It can be safely said that today’s visitors to Íos are unlikely to be looking to the Bents for travel guidance; nor will they be visiting in the months of winter, when the great natural harbour (where your ferry’s tender would have taken you to shore as late as the 1970s) is slate blue-grey and disorientating.
Towards the end of January 1884, Theodore and Mabel were finishing their little tour of Santoríni and getting ready for the steam north, a few hours, to Íos, where they intend to explore the antiquities before heading east for Síkinos and Folégandhros. We will join them in a minute, but first a few notes on the following passage of Mabel’s Chronicles.
As usual, the three main characters are Theodore, Mabel, and their long-suffering dragomános from Anáfi, Manthaios Simos.
A (Greek) Wikipedia search under Πανελλήνιον (ατμόπλοιο) will tell you all need to know about the feisty Panellénion (1855, 310 tons), which ran the Cretan blockade in 1867. In his Cyclades (Chapter VII), Theodore adds: ‘Though we had the very worst steamer of the Hellenic Company to take us to Ios, yet it was a steamer that all who travel thereon treat with respect, for it was none other than the Panhellenion, which ran the blockade in the late Cretan revolution, and carried assistance to the Greeks struggling for freedom. A very little sentiment of this kind goes a long way on a rolling sea, and, despite the celebrity of our craft, we were thankful to leave her when she entered the capacious harbour of Ios . . .’
The light, refreshing cheese (she varies between mesithra, mesethra and mesythra, but never from her relish of it) is to become a favourite of Mabel’s. The couple bring home a primitive cheese strainer; it is in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (2005.68.1). To explain her reference to the Corsican brand, the Bents visited there in the late 1870s, soon after their marriage, with Theodore covering the island’s story in his Genoa, how the Republic Rose and Fell (London 1881).
The walk up to the deserted (Venetian) castle/hamlet of Paleokastro on Íos is a fine one. The chapel is usually locked however; inside, the stone tembelon is now whitewashed and if Mabel did sign her name then the signature awaits some fortuitous pentimento. Mabel’s behaviour in this church is sharply at odds with her protestations in Kárpathos the following year: ‘In the little church at Kyriá Panagía, which is quite good and not ruined, there were lots of scribbled names and one of the Greeks said, “Now we will write up your name” and I said “Oh, not my name please”, they said “Why?” and I said it was not our custom in England to write our name in churches… “Because it is a sin?” So I said “Yes, for it is the house of God”. And he said, “Yes” and I really felt glad he should see that some Christians have a little reverence’.
The Bents included ethnographical/anthropological researches in their spheres of interest and the many games they witnessed at the little chapel of Ay Theodóti and elsewhere found their way into Bent’s later essays and articles (e.g. ‘Some Games played by Modern Greeks’, 1884, The Folk-Lore Journal 2: 57–59). The white-washed chapel remains, but the laughs and shouts of the players are, presumably, only memories: visitors to the chapel’s festivities on 7-8 September may be able to update us.
“We went then down to Agia Theodote near the sea and lunched on the grass, and afterwards went to see the church, which is a very rough Byzantine building. One aisle was filled up with stone-built benches and table where they eat at the pilgrimages. In one corner was a heap of immense pots and some large wooden spoons stuck in the wall. Everyone brings a contribution of food which is thrown into the common pots and cooked. The better class play all sorts of games in the church.”
As well as customs, costumes, embroideries, and fabrics were passions for the Bents. They would without fail have tried to acquire the beautiful dress worn by Aikaterina, which survived in the family and is now on display in the National Historical Museum, Athens (for illustrations and moving background information visit the website for V. C. Scott O’Connor’s book ‘Isles of the Aegean’). Mabel did, however, manage to obtain on Íos a fine bed valence she displayed in 1886 at the Anthropological Institute in London to accompany a talk given by Theodore. Perhaps it was even the ‘magnificent piece of red silk’ given to her by Marousa ‘to remember them by’. Mabel describes it as ‘a silk embroidered border 6 feet long and a narrower border 10 inches up the sides sewn to a piece of line, tucked in to the edge of the bed’ in the Appendix to Theodore’s article (Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 15 (1886): 391–403). We don’t know where this valence – let’s imagine the very one given to Mabel by Marousa – ended up, but some fascinating recent research on dresses bought by the Bents on Kárpathos in 1885 is to be published shortly and will be made available in some form on this site!
At last, we can join now Mabel and Theodore waiting for the Panellénion to take them to Íos; they are making a few last-minute social calls:
Very rough passage about 2 hours to Ios. Breakfasted at a [harbour-side] kafeneion and sent our letter up to the Demarch Lorenziades, who at once came down from the town and told us he had no rooms for us to sleep in but we were to feed with him. The baggage and I were put on mules and we went up to the Khora. The family consisted chiefly of the Demarch, who has a little common 2nd wife very inferior to the rest but a kind little thing. I should have thought it unnecessary to marry her when there are so many other women in the world; his elder brother and 3 very pretty jolly girls Marousa, Aikaterina and Kaliroe, all tall and fat. A 3rd brother is the schoolmaster. All were quite like gentlemen and all in black frockcoats. There were at least 6 more people. They received us most kindly and were really the most congenial people we have met.
We took a house consisting of bedroom, pantry and sitting room, where Manthaios slept, and a kitchen, and went for our meals to the Demarch’s. They did everything they possibly could to please and amuse us. The dinner party consisted of the three brothers, the wife, Marousa and we 3. The first day we had chicken soup boiled, and roast chicken; 2nd ditto kid, 3rd ditto fish, and 3 times a day did we get mesithra and honey. Mesithra is a sort of curd made of sheep’s milk in a basket, just like broccio of Corsica. After dinner some of them dressed up in old costumes, of most splendid gold brocade and gold lace and embroidery. Such is the power of dress that we did not know where they had got the wonderfully beautiful woman in green and gold, and never found out till next day it was Aikaterina.
Next morning, Friday [January] 25th , the Demarch came to fetch us to breakfast, and, Manthaios having evidently informed about the English customs, we had 2 eggs, a glass of milk and some mesithra and honey. Afterwards we and the Demarch started to Plaketos at the other side of the island: 3 hours. We saw the supposed tomb of Homer who died here on his way from Samos to Athens and then went to a little hut of an old man where we lunched in a very rough way; wine in a large wooden basin and scooped and drunk out of a little gourd. The hut was very low, door 4 feet high and a bed built of stones with twigs and straw 4 feet square. Even in better houses the doors are often too low. We had cold fish and cold soft eggs and they are hard, whether hot or cold, to eat without a spoon. The 5 muleteers got very gay and led by the Demarch played a lot of games, all of which we had seen elsewhere. We got home at 4 and retired home soon after dinner.
On Saturday [January 26th 1884] we had Marousa as a companion in our ride to Palaó Kástro, a mass of Italian ruins on a white marble mountain over the sea. It was very steep and Marousa was surprised I dared not to dismount, but I don’t care to walk as my leg is not well yet. At the top is a very shabby rough little chapel where Marousa incensed the pictures very gaily amid crossing and chattering and I was made to scribble my name on the wall and the tembelon, or screen, both in Greek and English: Μάιμπελ Βιργινία Άννα Μπένθος, which I thought irreverent and vulgar. By the way, I go by the name of Virginia now as they cannot say Mabel, it is if they had something sticky in their mouths as they cannot say B. ‘Maimpr’.
We went then down to Agia Theodote near the sea and lunched on the grass, and afterwards went to see the church, which is a very rough Byzantine building. One aisle was filled up with stone-built benches and table where they eat at the pilgrimages. In one corner was a heap of immense pots and some large wooden spoons stuck in the wall. Everyone brings a contribution of food which is thrown into the common pots and cooked. The better class play all sorts of games in the church.
We had a delightful evening, about 30 people came, including a priest, and we had a constant succession of games in which I took part, also T. We actually stayed up till 1/2 past 10. First ‘Blind Man’s Buff ’. Then a ‘Blind Man in the Middle’ and every one dancing around singing till he stopped us and put out a stick and touched one. That one having taken up the end of the stick and put it to his lips made some little whistle or buzz. If the name was guessed by the blind man he was released. Then 3 sat on pillows on a rug, side by side with legs out straight. The middle one had string put round under his feet and kept working about pulling this up and giving unexpected bangs with the back of his hands to the legs of the others who defended themselves with each a slipper, and if they hit they got the middle place. 2 people lay down on a rug with their heads on pillows and were covered all over with a quilt. Everyone went and gave them a bang with a knotted handkerchief on the most exalted part of them. They had to guess who. A person kneels on a pillow on the rug and is covered with a quilt; one after another people come and kneel in front of him with head also under the quilt and the confessor asks questions and imposes penance and at last when one comes who has never played this before the rug is lifted by the corners, the confessor slips off and the penitent is lifted in the air. These are a few of the most amusing, but there were many more.
Next morning, Sunday [January] 27th , Marousa came early to bring me a magnificent piece of red silk embroidered ‘to remember them by’, also her pocket-handkerchief with her name worked and some pine nuts. We were really sorry to leave these kind people and they pressed us to stay but ‘the ship was ready and the wind blew fair and we were bound for the sea’. So after breakfast, and giving them a few of the little presents we have with us, but nothing half as valuable as they had given me, we went down to the harbour with 2 mules and the 3 brothers and 3 girls. We sat in the kafeneion and drank coffee and ate sweetmeats and were given Kaliroe’s pocket-handkerchief full of sesame seeds that we might remember Kaliroe, or Callirhoe I think is the English way of spelling the stream she is called after.
After an affectionate parting we set sail and after much tacking got out of the deep and safe bay and made straight for Sikinos…