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A.A. Pallis

Τhe Ballad- Poetry of Modern Greece

From Greek Miscellany. A collection of essays on medieval and modern Greece, Athens 1964
© A.A.Pallis

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ΤO MANY WHO previously only knew Greece through the medium of Ancient History and Ancient Greek Literature it has been somewhat of a revelation to discover that Modern Greece, too, possesses a rich and varied literature of her own, particularly in the realm of poetry. 

It is indeed a noteworthy fact that, whereas Modern Greek prose remained sterile as the result of the long scholastic tradition which had enshrined the artificial pseudo-classical idiom of the katharevousa as the sole vehicle of serious literature, the poetic faculties of the Nation, untrammelled by these pedantic shackles, never ran dry and continued to express themselves in the natural and living language of the People.

During the four centuries of Ottoman domination, which succeeded the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Greek education had sunk to its lowest level and only survived as a feeble flicker at Constantinople and in a few, very few, provincial centres. The Greek prose of those times was written in an appalling, semi-barbarous jargon which was the language of ecclesiastical documents as employed at the Phanar, of religious dissertations and of a few wretched chronicles unworthy of the name of literature.

Yet, at that very time, the Greek poetic Muse, which had sought a refuge among the rough simple mountaineers of Continental Greece, had given birth to a wealth of folk-poetry, mostly in the form of ballads. 

These ballads have a truly Homeric flavour about them, and their high literary merit attracted the attention of scholars like Passow and Fauriel who introduced them to the Western public during the first half of the l9th century, at the time of the Greek National Revival. 

The main theme of this ballad-poetry, which dates from the 18th century or even earlier, are the exploits of the "Klephts"-that is, of the outlaws who lived a wild independent life up in the mountains, among the high valleys of Olympus, Pindus, Ossa and Kissavos, where they defied the Turkish overlord. The Greek ideal of Liberty, never entirely extinct even during the most oppressive period of alien rule, found its champions among these Robin Hoods of Rumeli and the Morea, who were worshipped as popular heroes by the long-suffering Christian rayahs. 

There is a tone of melancholy running through all this poetry, a melancholy which becomes intensified after the failure of the ill-fated insurrection of 1774 when the Greek inhabitants of the Morea, misled by the promises of Catherine the Great's emissary Orlof, rose against their masters. Orlof's expedition ended in failure and, after the hurried withdrawal of his small Russian force, the Christian population was abandoned to the vengeance of the Turks. It was then that took place the "Χαλασμός του Μωρηά" (the "Devastation of the Morea"), celebrated in so many contemporary Greek ballads, which resulted in the Colocotronis and other notable klephts being mercilessly hunted down and executed. 

The tone of plaintiveness and sombre anxiety deepens as we approach the fateful year 1821. Α general malaise pervades the land; people felt that some great and dreadful event was pending -it was the time when the agents of the secret patriotic society known as the Philikκ Hetairia, whose headquarters were at Odessa, were being sent all over the country, secretly preparing the people for the day of the great national uprising. 

Liberation was in the air- the question was :would it come from the North, from the "Muscovite", the big Orthodox brother who, ever since the reign of Peter the Great,

had been threatening to come down and take Constantinople and free the Christian rayas -Greek, Serb and Βulgar- from the Ottoman yoke; or would it come from the Catholic West, from "Φραγκιά", "the country of the Franks", who, however, were regarded with suspicion οn account of their hostility to Orthodoxy.

When the storm finally burst at Kalavryta in the Peloponnese -οn March 25, 1821, the Feast of the Annunciation- the popular bard announced the event in words which strike a note of deep religious fervour.

Here is a short ballad, the work of an anonymous poet, bearing the title of "Του πολέμου τουι '21" (The War of the '21). (Ιn Greece, people always refer to the Greek War of Independence as "Το '21", just as the Jacobite rising of 1745 was known in l8th century England as "The '45".)

Κρυφά το λένε τα πουλιά, κρυφά το λεν τ'αηδόνια,

κρυφά το λέει ο γούμενος από την Άγια Λαύρα:

"Παιδιά, για μεταλάβετε, για ξομολογηθήτε·

δεν ειν' ο περσινός καιρός κι ο φετεινός χειμώνας.

Μας ήρθε η άνοιξη πικρή, το καλοκαίρι μαύρο,

γιατί σηκώθη ο πόλεμος και πολεμάν τους Τούρκους,

να διώξουμ' όλη την Τουρκιά ή να χαθούμε ούλοι."

'Tis whispered by the birds, 'tis whispered by the nightingales,

'Tis whispered by the Abbot of Aghia Lavra:

"My sons, come, take the Communion and confess;

'Tis not like last year nor like this year's winter;

Bitter has been the spring and dark the summer;

For wαr has come, the fight against the Turks-

Either we drive them out or all shall perish!"


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