Saturday, November 11, 2017

Karagiozis, We Need Ye.


Karagiozis is not a composer, writer, politician, or type of food.  It is a shadow theater character so deeply embedded in Greek folklore that the very name for that form of two-dimensional theater in Greece is “Karagiozis.”  Indeed, the puppeteer ingeniously bringing all the stories, music, singing, and staging together in shadows played out upon a cloth screen separating the characters from the audience is the “Karagiozopaihtis” (Karagiozis player).

Though the origins of shadow theater may have been Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, or Persian, it is generally accepted that Karagiozis came to Greece during its centuries of Ottoman rule, and the word itself derives from Turkish for “kara” meaning black, and “gioz” meaning “eyes.”  [Do we have an moment here, Cara Cara?].

The times through which the character evolved shaped him into a teasing prankster, one who lifted audiences’ spirits and offered them hope through lusty satirical attacks on authority figures and life situations.  Ugly and hunchbacked, Karagiozis represented the common folk in collision with everyone and everything socially and politically unjust. 

He often pretended to be a man of all trades in order to find work, then sought silly but cunning solutions to the various difficult and strange situations he’d created for himself.  

Karagiozis persisted even after Greece’s successful War of Independence (1821-1832), but the stories changed to reflect a newly independent Greek society.  They became comedies inspired by daily life, traditional folklore and fairy tales, and heroic themes emerging from Greece’s overthrow of Ottoman rule.

Karagiozis theater particularly flourished from 1915 until 1950, a time of major tribulations for Greece—two world wars, civil war, and rampant social unrest—providing continuous inspiration for a poor, uncompromising protagonist trying in vain to change his fate and protest against social injustice.

The vigorously moving characters, beatings of the innocent, unsatisfied greed, and strange and ragged clothing seminal to Karagiozis theater, all took place amid the continuous babbling, cunning word games, and numerous linguistic mistakes giving that form of entertainment a special place in the hearts of Greeks.

For some unfathomable reason, this week my mind kept wandering back to Karagiozis and his cast of eight characters.  So, I went back to some earlier research I’d done on the subject to see what could possibly be tugging away at my subconscious.  Once again, permit me to acknowledge a special thanks to the website of Turkish-Hellenic Union Solutions (THUS) from which I’ve borrowed freely.

I don’t know what parallels some may see between ancient Karagiozis characters and those on our world stage today, just keep in mind as you muse on the topic that all Karagiozis characters spoke through the voice of a single puppeteer who had other characters waiting in the wings to jump in should the mood or need strike him.

For better or for verse, here they are:

Karagiozis:  Always impoverished but full of life, he lived with his family in a pitiful shack in a large town, across from the Ottoman Pasha’s enormous palace.  He had no profession but was always willing to get involved with anything, even though he always failed, got into trouble and ended up beaten and returning to his shack as hungry as when he’d left.  Because Karagiozis was always out of work, he engaged in minor thefts but instead of hiding them told everyone, and in so doing justified the petty crimes as his only means of supporting his family.

Hatziabatis:  He was Karagiozis’ friend and always dressed in traditional Ottoman clothing.  Sometimes he was portrayed as honest, other times as a cunning thief.

Sir Dionysios:  A fallen aristocrat prone to a western way of life, he tried to act genteel and always wore a top hat.

Barba Yiorgos:  He was Karagiozis’ uncle, a mountain man of primitive ways but a gentle soul with true feelings, who came down to town from his village to get his nephew out of inevitable difficult situations. 

The Pasha:  He represented power and wealth as the highest Ottoman Turkish official.  Portrayed as just and kind to his subjects, in truth they were his victims. The Pasha rarely showed himself to the crowd, but his voice was heard giving orders.

Veliggekas:  The pasha's right hand man.  He was a Turk-Albanian police officer who did not speak the language (Greek) of the people he was charged with controlling by his master.

Morfonios:  Very greedy and with a high opinion of himself, he bragged about his physical appearance that was far from handsome.  He lived in a world of delusions and was one of the play’s silliest characters.

Stavrakas:  This character pretended to be brave and courageous but Karagiozis knew Stavrakas was actually a coward.  Karagiozis would beat Stavrakas and in so doing often turned Stavrakas into a crowd favorite because he forced Stavrakas into jokes and trickery in efforts to hide cowardliness and avoid the beatings.

So, folks, that’s Karagiozis in a nutshell, which only seems appropriate in the context of the nutshell of a world in which we find ourselves.

May your spirits be lifted, and hope spring eternal.


Jeff’s Upcoming Events

My ninth Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, AN AEGEAN APRIL, publishes on January 2, 2018 and here is the first stage of my book tour:

Thursday, January 4 @ 7PM
Poisoned Pen Bookstore,
Scottsdale, AZ (joint appearance with Thomas Perry)

Saturday, January 6 @ 2 PM            
Clues Unlimited
Tucson, AZ

Monday, January 8  @ 7PM
Vromans (on Colorado)
Pasadena, CA

Wednesday, January 10 @ 7PM                   
Tattered Cover (on Colfax)
Denver, CO

Saturday, January 13 @ 2 PM                    
Book Carnival 
Orange, CA

Sunday, January 14 @ 2 PM
Mysterious Galaxy
San Diego, CA


  1. Annamaria Alfieri has left a new comment on your post "Karagiozis, We Need Ye":

  2. He reminds me of characters from other cultures like Till Eulenspiegel from Germany. Perhaps every culture needs a figure to feel for, and laugh at instead of crying.

  3. We sure as hell could use one over here in the US, Michael.