The bridge and the legend
According to chronicler of Epirus Panayiotis Aravantinos, the bridge was constructed during Ancient Roman times. However, according to some traditions it was built when Arta became capital of the Despotate of Epirus, possibly under Michael II Ducas (1230-1271). Other alleged construction dates vary from 1602 to 1606. Seraphim, the Archbishop of Arta, has noted that the bridge was built, according to some tradition, by an Artan grocer.
According to the folk ballad of the acritic songs family, every day 1300 builders, 60 apprentices, 45 craftsmen or masons, under the leadership of the Head Builder, tried to build a bridge the foundations of which would collapse each morning. Finally a bird with a human voice informed the Head Builder that in order for the bridge to remain standing, he must sacrifice his wife. As the wife is being killed, being built in the foundations of the construction, she utters curses that conclude with blessings.
The folk ballad
The Bridge of Arta:
Masters complain about the calamity and apprentices
"- alack upon our vexation! And shame on our works!
Allday we build it and in the evening it collapses!" ...
One bird flat-hatted there around and sat down on the other side
of the river.
it was not bird's warbling, nor sparrow's chirrup it had.
It sang, spoken in human tongue :
"- if no human sacrifice, then never this bridge shall stay ...
But do not sacrify an orphan, nor stranger, or a traveler,
only Headmaster's pretty spouse,
who later comes in mornings and lunches brings late ..."
The idea that a major edifice can not be built without a human sacrifice ("building in" of a person) was also common in the folklore of other Balkan peoples such as Bulgarians, Albanians, Serbs and Romanians; for example, the Romanian legend of Meşterul Manole. A masterbuilder being forced to sacrifice his wife in this way is a common theme in folk songs. A recurring plot element is the masterbuilders' decision to sacrifice the woman who comes first to the building site to bring them food. All but one break their promise and tell their wives to come late, and it is the wife of the only honest one that is sacrificed.
One of the legends associated with Merlin is that Vortigern, the King of England, was building a tower to defend himself from Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon. Like the Bridge of Arta, whenever they finished one day's work on the tower it would collapse in the night and Vortigern's advisors recommended that sacrificing a child and mixing his blood with the mortar would prevent the collapse.
- Artemis Leontis, "The Bridge between the Classical and the Balkan", The South Atlantic Quarterly 98:4:625-631 (1999) at MUSE On understanding the place of the Bridge of Arta in the literary landscape.