The 180 km squared Greek island of Samothrace in the North Aegean is dominated by the 1600 metre mountain “Saos” or“ Fegarri”, meaning moon, said to be the throne on which Poseidon sat to watch the Trojan war. I came to live on Samothrace in April this year lured by the raw, rugged natural beauty and the breathtaking views. Here is the story of how I came to live here.
The story starts couple of years ago when, whilst living and working in Thessaloniki, I became interested in low-impact living. So in order to learn more, I set off on a wwoofing (willing workers on organic farms) tour of the Mediterranean. I spent time in intentional communities and sustainable living projects with beekeepers, participated in a straw bale build, learned how to prune olive tress and built a geodesic dome tree house, amongst other things. A year later I returned to Greece, where such projects have yet to become popular, full of enthusiasm for putting my newly acquired knowledge and skills into practice, but where?
That summer I married my Thracian boyfriend and we came to Samothrace on honeymoon. It was the perfect place to cool off in the scorching August heat. Not only did we bathe in the crystal clear seas but we also had a dip in some of the many rivers which trickle, rush and gurgle down the sides of the mountain creating ravines and waterfalls. In many places the powerful pounding of the water has carved out plunge pools known as βαθρες ideal for cooling off once you’ve hiked up to them. As a result of all this water the northern side of the island is incredibly green; covered in ferns, fig trees and huge water-loving plane trees which provide much needed shade in the summer. Unfortunately all this greenery is currently under threat from the huge population of tasty E. U. funded goats which the locals are proud to declare free range.
Whilst exploring the picturesque, amphitheatrically built Χώρα, which is the capital of the island we met a group of people who produce keralifes: a traditional product for the skin made with local herbs, beeswax (κερί means wax in Greek), olive oil and essential oils. These people known as Κύτταρο, which means cell, are working towards sourcing all their ingredients organically from the island. Samothrace is the perfect place for such an endeavor because it is abundant in wild herbs including oregano, thyme, lemon balm, St. John’s wort, chamomile and mint. Also, the southern side of the island, which is protected by the mountain from cold damp northerly winds and therefore has a much milder climate than the north, is covered in olive groves. Many of these have been abandoned by the locals in favour of more modern sources of income arising from tourism. A common phenomenon on many Greek islands I am told.
We returned to Samothrace in November to help with the olive harvest and it was at this time I decided to learn a bit more about the island’s history. I knew that the famous statue of the winged Νίκη or Victory which currently resides in the Louvre in Paris was found at the archeological site here so I decided to pay it a visit.
There I discovered that Samothrace had been considered a sacred island since Athenian times but that it flourished in the Alexandrian age. The main ναός or temple at the site was dedicated to the Cabeiri a quartet of gods and goddesses thought to be of Asiatic origins but corresponding to deities of Greek mythology. They were: Axieros who corresponds to Demeter the goddess of the harvest, Axiokersa thought to be the Greek goddess Persephone, Axiokersos whose counterpart is Hades and finally, Casmilos corresponding to Hermes. These deities were honoured in mysterious rites known as the Caberian Mysteries. I had heard of the Eleusinian mysteries and wondered if there were any relationship between the two. It turned out that the main similarity was that both cults had strict codes of secrecy for initiates and as a result little is known of the rituals performed or the exact beliefs held. However, it is known that the Caberian mysteries unlike the Eleusinian were open to men, women, children, and slaves of all nationalities. Truly democratic! It is thought that animal sacrifices, prayers and dedications played a part in the Caberian mysteries with the main celebration of the year taking place in August. Fire is also said to have played an important role and some suggest that the name Cabeiri means “the burners” from the Ancient Greek kaiein meaning burn. Whatever the truth may be it was certainly a sect that was held in high regard; patronised by King Philip II of Macedonia who is said to have met Olympia, his wife and the mother of their famous son Alexander the Great, whilst visiting the island to take part in the mysteries. Also a number of Romans are reported to have been initiated into the Caberian mysteries here including Cornelius Piso father in law to Julius Caesar.
The more I learned the more enchanted I became by the island. Harvesting the olives was an exhilarating and exhausting experience but after a week of beating the branches, climbing trees to get those last stubborn olives down and repeatedly spreading and gathering the olive nets over rough terrain, my muscles were aching. Not to worry, the island provided the remedy: a bath in the therapeutic hot spring water in the town of Θέρμα named after the hot springs themselves. As I sat sweating in the deliciously warm waters heavy with minerals I could imagine the ancients doing just the same and felt myself to be in splendid company.
So, in December last year we were won over by the island’s charms and we made the decision to move to the island permanently and try our hands at beekeeping. However we had to wait until the spring to make the move as the climate on the island can only be described as extreme. In the winter snow and high winds are common and it is not unusual for the island to be cut off from the mainland for days or even weeks at a time. This spring we found a plot of land with a run down little house on it and agreed to take care of the place in exchange for living there rent-free for the next three years. It seemed a perfect opportunity to see if we could adapt to island life.
Now I have been living here for seven months and it is a beautiful, challenging and life-changing experience. We have had our vegetable garden munched by goats that are incredibly nimble at hopping over fences, we have had our first honey harvest, and we are definitely living in a more low-impact manner as was our goal. But there are many problems here, both ecological and social. Aside from the goats which I have already mentioned, there is currently a problem with the rubbish which has not been collected for months and the funding provided to modernize the waste disposal facilities seems to have mysteriously disappeared. Most of the young people want to leave the island as soon as they can and who knows how many will return. Little is being done to support sustainable development of the countryside anywhere in Greece. But despite all these issues there are other young couples like us who have moved here to enjoy the peace and natural rhythms of life here and who care about the future of the island. There is hope.
We have many dreams for the future: to find a plot of land of our own, build our own house with natural materials and install solar panels to meet our electricity needs, develop our beekeeping business, form a co-operative with other local producers; the list is endless. However, right now we have to make it through our first winter; that will be our initiation into becoming real Samothracians.