The oral heroic poetry of the Kreipe kidnap

I have extracted this from a fairly long book review about Professor M I Finley’s 1978 revised edition of his book The World of Odysseus. It has a fascinating section about an oral heroic song from Crete that is about Paddy and the Kreipe abduction, and how it had evolved in just the few years since the end of the war.

From Triumph of a Heretic by Bernard Knox, first published in the NYRB 29 June 1978.

It is now more than two decades since the Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge (who was then an ex-professor from Rutgers) published a book which in a limpid, hard-hitting prose and with a bare minimum of footnotes attempted to draw “a picture of a society, based on a close reading of the Iliad and Odyssey, supported by study of other societies….” This is how Professor Finley characterizes the book now, in the preface to a revised edition which makes only minor changes in the original text but adds two valuable and stimulating appendices, replying to criticism and bringing the argument up to date. He goes on to claim that “the social institutions and values make up a coherent system” which, however strange to us, is “neither an improbable nor an unfamiliar one in the experience of modern anthropology.” The fact that the later Greeks and the nineteenth-century scholars found it incomprehensible on its own terms he dismisses as “irrelevant” and adds that “it is equally beside the point that the narrative is a collection of fictions from beginning to end.” ….

… Oral heroic poetry is not a medium that preserves historical fact—as Finley pointed out, with a reference to the Chanson de Roland, which made out of a Basque attack on Charlemagne’s rear-guard an assault by Muslim beys and pashas, all carefully identified by names which are “German, Byzantine, or made-up.” A modern example, from the Second World War and from Greece itself, strengthens his case and gives a fascinating glimpse of epic “history” in the making.

In 1953 the late Professor James Notopoulos was recording oral heroic song in the Sfakia district of western Crete, where illiterate oral bards were still to be found. He asked one of them, who had sung of his own war experience, if he knew a song about the capture of the German general and the bard proceeded to improvise one. The historical facts are well known and quite secure. In April 1944 two British officers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain Stanley Moss, parachuted into Crete, made contact with Cretan guerrillas, and kidnapped the German commanding general of the island, one Karl Kreipe.

The general was living in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, the house Evans had built for himself during the excavations. Every day, at the same time, the general was driven south from the Villa to the neighboring small town of Arkhanes, where his headquarters were located. He came home every night at eight o’clock for dinner. The two British officers, dressed in German uniforms, stopped the car on its way home to Knossos; the Cretan partisans overpowered the chauffeur and the general. The two officers then drove the car through the German roadblocks in Heraklion (the general silent with a knife at his throat) and left the car on the coast road to Rethymo. They then hiked through the mountains to the south coast, made rendezvous with a British submarine, and took General Kreipe to Alexandria and on to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo.

Here, in Notopoulos’s summary, is the heroic song the bard produced:

“An order comes from British and American headquarters in Cairo to capture General Kreipe, dead or alive; the motive is revenge for his cruelty to the Cretans. A Cretan partisan, Lefteris Tambakis (not one of the actual guerrilla band) appears before the English general (Fermor and Moss are combined into one and elevated in rank) and volunteers for the dangerous mission. The general reads the order and the hero accepts the mission for the honor of Cretan arms. The hero goes to Heraklion, where he hears that a beautiful Cretan girl is the secretary of General Kreipe.

“In disguise the partisan proceeds to her house and in her absence reads the [English] general’s order to her mother. When the girl returns he again reads the general’s order. Telling her the honor of Crete depends on her, he catalogues the German cruelties. If she would help in the mission, her name would become immortal in Cretan history. The girl consents and asks for three days time in which to perform her role. To achieve Cretan honor she sacrifices her woman’s honor with General Kreipe in the role of a spy. She gives the hero General Kreipe’s plans for the next day.

“Our hero then goes to Knossos to meet the guerrillas and the English general. ‘Yiassou general,’ he says. ‘I will perform the mission.’ The guerrillas go to Arkhanes to get a long car with which to blockade the road. Our hero, mounted on a horse by the side of the blockading car, awaits the car of Kaiseri (that is what the bard calls Kreipe). The English general orders the pistols to be ready. When Kreipe’s car slows down at the turn he is attacked by the guerrillas. Kreipe is stripped of his uniform (only his cap in the actual event) and begs for mercy for the sake of his children (a stock motif in Cretan poetry).

“After the capture the frantic Germans begin to hunt with dogs (airplanes in the actual event). The guerrillas start on the trek to Mount Ida and by stages the party reaches the district of Sfakia (the home of the singer and his audience; actually the general left the island southwest of Mount Ida). The guards have to protect the general from the mob of enraged Sfakians. Soon the British submarine arrives and takes the general to Egypt. Our bard concludes the poem with a traditional epilogue—that never before in the history of the world has such a deed been done. He then gives his name, his village, his service to his country.”

So much for epic history. Nine years after the event the British protagonists have been reduced to one nameless general whose part in the operation is secondary and there can hardly be any doubt that if the song is still sung now the British element in the proceedings is practically nonexistent—if indeed it managed to survive at all through the years in which Britain, fighting to retain its hold on Cyprus, became the target of bitter hostility in Greece and especially among the excitable Cretans.

It took the Cretan oral tradition only nine years to promote to the leadership of the heroic enterprise a purely fictitious character of a different nationality. This is a sobering thought when one reflects that there is nothing to connect Agamemnon, Achilles, Priam, and Hector with the fire-blackened layer of thirteenth-century ruins known as Troy VII A (the archaeologists’ candidate for Homer’s city) except a heroic poem which cannot have been fixed in its present form by writing until the late eighth century, at least four illiterate centuries after the destruction.

To read the full article click here.

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One thought on “The oral heroic poetry of the Kreipe kidnap

  1. Pingback: The oral heroic poetry of the Kreipe kidnap « Patrick Leigh Fermor | mimesismonday.com

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