Epitaphios does not have the singular meaning “epitaph,” as one might expect from the usage of the term in antiquity. In modern Greek, epitaphios is the replica of the sepulcher of Christ that is carried around the parish and venerated on Good Friday evening, in the reenactment of the transport of Christ's dead body from Golgotha to the tomb. It is also the term used for the lament (epitaphios threnos) of Mary, not as the mother of god, but as a mother whose child has been executed. For a description of the procession and the lyrics of the lament, see Panourgiá 1995.
Chapter 2. 1936–1944: The Metaxas Dictatorship, the Italian Attack, the German Invasion, German Occupation, Resistance
On May 8, 1936, a major strike and demonstration by tobacco workers was organized in Thessaloniki. The response of the gendarmerie was immediate and brutal. The next day the strike spread to other professions, and a new demonstration took place. This time the response of the gendarmerie, aided by the army, which sent in an equestrian force and a motorized unit, was not only brutal but lethal, leaving twelve dead and thirty-two seriously wounded, all of them demonstrators. The photograph of the mother of Tasos Tousis, one of those killed by the gendarmes, leaning over the body of her dead child as it lay stretched out on a makeshift stretcher that his co-workers had put together, has become emblematic of the brutality of the time. The poet Yiannis Ritsos, whose poem Epitaphios is a lament alongside the lament of that mother, has noted how deeply shocked he was by that image, which brought to mind the lament of the Virgin over Christ. He wrote Epitaphios in ten days .
On the same day, the army took over the policing of the city, but a number of soldiers joined the strikers. The Communist Party, much as it tried, did not manage to take advantage of this chaotic (and absolutely revolutionary) moment, but the strike galvanized the labor movement in prewar Greece. The brutality of the police during the strike has remained legendary and has informed expectations concerning police action, especially since it revealed, again, the means that the liberal state is willing to use in order to remain in power. The strike was over on May 11, after all the demands of the strikers were satisfied—mainly, the establishment of an eight-hour work day and a state system of pensions and medical coverage. Although both measures had been in the works for some time, Metaxas came to be credited with them. The political fallout from the strike was long-lasting, and it precipitated Metaxas's ascent to political power and his determination to produce a pliable and compliant body politic.
This event is one of the revenants of history. In 1958, Ritsos sent Epitaphios to Mikis Theodorakis, then a young composer. As a musical setting for the poem, Theodorakis followed Ritsos's lead and blended folk themes into his learned endeavor. In 1960, he finished the composition Epitaphios, using folk instruments, such as the bouzouki, and untrained musicians and singers (Grigoris Bithikotsis) to produce a haunting lament. Like all of Theodorakis's work Epitaphios was banned from being publicly performed on and off until 1974, but the music circulated clandestinely, thus helping further the mystique and romanticization of the Left and of antiestablishment culture, producing topoi where the rift between those who were “with us” and those who were “against us” could crystallize.
Yiannis Ritsos's Epitaphios is emblematic of the new relationship that the state was producing with its intellectuals and artists, what in Greece is called diannöese (and could be translated as “intellectuality”). Metaxas, with his severe anti-intellectualism and populism, managed to produce the body of the intellectuals as anti-Metaxians, not because they were engaged in any sort of resistance to his attempts at totalitarianism but because they were involved in artistic production that was not actively supportive of the dictatorship. Metaxas's anti-intellectualism was not formulated in a vacuum, as he had witnessed the development of a new modality of artistic production that was actively engaged in social and cultural critique in the poetry of C. P. Cavafy, Konstantinos Karyotakis, and Nikos Kazantzakis (in his Odyssey). This appeared during the last years of the 1920s and echoed the melancholy of the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922, the bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie, and a critique of the establishment. In a sense, the introspective intellectualism of the 1920s not only prepared the space for the Surrealist, symbolicist, and hellenocentric introspection of the “generation of the thirties” but also presaged Metaxas's position toward intellectualism in general. Unlike elsewhere, where dictatorial regimes were openly supported by intellectuals and literary figures (such as Martin Heidegger, Gottfried Benn, Gabriele d'Annunzio, Ezra Pound, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Luigi Pirandello, Knut Hamsun, and C. S. Lewis, to name a few), in Greece there is no such open artistic collaboration, and Metaxas's journal Neon Kratos (New State) never managed to attract serious submissions.
The “generation of the thirties,” which included both of the Greek Nobel Prizewinners for poetry, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis, was not a movement but an orientation. It included poets (apart from Seferis, Elytis, and Ritsos, also George Sarandaris, Nikos Engonopoulos, Andreas Embeirikos, Nicholas Calas), novelists (Helias Venezis, Stratis Myrivilis, Kosmas Politis, Yiorgos Theotokas, Aggelos Terzakis, Melpo Axiotou, Ioanna Tsatsou), painters (Spyros Vassileiou, Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas, Yiannis Moralis, Yiannis Tsarouchis), essayists and literary critics (Linos Politis, Konstantinos Dimaras, Zisimos Lorentzatos), architects (Dimitris Pikionis, Aris Konstantinidis), choreographers (Rallou Manou, Zouzou Nikoloudi), actors and directors (Karolos Khun), musicians (Menelaos Palladios, George Sicilianos), photographers (Voula Papoioannou, Nicholaos Tombazis), German-educated philosophers (Constantine Tsatsos, Evaggelos Papanoutsos, Ioannis Theodorakopoulos), folklorists (Angeliki Hadjimichali and Dora Stratou), classicists (Ioannis Kakridis), and, by association, Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller. All of them—managed, organized, and (more importantly) conceptualized as a lose unit by George Katsimbalis (the prototype for Henry Miller's The Colossus of Marousi)—navigated Metaxism without siding with the dictatorship, precisely because Metaxas a priori considered the arts to be fundamentally opposed to his project. Ritsos's Epitaphios, however, was the first book of modern Greek poetry to be burned in public as dissident. This happened in 1938 in a central spot in Athens, along with five hundred other books—ironically at Hadrian's Gate, named for a Roman emperor who supported and sheltered the arts and letters. Among the banned books and littérateurs were Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, and Sophocles's Antigone. Ritsos, a member of the Communist Party by 1938, started writing more symbolic poetry after the pyre, so that his writings could get past the censorship office (where Seferis was stationed for some time). The poetic gestures of Cavafy, Karyotakis, Varnalis, and Kazantzakis produced an air, an environment, within which literature and critical thought came to signify a dangerous zone that could be inhabited and populated by everyone (Leftist or Centrist) who was not engaged or implicated in actively supporting the dictatorship. Some of these artists, however, became active supporters of the oppressive postwar governments and their methods of reproducing the body politic (as did Myrivilis, Venezis, and Konstantinos Tsatsos). Karen Van Dyck has commented on the employment (and deployment) of “paralogy” (a logos and a discourse that exist outside the margins of logic but are performed as a new kind of logic) in literary works produced under the Metaxas dictatorship, such as those by Tsatsos and Seferis, in which both those “poets and the regime all espoused 'Greekness' ” (Van Dyck 1998: 50). The bibliography on the generation of the thirties (especially in literature) is vast, but as a general overview Vitti 1971 remains indispensable. For approaches that are more critical, see Lambropoulos 1988, Gourgouris 1996, Leontis 1995.