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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter I. Cultural modernization: Institutionalization of “national sciences”

Nikolaos Politis: Study on the life of modern Greeks

Nikolaos Politis
Translated by Mary Kitroeff

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1Title: Μελέτη ἐπί τοῦ βίου τῶν νεοτέρων Ἑλλήνων (Study on the life of modern


3Originally published: in Τόμος Α’ (vol. I), ‘Νεοελληνική Μυθολογία’ of the four-volume Μελέτη ἐπί τοῦ βίου τῶν νεοτέρων Ἑλλήνων (Athens: τύποις Σαραντάκος Οἰκονόμου, 1871).

4Language: Greek

5The excerpts used are from the original, Preface, pp. α’- γ.’

About the author

6Nikolaos Politis [1852, Kalamata (the Peloponnese) – 1921, Athens]: a pioneer of folklore studies in Greece. He completed secondary education in his hometown. In 1868, he enrolled in the School of Philosophy at the University of Athens. From an early age, he started publishing on modern Greek culture in the literary review Pandora. He was also among the founding members of the Φιλολογικός Σύλλογος Παρνασσός (Philological society Parnassos). After he completed his studies in literature and law in Athens in 1876, he was granted a state scholarship to continue in Munich, as a student of the famous Byzantinist Karl Krumbacher. In 1880, Politis returned to Athens where he undertook the establishment of the Library of the Parliament. In 1882, he was appointed as adjunct professor of Greek mythology at the University of Athens. Parallel to this, he actively participated in the foundation of the Ιστορική και Εθνολογική Εταιρεία (Historical and ethnological society), one of the leading literary associations for the promotion of national history and culture. In 1885, he was appointed the general inspector of public education. He resigned in 1888, due to political controversies. In 1889, together with the famous poet Georgios Drosinis, he took over the publication of the literary review Ἐστία (Hearth). Politis turned towards comparative folklore studies already when he was a student, in 1871, with his ’Study on the life of Modern Greeks.’ As an academic, however, he started teaching folklore only in 1908. Prior to this, in 1899, he published a few volumes under the title ’Studies on the life and language of the Hellenic people’ in a series funded by the Greek merchant Maraslis. In 1909, he founded the Ἑλληνική Λαογραφική Ἑταιρεία (Hellenic folklore society) and published the review Λαογραφία (Folklore studies). In 1914, he published a collection under the title ’Selections from the songs of the Greek people,’ which constitutes the first critical edition of those lyrics. In 1918, upon his suggestion, the Λαογραφικόν ’Αρχεĩον (Folklore archive) was founded, aiming at the collection and publication of folklore material. Equally significant was Politis’s influence on the young short story writers of the time. It was exactly during the 1880s and 1890s that the interest of many authors shifted from historical to contemporary life, especially in the countryside (see Alexandros Papadiamantis, Easter chanter). Politis not only inspired but also institutionally reinforced this trend. In 1883, Ἐστία, the review Politis co-published, launched the first competition for the writing of a ’Greek short story.’ Similar competitions were to take place every six months. Thus, Politis contributed to the emergence of a new literary genre which helped many young writers become literary figures.

7Main works: Μελέτη ἐπί τοῦ βίου τῶν νεοτέρων Ἑλλήνων 6 vols. [Study on the life of the Modern Greeks] (1871–1874); Μελέτη περί τοῦ βίου καί τῆς γλώσσης τοῦ ἑλληνικοῦ λαοῦ [Study on the life and language of the Greek people] (1889); Παραδόσεις τοῦ ἑλληνικοῦ λαοῦ 2 vols. [Traditions of the Greek people] (1904); Αἱ ἑκλογαί ἀπό τά τραγούδια τοῦ ἑλληνικοῦ λαοῦ [Selections from the songs of the Greek people] (1914).


8The period between 1875 and 1893 was marked by an attempt to introduce a series of reforms in Greek society under the political leadership of Britisheducated and western-oriented Harilaos Trikoupis. Contrary to the priorities of irredentism and territorial expansion prevailing until then, the aim now was to create a modern, rationally-organized and strong state. This need derived not less from the realization that the Greeks’ glorious past, conveniently appropriated and celebrated during the first decades of independence, did not suffice any more to attract European interest and sympathy. Neo-Hellenes were to prove that the cultural origins they claimed could be coupled by an equally remarkable present. However, unlike most other European nations which sought their origins in the medieval past, Greeks appealed to a glorious antiquity universally accepted as culturally superior, to which they claimed to be directly connected. Therefore, the nation had to present its own autochthonous cultural output in order to prove that the ancient spirit was still alive. The historian Constantinos Paparrigopoulos had created the national canon of the Hellenic nation. This canon now had to be conveyed into various other fields, and most importantly to be proven valid.

9This effort took the shape of the scientific consolidation of three disciplines, namely history, ethnography and linguistics, and the ensuing establishment of the respective academic fields. History was already taught at the University of Athens, founded in 1837, first as World History, and then starting with Constantinos Paparrigopoulos, as History of the Hellenic nation. Moreover, preoccupation with history had already dominated in the public sphere as a means of national self-awareness. A new approach was introduced by Spyridon Lambros, who initiated his courses in 1875. The Greek historian, having studied in Germany, was deeply influenced by Leopold von Ranke as well as the Prussian Historical School, which reiterated Ranke’s practical approach but criticized him for his lack of patriotic engagement. Thus, Lambros inaugurated a methodology of ’National History,’ largely dependant on written sources and based on factual evidence. This approach was supposed to repudiate any ideological prerequisite. The second relevant discipline to be introduced into the University of Athens was linguistics. Georgios Hatzidakis was appointed the first professor of this chair in 1880. Having also been educated in Germany, Hatzidakis devoted himself to the task of demonstrating the continuity between the ancient and modern Greek languages. Therefore, he focused his study on the medieval language, which provided the necessary link for this continuity. This was an innovative approach that would facilitate the further integration of Byzantium into the pattern of historical continuity already introduced by Paparrigopoulos. Accordingly, he established the Chair in Medieval and Modern Greek Literature at the University of Athens. The emphasis on research and empirical knowledge was also dominant in his discourse.

10The challenge of the time, however, was met by the emergence of the discipline of folklore studies, which claimed a place distinct from history, archaeology and philology. Its founder Nikolaos Politis introduced the novel term laographia, which literally means ’the study of people.’ The establishment of this discipline had an interesting prehistory. Already before the founding of the Greek state, the first publication in Paris of the Chants populaires de la Grèce moderne by Claude Fauriel in 1825 was an initial expression of the interest in the study of Greek folk songs, which are known as δημοτικά (demotic) from the ancient Greek word demos. As the result of a Romantic confidence in the value of the cultural production of the folk, European scholars were already studying folk songs for signs of a lingering spiritual vitality. In the early 1850s, the most significant historical journal of the nineteenth century, Pandora (see Markos Renieris, What is Greece? West or east), launched a campaign, initiated by the collector and amateur historian Spyridon Zambelios. The aim of the campaign was to urge the readers to collect material evidence from the medieval period of Latin rule in what were now the Greek lands. In 1867, the same review announced a philological prize competition sponsored by a Greek merchant from Odessa, Th. P. Rodokanakis. This was one of the many competitions organized by the University of Athens with the goal of “promoting national culture.” The announcement urged the participants “to collect from as many districts as possible Greek customs and habits and compare them with the ones mentioned in the surviving works (of ancient Greek writers) so that their similarities and differences can be identified.” Among other things, young scholars were asked to trace and collect elements of their own material culture which had never been considered important by any foreign scholar since they were part of everyday life. Such a collection, it was suggested, could serve the preservation of a culture which was gradually being eliminated due to the strong impulse of the Neo-Hellenes to imitate Western modes and habits. What was needed was the creation of a national discipline dominated by indigenous scholars.

11Politis, still a university student at that time, entered the Pandora contest with his essay ’Study on the life of modern Greeks,’ which was to become a seminal work of the new discipline. The work submitted was only the first volume of what was to become a four-volume study. This first part contained a collection of tales allegedly of ancient Greek origin. In his introduction presented here, Politis presents his work as a response to Jacob Philipp Fallmerayer’s claims. The Austrian historian had challenged the idea of a historical continuity between ancient and modern Greeks. The responses by Greek scholars already addressed to him, Politis argues, were not grounded in scientific argumentation. His concern was exactly to implement a “precise knowledge” in drawing the “resemblance of life” between ancient Greek cultureand the “character of the nation.” Therefore, he considered this study an endeavor of national significance.

12Following this tremendous success, the young scholar became an accomplished academic. The term laografia was firstly introduced in 1884 to describe the discipline of folklore studies. The new discipline combined philological and ethnographical methods, and was eventually used to serve Greek irredentism. As it has been argued, for Politis, songs and folktales were not only relics of the past but also “prophecies of future redemption.”

13Nikolaos Politis’s collections of ’Songs of the Greek People’ or ’Proverbs of the Greek People’ are still being used as supplementary educational material in high school curricula. Their academic value, on the other hand, as well as the political implication of the discipline of folklore studies, has been duly criticized. Recently, Alexis Politis, a famous philologist and descendent of the founder of the discipline, systematically studied the ’discovery’ of the demotic songs in the first half of the nineteenth century, while the anthropologist Michael Herzfeld dwelled upon the interrelation between folklore and national ideology, focusing particularly on Politis’ contribution.


A study on the life of modern Greeks


15The history of a nation does not consist only of a narration of the events which had an influence on its fate. What is necessary, in order for this history to be as complete and as perfectly formed as possible, is to have precise and detailed knowledge of the character and spirit of this nation. For, besides contributing to an easier discovery and comprehension of the causes and results of these events, this knowledge is often useful in the clarification of obscure and controversial historical issues.

16Approximately forty years ago, an educated German by the name of Fallmerayer, extremely well-versed in our Medieval history, attempted to prove that the Hellenic race had become completely extinct and that a medley of all sorts of ethnicities and races, especially Slavic ones, today inhabits the land of Greece. And though it is true that he did not conscientiously handle historical accounts, endeavoring to pervert everything in order to fortify his beliefs and omitting every account that contradicted these beliefs, those of our side who have endeavored to refute the writings of the German historian have, with few exceptions, broke into abuse and ridicule not in the least appropriate to scientific discourse, and only afterwards did they present, using facts and certain historical events, proof of the groundlessness of such conjecture. For this, with justified sarcasm does Fallmerayer, in an entire chapter of his book Fragmente aus dem Orient, mention these strictures and the cool reception which he was afforded in Athens (in 1840, when he visited Greece) by all its inhabitants, and especially by the literati, for having endeavored to prove them to be Slavs.

  • 1 Bibylakis Neugriechisches Leben, verglichen mit dem Altgriechi (...)
  • 2 Emmanouil Bibylakis (1806-1880): Greek educator and scholar who (...)
  • 3 Anastasios Georgiadis Lefkias, ’Ανατροπή τῶν δοξασάντων, (...)
  • 4 Anastasios Georgiadis Lefkias (1773–1853): Greek medical d (...)
  • 5 Curt Wachsmuth, Das alte Griechenland im neuen, Mit (...)
  • 6 Curt Wachsmuth (1837–1905): German ancient historian and (...)
  • 7 Bernhard Schmidt (1820–1870): German painter.

17But one of the strongest arguments against the claims of the German historiographer is the similarity between our life and that of the ancient Greeks. Besides those who have used this argument incidentally, special dissertations by, among our own, Mr. Bibylakis12 and Anastasios Georgiadis Lefkias34, and, among foreigners, Mr. Curt Wachsmuth,56 and Mr. Bernhard Schmidt7, have been published in the form of a book, the first volume of which was published about a month ago.

18Sensing the importance and national interest of the subject, the judges of the philological competition established by the patriotic Th. P. Rodokanakis set as a question of the sixth period the collection of the manners and customs of as many Greek locations as possible and their comparison to those cited in the surviving works of ancient authors in order to make known their similarities and differences.

19Aiming at the national significance of this issue, I too threw myself into this competition; and, in order for the aspired goal to be best achieved, I endeavored, not limiting myself to the stipulations of the judges, to collect the manners and customs not only from the people itself, but from every book which contained even a small piece of related information, and to compare these to those of other nations as well.


1 Bibylakis Neugriechisches Leben, verglichen mit dem Altgriechischen zur Erlauterung Beider. Berlin, 1840, 74 pages. [Author’s footnote]

2 Emmanouil Bibylakis (1806-1880): Greek educator and scholar who contributed to the development of Greek education in his homeland, the island of Crete.

3 Anastasios Georgiadis Lefkias, ’Ανατροπή τῶν δοξασάντων, γραψάντων καί τύποις κοινωνησάντων, ὃτι οὐδείς τῶν νῦν τἠν Ἑλλάδα οἰκούντων ἀπόγονος τῶν ἀρχαίων Ἑλλήνων ἐστίν (Recounting of those who believed, wrote and publicized that none of the current inhabitants of Greece is a descendent of the ancient Greeks), Athens, 1843, 105 pages, in Greek and in Latin. [Author’s footnote]

4 Anastasios Georgiadis Lefkias (1773–1853): Greek medical doctor and scholar. He served as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Athens.

5 Curt Wachsmuth, Das alte Griechenland im neuen, Mit einem Anhang über Sitten und Aberglauben der Neugriechen bei Geburt, Hochzeit und Tod, Bonn, 1864. This study, apart from the appendix and part of the notes, was translated into Greek by Emmanouil Galanis, and it was published as a separate leaflet in [the island of] Cephalonia, in the newspaper Εὐρίπος in Chalkis and in Ἑπτάλοφος, a journal in Constantinople. [Author’s footnote]

6 Curt Wachsmuth (1837–1905): German ancient historian and classical philologist. He held the chair of Ancient History and Classical Philology at the University of Leipzig for twenty years (1886–1906).

7 Bernhard Schmidt (1820–1870): German painter.


Mary Kitroeff (Translator)

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