Greeks smashing plates to accompany musicians is a mental image of Greece practically as common as the sight of the Parthenon. But if it were really as common in Greece as foreigners believe, there wouldn't be a saucer left intact in the entire country. How did this noisy custom get started?
In its earliest form, plate smashing may be a survival of the ancient custom of ritually "killing" the ceramic vessels used for feasts commemorating the dead. The voluntary breaking of plates, which is a type of controlled loss, may also have helped participants in dealing with the deaths of their loved ones, a loss which they could not control.
Similar offerings may also have been presented at other times to include the dead in festival proceedings, with the result that this custom for the dead began to be tied in with all kinds of celebrations.
Here are some other potential ancient roots for this tradition:
Use Them Once, Then Throw Them Away
One also has to be suspicious of the ancient wandering potters who used to travel from village to village making their wares wherever the clay was good and there was enough wood to fire up a kiln. Could the first people to introduce the locals to this exciting custom have been the potters themselves? Could this custom of breaking plates at parties simply have its origins in a shrewd ancient marketing ploy?
Let's Skip That House
Breaking plates can also be a symbol of anger, and the sound of shattering crockery is a classic part of domestic disturbances. Since plate breaking often occurs at happy occasions, it may have begun as a way of fooling malicious spirits into thinking that the event was a violent one instead of a celebration.
Worldwide, noise is believed to drive away evil, and the sound of the plates smashing against the stone or marble floors of Greek houses would be loud enough to scare off almost anything.
Step Lively, Children
There is a phrase used by children about sidewalk cracks: "Step on a crack or you'll break the devil's dishes." (Today, it's less common than the "break your mother's back" threat.) In early Crete, ritual offerings and vessels were thrown into cracks and fissures located near peak sanctuaries. These "cracks" would certainly have had "dishes" in them, and later followers of Christianity may have demonized the old practice.
Since the children's chant is actually a caution to avoid stepping on cracks, it may refer back to ancient associations with these dishes. So breaking plates during a performance may be a way of protecting the dancers and musicians by destroying supposedly evil influences present in the poor plates.
You Break My Heart, I'll Break Your Plate
One Greek singer occasionally breaks plates against his head while he sings a song of the pain of love. He enhances the rhythm of the piece with the smash of the plates and, in character for the song, tries to ease the pains of romantic love by countering them with physical pain. Usually, breaking plates in praise of a musician or dancer is considered a part of kefi, the irrepressible expression of emotion and joy.
A plate might also be broken when two lovers parted so they would be able to recognize each other by matching the two halves even if many years passed before they met again. Small, split versions of the mysterious Phaistos disk are used by modern Greek jewelers this way, with one-half kept and worn by each of the couples.
The Modern Take
Breaking plates is also an act which implies abundance, as in "we have so many plates we can break them." It's similar to lighting a fire with a piece of paper money.
But breaking plates is now considered a dangerous practice due to flying shards, and perhaps also because of intoxicated tourists who have poor aim and may hit the dancers or musicians. It is officially discouraged and Greece actually requires a license for establishments who want to allow it. (Supposedly, plate smashing replaced another, earlier way of showing approval: throwing knives into the wooden floors at the dancer's feet.)
If you're offered plates to throw during dances or other performances, be aware that these plates are typically not free and they will be tallied up at the end of the evening, usually at least a euro or two each. They are expensive noisemakers. Try applauding or calling out "Opa!" instead. And if you're wearing sandals, step carefully through the shards. Closing your eyes at the moment of smashing the plate is also an excellent idea.
Modern Greeks hold the custom in some disdain. Nobody breaks plates as a sign of kefi anymore. People throw flowers instead. In all the bouzoukia (nightclubs) or other modern establishments, girls with baskets or plates with flowers go around the tables and sell them to the customers, who throw them to the singers during the program.
The club owners find this less messy, more fragrant custom to their liking, as do the performers -- another commercial 'machine' for the nightclubs to make money. It is well known that all the singers (especially the famous ones) get a percentage of the consumption of flowers.
New Twists on an Old Tradition
In recent times, smashing plates has been used to attract attention to Greek restaurants outside of Greece, with "plate smashers" stationed at the doors to periodically toss down another plate and attract the attention of passersby.
Some Greek restaurants even cater to the desire of clients to break plates by designating a special "smashing area." Many countries, including Britain and Greece, are regulating the ritualized breaking of plates, though clumsy wait staff still are apparently exempt.
Recently, breaking plates has also been used as a protest. Activists wanting to get the "Thessaloniki 7" hunger strikers freed coordinated an international day of smashing plates, with the fragments sent to local Greek embassies with the message that they had been smashed publicly in protest. Did it work? Hard to say, but the hunger strikers were freed the following week, possibly a case of starvation ending with an empty plate rather than a full one.