Greece – Corfu

TWENTY-FIVE years ago I had the sharp zest of the explorer. It whets one’s curiosity to a feather-edge to enter a country which, so far as modern civilization is concerned, is devoid of a past; where there are no works of man except the few traces of nomadic Indian occupancy and the only history revealed is that written by the great forces of Nature. Thus it was very interesting to enter the Black Hills with Custer in 1874; to penetrate a country unmapped and unnamed; to see washed out the first thimbleful of gold ; to plant the standard of nationality and civilization on a lofty height and listen to strains of patriotic music resounding for the first time through those silent hills. We were the harbingers of a new civilization. The practical question to the enthusiastic miner was, ” Where shall I stake my claim?”

There is another zest, more delicate but not less keen. It is the zest of the mythologist, the archaeologist, the philologist and the student of letters whose interest in a country is heightened by its long past, the mellowed accretions of myth, tradition and language, its rich treasures of art and the resplendent glow of imaginative literature which invests it like a halo. That is the difference between the Black Hills and Greece. Greece was an illuminated palimpsest, the Black Hills a blank page.

There are two ways of entering Greece. You may sail directly to the Piraeus, the port of Athens, and come at once under the spell of Propylaea and Parthenon. That is to enter by the front door. Or you may land at Corfu, and go from one to another of the Ionian Islands. That is to go through the back lane of Homeric tradition. When I went to Greece, I determined, if possible, to enter by the portal of the Odyssey, and to leave by the portal of the Iliad. If I had lived in the Orient, I should have reversed the programme; but, living in the Occident, it was easier to read the second story first. The centre of the Odyssey is Ithaca; the centre of the Iliad is Troy. In going from one to the other, my trip included nearly all the most important isles and shrines of Greece.

Hardly less important than Ithaca in the Odyssey, and more fascinating in charm of incident and beauty of description, is the land of the Pheacians, the ancient Scheria. The island and its inhabitants are invested with a certain mythical and superhuman character, and the poet gives full rein to his imagination in describing its marvellous fertility and beauty. It is the island which tradition, rightly or wrongly, has identified with the modern Corfu. As we entered the harbor it seemed as if we were sailing into mythic waters. But the captain sails by a modern chart.

Of the seven Ionian Islands, Corfu, called by the Greeks Kerkyra, is the largest and the most important. It holds, too, the palm for beauty and fertility. It has an area of 422 square miles and a population of 25,000 souls. Its veritable history can be traced back to the settlement of a Corinthian colony there, 734 B. C. As in our own history, the colony soon quarrelled with the mother country. In 655 B. C., the Corcyraeans, as they were called, beat the Corinthians in a naval battle. The island took the part of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Later it passed into the hands of the Romans. When the Crusaders insanely dismembered the Byzantine Empire, this island jewel dropped easily into the hands of Venice, and though the Neapolitan kings secured it for a hundred years, and the Turks besieged it twice, the Venetians ruled it until the beginning of this century. Their occupation and that of the Neapolitans covered a period of six centuries. The French secured possession for seven years, from 1807 to 1814. For forty-eight years thereafter, until 1863, it formed one of the seven Ionian Islands grouped into a State under the protection of Great Britain. In 1863, when King George was called to the throne of Greece, the desire for political union with that country was so strong, as expressed by a vote of their people, that England gave tip her protectorate, and the Ionian Islands thenceforth became a part of the kingdom of Greece.

Here, in brief outline, are the epochs in the history of Corfu. The charm of the island lies in its physical beauty, its halo of tradition and the picturesque and archaic features of its modern life.

If one wished to settle down into the simple luxuries of physical existence, I know not where he could find them more perfectly combined than on this island. No fickleness of nature has marked its changing fortunes. The same clear sky, balmy air, refulgent sun and glorious prospects abide here as in the days of Homer. The fertility of the soil is remarkable. In the sense in which we speak of it in the latitude of Boston, there is no such thing as win-ter in Corfu. The snow falls on the Albanian mountains, or on the head of Monte San Salvatore, 3,000 feet high, but never whitens the streets of Corfu. Flowers bloom all the year round. The fields in November are gay with English daisies and cyclamen and heather, and we pick crocuses, snowdrops and chrysanthemums. Great walls of cactus and hedges of aloes run along the roadsides. There are vast groves of olives, some of them of great age. The five hundred years claimed for them may not be theirs; but it is easy to believe that they have outlived centuries. It is estimated that there are four million olive-trees on the island ; and nowhere else have I seen such beautiful growths of this historic tree. There are fine groves of oranges, lemons and figs, and the vineyards of Corfu send wine to France, Italy and elsewhere. Bananas, palms, magnolias and the eucalyptus flourish in the gar-dens. Few places are more kindly favored by nature with a generous soil, a genial and lovely prospect.

To one who has been reared in the popular or academic fiction that Greek is a dead language, it is curiously exhilarating to land in Corfu and find it really alive. It refuses to be bound in the cerements of the academic pronunciation, to be immured in grammars or text-books ; it is as wing-worded as when it escaped the barriers of Homeric teeth. It is not too fine for common use. It is the language of bootblacks and hack-drivers, as well as of poets and historians; its vocabulary is conspicuously displayed in shop signs, bills of fare, public notices and the names of streets. If he has any of his old college Greek in his brain, now is the time for the traveller to get it out and burnish it up. Still more fortunate is he if he has taken time by the forelock and prepared for this trip by acquiring some knowledge of modern Greek, which is best described by Geldart as ” old Greek made easy.” It is nonsense to treat Greek as if it were a dead language. It is living in the speech, journalism and literature of the Greeks of today, just as Chaucer is living in the speech, journalism and literature of the English people. The letters, the accents, are the same. The old Greek has changed its form in modern usage. It is simpler, less accurate, less rich in moods and inflections; but it is, historically, essentially the same language. One may open his Homer and pick out on every page words that are in common usage to-day, after three thousand years of currency. The universal daily greeting xaipete is Homeric. The resemblance to the New Testament Greek is remarkable. The Greek Church has done much to preserve the vitality of the language, for the New Testament is used in all the services in the old Greek, and children say the Lord’s Prayer by heart just as it stands in Matthew.

” Never before,” said Mavilla, ” had Greek `sight translation’ been half so interesting, or practical, as when we lingered along the narrow, crooked streets of the little town, trying to discover which was a baker’s shop and which a barber’s. The fruit and candy stalls we had no difficulty in recognizing.”

The streets are narrow, the esplanade broad and partly shaded with trees. The ruins, with two or three exceptions, are not Greek, but Venetian. They consist mainly of the old Venetian forts, one of which, Fortezza Vecchia, is still used as a military post by the Greeks. But for the visitor the main interest is the magnificent view of harbor, town and island.

Traditions grow as luxuriantly in Corfu as olives, figs and lemons. Some of them have a very intimate relation to the life and religion of the people. There is an Homeric tradition and a Christian tradition. The Homeric tradition is worked into the guide-books and comes down as a literary heritage. But the Christian tradition is woven into ritual, ceremony and procession in the Greek Church, and is still used to praise God and shame the devil. We had come to find the Homeric trail, but we could not lapse into luxuriant paganism until we had paid our respects to the lifeless and desiccated remains of Saint Spiridion. All Saints Day (in the Greek, not the Roman calendar), which was observed the day after we landed, was a civil, military and religious festival, all the town, the countryside, the garrison, the two brass bands, and the countless church officials joining in one interminable procession in honor of the patron saint of the island, Saint Spiridion. One of the semi-official lives of the saint states that he was born in Cyprus about 318 A. D. From a humble shepherd he became an archbishop, and many stories are told of the miracles he wrought. He died in 350 and his body was taken to Constantinople in 700, where it remained until 1453, when it was re-moved to Corfu. Instead of being burnt or buried, it is sacredly preserved in a silver coffin decorated with gold and jewels. Three times a year the body is taken out of the church and carried about the city in a palanquin with a glass case. This festival, like those of Easter and other holy days in Greece, is national and patriotic as well as religious. It brings out the whole populace of every grade and order, and the military solemnities are almost as conspicuous as the sacerdotal.

We joined the waiting crowd at the door of Saint Spiridion’s Church, standing on tiptoe to hear mass. The women were in full holiday dress, their breasts covered with masses of golden icons and heavy gold chains. Their soft, white veils were spotless, and their velvet bodices and silk aprons were of the gayest colors. As the chimes pealed for eleven o’clock, the procession started from the church. In the van were a number of small children dressed in sailor costume. The civil authorities and dignitaries were preceded by banner-bearers. Acolytes bore huge waxen columns,—candles if you please, — as long and as stout as a lamp-post. Then came priests and bishops in richest garments of gorgeous colors. The arch-bishop walked close to the body of his ancient and distinguished forerunner; then, in great state, came Saint Spiridion himself, in his sacred palanquin, borne by four men, the body upright, with head, trunk, and hands exposed to view.

” Poor old thing,” said Mavilla, ” fifteen hundred years a withered mummy, and still jolted about the city three times a year ! ”

The multitude fell in behind the troops of soldiers, and, with their candles in their hands, marched the whole morning. When the procession reached the square, the palanquin was placed on the ground and prayers were offered, thanking the saint for delivering the island from an ancient plague. The benediction was pronounced in a forcible way by a battery of artillery.

To some this service was apparently little more than a national festival ; to the superstitious peasants it was full of solemn awe, — the veneration with which they regard the old saint amounts to that bestowed by their ancestors on the lesser divinities, — to others it furnished material for piety and gratitude. One old man who stood near me in the square was deeply moved and the tears rolled down his cheeks. I wondered in just what way the service touched his heart. But there was nothing Pharisaical in his tears, though they fell on a street corner.