Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
On Easter Tuesday of an unspecified year, apparently close to 1920, the Greek elders of Lycovrissi gather to select the principals of the Passion Play that is given every seven years, at Easter time, under the portico of the church. Lycovrissi is a remote village in the mountains of Anatolia. Its poor, illiterate, superstitious peasants, with only dim memories of the greatness of their Hellenic past, have lived under harsh Turkish rule for centuries.
Only two men in the town know anything about the outside world. One is Captain Fortounas, a drunken old sailor retired from his rough seafaring life. The other is the Turkish agha, overlord of the village, a gross, sensual man who spends his days drinking raki and his nights amusing himself with pretty boys.
The elders reveal themselves as an avaricious, corrupt lot as they discuss possible candidates for the Passion Play. Eventually Manolios, a handsome young shepherd betrothed to the archon’s illegitimate daughter, Lenio, is selected as the Christ; Michelis, the archon’s son, as John; Yannakos, a rascally peddler, as Peter; Kostandis, the innkeeper, as James; Panayotaros, a red-bearded, sly man nicknamed Plaster-eater, as Judas; and the widow Katerina, a woman of warm heart and easy virtue, as Mary Magdalene. The principals have to be selected a year in advance so that they can prepare themselves for the responsibilities of their roles in reenacting the story of the Passion and the Crucifixion.
On the same day, a party of miserable refugees arrives in the village. Driven from their homes by their Turkish masters, they are sick and starving after their long search for a place where they might settle. One ancient man carries the bones of his ancestors on his back. Their leader is an ascetic priest named Fotis, who asks for food for his people and land on which they might build their homes. Many of the villagers are sympathetic, but Priest Grigoris, a selfish, domineering man, wants no religious rival in the neighborhood. Unfeelingly, he orders the refugees to move on. When one woman collapses and dies from hunger, he shouts that she has died of cholera in his efforts to arouse the credulous villagers against the refugees.
Manolios, already feeling himself to be a changed man because he is chosen to suffer the five wounds and the burden of the cross, persuades Michelis, Yannakos, and others to help the distressed people. Fotis’s band is allowed to take refuge in the caves on the summit of Mount Sarakina nearby. Grigoris is enraged when Manolios and Michelis take from the archon’s cellar four baskets filled with food to feed the famished women and children. Michelis is betrothed to Grigoris’s daughter Mariori, so Grigoris claims that the gift is actually a theft of goods that partly belong to him.
Manolios withdraws to his mountain hut to battle with his weaknesses of the flesh, for he feels that if he is to act the part of Christ, he must struggle to become Christlike. Much to her distress, he denies Lenio. When his face breaks out in strange sores, he believes that God is punishing him because his dreams at night are filled with visions of Katerina. Disappointed in her wedding plans, Lenio gives herself to Nikolio, a lusty young pagan who is Manolios’s assistant in herding the archon’s flocks.
As the summer passes, the other characters in the Passion Play also change and begin to act more in accordance with their roles in the biblical story. Michelis gives up Mariori, defies his father, and eventually goes off to live with Manolios in his retreat. Yannakos foils the scheme of Ladas, an elder and the village miser, to cheat the refugees of the few valuables they have left. Kostandis gives them alms. Katerina no longer opens her door to her midnight callers. Panayotaros, eaten by jealousy, plans revenge against Manolios, whom he blames for the widow’s newfound virtue.
One morning, the agha’s favorite young boy, Youssoufaki, is found dead in his bed. Wild with rage and grief, the agha arrests the village elders and threatens to hang one man each day until the murderer is discovered. As a result of a strange dream he has, Manolios believes that he must offer himself as a sacrifice, and he confesses to the slaying. When another jealous servant of the agha’s household is revealed as the killer, the people of Lycovrissi show no gratitude to the shepherd for his offer to die to save other innocent people. He further infuriates Grigoris when he tries to preach a sermon on charity and compassion at the Feast of St. Elijah.
As winter approaches, the plight of Fotis and his band grows more desperate. Manolios, who had been carving the wooden mask of a gentle Christ, carves a new mask of savagery: not the kind, compassionate Christ, but a warrior who comes to bring, not peace, but a sword. It is as a Christ of burning and destruction that Manolios leads the refugees in a raid on Lycovrissi on Christmas Eve. Panayotaros, however, has already played the part of Judas, and the attack fails. Grigoris becomes Caiaphas, and the agha Pontius Pilate, to Manolios’s Christ. The shepherd dies of his wounds. Fotis and his band begin their wanderings once more.
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