porchelain or brass plates, pottery, embroideries and other objects that decorate the interior of the house.   It is considered inalienable wealth and only in exceptional cases such as wars and extreme poverty there are diversions in the career of these objects

[5] Some islands during the Byzantine era, used to be places of exile for noblemen during intrigues and power games among generals and the emperor. Skyros was a place of exile and it is possible that noblemen who arrived on the island were given property by the empire in order to be able to live

[6] The inheritance of their land was solely based on descent. Interclass marriages were taking sometimes place and in this way a part of the means of production was passed over to shepherds. Mixed marriages would more likely occur between shepherds and noblemen than noblemen and labourers. The main reason was that the shepherds had the control over the goats and sheep and therefore were situated in a higher position in relation to the labourers. The labourers were the last in the social scale and in many instances they were exploited by the noblemen and the shepherds

[7] The distinctions between kotsinogonati, xipoliti or kohiliani are still used by the older generation of Skyrians. Such distinctions though are not related to the segregation of social life but to a hierarchical descent and property transmission.

[8] Booklet handed during the commemoration of Georgios Labrou (1901-1965) on 20th August 2005, organized by the municipality of Skyros

[9] The characteristic stairs for example of the Skyrian houses are a product of this process of matrilocal residence over the house of the family of the bride

 



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