When you think of Greece, what images spring to mind? For many, it will be the famous white buildings of Santorini with their blue domes, set before the beautiful blue ocean.
Indeed, it is this kind of beautiful vista that the flag of Greece sets out to capture. If you have ever been to a Greek restaurant, you’ll know that the blue and white colour scheme is very prominent. The Greeks love their flag!
But despite being the home of one of the most advanced ancient civilizations, Greece only adopted it’s current flag 40 years ago. So how did we get here?
A Brief History
What we today know as flags have not always been around. Thousands of years ago, it would not even have been possible to make a flag, as the available materials would not have been light enough to blow in the breeze! However, as technology developed, so did flags. One of the earliest ancestors of the flag is the vexillum (hmm, what word could have developed from this?…), which was a square piece of fabric attached to a standard, used by militaries to show who they were fighting for. This is where we will start with Greece’s flag story.
In the 14th century, Greece was a cog in the Byzantine Empire. One of the only surviving flags of this empire is a red, square feild, featuring a golden cross and 4 letters “beta” (an early version of the letter B!).
The only element to have survived from this flag is the cross, which has been ever-present on Greek flags, due to Christianity’s importance in the country.
As the Byzantine empire fell and the Ottoman Empire took over the land of Greece, so began a tumultuous time for flags… well, and other things too, probably. This was a time when small states across Europe were unifying into big whopping empires and nations, and by that token, revolutions were very much in vogue. And these small states and rebellious factions of course needed flags to fly to show their colours. Colours which became more and more like what we know as the current Greek flag.
Below is a selection of these flags that are beginning to show more and more features of the Greek flag. They of course feature a cross, but also incorporate the colour white and various shades of blue into the designs.
However, by 1822 the Greeks formed an assembly to help them gain recognition as an independent nation. While drafting the constitution, they proposed a national flag, to unify the whole nation under one common flag. The new government was also seeking to distance itself from the rebels who had helped spark the independence wars. The proposed flag was for use on land (this will become important in a moment!), and featured a white cross on a blue field. This design was simple, but captured a lot of the nation’s history, playing on designs of the past from around the country.
There was a notable adjustment made to the flag over it’s 156 year stint as the national ensign. Twice during this time, Greece switched from republic to a kingdom. This was reflected in the flag, with the monarchs opting to add a gold crown to the center of the flag to represent them.
The constant switching of regimes was not a good time for the Greek people. The new republic government wanted to instill a new sense of national pride, and so turned to a popular flag among the people. Back in 1822 when the original land flag was adopted, a naval flag was also created. This flag featured nine alternating blue and white horizontal stripes, with a white cross on a blue field up in the upper left corner (canton).
This description may sound familiar, as in 1978 the government ruled that this naval flag be made the official national flag, and it has remained so ever since. Let’s take a look at what it symbolises.
The Current Flag
As previously mentioned, religion is hugely important in Greece. As of 2015, 90% of the total population of Greece identify as members of the Greek Orthodox Church, a branch of Christianity. This is represented by the cross in the canton.
When it comes to the significance of the nine horizontal stripes, the symbolism becomes more open to interpretation. Many speculate that they represent the nine letters in the Greek word for freedom (ελευθερία). On a similar note, a popular phrase during the Greek independence wars was “Freedom or Death”. When spoken in Greek as “eleftheria i thanatos”, this phrase has nine syllables – five in the first word (blue), four in the second (white). Finally, a theory more rooted in ancient mythology is that the stripes represent the nine Muses. The Muses are nine goddesses of art, literature and science and played a key roles in the society and beliefs of Ancient Greece.
Another area where we can only speculate is the colours of the flag. For starters, there is no official shade of blue specified in the flag laws. The law mentions “cyan”, but like a lot of words, the Greeks invented it, and in Greek it simply means blue.This leaves the particular shade of blue used completely to the discretion of flag makers, which is unusual for a national flag. As we have established, blue and white are important colours within Greece, appearing on various regional flags for centuries. It is believed that the blue of the flag represents the sea and the sky, which also happen to be two of the biggest elements of the Greek tourism industry! The white in this instance would represent the waves in the sea and white buildings seen across the country.
Overall, the flag of Greece is rich in it’s history. It conjures up fantastic image of a fiercely proud nation who overthrew their oppressors, while surrounded by beautiful deep blue water, all the while continuing the legacy of their ancient forefathers.
What are your thoughts on the flag of Greece? Do you like how it looks? Do you have any ideas on what else it might symbolise? Leave us a comment below! We would love to hear from you!