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Animal Bells as Symbols: Sound and Hearing in a Greek Island Village

Author(s): Panayotis Panopoulos

Source: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 2003), pp. 639-
Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
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Universityof the Aegean

This article deals with the cultural construction of sound and hearing in a mountain
village in the Greek island of Naxos, in the Cyclades.The analysis is based on the ethno-
graphic presentation and discussion of the cultural meanings and symbolism of animal
bells. I further explore the relation of bells and their sound to the issues of social repro-
duction and the cultural constitution of social order. By focusing on the indigenous con-
ceptualizations of sound and noise and the metaphoric language concerning the sense of
hearing, I also consider some wider aspects of sound, sound symbolism, and hearing in
this community.

When I first arrived on the island of Naxos with the intention of conduct-
ing fieldwork in the village of Philoti on the role of song in the construc-
tion of local identity, gender, and community, I already had some interest in
animal bells and their significance in carnival celebrations. From the outset, I
found that animal bells were continually being referred to in conversations in
the cafes (kafeneia)of the village plaza. It seemed to me that the men of the
village were obsessed with bells. One of the most popular stories then circu-
lating around the cafes was an account of a theft of 120 bells from a shep-
herd's store-house. He had left his sheep pen unattended and had gone to
visit his family in the village. Before leaving, he lit an olive-oil lamp inside
the store-house, so that any one passing by would think he was inside. Some-
body who probably knew he kept his bells there crept in while he was away
and stole them. After some weeks in the village, I had heard several different
versions of this same story, as well as others which concerned the theft of
bells from store-houses, village houses, or even from the flocks themselves (the
xekoudhounoma,literally, the taking-off of bells). I will briefly relate two other
stories concerning bell-thefts.
Nikolas, a middle-aged shepherd I had met some days before, told me one
evening that he does not dare to hang his bells on his animals because, if he
did so, other shepherds would steal them. When I asked him if this had ever
happened to his flock, he answered that it had happened many times in the
past. Especially when he brings his flock from a nearby village, where he owns
some pastures, to Philoti, he never hangs bells on his animals. He also told
me about 'a shepherd who owns more than 1,000 goats, all of which wear
bells, all stolen from others'. He also said that: 'Those who steal usually steal
from one another. They mostly steal bells and not animals, because bells are
? Royal Anthropological Institute 2003.
Inst. (N.S.) 9, 639-656
J. Roy.anthrop.

something old and precious.' He said that when I came to visit him at his
sheepfold, he would hang his bells on his animals so that I would be able 'to
hear them'.
Three months later, another shepherd, Iakovos, told me a story about a
recent fire on a hill where he owns some sheep runs; seven of his animals
had died. Some days before this fire, some other shepherds had accused him
of being responsible for an earlier fire which had destroyed their land. lakovos
told me that he knew who had set these two fires. The first was set by Petros,
a shepherd who had lost more than 100 of his bells some days before. Petros
made enquiries and found out who had stolen them from his flock. He went
to the thieves and asked for the bells back, threatening to set their pasture-
land on fire if they did not return them. The thieves denied that they had
stolen the bells, but Petros knew they were lying, said lakovos. So Petros started
the fire, but later denied that he had done so. That is why, said Iakovos, the
thieves accused him (Iakovos) of setting the first fire and burned his land in
Although animal bells are highly important artefacts in the material culture
of stock-keeping societies, they have received little attention from ethnogra-
phers. During my fieldwork in Naxos, I realized that, along with their use in
a shepherd's work, animal bells constitute polysemous symbols. Their symbolic
meanings concern crucial aspects of social reproduction and the expression of
local, pastoral, and family identities. Furthermore, their use in important com-
munity rituals of social control in the past, indicates the significant role they
used to play in the cultural constitution of social order.
There are a number of possible ways in which to understand the cultural
meanings of animal bells. I came to study bells through my interest in the
cultural construction of masculinity and local identity.Yet animal bells can also
be approached specifically as sound-producing objects. I argue that animal bells
are significant cultural artefacts because they produce sound. It is their sounds
and the meanings that these acquire in local culture that make bells core
symbols of identity in this community. An analysis of the local conceptual-
izations of bell sounds can further clarify the multivalent meanings of bells,
their role in networks of exchange, their contribution to the formation of
identity, and their symbolic density. Furthermore, the local conceptualizations
of bells' sounds are related to the cultural perception of other sounds as well.
The sound of animal bells is therefore an aural cultural artefact which can
help us more generally to unravel the local meanings of sound, noise, and
Anthropologists working in Greece have hitherto paid little attention to
bells. My research suggests that the ethnographic exploration of sound can
offer rich new insights into issues which have long concerned Greece spe-
cialists. In this article, I attempt to define the meanings and symbolism of
sound in Philoti. I do so by analysing the role of bells and their sounds in
the community's social relations. I also explore bells' symbolic significance,
focusing particularly on the ambivalence of certain perceptions of bell sounds,
and connecting these observations with issues of inheritance and dowry, pat-
terns of exchange and gender, carnival celebrations, and the cultural con-
struction of the person.

Theoretical considerations

Over the last twenty years, anthropologists have included sound in their analy-
ses of cultural systems and have thereby added fresh perspectives to several
anthropological sub-fields. Studies of sound and ethnopoetics (Feld 1982),
ritual (Seeger 1987), and ethnomedicine (Roseman 1991) have unravelled the
cultural meanings and symbolism of sound and the many ways in which sound
is articulated with other aspects of culture and experience. Some of the most
innovative research on the subject has been conducted in cultures of the trop-
ical rainforest. In forest settings, hearing is a crucial aspect of everyday
activity, while sight is rather restricted; the sense of hearing becomes a highly
important dimension of reality in these cultures, a fundamental means not
only for organizing daily life but also for creating particular cultural modali-
ties (Gell 1995).
Ethnographies of sound in the 1980s showed that the sounds of nature
could be indispensable elements of cultural performances. Steven Feld found
that the domain of cultural poetics - that is, singing and lamenting - among
the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea is based on the singing of a certain bird
species. Birdsong provides the melodies, rhythms, and tempi for Kaluli songs;
rules of singing and dance performances also come from the bird world. The
symbolism of gender, social relations, and ritual is also modelled on the trop-
ical forest avifauna, which is not set in opposition to culture or humanity,
since birds of paradise are the spirits of dead ancestors and their 'voice' is
the ancestors' lament. The Kaluli dancer in the gisalo ceremony becomes the
bird of paradise/dead ancestor lamenting through the bird's characteristic
melody/ancestor's cry (Feld 1982; cf. Schieffelin 1976). Likewise, the ritual life
and singing of the Suya Indians are modelled on the avifauna of the
Amazonian tropical forest, albeit in a totally different way (Seeger 1987;
cf. Roseman 1991).
Ethnographies of sound are directly connected with the growing anthro-
pological literature on the senses (Howes 1991). Following earlier discussions
of the anthropology of the person and the emotions, more recent ethno-
graphic interest in the cultural construction of the senses has foregrounded
the issue of the divergent sensory modalities and sensory orders. Starting with
a cultural critique of the fundamental premises of Western visualism (Classen
1993; Stoller 1989), anthropologists have focused on alternative ways of sensing
the world. A cross-cultural study of the metaphoric language of the senses has
also revealed that in different cultures the sense of hearing is symbolically
related to proper behaviour. 'To hear' stands for 'to understand', 'to act prop-
erly', 'to obey'. Humans who 'do not hear' are put on the boundaries of, or
even outside, culture or society (Classen 1993; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971).2
If hearing, together with the other senses, is ordered in different ways across
cultures, any discussion of sound should start from the analysis of the cultural
meanings of the senses and the sensory order of each society. Furthermore,
the description of the cultural perception of the simplest sound may prove to
be as important for the analysis of the symbolic codification of cultural sound-
scapes (Schafer 1969; 1977) as is for listening to a society's musical perfor-
mances. We can distinguish the cultural meanings of hearing by analysing the

ways in which the senses are described in language, their metaphorical uses,
and the ritual actions performed to facilitate or control them. Metaphors
which use the sense of hearing can be useful instruments for analysing the
connection of cultural performances with the exercise of political power or
with resistance to and revolt against it.
Sound, noise, and hearing are connected, in various cultures, with the sym-
bolic constitution and negotiation of social order.This issue has been described
and analysed by anthropologists and historians alike. Levi-Strauss has pointed
to the opposition between noise and silence in ritual and mythology, and
he has proposed a general model for the interpretation of the deliberate
production of noise in rituals all over the world as a way of resolving social
and cosmic conflict and restoring order (Levi-Strauss 1970: 147-50, 286-9,
327-3(; 1973: 359-475). The importance of noise in the European rituals
of cliarivari(Davis 1973), Katzenmusik (Darnton 1991), and 'rough music'
(Thompson 1991), as well as in other rituals of social control (Pitt-Rivers
1961), the use of noise-producing instruments in religious, secular, and com-
munal contexts across Europe (Corbin 1995; Mintz 1997: 145-8; Price
1983), together with the various ways in which sound and noise are used in
carnival, in rituals of the year cycle and in rites related to the conditioning
of weather and cosmic phenomena, also point to the significance of sound
and noise in conceptualizing and confronting order and disorder across
cultures and history. Two important ethnographic issues addressed by these
scholars are, on the one hand, the indigenous codification of sound, and,
on the other, the cultural construction of sound/noise distinctions and

Bells in a shepherd's work and worldview

Whether in huge flocks of over one thousand goats and sheep or in groups
of three or four grazing in the field near their owner's house, stock animals
in rural Greece wear bells. The sound of bells is an indispensable part of car-
nival and other celebrations in many Greek villages and towns. Parties of
masked men wearing bells and goat-skins or other traditional costumes are an
important feature of these occasions (Cowan 1990; Stewart 1991).
In modern Greek and in contrast with English, the general term for animal
bells (koudhlounia,singular, koudhouni),as well as the more specific terms used,
is clearly differentiated from the word for church bells (kambanes,singular,
kambana).Connections can be drawn between them, however, as I explain
below. Nevertheless, when I use the word 'bell', I always refer to animal bells,
unless otherwise specified. Bells of various sizes and technical specifications
can be found under hundreds of different nanes in various regions of Greece.
They are all made either of hammered metal sheets of various shapes, which
are subsequently coppered or bronzed, or they are cast in bronze in the shape
of a truncated cone. There are miany variations from place to place concern-
ing their names, the ways they are used, which type is particularly suitable for
which animal, and so on.Yet a decisive factor in the type and size of bell used
is the age, sex, and weight of the animal that is going to wear it: many of the
locally specific names of bells refer exactly to the age, sex, or special charac-

teristics of the animal for which they are made.3 Shepherds in Philoti prefer
hammered bells; they are rather ambivalent about the sound of cast bells.4
Philoti is a mountain village with a population of 1,700 in the centre of
Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades islands. Stock-keeping and olive-growing
are the two main economic activities of the majority of its population. Other
villagers work in various trades in the village and all over the island. Although
in the last twenty years tourism has become central to the socio-economic
life and development of the island and the region as a whole, its direct impact
on the mountain villages of Naxos is not as strong as it is on the coastal zone
or on some other islands of the Cyclades, like Mykonos (Stott 1973) or
Santorini. Although the mountain villages of Naxos are integrated into wider
economic and social structures and are involved in many ways in the coastal
tourist industry, their inhabitants have a strong sense of local autonomy (cf.
Herzfeld 1985 on Crete) and, more recently, they have developed a 'revital-
ized' (Boissevain 1992) and intensified interest in defending and promoting
their local identity and village diversification (Panopoulos 1994; 1996).
Every time I followed village shepherds to their pastures, I heard the sounds
of bells well before I was able to see the sheep and goats that were wearing
them. To my ears, all the bells sounded alike, a monotonous random melody,
a 'white noise' of the pasturelands. Nevertheless, the shepherds made detailed
comments on their sounds, as if they were listening to a well-known motif
or a meaningful conversation between friends. Bells allow shepherds to collect
information about the movement of their animals and other shepherds' flocks,
without having to see them. On many occasions, while I was with a shep-
herd inside his small storage shed, he would suddenly go out to his flock
grazing nearby. Upon his return, he would explain to me that he had heard
his flock going astray and he had had to go and check. Listening to the sound
of bells, shepherds can gather their animals more easily every morning, in
order to milk them and 'keep an ear' on them. Although they did not hang
bells on all of their animals, they always did so in the case of those more
inclined to stray.
Shepherds in Naxos use a complex marking system for their animals. They
usually mark their ears by cutting and piercing them. Every shepherd
'engraves' his personal or family set of signs on each animal in his flock. Nev-
ertheless, a shepherd usually does not need to see these signs in order to know
whether a particular goat or sheep is his, because he can recognize his animals
by their colouring and distinctive bodily characteristics. Each flock also has
its own sound identity. A shepherd can easily tell if a certain bell, and hence
animal, is missing or not. Each flock should have bells of all different types,
sizes, and shapes, so that the combined sound of the bells (koudhounovoli)will
be meaningful (me ousia, having substance). A flock's particular sound identity
is therefore based on the kind and combination of its bells according to its
owner's special character and preferences. Naxiote shepherds have a particu-
lar flair for matching the sounds of their bells to each other, although they
do not use a particular musical scale for doing so, as is the case in some other
parts of Greece (cf. Anogeianakis 1996; Picken 1975, on Turkey).Through the
use of bells, shepherds create an everyday soundscape (Schafer 1969), which
helps them in their work, indicates their continuous presence in their terri-
tory, and leaves their mark in the aural environment.

Although vision is equally important in a shepherd's work, hearing is

assumed to be less problematic and dangerous. Shepherds, together with all
other villagers, share a firm belief in the evil eye and never point towards
their animals or count them. If somebody stares at their animals or makes a
comment about their well-being, they are annoyed and insist that he add,'may
the evil eye not come on them' (mati min ta piasei).Vision can be dangerous
and a good shepherd should never show off his flock, his property, his well-
being (cf.Veikou 1998). By contrast, hearing cannot have the destructive power
of the evil eye, although the 'showing off' of bells certainly marks a shepherd's
power and prosperity, and confirms his status.
First and foremost, bells stand for the continuity of the flock over time.
Although a flock, as a group of animals, is continuously changing through
time, bells constitute a stable, inalienable property, inherited by a shepherd's
sons, especially his first son (cf. Stewart 1991). Bells, therefore, stand for the
reproduction of a family pastureland and pen, and for a family's pastoral iden-
tity in general. Bells also symbolize the male line of kinship, since the inher-
itance of bells follows the general rules of inheritance operating in the village.
According to these rules, women receive a house as dowry upon their mar-
riage, while men inherit their fathers' flocks, pasturelands, and fields. In both
lines there is an insistence on primogeniture (cf. Vernier 1984). According to
local custom, the first son of a family takes (akouei,literally, hears) the name
of his paternal grandfather, while the first daughter takes that of her mater-
nal grandmother. The second son of a family 'hears' his maternal grandfather's
name, while the second daughter 'hears' her paternal grandmother's name.
Subsequent children are symmetrically named after relatives of both their
The 'hearing' of a name is very important in this system, since it is precisely
because they 'hear' their grandparents' names that the first daughter and first
son in a family inherit the major part of their maternal and paternal property
respectively. Ideally,'property follows the name' (i periousiapaei pano sto onoma).
This custom of naming creates a sense of recycling, which concerns persons
as well as property. It is assumed that each person, male or female, inherits
personal traits and idiosyncratic tendencies, which are supposed to remain
unchanging for life (houi) (cf. Herzfeld 1980; Papataxiarchis1991; 1994), of the
grandparent whose name he or she 'hears'. It is because a person is assumed
to inherit the personal character of the grandparent whose name he or she
'hears' that he or she also inherits his or her property. In this context,'to hear'
means to follow somebody, to act according to his or her will or to become
his or her double. The symbolic reincarnation of a person is perceived as a 're-
sounding' of his or her name (na akoutstei xana to onoina tou/tis, na miniliathei
to otnomla;'may his or her name be heard again', 'may the name not be lost').
We should also point out that the local phrasing ('to hear his/her name', akouei
to onomatou/tis) is slightly different from the standardGreek ('to hear to his/her
nanme', akotucisto oiloma tou/tis).The local expression points more clearly to the
fact that 'hearing' is, simultaneously, an act of both family continuity and sub-
mission to cultural norms and social rules (cf. Seeger 1987).
According to this rule of'equivalent bilateral primogeniture' (Vernier 1984;
cf. Kenna 1976), the first daughter of a family who 'hears' her maternal grand-
mother's name will inherit, along with her mother's mother's house, a pair of

special golden ear-rings, known as aneletes,upon which the initials of the first
owner of the house are often engraved, while the first son will inherit, along
with his father's father's fields and pastures, all his bells. Aneletes and bells both
mark a particularly important position in the kinship structure of the village.
Bells and ear-rings are prominent 'biographical objects' (Hoskins 1998) of male
and female gender, respectively.
Although villagers would never make these comparisons by themselves, we
can try to draw connections between bells and ear-rings, which are both
related to the sense of hearing. According to Anthony Seeger, 'ear discs were
associated [among the Suya Indians] with hearing and the moral qualities of
proper social behavior. The Suya maintained that people who heard well also
knew, understood, and acted properly' (Seeger 1987: 79; cf. Keil 1979). The
verb 'to hear' (akouo),especially when it is used by parents advising or scold-
ing their children, usually means 'to behave properly', 'to obey' (ipakouo),as,
for example, in the expression, 'ti na tou kano, den akouei!' '('What can I do
with this kid, it does not hear!'). It is interesting that, in Philoti, wearing ear-
rings is the only socially acceptable ornamentation of the female body on an
everyday basis. Furthermore, girls usually have their ear lobes pierced and wear
golden ear-rings when they are toddlers, and they wear the same ear-rings
for the rest of their lives. I suggest that the piercing of little girls' ears in
Greece can be interpreted as a ritual which 'opens' the ears and allows little
girls 'to hear'. The piercing of girls' ears can be understood as a ritual embodi-
ment of cultural norms and social rules.
When it comes to bells, the emphasis is not on the perception of sound
but rather on its production. Little boys are urged by their fathers to learn
about their family bells and their history, and to feel proud of them. They are
also urged to wear them around their waists on ritual occasions and to go
around the village ringing them. Church bells are also rung by men only;
small boys are particularly proud when their parents allow them or sometimes
even urge them to ring church bells on Sundays after the service or in reli-
gious celebrations (cf. Stewart 1991: 72).2 Thus, the opposition connecting
men with bells and women with ear-rings specifies the gender and symbol-
ism of sound, silence, and hearing in local culture. In a way, both ear-rings
and bells are gendered objects, which girls and boys, respectively, are 'obliged'
to wear. This discussion of bells and ear-rings builds on an analysis of the sym-
bolism of body ornaments and the senses by Anthony Seeger (Seeger 1975).
According to Seeger, hearing and speaking, ears and the mouth, as well as the
body ornaments related to them, constitute a metaphoric language of proper
human (and gender) behaviour. In this sense, animal bells can be related on
the symbolic level to the Suya Indians' lip discs.
Bells symbolize different elements of male identity, operating as symbols of
masculinity, pastoralism, patriline, and primogeniture. The circulation of bells
through the male line across generations is related to local ideas of cultural
continuity and the reproduction of social order. That is why bells are invalu-
able possessions. Some villagers maintained that bells were their gold and
jewels. The quantity and quality of a shepherd's bells signal his power and
honour. Every shepherd has to protect them, in order to protect his name as
a good shepherd and a 'real man'. Together with his paternal grandfather's
bells, the first son of a family inherits the obligation to multiply them and

bequeath them to his first son. One generation later, these bells will return
to 'him', as they will be inherited by his first son's first son, who is going to
'hear' his paternal grandfather's name.
According to the villagers, a good shepherd is one 'who has all his animals
wearing bells and is still sitting in the village cafe having coffee', that is, one
who is not afraid that anybody would ever dare to steal any of his animals or
bells or even contemplate doing so." Nevertheless, most real shepherds are far
from ideal. That is why they usually hang many bells upon their animals for
short periods only. Furthermore, they use bells of inferior quality for their
flocks. Shepherds keep good bells locked away,and they usually take them out
only once or twice a year for ritual purposes (see below). Since they are so pre-
cious and meaningful, bells are also very honourable gifts among men. No other
gift can equal a good bell, because every bell shares the characteristics of its
owner and is unique in space and time. No bell of quality can ever be matched
or duplicated and no reparation can ever make good its loss.7
But what exactly is a good bell? It is a bell with a great sound (lalia, liter-
ally, voice, speech) and a long history. It is particularly important to note that
a long history makes a good 'voice' and not the other way round. That is, old
bells with a long history are always assumed to have a great 'voice' but bells
and bells' 'voices' in general are not assumed to have been better or better
made in the past than they are today. Good bells are called namilidhika(sin-
gular, nlamilidliiko,renowned, famous, literally, with a name); they have had a
long history and an adventurous life, they have had many different owners,
they have been inherited, stolen, and given as gifts many times, and the drama
of their life is well known and often re-enacted through the narration of their
story in male companies. The history of bells constitutes the subject matter
of many village distichs and ballads:s

He does not hang bells upon his goats any more, to come to Theovouni,
Where Soudolios, along with Glykos, did not leave him a single bell.
He collected themi one by one with lightning and thunder
And Soudolios, along with Glykos, took them all together.
(Psarras 1994: 132)'

They stole two namuilidhlika [famous (goats)] and they took off the bells
Even the little children will gossip and laugh at me.
(Psarras 1994: 134)

There seems to be an underlying contradiction in villagers' beliefs concern-

ing the quality of bells, since they insist both that 'every bell has its own voice',
which does not change over time, and at the same time that'the older the bell,
the better its voice'. My understanding of this is that the quality of a bell does
not depend directly on the strength or distinctiveness of its sound, although
every good bell is assumed to have a resonant and sonorous 'voice'. Much more
important than a bell's 'voice' is its history.Yet a bell's 'voice' depends on its
history. Its 'voice' is the product of a long history.This is made clear in the term
used to describe good bells, namilidhika(those with a name), the name being
the core of a person's identity and indicating his family's history.
Hammered bells are made of iron sheets, which are first hammered and
then coppered and bronzed in a very hot fire. After the final heating, a black-
smith hammers the bell once more to improve its sound.'" Nevertheless, unlike

their counterparts in other regions of Greece, Naxiote shepherds and black-

smiths do not think that this final hammering has a significant effect on a
bell's 'voice'. The decisive stage in the construction process is the initial ham-
mering and the 'baking' of the bell in fire. The unique, unrepeatable charac-
ter of each single bell is already present, therefore,'when it comes out of the
fire'. Shepherds in Naxos do not 'match' their bells' sounds with one another,
something which is done in other parts of Greece (cf. Anogeianakis 1996).
For them, every bell has an independent character, both unique and assertive,
which does not allow for any matching of sound. Much more important than
'matching' is the variety of sound in every single flock. According to local
belief, bells, like humans, form their identities at the moment of their initial
hammering or conception and during their 'baking' or 'gestation'. They do
not change this identity after 'coming out of the fire' or 'birth'. Second ham-
mering, or 'growing up', can alter some traits of a bell or a person slightly,
but it can not change its 'nature' ('voice', 'houi') significantly.
During fieldwork, I often asked shepherds and blacksmiths about the
making of bells. I have also observed the whole process of constructing ham-
mered bells many times in small forges in Naxos, as well as in other parts of
Greece; during their work, blacksmiths would usually explain to me every part
of the process.11The making of hammered bells requires few technical facil-
ities and can therefore take place in even the simplest forge, while the pro-
duction of cast bells requires special mechanical equipment. Hammered bells
are usually local artefacts, while cast bells are 'industrial' products made in
bigger ironworks in mainland Greece. This is not to say that hammered bells
are easy to construct.Yet this certainly one of the important reasons that they
are 'good to think with' at the local level (cf. Hoskins 1998: 192).
It is the fact that they are such multivalent pastoral symbols, standing for
flocks, shepherds, men, and the patriline, that makes bells so widely desired as
items of both theft and gift-giving. Bells embody the rules and cultural mean-
ings of exchange patterns and reciprocity among men, symbolizing male com-
petitiveness and friendship. Men display their bells to prove their personal and
family power, they steal other men's bells to improve their own status as good
shepherds, and they give their bells as gifts to consolidate new friendships or
to revive old ones. Apart from their primal pastoral character, bells are also
present in several ritual contexts. These 'unorthodox' uses of bells assist us to
clarify further the local symbolism of sound, noise, and hearing.

Ritual uses of bells: sounds of order and disorder

Good bells, which are usually kept in safe places, are brought out at least once
a year, during the last days of carnival. Men climb onto the roofs of their
houses, so they can be clearly seen and heard from the road, holding their
namilidhikabells in big bunches and shaking them up and down in order'to
shake out their rust' (na ta xeskouriasoun).For most of these bells, this is the
only time each year that they are brought out and rung. Although the number
of shepherds who 'shake the rust out' of their bells in this village ritual is
much smaller today than it was in the past, the noise (daoura)they produce
is really impressive.We can only imagine the striking effect, in the past, when

most of the village shepherds used to 'shake out their bells' rust'. Some men
told me that the whole village used to resonate for hours or days on end
during carnival.
Xeskouriasnma (the shaking out of rust) is a highly significant cultural act,
which constitutes a mediation between persons and the items of local mate-
rial culture as artefacts of social memory (Seremetakis 1993: 12-13). It can be
also related to some other mediating practices concerning the 'revival' of
persons when they participate in community celebrations. Philotites describe
their participation in local feasts as a way to remove their bad temper and
achieve good humour (na xekakisoume)or to wake up and clean up their eyes
(na xetzimpliasoune).All these actions designated in Greek with the prefix xe
('ex') refer to similar mediations between an isolated, deserted, 'dusty' condi-
tion of a person or artefact and its reconstitution through meaningful cultural
Villagers also display 'good' bells as part of the regalia of carnival. Carnival
celebrations are occasions when men and boys dress as khoudhounatoi.This
involves hanging their best bells around their waists and tearing around the
village with large groups of friends and relatives, dancing and cutting capers
with everyone they meet.12 Some wear masks and brandish sticks in mock
assaults on other villagers. Other men, watching the koudlountatoi,comment
on the quality and quantity of their bells. Some of them assess the value of
the bells of each koudhounaatosand make pointed comparisons between
According to the shepherds, to dress as a koudhounatosis to display one's
status, wealth, and power in aural terms." It is notable that today it is not
only the village's shepherds who dress as koudhounatoi.Villagers who have
moved away from the community and return only for brief summer or winter
holidays may also join the koudhounatoiparties during carnival.14Although
these men are no longer occupied as shepherds, they have kept their family
bells and take great pleasure in displaying them on ritual occasions. Some of
them also spend substantial amounts of money in buying new bells, although
they use them only for these ritual celebrations. For these men, the koud-
hounatoimaskings and the ritual display of bells have a special meaning. They
are customs which help them keep in touch with their village and their
pastoral origin; to dress as koudhlounatoi is their way of reaffirming their local
identity (Cohen 1982) and re-creating their contacts and relations with rela-
tives and friends. Furthermore, the ritual display of bells is a way of reassert-
ing their interests in family land and property, something they cannot do on
an everyday basis because of their absence from the village. Anyone, shepherd
or emigrant, upon entering into these ritual displays, is assumed to be an
equal competitor in the ongoing rivalry between shepherds. Some of the
recent stories recounting the stealing of bells were about emigrants who
had reminded other villagers of the existence of their bells by wearing them
during carnival. When they left the village, the bells were stolen from
their houses. There could hardly be a more ironic confirmation of the success
of an emigrant's attempt to renew his relationship with his community than
Bells were also used as noise-producing instruments in an old village ritual
which has died out since the 1930s. This ritual, the kourtala,1'was described

to me by older villagers who had performed or witnessed it as one of the

most effective regulatory rules of local customary law. The ritual was organ-
ized by the whole village, or at least a substantial part of it. It was generally
directed against violations of the community's moral order, such as unaccept-
able marriages, adultery, or quarrels between spouses. The aim of the ritual
was to make the offenders understand ('hear') that the whole village dis-
approved of their behaviour. The ritual always took place at dusk, at the liminal
moment signalling the transition between day and night. Villagers holding
bells, pans, tins, and other noise-producing instruments paraded past the
offender's house and 'beat the kourtalato him (or her)' (tou/tis htipousan ta
The local folklorist Manolis Psarras cites three cases of beating the kourtala
at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the first case, the kourtalawere
beaten for a young couple; although they were engaged, the girl's mother
changed her mind about the marriage and the boy stole the girl and took
her to his parents' house. That night, the village started beating the kourtala.
The couple married shortly thereafter. In another case, the villagers beat the
kourtala in order to signal their disapproval of the developing relationship
between a widow and a widower, who had been meeting at the widow's
house in the evenings. In a third case, the kourtalawere beaten for a recently
married couple. The man accused the woman of neglecting him and her
housework, while the woman accused the man of impotence. After the beating
of the kourtala,the couple ended their quarrels and remained together for life
without any further mutual accusations (Psarras 1986: 285-90).
The kourtala rituals were noisy expressions of collective disapprobation
which were held to emanate from the community as a whole. Old men
recounting occasions when villagers beat the kourtalasaid that it was the com-
munity's ultimate sanction against those who violated its moral norms. Those
subjected to it had only two choices: they could either submit and mend their
ways or leave the village, at least for a time.''

The indigenous meanings of sound and noise

In the final section of this study, I consider some wider aspects of the indig-
enous meanings of sound and noise. The use of bells in kourtalasignifies the
ambivalence that is inherent in the cultural codification of bells' sound in local
society. The sound of bells in kourtalais mixed with other sounds and codi-
fied as samatasor fasaria,terms meaning both noise and fight. This is a nega-
tive codification of noise, directly opposed to the positive meaning of daoura,
the noise of koudhounatoiand xeskouriasma.Samatas and fasaria are further
opposed to the ideal of 'quietness' (isilia, also meaning silence) in everyday
life and sociability.17Noise in kourtalasymbolizes disorder signalling the need
for order; it is an element of the 'outside' used to stigmatize the transgression
of'inside' norms by offenders against moral rules, who have not only broken
the rule, but have also transgressed the symbolic limits (of their conmunity,
their village, their social world, the 'inside') and entered into a transitional
condition of immorality, being neither 'inside' nor 'outside', thus at risk of
passing to a perpetual state of marginality.It is interesting that the ritual usually

took place at dusk, the moment of the temporal transition from day to night.
In the beating of the kourtala,noise (samatas),an 'outside' element, stands for
the action of transgression.Villagers beating the kourtalaalso become liminal
figures, albeit temporarily. Their status is similar to that of a ritual healer, a
shaman in the broadest sense of the term, undertaking a dangerous journey
beyond the limits, to the 'outside' world, in order to restore the 'inside' order.18
Bells are ambivalent symbols because of the symbolic conceptualization of
their sound. The sound of bells in the xeskouriasmaor the koudhounatoirituals
is directly connected with the ideals of village shepherds and is therefore posi-
tively perceived, while in kourtalait stands for the transgression of the com-
munity's moral order and accordingly has negative connotations. Because of
the ambivalent conceptualization of their sound, described in some cases as
honourable 'noise' (daoura)while in some others as disgraceful'noise' (samatas,
fasaria), bells constitute symbols of transition (cf. Needham 1967). In an old
ritual, performed upon a shepherd's death, his sons had to take the bells off
all his animals in his flock (cf. Anogeianakis 1996: 67). The flock was silenced
for nine days. On the ninth day, when the most dangerous part of the liminal
period following death was coming to an end, they would begin to put the
bells back on the stock animals. One bell would be hung every day until the
order of the flock was restored (see Psarras 1988). The 'voice' of the flock,
symbolizing a shepherd's identity and honour, had to be silenced upon his
death. The silent flock was thus 'mourning' along with the shepherd's relatives
and its sadness was only gradually ameliorated. A flock should be silenced in
any case of the actual or even symbolic death of its shepherd. This is made
clear in an old popular couplet which I heard, sung to a very sad tune by
young shepherds who are leaving the village for a long period of time, in
order to do their military service:

Take the bells off all the goats

so that they will look sad,
because the shepherd who has raised them
is going away.

We should also note that if a villager is mourning he will never dress as a

koudhounatosor 'shake out the rust' from his bells. Any other noisy display or
euphoric activity on his part, such as singing, dancing, or celebrating, is also
considered inappropriate. Furthermore, if the whole village is in deep mourn-
ing, on account of the death of a young person, for example, the rituals of
xeskouriasmaand koudhounatoiare either equally restrained or cancelled in their
In Philoti, loud deafening sounds mark euphoric and joyous situations in
general. At the same time, they mark territories of power. According to one
of my informants, shepherds hang bells on their stock animals in order to
mark their land, their 'territory' (periohi),'in the same way that wild animals
mark their own territory with their "voices"'. Likewise, a koudhounatosgoing
round the village is a sonic expression of his personal and family status, emit-
ting meaningful sounds which thereby extend his personal influence over the
whole village. Similarly,in local feasts, weddings, and other family rituals, loud-
ness is one of the most important signifiers of honour and power. The ringing
of church bells, firing guns in the air (at weddings), and, most of all, the deaf-

ening loudness of amplified professional local orchestras (ta violia, literally, the
violins) are indispensable elements of every successful celebration. In village
feasts, the violins always play very loudly all night long and their sound tran-
scends village boundaries.
While electric amplification of sound is a fairly recent phenomenon in local
feasts, the importance of loudness is much older. When I asked the villagers
about the state of affairs some twenty-five years ago, when there was no elec-
tric amplification of sound in local feasts, they all insisted that celebrations
were always noisy (ta ghlendia ihane panda daoura).(Note the use of the term
daourain this context, as opposed to samatas orfasaria.) Another villager told
me:'Once upon a time, during the village feast in August, I was coming from
"behind" (apiso,meaning from the pasturelands,as opposed to the village) and
when I reached the windmill I could hear the violins playing'. Built on top
of a hill that stands between the village and the country (exohes), the wind-
mill (o milos) marks the symbolic boundary between the village and the pas-
turelands.According to the villagers, the feast sound has to be all-encompassing
and it has always been like that. Loud sounds make the village vibrate during
local feasts and there is nothing more honourable by village standards than a
resounding and resonant village. Likewise, at local weddings and family feasts,
the families involved both possess the right and have the duty to make the
whole village resound at least for one night.19
As for the case of a group of male friends singing in a cafe, loudness is the
most desirable indication of its high spirits. Its performance is so absorbing
that it is almost unthinkable to have two different groups singing in the same
cafe at the same time. The high spirits of male friends singing together are
assumed to be a'sacred right' among village men. Other activities that usually
take place in the cafe may be strongly inhibited by a party of singers.Yet the
noisy expression of a group's high spirits is assumed to be one of the most
important aims of local singing performances. The higher the spirits, the
louder the sound and the greater the group's right to a noisy occupation of
the cafe space.

This article has focused on the ethnographic presentation and discussion of a
particular sound-producing object. I have suggested that animal bells can offer
a new perspective in the ethnographic study of sound in Greek society, while
the analysis of bells as sound-producing objects can clarify their symbolic con-
notations. By approaching the cultural meanings of sound and noise in various
contexts, I have maintained that bells should be specifically analysed as sound-
producing cultural artefacts and their sounds as aural cultural artefacts.
I first became interested in bells because they seemed to be highly impor-
tant symbols of masculinity. Later on, I came to realize that bells and their
sound are deeply embedded in the social relations and the expression of social
competitiveness. Bells' sounds constitute a powerful symbol in the process of
creating and solidifying moral order and social continuity. They also create and
reproduce family and community identities; they resonate with local identity
and history.

I have also suggested that the analysis of sound should start from a discus-
sion of the cultural construction of the senses and, more specifically, the sym-
bolism and the metaphorical language concerning the sense of hearing. I have
focused on the cultural meanings of sound and hearing, as well as on some
of the indigenous distinctions concerning sound and noise. The ethnography
of bells and their sound in the Naxos mountain region has revealed that sound
and noise in this community are multivalent cultural categories codified in
various ways in different contexts.
Finally, I have explored some more general aspects of the cultural symbol-
ism of sound and noise in this community; starting from a detailed analysis
of a single category of artefacts (animal bells taken as significant sound
objects), I moved towards sound and sound symbolism in general. This final
exploration has also indicated the path we should follow in order to articu-
late a wider analytical perspective concerning sound in Greek society, a per-
spective which would equally apply to all kinds of sound, from the peal of a
single quiet bell to the most complex cultural performances.


Fieldwork in Naxos was conducted between March 1992 and December 1993. Both field-
work and the writing of my thesis were supported by a doctoral scholarship from the
University of the Aegean. I also gratefully acknowledge generous support from the State
Scholarships Foundation of Greece and the award of a Visiting Fellowship by the Program in
Hellenic Studies, Princeton University. Among friends and colleagues to whom I owe thanks
for comments on earlier drafts of this article are Evthymios Papataxiarchis,Alexandra Bakalaki,
Dimitra Gefou-Madianou, Charles Keil, Steven Feld, Angela Vellou-Keil, Eleni Papagaroufali,
Vassiliki Moutafi, Alexandros Lagopoulos, Antonis Georgoulas, Stella Galani, Rania Astrinaki,
Eva Kalpourtzi, and Elia Petridou. I also thank two anonymous JRAI readers for their insight-
ful criticism and careful commenits.
It is notable that, in both cases, narrators refer to bell-thefts committed by other shepherds,
while they themselves claim to be either totally innocent or to be the victims of the thefts.
Some months later though, I also heard stories in which the narrator was the thief. In the
theft-stories recorded here, I use pseudonyms.
-The cross-cultural connection of hearing with moral order can be interpreted on the
grounds of the importance of hearing in the transmission and perception of speech as the prin-
cipal channel of human communication in oral cultures (Ong 1982; cf. McLuhan 1962). Recent
research on the cultural and social history of the deaf in Europe has also revealed the symbolic
significance of the sense of hearing, through the analysis of the marginalization and surveil-
lance of deaf people in the discourse of modernity, where hearing is related to rational think-
ing, and deafiness to irrationality (Mirzoeff 1995; Ree 1999; cf. Sacks 1989).
'Bclls as clelments of'authentic' Greek material culture and the sound of bells as symbol of
(;reek identity can be found in many contexts. For example, a large bunch of bells hanging
on the wall is a common item of folkloric decorations in restaurants and grill-houses all over
Greece. Bells, in this context, stand for village life and the idea of Greekness and authenticity;
they signify an old, pastoral, and traditional way of living. Accompanied by the shepherd's flute,
the sound of animal bells has always been the music 'sign' of Greek Radio-Television.
4Haiiiiiered bells have a more staccato sound than cast bells (kambanclia,literally, little kanm-
bauces,church bells). This 'church bell' quality of sound is the main reason shepherds in Naxos
cast bells' prefer hammered bells; they used to tell ime that the sound of cast bells is very kali-
baliistos (literally, like a church bell) to their ears. Today, most new bells are imported to Naxos
from other places of Greece. Nevertheless, until about thirty years ago they were made in Naxos
by local blacksmiths. Haimmered bells cost fromi around 1() to ()0 euros, depending on their
size and quality.

3The auditory symbolism of church village bells (kambanes) cannot be discussed in detail
here. On the role and symbolism of communal bells in European societies, see Price (1983)
and, especially, Corbin (1998).
6Stealing in Philoti is assumed to be a male affair par excellence.It mainly concerns 'male'
objects (flocks and bells) (cf. Herzfeld 1985). There is a strict morality of stealing among village
shepherds. They insist that they 'only go for the bells or the animals'. A common motif of
stories recounting bell-thefts from village houses is that the thieves often find much money
along with the bells but they never 'touch' it. Stealing bells or animals is an honourable male
act, while stealing money is disgraceful (cf. Stewart 1991: 71).
7'Inalienability is a characteristic of any object that becomes steeped with biographic sig-
nificance' (Hoskins 1998: 195).
8For a more elaborate presentation of such songs, as well as a detailed study of the role of
singing in the construction of identity, gender, and community in mountain Naxos, see
Panopoulos (1998).
'All translations from the Greek are by the author.
'"In some areas of Greece, the final hammering is seen as the crucial stage in creating a bell's
'voice' and special character. It therefore requires great skill on the part of the blacksmith. This
stage is usually called xefonisma (literally, the bringing out of voice) (cf. Anogeianakis 1996). I
have also recorded the same opinion among bell-makers in Crete and in the town of Kozani,
in western Macedonia. Nevertheless, the term xefonisma implies that a bell's 'voice' is already
there before any hammering 'takes it out'.
" For a detailed account of the making of both hammered and cast bells, see Anogeianakis
(1996) or, with useful illustrations, Anogeianakis (1976).
"1Bells produce sound only when somebody (human or animal) moves them; otherwise,
they remain silent. In the context of uxorilocal post-marital residence, which is the norm in
the village, motion is a structural characteristic of male gender, while women constitute the
stable element of social structure. Thus, the structural opposition sound/silence:: motion/
motionlessness can be directly related to the wider oppositions of gender roles and symbolism
(cf. Beopoulou 1987; 1992; Papataxiarchis 1995).
'3Bells are an essential, even indispensable, element of carnival and other forms of masking
all over Greece. The symbolism of bells in these rituals has been studied mainly by folklorists,
who point to the ancient origin of masking practices and explain the use of bells in them as
a primitive and customary way of procuring good fortune and protecting the community from
evil (Anogeianakis 1976; cf. Cowan 1988).
4For most of these men, as well as for emigrant village women, the 'revitalization' of
rituals, which faced a severe crisis during the 1960s as a result of the permanent migration of
villagers to urban areas, is a way to restore their disturbed relationship with their community
of origin (cf. Boissevain 1992; Panopoulos 1996). During carnival and August, they re-create a
broad community of villagers, a 'community born in [the] performance' (Caraveli 1985) of local
"5This term (used only in plural form) comes from the ancient Greek krotalon (a ritual
percussion instrument made either of metal or ceramic), via the medieval Greek kortalon
(Andriotis 1983: 172).
('The kourtalashare certain structural and functional characteristics with several rituals found
in different parts of Europe in the past under various names, namely the French charivari(Davis
1973), English 'rough music' (Thompson 1991), and German Katzenmnusik (Darnton 1991). Like
kourtala,these rituals mostly concerned moral offences, unacceptable marriages, and other family
matters which threatened to reverse the hierarchy of social and gender roles (cf. Thompson
17The distinction between sound and noise is certainly not only a matter of structural oppo-
sition; it is also connected to matters of social positioning, class, and agency. The positive or
negative perception of a sound is often related to the relative position of the 'observer' and it
often has important social consequences with regard to social and class distinctions (Corbin
JC.N. Seremetakis describes women's screaming (skouximo) as the first action
death in Inner Mani, in the southern Peloponnese. Ritual screaming is another instance
ing to the importance of 'noise' in signifying the transgression of boundaries between the
'outside' and the 'inside' (Seremetakis 1991: 64-81).
David Sutton makes a similar point concerning the positive character of noise in

Kalymnos island. Writing about the significance of dynamite-throwing at Easter for the con-
struction of a sense of community, he observes:
Those who watch at Easter but do not throw explain that without the dynamite, they
wouldn't feel that it's really Easter. Or more positively, they say that when you hear the
dynamite, then you 'understand' that it's Easter. Here 'understand' means to experience in
an almost visceral, physical (one is tempted to say 'ritual') sense, rather than in a purely
cognitive way. Kalymnians living in Australia and America are known to call home on the
telephone at Easter expressly to hear the dynamite exploding (Sutton 1998: 73).
There was a similar ritual in Philoti, called lmaskoula,some decades ago. One is tempted to
compare the use of the verb 'to understand' in this context with the metaphoric uses of the
verb 'to hear' discussed earlier.


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Symbolique des sonnailles: sons et audition dans un village

insulaire grec


L'auteur etudie la construction culturelle des sons et de l'audition dans un village de mon-
tagne sur l'ile grecque de Naxos, dans les Cyclades. Son analyse se base sur la pr6sentation
ethnographique et la discussion de la signification culturelle et symbolique des cloches du
betail. I1 explore egalement la relation entre d'une part, ces cloches et leur sonorite, et d'autre
part les questions de reproduction sociale et de constitution culturelle de l'ordre social. En
mettant l'accent sur les conceptualisations indigenes des sons et des bruits et sur le langage
nmetaphorique lie a l'ouie, l'auteur etend son propos a des considerations plus larges sur les
sons, leur symbolique et l'audition dans la communaute etudiee.

Akarnanos 10, 116 32 Athens, Greece.ppanopou(