Preface to The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, by JamesTheodore Bent

The preface by Brian Jeffery to the Tecla edition of Bent’s The Cyclades:

To travel in the Cyclades in the 1880s, as did James Theodore Bent, was to experience the wonder of an island world which still retained the spiritual strength of its ancient traditions, customs and beliefs, at that time still not yet much affected by the arrival of modern civilisation. To travel with a notebook as he did, and to record in it the details of what he saw and experienced, and then to publish it, was to give not only to his contemporaries but also to us a legacy of description beyond price. His book, called The Cyclades, or life among the insular Greeks, appeared in London in 1885.

Bent’s very human eye was at one and the same time charming, friendly, respectful, and full of humour. How he enjoyed seeing the different costumes and dances on each island, witnessing the ceremonies of birth, marriage, and death, and talking at every opportunity with everyone he could find! How he enjoyed the predicament of the demarch of Folegandros, a man who was “horribly modern in all his ideas”, finding himself not as young as he thought he was and having trouble climbing down a rock; but he also recorded that the demarch came to no harm in the end. He observed the humour of all the Greeks, their energy and vivaciousness, showing them to us as individuals and most often by name. Sometimes he gave us a larger picture, as when he described for us, like a colourful scene from the Orient, the enormous annual pilgrimage to Tenos.

But Bent’s interest was scholarly as well. He was a trained classicist and pays his reader the compliment of assuming that he knows his Pliny well enough to be familiar with that writer’s description of the frogs of Seriphos (chapter 1). He was at the cutting edge of archaeology and dug as he travelled, later selling or donating items to the British Museum and other institutions. Indeed, when a few years ago the British Museum mounted an exhibition of the wonderful archaic art of the Cyclades, Bent was considered so important a figure that his portrait was placed in the exhibition.

For folklorists and ethnologists too, this book is a primary source, for Bent sought out and witnessed at first hand, and then described, large numbers of riddles, games, dances, costumes, folk tales, folk epics, beliefs and customs of all kinds. Even ethnomusicologists will find something here, as when Bent describes “an instrument which was new to us” called the bousoÚkion (chapter 15).

A lover of English as well as of Greek, Bent was able to bring us instantly into his world through his clarity of style. He makes us long to be there when he describes the countryside of some of those islands, such as Menites on Andros, which had then (does it still?) a sacred stream running through its church:

Turning to the right we soon entered the paradise of Menites, with delicious streams rushing down the gorge from the mountain side, and bathing it in verdure; luxuriant maidenhair fringed the water mills, and on banks of soft moss we actually found primroses growing in abundance [it was “the first week in Lent”].

Only in one small way might James Theodore Bent and I agree to disagree if we could have a conversation: he didn’t think much of the medieval part of Cycladic history. But I am a medievalist, and to me the story of the Duchy of the Archipelago, first flourishing in the same age as the sophisticated French court of Cyprus and later surviving against all odds in the age of Mehmet the Conqueror, is deeply moving.

This book, and its chapters available separately, is a complete and unabridged new edition, with the type reset, of the original edition published by Longmans, Green & Co. in London in 1885. Every effort has been made to ensure that its text is unaltered from the original edition. I hope that it may be of interest to today’s travellers, readers, and scholars.

Copyright 1998 by Tecla Editions. Errors and omissions excepted.