LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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The Life of Lord Byron
Chapter XIX

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Occupation at Athens.—Mount Pentilicus.—We descend into the caverns.—Return to Athens.—A Greek contract of marriage.—Various Athenian and Albanian superstitions.—Effect of their impression on the genius of the poet.

During his residence at Athens, Lord Byron made almost daily excursions on horseback, chiefly for exercise and to see the localities of celebrated spots. He affected to have no taste for the arts, and he certainly took but little pleasure in the examination of the ruins.

The marble quarry of Mount Pentilicus, from which the materials for the temples and principal edifices of Athens are supposed to have been brought, was, in those days, one of the regular staple curiosities of Greece. This quarry is a vast excavation in the side of the hill; a drapery of woodbine hangs like the festoons of a curtain over the entrance; the effect of which, seen from the outside, is really worth looking at, but not worth the trouble of riding three hours over a road of rude and rough fragments to see: the interior is like that of any other cavern. To this place I one day was induced to accompany the two travellers.

We halted at a monastery close by the foot of the mountain, where we procured a guide, and ate a repast of olives and fried eggs. Dr. Chandler says that the monks, or caloyers, of this convent are summoned to prayers by a tune which is played on a piece of an iron hoop; and, on the outside of the church, we certainly saw a piece of crooked iron suspended. When struck, it uttered a bell-like sound, by which the hour of
prayer was announced. What sort of tune could be played on such an instrument the doctor has judiciously left his readers to imagine.

When we reached the mouth of the grotto, by that “very bad track” which the learned personage above mentioned clambered up, we saw the ruins of the building which the doctor at first thought had been possibly a hermit’s cell; but which, upon more deliberate reflection, he became of opinion “was designed, perhaps, for a sentinel to look out, and regulate, by signals, the approach of the men and teams employed in carrying marble to the city.” This, we agreed, was a very sagacious conjecture. It was, indeed, highly probable that sentinels were appointed to regulate, by signals, the manoeuvres of carts coming to fetch away stones.

Having looked at the outside of the quarry, and the guide having lighted candles, we entered into the interior, and beheld on all sides what Dr. Chandler saw, “chippings of marble.” We then descended, consecutively, into a hole, just wide enough to let a man pass; and when we had descended far enough, we found ourselves in a cell, or cave; it might be some ten or twelve feet square. Here we stopped, and, like many others who had been there before us, attempted to engrave our names. Mine was without success; Lord Byron’s was not much better; but Mr. Hobhouse was making some progress to immortality, when the blade of his knife snapped, or shutting suddenly, cut his finger. These attempts having failed, we inscribed our initials on the ceiling with the smoke of our candles. After accomplishing this notable feat, we got as well out of the scrape as we could, and returned to Athens by the village of Callandris. In the evening, after dinner, as there happened to be a contract of marriage performing in the neighbourhood, we went to see the ceremony.

Between the contract and espousal two years are
generally permitted to elapse among the Greeks in the course of which the bride, according to the circumstances of her relations, prepares domestic chattels for her future family. The affections are rarely consulted on either side, for the mother of the bridegroom commonly arranges the match for her son. In this case, the choice had been evidently made according to the principle on which Mrs. Primrose chose her wedding gown; viz. for the qualities that would wear well. For the bride was a stout household quean; her face painted with vermilion, and her person arrayed in uncouth embroidered garments. Unfortunately, we were disappointed of seeing the ceremony, as it was over before we arrived.

This incident led me to inquire particularly into the existing usages and customs of the Athenians; and I find in the notes of my journal of the evening of that day’s adventures, a memorandum of a curious practice among the Athenian maidens when they become anxious to get husbands. On the first evening of the new moon, they put a little honey, a little salt, and a piece of bread on a plate, which they leave at a particular spot on the east bank of the Ilissus, near the Stadium, and muttering some ancient words, to the effect that Fate may send them a handsome young man, return home, and long for the fulfilment of the charm. On mentioning this circumstance to the travellers, one of them informed me, that above the spot where these offerings are made, a statue of Venus, according to Pausanias, formerly stood. It is, therefore, highly probable that what is now a superstitious, was anciently a religious rite.

At this period my fellow-passengers were full of their adventures in Albania. The country was new, and the inhabitants had appeared to them a bold and singular race. In addition to the characteristic descriptions which I have extracted from Lord Byron’s notes, as well as Mr. Hobhouse’s travels, I am in-
debted to them, as well as to others, for a number of memoranda obtained in conversation, which they have themselves neglected to record, but which probably became unconsciously mingled with the recollections of both; at least, I can discern traces of them in different parts of the poet’s works.

The Albanians are a race of mountaineers, and it has been often remarked that mountaineers, more than any other people, are attached to their native land, while no other have so strong a thirst of adventure. The affection which they cherish for the scenes of their youth tends, perhaps, to excite their migratory spirit. For the motive of their adventures is to procure the means of subsisting in ease at home.

This migratory humour is not, however, universal to the Albanians, but applies only to those who go in quest of rural employment, and who are found in a state of servitude among even the Greeks. It deserves, however, to be noticed, that with the Greeks they rarely ever mix or intermarry, and that they retain both their own national dress and manners unchanged among them. Several of their customs are singular. It is, for example, in vain to ask a light or any fire from the houses of the Albanians after sunset, if the husband or head of the family be still afield; a custom in which there is more of police regulation than of superstition, as it interdicts a plausible pretext for entering the cottages in the obscurity of twilight, when the women are defenceless by the absence of the men.

Some of their usages, with respect to births, baptisms, and burials, are also curious. When the mother feels the fulness of time at hand, the priestess of Lucina, the midwife, is duly summoned, and she comes bearing in her hand a tripod, better known as a three-legged stool, the uses of which are only revealed to the initiated. She is received by the matronly friends of the mother, and begins the mysteries by
opening every lock and lid in the house. During this ceremony the maiden females are excluded.

The rites which succeed the baptism of a child are still more recondite. Four or five days after the christening, the midwife prepares, with her own mystical hands, certain savoury messes, spreads a table, and places them on it. She then departs, and all the family, leaving the door open, in silence retire to sleep. This table is covered for the Miri of the child, an occult being, that is supposed to have the care of its destiny. In the course of the night, if the child is to be fortunate, the Miri comes and partakes of the feast, generally in the shape of a cat; but if the Miri do not come, nor taste of the food, the child is considered to have been doomed to misfortune and misery; and no doubt the treatment it afterwards receives is consonant to its evil predestination.

The Albanians have, like the vulgar of all countries, a species of hearth or household superstitions, distinct from their wild and imperfect religion. They imagine that mankind, after death, become voorthoolakases, and often pay visits to their friends and foes for the same reasons, and in the same way, that our own country ghosts walk abroad; and their visiting hour is, also, midnight. But the collyvillory is another sort of personage. He delights in mischief and pranks, and is, besides, a lewd and foul spirit; and, therefore, very properly detested. He is let loose on the night of the nativity, with licence for twelve nights to plague men’s wives; at which time some one of the family must keep wakeful vigil all the livelong night, beside a clear and cheerful fire, otherwise this naughty imp would pour such an aqueous stream on the hearth, that fire could never be kindled there again.

The Albanians are also pestered with another species of malignant creatures; men and women whose gifts are followed by misfortunes, whose eyes glimpse evil, and by whose touch the most prosperous affairs
are blasted. They work their malicious sorceries in the dark, collect herbs of baleful influence; by the help of which, they strike their enemies with palsy, and cattle with distemper. The males are called maissi, and the females maissa—witches and warlocks.

Besides these curious superstitious peculiarities, they have among them persons who pretend to know the character of approaching events by hearing sounds which resemble those that shall accompany the actual occurrence. Having, however, given Lord Byron’s account of the adventure of his servant Dervish, at Cape Colonna, it is unnecessary to be more particular with the subject here. Indeed, but for the great impression which everything about the Albanians made on the mind of the poet, the insertion of these memoranda would be irrelevant. They will, however, serve to elucidate several allusions, not otherwise very clear, in those poems of which the scenes are laid in Greece; and tend, in some measure, to confirm the correctness of the opinion, that his genius is much more indebted to facts and actual adventures, than to the force of his imagination. Many things regarded in his most original productions, as fancies and invention, may be traced to transactions in which he was himself a spectator or an actor. The impress of experience is vivid upon them all.