The Modern Cretan Dagger
By Bill (Baladakis) Ballas
No single historical item represents the Island of Crete more than the Modern Cretan Dagger. It is ceremonial, decorative, utilitarian, defensive, and was adorned by men as well as woman. It is an essential part of the traditional costume of Crete. All male Cretan dancers wear a traditional knife as part of their costume.
Considering the political history of Crete, it is no wonder that this tool, this weapon, this symbol of freedom and resistance against oppression, has become so etched into the fabric of Crete. The art of knife making on Crete has its roots to the late Minoan period (1500-1100 BC) where their daggers were considered to be a prestigious possession by the ancient Mycenaeans. Conquest after conquest made the habitats of the island very cautious and protective of their lands. Crete was occupied by many different conquerors due to its strategic importance, but never lost it language, faith, or culture although the latter was influenced by 300 years of Ottoman Occupation.
The “modern” Cretan dagger did not come into existence until after the Ottoman Turks’ occupation of the island (1649). This brought a market and the skills and tools needed for making knives which the Cretans embraced. Cretan Mahairakida (knife makers) began opening shops on Crete mainly in Herakleon and Chania. Chania eventually became the town with the majority of craftsmen, and thousands of knives were made each with their own subtle styles and designs. The every day and fighting knives were usually sheathed in a lambskin covered wood hilt. Ceremonial and Dancer’s daggers had elaborated hand chased silver hilts usually made by a local silversmith.
Cretan knives have a very distinct style and although similar to earlier Ottoman design, it did have significant differences. The handle is usually Bone or Ivory and there can me an acid etched Cypress Tree with a cross at its base or a bird flying off the tree. The silver chased hilts many times had a cross hidden in the design for Christians and a Crescent Moon for the Turkish population. The Turks who occupied Crete became customers of the Christian Knife makers but still wanted their knife hilt containing a crescent moon rather than a cross.
On the island when a couple would become engaged, the groom would have a small and fully functional dagger made special for his bride, who would wear it in public during their engagement; signifying that “she is taken.”
The art of Cretan knife making has been all but lost with literally a hand full of Mahairakida who are still performing the art with the same detail and quality in the tradition of their predecessors.
The Cretan Knife is the single most popular tourist item to this day, although the majority are inexpensive foreign made souvenirs. You can still find a couple of local shops in Chania that hand make their knives and you can watch them work.
Bill (Baladakis) Ballas has been a collector and curator for over 50 years and has worked on a variety of collections and historical subjects. Examples of Bill’s Cretan daggers and other historical artifacts of Crete will be on display at the Pancretan Association of America 2017 National Convention in San Francisco. For more information, visit his website at: www.cretandagger.com
Email the author: The Hellenic Journal