Friday, August 26, 2016

Thyme of Mani

Thyme of the Mani at Tiganis
The Mani peninsula, second finger from the left of the Peloponnese hand, is an arid place; its inhabitants scraped by for centuries on subsistence agriculture and piracy. The government encouraged olive cultivation in the 19th century and one sees little else there in terms of husbandry. There was in fact a great exodus - to Athens, America and elsewhere and today many villages are deserted. Urbanized Maniots may return from the city for the weekend or holidays and I suppose it is the kind of place that you may leave, but that never leaves you. Kith and Kin reach deep here.

 The Greeks of the Mani, particularly the inner region, were fierce clannish warriors steeped in bloody feuds for centuries until they united to challenge (the somewhat nominal) Ottoman sovereignty, beginning the Greek independence movement. Blood feuds, family towers and the pre-Christian tradition of the myroloja - deeply moving, spontaneous, yet intricate grieving chants performed by the women otherwise relegated to the sidelines of this patriarchal society upon somebody's death - are what the Mani was known for. Patrick Leigh Fermor, the wonderful Anglo-Irish travel writer was so impressed with the region he not only wrote a book about it but settled and concluded his life there, not the least, I believe, because the emotional release of the myroloja spoke to his own deeply buried demons which he had unsuccessfully tried to run from by his profuse travelling and drinking. He writes, most insightfully:
Patrick Leigh Fermor, "Lamentation" in: Mani. Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (London: John Murray, 1958)
Such a harsh society produced such deep wisdom, as the harsh environment of the Mani brings forth incredible beauty and life intensity. Rarely have I been more strongly in the moment, fully aware, mentally, emotionally, sensorily of myself and my surroundings and their interaction than in these landscapes so barren, yet so full of sight, sound and, of course, smell. All places of the Mediterranean have their specific herbal smellscapes and the Mani is no exception. You can taste it in the stern, almost bitter honey the Maniot bees make and its emblem to me became the thyme that flowered with abandon across the stony terrain besides dusty roads and pathways: bright violet blossoms challenging the dusty ochre and washed out green surrounding them and a smell and flavor so wonderfully strong and pungent it outdoes the wild sage and garlic even. Those plants live hard, they have little to go on and their strength is wonderfully evident, inspring and enlivening in the bite of their oil. The thyme of the Mani is like a myroloja of nature, singing of the hardship and loss that is part of existence, yet therein affirming life to the fullest, exuberantly and with a firm, clear voice: here am I, beautiful, unique, safely nested at the bosom of mother earth and brimming with the force of father sun. Mourn the dead to feel you are living. 
Tigani, the "frying pan" which harbors the remains of the old great castle of the Mani, salt pans all across the handle, and bushes of windswept thyme

No comments: