Dimitris Prousalis, director of the Pelion Storytelling Festival, was performing stories about slavery and liberation with a blues band. There was huge audience, sitting at tables, drinking beer, eating souvlaki, children running around, a wind gusting, and lighting flashing in the distance! It was a powerful performance in difficult circumstances. But Dimitris wanted to reach an audience who might not come to another venue, and the rhythms of the music, the dark tales and passionate performance, not only overcame the situation but harmonized it.
It was the 5th Pelion Storytelling Festival and my first night in the village of Agios Georgios Nilias high up in the mountains of Pelion. Its lush slopes covered with thick forests and olive groves. Its many streams, and winter snow, keeping the ground fertile and moist. The mountains are mentioned by Homer, and even by Shakespeare in Hamlet, when Laertes says: “To o’ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head/Of blue Olympus.” It’s so beautiful, the gods chose to hold their weddings here. And so wild, it’s the place where the Centaurs – part human, part horse – lived.
I walked to the edge of the forest to call my Greek bloke in England. And felt a rough, scratchy tickling on my leg. I looked down, and a long, black-green snake was coiled round my ankle! I screamed, shook my leg, flicked at it, and the snake slithered off and away into the grass. As the snake did not bite me, everyone considered I had been given a blessing. Greek storyteller Manya Maratou laughed, and showed me her ankle – there was a tattoo of a snake! The mythical snake can kill or heal. And hidden in a cave in these very mountains, lived the wise centaur Chiron (Χείρων) who taught medicine to Jason, Asclepius, Achilles. Asclepius became the father of physicians, his caduceus – a staff wound round with snakes – still the symbol of medicine. I felt the mountain had embraced me.
For hundreds of years this village was only inhabited during the summer. Its partner village, Kato Gatzea, at the bottom of the mountains, is where they cultivate olives. Every year on the 10th March, the whole village – school, church, cafes – would relocate up the mountain to Agios Georgios where it was cooler. On 10th November they would come back down for a ‘softer winter’, to take care of their trees and collect the harvest of olives. The director, Dimitris Prousalis, spent much of his childhood in these villages. His family came from Kato Gatzea and he grew up surrounded by stories, and stories of stories, and stories of storytellers! One of his ancestors would tell stories for hours and hours at a time. Folklore about spirits, legends of the local landscape, folktales and myths made a deep impression on him. He describes “a magical atmosphere made from simple speech.” He wanted to keep the stories, and this storytelling atmosphere alive and develop it. “To tell the stories that people told before us, links us back to them. A story heard and told by our ancestors, can create in us almost the same feeling, making an inner connection with people we did not know, but are linked to by a story.” In 2009 he held a night of storytelling, and by 2011 this had become a week long festival. The audience has grown from 100, to a few thousand people attending over a week.
Dimitris has a creative gift for putting a programme together, and for dreaming-up where performances might go. The location of performances are stories in themselves. The whole village alive, events taking place in: restaurants; private houses; a museum; an old shop; public courtyards and terraces; bars and hotels; a garden; school playground; village square, and churchyard. Each year he includes stories from different members of the community. This year the Archbishop of Magnesia told stories of saints at the monastery, and nuns sang hymns to the Virgin Mary.
There was a performance on the little steam train, built by the father of painter Giorgio De Chirico. Audiences traveled on the train over viaducts and along steep gorges, getting off at each station, to hear a different story. Dimitris wants to share “the anonymous folk material which has survived time, and speaks inside everybody’s hearts and across generations.” Alongside performances of the festival, he holds the ‘Summer School of Folktales’ where papers and books are presented and scholars honored.
The festival works on a unique economy. All events are free to attend. Restaurants and local hotels take it in turns to host events and look after visiting storytellers. But the huge number of people coming through the village during the week brings business to everyone. This is a sustainable model and means money from the festival goes back into the village. The festival is called “Folktales and Myths on the back of the Centaur.” Partly because if its location. But also because it is supported by the dedicated local cultural organization ‘Centaur’, and rests on their trusty back. The festival also receives important support from the National Greek Tourist Organization. And runs with the help of an amazing team of volunteers who come from as far away as Crete and the Peloponnese. Performances are given by both professional tellers and amateurs, programmed alongside each other in a inspiring way. On the train local amateurs share tales. And in a private garden, professional teller Manya Maratou told the Sumerian myth of Inanna. Audiences crammed in, listening intently as she took us deep into the ritual language of the story, descending underground, hoping to be reborn.
Dimitris is already dreaming up plans for next year’s 6th festival. He wants local people to tell the legends and folklore they heard growing up, and to tell them on the stone bridges, streams, crossroads, where the stories were supposed to have happened. He wants to suggest “how the tellers and tales can become a source for contemporary tellers.” He would like to bring an orchestra into the mountains. And is searching for Chiron’s cave! “Stories are a deep inspiration, they resonate with our experience in life and give it new meanings.” We all need that.
I performed Eros and Psyche in the courtyard of a 19th century mansion.
The windows lit up so we could glimpse the painted ceilings, and all around wild nature, I felt as if I really was in Eros’ magic palace. I was not sure if I was telling or dreaming. I felt blessed. It was a dream come true. I left the festival filled with hope. Greece, with nothing, can create something so generous, so rich, so deep, so inspiring. May their support continue and the festival grow like the 2000 year old plane tree in the centre of the village.