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Haunted Islands

Greece has had a particular fascination for Anglo-American anthropologists in this century, especially since World War II. Foreign visitors usually fall in love with what Henry Miller called “one’s own divine image reflected in a thousand dazzling facets.” But it is the modern culture of villages, whether on the mainland or the islands, that has appealed most to formal and informal students of the country. Charles Stewart’s richly evocative exploration of a village on the Cycladic island of Naxos is the latest in a series of distinguished studies of Greece by anthropologists writing in English—one thinks of the work of Ernestine Friedl, John Campbell, Juliet du Boulay, and Michael Herzfeld—each of which helps to define the country’s complexities by way of the changing customs and traditions of rural Greece.

What makes contemporary Greece especially complex is the variety of its historical legacies, placed as it is at the borders of Europe on the west and Asia Minor on the east. Every Greek who goes to school has to contend with the country’s classical past. Until recently students were fed doses of difficult classical texts and required to translate them while often barely comprehending them. This boring system—along with the artificially created classicist language called katharévousa—was the product of the early founding fathers of the modern state who felt they had to compensate for Greece’s never having had a renaissance remotely comparable to that of its European neighbors. Instead, the Greeks were subject to foreign occupation, almost four centuries of it under the Ottoman Empire, from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 onward. And after Greece’s war of independence in the early nineteenth century, one great power after another dominated its political life.

The Greek sense of national identity survived these influences not so much through the effort to resurrect the country’s classical heritage as through the presence of the Byzantine religious tradition embodied in the architecture, rites, and cultural conventions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The major contribution of Charles Stewart’s study is the evidence he provides of the essential link between the demons that have had an important part in modern village life and the traditional demons in the Greek Orthodox cosmology. He shows that the demons of folk imagination and the Orthodox Christian culture have much in common, including parallel characteristics and rituals; and he explains how these demons and the Devil merge in stories from rural life.

The demons of the folk tradition, known generically as exotiká, are legion, and they come in many unnatural shapes, often half animal and half human; among them are mermaids called gorgónes, beautiful female lámies with hooves of a cow and a goat, and goblins called kallikántzaroi with tails and horns, whose lame, baldheaded leader is monstrously endowed. As the Greek name suggests, these demons are regarded as things “outside or beyond,” and they normally inhabit mountains and springs and caves at a safe distance from the village—they are “outsiders” in space and spirit.

The exotiká can be benevolent at times, but they are mostly malevolent, the cause of everything from lethargy or unintentional adultery to theft, disease, and even death. A gorgeously seductive neráïda can arrive unannounced in your sheepfold to render you impotent or drive you insane. An ugly old stríngla may drink the blood of your children. Donkey-shaped anaskeládes (“upsidedowners”) are liable to attack you on the open road and can only be tamed by the right obscene threat. Though these phantom presences do not now appear nearly as often as they used to, and though their survival is severely challenged by the shifting landscape of modern Greece, Stewart’s book demonstrates that they still belong to what he calls the “morally structured cosmos” of village life.

Two problems confront the researcher who draws on village life to define “moral imagination in modern Greek culture”; the cultural climate of the major cities is very different from that of a Greek village, and with a few remote exceptions, the culture of villages in recent years has continually been changing. People from sophisticated neighborhoods of Athens or Salonika will probably resist the implication that they have anything to do with a village-centered cosmology. Athenian intellectuals, in fact most urban Greeks who have been to a university or who have lived abroad for an extended period, will deny they are more susceptible to the world of demons than the average citizen of other European cities. Very few people in the high-priced Kolonaki district of Athens, for example, worry about the possible descent down their chimneys of kallikántzaroi goblins, who, among other pranks, spend the twelve days of Christmas urinating on hearth fires and fouling one’s food.

Such demons are, on the other hand, still very much alive in at least some villages on the island of Naxos where Stewart carried out his research. An old woman told him the story of her husband’s death in the third person but assured him, with the support of various relatives, that the story was entirely true. Her husband, a shepherd, said one morning that their lovemaking the previous night had been even better than what they had known as newlyweds. Since the woman hadn’t slept with her husband the previous night, she realized immediately that her husband had been taken in by a neráïda, with the result that his penis soon began to swell up. When both a doctor and a ritual act of urinating on an exotic plant called pipiliás failed to cure him, he became paralyzed for a year and then died.

Stewart is well aware of the increasing disparity between the urban and rural perception of demons. In fact, the encroachment of city values on Naxos through television and mainland visitors, and the growing awareness of the villagers that educated, primarily middle-class people regard belief in demons as “laughable signs of backwardness,” inhibited his research. Accounts of contact with demons came mostly from the elderly, and they usually referred to events that had occurred forty or more years ago.

Younger people either denied knowing about such questionable beings or talked of them only after making some disclaimer. “Greece,” Stewart observes, “has gone from being a 62 percent rural society in 1920 to a 30 percent rural society in 1980.” Since the early 1920s the steady departure of workers from Naxos brought its largely self-sufficient agricultural life to an end, while the island increasingly became a part of the national money economy.

As a result many local customs and rites have died out or become “folklore,” a subject for lectures sponsored by village cultural organizations or for quaint staged performances at carnival time. But Stewart argues that the belief in demons has been fading not simply because people have acquired scientific and technological knowledge. The change in village attitudes is more the product of social pressure, of the villagers’ embarrassment at being seen as backward peasants and of their hopes of being more like the urban middle class. Stewart found that a desire to seem sophisticated counts more on Naxos than any scientific rationality. As for the effects of education, he writes, “It is not a question of what one learns in the classroom but rather what class one comes to belong to by virtue of education.”

But today’s island villager finds that a good many members of the urban middle class he hopes to emulate have themselves taken up new forms of devotion to the supernatural through a fascination with astrology, mediums, palmists, and Eastern systems of meditation and mysticism. As Stewart points out, the urban middle class in Greece always appears to be one step ahead of lower-class villagers. Some educated Athenians and other outsiders with a lingering romantic nostalgia deplore modern development and continue to look for whatever remnants they can find of formerly vital village customs and rites.

Stewart’s book reconstructs a variety of beliefs in demons and spells from the memories of the old people he talked to and villagers who were able to pass on to him descriptions of spells written down by another generation, sometimes in the form of scribbled notes on scraps of paper without title or name. Spells against the evil eye still survive on Naxos, as do some milder forms of unofficial exorcism or protection, such as spitting air at a child who has been complimented. And not only on Naxos but throughout Greece, even among city sophisticates, people attach garlic and blue beads to valuable objects that could cause envy—bright new cars, for example.

When doctors were scarce on Naxos, villagers would use elaborate spells against various diseases and conditions, from jaundice to sunstroke. To cure jaundice required a special prayer, repeated three times, in which the “green and yellow comrade of Charos and sibling of Death” is exorcised by the Holy Virgin in the name of “my son and my God, Our Lord Jesus Christ,” so that the jaundice will “plunge into the deepest waters of the sea and never return.” The local exorcist then puts three fingers of resinated wine in a wine glass, drops the victim’s wedding ring in the glass, and places the glass under the stars for three nights, with the patient taking a sip of wine for each of three evenings but leaving the ring in the glass presumably until cured.

Sunstroke calls for a prayer that begins “Down at the waterfront, down at the strand, there sit three maidens and they vomit and weep and pray to God.” When Christ passes by to ask them what the matter is, they answer:

Master Christ of mine, aren’t you able to tell the hidden from the evident? We have sun[stroke] and we vomit and weep and pray to God. And no five-fingered, five-nailed person has come to lay on three elbow lengths of scarf and a glass of water and say three times, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.” And to remove the sun from a person’s head.

The sunstruck person is made to stand in the sun without a hat, while the exorcist, usually an old woman, recites her spell and performs a complicated ritual that finally ends with wetting a scarf that is presumably laid on the unfortunate victim’s head.

As these spells suggest, unofficial exorcism, practiced by what the Church calls “sorcerers,” draws heavily on Church liturgy and divine intervention. The connection is natural, since the Church traditionally performs exorcisms, and the principal sources for our knowledge of demons and their ways are monastic manuscripts and prayer books that reflect practices dating to the early days of Orthodox Christianity. Stewart quotes from these sources, which show that the close relation between the Church and the world of demons has existed for centuries. We learn, for example, from a sixteenth-century manuscript held in the Xiropotamou Monastery on Mount Athos that it is important for those possessed by a demon to find out the name of that evil spirit, to which class he belongs, how many others are with him, and where he lives. The possessed person may do this, saying: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; see and give.” If the demon doesn’t respond, he is to take a fiery piece of coal from an incense burner and “burn his tongue and face.”

To name a demon is to control it. The exorcising holy man must recite all names known to him and hope not to miss the right one, and sometimes secret names have to be whispered into the victim’s ear: “Avrion, Avrian, Avriane.…” From the exorcism of Saint Basil we see that it is also important to name the place where the demon dwells:

Take fear, flee, escape, depart unclean demon, whether on earth, below ground, in the deep… whether in the sea, or in the river or beneath ground or in a stream, or from a fountain or ditch, or swamp or reeds, or forest, from land, or filth, or grove, or oak coppice, or tree, or bird, or thunder, or from bath house, or in tub of water, or from an idolatrous monument, or from wherever we know or know not, or known or unknown, and from every unconsidered place, disperse and depart.

And since naming the parts of the body that the demon may infest is another means of controlling the evil spirit, we find in these texts anatomical litanies that might test the capacities of a first-year medical student. Like most exotiká in folk literature, the demons referred to in Church literature are monstrous, half animal and half human, “beast-faced,” “donkey-limbed,” “dragon-like”—one might be reading about a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. And along with being the cause of diseases, the demons are mainly responsible for leading people to sin, whether lewdness, desire, shamelessness, greed, envy, stirring up illusions, lethargy, lying, pride, vanity, or anything else “displeasing to God.”

Stewart argues that the Orthodox baptismal ceremony, with its roots in late antiquity, is essentially an exorcism ritual, one that contains within it many elements that became characteristic of the folk imagination centering on the exotiká. Moreover, this ceremony is the most important official ritual still practiced that allows the anthropologist to examine Orthodoxy and the exotiká “within the same structure”—to use Stewart’s terms—even as “complementary parts of the same broad cosmological picture.” During the typical baptism on Naxos, along with familiar liturgical readings and prayers, the priest blows on the child several times and crosses parts of the child’s body thrice; the sponsor blows and spits on the Devil while facing west; and Satan and his entourage of fallen angels are exorcised so that the body and consciousness of the child are free of his influence. When the water in the font is blessed, the priest prays “that every aerial and obscure phantom may withdraw itself from us; and that no demon of darkness may conceal himself in this water.”

Stewart illustrates fully and graphically the distinct place the demons occupy in the Church hierarchy of good and evil: the Devil is at the bottom and God is at the top, with the saints below Him; humanity is in the middle, and the demons somewhere between humanity and the Devil. The demonic exotiká share some of the Devil’s attributes but they mediate the Church’s image of evil by making it perceptible in day-to-day human experience, much as the saints, being human, mediate the Church’s image of abstract good as embodied in God. In the minds of villagers, the theologian’s rigid opposition between saints and demons breaks up into something more subtle. Saints can be vindictive toward those who do not honor their feast days, and the demon Charos can serve as a messenger of God. Though the demons can create havoc, like saints they deal directly with human beings. Perhaps, Stewart suggests, they save those who can believe in them from confronting an even more threatening and incomprehensible unknown.

The Church, though reluctant to recognize the validity of any exoricism that is not performed by a priest and though condemning the exotiká as “superstitious,” has managed to accommodate the lingering faith in demons by seeing them in many instances as the Devil’s companions and by recognizing them, at least in the remoter rural villages, as sources of evil that need to be officially exorcised. Not much more than a decade ago, a friend of mine from Australia witnessed just such a priestly exorcism in a village near Mount Athos where she went to live shortly after World War I. In fact, my friend, who lived in a building with a medieval tower by the sea, had asked for an exorcism to be performed on the maid who worked for her. The young woman had apparently become possessed to the point of madness after gazing at the skull of a monk that had been kept in a cupboard on the tower’s balcony for centuries; the monk, it seems, had committed suicide by jumping from the balcony to the shore below. The distracted young woman appeared on the precarious roof of the tower and began to dance naked under the moon. Only the quick arrival of the local priest and a hastily performed rite of exorcism restored the maid’s rationality and saved her from dying at the hands of whatever demon had possessed her. In any case, according to my Australian friend, the local priest allowed no time to pass for debate about whether such demons merely exist in folklore or superstition; he chose without a moment’s hesitation to do his duty.

In his conclusion, Charles Stewart makes a similar point in a different way. Though the Church proscribes the exotiká and recognizes only the Devil as the single source of supernatural evil, people in the village include the demons in their own conception of the Devil. The Orthodox rites directed at expelling Satan “are equally effective against, and even describe, the exotiká.” For most villagers, who are seldom aware of the Orthodox theology that divides the cosmos into the acceptable and the unacceptable, there is only a single tradition called Orthodox Christianity, which embraces almost all religious and cultural practices, whether the celebration of Church holidays or the healing rituals against disease and possession by demons. In my own experience, the local priest is likely to share the same image of the tradition as well, though he would hardly admit it. In any case, Stewart’s book offers persuasive evidence that the exotiká were important in making abstract notions of evil more human and in creating a communal sense both of what lies outside the pale of humanity and of how men and women can learn to confront unknown dark forces. What will take the place of demons in the changing village consciousness is not at all clear; it will surely not provide images as vivid as those that now are fading.

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