In the city of Arta in southern Epirus stands an old stone bridge. It dates back at least to Roman times--it is mentioned by Pliny--and may have existed as early as the 3rd century BCE, when the town was still known as Ambracia and was king Pyrrhus' capital. The bridge spans the river √Ārachthos and is 145m (450') long, with four arches. It's the trademark and most famous feature of the city, not because it's inordinately long or attractive--the master masons of Epirus built bigger and better throughout the Balkans--but because of the legend that surrounds it.

The song "of the Bridge at Arta" is a Greek folk ("demotic") song that dates back at least to the last reconstruction of the bridge, completed in 1612. It combines the classic folklore themes of haunted bridges and human sacrifice. It bears a resemblance to the ancient myth of Sisyphus, with the notable differences that it takes place in the land of the living and that there is an end to the trouble.

Masons forty-five and apprentices sixty
A bridge were buiding across Arta's river
They built all day--each night it fell.
The builders lament and the apprentices all weep: "A shame for all our efforts, a waste of all our work
That what we build each day should fall down every night!"
A little bird came by and sat across the river
It sang not like a bird, nor like a swallow does[1]
But sang and spoke like people do:
"No bridge shall stand without a human soul
And no orphan, no traveller or stranger will suffice
Save only the chief mason's lovely wife
who later comes and brings him, by-and-by, his meal."
The chief mason hears and stops as though stricken
He sends a message to his beauty with the nightingale[2]
To slowly dress, and slowly change, and tarry with the meal
That she be late and late she cross the bridge at Arta.
The bird, though, disobeyed and told her this:
"Swiftly dress, and swiftly change, and swiftly take the meal
swiftly go and cross the bridge at Arta."
These she goes and disappears, off the whitewashed path
The chief mason sees her and it breaks his heart
"A good day, and health to you, apprentices and masons
But what is it with the chief mason's stern demeanour?"
"His ring he dropped into the first deep chamber;
and who can go and who can find and fetch it?"
"Meister, take heart, and I will go and get it
I'll go in, come out, and your ring I'll bring."
She neither got down far, nor did she reach the middle
"Pull, my dear, the chain; pull up the chains.
I've turned it inside out, yet nothing I have found."
One slaps on mortar with his trowel; another the asbestos;
The chief mason heaves and drops a giant stone.
"Alas, poor is my fate and my destiny accursed!
Sisters three we were, and doomed we were all three.
One built over the Danube, one the Euphrates river
And as for me, the youngest, I build the bridge at Arta.
As the aspen trembles, so let the bridge shake too
And as the trees' leaves fall, may the passers fall as well!"
"Daughter, change your word and give another curse
Lest your one dear brother pass."
And she changed her word and pronounced another:
"As the wild mounts tremble, the bridge shall tremble too
And as the wild birds fall, so let the passers also fall
And if my brother's in strange lands, may chance not make him cross."

[1] I'm sure there's a literary term for this repetition using a subset of the first half. The talking bird and dual bird-swallow reference are common in Greek folk songs.
[2] Used as a generic term for a songbird

Four hundred years on, the bridge still stands, curse or no curse.

Many cultures have a tradition of blood sacrifice, though human sacrifice is the exception, and in this tale it appears as a last resort. It remains customary in Greece to kill a white rooster--a bird with mystical significance from the Americas to Tibet--when the foundation of an edifice is laid. The bird, however, is generally not built into the edifice but, very practically, gets cooked for lunch.

Tales like this are not unique to Greece, though the Bridge at Arta is one of the most famous, and they most likely predate the seventeenth century. The Walled-Up Wife, as it's known in North America, is encountered throughout Europe and Asia but most of all in Eastern Europe. Similar stories are known from Transylvania, where the troubled edifice is a monastery, and Montenegro, where the fortress of Skadar requires a similar sacrifice. The common thread is that of builders encountering supernatural obstacles to completing their work, until the forces responsible are appeased by the involuntary sacrifice of a woman, usually of some standing and often the chief mason's dearest. Berkeley anthropology professor Alan Dundes proposes it as a metaphor for marriage. According to Prof. Dundes, there are at least 700 versions of the story.

Other suggestions for the story's source include the actual immurement of human beings, as it may have occurred--and probably did. Skeletons have been found in the walls of old structures in western Europe as well as in the east, and it wouldn't surprise me if this item of folklore became a superstitious (though perhaps rare) practice for really desperate builders, or is based on fact. In Christian cultures, the sacrifice could be seen as a parallel to Jesus' sacrifice, or, on the less pure side, as a symbolic redemption for Original Sin. I suppose one could find many more dimensions in the theme without digging very deep--from a scientific point of view it's quite fascinating. In a closely related tale, children were immured rather than a woman, as in the bridge over the river Drina in Visegrad, Bosnia in the folk tale re-told by nobel laureate Ivo Andric. Less common are stories in which the head builder becomes himself the sacrifice.

In contemporary Greek usage the term "bridge at Arta" is widely used as a simile for projects that are dogged by failures and repeatedly delayed. Often it's applied to stop-and-start political reforms and notoriously late public works. Human sacrifice is frowned upon, though one might be inclined to try it out just to get rid of the politicians responsible. It must be noted, though, that the spirits that demand blood sacrifice are unlikely to appreciate such tainted goods.


Of the Bridge at Arta (Του γιοφυριού της Άρτας); traditional Greek
Author and date unknown; presumed 17th century or earlier
Translation by writeup author. The original is in unrhymed iambic heptameter which I'm admittedly not quite up to preserving in the translation.

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