The island of Patmos is a place of power. It changes people. They come here for a brief summer visit and find themselves returning, year after year, for the rest of their lives. If you ask them why, they all give the same answer: they are responding to a force which they can recognize but not explain. And which they find nowhere else.
Greek myth has an explanation: Patmos at the beginning of time lay undiscovered under the sea. The goddess Selene, the moon, who loved Artemis, daughter of Zeus, one night shone her rays through the water so that Artemis might see and fall in love with the island. She did, and asked her father Zeus to raise it to the surface. Helios, the sun, dried it off and made it ready for the first inhabitants. They were worshippers of Artemis and built her a temple on the summit of the hill overlooking the harbor. The island prospered under the care of Artemis, and a second temple was built to her twin brother, Apollo, near the harbor.
There were games, a gymnasium and a guild of torchbearers to celebrate the light of the moon. A further myth tells how Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, fled to Patmos after he murdered his mother. He was pursued by the Furies and was protected from them by the power of Artemis. In the age of myth, Patmos was a place where the veil that separates the everyday from the eternal was thin. Some feel it remains so.
But the island was too remote to play a part in the earliest recorded Greek history. Although the fleets that attacked Troy must have assembled in nearby waters, Homer does not mention Patmos; and when the Athenians and Spartans were fighting each other or in league against the Persians, Patmos stood on the edge of the fields of conflict. Indeed, the only mention of Patmos in Thucydides emphasizes its remoteness. During the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 b.c., the Athenian admiral Paches heard that the Peloponnesian fleet, under Alcidas, had set sail from Ephesus to flee back home. “Paches, therefore, immediately set out in pursuit and went after them as far as the island of Patmos. From there he turned back again, since it appeared that Alcidas had got away out of reach.”
Patmos was inadvertently put on the world map in the first century a.d. by a Roman emperor. The empire had been passing through a long period of relative calm. The last nine years of the emperor who died in 79 a.d. were called the peace of Vespasian, and although it is possible that his son, Titus Flavius Domitianus, helped his elder brother to an early grave, he showed every sign of being a highly moral ruler in matters of public concern. He erected many temples and public buildings and investigated the probity of public figures, including the Vestal Virgins, three of whom he had buried alive for not coming up to scratch. He passed sumptuary laws regulating the amounts of money the rich could spend on themselves and issued edicts forbidding the overcultivation of vines and the neglect of corn planting. But the occupational hazard of the Roman emperors was always the possibility of assassination. This grew increasingly likely in Domitian’s later years, as evidenced by the usual revolts in the army, and his attitude to the world moved from contentment to suspicion and on to paranoia. He seems to have been quite mad during the last three years of his reign, 93–96 a.d. He had himself proclaimed a god and took against any Christian in his empire who refused to worship him. In 95 a.d., he exiled to Patmos a Christian called John who had a vision in a cave there. The vision was recorded by John’s disciple and became the most famous piece of apocalyptic writing in the world’s literature. It is the last book in the Bible: the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse.
The story of St. John on Patmos is part of the island’s mythology. To say that is not to dismiss it as untrue. From the Western perspective, myths are fairy tales: they may have entertainment value and even a moral message, but they are made up; they are fiction. If somebody asserts there is a historical reality at their center, we demand some sort of evidence before we can accept them as true. On Patmos, and perhaps in the wider context of Greece, there is a tendency to reverse this position: myths tend to be accepted in the absence of contrary evidence.
The exile of St. John to Patmos in the year 95 a.d. is not historically improbable. On the other hand, the account of his voyage, recorded by his disciple Prochoros, is seasoned with imagination. It is still told today. The boat on which the prisoners were sailing was caught in a storm, and one of the passengers was washed overboard. His anguished father was about to throw himself into the sea when John raised his manacled hands and made the sign of the cross. A great wave washed the man back onto the deck, and the storm calmed. The passengers and crew, including the ship’s captain, were immediately converted to Christianity and delivered John to Laurentius, the Roman governor of Patmos, together with the story of the miracle he had performed. Laurentius freed John and arranged for him to stay at the house of Myron, his father-in-law. John exorcised a devil who had possessed Myron’s son, and the whole family was converted. Myron’s house then became the church from which John preached the gospel.
But there were priests of Apollo on the island whose authority was challenged by the new faith. So they climbed to a sulfurous cave at the summit of Mount Genoupas to ask the help of the evil magus Kynops in destroying John. The next day Kynops appeared in the harbor and dived into the sea to emerge with the effigy of a Patmian who had drowned. ‘does anybody know this man?” he called to the crowd. “Yes,” came the answer from a young fisherman. “He is my lost father.” There was general awe and murmurs of admiration. Kynops challenged John to perform the same miracle. The apostle refused, claiming that his message was for the living and not the dead. The crowd saw this as an evasion, beat him and left him for dead.
But John recovered, and asked his small Christian household to pray with him for victory over Kynops. When the evil one heard that John was still alive, he swooped down from his mountain cave to the harbor and summoned a great crowd to witness the final humiliation of the apostle. Kynops leapt again into the sea and plunged to the bottom, at which point John made the sign of the cross and called on Christ’s help. A whirlpool formed at the place where Kynops had dived, and the magician was turned into a rock on the bed of the sea. A buoy, noting a hazard to shipping, today marks this rock.
St. John converted the whole island, then went to live in a cave halfway up the mountain to meditate and pray. One Sunday in 95 a.d., he had a vision in which “one like the Son of man” appeared, surrounded by seven golden candlesticks, with eyes like flames of fire, a countenance like the sun and a voice like the sound of many waters. The voice told him to write what he saw to the seven churches in Asia. The visions were awesome: seven angels with seven plagues; four horsemen mounted on white, red, black and livid horses; a woman clothed with the sun; blood flowing from the wine press from the last days and the glories of the golden city, garnished with precious stones that await those who are saved. That book is the Revelation of St. John the Divine. It was written, according to verse 9 of the first chapter, on the island of Patmos:
I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
Few travelers can have arrived on Patmos less susceptible to the esoteric magnetism of the Book of Revelation than I, as I stepped off the ferry for the first time in April 1987. For twelve years I had been working as reporter for the BBC television series Everyman, which explored religious issues around the world. As is the way in television, we had been drawn to the more eye-catching, extreme and deviant corners of our field of interest, and I very soon noticed that almost every fanatical cult we filmed justified itself by quoting the Book of Revelation. The writing is so powerful and yet so obscure that it can be hauled out in support of virtually any highly charged emotion. Along with the rhymed quatrains of Nostradamus, it has become an inexhaustible sourcebook of apocalyptic dottiness. I agreed with the scholarly Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, who as early as 250 a.d. was plagued by ardent members of his flock who read the imminence of the Second Coming into the Book of Revelation. He countered by pointing out that neither he nor they could understand it.
The invitation to visit Patmos had come from a source which made me hope the experience would be intriguing. Timothy Ware, a childhood friend of my wife Felicia, had studied at the monastery there after converting to Orthodoxy and had been enrolled as a monk. He had risen to the rank of bishop, taking the name Kallistos, and taught Byzantine studies at Oxford. I had discussed religion with him and found him sympathetic, openhearted, and highly intelligent (he fell asleep during his final examinations at Oxford and still got a double first). He was spending a couple of weeks at the monastery and thought we might enjoy an introduction to the island.
Felicia, who had been baptized into Orthodoxy four years before, was delighted at the idea. She later admitted that a part of her enthusiasm sprang from the hope that if I had personal contact with Orthodoxy on a site so steeped in it, I might come to an understanding of the faith that was so important to her and which I had been unable to share.
My attitude toward religion was that of the great majority of people in the Western civilized world: one of sympathetic curiosity tinged with skepticism. I had always felt the aesthetic pull of Christianity when listening to a Bach chorale or the annual performance of Messiah. It had often seemed to me, however, that the impact of these works would be so much greater if the events they were celebrating had actually occurred–if the faith which inspired them were true and not an illusion. (I had been educated out of my Sunday-school faith at grammar school and confirmed in my unbelief by the prevailing mood at university.)
Social scientists had revealed the universality of the need societies feel to create and worship gods who manipulate those aspects of existence that are out of human control; depth psychology had revealed the unconscious mechanisms that promote feelings of dependency and a need for awe; higher criticism of the texts had destroyed forever the Bible’s claim to infallibility. People who were, or wished to be thought, clever steered clear of religion.
All these were the intellectual reasons for rejecting Christianity. At a deeper and at the same time more immediate level, it did not appeal to me because religious people had always seemed, in the full flush of my youth, to lead diminished and colorless lives in the expectation of favors after death. Among the Methodists of my chapel-haunted childhood I had seen evidence of the world’s growing gray from the breath of the pale Galilean, and I had rejected the promise of eternal bliss in favor of more present delights. I came to the decision, with the omniscience of an eighteen-year-old, that religion was a prop for the emotionally insecure and that it was unacceptable to the educated and intelligent.
But I came to discover as I developed as a freethinker that there was an eternal mystery about religion: so many people more intelligent and better educated than I seemed to accept it. I was constantly puzzled by the people I met who, even in private and with nothing to gain by it, would confess their acceptance of what seemed to me absurd. Also, I have to admit that, looking back on my life from the age of fifty-six, I seemed to have been more drawn to people with a spiritual dimension than to skeptics like myself. They had more weight, more substance. They were more emotionally generous and seemed to lack spite.
So, although I could not accept the claims of religion, I respected and liked religious people. I had lived among Hindus and Moslems in Fiji and studied their faiths. While there, I had depended on Catholic priests in remote stations for books and conversation. During the years I’d spent working in BBC religious television, investigating and reporting on different faiths, the stance I had to take professionally–that of impartial and uncommitted Inquirer–suited well my own position. So I arrived on Patmos having made a conscious commitment to give the island a chance but with no very lively hope that anything it could do would change the often challenged but secure agnosticism of forty years’ standing.
The indignities and discomforts forced upon those who choose to move from one part of the world to another by air have changed the nature of traveling. The journey today is no longer part of the holiday. Our first passage to Patmos was not relaxing. “Package tours’ are for the transport of packages, not of people. Our aircraft had been modified so that the money lost by offering cheaper fares could be made up by carrying more passengers. The seats were so jammed together that my knees lost circulation and every time the girl in front pressed her reclining button my tray hit me in the stomach. The only way to release the pressure was to recline my own seat, which then struck the person behind, and so on. As we tilted together toward the isles of Greece, I reflected that this was the most uncomfortable journey to the most unpromising location I had ever experienced.
Greece had always seemed to me to be rather oversold. European civilization, we were always told, had its roots there. But the aspects of that civilization which most obviously tried to ape ancient Greece were to me the least attractive: neoclassicism, balance, proportion, moderation. The appalling Greek motto Moderation is best, so beloved of desiccated classics teachers, seemed to me to preach a life lived about two degrees below normal temperature. Moderation would come soon enough, when age and infirmity made us incapable of enjoying life to the fullest. To embrace it wantonly while still in full possession of our faculties seemed a perversion.
I had another, more immediate reason for hesitation about Greece as a place to spend a holiday: concern about the other English people I could expect to find there. I didn’t mind too much the exuberance of my fellow package passengers–all dead set on a couple of weeks of sunshine and booze, clearly sharing my view on the Greek motto. It was the prospect of running across associates from the BBC Arts Department that chilled the blood. I had put in a couple of years on a radio series called Kaleidoscope which concerned itself with music, books, theatre, painting, etc., during which time I encountered a subculture of tremulous aesthetes who all, it seemed, spent their spare time on remote Greek islands reading Proust. Patmos was, I had been told, remote and difficult of access, having no airport. It seemed all too likely that, after the long struggle to reach it, we would be greeted by a willowy figure in Paisley scarf and Panama hat waving a Gallimard paperback.
We flew from Gatwick to the island of Kos, home of Hippocrates, giant lettuce and package tours. From here we were to take a ferry north along the chain of Dodecanese islands to Patmos, arriving in the early evening in time to locate and settle into rooms let by a local householder named Maria Leosi. The arrangements had been made by Greek Sun, a travel agent with long experience on Patmos, whose tickets and itinerary I was clutching, together with a scrap of lined airmail paper on which was written:
I asked one of the NUNS to inspect the room being offered to you in Chora, Patmos, by MARIA LEOSI. I have to tell you that NO SUCH PERSON EXISTS!!!!! You should ON NO ACCOUNT put ANY TRUST in this arrangement !!!
We had been getting letters from a newly acquired guide, Paula-Beryl, most mornings since we’d told her of our plan to visit Patmos. They were always on thin translucent paper and the text, written with black ballpoint pen, contained many exclamation points, capitalized emphases and heavily scored deletions. Over some of these she stuck white adhesive tape on which she wrote amendments. Most amendments were in the direction of intensification. Paula-Beryl lived life intensely.
She had seen a television program I wrote and presented some years before and had written to me about it. When I told her that my wife was Orthodox but that I was not, she took me on as a personal challenge and regularly sent me book lists and occasionally books she thought might be persuasive. She herself was born a Jew and had gone through a period of intellectual rationalism before converting to Anglicanism as an adult and then, after further study–she was a great student and had collected several degrees–to Orthodoxy. She had been baptized on Patmos and was an enthusiast for the spiritual qualities of the island.
When we had been invited to spend a couple of weeks there we had asked Greek Sun for a room in Chora, which we were told was a quiet village without hotels that surrounds the monastery. The agent booked us into a room “with balcony, kitchen and bathroom” in the aforementioned house. We told Paula-Beryl of this and she, anxious that the room should be entirely suitable, had telephoned a nun on Patmos and asked for a report on the place. The alarming response was capitalized in her letter.
The ferry was three hours late arriving in Kos. Nobody thought this odd. In fact, I was to discover that Greek people find our expectations of punctuality in public transport to be an obsessional neurosis. I once showed our local railway timetable to a Greek friend who collapsed with laughter when he saw that a train was scheduled to leave for London each day at 7:23 a.m.
As the ship plowed on through the darkness toward Patmos, we shivered on deck. We couldn’t face the lounge because all Greeks of whatever sex and age seem to be chain-smokers and the television set in the corner, whose picture featured periodic hailstorms as we sailed between the island transmitters, blasted out sound at full volume. There was also, adding to the din, a clutch of portable radios pandering to that Greek fondness for noise which led the artist and writer Osbert Lancaster to say he knew he had arrived in Athens when he saw that the motorbike exhausts were fitted with amplifiers instead of mufflers.
We sailed into the harbor just after midnight and had our first experience of disembarking in Greece. This, like all Greek communal activities, is highly competitive. It has also become a ritual. Passengers on the ferry preparing to disembark form a phalanx–a Greek word describing a body of Macedonian infantry drawn up in close order–a dozen ranks deep. Behind them are heavy lorries, which start their engines and rev up for the disembarkation. Exhaust fumes mix with tobacco smoke and fill the hold. When the cranking of the winches begins and the tailgate starts to lower, the lights of the harbor appear at each side. Then the phalanx shoulders its baggage and surges forward in tight formation. Its members need to stay together because, as soon as the ramp clangs down on the concrete of the jetty, a boarding phalanx charges solidly up the slope in a desperate effort to get on the ship. Unless the disembarkers hold fast together, stragglers can be carried back into the hold with no further chance of getting off until the next stop, which is Piraeus.
We were jammed in row three and carried forward, past frustrated port police, peanut sellers and resolute ladies carrying signs reading “RUMS TO LET,” to find ourselves dazed and grateful on Patmos soil. Immediately a cheerful, stocky man came up to us and handed over a plastic shopping bag. “Your breakfast,” he said. “I’m Jannis Stratas and I booked your room. We’ll get a taxi and Marouso will meet you up in Chora.” ‘marouso? I thought we were with Maria Leosi.” “That’s right. Marouso Kouva. The other’s her maiden name. I expect it’s still on the Greek Sun register. She’s been with us for years.”
So the infallible Paula-Beryl had slipped up. Or the good nun she had sent to inspect our room must have been from another island; otherwise she would have known the maiden names of the wives of Chora. At least, I reasoned, we should be out of reach of any of her promptings to piety in the rooms of the undiscovered Marouso Kouva, where we could luxuriate in the advertised pleasures of our own “balcony, kitchen and bathroom.”
The taxi took the steep and twisting road in the blackness of the night as if it were on a trial run for Monte Carlo. At the time I thought we’d happened on a driver with an itch for speed, but when another taxi passed us on a blind corner at around sixty miles an hour I realized that the ferry had dumped a finite number of people at the harbor with a finite amount of money to spend, all wanting to make the ascent to Chora. So the more trips up and down a taxi could make, the more fares it collected. Reckless speed was financially prudent.
We could see nothing of Patmos but the lights of the harbor below and the departing ferry–it was amazing that the turnaround, involving passengers, cars and lorries getting off and on, took less than ten minutes. We arrived at a small square bordered on three sides by tall buildings and on the fourth by a low wall fronting a magnificent view of the harbor. A short, neat, bright-eyed woman with a ready smile opened the car door. ‘marouso,” she said. “Welcome to Patmos.” We soon found out that, with these few words, she had almost exhausted her English vocabulary. But she led us, muttering and chuckling, through dark narrow streets for a quarter of a mile to her house.
The first disappointment was that the place was not a picturesque, traditional stone cottage but a modern construction in concrete blocks; the second was that it did indeed have a “balcony, kitchen and bathroom,” but we had to share them with the occupants of two other rooms. There was another shock: propped against a jug of flowers on the table by our bed was a note from Paula-Beryl:
WELCOME TO PATMOS. There will be a QUITE WONDERFUL liturgy at the women’s monastery of Evangelismos tomorrow which I KNOW you WILL NOT WANT TO MISS!!! It starts at SEVEN a.m. Here are the directions . . .
We overslept; the liturgy and women’s monastery would have to wait. We woke around eight-thirty and stepped out onto the balcony to face one of the great sights of Patmos. Across a broad valley, directly to the south, rose a mountain the shape a child draws when asked to draw a mountain: a jagged triangle, its outline broken by outcrops of rock with a few dark stone walls snaking among the scrub slopes and, at the peak, a tiny white cube of walls–the hermitage and church of the prophet Elias. A herd of about fifty goats was grazing on the slopes, the bells round their necks tolling with every movement and sending across the valley an irregular pulse of soft chimes that sounded like a distant peal of church bells underwater. Perched on a rock above them was a squat figure in a bright dress wearing a large circular straw hat.
This scene was bathed in what artists call “Greek light.” To me, the impression was not so much that the quality of the light was different but that my eyesight had suddenly and dramatically improved. I could see the colors of the goats: mostly black and white or gunmetal gray, but in some cases a deep chestnut coat flecked with ash-blond hairs of an intensity I had never before experienced. The shadows among the rocks had a soft blackness and their outlines against the washed blue of the sky a sharpness and clarity that were breathtaking.
We sat at a small table on the balcony with bread, butter and honey to plan the days ahead. I felt glad to be there, at least in the sense that we had stopped traveling, though reserved in my enthusiasm for the place. Travel narrows the mind when time is short because we tend to see most readily what reinforces the ideas we arrive with.
The charms of Patmos, both Greek and Orthodox, were going to have an uphill struggle.
Excerpted from A Place of Healing for the Soul: Patmos
©2002 by Peter France. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.