Cyprus is known for its summer, its gastronomy and the political division that splits the island in two. What isn’t so obvious is the island’s rich folklore, a patchwork of superstitions and traditions that date back to tales of kings and crusaders. These stories have been deeply woven into the island’s oral history. Despite the political tensions, religious and linguistic differences, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots share many of the same beliefs and superstitions.
A whisper down the lane
Following a coup in 1974 by a right-wing military junta who tried to overthrow the Cypriot government and unite the island with Greece, Turkish troops invaded the island. They claimed this invasion was needed to protect Turkish Cypriots and continued by occupying the northern third of the island. Since then, the island has been unhappily divorced. In 2003, the Green Line dividing the island was opened to allow Cypriots from both sides to visit parts of the island that they were previously cut off from. It was a way for them to see the homes they fled, to re-discover the ‘others’ and allow them to realise that they are not much different. Though politics can be divisive, folklore and stories passed down from generations – like heirlooms – can bring people together. And Cyprus is no exception.
Some Cypriots brush these stories aside, saying that superstitious people are just living in the past. But in a time before people had electricity let alone Google, when there were no libraries and people couldn’t read, rites and regulations were forged through anecdotes and stories. These oral histories were embellished to such an extent that they become the stories of goblins kidnapping children, of queen hiding buried treasure in their castles and sea monsters in Ayia Napa.
The evil eye talisman
Michael is a 27-year-old Greek Cypriot currently living in London and working at a start-up. He explains how some traditions have stood the test of time: “People used to believe that gods lived in trees. Today, people touch wood for protection. It was a tradition that originated in ancient times and has survived until today.” Cypriots also used to burn olive leaves to smoke out evil spirits, and young Cypriots still do this today. Instead of smoking out spirits, though, they do it to clear the air of negative energy. The intention is the same, but the vocabulary has changed. Traditions may hold a mirror to the past, but they are being modernised. As society changes and globalisation becomes more and more prevalent, superstitions still make their way into modernity.
For example, Michael downloaded an app on his iPhone that is the amulet for protection against the evil eye. “I don’t particularly believe in it,” Michael explains, “but I have it anyway.” The blue glass amulet is sold everywhere in Cyprus, and costs anything from 1 Euro to a few hundred or more. Both Greek and Turkish Cypriots wear the amulet as bracelet or necklace, pin it on new-borns, or hang it up in their homes to protect them from jealousy. Paul, another young Cypriot living in London and who works in the hospitality industry, doesn’t “really believe in any of it.” Nonetheless, the 28-year-old does have a blue talisman in his living room and in his car. “[I go along with it] because everyone else does… and having it in the living room reduces the cost of home insurance!”
But is the need to protect oneself from jealousy still relevant for Cypriots living abroad? With young Cypriots moving away from the island and into bigger metropolises, reasons for superstition are boung to change. Stephanos, a 29-year-old scientist living in France’s capital city is convinced that this is due to societal shifts: “In Cyprus, you have large social circles with varying degrees of friendship rather than the smaller, close-knit friendship groups that you find in Northern Europe,” he explains. “Because of these close and distant friendships, with many people coming and going from the friendship circle, there can certainly be a level of jealousy. So I think there is something to the evil eye.”
Tasseography at Starbucks
The blue talisman against the evil eye is common throughout both Cypriot communities, as is tasseography, more commonly known as coffee reading. This tradition is still practiced by both Turkish and Greek Cypriots who want to get a glimpse of what their futures may look like. It is typically an elderly woman who reads the coffee. She does this by having the coffee drinker turn the cup upside-down, allowing the mud-like substance to fall onto a saucer. She reads the symbols in the cup, which can take any shape; from animals to people to objects. However, this tradition is no longer as popular as it used to be with young Cypriots. “I don’t know anyone who does this,” Michael admits. “Anyway, people in Cyprus drink coffee from Starbucks now. I’m not sure how you can tell the future in a pumpkin spice latte cup.”
Mike, a 35-year-old Cypriot who owns a salon and lives in Cardiff, believes that Cypriots abroad are less superstitious than those back home. But that’s not the case for him. Even though he now lives in the UK, he still believes in tasseography and the insights it can bring. “I believe in it and I can read it. My yiayia (grandmother) taught me how… Superstitions came from generations before the war. I don’t think there is a difference between the two communities [when it comes to tasseography].”
Neşe, a young Turkish Cypriot who lives and teaches in Famagusta echoes Mike’s sentiment: “We have similar superstitions, as well as other ones that are exactly the same. We lived together for a long time.” Neşe uses the example of phrases that both Turkish and Greek Cypriots use when asking for a blessing or protection: Maşallah, meaning ‘god willing’, as well as inşallah, which originates from Arabic. What’s more, when Cypriots want to prove a point, both communities say “işte böyle” meaning “just like this”.
Superstitions are a passing cloud
When speaking to young Cypriots who either live abroad or on the island, two trends emerge. The first is that the young generation of Cypriots swing from one extreme to the other: either they are not superstitious at all or hold on to traditions, even when living abroad. If they are superstitious, then they are a minority, but even this minority seems elusive. To many young Cypriots, superstitions are a passing cloud, something they may notice if prompted. What’s more, the most referenced traditions were those of the evil eye and coffee reading because they are “part of Cypriot culture.” The second trend amplifies part of the first. Cypriots living abroad are much less likely to be superstitious or practice these traditions daily.
The difference on how Cypriots interpret superstitions does not reflect the divide between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, but rather between Cypriots living in Cyprus and those living abroad. To many young Cypriots living on the island, it seems that belief in folklore and superstitions are so common that they are no longer noticeable. All those living in Cyprus said they owned an amulet against the evil eye, even if they were vague on how it was used or where they kept it. The island is still divided and the tensions are not bound to disappear anytime soon, but some things run deeper than conflict: the greater folklore of a culture that was once united.