Arta is a picturesque town in Epirus region in northwestern Greece. The area is rich in folktales from Greece’s recent past. Its vast green forests and gigantic mountains have inspired locals to tell stories of fairies and other mythical creatures. But there is one story that stands out the most: the story of the so-called haunted bridge of Arta.
The Bridge of Arta
A long time ago, the Romans built a bridge over the Arachthos river near Arta. This bridge was reconstructed many times over the years and is still standing in the 21st Century. Its most recent reconstruction was during the 17th Century, when a peculiar folk song that narrated the story of the bridge appeared for the first time.
The story talked about hauntings and human sacrifice, although the latter was not a local custom. Some people say that this folktale was meant to scare the Ottoman Turks away from the area, although others see a resemblance to other similar stories from around the world. But what is this story even talking about?
The Folktale of the Bridge of Arta
According to a 17th Century legend, when the Ottomans reached Epirus, they wanted to reconstruct some of the works of the Romans that had been destroyed over the years. Their project included a beautiful stone bridge that crossed Aracthos river near the town of Arta.
A group of local men was assigned with this difficult task, since the stone bridge was in ruins and only its foundations were still standing. The master mason was a young, skilled worker who was newly married. He was ambitious and determined to reconstruct the bridge as fast as possible. However, rebuilding the bridge was proven to be an impossible task.
As the folksong says: “They were building all day long. At night, (the bridge) would collapse”.
One day, a nightingale flew over the builders and stood on a nearby branch. But the bird did not start chattering as expected. It started speaking with a clear human voice and revealed what should be done to complete the bridge. According to the bird, a human must be sacrificed on the spot to haunt the place. The haunting would keep the bridge stable and safe.
“(It shouldn’t be) an orphan, a stranger, or a traveler.”, the bird explained, but rather the beautiful and beloved wife of the master mason.
As soon as the man heard that, he started worrying and told the nightingale to tell his wife to take her time with preparing his lunch and come much later than usual to visit him on the construction site. But the bird misheard him and told his wife to get ready quickly and run straight to the bridge.
The young woman arrived at the scene and immediately noticed that her husband seemed sad and anxious. One of the builders told her that he accidentally dropped his ring in the foundations of the bridge and that is why he feels blue.
The young wife didn’t think twice before jumping into the construction to search for the ring. And that is when the masons started throwing mortar and lime and rocks at the opening to build over the old foundations. The woman realized that she was trapped into the building and the men continued with the constructions without hearing her cries for help.
And that is when she revealed that her sisters had a similar fate to hers, all being sacrificed in a similar manner across Europe. The woman started cursing the bridge and the masons, saying that it will shake and cause people to fall into the river as soon as they step foot on it.
“Maiden, change your word and give another curse
for you have a one dear brother who may cross this bridge.”, someone told her over the rubble.
The woman then remembered her youngest brother and immediately took the curse back. She couldn’t risk her brother dying too.
“May the bridge shake, like the wild mountains do
May crossing pedestrians fall, like the wild birds do
for I have a brother abroad who may cross this bridge.”, she exclaimed. And the bridge has indeed survived to this day.
Sacrifices, Masonry, and Foundations
This particular story and the folksong that goes with it, are of particular interest. Why would a Christian Orthodox population in the 17th Century come up with a story about human sacrifice? And why would a haunting keep a bridge stable?
People from Arta often say that the story was made up to convince the Ottomans that the bridge was haunted and therefore they should avoid crossing it. In fact, there is no proof or even speculation that people engaged in rituals that involved human sacrifice in Byzantine and Ottoman Greece. However, this folktale somehow involves the archetype of the beautiful maiden who is sacrificed for the greater good. A pattern that we find in many ancient legends that have survived over the years.
The folktale of Arta remind us of two ancient Greek legends in particular: the one of princess Iphigeneia and the one of princess Antigone. Iphigeneia was a legendary maiden that was going to be sacrificed by her father who wanted to sail safely to Troy, but managed to escape with the help of goddess Artemis. Antigone, on the other hand, was a young woman that was sentenced to death for disobeying the laws of her uncle – she was thrown alive into an underground cave to die slowly, just like the maiden of Arta who was captured alive in the bridge’s foundations.
Although human sacrifice was not a local custom at that time, small animal sacrifices did occur in many villages in the Balkan peninsula before and during the Ottoman occupation. Birds, chickens, or roosters were killed at the foundations or doorsteps of newly built houses to protect the owners from earthquakes, floods, but also ghosts and evil spirits. They believed that the animal would haunt the construction and the building would not collapse. These customs were not allowed by the Christian Orthodox Church, however, some people continued doing them over the years.
The foundations of buildings seem to be of particular interest in Greek and European folklore. In some Greek villages, locals would allow snakes to find refuge in the foundations of their homes. The snakes were considered protectors of the homes and were very much welcomed to co-exist with humans. They would eat all the rats and mice that would try to enter the house.
Similar Stories Around the World
Believe it or not, stories similar to the bridge of Arta exist all around the world. Have you ever heard of the Irish-American song named “London Bridge Is Falling Down”? The song implies that no matter how good the materials the masons use are, the bridge of London will always collapse. What’s essential is a human to guard it all day and night – a human that will be sacrificed in its foundations. In Sweden, there is a folktale that says that children were buried alive to stop the spread of a disease in a small town.
Are these stories true or imaginative? Also, are there any similar folktales in the part of the world where you come from? Leave a comment in the comment section.
Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.
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