02 July 2023

A poem by Odysseas Elytis
that Mikis Theodorakis made
an anthem for all Greeks

‘Do not, please, I beg you, / do not forget my home’ … flowers among the stones in a side street in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Greek Festival in Milton Keynes has become an annual festival and is taking place this afternoon (2 July 2023) in the Swinfen Harris Church Hall of the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. The festival includes live music, dancing, BBQ food, cakes, Greek products, a book stall and family fun. Today’s festival, a Greek meal at Emmy’s Pitta in Coventry last week, and Greek dancing on the streets of Stony Stratford during Stony Live last month, have stirred my longings to return to Greece.

My thoughts of returning to Greece later this year, and especially to Crete, are reinforced emotionally as I listen again to some of my favourite Greek songs or turn again to some of my favourite Greek poems.

In recent weeks, I have found myself listening to a number of versions of the song Της Δικαιοσύνης Ήλιε Νοητέ, a poem by the Nobel laureate Odysseas Elytis (1911-1996) in 1949 and was set to music by the composer Mikis Theodorakis.

This morning’s song, Της Δικαιοσύνης Ήλιε Νοητέ (‘The Sun of Justice’) was adapted from Canto 3 in the Axion Esti, a literary masterpiece by Elytis. It is a difficult poem to translate, and efforts to render it in English are puzzling if not almost unintelligible to many people outside Greek.

Yet, the words of Elytis and the music of Theodorakis make this one of the most emotional and rousing anthems in the modern Greek repertoire. Every Greek is moved to patriotic tears when they hear to and join in to its haunting repeated refrain:

Μη παρακαλώ σας μη
λησμονάτε τη χώρα μου!

Do not, please, I beg you,
do not forget my home

It was set to music by Theodorakis almost 60 years ago in 1964, and within a few years it had become a popular anthem in the resistance to the colonels until their junta a decade later in 1974.

Odysseas Elytis is one of the greatest poets of the second half of the 20th century, and his Axion Esti is regarded as a monument of contemporary poetry. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1979. Several of his poems have been set to music and his collections have been translated into dozens of languages.

Odysseus Elytis (Οδυσσέας Ελύτης) was his pen name, but he was born Odysseus Alepoudellis (Οδυσσέας Αλεπουδέλλης) in Iraklion, the capital of Crete, on 2 November 1911, into the Alepoudellis family, an old industrial family originally from Lesbos.

When he was three, the family moved to Athens, where he went to school and later studied law at the University of Athens.

He published his first poem in 1935 in the journal New Letters (Νέα Γράμματα) at the prompting of friends such as George Seferis. His entry with a distinctively earthy and original form assisted to inaugurate a new era in Greek poetry and its subsequent reform after World War II.

He was an army lieutenant during World War II, and fought on the Albanian frontline, resisting the Italian invasion.

After World War II, he was twice Programme Director of ERT, the Greek National Radio Foundation (1945-1946, 1953-1954). In between, he moved to Paris in 1948, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. He moved in literary and artistic circles that included Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Sartre, but was private and solitary in pursuing poetic truth. He worked for the BBC in London in 1950-1951.

His great epic poem, Το Άξιον Εστί (To Axion Esti, It is Worthy) was published in 1959, after a period of more than 10 years of poetic silence. It became one of the most widely read volumes of poetry published in Greece since World War II, and it remains a classic to this day.

The Axion Esti won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1960. Widely regarded as his chef d’oeuvre, it is a poetic cycle of alternating prose and verse patterned after the ancient Byzantine liturgy.

As in his other writings, Elytis depicts Greek reality through an intensely personal tone. It is a hymn to creation inspired by the Greek Orthodox liturgy and the 17th century epic poetry of Crete, including the Erotokritos (Ἐρωτόκριτος) by Vikentios Kornaros. It is a composition of song and praise that is all the more powerful for exploring the darkest of shadows at times. The speaker explores the essence of his being as well as the identity of his country and people.

At the invitation of the US State Department, he travelled throughout the US in 1961, and similar invitations brought him to the Soviet Union (1963) and Bulgaria (1965). He was awarded the First State Poetry Prize in Greece in 1960, and was decorated with the Order of the Phoenix in 1965.

Meanwhile, the composer Mikis Theodorakis set the Axion Esti to music in 1964, and it became immensely popular throughout Greece. This setting by Theodorakis later contributed to Elytis receiving the Nobel Prize.

During the colonels’ regime in Greece, Elytis lived in exile in Paris from 1969 to 1972. By then, The Axion Esti and its setting by Theodorakis had been taken to heart by lovers and revolutionaries alike, particularly during the resistance to the colonels’ regime.

Elytis returned to Greece, and in 1975 was awarded an honorary PhD by Thessaloniki University and received the honorary citizenship of Mytilene, his ancestral island of Lesbos.

He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979. He died of a heart attack in Athens on 18 March 1996, at the age of 84, and was buried at the First National Cemetery in Athens.

‘Its high mountains eagle-shaped, / Its volcanoes all vines in rows, / And its houses the whiter, / for neighbouring near the blue!’ … street art in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The setting of Το Άξιον Εστί (To Axion Esti) to music by Theodorakis as an oratorio, with its sheer beauty and musicality, provided anthems that were sung throughout Greece by in the resistance to injustice.

It is surprising, then, that it was not included by Constantine Trypanis in The Penguin Book of Greek Verse in 1971.

Edmund Keeley, who translated the epic into English, suggested the Axion Esti can ‘be taken best as a kind of spiritual autobiography that attempts to dramatise the national and philosophical extensions of the poet’s personal sensibility. Elytis’s strategy in this work … is to present an image of the contemporary Greek consciousness through the developing of a persona that is at once the poet himself and the voice of his country.’

The song I have been listening to in these recent weeks, Της Δικαιοσύνης Ήλιε Νοητέ, became a symbol of Greece seeking to recover and heal its wounds. It is one of the most dramatic songs heard in Greece, but at the same time one of the most inspirational and optimistic songs one can hear.

Grigoris Bithikotsis made the song his own in 1964 with his voice – as he did with so many pieces composed by Theodorakis, and he first made the song a symbol of an era:

After the restoration of democracy in Greece in 1974, this particular song from the Axion Esti became a popular hymn throughout Greece.

The song gave voice to the suffering of Greeks in previous generations and their struggle against the colonels’ junta, their desire for freedom, stability and progress.

Modern versions that are popular throughout Greece include this one sung by Yannis Kotsiras:

However, my favourite version is that recorded by one of Greece’s most loved singers, Maria Farantouri:

Elytis’ poems are written in rich language, filled with images from history and myths. His lines are long and musical, inspired by the Greek light, the sea, and the air.

Both Elytis and Theodorakis were born in Crete and were major figures in Greek culture throughout the second half of the 20th century. The only other Greek poet to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was George Seferis in 1967. Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), who was also born in Crete, received Nobel nominations on nine separate occasions, but never received the honour.

Theodorakis was especially drawn to the work of Elytis, whose writings were seen as a mirror to the revolutionary music of Theodorakis. The autobiographical elements are constantly coloured by allusions to the history of Greece, and his poems express a contemporary consciousness fully resonant with those echoes of the past that have shaped the modern Greek experience.

‘Its high mountains eagle-shaped, / Its volcanoes all vines in rows, / And its houses the whiter, / for neighbouring near the blue!’ … the White Mountains in Crete seen from Platanias in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Translating poetry and the lyrics of songs never does justice to the original, nor can it ever capture the passion of those who sing the song. So here are the original words, as adapted by Mikis Theodorakis, and a handful of recent efforts to translate the song:

Της Δικαιοσύνης Ήλιε Νοητέ Μίκης Θεοδωράκης:

Της δικαιοσύνης ήλιε νοητέ
και μυρσίνη συ δοξαστική
μη παρακαλώ σας μη
λησμονάτε τη χώρα μου!

Αετόμορφα έχει τα ψηλά βουνά
στα ηφαίστεια κλήματα σειρά
και τα σπίτια πιο λευκά
στου γλαυκού το γειτόνεμα!

Της Ασίας αν αγγίζει από τη μια
της Ευρώπης λίγο αν ακουμπά
στον αιθέρα στέκει να
και στη θάλασσα μόνη της!

Τα πικρά μου χέρια με τον Κεραυνό
τα γυρίζω πίσω άπ' τον Καιρό
τους παλιούς μου φίλους καλώ
με φοβέρες και μ' αίματα!

Μα' χουν όλα τα αίματα ξαντιμεθεί
κι οι φοβέρες αχ λατομηθεί
και στον έναν ο άλλος
μπαίνουν εναντίον οι άνεμοι!

Intelligible Sun of Justice
And you, Glorifying Myrtle
Do not, I implore you
Do not forget my country!

Its high mountains eagle-shaped,
Its volcanoes all vines in rows,
And its houses the whiter,
for neighbouring near the blue!

My bitter hands circle with the thunderbolt,
the other side of time.
I summon my old friends
with threats and running blood!

Intelligible Sun of Justice
And you, Glorifying Myrtle
Do not, I implore you
Do not forget my country!

Another translation goes like this:

Notional sun of justice
and you glorifying myrtle
don’t please don’t
forget my homeland!

It has eagle-shaped high mountains
terraced vineyards on the volcanoes
and the whiter houses
in the neighbourhood of the blue!

It almost meets Asia on one side
and almost touches Europe a little
it stands in the air
and in the sea by itself!

My bitter hands with the Thunder
I turn them before Time
I’m calling my old friends
with threats and blood!

But all the blood has been remunerated
and the threats all quarried
and one against the other
the winds are invading!

Odysseus Elytis was born in Iraklion in 1911 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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