The Myths and Legends of a Modern Age of Heroes
My time in the Boy Scouts was one of the happiest of my childhood and early teenage years. The challenges of figuring stuff out and competing, the thrill of living in the outdoors and making things with your own hands are memories that’ll stay with me forever. We often took trips to nearby mountains and villages and we invariably met a rose-cheeked mayor or a wise priest. On one of those trips in a hilly village in northern Greece, after we returned from the morning’s activities, our troop leader told us he had walked around the village and started talking to a local old man who told him a story about his grandfather. I would have loved to hear this story at night by the fire, but the next best time was during that crisp and cloudy lunchtime’s assembly.
The old man talked about his grandfather when he himself was already a grandfather. The popularity of services that track down your ancestry in the developed West lend clarity and offer factual data on the recent past, but the lives and events in Greece before 1900 very much occupy the land of myth and legend. Much of northern Greece was still under loosening Ottoman rule. Stories are passed on from the old to the young. History and fiction take part in an intimate dance that, although not always accurate, brings forth personalities and feelings that can be hard to read in a dry record entry.
As was common at the time, the old man’s grandfather had to leave his wife behind in the village in search for work in other lands. It isn’t easy to pinpoint a location on a modern map of where he may have landed. When immigrants from Europe arrived at customs in New York at the turn of the century, they could tell you which village they were from but not which country. In any case, the journey would have taken several weeks.
Perhaps from talking to other travellers or upon a friend’s recommendation, he arrived at a place said to have work. Upon arrival you could tell this place was familiar but unusual, safe but mysterious, warm but distant. The traveller, for the sake of comfort let’s call him Christopher from now on, starts learning about the job from the other workers. All the workers live together in a dorm that is frugal but comfortable. Work is rewarded, but continued and unjustified absence or lateness is punishable with expulsion. In other words, the operation is ruled with an iron fist. The wielder of this iron fist, their master, or better yet, effendi, is an worldly and severe man whose knowledge is unprecedented compared to the others. He certainly left an impression on Christopher, who was eager to get to work, to serve and provide for his family’s future.
Part of the allure of the work was the method of payment. Gold coins, an unholy amount, paid in full for ten years of service at the end of those ten years. These may seem like impossible terms to a modern person in a developed country. The story is certainly a legend, but you have to realize that unprecedented riches to some, even nowadays, is pocket money to others. As for the long contract, the journey may seem small to us but a long voyage at a time with no police in the Balkans would have been perilous to say the least. Your grandparents will certainly be able to tell you that as recently as the 1940s and 1950s there were new economic migrants everywhere, a result of an imbalance in labour after the war.
In any case, when it came to Christopher, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. As for taking care of his family in the meantime he need not worry. The village was poor but the people looked after each other. He only had a little plot of land that he handed over to his father-in-law to grow on, and with Christopher himself gone there was one less mouth to feed.
The first 10 years actually flew by. Christopher learnt new flavours and customs from his partners who came to work from all over. One can only suppose as to his fidelity to his wife during this period due to a curious decision he made at the end of those 10 years. He went to the chambers of his master and was asked a question. “Would you like the gold for your past 10 years of work or a piece of advice?” An impossibly easy question. But one that Christopher didn’t find so simple at the time. You see, his life there must have been very interesting, with nothing he had ever experienced before, with people he might never get to experience those things again had he left. His day to day was covered by free room and board and by direct overtime payments. It wasn’t that he had stopped loving his family but 10 years of absence can bring about many changes. One can only guess, but Christopher must have felt the agony of distance, the dislike of his wife’s family, his lack of children to feed, the inevitability of change. Christopher chose to take the advice and felt relieved as he said so. His master’s advice was “Don’t run away if you have something to hide”. An esoteric notion but he was hardly listening, he was back at work the same day.
The following 10 years passed by just as fast. When he occasionally did think of his family he was certain he was disowned, that his wife had left him and that he couldn’t possibly have a home to come back to. Besides, he didn’t come back after his first contract had expired. His family didn’t know that of course, but he was gone over ten years. When he was summoned to the master’s chambers the decision was easy. This time he was told “If you find yourself to be furious, revisit the problem with a clear head the next day”. It didn’t matter what it meant. He was enchanted with his surroundings and gelt that was at home.
The mind however is curious in not letting a guilty conscience rest, no matter the justifications. Towards the end of his third contract his mind was trying to tell him something. He started having vivid dreams in which his wife would lament the loss of her husband. Tears and horrific cries would cause him to awake drenched in the middle of the night. After all those years he never saw things from her perspective. He was overcome with an intense feeling of guilt and remorse. His whole family could be dead and he wouldn’t even know it. He suddenly had to find out. The master didn’t even offer him the piece of advice, somehow he knew his decision. Instead he gave Christopher a carriage and horse, 10 years pay and several bags of grain to be given to his family as a gift. Unbeknownst to our repenting soul though, those bags of grain contained within the previous 20 years’ pay. As it happened, there was a workmate of his who was finishing work around the same time and was heading the same way.
A few days’ travel later, carriages side by side, they approached a wooded area when a small group of a couple villains appeared and started after them. The companion rushed for salvation but Christopher, inexplicably found himself remembering: “Not to run away if he had something to hide” — his bags of grain, a precious gift for his family. The villains rushed over the hills after his fleeing companion, figuring that he must have the most to lose. The rest of the journey was uneventful in comparison and our protagonist reached the village safe and sound.
His place of birth hadn’t changed much in the intervening years and his neighbourhood was just as had been etched in his memory. With mounting anticipation, he knocked on the door of his old house — both their parents must be gone by now — and was greeted by a strong handsome man. He saw red. So she had remarried. He couldn’t contain himself and just as he was about to raise his hands to strangle his rival, his old master’s words crept into his mind: “If you find yourself to be furious, revisit the problem with a clear head the next day”. He had mulled over the words several times in the previous years and now they had barely fulfilled their purpose. That nearly imperceptible moment of hesitation was all that was needed to make him retreat, get into his carriage and gallop for a clearing outside the village for the night.
The next day it was his wife who answered the door, his wife who remembered him, brought him inside and who was quick to curse her fortune that their son should have left for an errand moments ago. They later unloaded the grain into the house only vaguely aware of its unusually large weight.
These sorts of stories are part of the landscape of the wonderful and often harrowing Greek folk tales. At a time that can historically be called dark, there was a tradition that was alive with people’s expectations, loves, disappointments and dreams. Many of these tales — tales without an author, — survive in written or spoken form or as folk songs and form a link to the past for people trying to grasp a sense of what life must have been like during a modern age of heroes. When you hear such a saga, you listen to the fervour and timber of the voice, look at the life in the eyes of the storyteller and accept the fantastical element for what it is — the most recent interpretation of a story told and retold. A modern Odyssey.
Sadly there comes a time when teenagers start becoming more interested in girls and their hair than Morse code and camping in the woods and we lose something. I hope one day I can find more time to look up at the stars, breathe in the smells of the forest and listen to some stories by the fire.