All about Mantinades

One of the many wonderful things about Crete is that traditional culture plays such an important role in contemporary life, and among all age groups. Tradition is embraced by all generations and is seamlessly and beautifully integrated into Cretan daily life. One of the signature features of Cretan traditional culture is known to all throughout Greece – Mantinades.

What are Mantinades?

Mantinades are a rhythmic, rhyming couplet – more on the couplet will follow. But to understand the essence of a rhythmic verse following a clear pattern, we can look to the more well-known Limerick. A Limerick is unlike a Mantinada in that it has five short lines rather than two longer ones, but the lilting, easily recognizable rhythm is at once familiar to the ear. Like Limericks, Mantinades lend themselves to clever improvisation.

Unlike the Limerick – which is most often bawdy – the Mantinada can express every aspect of the human experience. But like Limerick, the Mantinada is an acquired skill, with some people being able to come up with a clever Mantinada to suit any occasion or emotion of the moment.

Dancers perform a traditional Cretan dance

The Form of Mantinades – the Rhyming Couplet

A couplet – just as it sounds – is a verse of two lines. In the specific case of Mantinades, the lines are of fifteen syllables each – there is in fact a word for this specifically: Dekapentasyllabic.

Dekapentasyllabic Verse

Those who know a little Greek will easily make out this word: “dekapentasyllabic” means “fifteen-syllable” (deka = ten, pente = five, and the word syllable we have, like so many things, borrowed from Greek).

Dekapentasyllabic verse is also called “Political” verse – but the word political does not mean what it does today in this context. Political as it is used here derives from the word polis – city – and here means poetry that is secular rather than religious – verse, in other words, that describes all aspects of daily life: popular verse, folk verse. Dekapentasyllabic verse was the most common metre of the Byzantine period.

Mantinades and Iambic Verse: What is Iambic Verse?

Most of us are familiar with the word “Iambic” in the context of “Iambic Pentameter” – in other words, five pairs of syllables. But Iambic on its own refers to the rhythm, to the pattern of words reflected in the emphasis and the rise and fall of the voice. Iambic means that a short, unstressed syllable is followed by one with a longer, more emphatic stress.

Cretan Lyra

The History of Mantinades

Mantinades were popular originally in the Byzantine Era – in Crete, this means the era of the Venetian Occupation (1205 – 1669). This means that, while much of Greece was in the control of the Ottoman Empire, beginning from 1430 in some areas, even before the fall of Constantinople, Crete remained Christian under the Venetians. This was a period of cultural flourishing, sometimes called the “Cretan Renaissance”. Mantinades were a key form of cultural expression in this era, and remain so today.

Where Does the Word Mantinades Come From?

It’s a beautiful word, itself lifting like the verse it describes. The origins of the word Mantinades has a couple of explanations. One is that it comes from the verb “mantevo” – to divine, as in an oracle. There is some logic in this, as ancient prophecies often took the form of poems. Another logical explanation links the word to the Italian spoken by the Venetians, as the island of Crete was occupied by Venice when the Mantinada originated. In this explanation, the root of the word is “mattino” – dawn, or simply “Mattinata” – morning.

Is the Mantinada a Musical Poem?

Cretan playing the lyra

The Mantinada is a rhyming couplet. It is not a song lyric, however, in itself, it has such a strong and clear rhythmic quality, and a lilting cadence that feels musical. Moreover, Mantinades are very well-suited to accompaniment of music, the Cretan lyra especially, as well as the “laouto” – stringed instrument like a lute. In practice, it is very common for a Mantinada to be delivered as a song.

What are Mantinades About?

The Mantinada is the soundtrack of Cretan life, narrating all events large and small, happy and sad. They tell profound truths, and even honour the dead – many Cretan tombs have Mantinades on them even.

However, most commonly, the Mantinada serves as a fine example of spontaneous wit and wisdom, with plenty of humour but substance, too. And of course, as love occupies us in life, so it is a favourite subject of the Mantinada:

“Κάθε λεπτό σε σκέφτομαι κάθε στιγμή μου λείπεις, υπάρχεις μες στο αίμα μου σαν τον ιό της γρίπης!”

“Kathe lepto se skeftomai, kathe stigmi mou leipeis, Iparcheis mes sto aima mou san ton io tis gripis”

“I think of you each moment, ever I miss you, it’s true, You run in my blood like a virus, like some kind of flu.”

Psiloritis Mountain

And the inspiration of others is Crete itself:

“Όσο υπάρχουν τα βουνά και στέκει ο Ψηλορείτης, δεν έχουν φόβο να χαθούν τα έθιμα της Κρήτης”.

“Oso yparchoun ta vouna kai steki o Psiloritis, then exoun fovo na hathoun ta ethima tis Kritis.”

“As long as there are snowy peaks, and proudly stands Mt. Psiloriti, There is no fear that we will lose the precious customs of Kriti”

Who Creates and Performs Mantinades?

Well, in Crete potentially everyone, but some people are better at it than others. The Cretan lifestyle lends itself to this popular art form. For example, while people are still gathered around the table after a meal, sipping on their raki and toasting, as the mood grows ever more lighthearted, someone may well spontaneously break out into mantinades.

Another wonderful feature of the Mantinada is that they are often antiphonal, meaning they are very well suited to a dialogue. One Mantinada can call for another Mantinada in response, as friends can engage in some very skilful banter – sort of a southern Mediterranean rap battle with Byzantine roots.

Cretan Folk Dancing

Mantinada Contests

So popular is this folk art form that there are even contests. The Philologist Society of Chania sponsors one, and so do the municipalities of Agios Nikolaos and Ierapetra, among others.

Famous Mantinades

While many mantinadas are composed on the spur of the moment, and most Mantinades are never written down, one is very famous, known all over Greece and very popular in Crete. This is the famous “Erotokritos” – a long poem written by Vitzentsos Kornaros in the early 17th century when Crete was under Venetian rule. The Erotokritos is constructed from over 10000 dekapentasyllablic rhymed verses: mantinades.

Mantinades in Crete

Mantinades are one of the most interesting intangible cultural treasures of Greece. If you begin to be able to pick out their rhythms, you’ll soon be recognizing them throughout your trip.