Saturday, January 16, 2016


“Θέλει η ζωή μας αλλαγές και ας τσαντίζονται πολλές

δεν δίνω φράγκο κάθε μια τι θα μου σούρει

και το πουλί για να τραφεί πρέπει ν’ αλλάζει τη τροφή

κι όχι σκέτο κανναβούρι κανναβούρι.”


My first introduction to the word κανναβούρι, as a child, was from the above song, sung in 1976 by the great Christakis. “Mum, what is κανναβούρι?” I asked. My father gave her a knowing glance. My mother paused for a moment and responded confidently: “Birdseed. Definitely birdseed. Especially for canaries.” This made sense to me, as the sound of the word κανναβούρι presented similarities to the word for canary, καναρίνι. I locked this information away and gave it not a second thought. A few years later however, in a Greek school essay, I wrote that I had fed my canary some κανναβούρι. “Are you sure you know what this means?” my Greek school teacher asked me when she returned the essay to me, highlighting the word in angry red pen. “Yes,” I replied nonchalantly. “And where did you get this κανναβούρι?” the teacher asked softly. “From my parents,” I responded, watching the arches of her eyebrows rise in incredulity. She duly avoided me for the rest of the term.


My teacher’s shock can be justified by the fact that κανναβούρι is not actually birdseed but rather, cannabis (or hemp) seed. Interestingly enough, the oldest written record of cannabis usage seems to be a reference by the Greek historian Herodotus, to the central Eurasian Scythians, taking cannabis steam baths. As Herodotus wrote in his Histories, at about 440BC, "The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy."


The joys of the Scythians, not withstanding, cannabis seeds were known and used for medicinal purposes in Ancient Greece. In around 460 BC, the philosopher Democritus described a concoction known as potamaugis or potamasgis, which was a blend of wine, cannabis and myrrh that was said to cause hallucinatory, visionary states. It is on the basis of this concoction, that scholars argue that an ever earlier reference to cannabis exists in Homer’s Odyssey. Polydamna, the wife of the Egyptian Thonos, gave Helen, wife of Menelaus, “nepenthe,”  a drug that has “the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories” and which Helen slipped into the wine that Telemachus and Menelaus were drinking. It is supposed that this was an early form of potamasgis.


Our ancient  ancestors also used cannabis to dress wounds and sores on their horses. In 70AD, the physician Dioscorides recorded cannabis in his “Pharmacopoeia.” According to him, cannabis leaf was commonly prescribed as a cure for nosebleeds, and the seeds were used to treat tapeworms, earache and inflammation. In humans, dried leaves of cannabis were used to treat nose bleeds, and cannabis seeds were used to expel tapeworms. The most frequently described use of cannabis in humans was to steep green seeds of cannabis in either water or wine, later taking the seeds out and using the warm extract to treat inflammation and pain resulting from obstruction of the ear. Fascinatingly, the ancient doctor recorded that cannabis seed consumed in large quantities was believed to reduce the ‘nocturnal emissions’ suffered by teenage boys going through puberty.


Even the great physicial Galen of Pergamon, dealt with cannabis seed in his writing. in De alimentorum facultatibus, penned around 150 AD, he focused upon the seed’s negative properties, describing the process of “getting high”:

“the cannabis’ plant is not similar to agnocastus’ and the cannabis’ seed is somewhat similar to agnocastus’ as concerns its power, but it is very different, as it is difficult to digest and gives pain to the stomach and to the head and spoils humours. Anyway, some people eat it toasted together with other teasers.  What I call “teasers” is what is eaten for pleasure of drinking during the meal. Cannabis’ seed heatens sufficiently and it is because of this characteristics that it hits the head, if it is ingested in too much quantity in a short time, and sends hot pharmaceutical fumes to it.”


Galen went on to confirm the observations of Dioscordes before him: “The cannabis’ fruit does not create gas and is so dry that it can dry male sperm, if it is eaten in a quite big quantity. Some people, pulling out the juice from it when it is not ripe, use it against ears’ pains, due to an occlusion, as I believe.”


Further in his writings Galen commented upon the cannabis seed’s desiccating power and that cannabis was used to cure gonorrhea and epistaxis. He repeats his earlier observations that cannabis is kephalalgis (literally “painful for the head,” which is related to its heating characteristics): “among things that hit the head [there are] . . . the fruit of cannabis . . . and red, dry wine: and all perfumed wines…”


Euripides’ famous tragedy, “The Bacchae” where Pentheus, the unlucky king of Thebes, is described as being torn to shreds by the female devotees of Dionysus, which included  his mother, Agave, may also provide some evidence as to the mind-altering states that cannabis could have induced in their secret rites. In particular, the following dialogue is considered to describe the process of “coming off” the drug:

“-Look to the sky!

-Here I look. But why have you made me do that?

-Is your look always the same or is it changed?

-It has more light than before and it seems more transparent. -And is your soul still lost?

-I cannot understand . . . but I feel as I have come again in my

senses, my thoughts are changed and me too . . . “


Cannabis persisted being used throughout Ottoman times in Greece, though it was made illegal in 1890, when the Greek Department of the Interior announced the prohibition of cultivation, importation and sale. Nonetheless Greek and Ottoman Greek farmers continued to grow the crop and it continued to be used as a drug until modern times, as is attested by countless rebetika lyrics, including: «Ώρες με θρέφει ο λουλάς,» «Της μαστούρας ο χορός,» and «Βάλε χασίς απ’ το καλό να μας ζαλίσεις το μυαλό και δώσε μας το μπαγλαμά νακούσεις τη διπλή πενιά


Considering this historical precedent, it is no wonder that my Greek school teacher was gravely disquieted by my parents’ purported supply of κανναβούρι, to me. Yet in my progenitors’ defence, they did not engage in deceptive or misleading conduct. For as my godfather recently related, his father continued to grow cannabis for its seeds on the island of Samos, right up until the fifties. Those seeds were sold as birdseed, for it was common practice for canaries to be fed κανναβούρι, as this made their feathers brighter and encouraged prolific singing. It was also used by some fishermen as bait for certain species of carp. When the local gendarmes arrived to uproot the crop, my godfather’s father held them at bay with a shotgun, leading to his prosecution and, this being Samos, ultimate acquittal, after which time, he took to growing γλιστρίδα, or purslane, which has the same effect, and is perfectly legal.


Since my experience with my Greek school teacher I have not kept any pet birds. These days, I am considering that I am desirous of procuring a particular perspicacious parrot, that could be taught to sing the following cannabis infused rebetika lyrics:


«Όταν καπνίζει ο λουλάς

 εσύ δεν πρέπει να μιλάς.

Κοίταξε τριγύρω οι μάγκες

 κάνουν όλοι, κάνουν τουμπεκί.


Άκου που παίζει ο μπαγλαμάς

 και πάτα αργιλέ για μας.

Σα θα γίνουμε μαστούρια,

θα ‘μαστε πολύ προσεχτικοί.


Κανένα μάτι μη μας δει

 και μας μπλοκάρουν δηλαδή.

Να μη βρούνε καμιάν αιτία

 και μας πάνε όλους φυλακή.»



First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 January 2016

Saturday, January 09, 2016


It was as cold as was necessary to remove the expression: “cuts like a knife” from the realms of the cliché. Among the inhabitants of the stone town of Argyrokastro, it was referred to as ῾διαπεραστικό῾, that is, it passes right through you, just like a well honed blade. The water which had pooled between the smooth cobblestones that wound their way up the hill towards the castle looming over the city to which it gave its name, more ashen than silver, whispering maledictions with every assault of the daggered wing, had frozen into ice, transforming the road into a slide. The hike up to our place of abode was thus almost impossible, and we only reached it by slipping and falling onto the walls of the houses fringing the road innumerable times. When we reached the double storied stone home with the grey slate roof, we were as impenetrably frozen as the road and exhausted. Vavo Makhi, a wizened old woman, clad in black with a white headscarf would around her hair and fastened with a topknot, looked up from the fire she was tending: Ἥφερες το πουρνάρι;῾ (Did you bring the yew branch?”)
My companion, her grandson, approached her and removing the yew branch he had secreted under his jacket, placed it slowly and reverently upon the fire. Then he gestured for me to do the same. All the while, Vavo Makhi looked at me intently, hiding a half smirk of her wizened lips with her calloused hands. With a sweep of her hand, she bade me sit upon the low stool next to her. The yew branches had caught alight and the sharp staccato of their crackling filled the room. “A long time ago, probably even before the time of Alexander,” Vavo Makhi began to intone as she poked the yew branches into place, sending sparks flying up the chimney, “Jesus was born. The angels appeared to three shepherds and told them to go and prostrate themselves at his feet. They had to walk through the pitch black night in order to find him. How could they see where they were going? What if they were attacked? The shepherds, who came from the villages around here, thought of setting fire to dry branches of yew which they could hold during their long journey. The crackling of the branches was a blessing. It kept the robbers and the kalikantzaroi at bay.”
It was Christmas eve in this southernmost city of Albania, the erstwhile capital of the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus. Clearing the fog from the window, I watched as a few men stumbled past, grasping flaming branches of yew. Every so often, the door of the house would creak open, propelling blasts of icy wind towards the fire. The tired and cold men would enter with their branches. “Και του χρόνου βάβω Μάχη," they would say, as they bent over to kiss her hand, departing soon after. “As the branches squeak and rattle, so may your wishes reach the ears of God,” the old lady exclaimed, time and time again. “God protect them and all the Christians on this terrible night,” she then sighed, crossing herself three times. 
“Why terrible?” I asked. “Is this not the night that Jesus is born?” Vavo Makhi’s eyes grew wide as she clutched at the buttons of her jacket. “Yes, and the demons are angry. They are out in force tonight, trying to waylay any god-faring Christian who strays from his path while trying to get home.” “ Surely you don’t believe in the kalikantzaroi?” I laughed.“Make no jest about them,” Vavo Makhi snapped suddenly. “They are legion and take many forms. Take "Psilovelonis" (thin needle), for example. He is a crafty one, that black one, with very long and thin fingers and a forked tail. He is so thin that he can squeeze in through all the cracks and keyholes of the house. Sometimes, it is food that goes missing, other times, babies – you can never tell. Then there is their leader, Mandrakoukos Zimaromitis (the dough-nosed). He holds a shepherd's klitsa as if it’s the scepter of a king and flits among the sheepfolds and shepherds' trails. He knits his hat from pig hairs, but it is not long enough to cover his ears, because they are the same size and shape as those of a donkey. On Christmas night, Mandrakoukos throws a hook down the chimney and takes food from the fire. Most of the time, he steals sheep. There are more. Anemi Kopsomesitis (the thin-waisted) has a very thin and long waist and his upper body turns round and round like a spinning top. He gets caught in the warp of the loom and breaks the yarn that is being spun. Then there is Tragopodis (the goat footed), who is hairy with the legs and tail of a goat. You mark my words. If I do not take precautions tonight, he will steal the Christopsomo I’ve made or soil it.”
“How come there aren’t any female kalikantzaroi Vavo?” her grandson sniggered. “Don’t the men get lonely?” “Bite your tongue,” Vavo Makhi breathed sharply. “There is the accursed Vervezou, the Trimouri Tzoghia, with the three faces. She is the curser of infants, the bane of pregnant women everywhere. God protect us all on this perilous night.” And she crossed herself over and over again.
Vavo Makhi’s Christopsomo lovingly placed underneath the icons, was artfully decorated with the shape of a plough, for her late husband was a farmer and in this part of the Greek world, Christmas breads are decorated with shapes representative of the family’s occupation. “I should have placed bottles on it,” she snorted and she made the sign of the cross over it. “For that was the only occupation my prokomenos was ever good at.” Additional small loaves, were placed next to the main Christopsomo. “These kouloures, are for our animals in the village, the donkeys, sheep, and goats, they are all God’s creatures after all. We will break them up and feed them to them tomorrow so that they don’t get sick during the year.” Pointing to some Daliesque loaves shaped like a figure eight, she continued: “These koliantines are for my grandchildren. With God’s will, after they eat these, they will remain healthy all throughout the year. Praise God a thousand times, His Son and His long-suffering Mother. What we women suffer. Not even the Mother of God was spared the suffering of this life.” 
The physical exertion of battling the elements to arrive at Vavo Makhi’s home relatively unscathed, the close atmosphere created by a chimney that appeared not to have been cleaned for decades and the knowledge that at the break of dawn, not so far away, we would have to brave the freeze once more, making our way through the mercilessly glacial town to the 18th century church of the Transfiguration for the Christmas liturgy, had made me inordinately sleepy. I was only dimly aware of playing a traditional children’s Christmas game of lining up walnuts and then flicking other nuts at them in order to dislodge them. My vision was blurry, my aim lamentable. For a person that lacked the rudiments of teeth, Vavo Makhi was not only adept at hitting the walnuts but cracking them open and eating them as well, cackling with glee as she did so. The fire seemed a darker blacker shade of yellow now and in my delirium, I was certain that I was a baby in a cradle, surrounded by burning yew branches, witnessing Mandrakoukos emerging from the flames, a clawed hand reaching for me…
“Άϊντε μάνα᾽ μ σήκω” came Vavo Makhi’s voice. It was the cold and her icy grip upon my shoulder that roused me from my torpor. In her other hand she held a small glass of tsipouro. Drink it up your nose,” she urged. “Otherwise you will never get your nose to stop running. Now take yourself off to church, my son. The Saviour of the world is born. Χρόνια πολλά. God bless you a thousand times. Now go!”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 January 2016