Category: Belief and Worldview

Hellenisms: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity from Antiquity to Modernity

Edited by Katerina Zacharia. 2008. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing. 492 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6525-0 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Maria Hnaraki, Drexel University

[Review length: 601 words • Review posted on April 27, 2009]


This volume reflects on Hellenism. Its compilation of essays is selective but not exhaustive, embracing Greek identity from antiquity to today under a major question: what, how, and whom does the term “Hellene” identify and express?

Katerina Zacharia, associate professor and chair of Classics and Archaeology at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, is the editor of the volume. She has done a satisfying job in collecting balanced articles that meditate on the expression of Greek ethnic identity and its functions throughout various historical moments.

Hellenisms is divided into three major sections, which are arranged chronologically. Herodotus, the so-called father of historiography and ethnography, is chosen to initiate a marriage of the Greek past with the present and possibly a promising future: in one of his passages Greeks declare they shall never compromise with the Persians due to different blood, language, religion, and customs.

The first section of the volume is entitled “Hellenic Culture and Identity from Antiquity to Byzantium” and includes five entries. Zacharia examines Herodotus’s four markers of Greek identity, whereas Hornblower analyzes archaic and classical identity, Burstein Hellenistic, Mellor Roman, and Rapp Byzantine.

“Cultural Legacies: Traveling Hellenisms: Mediterranean Antiquity, European Legacies, and Modern Greece” consists of four entries. Most, Augustinos, Liakos, and Livanios speak about Greek identity and the concept of Hellenism in modern Greek history, religion, education and national politics. All these authors underline the importance of classical education as a serious trend and integral part of both European nationalism and the Greek Enlightenment era.

The third part of the volume, “Ethnic Identity: Places, Contexts: Movement Facets of Hellenism: Hellas, Europe, Modern Greece, Diaspora,” consists of five entries. Stewart, Zacharia, and Mackridge decipher notions of contemporary Greek identity as cultural history, in folkloric expressions, and as an aesthetic rendering of nationhood within Greece, whereas Anagnostou and Leontis cover similar ground but in reference to the Greek diaspora.

All volume entries embrace a significant bibliography for each time period and share a common thread: they are all in search of notions that would denote “nationality,” creating, in other words, an “ethnic” group. Additionally, these authors perceive identity as something fluid, thus in constant motion and development. Remarkable is the select glossary section at the end of the book.

Katerina Zacharia wishes this to be an ongoing project and welcomes Greek scholars’ responses in regard to the multiple versions of Greekness in order to further map future research directions. This is why she also hopes for a general audience rather than a strictly academic readership.

In an epoch when, due to the crossings of borderlines, identities are not always going safely through customs, I judge this book particularly helpful. For an identity, such as, in particular, the Greek, which remains solid even though “tainted” by various foreigners historically, continuity was and is a sensitive issue.

The volume is significant for the study of Eastern Mediterranean cultures, a place of continuous religious and political conflict, ethnic amalgamation, and cultural syncretism. It is useful for folklorists as it clearly defines how folklore is a weapon for establishing, promoting, and defending national identity. Because its essays are independently conceived, selective articles can be examined autonomously.

As a Greek myself, I wonder: with whom throughout my long history do I identify more? The book’s cover, an oil painting by surrealist Nikos Engonopoulos, Argo, affirms the essence of the book: the only way to reach Greekness is by sailing through the Symplegades (Clashing Rocks) of East and West, in other words, by achieving a journey determined by fluidity, hybridity, and multi-vocality. After all, that is what constitutes and establishes diachronically not Hellenism but Hellenisms.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.