Saturday, 9 February 2008

The Fairy Tale of Lesvos

Sappho lived a few centuries BC and is now considered as one of the greatest poetesses of ancient times. Lesvos is well known for Sappho. But Lesvos also produced the first pastoral romance of world literature. A pastoral romance (also called a shepherd romance) glorifies the countryside and nature.

No story goes better with Lesvos, because the countryside is still pretty idyllic. Now that the wind roars around the house and the temperatures tries to go down to 0°C, nothing's better than to sit by the fire and read a very romantic shepherd story.

The Lesvorian writer Longus wrote 'Daphnis and Chloe' in the second century AD. It is set near Mytilini and is the story of two shepherd children who fall in love with each other. Not only had they to find out how to make love, the couple as were also more than once bothered by jealous admirers.

The country was beautiful, but also in those times dangerous: Daphnis was taken by pirates from Pyrrha (that little town must lay sunk in the Gulf of Kalloni), later he was attacked by angry young men from Molyvos, which at that time was called Mithymna (which still remains its official name). More than once Mytilini and Mythimna declared war on each other, which was not always such a big deal. One time the war only consisted of one raid, the other time Mytilini sent an army to attack Molyvos, but before Mithymna had a chance to defend itself, peace was restored.

The Gods also come into this story, although they don't get as much space as is usual in these myths. Especially Pan, god of the woods and shepherds, plays a fancy role. He saved Chloe from the people of Mithymna, who returned from a fight with Daphnis to take revenge and made a raid from their ship and took Chloe and her sheep.

'Daphnis and Chloe' is an enchanting story, especially when you try to imagine how life on Lesvos was at that time. The four seasons are extensively described. If we believe Longus they're not much changed. Already at that time winter could be pretty cold. Because in the story of Daphnis and Chloe snow kept all the people in their houses, as well as the shepherds. So Daphnis had to find another way to see his beloved Chloe. In the spring the couple wandered through the flowering green meadows. That's very easy for me to imagine because, even this early the meadows here are coloured by an amazing amount of big anemones.

'Daphnis and Chloe' inspired many a love story, as well as ballets like that by Maurice Ravel. More famous however are the lithographs of the French painter Marc Chagall. The Myhtilinean art critic and publisher Stratis Elefteriades (Teriade) invited Chagall to illustrate the story of Daphnis and Chloe. So it came that Chagall travelled to Greece, where he fell in love with the sea, the Greek landscape and the light. Especially for this work he developed new shades of green and blue, in order to be able to express his Greek impressions. It's strange that Chagall never visited Lesvos (he only saw Athens, Delphi, Nafplio and Poros). Had he been to the island I'm sure he would have developed far more shades, because those crazy anemones come in such a wide range of colours between white and red, including a very bright pink.

The book produced by Marc Chagall, with the lithographs of Daphnis and Chloe, can be seen at the Teriade Museum in Varia, just outside Mytilini. When you look at the merry images, you will definitely be moved by the love between these young shepherds Daphnis and Chloe. The story is like a fairy tale, because Daphnis and Chloe were foundlings and were raised as poor shepherds. At the end of the story they discover that they come from wealthy houses. In any other fairy tale, it is the pauper who marries a prince or princess. In the case of Daphnis and Chloe, because they are both rich, they can marry each other. Their marriage was as beautiful as it could be in that time.

These days shepherds don't find so many foundlings. Nor do slaves or serfs work the fields. (Although in some parts of the country land workers are treated the same). However I was strongly reminded of pirates when reading an article in the Turkish Daily News of 10 February 2008. Two vessels with a Greek flag stopped a group of Afghan people, trying to cross from Turkey to Lesvos. Some of the uniformed men were hooded. The Afghans were beaten, money and mobiles were stolen and they were put in rubber boats that were pierced and were sent back to Turkey, where in Ayvalik they recounted their story.

This sounds like pirates, but it's also a scandalous affront of human rights. Amnesty International demanded Greece make a serious investigation. I am deeply disappointed that Greek people, who took too seriously their duty, probably did this and that it happened so close to this island. The island where Longus wrote his romantic story of Daphnis and Chloe. But those times were also dangerous. So nothing's changed on this idyllic shepherds island.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

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