Thursday 21 August 2014

H is for Hellene and the Problem of Definitions

The Word Hellene and the Problem of Definitions

Themis Tsironis

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
 (The Gospel According to Saint John, 1:1)

After reading so much material on the Church in Greece by historians and theologians and other interested parties, I am beginning to think that ‘the Word’, at least as timeless truth stayed with God too. Here on earth even the simplest approach to Greek history, ecclesiastical or political, is not plain sailing.  Many words, and often key words, are either anachronistic or have a way of changing their meanings over time.

The word Byzantine is one such example. (see blog entry: Byzantine, the Word). Its use and meaning was entirely unknown and would have been meaningless to the people it purports to describe.

 And whereas to most Greeks today Byzantine history means Greek history, it is doubtful that when the word was coined in the 1500s to distinguish the Eastern Roman Empire from the Holy Roman Empire in the west that it meant Greek history exclusively. Greece, as we know it, did not exist at the time.

  This problem of meaning was driven home to me yet again while reading a text on Mega Spilaio in Achaia.  At one point, while justly praising the monastery’s role in the War of Independence and its indisputable importance to Orthodoxy over its long history, the writer also pointed out that it had been a force in preserving Hellenism over the ages.

 That had my antennae quivering. Even a neophyte like myself knows that the Orthodox Church throughout its long history despised the word Hellene. During the Byzantine era, a Hellene referred to a pagan, and this definition was current well into the 1700s.
True, there was a flurry of renewed interest in the word Hellene to describe a potentially much reduced Greek speaking Byzantine state in the 14th and 15th century, a notion spearheaded by George Gemistos Plethon ( see Mystras, the History), but this was an elitist movement at best rather than a widespread phenomenon and it was vigorously opposed by the Church at the time.(1)

Clearly something happened to the word Hellene in the intervening years to allow Mega Spilaio to claim to have been its protector and guardian.

Behind that shift in perspective is a lot of history and not a small amount of controversy…

A Little Background

In ancient Greece, to be a Hellene (2) meant to be a Greek speaker but the word suggested more: the word denoted a linguistically homogeneous group who recognized to some degree or other their own cultural affinity. Certainly there was a common perception that Hellenes worshipped the same Pantheon and that there were affinities of custom.

  But to what degree? 

In spite of this recognition of sameness, the ancient Hellenes’ entire history is one of war with fellow Greek speakers, not of peace and cooperation.

 The Athenians regarded the Greek speaking Macedonians as foreigners before they were conquered, a fact that has caused no end of trouble in today’s debate about Macedonia. (Of course, a Greek from the next village can still be referred to as a foreigner).

 In some ways, being a Hellene was a negative definition. If you didn’t speak Greek, didn’t drink wine, and worshipped other gods entirely, you were a barbarian. That left lots of space for the ancient Hellenes to fight among themselves. And it did highlight the difficulty, at least in ancient times, of language or even similar customs as creators of social cohesion.

Enter Byzantium


When Christianity became the law of the land, Hellenes, or pagans, were simply beyond the Christian pale.(3)
The Byzantine Empire was multicultural although the language that came to be used by the government was Greek and Greek was the language of the liturgy. It might be argued that the unifying glue of Byzantine society was first and foremost the Orthodox faith and the role of the Emperor as the Vicar of Christ. Greek came later. 

The Ottoman Occupation

When the Ottomans took over and employed the Millet system of governing, the Orthodox Greek speaking Church and its adherents were perceived (and perceived themselves) as a separate and a cohesive cultural entity within the Ottoman empire.(4) Again, Orthodoxy with its strong backbone of Greek liturgical language was the distinguishing feature and the Patriarch filled in as best he could for the missing emperor. Orthodoxy gained power during the Ottoman rule. And while Greek may have been the predominant language of those belonging to the Orthodox Millet, it was not the only one
In these pre-nationalistic days, most people living in the borders of what is now Greece or, indeed, within the boundaries of the old Byzantine empire would have identified themselves a “Christians” That was enough for most people until the Greek War of Independence.
The Greek Revolution

What, asked Metternich in 1829, do we mean by the Greeks? Do we mean a people, a country, or a religion? If either of the first two, where are the dynastic and geographical boundaries? If the third, then upwards of fifty million men are Greeks…

The question of what would constitute ‘Greekness’ or ‘Ellinismόs’  (Ελληνισμός) in the emerging nation was not asked by foreigners only. It was hotly debated among the revolutionaries themselves as they struggled to define both borders and a nascent sense of national identity. What would define the citizen of the emerging nation?

In 1822 the first Greek revolutionary constitution stipulated that Greeks (Έλληννες) are those who believe in Christ and are born within the insurgents’ domains. There was no mention of language. The Second National Assembly stipulated language:  that Greeks were those who have the Greek language as their native tongue and believe in Christ.
 By 1827 at the assembly at Troezen the reference to language was deleted and Greeks were again those born in the country who believe in Christ as well as those who came to Greece from Ottoman occupied lands and believe in Christ and wish either to fight with the insurgents or live in Greece. (5)

What is interesting is that the consistent marker for a Hellene was his or her belief in Christ. A willingness to fight was also prominent. The language clause in the second constitution was proving problematic because so many of the freedom fighters were Christian, believed in a new  fatherland (not yet specifically defined) but were Albanian speakers and their effort, so crucial to the cause, could not and would not be ignored.

The problem of defining the Greek identity more specifically became acute as other nascent nation states, once part of the Ottoman Empire, also began to establish their own criteria and languages and as national Orthodox churches developed. The Patriarch’s position as leader of all Orthodox people began to fray at the edges as did the notion of Orthodoxy alone as a marker of collective identity. After all, Bulgarians and Serbs also wanted their own nation and they were Orthodox too. Now the question of Orthodoxy became more specific: to which National Orthodox Church do you feel allegiance?

Ironically, the catalyst for a final definition of Ellinismόs and the one that put language and ties to ancient Greece back into the picture for good was the publication of an unqualified Tyrolean High school teacher, Fallmerayer, who published a study of the people in the Peloponnese in 1830. 

He wrote: The race of the Hellenes has been wiped out in Europe. Physical beauty, intellectual brilliance, innate harmony and simplicity, art, competition, city, village, the splendour of column and temple — indeed, even the name has disappeared from the surface of the Greek continent.... Not the slightest drop of undiluted Hellenic blood flows in the veins of the Christian population of present-day Greece. And more of the same.

Fallmerayer's half-baked theory was clearly driven by his own prejudices and ideals. He was not qualified to make these judgments any more than was Leake, another traveler who had made similar pronouncements. Fallmerayer feared Russian expansion to the Mediterranean and therefore supported a strong Ottoman Empire.

  So much for disinterested scholarship.(6)

It was a sign of the times, and the nationalistic aims of Greece’s near neighbours that this undocumented slur on ethnic “purity” caused so much consternation. If the inhabitants of the Peloponnese were in fact Slavs and parvenus, that undercut the entire idea of a separate Hellenic State. The Greek response harkens back to Plethon’s view, that Greeks had always existed as an ethnic entity in Greek lands and that the line of modern Greeks and their language went back to the ancient past in a straight and verifiable line.

 I too believe that there is an unbroken linguistic and cultural line from ancient to modern Greece, but that it is not always a straight one. ‘Real’ history (if there any such thing) is always more complex, contorted and curiouser than the national myths that finally emerge and define a nation.

There were Slavic incursions and, while they left place names from their old home towns, these arrivals assimilated, learned Greek, and became (if they were not already) Orthodox.  Later arrivals, the Arvanites (who came from the area what is now Albania between 1300 and 1600)  assimilated too but still predominantly spoke their own language in the early 1800s.(7)

And there was the problem of exactly how the Christian Byzantine Empire fit into a straight cultural and linguistic line that would refute Fallmerayer. For this a few tweaks in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire were necessary. Its objection to the word Hellene and its laws against Hellenism were relegated to the back-burner of history and its Greek credentials were burnished and put in the forefront .(8)

In this way the Byzantine empire could now be seen as a medieval precursor of the modern Greek State (9) and the Orthodox Church, especially under the Ottoman yoke and with no qualifiers, as the perpetuator and protector of Hellenism. 

That explains Mega Spilaio’s proud claim to have preserved Hellenism throughout the ages.

Although the existence of hundreds of Hidden Schools run by priests and monks to preserve culture and the language (which did not ever seem to be in any real danger except from educated Greeks who wanted a more pure form of the language and therefore despised the demotic Greek spoken at the time) has been debunked by modern Greek historians, this particular myth did perform its function in helping to make the Orthodox Church a pillar of the modern nation and the Ellinismόs that defines it. Language, the second pillar, required a shift in populations, the introduction of Katharevousa (a purified form of Greek), and more than a few political fandangos.


Today, the word Hellene refers to any citizen of the Hellenic or Greek State, so to be a Greek today is to be a Hellene.
I am proud to be a Greek citizen. And yet… when asked where I come from and I answer that I am a Greek from Achaia. The inevitable comeback is: But where are you really from? ( Nai, alla apo poo iste?)

A  Greek passport is still not quite a passport to being a Hellene, at least to most of my acquaintances. A Greek speaker from Chicago, (or even a non-Greek speaker from Chicago with Greek parents) is still more Greek than I am.

A cousin-in-law-of mine told me flat out that I was not competent to write one word about Greek history because I was not born here. What he was suggesting was thatGreekness’ and the ability to understand its nuances was built into his cultural DNA, not mine.  I had not “suffered” Greek history, nor had I experienced Greek history as a student in this country, so I did not really have a share in the collective Hellenic identity. Fair enough, I suppose.

But where this leaves my daughter who is half ‘real’ Greek and educated here is an interesting question as is the one about how many generations it takes before….. and so on.


The issue of ‘Ellinismόs’ and collective identity is not merely academic as more and more people born elsewhere and of different religions (or with no religion) are becoming Greek citizens and as all Greek citizens take their place in the larger European family. 

Unfortunately, within the country, any discussion along these lines tends to become political in a nanosecond. If you toe the accepted line you are perceived to be most likely center or right of center; if you question any part of Ellinismόs, you must be very left wing or worse. (These categories are, I hope, becoming as outdated as they should be in the twenty first century.)

The Golden Dawn Party, which purports to see Hellenes as a racial rather than an ethnic group, claims that to be a real Greek both parents have to be Greek. (Some want to trace the genealogy even farther back). Sound familiar?  Their modified swastika, along with the Greek flag, are the two symbols carried on all of their appearances and marches. Being Orthodox would also be a requirement according to this Neo-Nazi party which claims to be a defender of the Orthodox faith. 

To be against them is not to be a Hellene. It would be absurd and almost funny if it were not so dangerous. The Archbishop and head of the Greek National Orthodox Church, while condemning racism, has yet to openly condemn Golden Dawn although individual bishops have spoken out. (10)

I do believe in the importance of a national myth. Every country needs one; every country has one.  But, like most national myths, there are parts that are demonstrably historically correct and parts equally demonstrably forged by contemporary political necessity or expedience.  And there is always a fuzzy ‘in between’ that demagogues and fanatics can use to their advantage. Some of that fuzziness is the chameleon-like quality of words. So it behooves every citizen in whatever country to remember that and to look at his or her own history and the words that make up that history with an informed and, in the true sense of the word, a skeptical eye.


The sheer number of footnotes here is an indication of the sensitivity of this subject of Ellinismόs!

(1) George Scholarios, the first Patriarch under the Ottoman rule, burned Plethon’s last work the Book of Laws in which he had envisioned a new state based on Hellenism. For him, the pagan overtones were as disturbing as the possibility of the breakup of the Orthodox community as he knew it.

(2) The word Hellene was first used by Homer to describe a Thessalian tribe.  It was expanded after that to mean all Greek speakers. The word Greek has a similarly random history. It was a tribe in Epirus (the Graeci)  mentioned by Aristotle and later encountered by the Romans who then used the word to describe all of the inhabitants.

(3) This issue came up again recently when skeletons of pagans massacred by the emperor Theodosios in the Hippodrome in 390 AD were found in Thessaloniki during subway excavations.  The act had the effect of ridding the population of pagans (because Christians shunned the games) and tipping the scales towards Christian citizens although this may not have been his primary aim.  Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, refused Emperor Theodosius the Holy Communion, until he atoned for this crime. (Atonement consisted of appearing bare-headed and in a white sackcloth in front of Ambrose to be finally forgiven.) The interesting part from this discussion’s   point of view “is the chat it caused among today’s Greeks on the web  who were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the massacred pagan Hellenes of Thessaloniki. The question was raised as to whether Byzantium itself was actually Greek or if we should be proud of it.

(4) A complacent but somewhat prophetic traveler named Williams Clark wrote in 1858 that the Greek Orthodox people remaining in the Ottoman Empire were a cancer that could destroy them. He went on to explain this shocking image.  He could not understand why the Ottomans had not forced conversions from the get go on the theory that it would have been terrible for the first generation of Orthodox, but easier to assimilate the people converted as time passed. His example was Albania where such conversions did occur. His second recommendation to rid the Ottomans of the ‘cancer’ was not ethnic cleansing (that had to wait for Ataturk) but simply making the Orthodox clergy paid state workers. He reckoned that that could destroy the force of the church faster than any other solution … Interesting, given that the Greek clergy are paid state workers today…
 (5) See: Dimitris Livanios, The Quest for Hellenism: Religion, Nationalism and Collective identities in Greece (1453-1913) in The Historical Review volume III (2006) published by the National Hellenic Research Foundation. I am very much indebted to this excellent article.

(6) Fallmerayer’s statement that Greek blood might have been ‘diluted’ over history does not seem like such a terrible thing to a North American. But here, this kind of remark had severe political ramifications at the time and often still does.

(7) The actual number of Arvanites then and now is hotly debated, but there were a lot. I recommend a Google search if you are interested.

(8) Most people seem surprised and concerned when it is pointed out that Constantine the Great was an Illyrian or that Justinian preferred Latin to Greek but in those days it just did not matter in terms of cultural identity. They both considered themselves Romans.

(9) Livanios uses this term in the above article. and I think it is very apt.

(10) In this most democratic of churches, individual bishops do not always feel the need for consensus in order to speak out on political issues.


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