by Vanessa H. Larson
A rock burning bright on an August night. A full moon lights up the sky. I’m up on a mountainside, watching the natural flames shoot out of the rock. This is the Chimera.
I am at Cirali, a sleepy town in Mediterranean Turkey, yet suddenly I feel transported into the world of Orpheus, a Turkish novel that I helped translate into English a year earlier. Standing here, watching the flames dance, I am inside of the novel.
The Chimera, called the Yanartas, or “burning rock,” in Turkish, is a place on the slopes of Mount Olympos where natural flames emerge from crevices in the rock – one of only a handful of such places in the world. The Chimera’s flames are self-replenishing and eternal, due to a phenomenon that is not exactly understood but is thought to involve underground methane gas.
The flames have been burning since antiquity, when they were powerful enough to be visible at night to sailors at sea. The site is thought to have been the source of the ancient Greek legend of the Chimera, a fire-breathing hybrid beast that was believed to live in the mountain.
The Chimera is described in Homer’s Iliadas “a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire.” Archaeological evidence indicates that Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, metalworking and blacksmiths, was worshipped at a temple at the site.
I set out for the Chimera at dusk. On the walk from the town of Cirali, magnificent trees silhouetted against the sky as the mountains gently rise in the background. The steep hike leads me through forests and rocky terrain, a strenuous climb with intense summer heat and clothes soaking in sweat.
I finally reach the Chimera.
Flames burst from the earth. In five different places they burst, a handful of separate flames of different sizes. I stare, mesmerized. Normally, a fire needs something to burn in order to keep going, but here nothing appears to be burning. No wonder it has been a place of myths, deity worship and a sailor’s landmark for navigation for thousands of years.
Though I am not a very spiritual person at all, I feel a sort of mystical presence at the Chimera, the presence of some other being. The earth itself feels like a living being, and I am connected to it.
The moon looks golden as it rises above the water.
I hear a creature howling in the forest and wonder what it is. I have a moment of epiphany, remembering the mysterious “night animal [that] howled” in Orpheus.
Orpheus was written by Nazli Eray, one of Turkey’s most widely read and respected contemporary female writers, and published in Turkish in 1983 as Orphee. While studying Turkish as a graduate student, I had the unique opportunity, along with another graduate student, to assist our Turkish professor in revising the novel’s English translation prior to its publication in 2006.
In the ancient Greek Orpheus myth, versions of which are also found in other cultures, Eurydice, the wife of the poet and musician Orpheus, dies from a snakebite. Orpheus convinces Hades, ruler of the Underworld, and his wife Persephone to let him bring Eurydice back to the world of the living. He is permitted to do so on the condition that he not look at her as they leave the Underworld. At the last minute, in his impatience and anxiety, he turns around to look at Eurydice, causing him to lose her forever.
Nazli Eray’s Orpheus, on the other hand, is a surrealistic retelling of the myth which takes place in the present and is told from Eurydice’s point of view. The novella is set in an unnamed town on the Turkish coast. Every night, Eurydice and her mysterious assistant Mr. Night climb a steep hillside outside the town that leads to an archaeological site, from which they observe Orpheus’ house from the safe distance of several hundred meters away.
Because Eray’s narrator never names the town where the story is set, as I worked on the translation I often wondered whether the town is based on a real place in Turkey or a fictitious one. I have no proof that Eray based the town in Orpheus on Cirali and its surroundings. It’s more likely that the town in the novel is a composite based on a number of towns along Turkey’s southern coast. But still, there are parallels between the fictious town and the real one.
First, there is the nighttime hike up the mountainside. In Eray’s novella, Orpheus’ house is located “far away, up in the hills” and “in a steep place.” Eurydice describes the route to get there as “a twisting, turning road that rose and fell.” Because the air is “as hot as blood,” she has to stop frequently to catch her breath while climbing up the path to Orpheus’ house.
Then there are the lights. Orpheus’ house is full of lights that “flash on and off” in strange patterns. Eurydice observes these flashing lights every night when she and Mr. Night hike up to Orpheus’ house, but their meaning remains a mystery to her. She describes one episode: “Suddenly lights started to go on and off all over Orpheus’ house.” A few moments later, “the house seemed sometimes so close I could touch it – but just when I was about to reach out and grab it, it would dash away like a flash of light.”
Were these lights the flames of the Chimera?
As I leave the Chimera I come across a stone slab, half sticking out of the ground, with an inscription on it. With my eyes so focused earlier on the flames of the Chimera, I had missed seeing the stone, which now seems eerily reminiscent of the stone relief found by Eurydice. There are other stone fragments, clearly the remains of the temple of Hephaestus, but I am fascinated by one stone, half-buried in the earth, as in the novel. I am at the gateway to another world, that of the ancient Greeks and their gods and myths.
Now I can say Orpheusis real to me.
Vanessa H. Larson is a freelance writer living in Istanbul. She has written for Time Out Istanbul, Inthefray, SHOP Istanbul, Todays Zaman and other publications.