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Guns and Cretans: A Love Affair in War and Peace

Old rusty shells

Old rusty shells found in Agia Roumeli.

The Terror

I sit there frozen.  Each deafening blast heard and felt as a vibration in my heart.  It’s close enough that I can smell the powder and fire.

A machine gun is delivering terrifying bullet after terrifying bullet — a horrific auditory assault on the normally quiet soundscape of this tiny village.

What do I do?  I hit the floor as I learned by watching M*A*S*H*.  But being on the second story, I wonder if this makes any sense at all.  My brain is in a frantic boondoggle.  Where is the shooter?  Why is this happening?

After five minutes of silence I rush downstairs to find my host relaxing and unfazed.  “Bam, bam bam!” I shout, pointing my fingers like a gun towards the sky.  My brow is wrinkled with worry.  He smiles.  “The son of a family has come home.  Celebrating.  No worry Laura!”

Right. No worry.


This isn’t the first time I’ve been terrified of guns and explosions in Greece.  Last year, witnessing the Easter celebration in Santorini felt more like war reporting.  Homemade fireworks incited nuclear-sounding explosions.  A casual gathering of families to witness the shooting of a Judas-dummy indicated how acceptable (although illegal) it is to shoot guns in Greece.

When it comes to guns, Crete, specifically, is in a class all it’s own.

Why This Is

It’s only been 102 years since Crete joined Greece.  Because of this, Crete retains a unique identity.  And part of that identity is that one must be able to defend themselves against invasion.  Cretans have been subjected to countless invasions since their ancestors founded the first advanced civilization of Europe (2700–1420 BC).  It is in the blood and genes of the Cretan to defend.

The last major battle was the Battle of Crete in 1941 and it is notable for two reasons.  First, before this, the Greek government asked Cretan people to give up their guns.  Second, it was the first time that German troops were terrorized and fought against by the local population.  Women with brooms, children with stones, men with guns, the elderly with canes — they all came out fighting, causing a huge number of German casualties that even gave Hitler pause.  As you can imagine, after the battle was over, Cretans were more determined than ever to keep their guns and rebel against rules from mainland Greece.  And this is now an ingrained part of the Cretan psyche.

As it is Today

Today, although guns are illegal in Crete (and Greece overall) without a sport license, there are more guns per capita than anywhere else in the European Union.  And that is not counting the illegal guns.  Most guns are hidden or buried to escape the eyes of the law.

The Cretan today takes pride in his guns, but quietly.  In the small villages, where police know better than to come, the display of Μπαλοθιές (or gun shooting for celebration) is still enjoyed at weddings, christenings and other celebrations. It can be a jolt for an outsider like myself.  Terrifying, in fact.


Ironically, Cretans are quite shocked about the stories they hear about shootings in America.  They find it unbelievable and frightening.  They report to me what they see in the news.  “Why?”, they ask.  I don’t have an answer.

Statistics show that there are way fewer deaths by gun in Greece than in the United States (taking into account the difference in population).  Statistically-speaking, I am far safer in Greece than in my own country. 

That said, I hope I never hear that sound again.

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