Τhe Greek military junta ripped to shreds

April 21 2017 marked 50 years since the military Junta came to power in Greece. To commemorate that catastrophe in modern Greek history, I would like to offer a translation of the last poem that Seferis wrote. It was published posthumously in To Vima in August 1974, days after the Junta fell, although it was written in March 1971.

The poem, entitled On Gorse for reasons that become clear when you read the poem, is set in a specific location and on a particular date in the calendar. The location is the temple dedicated to Poseidon at Cape Sounio, south of Athens. Sounio has deep roots in Greek culture: it is mentioned in the Odyssey and looks out towards the island of Salamis, site of the great victory of the Greek city-state fleet over the Persians in 480BC. In the poem the temple resonates still with all this history and associations.

In the liturgical calendar the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a child and become the mother of Jesus, falls on March 25. This date is also Greek Independence Day, a public holiday commemorating the start of the War of Independence against the Ottomans. During the Junta, Independence Day was celebrated with military parades, particularly in Athens. But in this poem, we are away from all the pomp and bombast of the regime, in a place deeply connected with Greek history and culture, on a day celebrated in Christianity as an event when good news and hope came into the world.

Like the statement condemning the regime he made to the BBC two years earlier, Seferis’s poem condemns the Junta indirectly, this time through Plato’s report of the murder of an ancient Greek tyrant.

“On gorse…”

Sounio was beautiful on that day
The Feast of the Annunciation
once again in the Spring.

A few green leaves around
the rust coloured stones
the red earth and the gorse bushes
revealing their great thorns ready and waiting
and their yellow flowers.

From a distance the ancient columns, strings of a harp,
reverberate still.

The calm before the storm.
– What could remind me of that Aridaios?
A word in Plato, I think, lost in the grooves of my brain:
the name of the yellow bush
has not changed since those times.

In the evening I found the passage:
“They bound him hand and foot”, he tells us,
“they threw him on the ground and flogged him,
they dragged him apart and tore him to pieces
on the gorse thorns
and went and threw him like a rag into Tartarus.”

Thus in the nether world he paid for his crimes,
Pamphylian Aridaios, the wretched tyrant.

(31 March 1971)




Helen of Troy – the alternative version

Menelaos and Helen

Menelaos and Helen

The traditional story of Helen of Troy is well known. Promised to Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy, in return for his choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful of the goddesses she was abducted from Sparta and her husband Menelaos and taken to Troy. Menelaos raised an army from among the Greek city states to recapture her and so began the ten-year long Trojan War.

Except from a quite early stage there was an alternative version of the story attributed to a late 7th / early 6th century BC poet called Stisikhoros. This version is elaborated in a play by Euripidis called ‘Eleni’ which has been my introduction to Greek tragedy, thanks to my Greek tutor (Sofia) with whom I have been reading it in a Modern Greek translation.

In this version of the myth, Helen never went to Troy. Through the intervention of Hera, wife and sister of Zeus and goddess of women and marriage, Helen was taken to Egypt while her place in Troy was taken by a living, talking image of her fashioned by Hera. Apparently Hera’s trick was to thwart Aphrodite and protect the sacred vows of marriage. Initially Helen lived under the protection of King Proteas until his death.

At the end of the Trojan War, Menelaos, returning to Sparta with the false ‘Helen’ is shipwrecked on the coast of Egypt and discovers that his real wife has been there the whole time. The real Helen is wracked with guilt at the bloodshed caused on her account – details of which are relayed to her by Teukros, a follower of Menelaos who is the first to encounter her. This story is an extraordinary invention and must be one of the earliest examples of the use of a double in literature. Euripidis was writing it (412 BC) at a critical time in the history of Athens, It came after a series of military setbacks, starting with the disastrous attempt by Athens to conquer Sicily in 415 BC and at a point in the Peloponnesian Wars when the Spartan army had captured Dekeleia in 423 BC and were threatening Attica. One of the things Euripidis is aiming to do in his play is to question the meaning of war, a radical attitude at that time.

At the same time as reading the play I have also been reading a poem by Seferis called ‘Eleni’ which takes up the same theme and crystallizes its meaning in a stunning image. The first three stanzas of the following extract from the poem are written from the point of view of Teukros, the follower of Menelaos who first discover the real Helen in Egypt. The rest of the poem is then in the voice of the poet. Here’s my translation:

Nightingale of the folk poet,
On such a night as this on Proteas’s seashore
The Spartan women slaves listened to you and led the mourning,
And amongst them – who would have said it? – Eleni!
She who for years we hunted on the banks of the River Skamandros.
She was here on the edge of the desert: I touched her and she spoke to me:
“It’s not true, it’s not true”, she cried.
“I didn’t board the blue prowed ship.
I never set foot in fearless Troy.”

With her deep bosom, the sun in her hair
And that height,
Shades everywhere smile
At her shoulders, thighs and knees:
Living skin, and eyes
With their large eyelids,
She was here on the banks of the Nile Delta.
And in Troy?
Nothing in Troy – an image.
This is what the gods wanted.
And Paris went to bed with a shade, as if it were
A solid creature.
And for ten years we were butchered for Eleni.

Great suffering had befallen Greece.
So many corpses thrown into the jaws of the sea, into the jaws of the earth:
So many souls ground like corn in millstones.
And the rivers overflowed with blood amidst the ooze
For a swollen piece of linen, for a cloud,
The fluttering of a butterfly, the feather of a swan,
For an empty shift, for an Eleni.
And my brother?
Nightingale, nightingale, nightingale,
What is a god? What isn’t a god? And what is between the two?

“The nightingales don’t let you sleep in Platres.”

Tearful bird,
In sea-loving Cyprus
Which promised to remind me of my native land,
I am alone and anchored to this fairy tale,
If it is true that this is a fairy tale,
If it is true that men will not get caught again
By the old trickery of the gods:
If it is true
That some other Teukros, after many years,
Or some other Ajax or Priam or Hecuba
Or some unknown, nameless person
Who saw a Skamandros overflow with corpses,
Is fated to hear
Messengers who come to say
How so much suffering, so much life
Went into the bottomless pit
For an empty shift, for an Eleni.



Wild boar butcher in Pelion

Wild boar butcher

Coming back from a walk in the mountains on the Pelion peninsula, we were surprised to come across this scene. The owner of the little taverna just above the house where we were staying was butchering a wild boar, with a little advice from friends.

Wild boar butcher-2

He was quite happy for me to take some shots and couldn’t resist a bit of posing:

Wild boar butcher-3

I suspect that there was going to be boar on the menu for quite some time after this.

Exploring Meteora

Meteora 2Driving across the vast, flat plain of Thessalia, from Volos we are struck by the fertility of the soil and the variety of crops being grown. It feels strange after the landscape of barren soil and olive trees that we are used to in other parts of the country.

Feeling the effects of the scorching sun, we seek some relief by stopping off at Trikala, an unremarkable town famed as the birthplace of Asklipios, Greek god of healing. But the heat from the plain seem to be intensified in the streets of the town and even under the shade of the trees in the central square, it’s hard to cool down. We head off as soon as we can to Kalambaka where we have booked a room for the night.

The reason for this journey across northern Greece is to visit the famous monasteries in the air of Meteora. As we approach, Kalambaka massive grey rock pinnacles like elephants’ legs loom up out of the flatness and uniformity of the plain.  Relaxing on the balcony of our hotel room and recovering from the heat, we start to get a sense of the strangeness of these rock formations.

Meteora 1

The rock face is smooth and pitted, a bit like pumice, but these rocks aren’t volcanic in origin. They are the sedimentary remnants of a sea that covered Thessalia millions of years ago.

Meteora 2

Hermits started to inhabit the caves in the rocks in the late 10th century and in the 14 century two monks, Athanasios and Grigorios from Mount Athos came to live in the area. It was Athanasios who built the first monastery, the Megalou Meteorou in 1344.

Meteora 16

A winding 10km circuit roads with sharp bends takes you round the main monasteries. The first one you encounter on the clockwise circuit is the 14th century Agiou Nikolaou Anapausa, the smallest of the extant monasteries perched on one of the lower peaks.

Meteora 15

As the road climbs up out of the plain more of the monasteries come into sight and the next one on the route is Roussanou, a convent built in the 16th century and dedicated to the Transfiguration and to St Varvara.

Meteora 4

Continuing up the road we come to Varlaam, named after a hermit who scaled the peak and took refuge here in the 14th century, while the monastery started to be built about two hundred years later. It is the most Byzantine in style of all the monasteries in Meteora.Meteora 5

Every view here is a potential photograph and above Varlaam there’s a wonderful natural viewing platform.

Meteora 6

The light is also constantly changing, now spotlighting certain monasteries, now casting others in dramatic light, as in the shot below of the Megalou Meteorou. I could spend days, months even, photographing this ever changing scenery in its many moods. This monastery was founded by St Athanasios, the monk from Mount Athos in the late 14th century.

Meteora 18

It became the richest of the Meteora monasteries when the Serbian Emperor, Symeon Urfos, retired here to become a monk and donated all of his wealth to it.

Meteora 13

Access to Agias Triadas (first build in the 14th century), dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is via a cable car which looks quite old and rickety. Certainly not something you would like to use in a wind.

Meteora 7

The final building on the route round Meteora is the nunnery of Stefanou, first built in the 14th century.

Meteora 9

Despite c.1m visitors Meteora attracts every year  (we were there at the end of the tourist season), it has a wonderfully peaceful, silent atmosphere. I wonder how disruptive visitors are to the life of the monks and how much contact the monks have with them. Can visitors stay in the monasteries, as they can at Mount Athos? Do they have to follow the monastic regime? What is the monastic regime? How do they survive in such solitude? Do they grow their own food? I suppose they make their money from visitors (entrance fee is 2€).

It makes me think again that I would like to do a pilgrimage to the monasteries of Mount Athos. Time to start planning this trip – even if it takes a few years before I get round to it.

It is easy to see what is was that attracted hermits and monks to seek refuge here for contemplation and prayer. When Byzantium fell in 1453, icon painters sought refuge here (as well as at Mount Athos and in Crete) to be able to continue their work.

There are a couple of icon workshops at the bottom of the circuit that cater to tourist buses. Most of the pieces are mass produced, but there are a few icon painters work here. They paint on canvas, having sketched in the outlines first, applying the paint from the darkest to the lightest colours. The painted icon is then glued to an old piece of wood and gold leaf painstakingly applied. The whole process for an A5 size icon takes 2-3 days and they sell for 300€ apiece.

At the second icon workshop we fall into conversation with a Romanian girl who has been working in Greece for 8 years, and a Polish lad who works in Greece during the tourist season (May-October) and then returns home. Both love living in Greece because there’s no stress compared with their homelands. “I feel younger here”, says the Polish lad. They tell me about a senior executive from Siemens in Germany who has retired to this area with his wife to live in peace and quiet away from the stresses of corporate life. Apparently he has his own well and generates electricity from solar panels.

It seems as though Meteora is still attracting people who are seeking refuge from the pressures of daily life.


Fire and Ice: similarities and differences between Greek and Russian

It’s some time since I last did a post in my little Fire and Ice series looking at the links between Greek and Russian cultures. This time I would like to have a look at the similarities and differences between the two languages.

As noted in a previous post the most obvious similarity is in the alphabet: Greek was used by SS Cyril and Methodius as the basis for providing a written form of Slavic languages to facilitate the translation of religious texts. The second most obvious similarity is in the religious terms that Russian borrowed following the conversion of Vladimir of Kiev, as priests, monks, translators, icon painters and church builders headed north to support the country’s Christianisation. So we find bible, icon, monk, monastery, angel, patriarch and liturgy.

However, Greek and Russian have different linguistic roots and the similarities that we see in vocabulary are due to these borrowings, rather than to common root forms. In other ways the languages are quite different. They sound quite different for one thing. Greek has sounds for ‘th’ and ‘ps’ which Russian lacks. Equally Russian has sounds for ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ which are not present in Greek. Greek has definite and indefinite articles, Russian does not. Russian has an infinitive, but although Ancient Greek had one, modern Greek does not. It fell out of use during the Byzantine period: one of the odder linguistic losses that a language can sustain.

Also on verbs, Russian has personal pronouns which go with the verb (though verbs can also be used without them) whereas Greek does not.

Both languages though are stressed. Greek, very helpfully for foreign learners includes the stress marks as part of the spelling (indeed it is considered a spelling mistake to miss them out). How I wish that Russian, which to a foreign leaner can seem to have a capricious stress system, has a similar approach. In Russian, you only find the stress marks in dictionaries and texts for foreign learners. Both languages are also inflected (the endings of nouns and adjectives changes depending on their function in the sentence and on whether they are singular or plural). Russian has six cases, Greek has 3 (4 if you count a vocative that only has any noticeable impact on masculine singular forms).

There is one other curious similarity between the languages in terms of their use of verbs. Russian has two forms of the infinitive, an imperfective and a perfective form which relate to whether the action they refer to is ongoing / iterative or completed. There is something similar in Greek where in the construction used to express an infinitive form, you use the indicative for an ongoing / iterative action and the subjunctive form of the verb for a completed action. As far as I am aware this is coincidental and not due to some mutual influence.