Dragon Lore: Origins of the Fire-Breathing Beast

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From ancient Greek myths to Game of Thrones, the legend of the dragon is one of the most enduring and romanticized throughout history. It has been traced back as far as 4000 BC and exists in all parts of the world.

In and around Europe dragons are viewed mostly as monsters of evil intent. In ancient Rome, the army used dragons as symbols of strength.

During the Renaissance, fear of sea monsters kept sailors from venturing too far from known waters, and the edges of their maps would read “Here be dragons.”

The Oxford English Dictionary explains the etymology of the word dragon, which it says entered the English lexicon in around 1220 and was used in English versions of the Bible from the early 14th century.

Dragon derives from Old French, the language used by nobles and law courts following the Norman conquest of 1066. This in turn stems from the Latin draconem or draco meaning “big serpent,” which was derived from ancient Greek δράκων (drakon).

In Greek mythology, the Hesperian Dragon named Ladon was a hundred-headed serpent that guarded the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides.

Historically, European dragons were viewed as being evil, jealous, and greedy hoarders of treasure.

In the stories, they were generally treated as violent monsters who must be slain by heroes and saints. European dragons could have four legs, two legs, or none, and often had wings.

In Asia, and especially China, the view of these creatures was very different. Dragons were thought to live under the ocean in the winter, arising in the spring with a clap of thunder to bring the rain needed for their crops, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

They breathed clouds and moved the seasons. The dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, and the Imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne. Known as the Dragon, the emperor ruled in harmony, and brought peace and prosperity to all.

Chinese dragons are depicted as being more serpent-like, with long, snaking bodies and usually had four legs. They are generally seen as wingless.

How people view them and what they believe about them varies widely, but the idea is too widespread not to think there are some common roots.

What made people from cultures that may have never met all come up with the idea of dragons?

There are several theories about what creatures could have been the source of the dragon myths, any or all of them may be true.

Ancient Origins discusses a number of potential roots. The first one is crocodiles. Saltwater and Nile crocodiles are the two largest living reptiles on earth today.

Currently, saltwater crocodiles live in the eastern Indian Ocean region, and Nile crocs in the rivers, marshes, and lakes of Sub-Saharan Africa. But 1,000 years they had a much larger habitat range, and could have been encountered by people living in Greece, Spain, and Southern Italy.

Bizarre Blue Dragon-Like Creatures Wash Up on Beach, Experts Warn Not to Touch

Nile crocodiles can grow to 20 feet in length, and have the ability to lift much of their bodies off the ground. This may be a hint about why European dragons are often described as rearing up.

Many archaeologists believe that ancient people envisioned dragons when they found the fossils of certain sorts of dinosaurs, specifically, the types that had very long necks.

Having no explanation for the lengthy fossils, they would have imagined a beast that seemed to fit what they were seeing.

There is evidence to suggest that there were discoveries of dinosaur fossils being uncovered in China as early as the 4th century BC. Fossils belonging to flying dinosaurs, such as pterodactyl or pteranodons, could very well be part of why some cultures envision dragons as having wings.

Another, similar, theory is that people imagined dragons when the skeletons of whales washed on shore near early coastal dwellings.

Because early people didn’t have suitable sailing and navigation technology, they would most likely only have seen the immense whales from a distance when the creatures were living.

This could certainly be the root of sailor’s fear of “dragons” in the waters, as well as the ocean-dwelling Asian view. This could also be one of the reasons that some dragons are pictured as having wings.

Snakes are also thought to be a basis for the dragon myth. Although even very large snakes are much smaller than dragons are said to be, humankind has a deeply embedded instinct to fear them.

In ancient Egypt, for example, Apep was a deity known as the Serpent of the Nile. He was viewed as the lord of Chaos, and opposed to light and truth.

Each of these theories show some echo of what we think about when we think of dragons. All of them together show a more complete picture of the huge beasts that feature in so many stories and myths.

 Ian Harvey

6 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Ottoman Empire

Turkish artillery of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.  (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
The Ottoman Empire is one of the largest empires in history. In existence for 600 years, at its peak it included what is now Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Macedonia, Romania, Syria, parts of Arabia and the north coast of Africa. In some countries, it is a legacy best forgotten; in others, it is a hotly-debated topic and, in a handful, national pride has been nailed to this vital part of their history.

Putting aside all the nationalist politics, the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating subject covering a dynasty that lasted 600 years. Here, Jem Duducu presents six lesser known facts about this exotic, yet still relevant empire.


The founder of the empire was a man called Osman

Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man who is seen as the founder of the empire (his name is sometimes spelt Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’). The Seljuks had arrived from the Asiatic steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations, while  Osman had ruled a tiny Anatolian territory at the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the mould of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Genghis Khan before he won an empire).

It was on the coronation day of Osman’s successor that the tradition of wearing Osman’s sword, girded by his belt, began. This was the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the west and was a reminder to all of the 36 sultans who followed that their power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers. This certainly rang true in the first half of the history of the empire, and for the next 300 years, sultans would regularly be seen in battle. But as the empire matured and then waned, so the sultans began to shirk their duties on the battlefield.

Osman’s lavishly-decorated sword and belt are the Ottoman equivalent of the coronation crown jewels, but it’s doubtful that what is seen today on display in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul is what Osman held in his hand. Putting it simply, Osman was unlikely ever to have had such an impractical sword, though it could be that the original blade was later plated and embellished.

Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west: a founder of an idea and a near-mythical figure. During his lifetime, he was regarded as unimportant enough that we have absolutely no contemporary sources about him. We don’t know what he looked like; we have no proclamations extant from his reign, as Osman’s reign began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Ages.

Turkish chieftain Osman (1258-1324), who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Turkish state. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Turkish chieftain Osman (1258-1324), who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Empire. “Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west,” says Duducu.(Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The Ottomans could be unlucky

Only once did a sultan die in battle and only one sultan was ever captured by an enemy. Unfortunately for the early empire, these sultans were father and son. In 1389, at the famous Battle of Kosovo, Murad I was in his tent as his forces fought a brutal and bloody engagement with Serb forces. A contemporary account states that: “having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, [serb forces] heroically reached the tent of Murat (sic) … (and killed him) by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly.”

While this account claims to describe how Murad died, it doesn’t ring true. The idea that a dozen Serbs were able to break through the entire central force of the Ottoman army, which we know held for the whole battle, doesn’t make sense. Instead, there is a later report that as the Serb lines crumbled, a Serbian aristocrat (often named as Miloš Obilić) pretended to defect and was brought before the sultan. Murad, believing that any change to the battle would finally break the deadlock, met Miloš in his private tent, where the Serb lunged forward and stabbed Murad before the guards reacted. This would make more sense against the overall events of the day. Either way, after 27 years of rule, Murad lay dead in a pool of his own blood.

Murad’s son and heir, Bayezid I, was present at the battle and had already proven himself to be a fearsome warrior. He was known as Bayezid Yildirm (thunderbolt) because he moved as quickly and struck as lethally as a thunderbolt. Amongst many other military successes, he was to annihilate the last serious crusade sent from Europe to counter the rising tide of Islamic power. However, in 1402, he had to face a new threat: that of the legendary warlord Tamerlane (actual title Emir Timur), a brutal 14th-century warlord born in what is now Uzbekistan, who amassed an empire that stretched from present day India to Turkey, and Russia to Saudi Arabia. The two met at the Battle of Ankara, where more than 150,000 men, horses and even war elephants clashed.

Accounts of the battle are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. What is clear is that a pivotal point in the battle took place when some of Bayezid’s Anatolian vassals switched sides or melted away, leaving him with an even greater numerical disadvantage against Tamerlane. However, the core of the Ottoman force fought bravely. The battle was vicious and the resulting carnage was enormous. By the end of the day it was said that around 50,000 Ottoman troops lay dead; the same was said of Tamerlane’s force. If these numbers are true (and there’s no way of knowing), it was one of the bloodiest battles in world history prior to the 20th century.

Bayezid might have been up against a man who was his equal in leadership, but Tamerlane simply had more of everything – and some elephants. Bayezid had thrown all of his empire’s resources into the battle, but he couldn’t overcome the fact that Tamerlane’s empire was bigger. By the end of that violent and sweltering July day, Bayezid’s army was in tatters, and he and his wife had been captured, showing that Bayezid had personally fought to the bitter end.

Bayezid’s death in captivity led to a period of civil war and infighting amongst his sons, each of whom wanted to become the next sultan. These events almost undid the empire just 100 years into its history.


Ottomans are not the same as ‘Turks’

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman Empire is that many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing. It is thanks to European ignorance (that has lasted centuries) and to nation building in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans. Quite often in European Renaissance literature, the sultan was referred to as the ‘Great Turk’, a title that would have meant nothing to the Ottoman court. So let’s clear this up: the Ottoman Empire, for most of its existence, predated nationalism. The attacking forces at the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 weren’t all ‘Turks’; in fact, not all of the besieging forces were even Muslim.

More than 30 of the sultans were the sons of women from the harem. Why is that salient? Because none of these women were Turkish; it’s unlikely any of them were even born Muslim. Most of their backgrounds have been lost to the mists of time, but it seems most were European women, so Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians. It is likely that later ‘Turkish’ sultans were genetically far more Greek than Turkish.

Similarly, any of the legendary Janissaries [an elite fighting corps within the army], including the famous architect Mimar Sinan who started his career as a Janissary, were all Christian children who had been brought into this elite fighting force and then converted to Islam. The best modern analogy to describing anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is like saying that the anything from the British Empire was exclusively ‘English’.

Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent, 1601. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think

In the west, he has become known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the east, he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However, here is a full list of his titles and they are fascinating:

“Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah’s deputy on earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of men’s necks, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world, the shadow of the almighty dispensing quiet on the Earth.”

Let’s break things down: the first title is obvious and “Allah’s deputy” implies his supreme Islamic authority without overstepping the mark (the word ‘Islam’ means ‘one who submits to God). The “possessor of necks’ harks back to his father Selim’s practice of beheading even senior officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could expect to be beheaded for certain crimes.

The next few titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans were aware that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman Empire) the titles of “emperor” and “Caesar” still had importance. Claiming to be ‘”Emperor of the East and West” was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome which, at this point, was hopelessly outclassed by the Ottomans.

“King of Kings” may sound a little biblical, but that’s only because the Gospels took the title from the Persian emperors’ shahenshah, literally, ‘king of kings’. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging a major rival, but this time it’s in the east, the Safavid Persians.

The next few titles are little more than showing off, but then we come to “Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world”, which shows that the sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at the time. The ejection of the Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those living in the first half of the 16th century.

Only two of Suleiman’s military campaigns failed; he swept through everything else before him. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions. If anyone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleiman fitted the bill perfectly.


The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon

On 20 May 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the port of Acre, where he fired the few cannons he had at the mighty defences, while the defenders sought refuge behind the city’s walls. As Napoleon was now committed to the siege, Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and march to the aid of the city. Napoleon had always picked competent generals and, even though his force was small, one Jean-Baptiste Kléber was a battle-hardened and highly capable general. His force of around 2,000 men (later joined by over 2,000 of Napoleon’s men) met the Ottoman relief force at Mount Tabor in Palestine. By comparison, Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus, had gathered an army of over 30,000. The French were outnumbered about 9-1; but, as we have seen, numbers don’t count for everything, and the Battle of Mount Tabor was possibly the greatest (often forgotten) humiliation of Ottoman martial power.

The Ottoman forces were made up of Sipahis, Mamelukes and other brave but outdated warrior classes. From dawn to late afternoon, Kléber sat in the hollow anti-cavalry squares, resisting every attack by Pasha al-Azm’s men. The Ottoman governor’s losses were mounting, but his army so dwarfed the French force that he could afford them. Meanwhile, after ten hours of fighting under the sweltering sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired, thirsty and dangerously low on gunpowder and ammunition. It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to match the numbers in the Ottoman army but enough to distract them by sending a few hundred men to attack and loot the Ottoman camp. Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought Napoleon’s tiny force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked, thinking he was about to be attacked from the rear and flanks. He ordered a general retreat, at which point the two French forces charged the disengaging Ottomans, and the orderly Ottoman retreat turned into a messy rout.

Total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 killed and another 500 captured, versus two dead French soldiers. An army of around 4,500 had fought an army of over 30,000 and not only won, but sustained just two fatalities. It was a devastating humiliation for the sultan Selim III, and a spectacular triumph that allowed Napoleon to continue his siege of Acre (although he would not take the port and this would mark the furthest extent of his conquests in the Middle East).

Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre during Napoleons invasion of Egypt, 1799. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre during Napoleons invasion of Egypt, 1799. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The Ottomans outlasted all their main opponents… just

From the middle to the end of the empire, when it was on its long slow decline to collapse, the empire faced three main rival powers that crop up again and again in Ottoman history: to the east, the Persian Safavids; to the north, the tsars of Russia; and to the west, the Habsburgs.

The Safavids fell first to Afghan invaders in 1736 and, while Persia/Iran would remain an opponent to the late Ottoman sultans, it was never the same expansionist threat it had been earlier under the Safavid dynasty.

Similarly, as the tsars of Russia began to spread their power south towards the Crimean Peninsula and the Black Sea, the Ottomans began to lose ground and were forced to fight multiple wars with the tsars. The most famous of these in the west is the Crimean War, when France and Britain joined sides with the Ottomans to prop up the failing state against the rising star of Russian power. However, the sultans were still seated in power when the last tsar, Nicholas II, was first deposed and later shot.

The Habsburgs and Ottomans fought so regularly that Vienna was twice besieged by Ottoman forces. There were so many clashes between the two empires that some of the war names sound half-hearted, such as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). However, during the last war the Ottoman Empire was involved in (the First World War) the Ottomans were on the same side as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by a Habsburg. That dynasty didn’t quite make it to the end of the war, whereas the Ottoman Empire survived for a few years after it. The Ottoman sultans didn’t have time to gloat, however. The empire was dismantled by the victorious Allied powers of First World War, and a way of life that had lasted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century was gone by 1922, when the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was forced into exile.

 Jem Duducu

Jem Duducu is the author of The Sultans: The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History (Amberley Publishing, 2017).

Greetings! The high five and the fist bump are 20th century, but the first handshake dates to 5th century B.C. Greece, as way to prove you were weapon free

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Hello! Handshake, high five, fist bump. These ways of greeting a friend or new acquaintance seem so natural and unremarkable now, but how did these gestures originate in the first place?

The handshake dates back the farthest. Archaeological relics suggest that handshakes were practiced in ancient Greece in the 5th century B.C. It was a symbol of peace, showing that you were not carrying a weapon. In Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, the most-visited in Germany, a 5th-century funereal relic shows two soldiers shaking hands. At the Acropolis, in Athens, Greece, a 5th-century stone slab depicts Hera and Athena shaking hands.

The Greek poet Homer describes handshaking several times as displays of trust in his epics TheOdyssey and The Iliad. During the Roman era, the handshake evolved to more of an arm grab. Knights in Medieval Europe may have added the shaking of hands up and down as a clever way to dislodge any hidden weapons.

Some historians suggest that modern-day handshaking became popularized by 17th century Quakers, who believed the gesture to be more egalitarian than a hat tip or a bow, according to History.com. In some 17th century marriage portraits, the husband and wife are seen shaking hands as a symbol of their legally binding commitment. By the Victorian era, etiquette guides instructed that the handshake should be firm. While most English-first and Scandinavian countries prefer a firm handshake, in some countries too firm a grip is considered rude and aggressive. Some Asian countries prefer a more gentle touch.

In contrast with the ancient ritual of handshaking, the origins of the high five date back only to last century. And slapping five actually started not up high but down low. The low five has been a fixture of the African American culture since the Jazz Age, as a response to “slap me some skin.” In the 1927 movie The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson slaps low fives to celebrate a Broadway audition.

There’s even a National High Five Day, #NH5D, launched by the University of Virigina to promote youth health and just generally spread good cheer. National High Five Day occurs on the third Thursday of April (coming on the 19th this year). The founders of that day concocted a back story of the high-five’s origin that briefly gained traction on the internet: That a basketball player named Lamont Sleets Jr. had seen his father, Lamont Senior, slapping palms with five veteran brothers from the Vietnam War. And that Junior had incorporated the high five into games as a homage to his father. It was pure fiction, as an ESPN magazine reporter found out when he tracked down Lamont Jr. in 2011. Oh.

In fact, it was Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who did an impromptu high-five in front of fans in a game against the Houston Astros in October 1977. Burke held up his hand to greet teammate Dusty Baker, who was rounding the bases off his 30th home run. The Dogders were the first team to have four players with 30 home runs.

“His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” Baker told ESPN. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.” Burke then stepped to the plate and hit his first home in the major league, and Baker high-fived him. The high five became a thing with the L.A. Dodgers and soon sports at large.

The fist bump is the most modern invention. Like the high five, it has its origins in sports. Some trace it to the boxing ring, where opponents touch gloves before a match. Others point to basketball. In the 1970s, star Fred Campbell of the Baltimore Bullets popularized the gesture by giving it his own exuberant flair.

In 2008, Barack Obama brought the fist bump to political headlines when he bumped his wife, Michelle, after his nomination, prompting detractors to denounce it as a “terrorist fist jab.” (Barack Obama was notably passionate about basketball.) The Washington Post called it “the fist bump heard ’round the world.”

The Canadians were quick to embrace the fist bump, or “pound,” as a healthy alternative to germ-spreading handshake, especially during flu season. “It’s a nice replacement of the handshake because you can’t just refuse to shake someone’s hand. It’s rude and seems almost un-Canadian,” Tom Feasby, the dean of medicine at the University of Calgary, told the CBC News in 2009.

Whatever you choose—handshake, high five, fist bump—works just as well for departures, too. Goodbye!

By E.L. Hamilton  

E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City

The people descended from Spartans

This is the land of the Maniots, a clannish community said to be descended from Spartans, the legendary warriors of Ancient Greece.

The Mani peninsula juts out into the Ionian Sea from the Peloponnese (Credit: Credit: HowardOates/Getty Images)

The Mani peninsula juts out into the Ionian Sea from the Peloponnese (Credit: HowardOates/Getty Images)


“Here is your lalaggi,” said Giorgos Oikonomeas, handing me a crispy dough strip deep fried in extra-virgin olive oil. He had the build of a warrior – sturdy and broad-shouldered – but his wrinkled face was warm and relaxed.

Oikonomeas grew up in the village of Neochori on the Mani Peninsula’s north-west coast and never left. He spent his life running a kafeneio (a traditional Greek coffee house); now retired, he no longer serves customers, but rather spends his mornings at the kafeneio exchanging news with friends about family and occasionally politics.

We are as Spartan as can be

As my teeth sunk into the crisp flesh of the lalaggi, the dough melting on my tongue, Oikonomeas explained that I was savouring a snack that was likely eaten thousands of years ago by Greece’s infamous soldiers. “Lelegas, the first king of Sparta, was probably the first one to manufacture it,” he told me.

“If you want to get a taste of what life would have been like in Ancient Sparta, look no further,” he said. “We are as Spartan as can be.”

The Maniots believe they are descended from Spartans, warriors of Ancient Greece (Credit: Credit: STRINGER/Getty Images)

The Maniots believe they are descended from Spartans, warriors of Ancient Greece (Credit: STRINGER/Getty Images)

Nearly three millennia ago, when Ancient Greece was made up of ‘polis’, or individual city-states, much of the Peloponnese belonged to Ancient Sparta and its allies. Unlike the people of rival city-state Athens, who were artists and philosophers, the Spartans were fighters; boys were said to begin military training at age seven, challenging one another in physical competition before becoming full-time soldiers at the age of 20. Women, on the other hand, played no role in the military, but they often received a formal education and were allowed to own property – rights rarely afforded to women in other Greek polis. As a result, Spartan women were known for their independence.

After defeating Athens in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta reached the apex of its power in the 5th Century BC. But its dominance was short-lived: in 371BC, the Spartans were defeated by soldiers from the city-state of Thebes, sparking the downfall of Sparta. But the Spartans living on the Mani peninsula, sheltered from the rest of the Peloponnese by the Taygetos mountains, held strong, defending their territory for centuries from the Thebans, and later Ottoman, Egyptian and Franc forces, among others. The Maniots as they became known were just as treacherous on the sea as they were on land, dabbling in small-time piracy and frequently travelling to other coastal nations as mercenaries. They were reputed to be so ruthless that many conquerors simply steered clear.

Sheltered from the rest of the Peloponnese, the Maniots remained self-governing until the 19th Century (Credit: Credit: Robert George Young/Getty Images)

Sheltered from the rest of the Peloponnese, the Maniots remained self-governing until the 19th Century (Credit: Robert George Young/Getty Images)

The region remained self-governing until the mid- to late 19th Century, when the Greek government reduced the peninsula’s autonomy. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, when construction of new roads opened the peninsula to the rest of the Peloponnese, that the Maniots began to embrace newcomers.

The Maniots were reputed to be so ruthless that many conquerors simply steered clear

The Maniots’ affinity for conflict wasn’t only directed at outsiders. During its time as an autonomous region, the peninsula was governed by different families, or clans; as these clans struggled for power, violent vendettas erupted that could last for years. “If a member of another family shamed one of your own, a family roundtable was gathered to decide upon the severity of the punishment,” Oikonomeas explained. “The punishment was inflicted on the whole clan and not just the perpetrator. Such was the Maniot sense of pride.” He noted that until recently Maniots would refer to their sons as ‘guns’ and their daughters as ‘barrels with gunpowder at the foundations of their house’.

Maniots now devote their lives to more peaceful endeavours such as olive farming. The region is known for its olive oil that’s fruity and full-bodied with a luscious golden-green hue; it’s used for everything from flavouring cheese to dressing anchovies to frying lalaggi.

Maniots now devote their lives to more peaceful endeavours such as olive farming (Credit: Credit: Bob Gibbons/Alamy)

Maniots now devote their lives to more peaceful endeavours such as olive farming (Credit: Bob Gibbons/Alamy)

However, the region’s ferocious past is not forgotten. The Ancient Spartan maxim ‘ι tan i epi tas’, a phrase first uttered by Gorgo, wife of Spartan King Leonidas, before the king led the stand against invading Persian troops at the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC, can be heard on a regular basis. The saying translates to ‘with the shield or on the shield’ – a reminder that there are only two ways home from war: either carrying one’s shield as a winner, or being carried on it as a casualty. The adage is still commonly used today, both as a vote of strength and as a warning.

That’s not the only reminder. Almost anyone who was born and raised on the Mani peninsula will tell you they have Spartan blood in their veins.

“Maniots descend from Ancient Spartans, full stop,” Oikonomeas said.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Maniots began to embrace newcomers (Credit: Ian Dagnall/Alamy)

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Maniots began to embrace newcomers (Ian Dagnall/Alamy)

At 86, Oikonomeas still remembers his mother spooning hardboiled eggs into his mouth to make him stronger, insisting that as the only boy it was up to him to continue the family legacy. And he recalls watching his aunts gather the night before a family funeral to recite mourning songs at hair-raising frequencies, a ritual mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey.

But there’s no hard scientific evidence proving a direct link between today’s Maniots and the Ancient Spartans. Any trace of authentic Spartan DNA long ago disappeared; all that’s left of the warriors are their legends. Some historians and anthropologists say similarities between ancient and modern rituals – like the mourning songs – are strong indicators of a relationship between Ancient Spartans and modern Maniots, but Basil C Gounaris, professor of modern history at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, disagrees.

“Natural anthropology and history are not aligned,” Gounaris said. “Living in the same natural environment obviously leads the settlers to similar choices on many issues. But this has nothing to do with the DNA of the inhabitants.”

Some experts say similarities between ancient and modern rituals indicate a relationship between the Spartans and the Maniots (Credit: Credit: Gary B/Alamy)

Some experts say similarities between ancient and modern rituals indicate a relationship between the Spartans and the Maniots (Credit: Gary B/Alamy)

Sunburnt crowds trickled into the kafeneio while Oikonomeas sipped his coffee, watching nonchalantly as the establishment’s new proprietor tried to keep up with the increasing number of patrons. The kafeneio is small, but its privileged position right across the street from Neochori’s main square means it’s almost always busy. About 10 square wooden tables have been squeezed into the tiny space, while the clatter of dishes and the whoosh of espresso machines ensure there’s never silence.

“I spoke with a professor who challenged your claims about an unbroken lineage from Ancient Spartans,” I told him as I wiped fried pastry crumbs from my fingers.

Unfazed, Oikonomeas passed me another lalaggi. “‘ι tan i epi tas’, you may tell him.”

By Stav Dimitropoulos 25 October 2017