Where families meet

Bernd Schmeikal

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Some day in winter 1981-82 there appeared on the island a strange anthropologist who had read about a tiny spot in the Aegean where in a most spectacular way eternity, world and underworld would meet. He was a rather lost figure then

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He began to think about life on a vulcano and published some article on religion and social structure on Nisyros the first page of which read about as follows:

Journal für Entwicklungspolitik 2, 1985. S. 88-106
Bernd Schmeikal-Schuh

Mytho-logic, Religion and Social Mobility in an Island-Community

1. A Place in Mind

The mind and the heart of the Dodecanesians, has been said by one of their most recognized members is pagan and Magic. Their rites and ceremonies, their beliefs and superstitions reach far beyond Christianity. A pagan mind is one that is willing to see correlations where there are none. lt may recognize the spirit of a person in a tuft of her hair and receive joy through it or eventually try to do her harm by burning it. Modern society, we believe, has overcome this. But the civilized mind, though convinced of its superiority does much the same. The joy and the pain we give others are based on our illusions. Often it is the illusion of irreparable conflict that brings us death and despair in the form of war. But also the correlations modern society has brought on, as for instance the correlation between sex, income and ability, are no less magic, no less artificial.

The what and the how we are seeing and that we see or don't see what we see, the what and how we forget, and that we forget we have forgotten is constructed in and by our culture: by our collective subconscious. The pagan mind cannot be pushed away. it cannot be overcome by repression. A repressive mind, however civlized and well educated it may be, is a dangerous mind. On the other hand, a quite simple pagan disposition may always be accessible to the natural flow of emotions and vital power. I believe it is therefore that I have chosen to inquire into the island of Nisyros.

Nisyros is a place of power. Here paganism and christianity still live side by side. its people, as everywhere in the Dodecanese, are lineal descendents of the illustrious Hellenes of old - as Jacob Casivis has put it - they lived upon the same places and nursed our infant civilization on the breast of Hellenism. At various times and places these people go back to the roots of ecstasy. Then they sing and they dance, and they improvise poetry in the succession of the Homeric rhapsods. Oh, how they enjoy it. So, you see, when I was there for the second time, I put a brief note in my diary: Nisyros is not a place on the map. It is a place in the mind.

2. Nisyros on the Map

Nisyros is a tiny, mountainous island in the aegean sea opposite ancient Knidos of Asia Minor. Having the form of a disc with about 43 square miles, it is situated 11 miles south of Kos, 58 miles from Rhodos and 240 miles east of Piraeus. You can approach it once a week by a vessel named after admiral Miaoulis. He had anchored his frigate on Giali, the island opposite Nisyros, during the Greek revolution where he also had dug a well that can still be seen. Since recent years a ferry named Nereus is also going there. But you may even choose to travel to Kos first and then take the 'Express' or 'Panormites'. Nisyros is now said to have about 1300 permanent residants. But that number fluctuates strongly because of intensive migration and mobility. There are 800 souls in Mandraki, capital of the island, and 500 in the remaining three villages of Pali, Emborios and Nikia. But at times, in old Nikia, which is the largest, one can hardly count fifty. Most of them are living abroad most of the time. lt was Nikia where the research has been carried out . . .

The old vessels 'Miaoulis' and 'Panormites' don't go there any more and times have changed altogether. What the anthropologist found out in essence was that those rapid changes brought forth by economic development and social mobility as are taking place all over the world are also affecting the little dream island community. Take for instance birth giving in the mountain village of Nikia. Babies are no longer born on the island at all and the proportion of Nikiates actually born in Nikia has rapidly decreased until the 80s.

Figure 1: Proportion of Nikia-born Nikiates and female offspring 1880 to 1980

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(legends to figure 1)
upper curve: proportion of Nikia-born Nikiates
lower curve: proportion of female offspring

This sounds all somewhat serious, indeed. But, as a matter of fact, the anthropologist had great fun in the later years. He spent most of his evenings in the little restaurant of Anna and Georgios Candilis up there in Nikia.

The little old restaurant of Anna and Georgios Candilis opposite to the church of Nikia

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This little old restaurant too is no longer in use because the priest Papa Dimitri needed it so badly. Candilis had to step down a few meters and turn one of the former rooms of his father into a new coffee house.

The famous bovins of Nikia

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There are archaic places on the island such as this cave at cape Katsouni, a place with good fishing grounds

Cave on cape Katsouni

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Nice spot on cape Katsouni

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fisherman Thimeos fishing at cape Katsouni

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Caves are the original domiciles of mankind. Therefore the anthropologist spends many a time with his family in the cave of an Austrian friend in Mandraki.

In a cave house in Mandraki

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His children go for a swim to


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or to

Chochlaki beach

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