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KEFALONIA - a brief history
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Logo of the Municipality of Kefallonia, February 2011

The origins of the name are unclear, possibly it refers to Kefalonia being the ‘head’ (largest) of the Eptanissa (a.k.a. the Ionian Islands) - the Greek word for head being kefali.

Mostly, Kefalonia is reputed to be named after Kephalos, son of Hermes. When he rejected the amorous advances of Hera (wife of omnipotent Zeus) she sowed doubts in his mind about the fidelity of his wife, Procis. With the aid of Hera he wooed Procis – in disguise. After much courting and lavishing of expensive gifts, he won her heart (or whatever). He then revealed himself to Procis, who was deeply upset and confused.  With the aid of Artemis, Procis was reconciled with Kephalos, only to suspect an affair between he and Hera. In her jealousy she took to following him and, while hiding in a bush when he was out hunting, was accidentally shot and killed by Kephalos.

According to local legend, the great Odysseus was a native of Kefalonia and the small island of Ithaca was his kingdom. Odysseus fought with the Mycenaeans at Troy and many remains from the Mycenaean age have been found on Kefalonia.

After the decline of Mycenae, Kefalonia played a part in the Persian Wars and in the Peloponnesian Wars between Corinth and Athens. In 218 BC Kefalonia rallied against the invasion threat from Philip V of Macedonia but succumbed, in 187 BC, to the Roman occupation, which lasted until 330 AD.

Kefalonia was part of the (Greek led) Byzantium empire from 330 AD until 1082 when the Norman robber-baron, Guiscard, plundered the island. Kefalonia then fell into the hands of the Franks (a generic term for the succession of invaders from France and then Italy), notably the Orsini family. The Orsinis treated Kefalonia as part of their private estate and, undoubtedly, were themselves involved in piracy. Thomas-Nikolaos Orsini ceded the lordship of Kefalonia to his brother, John Orsini II, before murdering his uncle and usurping the throne of Epirus (a region on nearby mainland Greece). John Orsini II then murdered his brother and kept the throne for himself. He then secured marriage into the ruling family of Byzantium, the Palaiologos – a fatal mistake as his wife poisoned him.

Kefalonia became very popular among wealthy young men during the rule of Francesca, ‘Queen of the Romans’, due to the many beautiful women that resided in her court.

After Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, fell in 1453, the Ottoman Turks captured most of Greece including, in 1479, Kefalonia. The bloody Ahmed Pasha decapitated the nobles, burnt the castle and took the peasants for slavery to Constantinople, where the Sultan forced the men to marry Ethiopian women, and vice-versa, in order to breed mixed-race slaves. In 1500 the Venetians, aided by Spain, recaptured the island and, except for a few short incursions, held on to it until 1797 when Napoleon’s French army liberated the Ionian islands.  The “libro ‘d’oro”, the “golden book” containing the names of all the Ionian nobility, was publicly burned amid general public rejoicing. However, only a year later the French were replaced by a Russian-Turkish alliance which lasted until 1807, when the French regained control. After only two years the French were forced out again, this time by the British, who established control of the Ionian islands.

The War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, which ruled most of Greece, commenced in 1821 and the Ionian islands were a convenient safe haven for many leading figures in the Greek cause. Lord Byron based himself on Kefalonia before his fateful move to Messalonghi and the island inspired some of his best poetry. Like Byron, the first British Governor of Kefalonia, Sir Charles Napier, was a benign philhellene who supported the cause of Greek independence from Ottoman rule. The formation of the Greek state in 1832 and the despotic rule of Tom Maitland and then Howard Douglas led to demands for unification with the new Greek state. The French Revolution of 1848 intensified demands, which were finally granted in 1862.

When Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader, demanded free passage for Italian troops through Greece at the start of the second World War, the refusal by the Prime Minister of Greece, General Metaxas (a native of Ithaka), led to the invasion of Greece by Italian troops. The defeat of this invasion force by the smaller Greek army was the first defeat inflicted on the AXIS forces during the war by Allied troops. The subsequent occupation of Greece by German troops resulted in typical Nazi terror. During this period the Ionian islands were occupied by mainly Italian forces and the refusal by non-fascist Italians to continue the war led to their massacre by the Nazis. The novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin contains a superb account.

For the next fifty years Kefalonia remained a backwater, largely unknown until relatively recently and it's still a relaxed island, ideal for exploring. Enjoy!

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