Tuesday, 18 April 2006

Know your classics

Two weeks ago I received from a faithful reader* from Australia a book by Betty Roland: 'Lesbos, the pagan island'. In 1961 this Australian writer lived for some months on the island and wrote a book about her adventures, which was published two years later in Australia. After those 45 years, which is nearly half a century since Betty Roland visited Lesvos, the island does not look too much changed, except that there are probably far more people and more houses.

The attractions of the island are the same as in the year 1961: the medieval looking Molyvos, the mountain village of Agiasios that celebrates the Ascension of Maria on the 15th of August, the Taxiarchis Monastery at Mandamados, Agia Paraskevi celebrating horse festivities and the ritual slaughtering of a bull and Sigri with its petrified trees.

The writer did not experience good lodging in Molyvos. After moving out of an apartment because there was no privacy, she could not find any other house to be let. Although so many houses seemed to be empty. Finally she had to retreat back to Mytilini where she had no problems at all in finding a lovely apartment where she lived the rest of her stay.

It is an interesting book to read, especially because there is so much to recognize. The roads seem unchanged and as bad as always, although many roads nowadays have been asphalted. Besides a small amount of Greeks in Molyvos there lived only two foreigners speaking English: Mr Kester and the German Helmut. They only had one taverna at that time. But in the summer as it does now a generous flood of foreigners visited the village, even though the first hotel had not opened yet.

But of course there have been some changes. Betty Roland describes Eftalou as a place where some 10 to 12 houses are built at the seaside, amongst walnut trees. So where are those trees nowadays? And where are the crocus she describes entering Molyvos in spring. I thought they were only growing in the mountains? So maybe she mixed up some flowers...

The book had more surprises. Roland's way to Agiasos was along the Gulf of Yera. There, she was told, Odysseus moored his ships when he came back from Troy. He went into the hills and wanted to see the Cyclops. He got locked up into the Cave of the Cyclops Poliphemus, the man eater and giant with one eye, who milked his goats at the cave and then took some men out of Odysseus company for dinner. Odysseus and his men found a trick to flee, they also escaped from the rock which was thrown after them by Poliphemus when they fled with their ships. This Rock of the Cyclops now must be somewhere around the Gulf of Yera. I had no idea.

When I surfed the internet in order to find out more, I could not find any conforming story. However I did find an interesting story about old wines. Odysseus served the Cyclops Poliphemus wine in order to stupefy him and to make it quiet easy to blind him afterwards with a long stick heated in the fire. In that time most famous wines were those of the islands Tasos, Lesvos, Chios and Naxos. So who knows, got Poliphemus stupefied and vanquished by Lesvian wine...

Troy is not that far from Lesvos, so it does not sound odd that after Troy was conquered and destroyed heroes and other army people came to Lesvos. Homer himself writes in the Odysseus that Menelaos joined the Mycene army close to Lesvos, where they discussed how to go home. Odysseus first had his adventure on the Island of the Lotus eaters, before he met the Cyclops. But let's see it like this: Homer is from the neighbouring island of Chios, so most probably he used the wonderful landscape of Lesvos for the adventures of Odysseus.

Homer could not know that centuries later the Gulf of Yera would be the safe harbour of mighty pirates. Amongst them were the brothers Barbarossa. Maybe they were the same pirates who once destroyed the monastery at Mandamados. The Taxiarchis Monastery at Mandamados is now known for its icon of archangel St. Michael, which is said to be painted by a monk who was the only survivor of an attack of the pirates at his monastery at Mandamados. Betty Roland has another story of this icon. The village of Mandamados lies well secured behind hills and hidden from pirates. One day working on his land outside of Mandamados a farmer got attacked by pirates and they forced him to say where his village was. The village as well as all of it's inhabitants got destroyed and then the farmer was set free to see what disaster was done. Seeing the massacre and the ruins of the village the man painted a face on the rocks with eyes which seemed to cry forever. Later a new village was built and the inhabitants put rocks around the face on the rock and later built a church around it. But the face kept haunting the dreams of the villagers. So they took it off the rock and made an icon out of it. That is when miracles started happening. Lame people could walk, blind people could see. And still now sick people are brought to the Taxiarchis Monastery hoping to get cured.

The island, like I presume all the other islands, is full of stories which are told, put into books and retold again.

The only thing I was wondering is why Betty Roland has as subtitle of her book 'The pagan island'. On the island she was received by many clergymen, she even spent a night high on the mountain at the Ypsilou Monastery. Lesvos is all but pagan. The landscapes are full of bright white little churches and even nowadays on the most unexpected spots new churches are built. Next weekend, when orthodox Easter will be celebrated, you will have a difficult time in finding a single Greek who will not visit the church.

*Many thanks to Edwina Green.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

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