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…

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