Xanthou & Kyrkopoulou Abstract Herakles in modern Greek history

Maria Xanthou and Kleoniki Kyrkopoulou

The ‘defenders of the crown’ (Οἱ Ἡρακλεῖς τοῦ στέµµατος): the reception of Herakles in modern Greek history      

No sooner had the Danish Prince Christian William arrived in Greece (1863) as the kingdom’s new sovereign under the regnal name ‘King George [I] of the Hellenes’ (1863-1913), than he amended the royal coat of arms. The new coat of arms featured two masculine figures depicting the Greek mythological hero Herakles, holding a wooden club and wearing the lion skin. This revamped emblem of Greek monarchy bore revolutionary overtones, thus underpinning the ideological interplay between the modern identity of the newly founded state and its ancient past. It also exemplified the sovereign’s attempt to strike a balance between the political turmoil and the cultural dynamics surrounding the recently established state of Greece as constitutional monarchy. Herakles and the wooden club were used as symbols during the French Revolution and were revived to represent radical ideals. Herakles recalled Greek antiquity, a period which the revolutionaries identified with democratic and republican ideals, in order to represent the sovereign people of France. The appeal of the mythological hero carrying his wooden club as an emblematic revolutionary figure featured prominently in Rigas (Feraios) Velestinlis’ Map of Greece (1797). Rigas, a political thinker of Greek Enlightenment and a forerunner of Greek Resurgence, included the image of Herakles in his Map as a token of bravery and inspiration for the nascent identities of Christian nations in the Balkan region. He also aimed at anchoring these identities with the remote historical past of the region.

This chapter focuses on the ideological underpinnings of Herakles holding his wooden club and wearing the lion-skin in the coat of arms of Greek monarchy by examining the political and cultural dynamics underlying King George’s [I] of Hellenes’ choice of this mythological hero in the new monarchical emblem. The chapter pursues a series of questions intertwined with the establishment of Greek constitutional monarchy: how King George’s choice underscored the connections of the Greek royal house with other European dynasties; how the revolutionary and religious overtones of Herakles relate to the newly established constitutional monarchy in Greece; what imagery this particular coat of arms lent itself; and how it was used by critics and adversaries of the Greek parliamentary monarchy to negatively mark the monarch’s interference into politics in modern Greek history.

Provisional content for The Modern Hercules (Volume 1)