The explosive Easter tradition of Vrontados, now in HD.

By Spencer Peterson
July 08, 2015
Credit: Getty Images

Every Easter, members of rival parishes in Vrontados, a coastal village on the Greek isle of Chios, fire thousands of homemade rockets at each other’s churches while evening Mass is taking place within. The goal, for the congregations of Agios Markos and Panagia Erithiani, is to score the most direct hits on the belfry of the opposing church, but invariably each side claims victory over the other, eventually vowing that the dispute will be settled next year.

While origins of the Rouketopolemos festival, which has been celebrated for at least 125 years, remain a mystery, a new short film from NYC-based production company Variable offers a glimpse into how modern practitioners view the tradition, along with some stunning footage of rockets streaking over Vrontados.

The barrage begins around 8 p.m., as entire batteries of gunpowder rockets mounted on wooden sticks are fired off, mostly by young men wearing bandanas. Chipped plaster, brush fires, and minor injuries are an annual reality, as is the significant tourism revenue the festival brings in.

One participant, who calls Rouketopolemos his “one day off a year,” waxes philosophical about the practice like a sensei in a karate film. “The rocket is a romantic thing,” he offers. “It has some sensibilities, some beliefs behind it. The rocket needs to be treated with respect, not fear.”

Local legend holds that the mock war commemorates uprisings against the Ottoman Empire. It’s also said to have been waged with small cannons before they were banned in the late nineteenth century.

To one older resident of Vrontados, Rouketopolemos is a testament to resilience. “During the years of war when there was a dictatorship with Greece, very hard circumstances never managed to stop this custom.”