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Mediating Blood Feuds in the Cretan Mountains

What to do in Crete during the summer holiday? Most people associate this spectacular island of the Mediterranean with crystal-clear waters, tasty local food and wine, the merry-go-round of swimming, diving, eating, drinking and dancing. The whole nine yards of a wonderful holiday.

Fewer are aware that Crete has a darker side. The mountains hide a highly conservative society, with a deep tradition of self-reliance and resistance to any kind of outside rule – being that of the Romans, Venetians, Turks and even the modern government in Athens. Their customs are alive, not relicts of a faded age. And part of them is the persistence of blood feuds, conflicts between clans that go for generations, involving armed violence and bloodshed.

For years I was doing research on the topic of traditional practices of conflict management and resolution – meaning those processes developed by autonomous communities around the worlds before the advent of the modern state and its institutions of law-enforcement and justice as we know today. Autonomous communities (I define autonomous communities as those groups of people that live in isolation from the main body of a certain nation, an isolation generated by geography or culture or both) have kept these practices alive and they can be found in various places from North America to Africa and from Polynesia to Southern Europe. Their customary approach to conflict and conflict management has survived the onslaught of colonialism, modernization and globalization, against all efforts done by foreign powers and domestic governments to disband and replace them with the Western model of courts, judges and lawyers. The reasons for their survival are many and this is not the place where to discuss them.

After years of spending my holidays in Crete, it came to my attention the existence of the blood feuds and the practice of mediation done by traditional mediators in order to stop them. Naturally, I became curious and started searching the net for more information. This is how I found an article describing the work of mesites – i.e., mediators, in Greek – in Crete. I was instantly absorbed and became interested to find our more details about these mediators, so I typed the name of the author on FB search. I gave me three results and I decided for one which looked more probable to be the person I was looking for. I wrote him a few line on Messenger asking if he was the author of the article and if he was available for a chat. In a couple of minutes I had the positive answer, then we had a chat on Messenger, then one on Skype, then we took advantage of the Erasmus program and got him to my university, then I got to his university and this is how we ended up lunching in the Ida Mountains of Crete, guests of a well-off traditional Cretan family apparently stepping down from one of Kazantzakis novels.

It was around noon when we arrived up in the Psiloriti Mountains of Crete this summer. The hosts were a shepherd family where the father was a blood feuds mediator; mother, two sons and two daughters – the elder of the daughters was a student of the University of Crete and also she was engaged with a young man, also a mediator.

As customary in Crete, there was no talk without lunching together – stuffed leaves and lamb liver as starters, with tzatziki; three different dishes of mouton, cooked in three different ways; pasta with cheese as a side dish; home-made wine, water and coke (“traditional drink”, as the guys at the table joked); figs coated in sugar as desert.

I and my friend and facilitator of the meeting, Aris Tsantaroupoulos, professor of anthropology at the University of Crete, were sitting there at the table and tried to keep up with our hosts in dealing with the food. My friend and the family soon become engaged in a vivid discussion about various political events going on in the country. The conversation was in Greek, which is definitely Greek for me, and nobody cared to much about translating. So, there I was, eating mouton and listening to Greeks talking politics.

Two hours later, when lunch was coming to a close, the father looked directly to me and said something. My friend translated and I understood that now was the time to ask my questions. The investigation had finally begun. Below are the results of this conversation.

There were many reasons for beginning a blood feud, but the trigger was always a violent act committed by a member of one family against one or more members of a different family. Cretans still live in extended families (or lineages, to talk the talk of anthropologists), which are very tight and solidarity is key to their existence. Such a violent act requires retaliation, which leads to escalation and this is how a blood feud arises. But that violent act does not result in murder – if death occurs, then police will intervene, the dispute becomes ‘official’ and the state institutions (prosecutors, lawyers, judges) get involved. The role of the mediator(s) is thus to stop escalation into crime and prevent police (and state institutions) interference. Mediation is to prevent a blood feud arising.

The causes of conflict vary a lot, but they can be grouped into three distinct categories: 1. issues related to land/pasturage;  2. issues related to sheep – stealing or killing them; and 3. honor, especially family women’s. All of these issues are considered an attack to the man’s honor, which is probably the most important value held in a very masculine society. Any of these issues can become a source of conflict. Triggers are usually verbal confrontations (usually public) leading to violence. As firearms are common in the mountains of Crete (due to a long tradition of resistance to foreign invaders, in accordance with local rhetoric), most often violence means armed violence – shootings that leave people injured and hospitalized. To prevent retaliation in kind by the members of the victim’s family and thus escalation that leads to murder, mediators intervene and try to settle the conflict peacefully.

Mediation is beset on a set of unwritten rules and procedures that really make it more of a ritual than a conflict resolution process (or, better said, the ritual itself is a conflict resolution process).

So, it starts with the violent act. Upon hearing about it, mediators get committed either at the call from the perpetrator’s family or relatives, or at their own initiative. This latter situation occurs when high stakes are involved (the violence involved high-ranking families, at least on one side, or the violent act itself endangers the whole community and exposes it to intervention from outside – police and/or other law-enforcement agencies of the Greek government).

From the very beginning, it should be noted that mediators are always persons of high prestige and influence in the community and the island at large, persons who are always connected with the families involved in the conflict. Contrary to what a regular scholar or practitioner of mediation in the Western world learns from the very initiation in this trade – that neutrality, impartiality and the lack of conflicts of interests are key ingredients for the success of mediation – mediators of blood feuds in Crete are precisely chosen for their ability to influence the conflicting families and their members, to persuade and even coerce them into accepting a mediated solution that prevents the escalation of the conflict into a blood feud. What’s similar to modern practice is the lack of any stake in the conflict for the mediators – they have to have no horse in that race, otherwise they will not be accepted.

For the same reason of giving weight to mediation, there can be as much as ten mediators involved in one case. Number of mediators called to intervene depend on a multitude of factors, including the gravity of the violent act, its consequences for the victim, the victim’s family and the community in its entirety, the status of the families involved and so on.

Mediation process always begins with a period of “pacification”, meaning a time when the families voluntarily dis-engage and swear an oath not to act against each other or take action during the time mediators are at work (they avoid to meet each other and their relatives in public places – road, cafes, taverns – until the work of mediators is done and the ritual feast of ending the conflict occurs). Any violation of this oath is considered an insult to the mediators and can lead to their withdrawal or even retaliation from them, followed by the lowering of the culprit’s family status and prestige within the community.

The withdrawal of the mediators is in itself a very grave punishment for the culprit’s family – it leaves that family totally exposed to retaliation from the other family and from the entire community, with no protection whatsoever. It basically turns that family into an outlaw, free to be persecuted by anyone in the community and also left to deal on themselves with law-enforcement agencies. For this reason the mediators are always persons of high-prestige, high-power and influence in the community – so no one dares to infringe on their work and refuse their services (and solutions, as we will see a bit further away). Mediation is thus not to be taken lightly by the people involve in a conflict and cannot be refused on a whim.

There is one exception regarding this period of pacification. If the perpetrator comes form a very poor family and the victim belongs to a very well-off one, the powerful family will always retaliate first (so to establish equality in terms of victims) and only then it will accept mediation. Thus, their honor (gravely affected by being assaulted by someone of a lesser status) is restored and mediation can begin. But, as any other social construct, this “rule” can support alterations. For example, in order to prevent the powerful to retaliate in kind, the mediator(s) may pay out of their pockets the rich family and thus restore their honor, leading them to accept mediation without getting even with the perpetrator’s family. This happens only if the violent act regards property destruction.

During this period of pacification, mediation occurs. It starts with the mediators talking to the families involved. They always talk firs to the victim’s family and only afterwards with the perpetrator’s family. It is a fact-finding mission, due to establish what happened and, most importantly, why, what were the motives of the violent act and of the conflict itself. The mediators also inquire on what terms the family of the victim would settle the conflict and refrain from retaliation.

After establishing the facts and identifying the families’ expectations and wishes, the mediators confer and build a solution based on the findings and on what is considered just according to traditions, customs, unwritten rules and their own best judgement. That’s why mediators are called to be only those whose judgement and abilities are most trusted by the people involved. Contrary to Western practices, where anyone can become a mediator (albeit not necessarily a successful one) if a certain number of conditions are fulfilled (training, qualifications, exams etc.), in this more traditional environments a mediator can only be someone trusted by the parties, trust that comes from his (all mediators are men, as expected from very patriarchal society – but women play an interesting and by no means lesser role in the settlement of blood disputes) abilities, his life achievements, his reputation, status (economic, social or even political), power and influence, things that no formal training and exam-passing can give anyone in the world. So people call to mediate persons their judgement and integrity they trust, because they effectively put their fate in their hands.

Also, different from the Western rules and practices, in the Cretan mountains it is the mediators who are called to build the solution, not the parties. Most accurately, the mediators work like a „filter”. They discuss with every side their terms and try to formulate them for being acceptable from the other side. The criterion for “filtering” the terms are the cause of  conflict and the form of violent act and also the status difference of two sides.

The parties retain their power of decision over the solution, meaning that they (in theory) are able to accept or refuse the terms offered by the mediators. In reality, a refusal is most unlikely. Families can negotiate the terms offered by the mediators, but they rarely refuse them bluntly or openly. They attempt to change various details, bargaining back and forth in order to gain a better settlement (and mediators accept these attempts, considering them an organic part of the resolution process), but the families seldom refuse the solution upfront. Such a rebuttal would be regarded as an insult to mediators and their judgement, with the same consequences as described above in case of violation of the “pacification” oath.

The mediators maintain a high degree of confidentiality over what’s been told to them by the parties – they never tell one party what the other have said or what they wish in order to settle; they also never discuss the issues related to that conflict with anyone in the community, as it is considered that there can be some who might be willing the conflict to escalate, to profit from it or to prevent a settlement happening. After coming to solution by conferring among themselves, the mediators go to the parties and communicate it. As we said above, families can accept or refuse it, but refusal is rare. Families can negotiate the terms and the mediators go back and forth, shuttling between the houses of the families involved until every detail is set.

When agreement is reached, the mediators offer a prodigious feast where all the male members of both families have to take part (there is an accent on “all” and “have”). The feast is prepared in a neutral place, either at the house of one of the mediators or in a tavern. Aris Tsantaroupoulos, world-class specialist in the anthropological study of Cretan blood feuds, states that this feast is a ritual confirmation of the success of mediation and also an exposure to the public (i.e. community) of the fact that the families involved in the conflict agreed to settle. This way, the entire community becomes aware that the conflict stopped and will keep the families to the task of maintaining peace between themselves.

Women prepare the feast, where lamb grilled with potatoes or stewed with rice and salad are on the menu. The drink is wine. The participants are all male, mainly those directly involved, together with first, second and even third degree relatives. Their participation is a sign of accepting the terms of the agreement proposed by the mediators.

When the feast is ready, first will arrive the mediators, then the members of one family, then the members of the other, never both on the same time. They all sit, eat and talk about everything in the world but the conflict – business, weather, life, politics, property, who married and who died. Nothing, not even the smallest hint to the recent conflict. The only reference to the conflict is a promise of a spiritual kinship, i.e. marriage or baptism. After all of these, mediators address them all and reminds them they have decided to put an end to their conflict and mend their relationship. They all drink a glass of wine and say “eviva!” and that’s it: the formal recognition of all present that an agreement was reached and accepted and that the conflict is over for good. Then they leave as they came, first one family, then the other and the mediators the last.

If some of the male members of any of the families involved don’t show up at the feast, it means they have rejected the terms of the agreement. Such a situation can endanger the future relationship between the families involved and even lead to re-escalation of the conflict. Consequently, the mediators go to them, work to find out the reasons of their refusal and talk them into acceptance. If the refuseniks are obstinate, the mediators look for someone that can influence them and ask to intervene. It is only now, after the families have accepted the agreement and have publicly ended the conflict, that the mediators could and would enlarge the circle of those involved in the process of mediation. This goes on and on until everyone is satisfied and the conflict is completely extinguished.

There are many issues open to discussion. What I’ve done above was to reconstruct the process of preventing a conflict to become a blood feud and describe it. Now, the locals call this process “mediation” – sasmos, in Greek, which literally means “compromise” or “conciliation”. The mediators are called “mesites”, meaning mediator, but also “siahtes” or “siastades”, two words with an identical meaning of constructor, repairer.

Of course, there are many aspects of the process that can raise the objection of Western scholars and practitioners for calling it mediation. For example, if the solution is built by the mediators themselves (and they never disclose to one party what the other parties expectations and wishes are during the fact-finding talks) and the solution is rarely (or never) refuses by the parties, for the reasons specified above, can this process still be called mediation? Mediation, as we all know, is defined by the self-determination of the parties, meaning the parties are the ultimate decision-makers and the mediator holds no power whatsoever to force the parties to accept a solution if they think it is not in their best interest. By this definition, does the ritual of settling a conflict before it becomes a blood feud apparently lack the necessary pillar of self-determination to be called mediation, having more the character of arbitration as it is understood in the Western world?

My answer is that as the parties retain their power (the quantity of it depends on a number of factors like the prestige and status of the family itself in relation with that of the mediators, the size and wealth of the families, in absolute terms and in relation one to each other, their influence and connection within the community and with the out world etc.) of bargaining over the terms and the details of the solution designed by the mediators and the fact that, ultimately, they can withdraw from mediation or refuse the solution (with all the consequences that such a move would entail), this process might embed sufficient self-determination to be called mediation.

Moreover, it is to be noted that such a neat separation between various methods of conflict management is proper to the Western frame of mind and different societies across the globe do not abide by the lines of this conceptual framework, using the term mediation even for processes that transcend the limits stipulated by Western scholarship and practice. What matters most, as a matter of fact, is that the process itself seems to be highly effective and there are reports of traditional mediation and customary rules penetrating into the courts decisions, making resolution of conflicts more time- and cost-effective  than using only the courts system of justice.

Many more in-depth studies of these practices are clearly needed. There are situations when mediation fails and conflict escalates, becoming a full-blown blood feud. What makes most mediation cases successful and what leads to failure? Why certain cases are not amenable to mediation and what makes them resistant to such a treatment? These are all valid questions for further research.

More intriguing is the role of women in blood feuds mediation. From our brief description of the process, it is apparent that women are definitely relegated to a minor, insignificant role, if any. But various reports from our fieldwork reveal the power that women can wield informally, into the shadows of the males’ show, far removed from the lights but effective nonetheless. More research in this line can bring valuable understanding of the real role played by women in blood feuds mediation.

Autonomous communities around the globe rely on in-house, traditional institutions and practices to resolve conflicts between their members. These institutions and practices have been around for millennia and they have proved effective and resilient. Their study, without prejudice and with a non-biased conceptual framework can offer many lessons to the modern approaches of conflict management and resolution.


Christian Radu Chereji

Christian Radu Chereji is professor of conflict studies at Babe?-Bolyai University (BBU) in Cluj, Romania. He is a conflict anthropologist with an interest in traditional conflict management practices and has worked on mediation-related research project in Greece, Turkey, United States and Uganda, among others. He was a 2013-14 Fulbright Senior… MORE >

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