|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.).
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 fronds—an ancient symbol of triumph, victory, and the sacred sign of Apollo—in 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.”
|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.