The Sfakiotes have a reputation for being wild, lawless, independent and strong. Old travellers called them “.. that most remarkable part of the population of Crete” and remarked upon their pure blood and their exclusive habits, manners and dialect. More recent authors have kept the tradition going and called them “the legendary Sfakiots..” and “the very word ‘Sfakia’ conjures up visions of almost superhuman mountain-men – staunch fighters for their independence, marauding brigands clambering over stark gorges, tending their flocks, hunting the wild goat, striking down their enemies”, and “Sfakia is notorious for the harshness of the environment and the warlike people”. The area had changed but the feeling of independence still lived on. And fortunately for us people were also kind, generous and hospitable.
Sfakia is not only well known for fights against occupying forces, but also for local, internal feuding. Not only did the Sfakians participate in these blood feuds, but they seem to have been taken more seriously in west Crete than in other parts of the island. Feuds could occur within a village, or between villages. The immediate reasons for the feuds were usually sheep stealing, women, deaths, and questions of honour. In many cases there had been years of trouble between families when a small incident triggered the killing, and a vendetta could start between two families and extend to include all their relatives. A feud in the village of Aradena in 1948 that led to six men’s deaths, started when a child moved the bell from a sheep belonging to one flock over to a sheep from another flock. Three people died that same day, and the end result was depopulation of the village.
We learned about several vendettas in Agios Ioannis, the earliest around 1880 and the latest in 1959. The last reported case involved two men who were first cousins and brothers of men still living in Agios Ioannis during our stay. To avoid a large feud the one family left the village. One man returned after eight years. The two families were still not on speaking terms and would avoid each other as much as possible. They never visited each other. When they met on the village paths, they looked the other way and continued without greeting each other.
Earlier it was considered the duty of the family to take revenge. Later the police would handle the case, and the murderer would receive his punishment. But his relatives were still afraid of getting involved. During Easter of 1980 one man was shot at the Omalos Plain. Two men who had been friends for years were sharing a sheep fold and taking turns looking after the animals. They quarreled when one of them did not arrive until several days after the time agreed upon, and one of them was killed. The shooter was a nephew of two men from Agios Ioannis. These two men used to take their sheep to areas close by the grazing land of the dead man’s family. To avoid the chance of the killing developing into a feud, they decided to stay away from the summer pastures until the danger that they themselves might get involved, disappeared. By 1982, their sons had returned to the high pastures to herd the sheep through the summer; the men themselves were still staying away.
During the Second World War Crete was occupied by the Germans, but their presence in Agios Ioannis was not felt to the same degree as in the rest of the island. According to the villagers a few German soldiers would arrive about once a year, stay for an hour or two before they returned to Chora Sfakion. However, during the Greek Civil War the guerillas visited more often, and one man told us how he met a large party who came to the sheepfold at Kroussia, above the village. They took 40 – 50 kilos of cheese, but he was alone and could not do anything to stop them.
Quite unusually for a Cretan village, it was surrounded by a low wall.
Although the earlier history of the village can only be guessed at, a fairly clear picture can be drawn for its economy for the past hundred years.
The village is a belt of one- and two-story houses with a few other inhabited houses scattered around.
In January 1979 Ayios Ioannis had 13 households and a total of 55 inhabitants .
Religion and belief systems
There are five churches belonging to Agios Ioannis, with another in Aradena. Additionally, several other small chapels are found in Aradena, as well as several that lie on the outskirts of the koinotis, at its boundaries.
The feast of Agios Ioannis
The village feast on May 8th was still an important event.
There were three tourist centers in the western part of Sfakia; Chora Sfakion, Loutron and Agia Roumeli. A few tourists would also visit Agios Ioannis.