Friday, 15 May 2009

The mermaid of Sykaminia

One of the most touristic and popular places on Lesvos is the little coastal village of Skala Sykaminia. The harbor with the little white church on a rock looking out over its colored fishing boats (and beyond to the coast of Turkey) is so picturesque that none of the kafenions around the harbor have trouble getting all their tables occupied during the summer months.

For the Greek tourists there is another reason to visit this place: it is the village of the ‘Mermaid Madonna’, the title is of a well known novel by the Lesvorian writer Stratis Myrivilis. Myrivilis was born in Sykaminia – the village up the hill from the ‘skala’ - in 1892. He went to the gymnasium in Mytilini and then to Athens to university. But when the Balkan war broke out (in 1912-13, after which Greece was expanded to include most of Macedonia) he signed up as a soldier, but did not return home to the island for ten years, by which time he was a pacifist. His first novel was about Sappho - The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes – but his best known work, The Mermaid Madonna, was written in 1949 after he had moved to Athens, but it was all about his unforgettable home island.

The story starts around 1922, when a captain is living in the little church on the rock of Skala Sykaminia. One day he disappears but leaves behind, in the church, a wall painting of a Madonna with a fishtail. The inhabitants of Sykaminia are surprised but soon get used to this new goddess whose icon they begin to worship with prayers and incense. However, one day, boats full of refugees (Greeks expelled from Asia minor in the ‘Great Catastrophe’) fill the little skala of Sykaminia. No-one says a word about their horrible experiences in their beloved homeland of Anatolia. Most of them were fishermen and when new houses are built to accommodate them, they demanded to live near the harbor, which is how Skala Sykaminia came to be. The huge mulberry tree which shade the terrace outside what was the kafenion of Smaragthi’s godfather is still there — it’s now a restaurant called Skamnia (what means mulberry).

The story continues with the fisherman Varouhos going one day to Hora (Mytilini) and when he has done with his business and drunk a little too much, he sets off to row back home around the coast, but, astonishingly, he discovers a tiny baby in his boat. It’s a little girl with green eyes, a flower amongst the weeds, whom the villagers immediately realize cannot be ‘one of them’. An ancient lady, Permahoula, more than a hundred years old, understands well enough who the girl is —the daughter of a mermaid who, she says, must have seduced a fisherman.

Mermaids are lovely creatures but when you get seduced by them it is as good as signing your own death sentence. Permahoula knows this and for sure, one stormy night she hears a mermaid singing a lullaby. She recalls the many stories of fishermen who, once having heard the song or meet a mermaid, are never the same again.

In Greek mythology (which is so intertwined with the real life of the village in The Mermaid Madonna) there are also Sirens, half woman half bird, that seduce seamen with their sweet singing, like they tried with the Homeric hero Odysseus in his travels back home from Troy. Odysseus knew about the danger of listening and succumbing to the exquisite song, but wanted to hear it for himself, so he forced his crew to block their ears with wax and tie him firmly to the mast so that he could enjoy the beauty without being able to cast himself into their arms. The Argonauts also encountered Sirens, and their method of escape was to ask one of their party, the musician Orpheus, to play his lyre and sing loud enough to drown out their seductive wails. As time went by, artists depicted Sirens as mermaids.

So Skala Sykaminia is the village of the mermaid, who in modern times, continues her ancient craft, by seducing tourists. It is not difficult to fall in love with this little sweet fishing village, where the water laps gently against the harbor walls and the tinkling of the masts of the fishing boats brings you back immediately to the story of Myrivilis and his girl with the green eyes. Myrivilis knew how to describe the old life of the village, the beauty of the island and the nature of its people, the Greeks. In the course of his life, Greek ways probably didn’t change very much, and as the schoolteacher Avgustis in the book says wistfully: “If one bit of Greece remains uncorrupted, it will be due to the simple, uneducated folk.”

Standing in front of the little church of the mermaid Madonna (if the painting ever did exist, it now is lost) you can look dreamily out over the crystal clear blue Aegean sea, and, if you are lucky, see not mermaids, but dolphins breasting the waves. The only ‘real’ mermaids are in the souvenir shops.

There are other magical apparitions. When a strong wind blows from the north, and the waves crash on to the beach, with a little bit of imagination you can also see the hippocampus —the half-horse-half fish that towed the chariot of the God of the Sea Poseidon. And when the wind blows really hard it turns the water into a spray of mist through which you can just see the Nere├»des, the daughters of Poseidon, who ride the horse-fish.

Real seahorses got their name from the hippocampus, but for a long time I thought they existed only in fairy tales. However, they are real enough and swim freely in warm seas and oceans. The Chinese catch them for a love potion and here on Lesvos they float in the sea-grass of the beautiful Gulf of Kaloni. A friend who is a fisherman regularly brings them in by accident in his nets. Even if he were to put them back in the water, they are too delicate to survive, so now he dries them in the sun and I have a small collection of seahorses. So magical is their appearance, I still believe they must have come out of a fairy story.

PS English paperback versions of the novels were published in 1998 by Efstathiadis, Athens

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki, 2009

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