The Myths & Legends of North Cyprus
WITH AN ancient history dating back to the eighth century BC, it is of no surprise that North Cyprus is steeped in myths and legends. These folktales are the legacy of all those who have ruled and lived here, and whilst many of these tales are retold in various ways, each version adds another layer of intrigue to the island’s rich tapestry. Here’s just a trio of tales to give you a taste of local folklore…
The hermit of St. Hilarion:- Majestically commanding a pass through the Kyrenian mountain range, St Hilarion castle was originally an eighth century monastery, later fortified by the Byzantines. However, most of what remains today, with it’s beautiful turrets and towers is testament to the romance of the Lusignan era. Even though much of the castle was destroyed by the Venetians after they invaded Cyprus, the ruins are still a sight to behold. Modern legend even talks of the ruins being the inspiration behind the fairytale castle in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
Indeed, legend has long surrounded St Hilarion. The castle is said to be named after a holy hermit who arrived on the island having fled persecution in Palestine. He lived on the mountain where the castle stands today, and despite the cries of demons stalking at night, the stone-deaf hermit was oblivious to their calls and so ultimately he was left in peace. The monastery was later established in his honour.
Another, even more imaginative legend talks of treasures hidden in a magical secret garden behind the door of the 101st room, and whilst this room is yet to be found, St Hilarion castle certainly does have a mythical feel to it.
The story behind the sarcophagus of St. Mamas:- This legendary sarcophagus, an ornate marble coffin, is displayed at St Mamas Monastery in Güzelyurt, one of fourteen churches on the island dedicated to St Mamas and around whom many myths and legends have arisen.
According to one legend, St Mamas was a twelfth century Christian hermit who lived in a cave in Anatolia and pleaded poverty in response to a demand for taxes under Roman occupation. Following his arrest by armed troops, and on his way into the capital to face punishment, he saved a lamb from a ferocious lion attack and then rode the wild lion the rest of the way to meet his own fate. This astounding bravery showed Mamas to be a holy man, which in turn earned him exemption from tax for the rest of his life. Not surprisingly St Mamas was honoured as the patron saint of tax avoiders.
Legend also tells of how St Mamas was placed in a coffin after his death and sent out to sea by Jesus Christ himself. After being washed up on the shores of Güzelyurt, a local peasant hauled the sarcophagus inland as far as he could drag it. In accordance with an apparition, the obedient peasant proceeded to build a church around it.
Indeed, St Mamas monastery is well worth a visit, not only to pay homage to the patron saint of tax avoiders but also the splendid interior behind the humble façade.
How the Beshparmak mountains got five fingers:- Running parallel to the north coast, the impressive Beshparmak Mountains, translating to “five-fingers” in English, are so-named because of a unique gnarled massif resembling five clenched fingers. Whilst geology has it’s own explanation for this unusual formation, more often than not, how those five fingers got there depends upon the imagination of the storyteller.
Popular legend tells of a naïve and lowly suitor scorned by his queen. Trying to rid herself of this nuisance villager she set him the almost impossible task of bringing her some spring water from Apostolos Andreas Monastery, on the eastern side of the island, in return for her hand in marriage. When the villager unexpectedly returned weeks later from his perilous journey, his task complete, the queen refused to honour her promise. So angered by her trick, he tossed the sacred water to the ground, grabbing the wet earth which he threw towards her. Missing his target, the mud stuck to the top of the mountainside. The mountain was forever imprinted with the clenched shape of the thwarted man’s fingers, although some would say his conceit rather than the queen was his true downfall.
Other legend talks of a Byzantine hero, Digenis Akritas, whose handprint was embedded in the mountain after he leapt across the sea from Anatolia to save the island from invading Saracens. Digenis gripped the mountain to haul himself out of the sea and in saving himself, he also saved the island.
Indeed, when you look up to the distinct five finger-like projections on top of the mountain, it’s easy to see how such tall stories are widely told – and of course, these folktales don’t have to be believed to be enjoyed.