Koutsovlachs, Arvaniti, Karagoúni, Sarakatsán – Greek Shepherds

Karagouni, Vlachs, Koutsovlachs, Arvaniti, Arvanitóvlachi, vlachi, and Sarakatsán. All of these words refer to people in Greece who tend sheep and goats for a living. However each word means something different, usually they refer to different ethnic groups. Sometimes they have multiple meanings. Sometimes the meanings overlap.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his classic book Roumeli (1966), sorts out the differences. He writes “...the word ‘vlachos‘, written with a small ‘v’ …designates not only the Latin-dialect-speaking Arromans, the ‘Koutsovlachs‘ proper, but it is loosely applied generically to shepherds all over Greece. In fact Greeks, if they want to make it clear that they are speaking of Vlachs, not merely of herdsmen in general, nearly always use the word ‘Koutsovlachs‘, or (‘limping Vlachs’)… – or in the case of those whose Latin language is more mixed with Albanian than (as among the Koutsovlachs) with Greek, ‘Arvanitóvlachi‘, or, more colloquially still, “Karagounides’ or ‘Black Cloak Men” [All Greek nomads wear hooded goats’ hair capes in winter].

“Western travellers, when confronted by nomads and hut-dwellers, have almost invariably set them down as ‘Wallachians’, or ‘Vlachs‘; rightly quite often. There are many thousands of these semi-nomadic Arroman people…speaking a Latin language of their own, which is closely akin to Romanian, and as different from Greek as the Welsh language is to English…The Vlachs are much more numerous than the Sarakatsáns, but less widespread…They played a prominent if minor part in Byzantine and Balkan history; they inhabit remarkable villages in the mountains, and form the bulk of the population of several Macedonian and Thessalian towns… Semi-nomadism exists all over Greece; shepherds leave their mountain villages in winter in search of lowland pastures free of snow; lowlanders do the reverse in summer. Among the true semi-nomads, the Vlachs, however, where village economy depends entirely on livestock, autumn brings about an exodus to the plains of the whole male population with all their flocks, they leave a skeleton population of women, children, and old men behind to keep the home fires burning till their return to the mountains in the spring. In winter, they live in huts in the plain, or, more and more nowadays, in villages which have sprung up on the sites of their invariable winter sojourn.”

For more on the Vlachs/Koutsovlachs, see one of their English-speaking websites here:http://www.farsarotul.org/nl2_3.htm

Other “…semi-nomads of Greece…” are “the Karagoúnis, who all have mountain villages from which to migrate and to which they return after their half-yearly journeys in search of pasture…To embroil matters further, the word ‘Karagouni’ is also used for the inhabitants of several Greek villages near Karditsa, on the Thessalian plain, and, loosely and chaffingly, as a derogatory nickname for any Thessalian.” Karagoúni translates either as “wearers of black capes” in Turkish [source:http://www.farsarotul.org/nl2_3.htm], or “head/fur” in Greek [source:Athan Karras/Greek dictionary via Rou Houston].

Sarakatsans have always filled me with awe. I first saw them years ago when I was walking across Bulgaria to Constantinople. [ca.1934 – DB] A gathering of beehive huts was scattered over the wintry hills slanting to the Black Sea; brushwood folds ascended the green slopes and thousands of shaggy black goats and sheep grazed over the rainy landscape, their heavy bronze bells filling the air with a many-toned and harmonious jangle. Here and there like dark monoliths under the wheeling crows herdsmen leaned on their lance-long crooks, their faces almost lost in the deep hoods of the high–shouldered goats’ hair capes reaching to the ground; capes so course a weave and so stiff with rain that their incumbents could almost step forth and leave them standing like sentry-boxes…True nomads, these self-appointed Ishmaels hover on the outskirts of ordinary Greek life as fleetingly as a mirage; they manifest themselves to mortals in faraway glimpses…One discovers them binding lopped branches and osier twigs into the hemispherical huts which will house them for the season: shelters whose blackened and mouldering thatch will later mark where they settled for a few months and then vanished.”

Alone among the pastoral people of Greece, the Sarakatsáns have no fixed abode. They are, unlike the Vlachs, with the substantial villages and towns they have inhabited for centuries, entire nomads. Apart from their wandering, they regard their summer pastures as their true home. The details of their life are formalized and codified; custom, ritual, tradition and taboo beset them thickly. Nothing is improvised or haphazard. No trace of the slovenliness which makes gypsy life, after unknown ages, seem half-learnt. Each detail in choice of ground and orientation and hut-building and hearth-laying, almost every sentence uttered and every gesture made, is hallowed by usage; it is the accumulation of hundreds, perhaps thousands of years; hereditary, patriarchal, established, immutable, conservative, and self-sufficient, everything emerges from a vast expanse of time as smooth with long handling as the shuttle of a loom, the blurred carving on a distaff or the patina on the shaft of a crook.”

…”it is surprising that the Sarakatsans who….are scattered all over mainland Greece, should all speak identically. Similarly, centuries of winter migration deep into Slav and Albanian and Turkish lands have left no trace on the hoary Greekness of their idiom. Costumes in Greece, especially those of the women, (and most notably those of the Vlach women), change, even more frequently than accents, from village to village; yet the garb of the Sarakatsánissas, with the barest minimum of variation, is the same all over Greece. So are their customs, down to the last detail. Everything, specially their feeling of solidarity and aloofness from everyone else, underlines their common origin. It is very noticeable in their attitude to the Vlachs: ‘If you hear a shepherd use the word ‘lapte’, the Vlach and Romanian word for ‘milk’, ‘hit him over the head’.”

Yvonne Hunt, in Traditional Dance in Greek Culture, 1996, wrote “The nomadic life of the Sarakatsans no longer exists today. There are still shepherds in various mountain regions, but they are settled in villages and no longer make the twice yearly treks from one grazing area to another along with the entire family and all their possessions. The Greek government forced their settlement into various villages throughout the country within the last 50 – 60 years. Today they have successfully entered into the general work force and professional life of the country.”

“Even so, the Sarakatsans are organized into various cultural societies and actively work to educate the current generation as to their former customs and nomadic existence. There are large Sarakatsan gatherings during the summer with much singing, dancing, and re-enacting of scenes which were, until fairly recently, a way of life. Many of the oldest participants are not recalling tales heard from others but are often re-living scenes from a former daily life. These gatherings take place at Pertoúli, in Thessaly, Yiftócambo, in Epiros, Lailia near Sérres and near Dráma, -traditional gathering places of Sarakatsans for centuries.”

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