While on a recent short trip in the island of Rhodes in Greece, I had the opportunity to discuss peculiar phenomena and stories with locals. Among other many interesting tales, the story of the "drosoulites" (Δροσουλίτες) caught my attention. As it might be of interest to the researches of this blog, I thought I might post a few lines about it.
The "drosoulites", is a phenomenon which is said to appear yearly at the castle of Frangokastello (Φραγκοκάστελλο, ital. Castelfranco) in the region of Sfakia in Crete. According to many local sayings, each year around the end of May, shadows of soldiers can be seen moving from the little monastery of Aghios Charalambos, passing above the castle and marching toward the sea before they disappear. The phenomenon, which is visible for about ten minutes, occurs at dawn when the air is filled with dew, hence the name "drosoulites", literally "dew-men", given by the locals. Some witnesses talk of voices and the clash of weapons being sometimes heard as well.The local belief has it that the drosoulites are the spirits of the dead Greek soldiers who lost their lives in the terrible battle that opposed Hatzimihalis Dalianis and his rebel soldiers to the ottoman army of Mustafa Paşa on the 17th of May 1828 (old style) where 337 (or 385 according to others) Greeks lost their lives. According to the local tradition, the corpses were never given proper burial and thus come back every year at the anniversary date of the fateful battle.
It is said that in 1890, a Turkish Ottoman garrison stationed in Frangokastello beheld the phenomenon and rang the alarm. The same story is repeated in 1942 when German soldiers are said to have witnessed the drosoulites and then firing at them thinking they were being attacked. A report was subsequently made to the occupying authorities in Chania who supposedly sent three higher-rank officers to Frangokastello for investigation. They apparently concluded that the phenomenon was real but was due to a rare natural occurrence. Both these stories are frequently cited in the (scarce) literature talking about the drosoulites but, to the extent of my knowledge and despite my efforts, these remain completely unverified by contemporary sources. Among other unverified but frequently cited witnesses of the phenomenon, we can also find the famous Cretan political figure, Manousos Koundouros (1860-1933) who was native of the region. Well, this is for the legend and hearsays, most of which come from older locals as nowadays reports of the appearance of the drosoulites have become scarce. Most think that the recent scarcity of the phenomenon is due to the numerous small touristic constructions that have been built in the last decade in the area around the castle.
While trying to document the phenomenon, I have found that, apart from oral testimonies, very few textual sources actually exist. Thus, it is quite hard to tell when the phenomenon actually began to be reported. In fact, the first clearly dated textual mention of the "drosoulites" I could find goes back to 1928 when a report was sent by one of the descendants of Hatzimihalis Dalianis, namely Christos Dalianis, to the President of the Athenian Εταιρεία ψυχικών ερευνών (Society of psychical researches), Angelos Tanagras. An article followed along with report and was published in the January 1929 issue of the society's journal Ψυχικαί έρευναι (Psychikai Erevnai, ie. Psychic researches) under the title "Οι "δροσουλίται" τό όραμα τών Σφακιών" (the "drosoulites", the display of Sfakia). Unfortunately, due to my short stay, I did not have the opportunity to retrieve this article from the National Library of Athens but my guess is that most of the main features of the story that spread afterwards originate from that article. This will have to be checked however and I will post an update when the article is available to me. From what I could gather though, it seems that in his article A. Tanagras considered the possibility that the phenomenon might be a kind of mirage which under favorable atmospheric conditions in the early morning could reflect scenes from the coasts of Libya (!). Tanagras, however, points out that the coasts of Libya are much too far off the coasts of Crete to be the cause of a reflection. The same explanation seems to have been proposed by an Englishman, G. Baker who heard about the phenomenon while staying in the region of Frangokastello. I could not find much information about this G. Baker except the fact that he is possibly linked to the Botanical Society of London and wrote about the phenomenon before 1961 (his study is mentioned in an article published in the Greek newspaper Ταχύδρομος (Taxydromos, May 24, 1961, p. 3).
The phenomenon of the "drosoulites", even though unnamed as such, is also mentioned in an anonymous Cretan mandinada (μαντινάδα, rhymed poem). Unfortunately, this piece is undated even though one can tell from the language characteristics that it is not recent and could easily date back to the early 20th century or before:
«Μ΄ ακόμη και το σήμερο,
στις δεκαφτά του Μάη
ούλο τα΄ ασκέρι φαίνεται με τον Χατζημιχάλη.
Και πολεμούν στα σύννεφα κι ακούγοντ΄ οι μπουρμπάδες.
Φωνές και αλογοπεταλιές στου Καστελλιού τσι μπάντες.
Ούλ΄ οι γιαλαφρόστρατοι, θωρούν τσι και τρομάζουν,
μα κείνοι Θεός σχωρέσει των, κανένα δεν πειράζουν...
αραγες κι είντα θέλουσι κι είντα μασέ θυμίζουν;
Αυτούς που σφάχτηκαν εκειά και τα βουνά ραϊζουν...»
"But still to this day, on the 17th of May,
the whole army appears with Hatzimihalis,
and they fight in the clouds and the unbelievers hear
voices and tramp of horses at the sides of the castle.
All the ghost soldiers you see and fear,
but, God have pity on them, they do not hurt anyone...
What do they wish and what do they want to be remembered ?
Those who were slaughtered there so the mountains tremble..."
Everything considered, my belief, but this is mostly speculation for now without more textual documentation, is that the story of the drosoulites did not appear before the early 20th century, eventually a decade earlier in the late 1890s. Apart from the lack of written sources for the earliest accounts, a strong hint to support this view is the fact, which I consider most puzzling, that the phenomenon is not described in Nikolaos Politis' book called Μελεταί περί τού βιού καί τής γλώσσης τού Ελληνικού λαού - Παραδόσεις A' & B' (Studies on the life and language of the Greek people - Traditions, vol. I & II) published in Athens in 1904. Politis had gone to great length in documenting local legends and folklore of every part of Greece, including Crete, and I find it hard to believe that he had not heard about the "drosoulites" of Frangokastello or did not include them in his otherwise well documented study.
Another factor which might have played a role in the development of the story of the drosoulites is the patriotic feeling that grew very strongly in this period of the early 20th century following the independence of Crete.
As a temporary conclusion to this post, I will say that, while we know of other examples from western Europe and even overseas at around the same period, the occurrence of the theme in south-eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century is most interesting and well worth noting.
P.S. While not very informative about the phenomenon itself, the following video offers some beautiful views of the site of Frangokastello and some historical background to the battle of 1828 :