Greek folk songs from the 1821 Revolution not only told the stories of brave revolutionaries, but also served as historical texts and diffusors of tradition.
Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis once wrote that “no revolution, neither in art nor in life, has more chances to succeed than the one that uses tradition as its base.”
The folk songs of the 1821 Revolution were made in the dens of the revolutionaries, and were created on the spur of the moment in most cases; they were often sung and danced — and, some, unfortunately, were forgotten the next day.
Luckily, the most moving of them remained in our consciousness, not only as documents of the time but also as songs that are sung and danced today, as reminders of the greatest moments in Greek history.
Songs of joy and mourning
The folk songs gave joy and strength to those who listened and rejoiced. The next day, they went out to fight the Ottomans with these songs on their lips.
And so did the ancient Spartans, who would fight after hearing the song that the poet Tyrtaeus wrote especially for them, and that he himself had sung to them the night before a battle.
The songs told stories of battles and brave deeds, of fellow warriors who fell in on the battlefield, of mourning mothers and wives, and of barbaric massacres by the Turks.
They were also songs of faith and devotion to the Orthodox Church, praises of the Panagia (the Virgin Mary) and patron saints, some asking for divine help.
Many of them were not forgotten, though. Today they serve as tiny chapters of a long, rich history, making Greeks feel proud and rejoice in the victory achieved by their ancestors during the War of Independence.
Many of the folk songs were lost over time, tragically. It mustn’t be forgotten that the revolutionaries were mostly farmers and shepherds who did not know how to write.
They were illiterate and even those who could write were often lacking in writing materials, such as pen and paper. But they did not lack in love for Greece and they were determined to kick out the Ottomans from their ancestral land.
Their “writing material” was their tongue — and the rich tradition of the land, and the myths, along with the Panagia and the saints that guided them in the holy cause.
Some warriors, who left one camp and went to another, carried with them not only their rifles but some of the songs they had loved to sing in their previous encampment.
As for the tunes they used, they sang as they pleased, rendering them in the simplest form of measure, even adding and subtracting verses and words at will.
Most of the time, these improvised folk songs did not go beyond the boundaries of each region. Songs sung along the slopes of one mountain, often did not become known in the villages on the mountain across from it.
Each village, mountain, or region had their own heroes and song characters to cry over and mourn, to tell of tricks they played in battles, and relate stories about the family of the warrior.
Folk songs before 1821
In actuality, the Greeks never stopped revolting for a moment against the Ottomans, from the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 onward.
Yet those uprisings were local, small and disorganized; they often had no support and were therefore doomed at birth, in most cases.
Little is known of the pre-1821 Greek War of Independence. Yet, folk songs were the medium that preserved the battles and struggles of the Greeks.
For instance, in 1789 the Ali Pasha aga Yusuf Arapis campaigned with 3,000 Albanian Ottomans against the rebelling chieftains of Thessaly and Roumeli.
The revolutionaries led by chieftain Giannakis Kontogiannis fought valliantly, but were outnumbered and were defeated eventually, as we learn in this traditional song:
“What news did you bring me from the chieftains?”
“Bitter news I brought you from the chieftains,
Nikolakis was caught, Konstantis was wounded!”…
“Where are you, Mama, come to me, hold my head,
and tie it tightly, so that I can mourn!
And whom shall I weep for, and whom shall I mourn?”
In 1807 the great revolution of Mount Olympus took place, led by four men in the Lazaios family, or “The Sons of Lazaios (or Lazopoulos),” as Tolias, Christos, Nikos and Kostas were known.
That early revolution was suppressed. The first three remained in Rapsani, while Kostas was held captive by Ali Pasha in Ioannina, as we hear in this old song form the time:
“Three little birds are sitting on Olympus.
One looks to Giannina, the other to Katerini,
the third best mourns and says:
“What evil have we suffered, the poor Lazaios!
Veli-Pasha ruined us, burned our houses,
he took our wives, he took our children!”
In September of 1826, Roumeliotis general Giannis Makrygiannis, along with Giannis Gouras, defended the besieged Acropolis of Athens, which was being attacked by the Ottomans.
Makrygiannis, better known as an historian later on in his life, sang folk songs very well. He was eloquent, and often improvised, making the songs sound like chapters of history.
“The Sun reigned (yes, my Hellene, reigned) and the moon was lost
and the pure Augerinos that goes near Poulia
the four were chatting and chatting secretly.
The Sun turns and tells them, turns and burns them:
“Yesterday when I reigned behind a mountain,
I heard many women crying and men mourning,
for these heroic bodies lying in the plain,
and in pools of blood most are submerged.
For the homeland, they went to Hades, poor souls.”
Folk songs keep history and tradition alive
If it were not for Greece’s folk poetry, many of the most heroic pages of the Greek War of Independence would have been lost.
In 1895, as historian Giannis Vlachogiannis was trying to write a study called “The death of Androutsos,” he discovered that he had trouble collecting material.
It was then he realized that the newly-established Greek state did not keep an archive of documents relating to the War of Independence.
Vlachogiannis then set out on the gargantuan task to search for and save any historical documents about that glorious time for Greece.
In fact, the historian started searching for documents spanning from the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 all the way through the year 1868.
He searched for manuscripts and letters of the revolutionary fighters from their relatives, their friends and their compatriots.
Vlachogiannis found that many such documents had inexplicably been sold — by the kilo — to grocery stores, butcher shops and the like for wrapping food! He bought many of these documents, paying out of his pocket.
From 1888 to 1913 the researcher had managed to collect over 300,000 pages of documents and manuscripts, which he arranged in folders, based on subject and date.
Vlachogiannis also salvaged the “(Revolutionary) Struggle Archive,” which was kept in the National Archives, founded by the first Governor of Greece, Ioannis Kapodistrias.