Most of the time, the inhabitants of the Lake refuse to call it by its name, as if fearful to summon its energies through evocation. Instead, they attach it to the city of Ioannina that straddles its western shore, as an article of its possession, «η λίμνη των Ιωαννίνων,» even though it is the Lake, not the city, that is the repository of the collected suffering of the Epirots throughout the aeons. The Lake is their mother and its silt, metres deep, is a conglomeration of doom, disappointment and nothingness. If the parting of the Red Sea was a type prefiguring the baptism at the Jordan, then the Lake is an inverted type of the Pool of Siloam, a stagnant sedimentation of hurt and grievance that cannot flow away. When its waters are stirred by the dark angel, the blind feel their darkness more acute and the lame stumble in their despair.
The immortal lake-dwellers know this well. For it was a foreigner, Eustathios of Thessaloniki, who in his infinite ignorance coined the name Pamvotis in the twelve century, deluded as he was by the fertility of the basin and its apparent good fortune to be used for cattle raising. Pan means everything, and Votis derives from the word Votor, meaning the husbander, the sustainer. A Panvotor, then, is a sustainer of all. In this, Eustathios was correct. For the Lake does provide its people with a living, whether through animal husbandry or fishing, just enough to sustain them and keep them in its thrall. He would have been better advised to emulate his predecessor by half a millenium, the historian Procopius, who described the founding of Ioannina by Justinian, but refused to give the lake a name.
There is an island in the Lake, the only inhabited island in any European lake. It emerges broodingly from the tears, as if it were the apogee of an immense outpouring of grief from the gloom of the silt hidden below in the murk. Some say that the Lake is the final repository of the waters that caused the primeval flood and that Deucalion and Pyrrha emerged from their ark on this island to repopulate the world. There are monasteries on this island and forests. These monasteries house icons of ancient Greek philosophers who presumed to glance unaided, at ultimate truths, though they had never pierced the Lake’s dark looking-glass. They also cynically nurtured the plans, megalomania and final downfall of the most infamous Epirot of them all, Ali Pasha, who though he commanded his men to row him across the Divine Tears was never able to tame it. Though he extended his domain throughout Greece, it was to the protection of the Lake that he returned in supplication, fleeing the armies of Hurshid Pasha. Such supplicants are rejected and the Lake did not protect him, but instead, claimed him as its own. Some say that Ali Pasha’s treasure is hidden in the island, others in the depths of the Lake but we shall never know for sure, as the Lake will not give up its secrets. Others say that the island is placed upon the primeval abyss, that on the second coming, it will be lifted, that all the waters of the Lake will drain away and all the poisons that have lurked in the mud for centuries will hatch out. To these people, the Lake is merciful for it is synonymous with secrets and silence. One thing is certain: the island is in the Lake but not of the Lake for it has no name and instead is referred to as the island of Ioannina, «το νησί των Ιωαννίνων.»
There is bitterness to be tasted in the sweet waters of the Lake that abound in eel, trout and freshwater crustaceans. For among the lake dwellers, there are those who have tasted its death and like the dead who have come back to life, they hanker eternally after the sweetness they will never again be able to taste. They mourn eternally at the fate of Kyra Frosyni and the other seventeen lissome maidens who had the misfortune to be the objects of the perverted lust of Ali Pasha. Not content with their ravishing, he threw them in the Lake and drowned them. It is because of this outrage, that the Lake did not draw its waters back in horror and refuse to accept the unnatural sacrifice of such youth and beauty that caused the final breach between the lake-dwellers and the Lake itself. For the Lake will have its due. Our ladies of the Lake provide swords in parallel to those of the Arthurian legend. The swords of this Lake however are wielded only against one’s own heart. As late as the sixties, children wading along its shores, my mother among them, would emerge with their legs encrusted with blood-sucking leeches. There can be no parley, no poetry with such a Lake. As the lake-dwellers’ demotic song declares: «Χίλια καντάρια ζάχαρη να ρίξουμε στη λίμνη, για να γλυκάνει το νερό να πιει η κυρά Φροσύνη.» Even so much sugar cannot sweeten the repository of the grief of mankind and Kyra Frosyni will thirst forever in her watery grave.
There are more mute evidences of suffering here. Half-way up the mountains that brood over the Lake and seem to lean over it to the extent that they are about to hurl themselves in it lies the village of Lyngiades, which was totally destroyed by the Nazis during the war. The blood of those innocents streamed down the mountain and was sopped up noiselessly by the dense waters of the Lake. Whenever a fish is eaten, the lake-dwellers remember them. Further down, along the mouldering walls of Ioannina castle, there are reminders of the long-lost Jewish population, forcibly rounded up by the Nazis and deported to their deaths. In one of the castle’s recesses, within full view of the Lake, lies the prison of the 17th century rebel bishop Dionysios the “Skylosopher” who was flayed alive by the Turks for his patriotism. It is no small wonder that his prison was chosen in such a location. To view the mercury waters of the Lake is to imbibe the poison of futility and that sight alone is enough to drive men mad. Surely enough, when lake-dwellers can no longer cope with a land that stagnates hurt and circulates it within their arteries, they do go mad and the incidences of them attempting or successfully throwing themselves into the Lake are not few.
That Pamvotis is a lake of miracles is attributed only to surprise that in a few situations, it has not been malevolent, though this has required the miraculous intervention of supernatural beings. In 1434 for example, the beylerbey of Rumeli, Durahan Pasha crossed into Epirus from Thessaly in order to put down a local uprising. Riding with his soldiers late at night, he was mortified the next morning to find that in the darkness, he had ridden across the whole expanse of the Lake, which had frozen over and was covered in snow. In his immense relief at escaping a certain death, he ordered the monastery of Panayia Durahan to be built, which still stands proudly, a solitary reminder of one who successfully defied the Lake and lived to tell the tale. Since that time, the Lake has at least partially frozen over only seven times in recorded history.
Pamvotis once had a sister, Lapsista, which was drained in order to make way for farmland. No one would even dream to advance such a plan for Pamvotis, which laps at the shores of men’s silted up minds continuously. When one listens to a moiroloi from an Epirotic clarinet, they may either be transported by the variable cadences or bored to pieces. It is only to the one who has lived along the Lake and heard the wind rustling through its rushes, variously seducing or menacing the auditory nerves, that is granted the power to unencrypt its message. For the clarinet is the mouthpiece of the Lake, a descendant of the rushes that speak its language and the language of the Lake is that of sobbing. It is no coincidence that there is no such thing as a joyful Epirotic folksong. They, like the Lake from which they derive, are tinged always with irony and the foreknowledge that while happiness is transitory, evil and the Lake are omnipresent and will never relinquish their trove of iniquities.
Walking alone on the shores of the Lake at Christmas, I chanced upon the most incongruous sight. There, poking out of the water like a skeletal hand raised in a final appeal for succour was a metal scaffold upon which water-birds were perched. It was almost as if these mediators between the earthly and the celestial could not bear the touch of that which sustains them. The same could be said of the immense water snake that lay curled at my feet and refused to be disturbed as I pushed through the rushes, seeking the origin of aethereal mordentation. I found it in the generations of women who have toiled to collect these rushes, weaving the sorrows of the ages tightly together and strewing their earthen floors with them.
Let land think that it is having its revenge. Many of the small rivulets that fed into the Lake have been concreted over or filled in and the level of the Lake has fallen dramatically. There are concerns about the Lake’s dwindling fish population though it has managed to stay safe from the heavy pollution that has blighted other similar lakes. It remains at the epicentre of Epirus and of the lake-dwellers’ gravity, as the patron saint of inevitability. It haunts them all, even here in the land girt by sea as the full stop to which everything returns, the waters upon which the Spirit brooded in the book of Genesis. I see its antediluvian antiquity in the creases of my great-grandmother’s face, its thick, stoic reeds in my grandmother’s clumpy fingers, its stern determination in my mother’s memories. And every morning, as I wake up and frown at myself in front of the mirror, I know I am Pamvotis.