Saturday, October 10, 2009


Dear Friends,
Below is an article including a brief history, description and photographs of the traditional Cretan dagger or knife, borrowed from I hope you enjoy reading it.
Your Friend and Fellow "Silent Warrior",
Bob Armistead

The Cretan Dagger, the knife of Crete:

This work was realized in an effort to honour and preserve in the memory of modern generations an art that flourished in the island of Crete throughout the 19th and in the early 20th century and which is slowly and imperceptibly disappearing today, undermined by the pressure of modern technology and the shrinkage of the demand in handy products used by people in their everyday lives in earlier times.

It is the art of manufacturing the hand - made Cretan dagger, which has been so much loved by the Cretans, but in a few years will cease to be manufactured in the traditional manner, since faceless technology is gradually replacing the art, skill, mastery and creative enthusiasm of the last Cretan dagger - manufacturers.

The Cretan dagger, inseparable companion of every Cretan in the old times, accompanied the Cretans wherever they went, either as travelers or as immigrants, when in hard times some of them where forced to abandon their beautiful island. Thus, the Cretan dagger can be found not only in Crete and in the other regions of Greece, but also at the ends of the earth ; from Egypt to Russia and from the U.S.A. and Canada to Australia, either in the houses of Cretans as a valuable heirloom, or in second - hand and antique shops, dusted and without identity, among a heap of disparate objects, waiting for the person that will recognize and obtain it, paying a certain amount in consideration. Each of them hides its own story, humble or glorious, connected with the island of Crete and Cretan gallantry.

Since, then, tradition and historical documents are of cultural value and credibility, the hand - made Cretan dagger deserves to be studied and honoured, before its traditional manufacturing technique perishes in the boundless course of time. For, above all, whenever a traditional art perishes, human culture is impoverished.

The Cretan Dagger, History:

One of the first tools manufactured by man, which helped him survive in the long and difficult era of the dawn of civilization, is the dagger, the first edged weapon. In manufacturing it, man imitated the shape of the nails of wild animals, with which they catch and kill their prey. One of the most ancient specimens of daggers in the form we know them today was found in Gebel El Arak , Egypt . It is made of processed obsidian stone and it has an ivory hilt, decorated with embossed portrayals of scenes inspired by war. This dagger was manufactured circa 3.400 BC and is kept today in the Louvre Museum . However, daggers approaching the age of 5.000 years have also been found in China , Mesopotamia and Iran 's Luristan. Exquisite double - edged bronze and copper daggers were manufactured in Mycenaean Greece from 1.500 BC onwards, which were brought by merchants motivated by profit to many other distant regions in Europe , since the export trade of weapons thrived during the Mycenaean age. However, in classical Greece too, there was a flourish in the fabrication of numerous edged weapons, mainly daggers, which were used in the innumerable wars that ravaged Greece during the classical age. At the heyday of Mycenaean civilization, daggers of notable quality were manufactured in Minoan Crete, which bequeathed to us many brilliant works of an advanced and, at the same time, singular civilization. However, few specimens have survived to our days. Among the exhibits of the Heraklion Museum there is a Minoan age statuette of a warrior from Sitia, armed with a dagger presenting certain similarities to modern Cretan daggers. It should be mentioned that, according to ancient Greek mythology, edged weapons and war helmets were first fabricated in Crete , since it was the Couretes, Zeus's retinue, who were considered to be their inventors.

The defence needs of the biggest Greek island resulted in the development of metallurgy and, by extension, the manufacturing of weapons in Crete during the classical age, when the island's archers enjoyed high renown throughout Greece and Asia Minor for their skill in using their weapons. During the Roman era, the Romans had a bitter experience of the Cretan's battle skills and the accuracy of their archers during their efforts to occupy the island.

In the Middle Ages, and specifically in the 9th century, Crete was occupied by the Saracenes, who came from Spain . Using the island as base of their operations, they plagued the entire eastern Mediterranean with their raids. The Saracenes of Crete manufactured various types of weapons on the island and used them to arm their ships and crews during their naval raids.
After the victorious campaign of Nicephorus Phocas and the vanquishment of the Saracenes of Crete, the island was restored to Byzantine rule, under which it remained until the early 13th century, when it was vested in the Venetians as their valuable booty from the share - out of the Byzantine Empire 's lands, after the latter had been dismantled by the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade.

The Venetians kept Crete under their domination for more than 450 years. This was made possible by the excellent organization of their administrative machine and by the defense system they had deployed on the island, whereby, in addition to the powerful regular military forces, defense was reinforced by a local militia of Cretan archers, renowned throughout the East, and by the forces of the Greek and Italian landowners of the island. The latter forces were certainly armed with weapons manufactured on the island by Cretan craftsmen. Written sources referring to the revolution of the Psaromilingos, which was a noble Cretan family, against the Venetians in the mid- 14th century testify to the use of daggers for military purposes in the Middle Ages. During that revolution, the Cretan rebels were armed with arches, spears, bludgeons, large knives and axes'. According to the oral tradition, during the Venetian occupation there were dagger manufacturing workshops in Heraklion of Crete, established at exactly the same site as they are today.

After the conquest of the island by the Turks, the island's metallurgists continued to fabricate exquisite metallurgical products, including daggers, which acquired special value during the 19th century repeated revolutions of the Cretans, who thirsted for freedom.

The sentimental and, at the same time, practical value of the Cretan dagger in battle did not perish in our century, since the Cretan dagger was the necessary complement of every gallant Cretan youth's armament in the struggle over Macedonia, the Balkan Wars, the Asia Minor Campaign and even during the Second World War, when the weapons of Cretan partisans included the traditional Cretan dagger, symbol of Cretan gallantry and the spirit of Crete's resistance against any conqueror.

- the yataghan of Daskaloyannis, the leader of the Cretan revolt against the Turks in 1770 -

The Cretan Dagger, Characteristics and Manufacturing:

The typical Cretan dagger with the form it preserved todate was born in the late 18th century and has a shape reminding of a dart. Its distinct shape was adopted by the Cretans with enthusiasm and resisted the course of time. Fire, anvil, steel, hammer, long-handled pliers and the dagger -manufacturer's dexterity are the necessary elements for manufacturing the Cretan dagger. Its steel blade is sturdy and has only one edge, while the side opposite to the edge, the dagger's "back", is flat, reinforced in its base and it grows gradually thinner on approaching the tip, ending at a very sharp point. The blade's shape is straight; the side of the edge, a little before the end of the blade, curves sharply and ends at the point, which has a slight upward gradient. The blade's length varies. In the mid -19th century Cretan dagger manufacturers fabricated oversized daggers, the length of which could reach 80 cm. These huge daggers could be used as sabres too. The manufacturing singularity of the Cretan dagger's point endows it with great penetrability. The part of the dagger opposite to its pointed part is called "root" and this is where the hilt was fixed, earlier with six pins (pertsinia), today with only three.

The Cretan dagger's hilt is called "manika". Its shape varies. However, three are the dominant types. In the first the hilt's end resembles a bird's beak, in the second the shape of the hilt's end is the same as in the 18th and 19th century cutlasses and in the third, which is the classical Cretan type, the hilt's end is V -shaped. The V- shaped hilt is the most common and appears only in Cretan daggers, endowing them with a singularity of type, since in no other place in the world are daggers with a hilt of similar shape manufactured.

This peculiar hilt is always made of animal matter, horn or bone, while in the most lavishly manufactured daggers it is made of ivory. Hilts which are not made of this precious material are made of white bone, derived mainly from ox feet, which the dagger manufacturers, even today, boil in a mixture of water, ash and lime for about five hours, exactly as they used to do two centuries ago, so that it will acquire a bright white colour, and then they grind it before using it. More rarely, however, daggers had deep- coloured hilts made of horn. The numerous flocks of sheep and goats of Crete and the stout horns of its buffaloes still provide today ample raw material for the horn-made hilts of daggers, while, more rarely, hilts are made from the island's wild goats' horns, known as kri - kri. The stoutest and most durable horns for making hilts are the ram's and the billy-goat's. Among ram horns they prefer the "gold - coloured ones, with undulations", while buffalo horns are more glossy and lustrous, but they wear out faster than ram horns. Dagger - manufacturers leave nothing to chance. They choose carefully the animal horns that they will use for making the manikes (hilts). They mainly prefer those of male animals, which thus offer their horn weapons for the manufacturing and embellishment of human weapons. Daggers with dark - coloured hilts are called mavromanika. Each bone or horn suffices for only one hilt.

Great aesthetic value lies in the silver "foukaria" (scabbards) of the silver-sheathed daggers. The distinct perfection of the Cretan silversmiths' art is concentrated in these objects. The same holds good for their singular artistic expression, manifested in a vivid and expressive manner on the cylindrical surfaces of the daggers' silver scabbards.

The Cretan Dagger in Manners. Customs and Popular Beliefs of Crete:

The importance of the Cretan dagger's symbolic value in the social life of Crete survived even until recently. One of the nuptial customs in Crete required from the future bride - groom to offer his fiancee, in addition to the other gifts, a small silver dagger, the argyrobounialaki. This small dagger, which was part of the Cretan women's costume, was thereafter worn by the Cretan girl on her waist, tucked inside her long blue - red silk sash, exactly as men wore their own, in all balls and celebrations.

From a semiological point of view, the dagger indicated to other men that the girl was betrothed or married and that she belonged to one and only man. As a symbolism, it reminded the girl herself that she ought to be devoted to her husband and that the price she would pay for any infidelity would be her own life. However, in addition to its symbolic significance, the dagger also had practical value, because the young Cretan woman would be able to defend herself and her dignity when in danger. For the success of the wedding ritual and the stable foundation of the new family, Cretan customs prescribed earlier that a small black - hilted dagger be placed on the bride's shoe before and during the wedding ceremony, so that the "spells" of those envying her fortune would not work. Earlier, they used to believe in Crete that if the couple held a black - hilted dagger during the wedding ceremony, it would be able to counteract any "spells" that might have been cast on them aiming at the solution of the marriage. Finally, after the wedding ceremony the newly - wed couple had to etch a cross on the threshold of their house with a black - hilted dagger, so that evil spirits would be prevented from entering and haunting it. The symbolic significance of the dagger and its great metaphysical value in protecting humans against the fiendish powers of the invisible world and "ill - fated moments" was deeply rooted in Crete . Tiny black - hilted daggers were used in manufacturing talismans for young children and talismans for protecting epileptics from the bad influence of the moon and the possessed from the pernicious influence of demons. Furthermore, when a woman lost one of her children, she used to hang small black - hilted daggers with crosses etched on their hilts around her other children's necks as talismans, so that the Grim Reaper would not take them too.

The Cretan Dagger and Magical Ceremonies:

Daggers, always black - hilted, since black - hilted daggers were feared by the demons, played a leading part in the practice of magic in the sublunar world of sorcerers. The sorcerer, master of love and hatred, in proceeding with his work of magic according to his wishes or those of the man or woman who had requested his assistance, used a black - hilted dagger in his spells and rituals of any nature. In their effort to dominate over the powers of nature, to transgress against its known laws and to control the lives of humans with the help of demons, sorcerers used black - hilted daggers, with which they traced a circle on the ground and then poked it in its centre. Then they entered the circle and uttered some cryptic words and secret names. In this way they summoned the demons and ordered them, according to their wishes, protected from their malicious power inside the circle they had traced with their dagger. The dagger should not have been used in any other work before this procedure. The tracing of the circle and the invocation of demons that followed constituted, according to tradition, the consummation of the sorcerer's magic skills. The tracing of the magic circle with black - hilted daggers was exercised by the island's sorcerers mainly during their meetings with demons, called "davetia". The most typical description of the tracing of a magic circle with a black -hilted dagger in Crete for obtaining a magic purpose is provided by Nikos Politis in his description of the instruction of the lyra - player by the Fairies, so that he would be able to play the lyra with great virtuosity:

"Whoever wants to become a good lyra - player should go to an isolated crossroads at midnight. First he should trace a circle on the ground with a black - hilted dagger, then enter it, stay there and start playing the lyra. A little later the Fairies will come and start hanging around him. Their purpose is not good, they want to do him harm, but since they cannot enter the circle, which has been traced with a black - hilted dagger, they try to lure him out in every possible way. They use blarney, they sing him nice songs, they wheedle him in a thousand and one different ways, but if he is wise, he must remain calm and continue to play the lyra without leaving the circle. If they fail, they invite him out of the circle in order to teach him how to play the lyra better. He must refuse. Then they will ask him to give them the lyra. The lyra - player should give it, cautious to let his arm or other part of his body out of the circle, because it will be amputated or he will go insane. Then a Fairy starts playing the lyra with great virtuosity and afterwards they return the lyra to him, hoping that he will be persuaded to leave the circle and they will be able to harm him". According to the description of Nikos Politis, the continuous interchange of the instrument between the Fairies and the lyra - player, without anyone of them passing the limits of the circle traced with the black - hilted dagger, continues all night long until the first cock crows. Then they ask him to give them something of his own and they promise to teach him how to play the lyra like them in return. The lyra - player usually gives them one of his nails and they in turn teach him how to play the lyra with great virtuosity and then disappear at daybreak. For this reason, in earlier times, if a lyra player played his instrument with outstanding virtuosity, he used to say: "What do you think? I learnt to play the lyra at the crossroads".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob,read about your trip to anogia,great pics....great babes...
i miss the mythos in the evening at popy,talk to the people enjoy the view of the sea,hope that everything is allright on your side,for us it is such along time ago that we have been on Crete and the it is time to get back...
but still have to work,
nice Greetings
G√ľnter and Ute