Saturday, March 26, 2011

Freedom or Death

March 25th was a two-for-one holiday in Greece: Annunciation and Greek Independence Day.  The former celebrates Mary learning from Archangel Gabriel that she was with child, and the later marks the day in 1821 when Greek Orthodox Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag at the Monastery of Agia Lavra in Greece’s Peloponnese and inspired a more than eight-year struggle (1821-1829) to throw off nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule.

Bishop Germanos raising the flag (Theordore Vryzakis)

In towns and villages across Greece, school children proudly paraded the country’s blue and white flag.  Aflutter, the flag is reminiscent of Greek seas but it holds a deeper meaning.  The white cross honors the contribution of the church to the country’s enduring battle for freedom and its nine blue and white bars honor the nine syllable rallying call shouted across the land during Greece’s struggle for Independence: Eleftheria i Thanatos—Freedom or Death.  (Though some say they represent the nine letters of ελευθερια in the Greek word for freedom, the idea is the same.). 

Petros Mavromichalis
Greece’s larger cities also held military parades, and Greek communities around the world joined in celebration with parades of their own.  But this is not about any of those events, or for that matter whether the Revolution actually began a week earlier in another part of the Peloponnese when the ruler of its Mani region, Petros Mavromichalis, raised his war flag in Mani’s capital city of Areopoli and marched his troops off against the Turks.

No, this is about a small Cycladic island’s personal War of Independence heroine, Manto Mavrogenous (1796-1848).  Her statue stands at the foot of the main square on Mykonos’ harbor,  and yesterday it was surrounded by palm frondsan ancient symbol of triumph, victory, and the sacred sign of Apolloin honor of a life truly worthy of an epic film.  Or a tragic opera.

Manto Mavrogenous Square, Mykonos

Born in Trieste to a wealthy, aristocratic Greek merchant family, Manto Mavrogenous studied philosophy and history, was fluent in several languages, and drew her fire for Greek independence from her father, a member of Filiki Eteria, the secret society dedicated to freeing Greece from Ottoman rule. 

She was thirteen when her family returned to its roots in the Cycladic islands, first to Paros and after her father’s death to Tinos.  War broke out when she was twenty-five and she left for Mykonos, the place of her family’s origins, to convince its leaders to join in the Revolution.  But what she offered Mykonos and indeed all of Greece was far more than words.  When Ottomans attempted to land on Mykonos, she commanded the forces that repelled them.  She used her fortune to outfit ships and crews that battled pirates and the Ottoman fleet, and to send soldiers to fight for freedom on mainland Greece, as well as to support the families of those who fought.

Manto even sold her jewelry to support the fight and pressed the world to allow Greece to be free.  This is from her letter to The Women of Paris: “The Greeks, born to be liberal, will owe their independence only to themselves.  So I don’t ask your intervention to force your compatriots to help us. But only to change the idea of sending help to our enemies.” 

Demetrius Ypsilantis
In the early years of the war she met Demetrius Ypsilantis, a well-educated son of a prominent family, brother of the leader of Filiki Eteria, and a politically connected war hero.  (Yes, that city in Michigan was named after him, a town perhaps better known today for “the world’s most phallic building,” the Ypsilanti Water Tower.)  They became engaged and Mavrogenous’ beauty, bravery, and selfless commitment to Greek independence brought her fame across Europe. 

Bust of Demetrius erected in foreground of "The Brick Dick" of Ypsilanti.

It seemed a fairy tale, but that was not to be.

During their engagement Mavrogenous’ home was totally destroyed by fire and her fortune stolen.  She moved in with Ypsilanti but in time he broke off the engagement.  Deeply depressed and virtually penniless, she never recovered.

Her memoirs were written on Mykonos but she spent most of the balance of her life amid poverty in Greece’s first modern capital, Nafplio, before finally moving to Paros where she died penurious and in oblivion at fifty-four.

The great debts owed to her for financing so much of Greece’s Revolution were never repaid.  Unless you count the palms, thanks, and honors bestowed each March 25.

The back of a Greek coin worth less than a penny

Freedom or Death.



  1. Nice piece Jeff. A remarkable story and one which should not be forgotten.

  2. What an interesting bit of history to read; One wonders how many of those who celebrated yesterday on Mykonos know this very important part of the islands history.

  3. Your blog was great this week. For those of us who understand Greek, it seems to me that the point of your story was that Manto lost 2 prika. One being her dowry (pronounced prika in Greek) and the other being Demetrius (a prika in any language).

  4. LOL! That's terrific, B, and no doubt what was on the minds of Edward and Lawrence as well--though they didn't dare say it. I'm still laughing.:) Jeff

  5. Manto seems to have more in common with Boudicca, the warrior queen who had brief success in pushing the Romans out of Britain, than she does with Joan of Arc. Joan lost more than a dowry.

    As to B's comment, she may have lost her money but she lost nothing when Demetrius took off.


  6. I swear, Beth, that as I was writing my piece I thought, "I wonder what my friend, Beth, will have to say about this?"

    As usual, you did not disappoint:). By the way, if I read B's comment correctly, she agrees that the loss of Demetrius was a good thing. Sadly, I don't think Manto saw it that way.

    As for those in history (or literature) she most resembles, she precedes the Bronte sisters by a few years but the wrenching effect of the loss of dowry on Manto's fate could easily have made her their creation.

    Thanks, Jeff

  7. How interesting you'd pick this tale of a big prika (see third comment above) to hawk your wares, V-online.

  8. Do you know where you can find her memoirs or the letter to the women of Paris? Either a book or journal, or newspaper, or anything? Or maybe an essay where they were cited in?