The Oenotrians: Calabria’s Ancient, Wine-Loving Pioneers

Gaglioppo_in_Calabria

Photo by Fabio Ingrosso

They gave wine lovers an identity and one of them gave Italy its name. Beyond that, not much is known about the Oenotrians, an ancient society that dwelled in the Calabrian hills and pastures prior to Hellenization.

The Oenotrians first came to the lower peninsula as early as the 11th Century BC, by way of the Pelopennese. They are considered “pelasgian” people, a catch-all term to describe those who came from Greece before it was, well, Greece. Led by Oenotrus, the Oenotrians cultivated the land and built towns from Campania to Calabria. Unlike the Etruscans, not much physical evidence seems to exist that documents the times of the Oenotrians. (An archaelogical dig at Timone della Motta on a Calabrian hill has offered some possibilities, including an 8th Century BC Oenotrian temple). We have to rely instead on the histories of men like Sophocles, and Antiochus of Syracuse, both of whom wrote of the Oenotrians in the 5th century BC. Another historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, claims that the Oenotrians left Arcadia for Italy “seventeen generations before the Trojan expedition,” to put their arrival in some kind of perspective.

The Oenotrians were famous for their vineyards, and thus were given their names by Hellenic Greek colonizers centuries later based on the Greek term for wine (oinos). Today we refer to a wine lover as an oenophile.

Their contribution to the modern language didn’t end there. Eventually there was an Oenotrian king named Italus, and from his name was derived the term Italy to describe the region and of course the nation as it stands today.

According to Antiochus, Italus’ successor Morges later partitioned the kingdom into three parts: His own domain (the Morgetes), the Italians, and a kingdom for his friend Sicelus – the Sicels.

How much of this is accurate is anyone’s guess. After all, it was claimed that Oenotrus was a descendant (son, perhaps) of Lycaon, King of Arcadia who in Greek myth served Zeus his own dismembered son for dinner to test his omniscience. In our sense of history, the Oenotrians, ancient inhabitants of Calabria, straddle the border between history and legend. Next time you open a bottle of wine, drink to their legacy.

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Remants Of The Ancient World: The Griko People Of Italy

griko

Photo: Jebwalwhales (Wikipedia)

Like a lot of European countries, Italy is as much a collection of dialects as it is a unified people. Certainly by now, 152 years since unification, Florentine “Italian” is standardized and spoken everywhere in the country. But Italians are stubborn and continue to hang on to their many local dialects. As recently as 2006, 48.5% of Italians spoke their local dialects at least in conjunction with regular Italian in their domiciles; of that group, one third spoke only, or at least prevalently, dialects in lieu of Italian when at home!

It’s no surprise that variations of the language continue to exist, but what fascinates me is that mixed among these Latin-based Italic tongues there still exist pockets of Greek-based language. In a few comuni, there remain people who speak Griko, a corrupted form of the Greek language imported to the peninsula thousands of years ago.

Greeks first arrived in Italy around 750 B.C., and colonized mostly its coastal areas in much the same way Europeans would later colonize the Americas. “Magna Graecia” was Greece’s “New Land,” and Syracuse eventually became its most powerful city. The Romans of course eventually swept through, but pockets of Greek-speaking people survived the Latin wave. They were probably bolstered by Byzantine Greek immigrants up to and after the Siege of Constantinople (1453), but the Griki are nevertheless believed to be descendants of those ancient Greek immigrants.

Pockets of Griki can be found today in a handful of comuni in the Salento area of Apulia (Graecia Salentina), and in the Bovesia area of Calabria (Graecia Calabria). I plan to make the Bovesia area part of my next trip to Calabria so I can explore this fascinating culture in person. If anyone reading this has any insight or experience in Graecias Salentina or Calabria, I’d love to hear about it. In the meanwhile, here is a brief film on the Griko of Salento:

And for good measure, a music video in Griko, performed, naturally, on an Imperial Star Destroyer.