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The Bellstone
The Greek Sponge Divers of the Aegean
Michael N. Kalafatas

Brandeis University Press
2003 • 308 pp. 21 illus. 6 x 9"
Memoir / Travel & Tourism / Greece

$26.00 Hardcover, 978-1-58465-272-4

Guided by his grandfather’s poem about sponge diving, one American returns to Greece to reclaim his past.

For centuries,the young men of the Dodecanese Islands, a string of islands in the Aegean Sea between Greece and the coast of Asia Minor, earned their living by diving for sponges. They would descend to the bottom of the sea on just a single breath of air, using as a weight and rudder a flat, marble diving stone called a bellstone. They used this ancient technique of "naked diving" until 1863 when the deep-sea diving suit was introduced into the sponge-fishing industry. The new diving suit (dubbed "Satan's machine" by the divers) allowed the diver to remain under water for long periods of time, increasing his productivity a hundredfold, but it also brought a dramatic change in the physiology of diving. Rather than taking one deep breath, the diver now breathed compressed air, which caused "the bends" if he rose from the depths
of the sea too quickly. Pressure from international companies to increase the number of sponges harvested on each dive led to mounting casualties. Between 1866 and 1895, on the island of Kalymnos alone, 800 young men died of the bends and 200 more were paralyzed. Michael N. Kalafatas's grandfather, born on the island of Symi, was eye-witness to these events.

In 1995, Kalafatas discovered an epic poem entitled "Winter Dream" written by his grandfather, Metrophanes Kalafatas. The poem, composed a century earlier in Greek, recounts the plight of sponge divers confronted with this new technology. He had the poem rendered into English by award-winning poet, Olga Broumas, and using it as his bellstone, dove into his own past.

While tracing the historical and cultural contours of this uniquely Greek livelihood, Kalafatas carries the reader from the Dodecanese Islands in the nineteenth century to Constantinople and the Black Sea as well as to contemporary Tarpon Springs, Florida and Melbourne, Australia—the far-flung outposts of the Greek sponge-diving diaspora. He portrays the
hubris of young sponge divers defying the odds; the passion of their wives and mothers in protesting the new diving suits; the venality of international capitalists intent on maximizing their investments; and the courage of the Dodecanese people in adapting to catastrophic changes beyond their control.

The story Kalafatas weaves is deeply personal, as his grandfather's poem leads the author back to Greece. But The Bellstone is more than just a personal story; it is a lamentation for and celebration of the families, history, and culture of the sponge divers of the Dodecanese.

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“What an eye-opener this book is—and especially for a proud Greek-American who, like Michael Kalafatas, is a son of the Aegean. The saga of the sponge fishermen of the Dodecanese Islands and their contribution to America is a great tale—and brilliantly told in this very special book.”—Michael Dukakis

From the Book:

“Like the bellstone that is used as a clapper in the bells of island churches, the naked diver’s bellstone connected the naked diver to his God and to his noble forebears. To be hoisted to Paradise, God’s safe airy world above, the naked diver on the seafloor had only to yank on the bellstone’s rope, the motion identical with that of the naked diver’s papas, his island priest, as he rang the church bell, welcoming the faithful to prayer.”

Author Photo

MICHAEL N. KALAFATAS was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and educated at Brandeis University and at Harvard University. In 1946 and 1947 he lived in the Tarpon Springs area of Florida with his family. He has spent considerable time in the Dodecanese Islands of Greece. For more than twenty years Kalafatas served as director of admissions at Brandeis. He now lives in Wayland, Massachusetts.

Sun, 2 Feb 2014 10:30:49 -0500