Crete – land of legends ancient and modern

“There’s a place in the middle of the wine-dark sea called Crete, a lovely, fruitful land surrounded by the sea.” (Homer, The Odyssey).

Crete is the largest island in Greece and the second largest (after Cyprus) in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Cretan people have a rich folk tradition and a culture going back to Neolithic times. It is famous for the Minoan civilization, which flourished from 2600 to 1100 BCE, famous for the palace at Knossos.

Mythology has bestowed on Crete the privilege of being the birthplace of Zeus , father of the gods. Rhea, his mother, fearing the wrath of Cronos, Zeus’ father (who swallowed his children in order that they might not usurp his power) came to the island to give birth to her son. Two caves high in the mountains claim the honour of being the birthplace – one is on Mount Ida, the highest peak in Crete. A few thousand years later, towards the end of the Second World War, two British commandos brought the German military governor of the island here having kidnapped him in Heraklion.

Dressed as German police corporals, the commandos (one of whom was the writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor) stopped the car belonging to General Heinrich Kreipe, who was returning one evening to his villa near Knossos. Disposing of the chauffeur, Leigh Fermor donned the general’s cap and bluffed his way through 22 checkpoints with Kreipe hidden under the back seat, which three hefty partisans sat on for good measure. Heading south, their route took them over Mount Ida where, on seeing the peak, Kreipe recited the first line of Horace’s ode Ad Thaliarchum: “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte” (“You see how [Mount] Soracte stands white with snow”).

Leigh Fermor, author of A Time of Gifts (1977), one of the great travel books, realising that they had “drunk at the same fountain of learning”, recited the poem’s next few lines. The incident is recounted in the book Ill Met by Moonlight: The Abduction of General Kreipe (1950), later turned into a film starring Dirk Bogarde. The British writer Artemis Cooper’s long-awaited biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure will be published in October 2012.

Western Crete contains the spectacular Samaria Gorge in the White Mountains, a region exceptionally rich in flora and fauna. There are said to be more than 450 plant species in the gorge, all protected by law. The Samaria region also has forests of huge pine and cypress trees, a glimpse of Crete’s past, when the island was famous for timber used for building ships.

The Samaria Gorge is home to the Kri-kri, sometimes called the Cretan goat or Cretan Ibex. The Kri-kri is not thought to be indigenous to Crete, but was imported during the time of the Minoan civilization. It has a light brownish coat with a darker band around its neck and two distinctive horns swept back from its head.

By 1960, the Kri-kri was threatened with extinction. It had been the only meat available to the partisans during World War II and its numbers had fallen below 200. Today there are about 2,000 animals on the island and hunting them is strictly prohibited.

No one knows if Homer visited the island, although he mentions it in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Cretans took part in the expedition against Troy. When the Greek fleet was at Aulis, envoys were sent from King Idomeneas of Crete to Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Greeks, saying that if Agamemnon agreed to share the command with Idomeneas, 100 Cretan ships would join the Greek expedition. Agamemnon accepted, with the fateful outcome that echoed down the centuries.


One comment on “Crete – land of legends ancient and modern

  1. Maria Teresa Aveggio says:

    You should have said that your lovely colleague Tita walked the gorge and visited Zeus birth place in Mount Ida (which is really a big cave which smells of urine and other unpleasant smells). The road up the mountain is breathtaking and all in all Crete is one of the most interesting Mediterranean islands. Don’t go on the ferries though when the sea is rough….

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