My father, Panagiotis Koutalianos, would tell me stories about a famous ancestor of ours by the same name. Born in 1847, Panagiotis (Panagis or Panais) was born on the small island of Koutali (now Ekinlik, Turkey) in the Bosphoros Sea near Istanbul.
Panagiotis Koutalianos was a man of Herculean strength—a true legend in Greece. So much so, that he was named the era's strongest man and even has a song in his honour (one known by many Greeks).
My father would tell me tales of strong men and how he believed one was born every hundred years. This stayed with me. Years later while in Greece, I met Father Nikodimos of Mount Athos. It so happens, he gave me a copy of Panagis Koutalianos' autobiography. The book was written in New York and was dated 1916. The story filled in the gaps from my father's tales. The young Koutalianos had worked in the shipyards and had single-handedly pulled up a vessel's anchor, which ten men couldn't muscle to move. Word spread of his amazing power.
In the years that followed, he was a weight lifter and wrestler; he fought over 300 men and was never defeated. He was famous for his karmaniola headlock and airplane throw. He is recorded as having stopped a moving train in its tracks and having ripped a lion's mouth with his bare hands. He traveled the world, and entertained and competed in Europe, and across North and South America and spent some time in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was even decorated by Queen Victoria of England for his incredible strength.
Three years ago, I traced my roots to a small village called Koutalis (renamed after Koutali Island) in the northeast region of Greece. While I was there I met a ninety-three year old gentleman, Vassilis Psarras. He was eight years old when Panagis Koutalianos died in Constantinople from an infection to his legs. Vassilis spoke of Panagis with great admiration. He was strong and was never ill, he said. For Greeks, Koutalianos' strength remains unmatched, and will not be forgotten.
Olive Oil Tasting May 16, 2013
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