Death in Arcadia
The ancient and sacred Peloponnese region of Arcadia is synonymous with Death. The summer of 2007 tragically affirmed this distinction when a series of fires started by man and fuelled by nature devastated Greece from Athens to Troy. Arcadia burned, and its villages were rendered crematoriums over night.
I arrived in the region as the fires peaked. I was hoping to visit Andritsaina; a rural Arcadian community with a renowned library and ancient temple of Apollo. It defied fate 2500 years ago when a plague spread across the land but inexplicably spared the village. The gods were benevolent, or so the legend goes. I was keen to explore the library, as it had recently been linked with the mystery of Rennes-le-Château (Note 1). However, a raging fire encroached on the village by the hour. If the library were to be saved, the benevolence of the gods would be required once more.
Arcadia is no stranger to strife. The region has been occupied by the Romans, Byzantines, Franks and Turks. Suffice it say it has witnessed its share of battles, plague - and now, fire. Ironically, classical painters of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries portrayed the region in a mystical, serene, even pastoral fashion – juxtaposed to its violent past. They also depicted it with a tomb. Could this be why many of the paintings include the curious Latin expression Et in Arcadia Ego – which is generally interpreted (Note 2) as ‘Even I, Death [am] in Arcadia’? The notion of a tomb in an idyllic Arcadian setting first occurred in the 1st century BC (Note 3), although the contextual significance of the expression remains a mystery.
Interest in all things Arcadian has faded in and out of vogue for centuries. The present fascination has been fuelled by a legend of heretical secrets concealed by learned priests in the South of France – otherwise known as the mystery of Rennes-le-Château. Nicolas Poussin’s painting The Shepherds of Arcadia (see above) links the Rennes-le-Château mystery with Arcadia. Analyzing the painting is a passion of enthusiasts who believe it depicts a landscape in France – near Rennes-le-Château, rather than Greece. I wondered if Arcadia was actually located in Arcadia, as the paintings suggest. After all – is that not what Occam’s Razor would say?
I landed on the Greek isle of Zakynthos on the 26th of August 2007 and boarded a ferry headed for the Peloponnese. The ship was jammed with locals returning early from holiday. The atmosphere was tense and understandably ominous; hope of rescuing loved ones and property on the mainland was waning. A quick glance at the Greek newspapers and television revealed why; the fires had become the biggest story on the planet. Greece had declared a state of national emergency.
I’d come to the Peloponnese for a late summer break, and to investigate Arcadia’s apparent connection with the Spanish Catalan region – and how each might be connected to the mystery of Rennes-le-Château. I was especially keen to explore what was allegedly one of the great, albeit obscure libraries in Europe – the Library of Nikolopoulous, located in the secluded mountain village of Andritsaina. The library contains many rare books - some dating from the early 16th century – but it was the association with Rennes-le-Château that provoked my interest.
Frustratingly, I was confined to my hotel on the coast - but rightfully so. The raging fires were only 4 miles away and were changing direction by the minute. Horrifically, the death toll from the fires had increased by 50 since I arrived. Taking risks was simply not an option.
Andritsaina lies at the base of Mt Kotyli – a mountain held sacred by many and considered to be the heart of ancient Arcadia. Some have even linked it with the Holy Grail (Note 5). Legend states that in 420 B.C. a fatal plague spread far and wide, infecting those in its course. Inexplicably, villagers in and around Mt Kotyli were spared, and in gratitude to their gods they erected a temple dedicated to Apollo Epikourios, or Apollo the Helper. Adorning the interior of the temple wall was a frieze consisting of 23 blocks depicting the battle between the Greeks and Amazons and the Lapiths and Centaurs. The frieze is now preserved at the British Museum.
The fact that the mountain plateau is quite remote and inhospitable led the villagers to construct the temple over an earlier monument; a site called Bassae – meaning little vale in the rocks. The temple remains one of the best preserved in Greece. It’s also one of the most peculiar, as we shall see.
I passed time at the hotel and wondered if Andritsaina would again be spared. As the week progressed the fires gradually subsided. Only then did I dare venture out. What I witnessed could only be described as Death Valley. Arcadia had been wasted.
As I approached Andritsaina the carnage worsened. Villages and homes were in ruins and abandoned cars lay seared along the roadside. Fires simmered on both sides of the road and the sky was filled with airplanes applying fire repellent to the still smouldering valley.
As far as Arcadia was concerned the fire had shifted course. It had moved northwest, to Olympia. Here fire fighters struggled to save one of Greece’s most sacred religious and archaeological sites.
The country’s attention had turned to Olympia, and understandably so. I wondered if Andritsaina had received the same effort, but I had my doubts. Then, as the road twisted around yet another scorched hill I was relieved to see Andtitsaina in the distance, illuminated against a backdrop of black, burnt valleys and once green mountain ranges. ‘Had the gods intervened to save the community once again?’ I wondered.
Fire fighters fought tirelessly to save Andritsaina but all the while feared the worst; the fire would win – like it had before. And who could blame them? The inferno was overwhelming – and moving too fast. Faced with no alternative, the fire fighters promptly called for the evacuation of Andritsaina and prepared for the inevitable.
Much to their surprise, the firemen were met with opposition; the village blacksmith and his mates would not evacuate. They were obsessed with preventing the flames entering Andritsaina and refused to leave. Against all reason - and probability - the blacksmith and his team of amateurs worked around the clock for 4 days and nights, and in the end managed to head off the fire and secure the village. Their achievement was miraculous. The villagers returned; their lives spared and library preserved.
As an enthusiast of the genre I am aware of Rennes-le-Château’s tenuous connection with Arcadia. However, my interest had been heightened by researcher and writer Patrice Chaplin, whose book ‘City of Secrets’ introduced the story of a Greek bookstore owner in Paris by the name of Agathofron Nikolopoulos. His store specialised in rare and unusual books and was frequented by those with an esoteric bent. One such patron was a young aspiring lawyer (the ancestor of the Girona Priest, Quim Carreras) who appears to have uncovered something of importance in Nikolopolous’s bookstore; something that sent him to Girona, Spain. The young man is said to have passed on the secret that led him from the study of law in Paris to the study of God in Girona, to a young Catalan by the name of Joaquim Bocher, who subsequently set sail for Arcadia. Suspiciously, Bocher was murdered after visiting the Temple of Apollo at Bassae.
The whole story is rather curious. Before his death, Nikolopoulous arranged to have his vast library, which consisted of thousands of rare works and first editions – including those that had inspired Carreras - placed on a ship to Arcadia, where it was met by the Mayor of Andritsaina and hauled by mules across the mountains to the church in his town.
Why Arcadia? The conventional reason is that Nikolopoulous willed his library to Andritsaina because that is where his father came from. But others disagree (note 5), stating that it was chosen due to its proximity to the true Arcadia, especially Bassae and the Temple of Apollo, and the nearby Lycean Wolf cult….
The temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae was constructed around 450 BC. Designed by Iktinos, who also built the more famous Parthenon, as well as the Temple of Hephaestus, it was the first in Greece to be awarded World Heritage status. Due to its remoteness it lay unattended for centuries, but was discovered in modern times - in 1765 AD - by none other than Joaquim Bocher, who was led to Bassae from Girona, as mentioned above.
The story goes that Bocher was murdered at Bassae – on top of the sacred mountain – by a gang of bandits who mistakenly believed the buttons on his coat were pure gold, not mundane brass, but others believe he was murdered for asking too many questions. He was said to be obsessed with the temple’s unusual north-south alignment and was particularly interested in the remains of the original temple – the very first at Bassae (Note 5).
A peculiar characteristic of this striking building, which the locals call Naos, is its orientation. Unlike conventional Greek temples that are aligned east-west, that of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae is aligned north-south – or slightly north-northeast, to be precise. The traditional belief is that the orientation was necessitated due to space restrictions on the plateau. However, its orientation appears to have been deliberate and not merely dictated by the geology, for the priestesses of Delphi – those responsible for the most important Oracle in the ancient world - requested the temple be constructed in alignment with their Oracle. And so it was. The two sites faced each other, and fittingly, both temples involved prophecies inspired by Apollo.
As a footnote to the temple’s orientation, it’s interesting to note the similarities with another mystery: Rennes-le-Château:
Bassae & Delphi
Rennes-le Château & Girona
The Temple of Apollo was requested to align with the oracle in Delphi.
The Tour Magdela in Rennes-le-Château was built to align to the Torre Magdela in Girona.
Yes. Bassae has been associated with the Grail in Arcadia (Note 1).
Yes. The private society Girona is alleged to oversee the rituals of the Grail.
Visions & Rituals
Associated with prophecies inspired by Apollo. Pan, the god of Arcadia, taught Apollo the ritual.
Associated with apparitions, most often induced by Grail rituals.
The similarities are interesting, but somewhat speculative. Of more conventional and sound historical significance, the temple of Apollo Epikourios is the only such sacred building of its era to include all three Greek architecture styles: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, the former being the earliest example in all of Greece. Although the remoteness of a temple such as this typically contributes to its preservation, conservation work carried out over the past 20 years has required it to be covered by an elaborate canopy. The restoration has been criticised by those who believe that the approach is counter productive to the temple’s renewal. They’ve also questioned the nature of the restoration work, prompting one local to say:
‘I go there often… I saw some scientists-archaeologists playing like kids with the ancient limbs of the Temple. I question what they call restoration. They were digging into the basement of the ruins…’ (Note 6).
Although Occam’s Razor tells us that Joaquim Bocher’s death came at the hand of gold hungry bandits, still another, albeit romanticized scenario exists: the curse of the Wolf Cult of Zeus. Chaplin briefly mentions the Arcadian fascination with the Wolf Cult in her book and has elaborated on it in private conversation. Arcadia was once plagued with wolves, and not far from the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae is Mount Lycaeus, a site of great significance to Zeus, and one of the most interesting ritual centres in Greece.
Once a year, priests prepared a sacrificial feast that is believed to have included human sacrifice. Legend says that no shadows are cast by humans or animals on the mountain the whole year round, and those who enter its sacred precinct are destined to die within the year. Bocher is said to have traveled from the isle of Zakynthos, where he worked, and visited the region on several occasions, before being murdered. Could he have unknowingly entered the sacred precinct?
Human sacrifice and the wolf cult of Zeus are not as far removed from reality as one would think. Today’s grey timber wolf is named Canis Lupius Lycoan, which derives from Lycaon, and from Mount Lycaeus we have ‘lycanthropy’: the transformation into a wolf, or werewolf; a phenomenon said to have occurred across Arcadia, and on Mount Lycaeus in particular. The word is also linked to an ancient King of Arcadia by the name of Lycaon, who, according to Ovid's Metamorphoses, was turned into a werewolf due to offering his son’s flesh to Zeus.
The significance of the wolf in the story of Rennes-le-Château is curious. For instance, research (Note 9) indicates that the Lupé (derived from the French loup, i.e. wolf) family in the French Pilat, a region alleged to have been visited by Bérenger Saunière, can trace their ancestors back to the Merovingians; the ‘long-haired kings’ so often associated with Rennes-le-Château. Wolves were so revered in Greece that anyone who killed one was required to pay for its funeral. In Egypt, Anubis is portrayed as a wolf-like jackal who is associated with the transfer of souls. Intriguingly, Charon was the ferryman from Greek mythology who wore wolf ears. In Greece, the wolf was associated with the passage to another realm, and according to new research (Note 1) the Grail is exactly that; an otherworldly realm achieved through ritual - not a physical entity.
Another relevant Greek god is Pan, indigenous to Arcadia and interestingly the guardian of shepherds and flocks, and wild mountains. Shepherd of Arcadia indeed! Pan is renowned for teaching the secret of prophecy to Apollo, yet he and his Arcadian mountain people were frowned upon by other communities in Greece. References to Pan in his Arcadian home are numerous, and include (Note 7):
"Summon Pan from the Lycean glades [of Arkadia]."
"You who dwell in the land of the Arkadians, an abode wintry with battering snowstorms, beast-tending Pan."
Pan is also the source of the word panic, derived from his association with sudden surges of inexplicable terror, specifically in wooded areas. Pan’s association with sexual energy is a later attribute and an extension of his ability to create panic in his enemies.
Curiously, Pan – the Shepherd of Arcadia – has a passing resemblance to the original Asmodeus statue in the church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Rennes-le-Château. He also looks vaguely similar to one of the shepherds in Nicolas Poussin’s painting, Shepherds of Arcadia. As the word Pan comes from the pa-on, meaning "herdsman", and as he is the god of Arcadia who looks after shepherds, well, the implication is obvious. Then again, that’s the thing about Rennes-le-Château: you can pretty much read anything into its vast and generally ambiguous symbolism.
As Girona, in Spanish Catalan, had just been linked to Rennes-le-Château, and Rennes-le-Château contains references to Arcadia, I wondered to what extent the Catalans may have been involved in Arcadia – and why? Sure, we have the example of Bocher travelling from Girona to Arcadia, but what else?
Kingdoms in the ancient world drew vast, non-linear boundaries. A view of the ancient kingdom ruled by Spain shows an interesting colonization – it includes regions around Arcadia.
It’s well documented that after their 1492 expulsion from Spain, many Jews fled to the Ottoman Empire, which included Greece. But is there evidence for earlier occupation – and not just the Jewish community?
In Chaplin’s book there is reference to a Gothic monastery in the remote quarters of Arcadia. Nobody seems to know why it was built on on that particular spot, although many believe it was constructed by the Catalans (Note 5). Although Chaplin does not mention the name of the monastery in her book, she kindly informed me that it is in fact Notre Dame d’Isova, near Trypiti. The monastery was destroyed in 1263 during battle when it was torched by Turkish mercenaries. Had it not been the Turks it would have been torched by nature, as the recent fires in Arcadia razed what’s left of the monastery - once more.
Chrysa Savvidou comments on Isova in his insightful analysis (Note 8):
“The existence of a Gothic church in the heart of the Peloponnese, so far removed from the cradle of the Gothic style, is clearly striking, but not inexplicable. Along with the Western rulers came monks and also craftsmen and laymen. The closest parallels for Isova may be identified in churches in France (the cradle of the Gothic style), Italy and Catalonia in the first half of the 13th century… The monastery of Isova confirms the historical sources that speak of a strong Cistercian presence in Greece in the early years of the 13th century.”
So it’s quite feasible that the Catalans came to Arcadia quite a long time ago, but it’s still conjecture. And if true, just how significant is it?
The Andritsaina high street is so narrow that even a single car cannot comfortably navigate its cobblestone path. Add two-way traffic, lorries and parked cars and the otherwise peaceful hamlet quickly becomes chaotic and stressed. The village was at its peak during the Frankish rule of the 12th and 13th centuries. Like the monastery at Isova, it is cited in the Chronicle of Morea. Although the town was sacked in 1826, the village fountain, or “Trani Vrisi”, survived. The 1724 fountain is the oldest in the Peloponnese. Just off the village square is another fountain, mounted in an ancient tree.
The Library is located on the far side of town and up a slight embankment. As I arrived I could not help but feel that I had been the only visitor in some time.
The portion of the library that contains the collection of Nikolopoulous is kept locked at all times. A schoolboy holds the key. He insists I watch a video highlighting the library’s history before allowing me to inspect the books. The library is small and its caretakers cautious. A rare map was stolen from the Spanish National Library only the day before and word had already spread. I asked to see the collection of Jewish books, and in particular any books from Catalan. The collection I am looking for is kept in its own display case, but the senior caretaker will not let me inspect it.
I asked the librarian to search for various works that might validate an association with Rennes-le-Château or Girona, starting with Henri Boudet’s La vraie langue celtique et le cromleck de Rennes-les-Bains (1886), but to no avail. Locating the work that may have led Carreras from Paris to Girona was next to impossible, at least in this brief visit. Frustratingly, the book could have lain at my fingertips and I would never know. However, my enthusiasm for the library’s old books paid off. The manager presented me with her only bound copy of the Nikolopoulous collection inventory, which lists all the authors and their works. Proper analysis of the inventory coupled with permission to analyse the books should make my next visit to Andritsania more fruitful. Until then, its secrets remain secure, locked away under the care of Pan and the benevolence of Apollo.
Note 1: Patrice Chaplin’s 2007 book City of Secrets details the story of how the library in Andritsaina became linked with Rennes-le-Château on pages 256-257, and 264. Much of the book deals with the relationship between Girona, Spain and Rennes-le-Château.
Note 2: Several variations exist, but this is generally the most widely accepted. Wekpidea states: The phrase is a memento mori, usually interpreted as "I am also in Arcadia" or "I am even in Arcadia", as if spoken by personified Death. However, Poussin's biographer, André Félibien, interpreted it to mean that "the person buried in this tomb has lived in Arcadia"; in other words, that the person too once enjoyed the pleasures of life on earth. This reading was common in the 18th and 19th century.
Note 3: Wikipedia states the first appearance of the ‘Tomb in Arcadia’ appeared in Virgil's (70BC-19BC) Eclogues V, 42ff:
"A lasting monument to Daphnis raise
With this inscription to record his praise;
'Daphnis, the fields' delight, the shepherds' love,
Renown'd on earth and deifi'd above;
Whose flocks excelled the fairest on the plains,
But less than he himself surpassed the swains."
Note 5: One of Patrice Chaplin’s researchers is a resident of Andritsaina. He has researched the presence of the Catalans in Arcadia and related matters for years. Sadly, his house, located just outside of town, was burnt to the ground in the fire.
Note 6: Reference: http://www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/apolloepicurius.html.
Comments made by the local, Kostas, have been edited from a grammatical perspective.
Note 7: (Statius, Silvae 1. 3. 78 (trans. Mozley) (Roman poetry C1st A.D.)
(Castorion of Soli, Fragment 310 (from Athenaeus, Scholars at Dinner)
(trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric V))
Note 9: Sauniere’s Model and the Secret of Rennes-le-Château by André Douzet, Pages 58-60.
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