the quest ...

Churches of Kythira

ki

Kythira has at least 300 churches to visit and explore. The exact number varies depending on the source you consult, but if 300 is correct, then there is 1 church for every 10 people who live on the island. This attests to the deep religious faith of the Kytherians, who considered it an honor to build houses of worship. Those who could not afford to build, gave whatever they could to the church they attended—sometimes just a single olive tree. Every family has a church, and every church has a story.

k3

k2

My guidebook says the Kytherians kept their distance from the Venetians and maintained continuous cultural contact with the Peloponnese and Crete. Many interior church frescos depict military Archangels and miracle-working saints, who were no doubt called upon to provide both protection and comfort to a people under perpetual occupation.

k4

k6

Today many of the churches are in disrepair, either due to lack of funds, or families leaving and dying off. Most are locked, but wandering around their grounds provides a welcome respite on a hot day.

k7

 

© 2016, Ithaka Bound. All rights reserved. Text and photos copyright protected and may not be used without express and written permission from site owner.

Related posts:

Cassandra and the Trojan Horse

c1

History tells us Cassandra was a Trojan princess, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, sister of brave Hector. While still young, Cassandra caught the eye of Apollo, who promised her the gift of prophecy if she would return his love. She readily agreed, but when Apollo tried to collect on Cassandra’s end of the deal, she refused him—either because she had taken a vow of chastity, or because she considered it a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. Alas, you can’t do the gods like that, Cassandra.

Apollo, angry at having been rejected, asked Cassandra to grant him a kiss. Cassandra consented, but as they were kissing, Apollo spat in Cassandra’s mouth, putting a hex on her gift: she could still predict the future, but no one would ever believe her. After that cursed kiss, it was all downhill for Cassandra and Troy. Such is the way of the gods who rule Olympus.

You see, Cassandra couldn’t stop talking, and even though no one ever believed her, it never stopped her from trying. When Paris was born, she insisted he be killed because he would be the downfall of his people. Later, when Paris brought Helen to Troy, Cassandra threw off her golden veil and pulled at her hair, but to no avail—Helen was welcomed warmly and Cassandra was locked up in a room to keep her from causing more trouble.

Imagine Cassandra’s frustration and the burden of her cursed gift. An Oracle’s principle responsibility was protection of homeland and people, but no one could ever remember that what Cassandra had told them was true. The more she ranted, raved and implored, the more insults and indignities she had to suffer.

When the wooden horse was wheeled into Troy, it was Cassandra who screamed, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!”, coining a term passed down through the ages. She begged the Trojans to destroy the horse, warning them that enemy forces were hidden inside, and when she was once again shunned and ridiculed, she grabbed a torch and tried to set fire to the horse herself. But the Trojans, once again, subdued Cassandra and locked her away.

Woe is Cassandra. Woe is Troy.

“Mad with zeal, and blinded with our fate, we haul along the horse in solemn state; then place the dire portent within the tower. Cassandra cried, and crushed the unhappy hour; foretold our fate; but, by the god’s decree, all heard, and none believed the prophecy.”
                                                                          —The Trojan Women

As the Greeks poured out of the wooden horse and wreaked havoc through Troy—burning, looting, raping, and enslaving—Cassandra found sanctuary in the temple of Athena, clinging to a statue of the goddess for protection. Cassandra, whom the god Apollo had left a virgin, was found by Ajax The Lesser who grabbed her by the hair, pulled her from the statue, and violated her in the sanctuary of Athena. The Greeks stood outside, too afraid to enter, discussing what they should do. Odysseus suggested killing Ajax, but in the end, the Greeks did nothing, and Cassandra was given as a war prize to Agamemnon. As the Greeks dragged Cassandra to their ships, she continued offering visions of the future. “Your soldiers will never make it home,” she told Odysseus. But the Greeks only laughed, as her own people had. “Madness,” they said. This was the beginning of many years of anguish for the Greeks.

Doing violence to a supplicant in a holy sanctuary was the worst sacrilege of ancient Greece. Athena—who had sided with the Greeks during the war—was furious, to say the least. Her wrath was deep, she borrowed Zeus’s thunderbolt and asked Poseidon to join her in a bitter homecoming for the Greeks.

“I will impose on them a return that is no return. Stir up your waters with wild whirlwinds when they sail. Let dead men choke the bays and line the shores and reefs. “
                                               —Athena, Daughters of Troy

The Greeks were punished with a terrible tempest as soon as they set sail for home. Agamemnon came close to losing all his ships; Menelaus was blown to Egypt; and the arch-sinner—the sacrilegious Ajax—was drowned. At the height of the storm, Athena hit his ship with a thunderbolt causing it to shatter and sink. Ajax somehow succeeded in swimming to a rock and would have been saved if not for his gargantuan ego. Pride always incites the anger of the gods. Ajax bragged that even the gods couldn’t drown him, so Poseidon used his trident to break off the jagged rock Ajax was clinging to and he was swept away to his death.

Odysseus didn’t lose his life, but his suffering lasted the longest. He was swept so far off course, he wandered for ten years, from one perilous adventure to another, before finally finding Ithaka again. After ten long years, Athena’s fury over the rape of Cassandra had abated—towards Odysseus anyway.

Agamemnon wandered long enough for Cassandra to give birth to twins. He returned home to Mycenae unscathed, a triumphant conqueror of Troy. “O Victory now mine, be mine forever” said Agamemnon. But there was a dark, anxious foreboding in the crowd that greeted Agamemnon’s return. His Queen, Clytemnestra, came out to meet her husband, her head held high. Agamemnon entered his long-awaited home where Clytemnestra’s accomplice and lover, Aegisthus, was lying in wait.

The anxious Mycenaeans turned to the captive Trojan princess, beautiful but strange-looking, they had heard of her prophetic ravings.

Cassandra began to speak.

Come sweet Muse. Come help me sing this dirge.

 

 

© 2016, Ithaka Bound. All rights reserved. Text and photos copyright protected and may not be used without express and written permission from site owner.

Related posts:

Waterfalls of Kythira

Fonissa, The Murderess

Fonissa, The Murderess

To travel to Kythira is to visit two distinctly different islands. The south and east of the island, where I spent most of my time, are a hot red desert of cactus and prickly pear and thorny plants that slice your ankles and scratch your mosquito bites (rather satisfyingly) as you walk by. The north, where Venetian nobles once lived, is a fertile landscape lush with pine, eucalyptus, and waterfalls.

k9

k5

The waterfalls are near the picture-perfect village of Mylopotamos, one of the oldest on Kythira. Twenty-three watermills once worked the nearby streams, but today all—with the exception of one—are in ruins The largest waterfall is an easy walk from the church of Agios Sozontas, or you can also drive there by following well-marked signs.

The first waterfall bears the ominous name of Fonissa, or Murderess. There are several stories circulating on how the falls got its name, but I found the most likely version to be a tale of two women fighting atop the falls, with one pushing the other over the cliff. What do you suppose they were fighting about? I’m guessing it wasn’t laundry. There are really only two things sane women are willing to kill for: 1. Their children. 2. Some guy. This being Aphrodite’s island, I’m betting it was the latter. The waterfall is also called Neraida, or Water Nymph, but this sounds like a blatant attempt at re-branding.

What is it that causes people to lose their minds when it comes to love? How many friends have I talked off a ledge during week two of a break-up wherein the theme usually includes some version of “life is meaningless” ? Love: forget the hearts and flowers, handle it like a loaded gun. Here’s one of life’s secrets no one ever talks about: love is always just around the corner. Next time you despair of ever finding love again, just take a walk around your favorite corner… where you’ll find a bar.

Anyway, Murderess moniker notwithstanding, I strip down to my bathing suit, wade into the icy freshwater pool, and swim to the cascading 60 foot drop. I stick my head under the torrent because my heat radiates from my head, not my heart, and I have to douse it regularly to put out the flame.

After Fonissa I make my way down the river a bit and come to a mill that has been beautifully restored and now serves refreshments and snacks. The owner, a lovable teddy bear of a man named Phillip, tells me about a a waterfall farther downstream that shouldn’t be missed. He tries to give me directions, but has to keep repeating himself because, even though he speaks perfect English, I can’t quite understand how I’m going to get there. He repeats the directions three or four times until he thinks I have it. “Do you think I’ll be able to find it? I ask him, looking for reassurance. Phillip, an honest soul, looks at me with doubtful eyes, “It is difficult”. I’ve taken on the appearance of someone who isn’t sure how to get to her destination.

I set off, repeating Phillip’s instructions so that I don’t forget them: cross the stream three or four times; stay on the right until you are close (how will I know I’m close?); always go down, not up; pass the first stone bridge, but do not cross it; search for the second stone bridge and cross it; climb down the tree (!); scamper over the boulders and there you will find the waterfall.

It takes about an hour or so. I sing “River Of No Return” in a breathy Marilyn voice as I make my way through dark ruins amid a landscape straight out of Hansel and Gretel.

kt

k3

 

When I finally climb down the tree and scamper over the boulders, there in front of me is Shangri-La.

wf-4

I baptize myself in its emerald green waters, certain I’ve never seen anything quite so beautiful. I stay for hours, swimming and resting on the mossy banks of the emerald pool, surrounded by ancient stone bridges and the ruins of old mills. As I feast on figs and nectarines, I am completely content, wanting for nothing. This must be how Eve felt.

Then I hear laughter coming from the boulders, and a group of Australians appear. It is then that I realize something was missing.

© 2016, Ithaka Bound. All rights reserved. Text and photos copyright protected and may not be used without express and written permission from site owner.

Related posts:

Bring them home

Kythira-Coast

Standing on Mt. Vouno, with the north wind blowing and the white cliffs of Crete visible in the distance, I look down at the coast between Diakofti and Avlemonas, and there, at the turn towards Avlemonas, I see the spot where a wooden sailing ship called the Mentor—22 meters long and loaded with 16 crates of Parthenon marbles—sank after hitting dry land on September 17, 1802.

In 1801, when Greece was occupied by the Ottoman empire, the British ambassador to Constantinople, a Scottish nobleman named Thomas Bruce—Lord Elgin—obtained a permit from the Sultan to make casts and drawings of the antiquities on the Acropolis; to demolish recent buildings if this was necessary to view the antiquities; and “to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon”. Elgin took this as permission to collect all the sculptures he could find. He bribed the Ottomans to remove about half the friezes, metopes, and pediments from the Parthenon, along with other precious antiquities throughout Greece. The document of the agreement has never been found, but Elgin’s ignoble deed coined a new term, Elginism: an act of cultural vandalism. When Elgin left Greece in 1803, a Neopolitan painter named Lusieri  remained behind to direct on-going excavations. Over a period of twenty years, a total of 253 crates were sent to London.

Parthenon-Marbles-1

The Mentor was more a pleasure vessel than a cargo ship, and having incurred the wrath of Poseidon, it began taking on water in the open sea. Despite attempts to make for harbor in the port of Avlemonas, the Mentor was blown onto rocks and sank. The shipwrecked crew, completely naked, was saved by a vessel anchored off coast. In a letter to Emmanuel Kaloutsis (British Vice-Consul in Kythira), Lord Elgin described his cargo as “rocks of no value to third persons”. However, on the second day after the shipwreck, Captain Heglen of the Mentor revealed the true nature of the cargo to Kaloutsis as “cases of ancient marbles”. Sponge divers from the island of Kalymnos were employed for three years salvaging antiquities from the seabed. This was old school breath-hold diving, before umbilical connected hard hat equipment and scuba diving existed.

Collecting the Greek marbles left Elgin nearly bankrupt. The marbles decorated his mansion in Scotland before he tried to recoup his losses by offering them to the British Museum for £75,000. After a parliamentary committee vindicated Elgin’s plunder, Great Britain bought the marbles in 1816 for about half the selling price, £35,000. Upon acquiring the marbles, the British Museum had them sanded down to remove any paint and give them a shiny new luster.

For decades Great Britain’s main argument for not returning the marbles was Greece’s lack of a suitable museum in which to display them. As a rebuttal to that argument an incredible state-of-the-art museum was opened at the foot of the Acropolis in 2009; the crowning top floor, encased in glass, was reserved for the Parthenon Gallery. Plaster casts of the sculptures housed in London were interspersed with original pieces from the Parthenon. Seven years later, Greece is still waiting for the originals.

You can send a message to the British Museum at:

feedback@britishmuseum.org.

The British Museum Should Return The Parthenon Marbles To Greece

Greece Unveils Museum Meant For Stolen Sculptures

The Parthenon marbles are the world’s most beautiful art – and that’s why we should give them back

 

© 2016, Ithaka Bound. All rights reserved. Text and photos copyright protected and may not be used without express and written permission from site owner.

Related posts:

Sunday market in Potamos, Kythira

 

Potamos-2

If you’re ever in Kythira on a Sunday, you should head straight for the market (pazari) in the main town of Potamos, a custom dating back hundreds of years. Farmers from all over the island come to sell their produce, and traditionally, stores, and sometimes even banks, stay open to accommodate those who work the fields. A few years back, when it began to look like the market wasn’t going to make it, Kythira’s younger generation banded together with foreign residents who lived on the island and saved this wonderful tradition.

Potamos-1

Today, along with fruits and vegetables you can purchase organic products, salt from Kythira’s famous salt pools, art, jewelry, and books. Mainly though, it’s a great time to socialize in the packed cafes and square.

If you go and someone happens to be selling a rare rosy peach—rodhákino, commonly known as the breast of Aphrodite, “a bit sweet and a bit sour”—buy one and enjoy.

Potamos-3

 

© 2016, Ithaka Bound. All rights reserved. Text and photos copyright protected and may not be used without express and written permission from site owner.

Related posts:

Cave of Agia Sofia

Cythera-Cave-Agia-Sophia

Getting to the cave of Agia Sofia on Kythira’s verdant west coast is an adventure in itself, with breathtaking views and heart-stoppingly narrow cliffside roads.

Kythira-St-Sophia

Upon entering the cave, you’re enveloped in a cool moist darkness that no air-conditioning system can ever hope to match. A 700 year-old fresco of Jesus, Mary, and nine tranquil saints — “guardians of the liquid secrets”—welcomes all visitors. This is the perfect place to pause and rest before exploring the inner chambers.

Greek perseverance in protecting and honoring their faith must be unmatched in the Christian world. From the mountain top monasteries of Meteora, to the camouflage churches and secret caves of the islands, Greeks were ingenious in thwarting attempts to suppress their beliefs, their past, or their freedom to say and think whatever they damn well pleased.

This cave near the village of Mylopotamos is the largest of three caves on Kythira dedicated to St. Sofia and legend has it that they are all linked via underground tunnels—completely plausible considering the pains Greeks took to out-maneuver invaders.

In the anteroom of the cave sits the little church of Agia Sofia, dating back to 1875. A stony, comforting sanctuary in a dark wet world.

Cythera-Cave-church

Opposite the church is a small depression filled with water trickling from the roof. In the past it served as a baptismal font for children born with health problems. Today it’s a sort of wishing-well, shiny with euro-pennies. My father and grandfather would have benefitted from a cave like Agia Sofia. As it was, they had to sneak newborn family members to church to be baptized—either at night or in the middle of the day—hoping all the while that card-carrying Communists might be at work, or, more likely, too drunk to notice.

Cythera-cave-baptism

I follow a guide who leads visitors through the dewy chambers, and I listen for the soft rhythmic drip of water, uninterrupted over 4 million years, and the timeless, unbroken formation of stalagmites and stalactites.

© 2016, Ithaka Bound. All rights reserved. Text and photos copyright protected and may not be used without express and written permission from site owner.

Related posts:

The Baths of Helen of Troy

 

Baths-of-Helen-of-Troy-cythera

Helen of Troy follows closely in Aphrodite’s wake. On Cythera, you’ll find Helen’s bathing pool just south of Aphrodite’s beach in an open cave through a rock outcrop dividing the beaches of Paleopoli. Legend has it that Helen and Paris stopped in Cythera on their way to Troy, though history is murky on their motivations, offering two options:

  1. They stopped in Cythera to wait for a strong tailwind to carry them swiftly to Troy after Helen was “kidnapped” from Sparta.
  2. They wanted to enjoy their love unhindered and ask for the goddess’s blessing.

Helen, daughter of Sparta, unhappy wife of Menelaus, the face that launched a thousand ships and started a ten-year war—was ever a woman so cursed by her natural blessings?

The kernel of truth in myths and legends is often buried deep beneath the hard red earth of ancient pride and morals. Helen’s fate was intertwined with the petty machinations of Aphrodite who, like most great beauties, was maddeningly insecure. It was Aphrodite, after all, who offered Paris another man’s wife if only he would say she was prettier than the goddesses Hera and Athena. The goddess of love had to bribe a man to get him to compliment her beauty. Hera offered to make Paris lord of Europe and Asia; Athena promised him a Trojan victory over the Greeks, but Paris, weak coward that he was, chose Aphrodite’s bribe and Helen over the salvation of his people. Yet history blames Helen for the fall of Troy.

In chapter four of The Odyssey, Helen makes a rather sad appearance, lamenting her bad judgement, the picture of contrition and wifely virtue. Certainly a man’s take on things—wise old Homer delivering a cautionary message to the women of his time. My favorite passage in chapter four is when Helen, while entertaining her husband and a couple of princes, has  “a happy thought” and decides to spike their wine with a “wonderful drug”:

“…potent against pain and quarrels and charged with forgetfulness of all trouble; whoever drank this not one tear would he let fall the whole day long, not if mother and father should die, not if they should slay a brother or a dear son before his face and he should see it with his own eyes. That was one of the wonderful drugs which the noble queen possessed…”

Clever Helen, I’ll bet she seized every opportunity to tip that little vial. I wonder, though, who was in greater need of the peace that detachment and forgetting brings—Menelaus or Helen?

As fond as I am of swimming through open caves, I decide to forego Helen’s baths. The last thing I need is her bad luck rubbing off on me.

© 2016, Ithaka Bound. All rights reserved. Text and photos copyright protected and may not be used without express and written permission from site owner.

Related posts: