From Antissa to Petra

Profiting from the combination of volcanic earth and greater north-coast precipitation, a denser vegetation begins once again to prevail at Antissa, 2km east of the junction with the road from Eresos. Modern Antissa—a panoramic settlement on the northern slopes of Mount Ordymnos with an attractive plane-shaded square—has a story similar to Eresos: its ancient predecessor occupied a strategic position and harbour on the coast, 8km below and to the north. Piracy forced its abandonment in the 7th century and the population relocated to the new site in the relative protection of the hills. The town surveys a long stretch of gentle shoreline along the north coast below, with sweeping sandy beaches (Lapsarna, Gavathas, Kambos) punctuated by projecting headlands. Just inland of the shore and due north of Antissa, is the delightful hamlet of Liota—also called ‘Lygeri­’, after the name of a local princess who was cured of leprosy through the miraculous intervention of the Virgin and founded in gratefulness the tiny church in the square of the settlement. The plateia, with its delightful cafe, is shaded by a monumental plane-tree which draws sustenance from the spring of fresh water below.
   Ancient Antissa—generally marked as ‘Ovriokastro’ on maps—commands this wide stretch of the north coast, with sight-lines as far as the eastern extremity at Molyvos. The ancient city occupied a headland which projects between two wide beaches, which some traditions hold to be the stretch of shore on which the head and the lyre of Orpheus were washed up. According to the ancient essayist, Lucian, a cave dedicated to Dionysos in the hills to the west of the road from Antissa to Gavathas was the place where the enshrined head subsequently pronounced accurate oracles—until it was summarily silenced by Apollo.

Ancestor of Homer and Hesiod in some traditions, son of the Muse Calliope in others, Orpheus is the ‘original’ singer, musician and poet of the Greek world, and his connection with Lesbos was important in that it embodied the remark able flowering of poetry and music that happened on the is land in early Antiquity. He is said to have invented the lyre—or, if he did not actually invent it, he increased its range and the number of its strings. There was magic in his song, which could calm the elements and attract the beasts of the field. He was killed by the women of Thrace, who resented his fidelity to Eurydice—or else were infuriated by his pederasty. They threw the dismembered parts of his body into the river Hebrus, and from there the head and his lyre arrived in Lesbos. Some say the head was still singing; others that his spirit still sings in the Elysian Fields; some say that his lyre became a constellation; others that it still played when the wind blew through its strings. Terpander the most famous player of the seven-stringed cithara or lyre, and considered by many the (historic) father of music in the Greek world was born in Antissa in the early 7th century bc. To him is also attributed the introduction of the Mixolydian mode.

The remains most visible today at Antissa are of the ruined Genoese castle of the Gattilusi, whose walls gird the whole of the promontory; inside is an inner enceinte which, in parts, incorporates the ancient acropolis fortifications, especially on the west side. These are in isodomic masonry typical of Hellenistic construction. Excavations by the British School in 1931, revealed that the site was occupied from the Bronze Age right through until its destruction by the Romans in 166 bc on the pretext of its links with Antiochus IV and for its part in harbouring the Macedonian admiral, Antinora. The town must have extended over the flat area inland. Beside the chapel of Aghia Barbara to the south are a couple of antique columns and a capital: otherwise little that is ancient re mains on the surface, although the site is rewarding for its natural beauty.
   In the area of Katapetros, south of the large, island-like peninsula to the east, were the principal quarries in Antiquity for the characteristic red and magenta trachytic stone of Lesbos.
   East of Antissa the main road to Molyvos descends swiftly into a river valley. Hidden from sight in a bend of the stream, 4km from Antissa, is the *Monastery of the Perivoli (‘orchard’), dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin—an intimate, walled garden, shaded with planes, fruit and nut trees, surrounded with monastic lodgings, and full of the sound of nightingales in spring (open in the morning, with no specific hours, June–Sept only; at other times entry has to be arranged with the local priest in Vatousa). Though there has been some restoration in the last 50 years, the monastery’s appearance and lay-out is still that of its original plan of 1590. The design of the catholicon is unusual: essentially a broad nave with an apse, to which an aisle has been added to the north, with two communicating archways between, and a narthex that runs the whole width at the west end. Every surface inside has been decorated. The wall-paintings are in urgent need of cleaning and consolidation, but even so they are amongst the most interesting on the island. There are two separate campaigns by different artists of the early 17th century. The first was working in high Byzantine tradition and executing the hagiographic images of the catholicon (best preserved are the faces of St Panteleimon and other Saints along the south wall). The second was working in a more folkloric tradition and producing the striking narrative scenes of the narthex: St Peter presenting pre-Christian Kings and Queens, and an unusual scene of Abraham and the Virgin seated in a garden with springs gushing from below (north wall); the Magi before the Virgin and Child (above door, west wall), and scenes from the Apocalypse (south side) in which the monsters of the sea give up their dead while gesturing, etiolated figures rise naked from their tombs.
   Two kilometres beyond Perivoli, the main road east passes beside the Voulgaris Gorge—a deep rocky fissure formed by a fault or crack in the rim of the large volcanic crater which gave rise to the area’s unique landscape. The crater, averaging about 6km in diameter, formed the ring of eroded and fertile hills around the village of *Vatousa which lies at its centre. Amongst the oaks, poplars and olives which cover the floor and sides of the valley are outcrops of unusually shaped and eroded volcanic rocks. The village itself is one of the best examples of Lesbos’s rich heritage of vernacular architecture. There is a just balance between elegance and simplicity in the dignified, stone houses; a balance also between village and landscape, between wild and cultivated; and a harmony between material and setting. One of the finest mansions, the heavily built Gogos Mansion of 1890, houses an interesting local folklore museum which offers the opportunity in addition of seeing the building’s interior. Of interest also is the church of the Taxiarchis at the western end of the village which has an unusual, attractively painted iconostasis.
   South of Vatousa are the isolated villages of Revma, Pterounda and Chidi­ra—the last of which produces the promising wines of the Methymneos Winery, whose particular qualities derive from the composition of the volcanic earth of the area.
   From Chidi­ra, an unsurfaced road leads south across empty uplands and then descends steeply to rejoin the Kalloni­ to Eresos road at Agra (see above p. 105). Alter natively, by returning north to the junction at Vatousa, you rejoin the main Molyvos to Si­gri road which continues east through a gently descending landscape with wide and beautiful coastal views, via Skalochori (see above p.101) and Skoutaros, to the main road junction at Petra (55km from Mytilene).

The 7th century bc on Lesbos saw the emergence of an extraordinary concentration of artistic personalities; the period represents a happy moment for the island, in which it led the whole of the Greek world in the emergence of musical practice and Lyric poetry. The legend that the head and the lyre of Orpheus were washed up on the shores of Lesbos near Antissa, after the singer’s unhappy end at the hands of the women of Thrace, is an expression in myth of the preeminence of the island in music and song, and of how it came to assume the mantle of Orpheus, son of Apollo.
   The earliest organiser and master of Greek musical practice, Terpander, was born in Antissa early in the 7th century bc: he transformed musical instrumentation, increasing the range and scale of the ancient lyre by its enlargement into a seven-stringed cithara. He established a canon of set musical forms and pieces for song competitions, called ‘nomes’, and introduced a new harmonic sequence, referred to as the ‘mixolydian’ mode. We hear of him winning more than once the citharodic competitions for religious festivals in Sparta and Delphi: he is even credited with averting a civil war in Sparta by the (quasi Orphic) power of his music.
   What Terpander was for music, Sappho and Alcaeus were to lyric poetry. Both were active and involved in the complex and often violent politics of the island at the end of the 7th century bc, and both may have spent periods in exile as a consequence— Alcaeus in Egypt, Sappho in Sicily. Both experimented with and were talented in the development of new poetic, metric and stanzaic forms, which were later imitated and evoked by the greatest lyric poets of Rome—Horace and Catullus. Their range of subject matter is wide and varied, but while Alcaeus seems primarily moved—almost consumed—by matters of politics in his vigorous and memorable verse, Sappho returns again and again to the passions of the heart, which she evokes in a limpid, brilliant and gem-like use of language, which has never lost its appeal and immediacy in subsequent ages or cultures, even when translated into other languages. We have many fragments but only one complete example of her work. The surface of her poetry appears wonder fully clear and simple, while beneath lies a subtlety of expression and an impressive urgency of sentiment. In Antiquity Sappho was often called the ‘tenth Muse’.
   We encounter Sappho in her poems as a lover, sister, teacher, and mother of a young daughter (Cleis). Although she has today become a symbol of female, homoerotic sentiment, we will never know much for certain about her sexuality. She lived in an age when social mores were vastly different and where sexual pleasure was not shaped and pigeon-holed by the prescriptions of any religious teaching. What we would call ‘lesbianism’ or ‘homosexuality’ today was almost certainly not a phenomenon marked out from the normal in Antiquity. Woman predominantly took company with women, and men with men: and passionate intercourse was both natural and welcome. Sappho’s poems return repeatedly to the themes of love between women and girls; but it is the candour and beauty of their language that renders them universal and timeless.
   Alcaeus was from Mytilene. Sappho may well also have come from a family of the same city—although there is a strong tradition linking her to Eresos. From Methymna in the same period, came Arion, the great est ‘citharode’ or musician and song-writer of the end of the 7th century bc. As was the custom for artists of the period, Arion’s life was itinerant and his greatest fame is linked to the court of Periander at Corinth. He was on his way back there by boat from Sicily, when he was robbed and abandoned in the sea by the sailors who were accompanying him; Herodotus recounts that he was brought safely to the shores of the Peloponnese by a dolphin. Herodotus also attributes to Arion (Hist. I. 23–24) the development of the dithyramb—a choral song in honour of Dionysus. In turning something that was a processional song into a more formal recitation before a seated audience, Arion was opening the way to the development of the forms and structure of Classical Greek tragedy.

Lesvos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.
From Antissa to Petra. Orpheus, Sappho, Alcaeus.

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