This series started on Oct. 15 and will continue every other Saturday. I’m taking a trip back in time to my 4-month backpacking rambles around Greece in the early 1980s, which planted the seed for my recent novel The Ariadne Connection. Again, I apologize for the sketchiness of the few photos I’ve been able to recover from storage; some of these below are borrowed.
Good Friday in Rodakino: Jim and I woke to a sky dark with ominous clouds, the weather exactly as Kyrios Mamalakis told it always was for this “day of sadness.” We went for a cold swim, explored the ruins of a Turkish fort at the nearby beach, then made our way back uphill beneath the bare mountain as forbidding as Golgotha. Only a white dove shone through the early dusk as it fluttered above.
We had been invited by Stelios Mamalakis to attend the special church service that night, so we cleaned up and dressed in our best, then walked through a ceaseless clamor of church bells to the village kafenion to meet him. He appeared dressed to the hilt in his city suit, looking very distinguished, and invited us into the kafenion for a drink. As we entered, everyone jumped up to offer him their seats. The room was the usual bare cement and stucco, with an assortment of mismatched wooden chairs, but noisily lively with talk and much gesturing. As we enjoyed the occasional translation, Josef Andrianopoulis—the garrulous shepherd we’d met while hiking in to Rodakino—joined the crowd, grinning as he greeted us. Jim bought him a drink and we all spilled a good-luck drop on the floor before toasting, “Chairete!” (Rejoice!) The local raki, like the powerful “white lightning” distilled by my Georgia cousins, should have been served in Pyrex glasses.
On the way out, Stelios pointed out a life-sized, straw-stuffed dummy seated outside the kafenion on a phallic wooden pole. “Poor Judas, destined for the flames tomorrow after the midnight service.” He gestured toward the mysterious bonfire in the middle of the road, and we finally understood.
As we approached the church, the bells became deafening, and Stelios must have seen me wince. He explained that Greeks loved to fill up the silence—with talk or whatever means handy, including passionate argument—to relieve loneliness. He himself hated to be alone.
The church built by his priest father was a common “double-loaf” shape, with the bell arch at one end. Inside there were no pews, but only wooden booth-like seats around the walls. Flowers decked the walls between several stations with icons and crosses. For such a poor village, there was a surprising wealth of gold leaf and frescoes on one wall, specially commissioned by the elder Mamalakis from a monk of the Mt. Athos monastery. The floor was tiled elegantly with a black and white geometric pattern. (The photo below is borrowed, not the Rodakino church but a similar style.)
Working our way into the crowd, Jim and I bought candles and added them to the several flaming racks. Old, black-robed women in head scarves knelt repeatedly to kiss the floor, cross themselves in the Greek Orthodox manner, and move on to the next station to kiss the icons or the gold plaque depicting Christ crucified and a scene of the Last Supper. The priest with his tall black hat entered, swinging an incense censer. A group of children and youths began to chant and sing a service, and Stelios was then urged to provide the sung responses. His deep, resonant voice filled the church already echoing with a tumult of children running wild and shrieking.
Jim, who was raised Catholic, kept a wonderfully pious composure as the service ran on into the second hour and I began to fade under the continuing rounds of choking incense. Near the end, we were all sprinkled with holy water, and Jim whispered, “Now you’re a saint.”
Finally, we all lit new candles and followed the flower-laden symbolic bier in a procession around the outside of the church a few times. We were told that if we made it around the church perimeter with our candles still lighted, we would have good luck for the year. (I seem to recall that my candle blew out in a breeze, but my journal doesn’t enlighten me in that regard.) Accompanied by more clamor of bells, we headed back to the hotel. As we settled into bed, a wild cloudburst broke overhead, drumming the earth.
And the next night, after another church service we decided to skip, the village men paraded old Judas on his stick up and down the road before installing him on top of the bonfire. At midnight, the flames ignited in a wild, fiery dance, and the sins of the year were consumed. Below is a passage from The Ariadne Connection, as an earthquake shakes the Cretan village where Peter and Ariadne find temporary refuge with her uncle Demetrios:
“That’s what this night is for. We give our sins to Judas!” Demetrios turned to wave an expansive arm over the crowd, shouting above the hubbub, “Time for the straw man to face the flames!”
A roar of approval, glasses raised all around. “To Judas, may he roast in Hell! May the fire burn hot!”
They threw the glasses smashing to the floor, then pushed toward the dark yard, surging around Peter as he swayed, rooted. One of the villagers tugged at his sleeve, urging him outside. “Come, Petro! Cast your sins onto the bonfire with us.”
He trailed along. His ears were really ringing now, deafening, or maybe it was only the crowd roaring as they ran ahead with torches. Flames streamed in the hot wind. The women and children were milling in the street too, singing in shrill voices. The raki burned sickening in his gut.
Another roar of laughter. Cheers. A knot of young men ran past, straw-stuffed Judas with his painted face bouncing on their shoulders, and Peter was pressed among the crowd in the street before the church, blinking bewildered at the huge pile of branches as the boys climbed to the top and impaled the figure on a stake, grinning cartoon face lolling out of the dark. Lightning flared. Thunder crashed. The crackle and dance of sparks answered it. Flames leapt up through the night.
The church bell was clanging, splitting his head, and suddenly he was doubled over in agony, sweating, pressing his head between his palms as the bells crashed through him and his father’s voice hammered out of the dark and the swirling sparks. “And the unfaithful shall be damned to the fires of hell! The day of Judgment shall come upon thee….”
He’s sinned, he’s lusted, he’s a coward and a failure, and the Reverend is coming to get him, God is going to damn him to hell. Earth splitting open right now to claim him, he can feel it heaving beneath his feet, devil reaching up to pull him down, and the flames are leaping, cocks crowing wildly in the night. Saint Ariadne. Three times he’s denied her, and the cocks are crowing, but that’s bullshit, he doesn’t believe any more. But his father’s face looms out of the dark, and beside him there’s Ginnie, eyes blazing with the fire of righteousness, thunder booming, pointed fingers impaling him—
He’s thrown upwards. A giant hand slaps him back down and he smashes into the earth.
Gasping, he sees the bonfire writhing impossibly upwards, flying apart in a shower of sparks, church bell clanging off rhythm as dark figures drop their torches and stagger, falling beside him. His fingers grip handfuls of dirt. The world churns like water under him and a terrible rending roars out of it.
Screams, all around him. A shivering starts in the ground, then it’s shaking faster and faster as the roar builds far below to an agonizing pitch, pressure building like a flood behind a cracking dam, and he can feel the explosion coming. The mountainside’s tearing apart, suspended weight no longer taunting and taunting but flinging free to come smashing down.
Thankfully, our Easter in Rodakino was not so cataclysmic. We woke to a bright, sunny morning, took a swim at the beach and hiked uphill to take a nap in an olive grove, then wandered the village, which seemed rather deserted. Finally we found an open restaurant in the lower village for an approximation of the traditional lamb dinner. When we climbed back to Upper Rodakino, we ran into Stelios Mamalakis, who asked, “Where have you been? We were invited to an Easter feast by my orchard caretaker.” Apparently it was quite a banquet of various kinds of lamb and sauces, and Stelios, as guest of honor, enjoyed the eyes and brain. I was sorry to miss the celebration, but relieved to avoid possibly sharing those delicacies.
The next day, we said farewell to Rodakino as Stelios offered final words of wisdom: “My friends, you are good people, so please help the world by living your lives in the best way you can!” Amen. And happy holidays to all, in whatever ways you celebrate.