Cape Taenaron (Matapan)
Cape Taenaron (also known as Tainaron or Matapan), which is the southernmost point of the Balkan peninsula (and of the Greek mainland), could be regarded as the Hellenic equivalent of a trip to Land’s End in the UK. Not only a geographic but also a demographic parallel, since the livelihood of local residents here on the Mani Peninsula reputedly depended on piracy as was the case in Cornwall. Preying on the cargoes of ships wrecked on the treacherous shores and no doubt assisting the hand of fate in leading passing ships to their demise, these merciless Maniates (Maniots) failed to attract the romanticised comic-opera fame of their Penzance counterparts.
Though geographically remote, Taenaron has been in the headlines since ancient times, not least because the ancient Greeks believed the cave here to be an entrance to Hades, the mythological Underworld of the dead, where only the few – such as the demi-gods Orpheus and Heracles – were able to enter and miraculously return. Cape Taenaron has been a place of worship through the ages and became historically significant in more recent years for the famous sea battles that took place here in the eighteenth century and during the Second World War.
This ostensibly bleak, rocky headland holds stories which will fire the imagination of any traveller with an interest in archaeology, history, geography, photography, story-writing or simply trekking. So let’s enjoy the thrills of travelling to this end of the Hellenic Earth.
According to legends, this entrance to Hades through the cavern below the cliffs at Taenaron was guarded by Cerberus, the beast with three canine heads and a tail with a dragon or serpent. One of the offspring of Echidna, who was half-woman and half snake and Typhon, a fire-breathing giant whose body was covered by dragons and snakes, Cerberus’s back was also covered with snakes’ heads. He viciously attacked any living mortal who dared to enter the Underworld to meet the god Hades (Pluto) and let only the spirits of the dead pass through.
The Roman poets Virgil and Ovid both wrote of the fateful journey of Orpheus, the son of the god Apollo and a mortal woman, when he tried to reclaim his wife Eurydice from Hades. Whilst enjoying the company of her friends the water nymphs (Naiads), Eurydice had fled to escape the unwelcome advances of a shepherd, Aristaeus, and was fatally bitten by a snake. The grieving Orpheus could not accept this loss, so his father, Apollo, advised him to go into the Underworld to see her. Orpheus used the best resource he had, his songs and the sound of the lyre gifted to him by Apollo, to charm his way past Cerberus. His melody even won the hearts of Pluto, the ruler of Hades, and his wife Persephone. So his wish to take Eurydice back alive was granted on condition that he could lead her out of the Underworld without looking back at her until they both reached the light. As he reached the exit from Hades, the impatient Orpheus looked back too soon and saw Eurydice, who had not yet stepped into the light. She disappeared back into the land of the dead, but he could not go back there alive a second time. From then on, he played a mourning song until he was killed either by the Maenads (Bacchae), or by wild animals.
Heracles met with greater success here. Commanded by Eurystheus, the Mycenaean king, to capture Cerberus as the twelfth and last of his Labours, Heracles first spent some time at Eleusis picking a few useful tips from the priests there. He learned about the Eleusinian Mysteries, the religious rites honouring the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the wife of Hades. His studies appear to have come in useful as he succeeded in fighting his way into the Underworld overcoming all obstacles. According to one story, on his way to meet Hades, Heracles released Theseus, who had been trapped by snakes whilst aiding his friend Pirithous’ futile attempt to kidnap Persephone. Clearly impressed at his arrival, Hades gave Heracles permission to take Cerberus, so long as he could capture the beast with no weapons but his bare hands. Heracles, who had already killed a few of Cerberus’s relatives (the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra and the two-headed dog that guarded the Geryon cattle) managed to grab Cerberus by the heads and overpower him. Then he led Cerberus to Eurystheus, who hid in fear. Shocked to see the hero back alive once again and terrified by Cerberus, he pleaded with Heracles to take the beast away and leave him in peace. Cerberus was returned unharmed to resume his post in the Underworld and appears as a constellation bearing his name in the night sky.
Herodotus’s tale of the ancient Greek poet Arion (rumoured to be the son of Poseidon and a Naiad), esteemed as inventor of the ‘dithyramb’, an ancient chant in praise of Dionysus, describes how he escaped from unscrupulous sailors who tried to rob and murder him during his return voyage from a concert in Sicily. As Arion played his kithara (a forerunner of the guitar) and sang his song to Apollo, a pod of dolphins appeared. Arion jumped overboard to avoid being killed by the pirates and a dolphin carried him safely to the shore at Taenaron. The unfortunate beached dolphin died there, so Arion buried it and erected a monument on its grave. When his captors returned to land, Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth, questioned them about Arion. They lied that Arion had died and they had buried him, but Arion emerged from behind the dolphin’s monument to prove them wrong and they were sentenced to death. Apollo then awarded Arion and the dolphin their celestial positions as the constellations of Orion and Delphinus.
Clearly, the historical references to the temple of Poseidon and Apollo at Taenaron, building material from which were used to build the small Christian temple of Asomatoi, show that this was a place of worship during the Hellenistic Age. Both Strabo in the first century A.D. and Pausanias in the second century wrote of an ancient cult that worshipped Poseidon here, and they both referred to the cave-like temple on the headland. The Spartans built several other temples here too, though little remains of them. Pausanias also made reference to natural disasters, explaining them as the wrath of Poseidon; in one instance he describes how an earthquake destroyed all the houses in the region of Lakedaimonia (the name for southern Greece) after the residents had killed men who were sheltering in the sanctuary of Poseidon.
In fact, the people of the Mani peninsula continued to follow the old cults longer than many parts of the land that became Greece. Byzantine Christianity only began to gain ground here in the ninth century.
‘From Pyrrhichus the road comes down to the sea at Teuthrone. The inhabitants declare that their founder was Teuthras, an Athenian. They honour Artemis Issoria most of the Gods, and have a spring Naia. The promontory of Taenarum projects into the sea 150 stades from Teuthrone, with the harbours Achilleius and Psamathus. On the promontory is a temple like a cave, with a statue of Poseidon in front of it.
Some of the Greek poets state that Heracles brought up the hound of Hades here, though there is no road that leads underground through the cave, and it is not easy to believe that the gods possess any underground dwelling where the souls collect. But Hecataeus of Miletus gave a plausible explanation, stating that a terrible serpent lived on Taenarum, and was called the hound of Hades, because any one bitten was bound to die of the poison at once, and it was this snake, he said, that was brought by Heracles to Eurystheus. But Homer, who was the first to call the creature brought by Heracles the hound of Hades, did not give it a name or describe it as of manifold form, as he did in the case of the Chimaera. Later poets gave the name Cerberus, and though in other respects they made him resemble a dog, they say that he had three heads.
Among other offerings on Taenarum is a bronze statue of Arion the harper on a dolphin. Herodotus has told the story of Arion and the dolphin, as he heard it, in his history of Lydia. I have seen the dolphin at Poroselene that rewards the boy for saving his life. It had been injured by fishermen and he cured it. I saw this dolphin obeying his call and carrying him whenever he wanted to ride on it.
There is a spring also on Taenarum but now it possesses nothing marvellous. Formerly, as they say, it showed harbours and ships to those who looked into the water. These sights in the water were brought to an end for good and all by a woman washing dirty clothes in it.
From the point of Taenarum, Caenepolis is distant forty stades by sea. Its name also was formerly Taenarum. In it is a hall of Demeter, and a temple of Aphrodite on the shore, with a standing statue of stone. Thirty stades distant is Thyrides, a headland of Taenarum, with the ruins of a city Hippola; among them is a sanctuary of Athena Hippolaitis. A little further are the town and harbour of Messa.’
Two historic naval battles took places just off these shores. The first Battle of Matapan was on 19 July 1717. This was a joint effort involving ships of Portugal, Malta, Venice and the Papal States, which were up against the Ottoman Turkish fleet in an attempt to stop the Ottoman Empire spreading into the Western Mediterranean. Both sides suffered great losses in a bloody conflict with their sailing ships also at the mercy of the elements, but the Ottoman were harder hit; they lost 14 out 30 ships – almost half the fleet – while the joint Western fleet lost only three ships. Thus, the Allied forces ensured a victory of sorts, but the Venetian could not regain control over the Peloponnese – the land then known as Morea.
The involvement of Italian ships was the one common factor between the former and the next famous the Battle of Cape Matapan in March 1941, but there the resemblance ends as the latter was to be Italy’s worst naval defeat, thwarting Mussolini’s plan to control the Mediterranean. Acting on information from code-breakers, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham executed a surprise attack on the Italian fleet. This lasted three days, beginning south of Crete on 27 March and culminating in a victory at Cape Matapan on 29 March. Strategically misinformed, the Italian fleet was outwitted by Cunningham’s plan. The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy inflicted heavy losses on the Italian Navy, which suffered the loss of over 2,300 lives and 1,000 prisoners taken, against a reported loss of just three servicemen on the Allied side.
As we travel southwards in Laconia, we will observe a most striking change of landscape and architecture. Leaving the fertile orange groves behind and heading down the rugged coast following the almost alpine spine of the Taygetos mountain range, we encounter foreboding, rocky outcrops and grey, fortress-like towers built from local stone.
We will pass through the colourful fishing village of Gerolimenas (meaning: sacred harbour) with its stunning cliffs on the nearby opposite coast. Then we head for the hills through the formerly abandoned village of Vatheia, whose characteristically defensive, grey stone towers blend camouflaged against the hill.
Parking just beyond the taverna which lies at the very end of the road south, it is hard to believe that all around was once a thriving ancient town well recorded by the ancient traveller, Pausanias. We begin our trek to the tip of the cape not far from the reputed gate of Hades and the remains of Asomatoi: fittingly, the water in the coves here is exquisitely hued and the surroundings of low, austere hills and seemingly endless sea are evocative. Not far from this, it is not difficult to discern the outlines of the foundations of what must have been a substantial town at Tainaron along with numerous cisterns for collecting water. These are clearly visible both north and south of the promontory of the church and it is possible to make out small streets, houses and steps cut into the rocks and some large, rectangular blocks of masonry.
The breath-taking beauty is in en route on our trek along the parallel to the cape’s ridge-line and out to the lighthouse at the very tip. The lighthouse was built by the French in 1882 and is now operated by the Hellenic navy. In Spring, the headland is resplendent with a sea of colourful flowers; you can bring a picnic to eat on the ‘terrace’ surrounding the imposing lighthouse building, and eat it staring out at the unending expanse of the incredibly blue waters of the Greek sea.
Weather permitting, a short boat trip will take us to the caves at the Cape to admire the spectacular arrangement of stalactites and stalagmites inside. Gazing out to sea, we may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a passing dolphin or two as we wonder at how many ships have met their doom here at the mercy of Poseidon over the centuries.