“Martaki” or “Marti”
Every year in Greece, from March 1st until March 31st, people wear a bracelet, made of twisted white and red thread on their wrist.
The red thread symbolizes joy and white symbolizes purity. The bracelet protects people from the Evil Eye and the faces of children from the first spring sun, so they do not burn.
People make this wristwatch during the last day of February and wear it on the first day of March, before leaving home. When March ends, kids remove their bracelets and hang them on the trees for the swallows to grab them and use them when building their nests.
In some areas, people wear Martaki on their first toe, as a ring, so that the owner does not stumble.
Swallows and martaki
March is the month of the spring migration of birds from the African continent to Greece as well as the rest of Balkan countries.
With the healthy swallows also some ill or weak will migrate. If a weak swallow sees something red, avoids it, and does not approach. On the contrary, the healthy swallow picks up the white-red spinner and carries it to its nest to prevent weak intruders. This way the healthy swallow protects its’ healthy eggs. For this reason, the elders’ understanding of the usefulness of the swallows prevented the children from playing with them and approaching their nests.
The custom is considered to be of Thracian origin. However, some ethnographers claim
that the custom can be traced back to the Eleusinian Mysteries. The ancient equivalent of the modern Greek “martis” is the kroke. This custom is mentioned also in Photios’ Lexicon. The priests would wrap a red thread around their right hand and foot. At that time people used red or otherwise colored threads to protect children and youths from evil spirits and witchcraft.
There is a Bulgarian tale about Khan Asparukh referring to the origins of Martenitsa. Asparukh sent a letter to his sister across the Danube river about his victory over the Byzantine Empire. He tied his message with a white string on the leg of his messenger eagle. The Byzantines though saw the eagle flying, shot, and injured it with an arrow. The message was delivered, but the white string had red stains by the eagle’s blood.
Common to all Balkan countries
The holiday of granny Baba Marta is celebrated on the 1st of March. Baba Marta is a grumpy mythical figure who brings with her the end of the winter and the beginning of Spring. The bracelet is called martenitsi in Bulgarian.
The white color at first symbolized the man and the power light solar zone. Later, under the influence of Christian mythology, began to indicate integrity and virginity. Red used to represent the female element and health, as red would be a sign of blood, conception, and birth. In ancient times women’s wedding dresses used to be red.
A typical Martenitsa consists of two small wool dolls, Pizho and Penda. Pizho, the male doll, is usually predominantly white. On the other hand, Penda, the female doll, wears a predominantly red skirt.
The red and white woven threads symbolize the wish for good health. They are the heralds of the coming of spring and of new life. While white as a color symbolizes purity, red is a symbol of life and passion, and so some ethnologists have proposed that, in its very origins, the custom might have reminded people of the constant cycle of life and death, the balance of good and evil, and the sorrow and happiness in human life.
The Martenitsa is also a stylized symbol of Mother Nature, the white symbolizing the purity of the melting white snow and the red setting of the sun, which becomes more and more intense as spring progresses. These two natural resources are the source of life, or male and female beginnings, and the need for balance in life.
The same festivity has the name Mărțișor. People share red and white strings with hanging tassels on the 1st day of March. In the olden times, the string was red and black. Both women and men wear it pinned to their clothes, close to the heart, until the last day of March. Then, they tie it to a fruit-tree twig. In some regions, a gold or silver coin hangs on the string and people wear it around their necks. After wearing it for a certain length of time, people buy red wine and sweet cheese with the coin. There is a belief that their faces would remain beautiful and white as cheese and rubicund as the wine, all year long.
The red thread symbolizes the love for beauty and the white the purity of the flower snowdrop, which blooms in March. Many Romanian customs and traditions have links to this flower. According to mythology, God-Sun transformed into a young man and went down to Earth to take part in a feast. But a dragon kidnapped him, causing the world to disappear and sink into the darkness.
One day a young man, along with his companions, killed the dragon and released the Sun, bringing the spring. The young man lost his life and his blood – according to the legend – stained the snow red. Since then, on March 1, all young people wear this bracelet. The red thread symbolizes the young man’s blood and his sacrifice, while the white thread symbolizes purity.