Family and kinship

The most important social group in Agios Ioannis was the nuclear family. Loyalty to one’s family members should be more important than friendship, and with regard to outsiders the family should always present itself as a unified front. The need of the family was more important than the need of others, and members of the household would work together to improve the family’s position in society. 

Bilateral kinship (kinship through both the father’s and the mother’s family) is the second most important organizing principle after that of the nuclear family. However, kinship on the father’s side is the most important. When a person marries, both one’s own first cousin and the first cousin of one’s spouse will be addressed by the same kinship term. The terms aunt (theia) and uncle (theios) are used both for parents’ siblings and grandparents’ siblings, as well as more distant relatives or sometimes unrelated persons. Both first cousins and second cousins were normally referred to as cousin, and people would only distinguish between the two terms if reqested to do so.

People are quite aware of who their first and second cousins are, both their own and those related through marriage. This knowledge is important since a person has rights and obligations regarding one’s cousins and is not allowed to marry a first or second cousin. The relation to the siblings of one’s spouse, their husbands and wives and nephews and nieces on both sides is also an important one. 

The girls married young. There were few reasons for postponing a marriage and no need for them to wait until their fathers and brothers had saved enough money for a dowry. Parents who wanted to secure a good marriage for their daughters, might marry them off when a good offer came, in spite of the girl being only 16 or 17 years old. A large group of Sfakians had settled in New York, and some men returned from USA to find a young and good-looking wife.

Everyone we talked to claimed there was no dowry in Agios Ioannis. The village was poor, and what had previously been used as dowry – sheep, olive trees or a house in the village – was no longer acceptable. During the difficult years of the Second World War a man paid three sheep for a house and gave it to his sister as dowry. However, it was different in other parts of the island. During our stay, one man from Agios Ioannis married a woman from Chania who had a house, 100 olive trees and 100 orange trees. Even in the late ’70s the young girls would spend several years working on their trousseau, which every girl in the village had to have: tablecloths, bedclothes, etc. Earlier, the girl and her mother would need ten years to make these items, but later, much of it was store-bought. 

In Agios Ioannis the youngest son inherited his parents’ house, while the land would be split up between all the sons. However, few of the sons would stay in the village and were therefore more interested in receiving cash. When the parents died or left the village, the houses were abandoned and the land sold to those who stayed. In this way those remaining have been able to build up bigger plots.

Most men got married in their early thirties. One man was concerned when his son married at the age of 24. He thought this was a bit too young. However, when an 18 year old, unmarried girl from one of the neighbouring villages visited relatives in Agios Ioannis, the local women thought she was rather old for someone not to be engaged. The irony was that these women were all in their 20s when they got married which was the normal age before 1970.

The marriages in Agios Ioannis were usually arranged marriages. Earlier most people found their marriage partner within the five village area consisting of Agia Roumeli, Samaria, Agios Ioannis, Aradena and Anopolis. In the late 70’s the men from Agios Ioannis were seldom potential marriage partners for the village’s girls. Most of the families were related either through marriage or godparenthood. These girls would therefore have to find their spouses outside the village, and they themselves preferred to move to Chania or another town. However, during the period 1900-79 almost 40% of the women found their spouse inside the village, and 7 out of 13 married women living in the village in 1979 were born in Agios Ioannis.

Women and men would not be allowed to be alone or live together before they got married. The villagers told us about a teacher who some years earlier had brought his girlfriend along, and the villagers immediately found her a room in one of the houses not realizing she had planned to live with the teacher. Everybody thought this was a funny story, but they still thought their way was the best way.

In addition to kinship relations inside Agios Ioannis everybody had strong ties with the surrounding villages. Out of 29 adults in the village, one came from Aradena, three from Samaria, three from Anopolis and one from Askifou. The rest were born in Agios Ioannis.

Every person had one or more marriage sponsors or godparents. One could have both women and men as sponsors, but usually the sponsor would be a man. Few people would use close relatives as sponsors, and it was obvious that most people used this ritual sponsorship as a way of creating close ties with previously unrelated families.

The most important sponsorship was the baptismal sponsor. This person had responsibility for the spiritual upbringing of the child, but should also have a concern for the welfare of both the child and its family. The sponsors and their family became spiritual members of the child’s family, and members of the two families were not allowed to marry. The relationship between a person’s child and godchild was supposed to be closer than that between cousins. Two godchildren of the same sponsor were regarded as spiritual siblings and were, therefore, not allowed to marry each other.

I had tried to make a illustration of kinship in Agios Ioannis in the late 70’s including blood ties, marriages and godparents, with arrows and lines in many colours but soon got lost. It is very complicated and only proved what I already knew – that, in the village, everybody was related to everybody else one way or the other.

Kinship ties could be useful in finding a spouse for the children, finding work and helping during an education. Relations would also be activated for economic and political benefits and it was usually for these reasons people tried to find an influential sponsor for their children. Under normal circumstances a person’s immediate kin consisted of a few close relatives and some more distant relatives living close by. However, every person in Sfakia had a large group of kin, including first, second and third cousins in addition to spiritual kin, and this extended kinship network could be activated when necessary. 

Many of the villagers in Agios Ioannis could trace their ancestors several generations back. One man was able to trace his genealogy back six generations, to one Michalis Passaramadakis who was probably born between 1650 and 1700. His son Ioannis Michelodopapas married one of Daskalojannis’ (a revolutionary hero born in Anopolis) daughters and had five sons who were all ancestors to families in Agios Ioannis. Only one of the sons, Nikos, had descendants still living there. One of Nikos’ sons was Vardis Passaramandakis who was the father of another revolutionary hero – Ioannis Vardinakis (1828-1900), also known as Vardinojannis – the ancestor of one of the country’s most prominent shipowner families.

Greek naming patterns make life difficult for any foreigner trying to understand the family structure. Ideally people should name their first son after the father’s father, the first daughter after the father’s mother, the second son after the mother’s father and the second daughter after the mother’s mother. In reality these rules are not followed strictly, at least not in Agios Ioannis. Most families had many children, and if all of them named their offspring after the grandparents, this would lead to a duplication of names even more pronounced than what we experienced. Instead, people would use the names of their own brothers, sisters or grandparents and only one or two brothers could use the father’s name for a son.

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