In the Greek Islands: A Marine - Agrarian Culture



SEVERAL, famous seas, rich in historical significance and adorned by the most beautiful legends of antiquity, wash and embrace Greece on all sides. Over these seas Odysseus wandered on his long return to Ithaca. Homer, in The Odyssey, depicted his adventures in island after island — his shipwrecks, his struggles with sea monsters, his liaisons with goddesses, nymphs, and princesses. Thus, from the time Greece began to have a poetry, the seas and islands played a major role in it.

Traveling these seas, the fleets and merchant ships of the ancient Greeks disseminated civilization and increased human understanding; they fought the barbarians, hindered the incursion of Asia into the West, and spread Hellenism as far as the shores of Asia Minor and Egypt, of Italy and France, and through all the Mediterranean. It might be said that from the start the sea was the spirit of Greece and the islands the embodiment of that spirit.

The islands have known foreign invasions and raids of corsairs; they have been held subject by Romans, Venetians, Franks, and Turks; they have been completely deserted by all their inhabitants many times. But they have overcome every crisis, preserving untouched their traditional Greek life and the values of an ancient marine civilization.

The Greeks are at once aristocratic, primitive, and modern. They have an awareness of their descent from the ancients, but they are also a young, primitive race, bound to an infertile soil and an undeveloped agriculture. Yet at the same time the navy and merchant marine keep Greece in constant touch with the rest of the world, and in the cities there is a growing industrialization.

Life in Greece is difficult; the country is poor in raw materials and agricultural production. There are many bare hills, few plains, and many islands, most of which are barren, waterless, and rugged, though they shine in the sea like precious stones. The Greek farmer and seaman earn their bread with difficulty. They are by necessity frugal, and live on bread, olives, pulse, very little meat, and oil. They are sober, hospitable, impulsively polite, and sympathetic — for they know the difficulty and bitterness of life.

All these traits of character are to be found, more or less, in every corner of Greece in the plains, the cities, and the villages—but they are seen in their finest form in the Greek islands. Here all the contrasts of Greece are resolved: life is sweeter, more picturesque, more idyllic, more sensitive; here the people are more civil, gentler, more imaginative, and more hospitable.

And the islands, which so harmoniously unite earth and sea, farmer and fisherman, soldier and sailor, landowner and boatman, and which contain examples of every kind of Greek landscape, are, each individually, a microcosm of Greece, reflecting the whole course of its history. In the islands the visitor will see imprinted on the daily life of the people that classic “style" which is all grace, elegance, simplicity, and frugality. If the secret of the ancient style lies in the submission of matter to a spiritual vision of beauty — without the matter ever ceasing to be matter—this is the secret we find permeating life in the islands.

Let us cast a glance at the chief Greek islands, beginning with those of the “Archipelago,” as the whole sea which stretches from the eastern shores of the mainland of Greece to the shores of Asia Minor, and from its northern shores in Thrace and Macedonia to the Libyan Sea, is called. On these waters hundreds of islands are scattered, each group having similar physical features and a common history and fate. Yet there is every kind of variety, with islands only a few miles apart presenting great contrasts.

First there are the islands of the Saronic Gulf. Spetsai, the most distant, is five hours by boat from Peiraeus, the harbor for Athens. Salamis, the birthplace of Ajax, and Aegina are famous from classical times; Hydra and Spetsai took part in the struggle for Greek independence. Salamis is a long island with pine-covered hills, vineyards, and small harbors. Aegina has a developed agriculture and fisheries, many Byzantine churches, and the famous temple of Aphaia.

One has hardly left Aegina when Poros, “an island of love” as the Greek poet Palamas called it, comes into view. A conical hill with white houses suddenly appears, and on the right are the shores of the Peloponnesos. Another hour’s journey southward and Hydra appears. Abrupt, rocky, bare, austere, there are few spots where a boat can near it. Hydra seems to repel the stranger, but once he sets foot on the wharf of its one harbor he is captivated by its irresistible charm. The houses on Hydra, built by rich shipowners in the 1820’s, are square and thick-walled, with fine courtyards and staircases, terraces, and vast rooms; each is like a palace or a fort. Rock-hewn steps, narrow streets, bright colors make the town of Hydra an impressive mosaic above an emerald sea.

Spetsai is a green, idyllic island with pine groves, an island where one can rest, from the austere grandeur of Hydra. Between Hydra and Spetsai there are small desert islands, rocks full of caverns round which flocks of white sea gulls and wild doves fly.

Then, in the center of the Aegean lie the Cyclades. The names of these islands are legendary — musical names stamped with an ineffable poetry: Delos, Myconos, Santorini, Paros, Milos, Andros, Amorgos . . . all these and many more, and the desert islets among them, form an intricate geometrical pattern. These islands were called Cyclades in antiquity because they seemed to dance in a circle around Delos, the holy island, which was one of the most important religious, artistic, and commercial centers of ancient times. It is the island where, according to mythology, Apollo and Artemis were born. When, in 477 B.C., the Athenians chose Delos as a treasury of their confederacy it underwent great development in a few decades, being filled with temples, markets, theaters, palaces, hippodromes. A whole city was built on the narrow little island, first Greek, then Roman, and its remains are so well preserved today that they are considered the most important of the Greco-Roman period after those of Pompeii.

From Delos it is a short trip — an hour by caïque—to Myconos, a small, rock-strewn island; its only obvious foliage consists of a few fig trees and low vineyards, and the sharp, tough-leafed prickly pears that spring up in cracks in the rocks and in the whitewashed yards. Myconos, the island capital, is built round a semicircular harbor filled with fishing smacks, motorboats, and caïques. Its houses are small and white, built by craftsmen, two-storied, with flat terrace roofs, one after another along winding lanes. They have red-painted wooden doors, courtyards, and little balconies, the edges of the walls beveled to avoid monotony. After every three or four houses is a little chapel in the same style.

One of the churches in Myconos, the Paraportiani, resembling a mixture of Byzantine and cubistic styles, is the fruit of an anonymous folk architecture which can do wonders with stones, whitewash, and a few bits of wood, both in the practical and artistic exploitation of interior space and in the decoration of the exterior.

Above Myconos, on the nearest hills, windmills are scattered, their sails turning in the blue sky. The blinding whiteness of the Myconos houses, of the three hundred or so chapels, and of the windmills against, the dark colors of the landscape; the boats in the harbor and the deep, blue Aegean, nearly always rough and foam-crowned; a sky that is quite cloudless for months on end and a sun that shines as if Apollo himself were shooting his arrows — create an astonishing, almost religious impression.

Among the Cyclades the volcanic Santorini, “the devil’s island,” is unique. Santorini is a semicircular fragment that kept its head above water when the rest of ancient Thera (as Santorini was called in antiquity) sank after a volcanic eruption, thousands of years ago. Santorini still shows all the marks of its terrible geological history. It is like an island cut out with a knife, and the petrified lava on its sheer side turns diabolically black at sunset. A small volcano lying in the gulf of Santorini looks like a dead sea monster.

The capital of the island, all glistening white against the black, has an architecture peculiarly its own, adapted to its earthquake-threatened site. Every building in Santorini is covered not by a terrace or by an ordinary roof, but by a vault — that is, the walls rise upright and bend in, providing greater resistance to earthquakes. This vaulted architecture gives the island a unique appearance from below — you think you are looking at a huge Byzantine monastery suspended from the sky. The feeling of an ancient aristocracy is diffused throughout the place, for the larger houses have carved wooden ceilings and are richly furnished with Venetian chests and shining glass.

Near the shore of Asia Minor lies another world of Greek islands, the Dodecanese. First in size and beauty is Rhodes; then peaceful Cos with its Hellenistic and Roman antiquities and last, the two chief sponge-fishing islands of Greece: Symi, with its big houses hanging like nests over the sea, and harsh, bare, heroic Calymnos — the Hydra of the Dodecanese — whose houses, wash-blue and white, seem to have leaped from the sea. The Calymniots are buoyant and their folk dances and feasts, when they return from the long, arduous sponge fishing off the distant coasts of Africa, are celebrated.


HOW do the islanders live? How do they work? How do they amuse themselves? They are simple and frugal, yet graceful too, despite their endless battle with the sea and with a wand-whipped soil which does not bear easily. Every farmer is a smallholder, though his property may only consist of a little house and a patch of earth around it.

The Greek seas provide a rich fishery, which although it has lately become more scientific and systematic, has lost none of its romance. In some islands the fishermen go out in motor vessels to the open sea, while others use little motorboats or rowboats near shore. The fishing torch with an acetylene lamp searches the clear water at night. On some islands one still finds the ancient method of Greek fishing with the trata, a long, narrow, shallow-bottomed boat, with many pairs of oars. Though there is a small triangular sail the fishermen also row, singing in time to their strokes. The return of the tratas at dawn is a lovely sight.

Then the fishermen line up on shore, barefoot, with rolled-up trousers, and with rhythmic movements haul in the nets, laden with fish. The whole village goes down to the shore to watch “what the nets will give forth.” Fish are the staple food in all Greek fishing villages. “The sacred moment of the fishers’ supper,” as Elytis calls it, is the hour of the caccavia, the tasty fish soup which is the fisherman’s main repast. Great caldrons are filled with all sorts of fish, with water, onions, tomatoes, and plenty of olive oil; this is all boiled and the broth is eaten with large chunks of black bread dipped into it. Wild herbs are also a staple of diet, and then there is the famous retsina wine. It is indeed a “sacred” moment; the fishermen, silent and dignified, enjoy the fruits of their toil with careful, civil gestures.

In the evening, little dark taverns fill with fishermen. Squid and fish are frying, and the small thick glasses are filled with wine. The customers eat and drink and grow merry. Then songs begin, accompanied by local instruments: violin, zither, mandolin, and lute. The popular island songs are, in contrast to mainland songs, swift, cheerful, and full of movement, like the waves breaking on sand and rock. One of the most characteristic folk songs is:

May you be doubly cursed, O sea, you and all your treasures,
For you have taken my bird away and made him yours completely.
O blue, blue, sky-blue sea, and azure rolling billow,
Bring back my love to me so that I won’t be sighing.
Beat the billow now, O sea,
I love you, it’s not a crime.
Beat the beaches now, O sea,
I love you, but what shall I do?

And another:

My dearest bird, I’ve wearied now of looking at the sea,
Of asking the postman every day,
and never a letter from you.
Along the sandy shore
I hunt the slippery fishes,
and with the North Wind’s waves I send you my fond greetings.

To those lovely songs, the islanders, with great verve, dance at every opportunity — whether indoors, in the fields, or by the sea. Even the most casual onlooker finds it impossible not to take part in the group dances, many of which recall the dances reproduced on ancient pots and vases.

For the ancient Greeks, the dance was one of the highest forms of artistic expression: a rhythmical use of the body with various forms of symbolism — warlike, religious, nature-worshiping, social. We find much the same attitude preserved in contemporary folk dancing. The islanders si ill dance the hasapikos and zeibekikos, which connoisseurs maintain is the survival of the ancient pyrricheios, deriving its name from Zeus and bek (bread), symbolizing bread and spirit. As the workingmen sit in the taverns, a young man will get up from a dark corner. Perhaps he is barefooted, with an old cap on his head. He stands in the middle of the floor and begins making a few simple movements, bowing his head towards the ground as if seeking for inspiration. Gradually, his movements grow livelier, more complicated. Then another man gets up. He draws near the first; they take each other by the shoulders, and then begin to do the same steps together.

The deep religious significance of the folk dance in Greece is seen in the death dance of the women of Souli. It commemorates a tragic, historical event. In 1803, the women of Souli leaped into the fearful chasm of the Zalongos to escape enslavement by Ali Pasha. Around the chasm, in their long breeches, holding their babies, they danced, singing the folk song: “Farewell poor world, farewell sweet life.” They and their dance became immortal. [An impressive monument by the sculptor Zogolopoulos which symbolizes this dance is under construction on the site of the heroic event. It is reproduced in the art section.]

Music and dancing are best seen on the islands during the panegyri. Every village or hamlet, often every quarter, has its patron saint, and every saint, his church. On the evening of the saint’s day, everybody dresses in his best and comes to the decorated church. After the religious service the fun begins. Wine and appetizers (mezes) are freely distributed. Group dancing and songs continue all night — only to begin again on the following evening in honor of another saint’s day, in some other village on the island. During the panegyri many love affairs start and marriages are arranged.

It is said that the goddess Athena planted the first olive tree on the Acropolis. From that time this sacred tree has given the Greeks food and light.

In Greece the olive is the chief thing people cat with their bread and its oil is the chief sauce for every dish. Once a Greek has bread and olives he does not fear hunger. Anyone who has five to ten olive trees is considered a proprietor.

From October to December the groves are full of women, men, and children carrying slicks and baskets. When the olives are ripe they beat the trees with long sticks to make the fruit drop. This beating goes on from dawn to dusk. The beaters compete with one another, tease each other, sing, flirt, and play games, while the earth turns green-black with the fallen fruit. All day the groves echo with shouts and laughter while the leaves flutter and fall, rustling with the rhythmic beating.

At midday the beaters stretch out beneath the trees to eat their frugal meal; in the evening when their work is done they dance a little and then, filling their baskets with the precious fruit, they go, singing, back to the villages. The Greeks toil over the cultivation of their difficult soil, but never succumb to their hard labor. They endure it by making a game of it. “The path of the Greeks is ever a dance,” wrote the poet Palamas.

Akin to the dance is the Karagiozis, or “shadow play,” a popular artistic performance throughout Greece. It is done with a screen like that of a cinema set up in village cafés in the winter, or in summer in the squares. Behind the screen stand the players, holding up the actors of the performance — figures made of thick cardboard with movable limbs. Lamps or candles behind them throw their shadows on the screen. The players move their cardboard figures with sticks and speak their speeches, each with an appropriate accent. The chief hero in every performance is Karagiozis himself, a bald, hunchbacked, barefoot, long-nosed dwarf, tremendously cunning, a jester, a troublemaker, always hungry and always inventing stories in order to get bread to feed his family. These plays which always turn into fights between Karagiozis and the other characters, in which Karagiozis first gets the worst of it only to come off best in the end, date from the period of the Turkish domination. So there is usually the same background on the screen: on the right, the grand palace of the Pasha with its lowers, and on the left, the tumble-down cottage of Karagiozis. You may say that Karagiozis is the symbol of the subjected Greeks, with his thousands of tricks devised to face the cruel conqueror. He is something between Odysseus and Charlie Chaplin.

Yet for the Greek islanders the one great, inexhaustible, dramatic spectacle is that which nature offers — the incomparable play of sea, wind, sky, and sun. A wonderful climate, a pure atmosphere, harmonious landscapes permit the islanders — and nearly all the people of Greece from Thessaly south — to enjoy nature’s theater so prodigally that they feel little need for the human theater as well.

Translated by Robert Liddell