“When God had finished making the world,” say the natives of Mani, “he had a sack of stones left over and he emptied it here.” Petroprolific Mani is the middle tine of a twisted three-pronged peninsular fork that jabs into the Mediterranean from Greece’s Peloponnesus. About as remote from the 20th century as the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Maniots dwell in a kind of telescopic time capsule that includes Homer but little more than a hint of the Industrial Revolution. Few Maniots read or write. They have no radios, movies or telephones, and the family vehicle is the donkey. Matching the man of Aran in his barebones existence, the Maniot is scorched black by the fierce summer sun and lashed in win ter by the tramontana, a fearsome wind that tosses marble slabs about like pebbles.
First published in Time magazine, July 18 1960
From the Tower. Other Greeks shudder when they mention the Mani, and few ever go there. In his mad-dog-and-English-man way, Britain’s Patrick Leigh Fermor not only went but also brought back a fascinating traveler’s account of this bypassed pocket of civilization. Author Fermor, a passionate philhellene, has roamed Greece for 20 years, including a stint as a British commando, and his book is steeped in myth and history, which sometimes slacken the pace but rarely dim the interest of his chronicle.
Maniot girls are shy, grave and graceful, with large, luminous black eyes that reminded Fermor of the Madonnas in Byzantine icons. The men shave once a week, and some of them sport the black, eight-inch handlebar mustaches of their piratical forebears. Descendants of the
Spartans, the Maniots are famed for their blood feuds. From the iyth century on, they built tower dwellings resembling the Italian campanile, and the status symbol of the day was to have the highest tower. It was also a key vantage point from which to rain down rocks on an enemy neighbor’s marble roof. As soon as one member of a family was killed, clan warfare was declared, with the towers as citadels. When gunpowder was introduced, cannon fired away at point-blank range across the narrow streets, and not a move could be made by day without a fusillade of gunshots. Food and ammunition were smuggled into the towers by night, and since the feuds sometimes went on for years, each newborn boy was hailed as “another gun for the family.” Meanwhile, entire families of innocent bystanders resignedly moved out of town.
The Moles of Fate. The legendary patriot leaders of Greece’s struggle for independence from Turkey—Theodoros Kolokotronis and Petrobey Mavromi-chalis—campaigned from the Mani. Indeed, Mavromichalis was a Maniot who, in countless forays against the Turks, lost 49 relatives. He nailed the heads of Turks whom he killed around his own tower until it was studded with skulls. In the light of their rebel heritage, the Maniots of today are remarkably royalist. In private homes, Fermor found pictures of Greece’s King Paul and Queen Frederika right next to those of George VI and Elizabeth II. In one Maniot home, such pictures were flanked by a 1926 fashion advertisement of the “Be Smart Tailors of Madison Avenue.”
This probably seems like the height of modernity to a people who like to point out the island where Paris took Helen the first night after he stole her from Menelaus, and who still retain the purest links of Greece’s pagan past. Old Maniots are convinced that Nereids haunt the local fountains, and mothers believe that the three Fates hover over an infant’s cradle to write invisible destinies on the child’s brow (moles are known as “writings of the Fates”). Seafarers claim that Gorgons grip their caiques in a storm and ask in ringing tones, “Where is Alexander the Great?” If the captain shouts, “Alexander the Great lives and reigns!”, the sea turns calm. Otherwise, the Gorgon tilts the boat toward sea bottom, and all hands drown.
Couplets for Hector. Mani’s most cherished art form is the miroloy, the dirge with which keening womenfolk usher the Maniot out of a harsh world that neither man nor God seemingly made. More a lament for a hero being taken to the underworld than for a Christian going to his reward—even as she makes the sign of the cross, the grieving widow will say, “Charon took him”—the miroloy mirrors in its 16-syllable line the lament of Andromache over the body of Hector. At graveside, the chief mourner’s voice becomes a howl of hysteria (“Oh, my warrior! The arch and pillar of our house!”), her hair tumbles in disorder, and she tears at her cheeks with her fingernails till they are crisscrossed with red gashes and running with tears and blood. In the mesmeric half-trance of the dirge, the singer has been known to drift far out and lament high taxes, the price of salt, the need for roads, and the Bulgarian frontier—all in faultless couplets. Sans couplets, but with 20/20 sight and insight, Author Fermor has fashioned a durable portrait of the enduring people who inhabit the mythical rock garden of the gods.