Among the dancers was a colourful character in full- dress costume of black waistcoat, white, full-sleeved shirt, and fustanella (short white kilt), also with white leggings and clogs. He had a smiling, weather- beaten face and long, straggly hair and beard and was fully armed, with shotgun, belt of cartridges and a dagger at his waist. He was, I was told, the appointed guardian of the icon of St George.
I had come to the village of Arachova in Greece for its three-day festival in honour of St George. The village clings to the lower foothills of Mount Parnassus, the great mountain range famed for its ancient oracle sanctuary of the god Apollo at Delphi, six miles away.
The festival starts with the feast-day of the saint on 23 April. The celebrations consist of athletic sports, singing and dancing, and end with a great church feast. According to Arachovan legend, there was once an evil dragon in the locality who deprived the people of their water. All attempts to persuade the dragon to spare the water for the locals failed until the monster set eyes on the king's daughter. If she were given to him he would leave the water for the people, he said. The girl was on the point of being sacrificed when St George arrived miraculously and slew the monster.
It is tempting to think that this is a Christianised version of the dragon (commonly known as the Python) at Delphi, as it, too, had stood guard over the sacred fountain, close to where the ruins of Apollo's temple are to be seen. Like St George, Apollo, too, killed a monster.
A young woman standing beside me at the uphill race of the old men invited me to join her and her family for a drink at a tavern. Over drinks I asked about the miracles of St George. I was told how the saint received particular honour at Arachova because it was believed that he had helped the military leader Georgios Karaiskakys to victory against the Turks in the Greek War of Independence. More recently, thanks to the saint's interventions, the villagers were saved from certain death in the 1939-45 war. A German general, billeted at Arachova, had massacred the entire population of the nearby village of Distomo. He was planning a similar slaughter at Arachova when St George appeared to him in a dream and restrained him. So affected was the general by this that he returned every year for St George's festival until his own death some years ago.
Today the Greeks believe in the power of the saints as in ancient times they believed in the intervention of the gods. At Delphi it was said that it had been the gods who caused thunder and lightning and sent boulders tumbling from craggy peaks to crush the invading Persian army sent by Xerxes in 480 BC. Other armies later were apparently repulsed in the same miraculous manner.
As in Apollo's festival at Delphi, so today at Arachova there are sporting fixtures. On the last day I watched putting-the-weight. The onlookers cheered enthusiastically, with rising notes of "Ah! ah! ah! ah! ahhhh!!!" as each competitor, holding the round weight against his cheek, braced himself for the throw. It never went more than a lob of a few metres, giving the next competitor a feeling of hope and the onlookers another opportunity to cheer.
On this last day of the festival the church gave a great feast. The weather was fine, but there was a bitterly cold wind which whistled through the bunting strung around the church and playing field. I took refuge in the church and warmed myself near to the many candles of supplication before the familiar icon of St George on a white horse slaying the dragon. On this day it was placed in the centre of the church, its silver, embossed frame decorated with red and white flower-heads. Many people came in to honour the saints, kissing the icon and lighting candles.
When I emerged I found the feast ready. The smell of lamb being barbecued over charcoal wafted down on the wind. Around the playing field were trestle tables and benches. Everyone was welcome, and soon we all had hunks of lamb and slabs of feta cheese on plates before us, and mugs of red wine. Now songs were sung and poems read in honour of the saint. A paean was sung with great gusto between the head table, where village dignitaries and priests sat together, and a second table, where those in traditional costume sat. After each verse a shepherd fired a gun in the air.
When the feast was over the drums were beaten and the pipeizes played, and the imposing figure of the priest in black cassock, black chimney- pot hat and big, bushy beard led the people on to the playing field for the dancing. Among them was the guardian of the icon, still armed with shotgun, cartridges and dagger; but today he also carried a long shepherd's crook. His grey locks of hair, long grey beard and red cap, fringed with gold tasselling and set at a rakish angle, gave him an air of rascally dignity.
A peel of bells from the church, and the musicians led the priest and villagers from the playing field. They held hands and walked around the church singing the patronal festival song. Every now and then a gun was raised and fired at random. After the third tour the procession moved down the many steps from terrace to terrace until it reached the main Athens road, which passed through the village on its way to Delphi. Traffic was stopped as the cheerful villagers followed the priest, who was flanked by shepherds and led by the musicians. It ended at the village square, where more dancing took place.
By honouring St George in this manner, the shepherds of Arachova believed they had secured the saint's protection for the year ahead. Lambs had been sacrificed in his honour and had been eaten in communal goodwill. The flocks, which were about to go to pasture, would be safely under the protection of St George. In antiquity it was the god Apollo who was protector of flocks. He, too, would have been honoured with sacrifice and his festival marked with music and dancing. Here the past is well and truly locked into the presentn
Arriving in Arachova: The closest international airport is Athens. Of the three scheduled airlines that fly from London, Virgin Atlantic (01293 747 747) has the cheapest flights - from Heathrow and Gatwick for pounds 178.90 return including tax. British Airways (0345 222111) flies from Heathrow for pounds 1 more, while Olympic Airways (0171-409 3400) charges pounds 181. The summer series of charter flights to Athens gets under way in the next week. You can expect to pay pounds 150-pounds 200 return, or rather more during the school holidays.
Buses from Athens to Arachova leave five times daily from the bus station at 260 Liossion Street (Metro to Agios Nikolias, then a 10-minute walk). The best departure for a day trip is 7.30am. The one-way fare is about pounds 7. Note that the 110-mile road journey involves a string of hairpin turns and chicanes across the mountains.
Accommodation in Arachova is expensive so Jill Dudley stayed in the Odysseus Pension in nearby Delphi, where she paid pounds 12 for a twin room.
National Tourism Organisation of Greece:
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