What I Saw

07 Jul 2023

Magda Ohnefalsch Richter

At the close of the nineteenth century, Magda Ohnefalsch Richter, a German visitor to the island, who claims she spent long periods here with her husband, the intrepid antiquarian Max Ohnefalsch Richter, collected much ethnographic material on the Cypriots which she then proceeded to publish in Berlin in 1913. In fact, Magda suffered much in Cyprus with her health and her difficult pregnancy, so it was her husband who collected most information and took most of the photographs. Nevertheless, the book still remains the Bible of Cypriot ethnography to which many resort for information and research. A Continental writer and non-colonial, Magda Ohnefalsch-Richter assumed a completely different tone in her descriptions. Dance and dancing featured prominently on a number of occasions:

On Green Monday the Cypriots celebrate the beginning of a forty-day lent period before Easter. They go out in the countryside, in fields and orchards and this one-day tradition requires them to be totally vegetarian in their food. The beauty of nature in late winter or early spring is transferred into their hearts and expressed through dancing in the fields. Both women and men play music and dance, often in pathways and streets all the way home.

During wedding festivities much dancing takes place: Mention is made of a special dance performed when the young maidens prepare the mattress of the bride. Children dance on it when it is finished and then a male relative lifts it to his shoulders and dances with it while he takes it to the bedroom. During the wedding ceremony in a church, Richter observes the couple dancing the “Isaiah’s dance”, that is going round the ceremonial table three times while the crowd cheers and throws rice, pomegranate, cotton seeds and coins for good luck and prosperity.

After the religious ceremony, the village attends the wedding feast. Long tables are set out for everyone to enjoy a hefty meal and then dancing begins. Men dance separately from women. The most usual dance is the antikrystos, danced in twos. The rule permits only one pair to dance at a time. The female dance consists of movements of the open arms accompanied by slow repetitive movements of the whole body. The faces are sober, the sight fixed and the head has a slight inclination towards the ground. The movements increase and are faster towards the end of the dance. The men dance the antikrystos more like the Italian tarantella, with wild, fast movements. Men can also dance solo, whereby three or four men held together by their shoulders lead the main dancer to the floor and then withdraw allowing him to present his dancing skills, often with the help of a knife or another agricultural instrument. Such performances can turn into exhibitions of acrobatic or juggling skills whereby a number of glasses are balanced on the dancer’s head, or a number of chairs, according to his abilities.

Most interesting is the presence of dance on occasions related to old superstitions reminding one of the ancient rites of ancient tribes. If a dog suffering from rabies bites a person, then the village will organise a “dog-wedding” in Greek “skylogamos” exactly forty days after the bite. The afflicted person stays awake all night dancing nonstop until he or she drops from fatigue. There is music, eating and feasting by all present. A local doctor attempted to give a scientific explanation to this superstition: Apparently dancing all night, that is continuous movement, brings about sweating, which helps expel the poison from the body, thus saving the victim. Magda had difficulty accepting the doctor’s theory.

The 'What I Saw...' series is made possible with the support of OPAP (Cyprus) and the Active Citizens Fund.

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