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'Forests of towers plumed with the flashes of cannon'

Vendetta and blood feuds in the Mani in southern Greece

as described by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his
Mani — Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

London: John Murray, 1958

Not the Caucasus, of course, but nonetheless probably one of the best descriptions ever written of what blood feuds must have been like within and among the numerous fortified villages of Khevsureti, Ingushetia, Daghestan, Svaneti, Tusheti, &c., &c.

A view of the village of Κοίτα (Kitta) in the Mani, bristling with towers and fort-like houses

Patrick Leigh-Fermor writes (page 89 onwards in this edition):

Wherever the blood feud reigns, some system of mitigation, some code of rules, is automatically evolved; or life, already a hazardous business, would become unlivable. The Corsicans obey certain unwritten laws. The Sicilians have their omertà, the Albanians and the Epirotes the bessa system and even the Cretans, who have less inhibitions than any about their oikogeneiaka---their 'family troubles'---admit a few vetoes and conventions. They have the same purpose as the laws of chivalry in the barbarism of the Dark Ages. The lack of any of these limitations, in spite of certain links with the comparative respectability of the mafia, is perhaps the most notable aspect of gang-warfare in large American towns.

Though the Maniots use the Italian word, the vendettas of the Mani were originally a matter of clan or family, not individual warfare. They were rarely launched, as they are in Crete today, by a slight or an insult to the philotimo, feminine honour, the forcible abduction of a bride by a party of braves, cattle-rustling or any momentary cause. The killing of one Deep Maniot would certainly have his family up in arms, determined to 'get the blood back', to avenge the dead kinsman by the death, not necessarily of the guilty man but of the pick of the offending family, which was deemed corporately responsible for the crime. But they were usually launched after family conclaves, with a definite object in view, which was no less than the total annihilation of an opposing Nyklian family, the number of whose guns and the height of whose towers offered a challenge to the village hegemony.

In these contests, the first blow was never struck without warning. War was formally declared by the challenging side. The church bells were rung: We are enemies! Beware! Then both sides would take to their towers, the war was on, and any means of destroying the other side was fair. The feud would often continue for years, during which it was impossible for either faction to leave their towers by daylight. Water, supplies, powder and shot were smuggled in at night and the gun slits bristled with long barrels which kept up a regular fusillade all day long. If they were in range and lower down, the enemies' roofs would be smashed with flung rocks and sleepers were shot at night by enemies creeping up and firing through chinks in the wall or through windows imprudently left unguarded. Marksmen were sent out on khosia, as it is called, to lie in wait for isolated enemies in lonely places---behind rocks, up dark lanes or in the branches of trees---to pick them off, cut them down with a sword or stab them to death. It was the aim of each side to destroy any member of the other, but it was a double success if they killed a prominent one. Sallies from the towers were sometimes made and gun-fights moved from street to street while the rest of the village remained prudently indoors. The rough jottings of a primitive Deep Maniot surgeon in the eighteenth century show, by the astonishing number of scimitar and yataghan and dagger wounds recorded in his practice, that hand-to-hand battles were very frequent. The same source also proves that women, as gun producers, were not exempt, and their casualties were heavy. A favourite stratagem was the neutralization of the fire-power of an enemy tower in order that a picked band, by a bold rush or by stealth, might pile wood and hay against the base of the tower, soak the fuel with oil and set fire to it in the hope of burning the defenders to death or cutting them downs with bullets or yataghans as they ran for it. Sometimes the door itself was blown down with a powder-keg and combustibles and burning brands were pitched into the bottom chamber. In lucky cases the powder magazine would be touched off and the whole tower, with its defenders, blown to bits. A detail that sounds almost incredible but which evidence bears out, is that entire towers were built under fire: the walls facing the zone beaten by the enemy were reared by night, the remainder during the day, with the defenders firing from one side while the masons laid one great limestone cube on another until they had overtopped the enemy.

The discovery of gunpowder and of the burning of lime for tower building were deemed priceless godsends by the Maniots. A third inestimable boon was the importation of cannon. Heavy pieces cast in Constantinople or Venice or Woolwich were joyfully lugged from the shore by men and mules and hoisted into the top chambers of the towers while teams of mules wound up the stony valleys under loads of powder-kegs and shot. They were now able to bombard enemy towers a quarter of a mile away or if, as it often happened, they were only across the street, to batter each other to bits at point-blank range. When two powerful Nyklians of the same village were at war, it must be remembered that each side owned a number of towers and the opposing sides were sometimes several hundreds strong. At the height of a feud these forests of towers were plumed with the flashes of cannon, the air was a criss-cross of the trajectories of flying balls; shot came sailing or bouncing along the lanes, every slit concealed a man with a gun, every wall a group from which the slightest enemy movement would draw a hail of musketry, singing and ricocheting and echoing through the labyrinthine streets. There were, as we have seen, frequent mêlées at close quarters and all the approaches to the village were posted with the khosia-men of both sides lying in ambush and cancelling each other out. The neutral population, though allowed to move about the streets at their risk, wisely resumed the troglodytic existence of their forbears or moved to other villages till the two factions had fought it out.

The theatres of war were no larger than the area bounded by Piccadilly, St. James's Street, the east side of St. James's Square and Pall Mall; the equivalent, in distance, of the cannonading of Brooks's by White's, Chatham House by the London Library, Lyons Corner House by Swan and Edgar's, almost of the Athenaeum and the Reform by the Travellers'. Sometimes it lasted for years: a deadlock in which the only sounds were the boom of cannon, exploding powder, the collapse of masonry, the bang of gunfire and the wail of dirges.

On certain specific occasions, the vendetta code afforded a temporary relief to this lunatic state of affairs: a general truce known as the tréva (also a Venetian word) during the seasons of ploughing, sowing, harvesting and threshing and the winter gathering and pressing of the olives. The opposing sides, often in next-door fields, would ply their sickles or beat the olives from the branches with long goads in dead silence. The truce was also a chance to restock the towers with victuals and ammunition by night. At last on an appointed dawn, when the sacks of grain and the great oil jars were full, all would start up again hammer and tongs.

There was another curious means by which a single member of one of the feuding families could obtain a temporary private truce called Xévgalma, or Extraction. If a man had to cross no-man's-land on an important errand like a baptism, a wedding, a funeral, the search for a surgeon or, in later times, to go and vote, he would take a Xevgáltes, an extractor, with him; a heavily armed neutral, that is,---if possible a Nyklian with whose family the other side would be loth to start trouble, a man whose presence momentarily extracted his companion from the feud. 'I've got a Xevgáltes!' one would shout from behind cover. 'Who is he?' the enemy Nyklian would ask from the tower. 'So and so.' 'Pass,' the Nyklian would shout back, and the two would advance into the open and go on their way unscathed. Any hostile gesture towards his protégé would automatically put the extractor's clan in feud with the offenders. Sometimes the answer, if the extracting clan was not sufficiently to be feared, would be, 'I don't accept your extractor.' In such a case, they would stay where they were. If when they had left the village a khosia-man refused to accept the extractor he would shoot the protégé down and his clan would have an additional war on their hands and a host of new guns would be added to the havoc.

There were several ways in which these affairs could end. The logical one was the destruction of one side by the other. What was left of the losing side would scatter to other villages leaving the winners in possession of their shattered towers, their olives, their stony corn-plots, their prickly pears and salt-pools: uncontested masters of the place until some rising Nyklian family should have assembled or procreated enough guns to challenge them. Over fifty Maniot villages owe their foundation to these sudden diasporas. But Maniot custom offered several other solutions. If the losing side wanted to avoid annihilation they could sue for a psychiko, a 'thing of the soul'. The whole family, their leaders in the van, unarmed, in humble garb, heads bowed and hats in hand and bearing themselves with the submission of Calais burghers, would approach the other side, who were seated, fully armed, in the rouga [courtyard]. They would kiss the hands of the parents whose children had been shot and petition for pardon. This would be graciously granted and the winners would dictate the terms of co-existence in the village of which they would now assume command.

In the case of the isolated killing of a member of one family by another, unrelated to any general policy on either side, if it was proved that it was a mistake or done in drunkenness or if the two families were linked by military alliance or by blood or god-relationship the ritual consequences could be avoided by an offer, on the part of the offending family, or psychadelphosyne, or soul-brotherhood. Then the offending side expressed sorrow and true penitence and the actual killer made himself the especial protector and benefactor of the wronged family. Unlike psychiko, this was equally honourable to both sides and often the beginning of an indissoluble bond. All these matters were settled by a local council of elders known as the Gerontikí, the only institution lower than the Bey or the archikapetan which maintained any semblance of order in the Mani. Their function was not unlike that of the Courts of Honour which, in pre-1914 Germany and Austria-Hungary, weighed the pros and cons of quarrels in the Hochjunkertum, enforced or discouraged a duel, appointed the weapons and the terms and decided when honour had been satisfied. Needless to say, when two powerful Nyklians were determined to fight it out, neither side paid any attention to it. But sometimes, when a village war had continued for years with a parity of casualties and destruction on both sides and no possible verdict in sight, they were content, faute de mieux, to accept the conciliation of the Gerontikí. Final peace---which was appropriately known as agape---was concluded at last by a meeting in the rouga of both sides. There in the middle of the ruins they would quite literally kiss and make it up; embracing, drinking to friendship from the same cup, and paying reciprocal visits of ceremony. The agapes were quite often lasting. The Turkish threat, again, would reconcile all parties, and sometimes supernatural intervention would call a cease-fire. The most famous case is the appearance of the Blessèd Virgin to the Mavromichalis and Mourtzinos families in the middle of a battle with the warning that a Turkish host was approaching. They crossed themselves, embraced and advanced to meet the enemy side by side.