The Greek island of Santorini, the ancient Thera. Click for source
The Greek island of Santorini, the ancient Thera. Click for source

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace …

Thus Byron chanted, and such landscapes, the Mediterranean Greek islands (and mainland Greece as well), explain a bit how Hellenic beauty in arts developed and flourished: the extreme limpidity of the air, the richness of colours and smells, skies and sea of a magnificent intense blue, and a vehement sun, burning and pervasive. What perfection, what simplicity and yet profundity!

Well, one might say, where has all this Beauty gone? The landscape is still there but is it true that all that was splendid and Greek has disappeared …

as the flowers of the orange tree
swept away by the cold north wind …?”

(quote from here).

ψ

Greece didn’t continue its beauty and civilization like Italy did in the centuries (see the comments section for a discussion on this point.) Some fragments though have survived.

Narrowing the focus on literature, we personally are fascinated by the works of the neo-pagan sublime poet Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933) from Alexandria, or by those of the writer, poet and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957) from Crete, who lost the Nobel Prize to Albert Camus in 1957 by just one vote and who was spiritually restless, seeking “relief in knowledge, in travelling, in contact with a diverse set of people, in every kind of experience”(Wikipedia). And we are mentioning only those we have some knowledge of.

Crete is the largest Greek island which completes from the south the Greek archipelago (1400 islands!) and which, sung by Homer, conjures up ancient legends like Minos, the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne, the labyrinth created by Daedalus etc. (were they mere legends?). It is an island that hosted the Minoan civilization, namely the most ancient Greek (hence European) civilization (ca. 2600–1400 BC.)

Admire the perfection of this Minoan Bull Head from the Heraklion Museum, Crete (click on this and all other pictures for source files and credits.)

Minoan Bull Head. CCommons, psmithson, Flickr.

Let us now listen to the words of Nikos Kazantzakis recalling some decisive moments from his childhood in Crete: his first contacts with earth, sea, woman and fire (from the starry sky.)

Earth, Sea, Woman and Fire

Kazantzakis remembers how advancing on all fours, still not able to walk, he once extended his tender head full of longing and fear in the courtyard for the very first time. Until that moment he had looked out his house windows but had seen nothing. That time though he didn’t just extend his sight, he actually saw the world for the very first time. Extraordinary revelation!

“Our little courtyard-garden seemed without limits. There was buzzing from thousands of invisible bees, an intoxicating aroma, a warm sun as thick as honey. The air flashed as though armed with swords, and, between the swords, erect, angel-like insects with colourful, motionless wings advanced straight for me. I screamed from fright, my eyes filled with tears, and the world vanished.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Earth.

(A landscape from Crete)

Ψ

He also remembers how a man with a thorny beard took him in his arms and brought him down to the port. While approaching their destination the little child started to hear like the terrible sighing and roaring of a wounded beast. He got so frightened that he tried to escape from the man’s arms, like a little trapped bird.

“Suddenly – the bitter odour of carob beans, tar, and rotten citrons. My creaking vitals opened to receive it …at a turn in the street – dark indigo, seething, all cries and smells (what a beast that was! what freshness! what boundless sigh) – the entire sea poured into me frothingly. My tender temples collapsed, and my head filled with laughter, salt, and fear.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Sea.

Ψ

He then remembers, when he was three, that a plump and pretty young woman, Anika, a neighbour with nice blond hair and large eyes, came to their little garden while he was playing around. The place smelled of summer and she, newly married and recent mother, leaning over, took him on her lap and hugged him.

“I, closing my eyes, fell against her exposed bosom and smelled her body: the warm, dense perfume, the acid scent of milk and sweat. The newly married body was steaming. I inhaled the vapour in an erotic torpor, hanging from her high bosom. Suddenly I felt overcome by dizziness and fainted. Blushing terribly, the frightened neighbour put me down, depositing me between two pots of basil.”

After that day the woman never took him on her lap again. “She just looked at me very tenderly with her large eyes and smiled.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Woman.

Ψ

One night in summer he was in his yard again.

“I remember lifting my eyes and seeing the stars for the first time. Jumping to my feet, I cried out in fear, ‘Sparks! Sparks!’ The sky seemed a vast conflagration to me; my little body was on fire.”

This was how he experienced fire (and the starry sky) for the first time in his life.

Ψ

These four terrible elements – he recognizes – imprinted on his mind to the extent that even the most abstract ideas or the most metaphysical problems, in order to be significant to him, must take on a physical form “which smells of sea, soil and human sweat. The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh.”

It is this special trait, this synaesthetic aptitude, among others, that makes many of Kazantzakis’s pages so vibrant and unforgettable.

References. Quotes from Nikos Kazantzakis’s autobiographical and last novel, Report to Greco, Faber and Faber 1965, translation from modern Greek by Bruno Cassirer, Oxford, 1965.

17 thoughts on “Fragments of Greek Beauty

  1. Greece is really a beautiful country! The first picture and the landscape of Crete look really so beautiful!!! Especially the picture of Crete draws my attention to look at it for awhile…I have a wish to go travelling in Greece one day….i think many people in here same as me, also have the same dreams but the fee to get there is really too expensive lol. Mostly, it’s a hot honeymoon place for the new couple.

    Besides, it’s interesting to read the words of Kazantzakis, about his first contacts with earth, sea, woman and fire.

    I don’t understand why MoR said “Greece didn’t continue its beauty and civilization like Italy did in the centuries. But some fragments have survived.” Greece still has its beauty…though i don’t know well about the civilization and history of this country.. it seems you’re so proud of your country..or is it just a fact?

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  2. @AutumnSnow
    I don’t understand why MoR said “Greece didn’t continue its beauty and civilization like Italy did in the centuries.”…you are so proud of your country … or is it just a fact?

    Well, I know that for a non western, a Chinese like you, these things can be not easy to follow. First of all I referred only to civilization and not to physical beauty, which is still there, as the above pictures show somehow. And yes, it is a historical fact that after the fall of the Roman empire (and after a few centuries of decadence) Italy rose up again as regards all aspects of civilization (urban life, commerce, palaces, paintings, science, literature etc.) while Greece, after its splendid and unparalleled glories of civilization – which greatly inspired the West – declined to wake up only sparingly, although vast regions of Eastern Europe, the Christian Orthodox ones mainly, were deeply influenced by it. Some fragments of the great Greek soul are still there though, we believe, of which we are providing just a few examples (two writers) in this post. We hope that we can offer some more in the future.

    All the best

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  3. I hope to get to Greece one day. My Greek friend keeps asking me to go but as of yet, I’ve not found the time. Then again, there are many nations I want to see including China.

    I understand fully why MOR asked the legitimate question of why Greece’s civilization did not flourish as Italy in the post-Rome-Athens era. Specifically during the Renaissance onwards: also referred to modernity.

    In fact, it made me think that of the major ancient cultures who held empires or some form of grand existence: Egypt, China, India etc. Italy has most certainly modernized the most – if being a G8 country is any indication. Any casual examination of its brilliant manufacturing and industrial base would prove this point.

    It’s not a question, Autumnsnow, of being proud or nationalistic – which from an outside perspective would feel this way. However, just look at the achievements and contributions of Italian culture (art, music, mathematics, chemistry, physics etc.) since the 15th century. It’s essentially not comparable. This is not to cast dispersion upon any nation but just a historical fact.

    However, the root of Italy’s great rise during the Renaissance does owe its soul to the ancient world of Greece and Italy (and China, or the Arab world for that matter) and the greatest minds in Italian history have always acknowledged this.

    The genius of Italy (as the United States does today) was the ability to import and learn all the great things and beauties that came from other advanced civilizations and gave a definitive Italian twist to them.

    The influence and impact of Italy, Ancient Rome and Greece combined is really hard to quantify when you think of it.

    That all being said, these were indeed lovely words and Greece is most certainly a beautiful country but aside from this I am concerned with one thing: What happened to Greece in the modern age?

    The best I can come up with is the impact the Great Schism (I believe in 1066) had which shielded it from what was happening in the Renaissance thus restricting its influence to Eastern Europe. Later, it was the Ottoman empire that probably impacted negatively Greece’s progress.

    Any takers on this?

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  4. @The Commentator

    I’m pretty sure you’d love Greece, Canadian Commentator. If, as you said, it is true some or all of your origins are from the Mediterranean, you’ll find lots of echoes resounding in Greece as well.

    I went to Greece many times and the people there are so similar to us to the extent that I felt like reliving the Italy of the fifties, when I was a child (apart from the language, which is very different and difficult).

    People were simple and very family oriented. You saw entire families riding on a single Vespa (parents plus 2-3 kids) and people kept saying when they saw Italians: “stessa faccia stessa razza” [‘same face same race’]. I was deeply moved.

    Yes, I agree with you. The impact of ancient Greece, ancient Rome and Italy has been profound, this is a historical fact, but what happened to Greece in modern times? It is no easy question and would take a little bit of research to fully reply….

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  5. @AutumnSnow
    No pls, sweet AutumnSnow. Nobody was offended, neither I of course nor, I am pretty sure, the Commentator! How could one be offended by what you said? You have been one of my sweetest commentators, you have a gentle heart. I’m the one to ask for pardon if I sounded nationalistic. These misunderstandings can happen when people belong to distant cultures so pls don’t worry dear Chinese woman….. ok?
    🙂

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  6. @Ashish
    Yes, Greece is stunning and yet so simple and mainly rural still. I went there so many times because I met my wife (a Roman, weirdly enough) in one of those islands (Corfu) so I kept going back to such paradises for years.

    And yes, Kazantzakis’ memoirs are great. This synaesthetic thing he’s got struck me (but of course it isn’t his sole virtue). When he was a boy – he writes – he started to be attracted like everybody to the bad words the elder boys used. So one day he uttered one of those words in front of his mother and the woman, furious, washed his mouth with pepper. Since that day till old age, every time he heard such words he always felt the taste of pepper ….

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  7. @Reema
    have u taken these snaps?
    No, I took them from Flickr. If you go there and search for ‘Santorini’ (a beautiful Greek Island) you’ll find plenty of them. Thank you very much, since I love Hindi songs and music! 🙂

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  8. @AutumnSow
    @The Commentator

    One thing I can shoot now about the Greeks and why they sort of disappeared … they were total deep geniuses, too much depth kind of leading to self-destruction. Their civilisation at its best (Fifth Century BC) collapsed all of a sudden because of the terrible war between Sparta and Athens…what an amazing foolishness, if one checks in history books the way it all happened. I think in this they were very similar to the modern Germans.

    I always wondered if this self-destruction we see sometimes in an Italian city like Naples can be somewhat explained by its Greek origins…

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  9. Are you referring to the Peloponnesian Wars?

    If so, it not only had a profound effect on Hellas but upon the world at that time.

    Interesting take MOR. I didn’t think to go that far back and yet it makes perfect sense to do so.

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  10. @The Commentator

    Are you referring to the Peloponnesian Wars? If so, it not only had a profound effect on Hellas but upon the world at that time…didn’t think to go that far back

    Yes, of course, that war was awful, all the elements of an irrational tragedy being there, also fuelled by Greek extreme individualism (in the negative sense). The plague in Athens caused by the amassing of people within Athens’ walls, which killed Pericles himself; an unjust and cruel Athenian foreign policy towards other Greeks; the extreme foolishness of the Sicilian expedition (an attempt to conquer the rich Greek-Sicilian Syracuse) who led Athens to ruin together with the magnificent flower of her youth.

    History shows its cruel irony, sometimes, this disaster being conceived and carried out by Socrates’ brilliant pupil, the beautiful and talented Alcibiades, whose vanity his mentor unsuccessfully tried to restrain.

    Yes, I think that some differences between the Romans and the Greeks explain a lot. Simplifying, I am thinking of a tradition of sense of duty and self-effacement, on one side, and of an excessive individualism and craving for distinction on the other side. The Greeks, as I said here and here, taught the world to reason more efficiently, but were not champions of rationality themselves.

    And yes, after the sudden self destruction of classic Greece, we had Alexander the Great, but here also his adventure had some foolish traits: his reaching up to the gates of India, for example, such romantic nonsensical flight… many of Alexander’s conquests have been more durable, it is true, but at his death everything fragmented and it was easy to Rome to conquer all piece by piece. Rome has shown to possess those qualities (prudence: prudentia, concord: concordia, literally ‘hearts sticking together’ etc.) that the Greeks lacked (the opposite also being true, of course).

    Summarizing, why the civilization of Greece disappeared after the Rome-Athens era?

    I believe one of the reasons lies in the Greeks suffering from this self destructive individualism which (is it by chance?) we find in those parts of the Italian South that were originally Greek (it is irresistible to me not to renounce to this thought).

    This could explain the destructiveness of Naples, one of the most refined Italian towns (is it again by chance?), no doubt about it – despite all her troubles.

    (Bwt, there is a peculiar refinement in the Italian south one can’t find elsewhere in this country, I should write a post on that; many superstitions – related to the belief that ‘Gods look at humans with an envious eye – and behaviours – like men using perfume – seem Greek etc.)

    It is hard to prove that there is a direct link between such distant historical times, I know, but, are they that distant? Plus let us not forget that only a couple of generations ago some people still spoke Greek dialects in the Italian Mezzogiorno.

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  11. My visit to Calabria left me with an impression of that place as beautiful rustic roughness. Then again, my father is from a dot of a town high up in the mountains (one of its points named Gamebri I believe) of Reggio. So it’s natural that it would be rustic.

    And the beaches…wow.

    Isn’t Italy as a whole refined? And how do you define it? For me it’s the way they go about things, mannerisms, how they treat diet etc.

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  12. @The Commentator

    Calabria was/is mainly mountainous, so things are a bit different there. While Apulia, Campania and Sicily were/are more fertile so they could develop large-scale urban life etc.

    Isn’t Italy as a whole refined?
    Yes, it is, but I was talking of a peculiar refinement one can see only in the South, which seems evident to me but is hard to explain in words. Maybe sweeter, too sweet for a person from central Italy like me. I’ll think of it, whenever I have time (now I’m leaving for the weekend).

    Ciao

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