“Brewster’s book on the 6000 beards is a curiosity which strangely, unlike Robert Byron’s, is in print. Brewster was a young man too, a lovable and original figure, who travelled on Athos with a young Greek companion called Yiorgos in the 1920s. He writes simply, amusingly and observantly. The book departs from the norm in that, largely through the experiences of Yiorgos, it touches on the question of homosexuality on the Holy Mountain. Brewster himself was homosexual. His book is mildly shocking if it is true, and shocking in another way if it is not true.” (Michael Llewellyn Smith, Perceptions of the Holy Mountain: Some Pilgrims and Travellers of the 19th and 20th Centuries)
…From the very earliest constitution to the present day, admittance to the Holy Mountain has been expressly forbidden to all women, female women, female animals and beardless youths. The latter provision is by no means observed nowadays. That relating to female animals is still preserved with the sole exception that nowadays hens and female cats are kept by idiorhythmic monasteries. Other animals are still excluded, “so that their mating nay not furnish an outlandish spectacle to souls which detest all forms of indecency, and are daily being purified” (Monk Pavlos of Xiropotamou, quoted by Choukas, Black Angels of Athos, p. 204).
The part of the law relating to women has, however, never been slackened. Women have never been permitted on the Holy Mountain. If some have succeeded in living there, they have not published the fact. In modern times, various women have tried to enter Mount Athos, mainly, however, from motives of curiosity; but they have had very little success. A year or two ago a Swedish girl came dressed as a man and equipped with her brother’s passport. But already on the steamer doubts were raised about her sex; she didn’t seem to be quite one thing or the other. And, finally, as she was about to land, she had a fit of giggling, completely giving the show away.
Maryse Choisy, in her seductively entitled book: Un Mois chez les Hommes, has made far greater claims. She describes the endless trouble she went through in order to enter, the opening words of the book being: “To start with I had my breasts cut off.” She describes herself being smuggled in, rolled up in a mattress. Once there she proceeds to have a series of completely improbable adventures. However, to anyone that knows anything at all about Athos, the book is a complete and obvious fake. Mademoiselle Choisy was never there.
A Greek girl, “Miss Europe” of 1930, at least landed on Athos. She came with another girl on her fiance’s yacht, and they both went ashore dressed as sailors at the monastery of Vatopaidi, where I heard the details of this story. The two girls walked about an hour or two, and one young monk in particular flirted with them a bit, without knowing that they were girls. “Miss Europe” had herself photographed beside the monk, and when she returned to Athens published the photograph in a newspaper along with the story of her adventure. After some time the newspaper found its way to Vatopaidi. The young monk without saying a word took off his cassock and gave up his whole religious life. He went to Athens in civilian clothes intending to marry the girl. But he found her already married and his despair at his hopes being shattered was so deep that he went mad. He is still being kept at a sanitarium near Athens.
But who knows if other women have not defeated the thousand-year-old laws of Athos and, unknown to fame, succeeded in living in the one country in the world from which they are excluded? (pp. 16-18)
Koutloumoussiou and Iviron
…We were, however, fortunate enough to meet a youth called Petros, who was taking seven pack-mules to fetch some produce at Iviron. He was a peasant boy from Sikia, a large village on Longos. As we rode, he and Iorgos kept up a long conversation to which I merely listened, while admiring the landscape.
“You’d better not go about clean-shaven as long as you are on the Holy Mountain,” said Petros; “if you do, the monks won’t leave you in peace.”
“What do you mean?” asked Iorgos, in an astonished voice, “do you mean to say such things really happen here?”
“I should think they do! There’s hardly a monk on Athos who isn’t like that!”
“Is that why you don’t shave?”
“Well, if I did, the monks would be running after me continually.”
“Tell me Petros, how do you manage to live like this always on the Holy Mountain?”
“Oh, you know, one gets used to the life, and likes it after awhile.”
“How old were you when you first came to Athos?”
“Sixteen—now I’m nearly twenty.”
“And you were bothered a lot at first?” asked Iorgos.
“I should think I was! They all wanted to go with me!”
But nowadays, how do you manage to live in a country without women?”
“Oh there are four or five fairly young monks, regular clients, who are always at my disposal, and as a matter of fact I have lost all interest in women nowadays.”
“Well, well. That is interesting,” said Iorgos, who, in order to extract information, was proceeding carefully. “Tell me more.”
“There is not much to tell; they’re all like that, and not easily satisfied either! They want all sorts of refinements. There is one monk in a monastery here, who gives me 200 drachmas each time I visit him.”
“Really, in what monastery is that?”
“Ah, I can’t tell you. I am sorry, but I promised not to tell. In any case, there is no need for me to give you names and addresses; you’ll see for yourself soon enough with which monks there is anything doing.”
I pretended to take no notice of this conversation, but, as a matter of fact, I had half expected it, because 90% of all modern Greeks are, like the Levantines, bisexual. This fact is not generally known, as the Greeks are tremendous hypocrites. Only people who have lived in Greece, and associated with Greeks of all classes, and speak their language fluently, are able to realize this.
Great friendships between men and boys, such as played so important a part in the life of the Ancient Greeks, are very rare amongst the Greeks of today. Their relations are purely animal. It is supposed to be highly creditable to be the active partner, whereas he who accepts the passive role is looked down on. However, in practice the roles are frequently interchangeable, and there is much lying as to who plays which part.
If one lives in Greece and associates with Greeks one has to accept many things as quite natural which in Western Europe would be considered outrageous. Iorgos had taken me in Athens to see his girlfriends, two sisters living with their mother…Now he was ready to change over and have affairs with people of his own sex, as any Greek would have been! Knowing this, I made a point of never appearing to adopt a critical attitude or letting him think I was scandalized by his behaviour. My line, so as not to intimidate him, and also to get as much information out of him as possible, was…to be merely amused. (pp. 21-23)
The blond monk, Father Constantine [of Iveron Monastery], came and sat next to Iorgos. As they talked, it grew dark. Father Constantine began to stroke the back of Iorgo’s hand; but after awhile he rose, saying he had to see how dinner was getting on, and tell the cook to hurry up.
…Suddenly, Iorgos turned to me: “Did you ever meet a certain Kontos in Athens?” he whispered. “No? Well a priest in Athens sent him to Mount Athos to stay with a friend of his in one of the monasteries; I don’t remember which now. He gave him 1,000 drachmas for the journey. Kontos spent three months on the Holy Mountain, had a marvellous time, and when he left received a present of 6,000 drachmas from the monk with whom he had been staying.”
He walked off, and met Fr. Constantine in the corridor. They strolled up and down together talking in whispers. Then Iorgos came back.
“Father Constantine has just been making me all sorts of declarations,” he said, affecting to be unimpressed. “Not quite what one would expect from a monk! And a year or two ago, he actually reported two others, whom he caught in flagrante, and they were sent to the island of Amoulianni, off the north-west coast of Athos, which is run as a sort of ‘concentration camp’ for naughty monks. He told me the whole stroy himself. However, he said he was sorry for what he had done, and that it weighed on his conscience. I should think it ought to—the hypocrite!”
After dinner….as I reached the door of my room, Father Constantine, who must have heard my step, came hurriedly out, muttering a polite, though somewhat embarrassed, “Good night.” Iorgos was already in bed. Half an hour later Iorgos rose, and crept out of the room on tip-toe towards the apartment downstairs. After an hour he returned with a bank-note in his hand. (pp. 26-27)
The Hierarchal College—Pantokrator and Stavronikita
The description of Mount Athos from the point of view of education illustrates the whole attitude of the monks towards learning. In the monasteries (especially those following the coenobian rule) and the cells, it is the ideal that the monks should not only crush the desires of the body by fasting and asceticism, and subjugate their wills by the practice of humility, and the most complete obedience, which has an importance even greater than that of prayer, but they must also extirpate the demands of intelligence. Self-love must be destroyed by unconditional confession, and the abolition of intellectual vanity. Knowledge is considered as a barrier to the recognition of divine Truth. The result is that the enormous majority if monks are completely without culture or theological knowledge. They can scarcely read or write and are only acquainted with the rule of their monastery and the lives of a few saints.
A very old monk brought us our meals to our rooms. In spite of his long beard, he looked like an old woman. Although he was 58, and looked more like 78, he told us he was one of the youngest of the monastery. He had been there only twenty-eight years. We asked him if he were pleased to spend his whole life in one place without ever moving.
“What can one do about it?” was his only answer. “A monk is like a soldier, without liberty or choice. He must obey and do what he is told.” (p. 32-33)
The great idiorhythmic monastery of Vatopedi is the richest on the Holy Mountain. It is celebrated for its luxury and its modern innovations. This is the only establishment on Athos where time is reckoned in the manner of the rest of the world, and where the old calendar has been scrapped. It has electric light and western sanitation. Monks form other monasteries invariably speak scornfully of Vatopedi, and refuse to send representatives to its feasts as a protest against its “advanced” ideas; but there is often a tinge of jealousy behind their words and one of them described it as the Paris of Athos.
While we were sitting at the arcade of the church, a young monk called Lucian, whom we had met the evening before, came up and asked us if we weren’t going to the wine feast. “Come along, boys! It is the last day of the vintage, you know, everyone is in the fields. There’ll be lots of fun—dancing and singing!”…the peasants and monks began to collect round the cauldron, but we were invited to have lunch with the Epitropes and more venerable monks in the peasant-house, upstairs on a sort of roofed terrace…The white-bearded Epitrope beside me kept handing his empty glass over his shoulder, to the serving monk, crying: “Wine, more wine!” On the other side of the table, Iorgos sat next to a police officer who kept rubbing his leg under the table and whispering that he had something important to tell him afterwards….Suddenly, I heard the sound of a clarinet, the first musical instrument I had come across on Mount Athos. Running downstairs, we found all the peasants grouped together waiting for the chief Epitrope to give permission for the dancing to begin. A moment later, he looked over the edge of the balcony and gave them a sign. As a special concession dancing—a thing normally forbidden—was allowed at this semi-pagan festival.
The clarinet player began piping wild intoxicating themes…The monks sat round gazing at the dancers: even on this day they were not allowed to join.
For two hours the dance went on. But long before, Iorgos and monk Lucian had disappeared together across the fields, and were lying side by side among the vines. The older monks noticed the incident and whispered comments to each other. Monk Lucian was just 19, and had only been a year at Vatopedi. He once came on a visit, and liking the life so much, decided to become a monk. He said he adored girls and really became a monk because girls like monks. He seemed to think he would have far greater success now, than if he were a layman. He dreamt of having a virgin, he said; but he could hardly expect to find one at Vatopedi after all.
In the courtyard after dinner we met monk Lucian, who asked us to come with him to Father Sophronios’ rooms, where, he said, he spent most of his spare time…Lucian sat on the couch with Iorgos, and very shortly began stroking his face. “Don’t touch my face,” said Iorgos. “Why not?” “I can’t bear it.” Lucian went on, however, becoming more and more tender. Fr. Sophronios, who sat beside me, pretended to be a little shocked. Then Lucian put his hand inside Iorgos’ open-shirt front. “Aren’t you ashamed of doing such things in front of strangers?” asked Iorgos. “Not in the least, because I love you.” Lucian caught hold of Iorgos’ head and whispered something in his ear. “That is the one thing I never do,” answered Iorgos in a loud voice. Lucian went on whispering, and suddenly began to pull Iorgos’ hair about. They started wrestling together; then they went into the bedroom. After about a quarter of an hour they returned, both looking rather embarrassed. No one knew what to talk about…” (pp. 36-41)
The country round Chilandari is full of charming walks…For about a mile I followed a wide path of soft earth which curved gently following the course of a stream…After some time the path came to a high tower, where a medieval Serbian princess, whose son had become a monk at Chilandari, had been allowed to live. She had been unable to bear the separation from her son, and so the ground on which the tower was built was declared secular. She never left it, but each day she could wave her hand to her son on the battlements of the monastery.
The great monastery originally built for 1,000 monks is still fairly prosperous, but it is sad that it should be so empty. It contains only fifty-three monks, some of them Russian and Bulgarian, and even of that number nearly half are so old and frail that they are permanently in the hospital. (pp. 43-44)
Four Northern Monasteries: Zographou, Kastamonitou, Dochiariou and Xenophontos
Approaching Zographou from below one is impressed by the height and solidarity of its stone walls. Yet it has something extremely cold and pretentious about it. Zographou is, indeed, the ugliest monastery on Athos. It was completely rebuilt regardless of cost, towards the close of the last century, not in the pleasant traditional style of most modern restorations on Mount Athos, but in a proud self-conscious nineteenth-century spirit. It is greatly envied, however, by the monks of other monasteries, who regard it as the architectural showpiece of the Mountain.
It was the nature of Kastamonitou to be old-fashioned. The guest-master, a rather pathetic old man, set out to be agreeable, but, alas, the food he brought us was still worse than what we had at Zographou. We were given a soup consisting of sticky flour and water covered by a layer of nauseating oil, followed only by potatoes fried in some horrible stuff of mysterious origin. The guest-master sat opposite us to watch us eat with an expression of fatherly benevolence on his face. He so evidently thought he was giving us a treat that Iorgos and I had to make every effort to eat the food. It was, however, too much to ask of us, and while we distracted the monk’s attention elsewhere we threw some of it away and stuffed our pockets with bread to eat afterwards in private.
We decided it was better we should leave at once. The monks seemed quite upset. One old man, with a snowy beard, came up to Iorgos, as we were saying good-bye at the entrance, and kissed him on the neck behind the ear, saying: “Won’t you stay with us just one night?” But our minds were made up, and we set off for the next monastery.
We found Dochiariou architecturally to be one of the finest moasteries on Athos—second only to Chilandari…No one at the monastery paid any attention to us. When we first arrived everyone was asleep, but when the monks awoke physically they remained mentally in a state of somnolence. It was, we realized, not in any way owing to unfriendliness that we were neglected, but simply owing to sleepiness and indifference…Our room was the cosiest we found anywhere on Athos…Iorgos did a bit of secret cooking, as, alas, the food was even worse than at Kastamonitou. Our guest-master, who had a long cotton-wool beard, bits of which we always felt tempted to pull off, fed us exclusively on a kind of large yellow pea, normally given only to chickens.
In the passage leading to our room we came across two young novices who were standing in front of a window holding a candle, and talking to each other in whispers. We soon found out that they were on a pilgrimage round the Holy Mountain, and had just come to Dochiariou for one night…The young novice told us that as a sailor he had on three occasions been in storms at sea so tremendous that each time he had made a vow to become a monk if God spared his life. Twice he had failed to carry out his vow, but after the third storm, in which his ship was nearly wrecked, he came to Mount Athos with the definite decision to give up the world and adopt a monastic life. He had already been several months on the Holy Mountain, and spoke with enthusiasm about the life. He had not yet made up his mind in which monastery he would settle down, and was visiting them all in turn, to see which suited him best.
I was struck by his religious fervour. This type of novice is rare on Athos, as most young monks are brought to the Holy Mountain as boys, by an uncle or some other older monk, before they have ever had the chance of knowing the outer world, or of discovering whether they have a real vocation for a monastic life or not. (pp. 45-48)
Saint Pantaleimon: The Russians on Athos
…We found ourselves in a wide passage, but stopped short horrified by the sight of three diseased and deformed creatures advancing towards us. One had a completely hairless, and furrowed skull, and a withered, paralysed leg, which made a scraping sound as it was dragged across the floor. He had the expression of a murderer become insane through twenty years’ solitary confinement. The second had no nose and a permanent ferocious grin. The third was still young. He was unnaturally thin. His pale, yellow skin was stretched so tightly across his sharp bones that it almost seemed as if it might split. Even his beard was pointed. He held his head crooked with the look of a frightened animal. There was something incredibly tragic, and at the same time gruesome, in his expression. Iorgos wilted at the advance of the three chimeras, who mumbled Russian together. He whispered, “If this is the guest-house, I am leaving the monastery on the spot.”
Now we met another rather less terrifying monk. We plucked up the courage to ask him where the guest-master was and he pointed to a door. For a long time I knocked. At last the door was opened by a short, gnome-like creature of extraordinary breadth, presumably the guest-master…
Fr. George told us about himself. He was a Baltic Russian, and naturally spoke German. After finishing his studies as an engineer, he worked for a couple of years at Opel works, in Berlin, but later returned to Russia and settled at Sebastopol in Crimea where he married. He developed consumption, and was told by the doctor that he had only a few weeks to live. It was then that he converted, and became a fervent Orthodox. He had expected to die, but lived. His cure came about of its own accord, and he regarded it as a miracle and decided to become a monk. But the war broke out; he had to become an officer in the army and was employed as a military engineer. On the outbreak of the Revolution, however, he fled and came to Mount Athos. Since then he had never written to his wife nor to any member of his family. There was no one who knew where he was.
Until the Great War, Russia had used Mount Athos as a spearhead for its nationalistic designs in the Aegean. It endeavoured to play a leading part in Athonic affairs by buying up cells dependent on other monasteries, and subsequently enlarging them on one pretext or another until they surpassed their parent houses in size and number of inmates. The Czars expended immense sums of money on lavish building schemes and vast endowments, so that by 1900 there were amount 3,500 Russian monks on the Holy Mountain, that is half the total number. Since the Russian Revolution, however, the monks are completely cut off from their previous source of supplies, and are compelled to live on the income derived from the wood they own on the Mountain itself. Although their numbers have sunk to 650, they are now the poorest monks on Athos.
On Saturday afternoon, we rode back to St. Pantelemon…Fr. George accompanied us. All the way he spoke about religion. He was a very earnest Orthodox, and believed that the whole world would shortly be converted to the Orthodox religion. He inquired particularly about the progress of the Greek rite in Germany, as, according to a precious manuscript in the monastery of Philotheou, it was predicted that Germany would be the first country converted. The time was believed to be at hand. (pp. 51-53)
Gregoriou: The Brigand Speaks
“And how did you come here?” I asked Fr. Savvas.
“Well, I lived for nearly two years in Athens. But I couldn’t get accustomed to the life. I was unhappy. I had no peace within me. My parents were dead. My brother and sister did not even know me. Finally I went to a priest and confessed my evil deeds to him. The priest told me I would never find peace anywhere unless I became a monk. So I came to Athos: it is now seven years that I am here.”
“Only the Abbot knows the dark secrets of my life…Ah, it is a great satisfaction to confess. The moment you confess to a priest, you are no more troubled by your conscience. You feel so released and happy.”
“My boy, you should become a monk,” went on Father Savvas, turning to me. “Once you are a monk on Mount Athos, you have no more worried of any sort. Why, look, if you lead a life in the world, you are sure to marry, and then just think of all the troubles and worries you are bound to have, the need to earn enough to support your wife and nourish your children, and buy them clothes, and send them to school, and pay doctor’s bills—there is no end to it. Here there is nothing like that. Your soul is absolutely free and happy. The Virgin Mary, you know, looks after you and protects you.”
“The conversation was continued in our room on the morning of our departure.
“One has no more desires, my boy,” said Father Savvas. “One gets used to everything: one’s body calms down in course of time. When I go up to my cell in the evenings I don’t have voluptuous thoughts anymore; I take a book instead, and read about the saints…
“You know, my boy, when someone enters the garden of the Virgin Mary, he acquires a positive disgust for women. Ships sometimes stop quite near here, and I can see women from the distance; and once or twice the Abbot has sent me on board the steamer at Daphni to fetch something or other that had been ordered. On such occasions I have the opportunity to see women. But each time I get more and more disgusted at the sight. Since I am here, neither woman nor a boy can give me feelings of any sort.”
“A boy, did you say?” said Iorgos. “When you were with the brigands up on Olympus, did you do anything of that sort?”
“No, no. Such things are forbidden up there. There was a belief that if you did them your luck would turn against you, and you would get shot. In the villages below the mountain there were peasants. We used to go and take the most beautiful girls, and violate them.”
We were nearly ready to leave: our packing was finished. Iorgos had taken off his shirt, and was about to put on another.
“And here,” he said turning around, “and here, have you never done anything at all?”
Father Savvas had a sudden burst of excitement: his arms shook.
“We want to,” he cried, “but how are we to find anyone?”
A few moments passed in silence. Then Father Savvas sunk forward, his head between his hands: “Oh…I have sinned, I have sinned.” (pp. 61-62)
Simopetra, Dionysiou and St. Paul’s
Then we met two workmen and a young monk, going in the direction of Karyes. The two workmen greeted us in the usual way, but the monk kept his head bent towards the ground. Suddenly, however, he came running back and shouted to Iorgos:
“Hullo, old girl, what brings you to the Holy Mountain?”
“Who are you? I don’t know who you are,” said Iorgos.
“You old whore!” said the strange little creature, wriggling his hips. :Don’t you remember me two years ago in Athens when I used to sell little painted ikons?”
Iorgos then recognized him. Turning to me, he told me the little monk used to sell things at the door of a variety theatre in Athens, where he had been dancing at one time.
He asked him what on earth he was doing as a monk, and the creature replied: “Oh, I just decided to become a nun, you know,” and went on saying, “Haven’t you got a cigarette for the poor girl?”
The “poor girl,” who couldn’t have been much more than seventeen, said he was now living at the Skite of St. Anne’s with the Prior, but that he really wanted to settle in one of the great idiorhytmic monasteries. He was just then on his way to see what place would be best for him. His monastic name was Josapha.
Josapha had an extraordinarily depraved face. All his movements were extremely effeminate, and he sowed continually his delight in wearing a skirt. He spoke in an affected falsetto voice making all sorts of extraordinary squeaks and gurgles. Suddenly, pulling up his skirts, he began to dance in a rather indecent manner.
We couldn’t help laughing at the grotesque creature, who seemed like an apparition from some other world in this solemn damp forest, high up on the ridge of the Mountain, with here and there patches of white mist lying among the trees.
The two workmen with whom he was going to Karyes now called him from the distance, so he collected his skirts and ran off, uttering a prolonged “O-o-o-oh…” in a falsetto voice. Then he turned round once more and shouted, “Praise God,” and vanished from sight among the trees.
The coastal motor-boat, run by monks, took us on to the last monastery on the West coast—St. Paul’s. From the sea it appeared quite impressive, situated a bit inland, under very wild cliffs—but as we walked up to it over the stone of a wild desolate ravine our expectations were disappointed.
St. Paul’s is almost entirely modern, built in the barrack style. Inside everyone was asleep. We were starving, but it was impossible to get anything to eat. For a long time we had to wander through long, bare whitewashed corridors like in a hospital, until finally a monk appeared, and showed us into one of the guest-rooms, telling us to lie down on the beds and sleep, as it was the hour of rest. But when we lifted the covers on the beds we found the sheets crawling with animals. It would have required more asceticism than we could muster to spend the night there, so after looking at the tall, simple seventeenth-century tower and a small, frescoed chapel, which were the only things spared by the great fire of last century, we decided to push on immediately. (pp. 64-67)