Women in Greek Folk Song: Της Άρτας το Γιοφύρι | Tis Artas to Gefyri | The Bridge of Arta

Της Άρτας το Γιοφύρι | Tis Artas to Gefyri | The Bridge of Arta

Life in the time of the Greek revolution and onward: what do traditional, demotic, Greek folk songs reveal to us? Along with this, what is the place, the role, the perception of women in these songs?

This folk song is known throughout Greece. There are over 300 records of variations of the song.

Arta is a city in northwest Greece, in the region of Epirus (Ipiros). As with most of the central mainland, the region, which includes the Zagoria in the east, is rocky and mountainous. Throughout the Ottoman era, Ipiros was the predominant birthplace of important builders from Northern Greece who made churches, monasteries, mosques, stately homes, fountains, mills and houses. With plenty of stone to be found, traditional buildings made of stone were prevalent. In the time of Ottoman rule, labor on public works was done by locals as chores. They worked alongside artisans who specialized in building stone structures. These were local or itinerant builders organized in companies. Those who attempted long journeys were mainly from Ipiros. They eventually moved on to the Peloponnese, Romania, Egypt and Persia. 

The main architectural feature of the stone bridges is the arch, singular or in multiples. The bridge of Arta is one of many such distinctive, famed bridges of the area. It is best known not for its beauty, but as a masterpiece of Greek traditional architecture and a significant landmark of the region. It is a footbridge born of four large semicircular asymmetrical arches and three smaller ones, all with different diameters and all set on pillars. The groundstones are simple large stones, indicating that the initial foundation must have been dredged in the Hellenistic period, 3rd century BC. The collapse of such bridges was usually due to poor foundation work, and in this case, the ancient foundation having been laid on the unsuitable loose soil of the plains, subject to rainfall and flooding. The method of building the version of the bridge that stands today was prevalent in the Ottoman era, dating back to the first decade of the 17th century. Work was done probably on the same spot where its largest arch previously had collapsed and had to be rebuilt.  For the large arch only, for the overwhelming difficulty of its reconstruction, considering the materials to be used, the forces of nature to contend with, the engineering involved, it is believed that workers and apprentices needed around three years to complete.  

The bridge of Arta became famous because of the legend that the project inspired. The song “The Bridge of Arta” (“Tis Artas to Gefyri”) tells that although 45 builders and 60 apprentices worked all day to build the bridge, every morning when they returned the bridge had collapsed. From ancient and Byzantine times the belief was held that in order for any construction to be secure and protected from danger, it was necessary to sacrifice the soul of a living creature in its foundation. (Immurement was a common motive in the folklore of all Balkan peoples.) The only solution here could be, then, to sacrifice the master builder’s wife by burying her alive inside the structure. The victim’s powerful soul would then gain supernatural strength and become the guardian spirit of the bridge, protecting it from all harm. Correspondingly, the sacrifice of the master builder’s wife, a human and a WOMAN, was the greatest that could be made.  

The answer to the question of why it is always that women are sacrificed is not that women are expendable, but because they are the most powerful beings. Women have access to the mystical forces of nature: birth/death.

The song brings forward philosophical themes still relevant and applicable to experiences today — frustration of failure to carry out a significant task, the struggle between personal loyalty (husband and wife) and public duty, the reciprocal nature of sacrifice, misfortune, tragedy and despair, destiny, revenge, compassion, trust, inner courage. It’s not about having control over things that happen, but how we react to them.  

In reference to the song, there is a saying used today to characterize a project that takes way too much time to be completed: “What you/they build all day, is destroyed every night”.

Folk Song Lyrics

The text that follows is the Corfiot version from the publication The Songs of the Greek People (Nikolaos G. Politis, 1914).

English Greek
Forty-five builders and sixty apprentices
were laying the foundations for a bridge on the river of Arta
They would toil at it all day, at night it would collapse again.
The builders mourn and the apprentices cry:
“Woe to our efforts, a pity for our labors,
To build it all day and at night for it to collapse”
A little bird flew by and sat across the river,
he did not sing like a bird, not like a swallow,
but sang and spoke in a human voice:
“If you do not sacrifice a human, the bridge will not hold strong,
and do not haunt it with an orphan, a stranger, a passerby,
but the master builder’s beautiful wife,
who comes by late in the afternoon and brings his supper”
The master builder hears this and falls to die from grief
He gets up and sends the svelt one a message with the nightingale:
to slowly get dressed, slowly change, slowly come by and bring the supper,
come by late to cross the bridge of Arta.
But the bird misheard and went to her with a different message:
“Hurry, dress quickly, change quickly, and bring the supper early,
go quickly and cross the bridge of Arta.”And there she appears at the end of the white roadway.
The master builder sees her, his heart breaks.
From afar she greets them, comes near and says to them:
“Greetings, builders and to you apprentices,
but what’s wrong with the master builder that he looks so depressed?”
“His ring fell under the first arch,
And who shall go down there now, and up again to find the ring?”
“Master, do not be upset for I will go myself and get it,
I will go down there, and I will come out, I will find the ring.”
She had hardly descended, hardly went down into it
When she called, “Pull me up, dear, pull the chain,
I’ve looked everywhere but can’t find anything.”One layers with the trowel and another with the mortar,
And the master builder himself goes and throws in a large stone.
“Alas for our fate, pity our legacy!
We were three sisters, all three ill-fated,
one of us worked on the Danube, the other on the Euphrates
and I, the youngest, on the bridge of Arta.
As the clove-tree trembles, may the bridge tremble,
and as leaves fall from trees, may the passers-by fall.””Daughter, take that back and make it a different curse,
because you have an only dear brother, lest he should pass by”
And so she changes her words and utters a different curse:
“When the wild mountains tremble, then may the bridge tremble,
and when the wild birds fall from the sky, then may passers-by fall,
because I have a brother abroad, in case he happens to pass by”.
Σαράντα πέντε μάστοροι κι εξήντα μαθητάδες
γιοφύρι εθεμέλιωναν στης Άρτας το ποτάμι.
Ολημερίς το χτίζανε, το βράδυ εγκρεμιζόταν.
Μοιριολογούν οι μάστοροι και κλαιν οι μαθητάδες:
“Αλοίμονο στούς κόπους μας, κρίμα στις δούλεψές μας,
ολημερίς να χτίζουμε το βράδυ να γκρεμιέται.”
Πουλάκι εδιάβη κι έκατσε αντίκρυ στό ποτάμι,
δεν εκελάηδε σαν πουλί, μηδέ σαν χηλιδόνι,
παρά εκελάηδε κι έλεγε ανθρωπινή λαλίτσα:
“Αν δε στοιχειώσετε άνθρωπο, γιοφύρι δε στεριώνει,
και μη στοιχειώσετε ορφανό, μη ξένο, μη διαβάτη,
παρά του πρωτομάστορα την όμορφη γυναίκα,
που έρχεται αργά τ’ αποταχύ και πάρωρα το γιόμα.”
Τ’ άκουσ’ ο πρωτομάστορας και του θανάτου πέφτει.
Πιάνει, μηνάει της λυγερής με το πουλί τ’ αηδόνι:
αργά ντυθεί, αργά αλλαχτεί, αργά να πάει το γιόμα,
αργά να πάει και να διαβεί της Άρτας το γιοφύρι.
Και το πουλι παράκουσε κι αλλιώς επήγε κι είπε:
“Γοργά ντύσου, γοργά άλλαξε, γοργά να πας το γιόμα,
γοργά να πας και να διαβείς της Άρτας το γιοφύρι.”Να τηνε κι εξαναφανεν από την άσπρην στράτα.
Την είδ’ ο πρωτομάστορας, ραγίζεται η καρδιά του.
Από μακριά τους χαιρετά κι από κοντά τους λέει:
“Γειά σας, χαρά σας, μάστοροι και σεις οι μαθητάδες,
μα τι έχει ο πρωτομάστορας και είναι βαργιομισμένος;
“Το δαχτυλίδι το ‘πεσε στην πρώτη την καμάρα,
και ποιος να μπει, και ποιος να βγει, το δαχτυλίδι νά ‘βρει;”
“Μάστορα, μην πικραίνεσαι κι εγώ να πά σ’ το φέρω,
εγώ να μπω, κι εγώ να βγω, το δαχτυλίδι νά ‘βρω.”
Μηδέ καλά εκατέβηκε, μηδέ στη μέση επήγε,
“Τράβα, καλέ μ’ τον άλυσο, τράβα την αλυσίδα
τι όλον τον κόσμο ανάγειρα και τίποτες δεν ήβρα.”Ένας πηχνάει με το μυστρί κι άλλος με τον ασβέστη,
παίρνει κι ο πρωτομάστορας και ρίχνει μέγα λίθο.
“Αλίμονο στη μοίρα μας, κρίμα στο ριζικό μας!
Τρεις αδελφάδες ήμαστε, κι οι τρεις κακογραμμένες,
η μια ‘χτισε τον Δούναβη, κι η άλλη τον Αφράτη
κι εγώ η πλιό στερνότερη της Άρτας το γιοφύρι.
Ως τρέμει το καρυόφυλλο, να τρέμει το γιοφύρι,
κι ως πέφτουν τα δεντρόφυλλα, να πέφτουν οι διαβάτες.””Κόρη, τον λόγον άλλαξε κι άλλη κατάρα δώσε,
πο ‘χεις μονάκριβο αδελφό, μη λάχει και περάσει.”
Κι αυτή το λόγον άλλαζε κι άλλη κατάρα δίνει:
“Αν τρέμουν τ’ άγρια βουνά, να τρέμει το γιοφύρι,
κι αν πέφτουν τ’ άγρια πουλιά, να πέφτουν οι διαβάτες,
τί έχω αδελφό στην ξενιτιά, μη λάχει και περάσει.


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