Fire and Ice: sorcery and superstition

One evening a few years ago we were having dinner with a friend in a tiny village in northern Belarus, not far from the border with Lithuania. Our visit was in connection with setting up community development projects that we might work on together and our conversation ranged widely. Towards the end of the evening I asked our host, an educated man with liberal values and a practising Catholic if he knew anything about znakhari (healers, though my dictionary translates it as ‘sorcerers’) in the local villages.

He then gave me an example from his experience of a znakhar curing a horse that appeared to be sickening and close to death due to some unidentified ailment. I would have liked to find out much more about what they did and actually meet one but, as is often the way, the conversation moved on and the following day we had to leave.

I was prompted to ask the question from reading a fascinating book called Solovyovo – the story of memory in a Russian village by an American anthropologist called Margaret Paxson. She lived with a family in a village some 300 miles north of Moscow to study their lives and particularly their attitudes to time, memory, beliefs and rituals.

One of the people she writes about is a healer called Mikhail Alekseevich Belov who learnt his skills from his father, who in turn had learnt them from a nun. People came from all around to seek his help with everything from cancer and alcoholism to family problems and hauntings. His method of treatment was to have a conversation with the person seeking a cure to find out what their problem was. He would then fill a bottle with ordinary water and, beneath the icons in the icon corner of the bedroom, whisper prayers over the water and then give it to the person seeking a cure to take away and drink.

Ms Paxson explains that Mikhail Alekseevich is an example of what are called in Russian those who know (tye, kto znayet). In other words, people who through a form of sorcery use incantations, prayers and spells to effect cures. This is quite different from a znakhar who uses food, plants and herbs to cure people.

It is interesting that these folk beliefs still exist (the book was published only in 2005) alongside, and often in harmony with, more recent Orthodox beliefs and practices.

She also records the belief in the evil eye (sglaz) which she puts down to envy of improved social or personal circumstances.

Of course, belief in the evil eye is prevalent in Greece too, as you can see from the number and variety of blue eye talismans throughout the country. When I first came across it, in my ignorance I thought it went back to the time of the Frankish occupation after the Fourth Crusade when the country was overrun by fair-haired and blue-eyed northern Europeans. How much more unlucky can you get than to be invaded? But the belief is certainly much older than that and goes back to at least Ancient Greece.

In my first Greek class, I remember one of my fellow pupils recalling an incident when she was staying in Greece. She did not feel particularly well, but couldn’t work out what was wrong. The friends she was staying with suggested that they do the test for the evil eye (kako mati) to find out whether she was a victim of it. The test involved putting a drop of olive oil in a glass of water: normally it should float, but if it sinks this indicates that the eye has been cast. In her instance, it sank. So her concerned friends took her off to the Sunday liturgy to see the priest after the service. He asked her some questions, said some prayers over her and suddenly, as she described it she ‘felt something leave her’. She was soon back to her old self.

The Orthodox Church recognises the evil eye (which it calls vaskania) as ‘simply a phenomenon that was accepted by primitive people as fact. They believed that certain people have such powerful feelings of jealousy and envy, that when they looked on some beautiful object or individual it brought destruction. Vaskania is recognized by the Church as the jealousy and envy of some people for things they do not possess, such as beauty, youth, courage or any other blessing…The prayers of the Church to avert the evil eye are, however, a silent recognition of this phenomenon as a morbid feeling of envy.’

It even has a specific prayer for its removal:

Let us pray to the Lord…Lord have mercy… we pray you and beseech you: Remove, drive away and banish every diabolical activity, every satanic attack and every plot, evil curiosity and injury, and the evil eye of mischievous and wicked men from your servant (Name); and whether it was brought about by beauty, or bravery, or happiness, or jealousy and envy, or evil eye, do you yourself, O Lord who love mankind, stretch out your mighty hand and your powerful and lofty arm, look down on this your creature and watch over him(her), and send him(her) an angel of peace, a mighty guardian of soul and body, who will rebuke and banish from him (her) every wicked intention, every spell and evil eye of destructive and envious men; so that, guarded by your, your supplicant may sing to you with thanksgiving … 

Yes, Lord, our God, spare your creature and save your servant (Name) from every injury and brought about by the evil eye, and keep him (her) safe above every ill. For your are our King and all things are possible to Thee, O Lord. Therefore, we ascribe glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Living in a Protestant northern European country imbued with Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and the dismissal of the supernatural, it’s easy to look down on such beliefs. But you only need to scratch the surface to find that similar superstitions were part of everyday country life until comparatively recently.

My father was brought up in a little village in Shropshire in the 1910s and 1920s and I remember him telling me that there was an old lady in the village who among other things was able to cure warts. The ‘cure’ consisted of rubbing the wart with a piece of raw meat, reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards three times over it and then burying the meat in the ground.

My parents were full of old superstitions and it has taken me years to be able to rid myself of them: don’t walk under ladders; don’t cut your nails on a Friday; if you spill salt throw some over your left shoulder to get rid of the devil; if you break a mirror, it’s 13 years bad luck. I’ve done quite well, but the salt thing I still used to do until about 10 years ago. As for mirrors, I’ve never quite got past my fear of that one…

 

 

 

Visiting Ancient Aptera in Crete

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The site of Ancient Aptera is in western Crete, not far from Khania, high up on a plateau with beautiful views towards Souda Bay. It’s an interesting site because it has such a wide range of buildings reflecting the fact that it has been occupied since Minoan times, though most of the site that is accessible today seems to be Roman.

From the Classical Greek period onward it was a city right through the Hellenic period of the Roman occupation. Indeed the monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos (pictured above) was occupied right up until the 1960s. In the courtyard of the monastery, rather incongruously, is a pile of stone cannonballs:

Cannon balls

One of the most impressive things to see on the site are the Roman cisterns, designed and built so well that they are still remarkably well-preserved. The cistern openings do not give a true idea of the size of the underground cisterns themselves.

Cistern heads

Cistern

Cistern 2There’s no sign of water anywhere on the site today, so it is hard to imagine how there was sufficient water in the past to store in the cisterns and to feed the Roman baths below. In amongst the baths are other buildings whose purpose is difficult to make out from the remains:

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On the wall of one of these buildings is a stone block with chisel marks on it. I am not sure but I think it may be Minoan, as it reminds me of blocks with similar markings that I have seen at Knossos.

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On its own on a promontory overlooking the bay itself is a Turkish fort, unfortunately fenced off so that I can’t get closer to have a look inside.

Castle

To the rear of the site is are the remains of a small amphitheatre, probably Greek:

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and this may be a Greek temple with niches to hold statues of gods:

Church

Finally, I found one of the most evocative parts of the site the remains of a Roman villa, strewn with the debris of its columns. There was a particular atmosphere on this spot and I seemed to get a sense what it must have been like for the people who lived there with its views looking south towards the White Mountains.

Roman Villa

Today the site is extremely hot under the scorching midday Cretan sun and there’s very little shade to provide any relief.

Sun dried flower

Fire and Ice: the Orlov Revolt

 

From the top of the Venetian fortress in Koroni

From the top of the Venetian fortress in Koroni

It’s some while since I last did a post on the links between Greece and Russia, so I am going to pick up the theme again with this post about the Orlov Revolt in the 1770s. This was an attempt by Greek exiles in Russia, supported by Catherine the Great, to foment an overthrow of Ottoman rule in Greece.

One of the interesting aspects of this episode in Greek history is that some of its key scenes took place in Messinia, an area of the Peloponnese that I know a little, and specifically the harbours of Koroni, Methoni and Pylos.

It’s hard to find good material about the Orlov Revolt, so I am indebted to David Brewer’s book, Greece, the Hidden Centuries (2010) for the main lines of what happened.

The idea of a revolt against Ottoman rule was first raised in Russia in 1762 by Giorgos Papazolis, an artillery officer. Given leave of absence from the army, he went first to Venice and then on to Greece in 1766 to canvas support for the idea of an uprising, promising that the Turks would be overthrown and the Byzantine empire re-established.

Papazolis involved two brothers in the scheme, Aleksei and Fyodor Orlov. Aleksei had distinguished himself in the service of Catherine the Great by deposing and then murdering Catherine’s husband, Tsar Peter III. Fyodor was a distinguished general. It may be that their involvement with the Greek cause came as a result of the views of a third Orlov brother, Grigory, who advocated Greek Christian freedom from Ottoman rule.

Since the seventeenth century Russia had three key objectives to its foreign policy: to gain access to the Baltic (achieved through Peter the Great’s founding of St Petersburg); to acquire land to its western border as a buffer; and to gain access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Curiously it was the second of these, rather than the third which sparked conflict with the Ottoman Empire. In 1768 Catherine managed to have her favourite, Stanislav Poniatovsky elected to the crown of Poland, to the outrage of the Polish nobility who appealed to France and the Ottomans for help. When Russia ignored an ultimatum to withdraw, the Ottomans declared war.

It was at this point that the Orlov brothers, Aleksei and Fyodor went to Venice to raise money and volunteers for a Greek revolt. In 1769 Catherine the Great made Aleksei Orlov Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces involved in the rebellion. Whilst he was still in Livorno on a separate mission for Catherine, his brother, Fyodor, arrived with the first Russian fleet of 9 ships and 60 men at the harbour of Itilo in the Mani (having for various reasons already lost 10 of the ships with which he had left the Baltic).

Fyodor established two armies under Russian command, called the Eastern and Western Legions. The Eastern Legion besieged Mystras in March 1770 until it surrendered after nine days, leading to the slaughter of 1,000 Turks and the capture of a further 1,000. One of its main achievements was also to set up a provisional government under Antonios Psaros.

The Western Legion’s main task was to join up with the Russian ships that were besieging the port of Koroni which the Russians wanted as a base for their fleet. Koroni was defended by a large fortress built by the Venetians which, following the fall of Byzantium in 1453, had enabled to hold out against the Turks until 1500. The Russian siege of Koroni, led by Fyodor Orlov, lasted for six weeks and achieved nothing.

Koroni harbour and fortress

Koroni harbour and fortress

Some other parts of Greece joined in the revolt, mainly Corinth, Patras, Nauplio, Monemvasia, Kiparisia and Crete. In the meantime Orlov was sending reports back to the Russian court claiming to be in control of the whole of the Peloponnese. 

However, at this point, as the Ottomans were being pressed by the Russians on other fronts outside of Greece they resorted to using Albanian mercenaries to relieve the sieges in Corinth, Patras and Tripolis. The Albanian mercenaries managed to raise the siege of Tripolis but then turned on the Greeks, slaughtering 3,000.

The Russians succeeded in capturing Navarino Bay, a great natural, sheltered harbour at Pylos.

Navarino Bay - looking towards the entrance

Navarino Bay – looking towards the entrance

At last in April 1770 Aleksei Orlov arrived in the Peloponnese and attempted to rally the Greek leaders by addressing them “all Orthodox Christian Greeks who are subject to the tyranny of the Turks”, promising them the Russians wanted the Greeks “to remain always under her care and protection”. But it was too little, to late. In May Aleksei Orlov attempted and failed to capture the fortress at Methoni.

Methone fortress

Methone fortress

The bourtzi [prison] at Methone

The bourtzi [prison] at Methone

The  Albanian mercenary forces started moving south from Tripolis to restore order, and the game was up. Many people in Messinia fled towards the Russian fleet at anchor in Navarino Bay seeking escape on the Russian ships, until Aleksei Orlov, closed the gates. He had by then decided to withdraw from Greece and abandon the Revolt, and on 6 June the Russian fleet set sail, leaving behind many thousands of Greek refugees to face the consequences.

For the next nine years the Albanian mercenaries devastated the Peloponnese, claiming they had not been paid. It is estimated that c.20,000 Greeks were seized and sold as slaves and a further 50,000 Greeks (about one sixth of the pre-Revolt population of the Peloponnese) fled to the Ionian Islands, Italy, other parts of Europe and to Russia (especially Crimea and Odessa). It was not until 1779 that the Ottomans were able to restore order in the Peloponnese.

The Russo-Turkish war was eventually brought to an end with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. The war had inflicted serious setbacks for the Ottoman Empire on land and sea and the peace treaty brought Russia significant land gains in the Southern Ukraine, the Crimea and North Caucasus. In addition it gave Russia status as official protector of Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire.

The outcome for Greece was a disaster: large parts of the Peloponnese were devastated, thousands of Greeks, Turks and Albanians were killed and a large proportion of the Greek population forced into exile. However, there were two key learnings that came out of it that were applied fifty years later in 1821 during the Greek War of Independence.

The first is that in order for independence to be achieved, there had to be a political structure in the form of a provisional government, to provide direction, consensus and cohesion amongst the rebel forces. Second, it provided a clear warning of the dangers of allowing foreign powers to interfere in Greek affairs. During the Orlov Revolt it became clear to the Greeks that they were at risk of swapping Ottoman rule for Russian overlords and this bred a distrust of the intentions of other countries’ support for Greek independence.

In the orchards – a song by Mikis Theodorakis

In a recent Greek lesson, my tutor, Maria, introduced me to this powerful song by Mikis Theodorakis. So I thought I would share it and provide my own translation of the lyrics which are also by Theodorakis.

In the orchards, amidst the flowering gardens,

As once we did, we will set up a round dance, 

And we will invite Charon 

To drink together and sing with us.

Take hold of the clarinet and the zourna [type of folk clarinet]

And I will come with my little baglama [small bazouki]

Oh, and I will come along…

You took me in the heat of battle, Charon.

Let’s go to the orchards for a dance.

In the orchards, amidst the flowering gardens,

If I take you along, Charon, to drink wine,

If I take you along to dance and sing songs

Then give me the gift of life for one night.

Hold your heart, sweet mother, 

For I am the son who came home for a single glance from you.

Oh, for a single glance…

When I left for the front, dear mother,

You didn’t come and see me off.

You went out to work and alone I caught the train

That took me far away from life.

The odd thing about the song which took me a while to register is that it is being sung by someone who has died. In fact he died fighting on the battlefront during the Second World War and from that state invokes the figure of Charon, the ferryman across the River Styx in Greek myth and the personification of death in Greek poetry and song.

The song vividly conjures up his love of life and longing for a chance to live again just for a night. I get the sense that the mother he invokes may be a personification of Greece itself as well as his own mother who didn’t see him go off to war.

I love the heft of Giota Negka’s voice in this song and her ability to control its power to add light and shade to the narrative, as the music moves between stately and solemn tread to intense longing.

Two other things to note from this recording. The first is the fact that the TV celeb audience to a man mouth the words with the singer. This is something I’ve often noticed when watching audiences in Greek concerts and it always surprises me. I don’t think this is anywhere near as common in the UK for example and is a specific cultural difference. I wonder why this should be the case?

The second thing is the way that, particularly at the end of the song, one of the celebs on stage raises his arm. Again I’ve noticed this at live performances in Greece and it sees to be at points in the music where someone identifies with the music or the sentiments being expressed (‘einai se kefi’).

Anyway, it’s a great song.

The day Golden Dawn’s leaders are arrested, their supporters tell me this means ‘war’

peterwebscott:

A really excellent eyewitness blog post from Athens on the crackdown by the government on Golden Dawn and its aftermath.

Originally posted on Theopi's Blog:

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AP

This morning I woke up to blue skies and a text message from a colleague.

“They’ve arrested Michaloliakos.”

It’s what many people in Greece, have wanted to see happen for 2 years now – a crackdown on the extreme right party Golden Dawn. As I write, arrests include the leader of the party, on charges of forming a criminal organisation, plus 3 MPs a party leader in Athens and 12 more.

It’s big news. It’s unprecedented. We should all be jumping up and down that the Government is taking a stand against neo-nazism.

Not that those on the train on my way to the police HQ were that bothered. Glum faces, unenthused, unaffected, unimpressed. Subjected to a week of non-stop Golden Dawn drama on their TV screens since the murder of a Greek rapper last week, they look completely unconcerned by the unfolding developments.

A Greek colleague of mine…

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