12 July 2017

The Greeks have a word
for it: (15) Europe

A troika of flags at the entrance to Arkadi Monastery: the European Union, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Outside the castellated walls of the Monastery of Arkadi, three flags fly side-by-side in the summer breeze greeting new arrivals at the car park: the flags of the European Union, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Greece.

The middle flag is an interesting reminder that this monastery and the Church of Crete are not part of the Church of Greece but come under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

Irish people who are concerned with the symbolism of flying national flags on church premises today [12 July] may take a second look at a national flag flying so proudly at the entrance to a monastery. But Orthodoxy has always been intertwined with Greek national identity and pride.

The Greek flag is known popularly to as the ‘sky-blue-white or the ‘blue-white’ (Γαλανόλευκη or Κυανόλευκη). Its nine stripes of blue and white represent the nine syllables of the slogan Ελευθερία ή Θάνατος (‘Freedom or Death’). These are the words said to have been on the lips of people who died in Arkadi in the horrific explosion in 1866. Captain Michalis, the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis on the Cretan struggle for independence, was subtitled Freedom or Death, and it was published under this name in Britain and other countries.

The EU flag may also come as a surprise to some visitors. Greeks have suffered severely under the present programmes of austerity, and when they do not blame corruption in the public sector for their present woes, they regularly lay the blame at the Troika, and more particularly at the EU, especially Germany and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

But like many public projects in Greece, the restoration of Arkadi and the opening of the monastery’s new museum last year would not have been possible without strong funding from the EU. Greeks know any public spending project is heavily dependent on EU funds, and despite talks of a possible ‘Grexit’ a few years ago, Greeks remain determinedly loyal to the European dream.

Greeks will casually point out that not only did they give Europe democracy, but here in Crete they even point out they gave Europe its very name.

In Greek mythology, Europa (Εὐρώπη, Eurṓpē) was the mother of King Minos of Crete, a woman with Phoenician origin, and the story of her abduction by Zeus in the form of a white bull is a story in Cretan mythology.

The earliest literary reference to Europa is by Homer in the Iliad, which is commonly dated to the 8th century BC. Another early reference to her is in a fragment of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women discovered at Oxyrhynchus. The earliest vase-painting securely identifiable as Europa dates from mid-7th century BC.

The Greek word Εὐρώπη (Eurṓpē contains the elements εὐρύς (eurus), ‘wide’ or ‘broad,’ and ὤψ/ὠπ-/ὀπτ- (ōps/ōp-/opt-) ‘eye, face, countenance.’ It is common in ancient Greek mythology and geography to identify lands or rivers with female figures.

Europa is first used in a geographic context in the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo, in reference to the western shore of the Aegean Sea. As a name for a part of the known world, it is first used in the 6th century BC by Anaximander and Hecataeus.

The name Europe, as a geographical term, was used by Ancient Greek geographers such as Strabo to refer to part of Thrace below the Balkan mountains. Later, during the Roman Empire, the name was given to a Thracian province.

The use of the word ‘Europa’ in Church documents from the eighth century for the imperial territory of Charlemagne provide the source for the modern geographical term Europe.

The first use of the term Europenses, to describe peoples of the Christian, western portion of the continent, appeared in the Hispanic Latin Chronicle of 754, in a reference to the Battle of Tours fought against Muslim forces.

The EU also used Europa as a symbol, depicting her on the Greek €2 coin – replaced by an image of Arkadi on a special commemorative €2 coin last year – and on several gold and silver commemorative coins. The second series of euro banknotes is known as the ‘Europa Series’ and her image can be seen in the watermark and the hologram. Which brings me right back to spending Euros and flying the EU flag at the gates of Arkadi.

Europa on the Greek €2 coin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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