Byzantine heritage

Roumeli by Patrick Leigh Fermor



By Ray Greenblatt


Parrick Leigh Fermor, known as Paddy to everybody, was bright and dropped out of school at age 18.  He was from an English aristocratic family but preferred to live with the native people of Greece. His fame was confirmed when during World War II fighting with Greek guerilla forces, he captured a German general. For the remainder of his long life (1915-2011) he lived mostly in Greece speaking several dialects of Greek and studying its history.

The Roumeli is a vast mountainous area in central Greece. Paddy was fascinated by and admired the Sarakatsan, the herdsmen he encountered. This is how one man dressed: “A rough black pill-box was tilted askew on his matted and whiskered head. His black double-breasted waistcoat of homespun goats’ hair was tucked into a black sash below which a hairy and broad-pleated black kilt jutted stiffly to his knees.” (4) A contrasting woman: “All was made up of stern black and white lines and angles and so broad and solid-seeming were the black white-banded pleats that if any of the girls made a movement, their heavy and unwieldy clothes moved with the stiffness of armour.” (21)

Internally “those of the mountains are active, lean, spare, hawk-eyed men, with features scooped and chiseled by sun, wind, rain, snow and hail. They give more than an impression, during their occasional descents to the lowlands, of their enemies the wolves, and still more, of eagles. They live beyond the reach of the authorities, and, as we have seen, the border between pastoral life and lawlessness is often vague. They spell, in fact, independence and inviolacy.” (48)

Here is where they lived: “It was an entire village of beautifully thatched Sarakatsan huts, giant beehives swelling and tapering in tiers of cropped reed which overlapped with the precision of the plating on a seven-banded armadillo. They were topped with wooden crosses near holes in the thatch through which thin blue smoke curled.” (9)

It is a very ancient culture little disturbed by modern times: “Almost every sentence uttered and every gesture made is hallowed by usage; it is the accumulation of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years; hereditary, patriarchal, established, immutable, conservative, and self-sufficient, everything emerges from a  vast expanse of time as smooth with long handling as the shuttle of a loom, the blurred carving on a distaff or the patina on the shaft of a crook.” (29)

This is what visitors are offered at a feast: “Strangers, on occasions like these, are the objects of eager solicitude: special titbits, forkfuls of liver and kidney, and yet more recondite morsels are constantly being proffered and helpings of brain are delved from heads which have been bisected lengthwise and opened like a casket, each half, sometimes still equipped with a singed and twisting horn.” (16)

They loved their summer pastures: “Whenever their talk veered to their summer pastures in the Zagora, all their eyes lit up like those of the children of Israel at the thought of Canaan, and all spoke at once. That’s where we should come and stay with them. What pigeons, what hares! You didn’t need wine there—the air made you drunk; and as for the shade, the grass, the trees and the water—why the water came gushing out of the living rock as cold as ice, you couldn’t drink it it was so cold, and you could drink it by the oka, and feel like a giant. Words failed them.” (60)

Historically “they must have grazed their flocks in mid-air for aeons, vaguely aware, perhaps, of the War of Troy, the clash of the Greek cities, the elephants of Pyrrhus assembling in the valleys and Alexander’s departure to conquer the world. News of the Roman onslaught, the landing of St Paul on the Macedonian coast and the fall of the West would have reached them late and garbled; the barbarian influx and the long afternoon and evening of Byzantium would have been slow to impinge.” (33)

Religiously to these people “God the Father and Jesus are the same Person and He (or They) is known as Ai, a dialect abbreviation of ayios (hagios)—‘saint’ or ‘holy one.’ Sometimes He is known as Proto Ai, or the First among the saints, sometimes as Aphenti, the Lord, from the ancient Greek word authentes (from which the Turkish title, ‘effendi’, also derives). All over Greece, the army of saints has taken the place of the ancient pantheon.” (35)

A bus driver tells Paddy the limitations of the old beliefs:  “Those old Greeks, our celebrated ancestors, are a nuisance and I’ll tell you why. They haunt us. We can never be as great as they were, nobody can. They make us feel guilty. We can’t do anything, people think because of a few old books and temples and lumps of marble. And clever foreigners who know all about the ancients come here expecting to be surrounded by Apollos and gentlemen in helmets and laurel leaves.” (63)

Paddy’s love of song will transition us into a detailed discussion of his poetic writing style. The Sarakatsan loved music: “These songs unfold with a slow metrical elaboration of semi-tones and recapitulated half-lines and with a force of delivery which seems to strain the singer to the brink of syncope. Their heads are flung backwards with eyes half closed or faraway and the veins of their foreheads and necks project like thongs. The stories, usually heroic narratives, frequently veiled in a parable, are as fierce and melancholy as the music.” (17)

“The music that began to hover through the hut was moving and breathless. It started with long and deep notes separated by pauses; then it shot aloft in patterns of great complexity. Repeated and accelerating trills led to sustained high notes which left the tune quivering in mid-air before plummeting an octave to those low and long-drawn initial semibreves. Notes of an icy clarity alternated with notes of a stirring, reedy, and at moments almost rasping hoarseness. “ (54)

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As we can already observe, Paddy’s writing is rich in description, color and feeling. He employs alliteration to tie images together: “The place was alive with bleating and barking and bells, and gold with evening dust.” (50) Ellipsis emphasizes a person remembering: “. . . I had a few, but good ones, I used to graze them not far from Kios, in Bithynia, near Nicaea on the Asian coast. That was years, years ago . . . Caiques sailing past in the Sea of Marmara could hear my bells . . . But the Rhodope is where we all belong . . .” (14)

Sometimes he uses an unusual word: “The old man’s oakapple-jointed fingers kept pushing a minute saucepan into the embers.” (52) Listing also captures the entirety of a shepherd’s life: “They have their own expressions for all the tupping, lambing, weaning, shearing, carding, spinning, milking, seething, scalding, straining, basket-weaving, path-finding, tent-pitching, camp-striking, trough-scooping and weather-divining round which their whole life turns.” (13)

His descriptions can be so fresh and strong. Here he describes the mountain girls as if in an old painting:  “The faint radiance robbed them all of a dimension. Darkly haloed by their interlocking shadows, they melted into the wall and their black and white figures assumed the aspect of a fresco, half-lit; here and there an earring, a coin, a bracelet, a ring or a necklace gleamed for a moment and dimmed again with the rise and fall of the wick like fragments of gilt or isolated gold tesserae in a mosaic.” (25) Another strong visual in the hut: “When a new faggot was thrown on, the flames made the tall hut dance in a gold hollow above a mob of shadows and highlit the bleached and matted hair and those faces shaped by the blasts of winter and the summer solstice.” (53)

Beside the visual, Paddy also captures smells: “An agreeable and pungent aroma of milk, curds, goats’ hair, tobacco and woodsmoke filled the place.” (53) And he can net pure energy through his words: “Eagerly or ironically, they listened to my stumbling, gesticulating, half-ancient and half-modern onomatopoea-laced pantomime of the tidings.” (53)

The tribesmen share their innermost thoughts with this young Englishman, for whom they have great respect, who is trying so hard to learn Greek and their culture. “Existence, these glances say, is a torment, an enemy, an adventure and a joke which we are in league to undergo, outwit, exploit and enjoy on equal terms as accomplices, fellow-hedonists and fellow-victims.” (53)

Although the shepherds of Roumali dominate this book, Paddy also touched on the Greek monasteries to the north, Crete to the south, and the present situation in Greece. He defines the “old” Greek language as “an expensive faded leather case stamped with a tarnished monogram, holding a set of geometrical instruments; stiff jointed dividers and compasses neatly slotted into their plush beds.” (105) Whereas, “modern” Greek is “an everyday instrument—a spade, an adze or a sickle—the edge thinned and keen with honing and bright from the whetstone; and the wooden shaft, mellow with sweat and smooth with the patina of generations of handling, lies in the palm with an easy balance.” (105)

Each region of Greece is unique: “These regions are not empty landscapes but the mineral backcloth—stage, stage-wings and proscenium—of a theatre flung up for the Greeks themselves . . . Each pair of eyes and each voice is anarchically distinct. Isolated against horizontal and zigzag, magnified by a lens of light, sharpened by the sun’s behaviour, fragmented above blazing thorns or transfigured by lightning, every face in turn is the protagonist of its own drama.” (124)

Of the Greek personality generally he states: “Talk is an addiction and it is conducted with invention, great narrative gifts, the knack of repartee, the spirit of contradiction, the questioning of authority, mockery, self-mockery, satire and humor. Love of pleasure emerges in the pan-hellenic passion for sitting up late eating and drinking and singing whenever the slightest excuse crops up.” (114)

Another amazing fact about Patrick Leigh Fermor is that in 1933 at age eighteen he decided to walk from Holland to Constantinople. After forty-four years he wrote A Time of Gifts (1977) that took him from Holland to then Czechoslovakia. Eleven years later his second installment came out, Between the Woods and the Water (1986) tracing his journey from Czechoslovakia to Romania. These books were written from memory, Paddy having lost his notes long before! The final volume, The Broken Road (2013), only in rough manuscript form, was issued after his death.  However, he had reached Constantinople.

You can find the book here:


Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.