Friday, June 15, 2012

a walk across Kea

After breakfast at the monastery I took leave of the caretaker and her cat.  (The cat's name was Douli, which I knew from the sometimes archaic vocabulary of my book-learnt Greek to mean "slave girl," a word I had not expected to encounter in conversation.)   I set off across the island south and west toward Ioulis, the main and  --  so far as I could tell, save for the port of Korissia  --  the only town on the island of Kea.  I had by this time figured out that the small, connecting lines on my map were not roads, but footpaths.

I climbed the steps cut into the cliffside to the ridge and then set out on the path that seemed the most direct route to Ioulis.  (I see that there is now a road to the monastery; I have no idea if there were one then: steps cut into a cliffside had seemed to me a wholly appropriate way to reach a monastery.)

It was a beautiful, bright sunny day, warm whenever I was out of the high wind that had been blowing since I had left the mainland almost a week earlier.   I passed sheepfolds built of rough stone with dark, sheltered recesses and circular stone threshing floors, long unused, beside uncultivated fields.  I noticed that one of the upright slabs that formed the low wall of the threshing floor would have a cross cut into it and remembered reading how these remote stone floors were said once to be the site of moonlit magic rites.  The cross may have meant to discourage that, though magic being what it is  --  and Greek folk magic freely invoking Christian symbols  --  it is just as likely that the cross was meant to augment the potency of such rites as might have been practiced there.

(N.B.: I do not believe that travel writing is a branch of anthropology.  I mention folk magic simply because I had read John Cuthbert Lawson's wonderful Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: a Study in Survivals [1911] , and had thought of it when I saw first the threshing floor and then the cross cut in the stone.  I am writing about my own experience with Greece, weighted down with all my peculiar mental baggage.  Your results may differ.)

Walking over high ground, the sea at a little distance to the east and clouds hiding the western horizon, the path crossed pastures and open fields and ran along a low stone wall.  There, in the middle of nowhere, was a tiny chapel, scarcely large enough for one person, whitewashed stone and cement, its door chained shut but inside I could make out an icon and a bottle, whether of oil or spirits I could not tell; built, I assumed, as an act of pious faith, and once a year a priest would be paid to come here to say a service, a form of piety I find completely agreeable, as also those little way-side shrines scarcely larger than a mailbox or as when on a cross-country bus trip the old Greek beside me crossed himself every time a church or chapel came into view, a thing that seemed so much a part of his being that I imagined that it would never have occurred to him to do otherwise.

Near the top of a hill I came upon a plane tree: a broad pavilion of cool shade spread in the midst of a hot country.  I had read in Herodotus how Xerxes, on first encountering a plane tree, had stopped his army and decorated the tree with gold and adored it, and left one of his Immortals to guard it.  (How odd that fellow must have felt: everyone else he knew were marching on to conquer Greece and he was left there in the middle of nowhere guarding a tree that the King had apparently fallen in love with.)   I had thought the story odd (even the ancients had thought the story odd), but now I understood how, coming from an arid land one might be struck with wonder at the broad, sweeping boughs and imagine that such great trees might grow in paradise.  Though, as with everything else I had passed that morning, it grew in a remote, deserted place, a broad area around its base was paved with flat stones, as if it were a place where rites might be observed, though I was by now close enough to Ioulis that it is likely that such moonlit rites as were practiced there were by teenagers and of a less mysterious sort.  I filled my water bottle from a spring not far away.

And then, just a little way on, I rounded a shoulder of a hill and found myself in the presence of the Great Kitty of Kea.

Archaic Greek lions do not look like our modern great cats.  For one thing, they have no pronounced mane and tend to have a peculiar roundish face.  Every archaic lion that I can think of has these features.  I do not know if they had different great cats in those days, or if their lions had become extinct by the time ancient sculptors were called upon to carve them and they modeled their cats on some older, fanciful, stylized depiction.  Whatever the cause, the Great Lion of Kea, resting couchant, cut from the living stone of the hillside, is one of those peculiar, round-faced cats.

It appears to be a complete mystery.  About six meters long and three tall, perched at an odd angle probably dictated by the natural stone, it is of extreme and uncertain age, unconnected with any known temple or structure, nor to any known cult.  It is just an ancient sculpture of a lion sitting on a hillside on a small island near the mainland of Greece.  I am comfortable with mysteries.  I feel the richer for living in a world where some things are hidden from us.  There is always the risk that the truth will turn out to be boring.

The footpath continued on into the town of Ioulis, a high place that in the old days would have been secure from pirates (who in earlier times had been a serious concern in these islands).  There were some remains of a Venetian castle.  The town had narrow, confusing passageways between the walls of the houses.  Finding myself disoriented, I discovered that to escape the walled maze I could follow the donkey droppings; they would either lead me out of town or to where the animals were kept: when I found myself in due course where the animals were kept I needed only turn around and go the other way to find my way out of the maze.  I was told that this arrangement was to confuse the pirates.  I was also told that the sometimes unfriendly attitude of island people was because of the pirates.  For a while I suspected that my not having hot water at the hotel would somehow also be blamed on the pirates.

The people I met in Ioulis seemed more pleasant than those in the port at Korissia.  It was getting toward evening and I found a ride back to the port. I mentioned to the fellow who gave me the ride that I thought the people in Ioulis had been friendlier than they were in Korissia and he said, yes, that was so.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy reading of your travels to a place I've never been.