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The History of a Greek Secret Society: Structure and Rites of the Philiki Etaireia
04-26-2009, 02:51 PM,
The History of a Greek Secret Society: Structure and Rites of the Philiki Etaireia
The History of a Greek Secret Society: Structure and Rites of the Philiki Etaireia
11/5/2007 (

By Ioannis Michaletos

The Greek revolution in 1821 was a key event that has been investigated and explored by generation after generation of Greeks. As such, the role of secret societies, which were fundamental to its success, has attracted great interest as well. The organizers of the first societies aiming to overthrow the Ottoman Empire were mostly merchants and intellectuals who held strong contacts with the Greek diaspora, or who were in tune with the seismic changes that were then occurring across European societies. As early as the 1790’s, Rigas Feraios (1) drafted a plan for a Balkan federation that was to replace Ottoman rule, creating a society that would adhere to the basic principles of the Enlightenment and the humanitarian approach towards the needs of society.

In 1790, in Vienna, an organization similar in some respects to the Masons was formed by Greek merchants and intellectuals. It was called “Bon Cuisines,�? and was presumably associated with the Greek pre-revolutionary intellectual Rigas Feraios, one of the leading figures in spreading revolutionary idea among those Greeks still living under the Turkish occupation. This era was one of intellectual ferment, following the American and French revolutions, and thus offered an excellent environment for the dissemination of new ideas. This ideological development would ultimately lead to the dissolution of the world of empires and the emergence of the nation-state.

In the case of Greece, it seems that the lodges became veritable repositories of knowledge, where the information and ideals needed to start an uprising were collected and shared within a select circle of conspirators. Usually, these were Greeks of the diaspora who had the intellectual capacity, as well as the capital, to take the first decisive revolutionary actions.

In 1810, one of the leading figures of Corfu, Dionysius Romas, merged together the two existing local lodges, Filogenia and Agathoergia, and thus created the Grand Anatolian Lodge of Hellas and Corfu (2). After this event, Masonic lodges mushroomed across the Hellenic world, so that by 1812 the Greek community in Moscow was able to organize a formidable secret society. Under the auspices of Ioannis Kapodistrias, the then-Russian Foreign Minister, a Masonic lodge that encompassed the Greek elite of Tsarist Russia and played an important role towards creating the framework for the forthcoming Greek revolution was created.

Interestingly, it was named the “Phoenix Lodge�? (3), alluding to the ancient symbol of the Phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes. This reference is frequently encountered in Greek mysticism. After the Greek revolution, Ioannis Kapodistrias would become the first head of state (1827-1831), and even before was the leader of the Phoenix Lodge while still in Moscow. In fact, he even named the first Greek currency ‘phoenix,’ but after his assassination by a Greek clan chief, the famous ‘drachma’ was born. The grandest Greek secret society of them all, the Philiki Etaireia (“Friendly Society�?) used the phoenix as its symbol. Nowadays it is still one of the symbolic emblems of the Freemason Lodges in Greece. Lastly, during the Junta in Greece (1967-1974) the symbol of the regime was the Phoenix again; presumably this owed to the membership of some of its officers in certain Greek Masonic lodges.

Furthermore, in 1809 in Paris, the organization Ellinogloso Xenodoheio (“Greek-speaking hotel�?) was founded by the Greek intellectual, Gregorios Salykes. Amongst the original membership was Athanasios Tsakalof, one of three men who would form the Philiki Etaireia. This particular society aimed to promote the spirit of ancient Greek civilization, though in reality it promoted national independence for Greece and functioned according to the Italian Carbonari conspiracy methods (4). Its members received a golden ring, with the inscription “FEDA�? (Filikos Ellinon Desmos Alytos), meaning, “a bond between friendly Greeks cannot be broken.�? Despite the enthusiasm of the members, their pro-French orientation and the end of the Napoleonic era in Europe in 1815 diminished their ambitions of creating a Greek-French alliance to promote their goals.

In 1813, another society, named the Filomousos Etaireia (Society of friends of music) was inaugurated in Athens (5). This one had a pro-British orientation and recruited its members from the ranks of the haute-society of the Athenian merchants and land-owners. It never became a dominant force in the then complex system of Greek secret societies, however, quickly dissolving soon after.

The most important society, the Philiki Etaireia, was established on the 14th of September 1814, in Odessa, by Greek diaspora figures Athanasios Tsakalof, Nikolao Skoufa and Emmanouel Ksaanthos. It is worthwhile to note that the date of the society’s creation was that of the “Holy Cross,�? which in the Greek Orthodox calendar is associated with the miraculous victory of the Byzantine Empire against a combined Avar-Persian siege in 614 AD. According to hagiographic tradition, Constantinople was in dire danger of falling to the barbarians, until the patriarch of the city ran across the walls, armed with an icon of the Virgin Mary (the icon now resides in the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mt. Athos). (6)

Considering the symbolism and importance of the day for the Greek nation, one can assume that the creators of the Philiki Etaireia chose it in order to highlight to their followers the historical role that this organization planned to play in the future. All of the three founders associated himself with other revolutionary secret organizations and were equipped intellectually to cope with the strains of managing such societal methods for a national and political set of goals.

Ksanthos was a member of the Lodge of Lefkada, while Skoufas’ associate Konstantinos Rados was a devotee of the Italian Carbonarism (“Charcoal-burners�?) movement, an equivalent to the Greek group which sought the unification of Italy. For his part, the much younger Tsakalov had been a founding member of Ellinoglosso Xenodoheio, the unsuccessful precursor to the Etairia that was devoted to the same goal of an independent Greece.

Philiki Etaireia soon progressed to become the driving force in the uprising of the Greek populace, recruiting significant numbers of prominent and important individuals into its ranks. Up until 1816, only 20 members were active, whereas by 1820 there were at least 1,096 members, and the following year membership must have topped 10,000, even though historical research has not been able to identify the exact numbers. The geographical spread was also impressive, since it expanded in all states and cities with a Greek diaspora presence, from Alexandria to Constantinople and Saint Petersburg to Trieste. Also, the members involved with the Philiki Etaireia included most of the protagonists of the Greek revolution, including the likes of Kolokotronis, Mavrokordatos, Kountouriotis, Androutsos, Negri, Palaion Patron Germanos, Zaimes, Papaflessas, Anagnostaras and many other; the revolution was indeed largely staged by members of the Philiki Etaireia.

The organizational structure of the society was based on models already tested and assessed by the Carbonari and other revolutionary movements. Its leadership was portrayed as the “Invisible authority,�? supposedly a very high-ranking personality in Europe at that time. In reality there was not such authority and the three founders were the actual culprits from the start. This grandiose image was used mainly as a propaganda tool in order to exercise a stronger clout to the newcomers that wanted to believe in the presence of a powerful political force promoting the Greeks. In 1818, the organization changed and the ruling authority was named “The authority of the 12 Apostles�?, being composed by the three founding members and another nine figures.

The society followed a pyramid structure that remained unknown to its members, and orders were to be followed instantly and without hesitation. There were also four initiation rites, each one corresponding to a greater intimation with the motives of the organization and its modus operandi. Therefore, the first degree was the one of the “Brother,�? the second of the “Referenced One,�? the third one of the “Priest�? and the higher of the “Shepherd.�?

The role of the “Priests�? was to recruit newcomers, after having being assured of their intentions and after having examined their character and motivation. Afterwards, they were taken to a church and made to swear in the Bible the following: “I swear in the name of freedom and justice and in front of the supreme being; to preserve the society even if I have to suffer the worst torture and my life perishes, and I will answer truthfully anything being asked by the society.�? The newcomer repeated three times in total the oath and afterwards he was considered a member of the Philiki Etaireia. At that stage he was not fully aware of the underlying greater motives of the society, having understood simply that the organization was generally concerned with protecting the rights of the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire.

The initiates promoted to the rank of the “Priest�? were the members that showed courage and aptitude of character beyond doubt. A series of dialogues and thoughtful consideration was needed before anyone was admitted in this degree. When it was decided that one would in fact be selected, the following events took place: The candidate, along with his initiator, met in a “safe house�? where the candidate would hold a lit candle in front of a Christian Orthodox icon. Afterwards the “Great Oath�? was sworn, and after that the “Priest�? acquired the rights and obligations of his rank. He had to learn the signs and gestures in order to communicate with the rest of the society. Nevertheless the “Priests�? could under no circumstances become acquainted with or communicate with the heads of the general society, but only through the “Shepherds,�? who acted as the link between the administration and the rest. The latter were selected by the “Priests�? after a selective process, in a similar fashion. In all four ranks of the society, everyone was obliged to follow the decisions by the heads of the Etaireia, and could not take initiatives without prior notification. The society firmly believed in the mutual obligation of everyone to secrecy, to the extent that those who revealed its secrets were murdered; at least two such cases have been historically documented.

In 1818, the Philiki Etaireia transferred its base from Odessa to Constantinople; in the same year, leader Skoufas died. Later on Ioannis Kapodistrias, the Greek foreign minister of the Russian state, was cajoled into becoming the supreme leader of the organization, but he declined. Only in 1820 did another Russian-domiciled Greek, Alexandros Ypsilanti, accept the offer. The original plan for the revolution was to simultaneously organize uprisings throughout the Balkans and make an attempt to destroy the Ottoman fleet in Constantinople. Some of the plans seemed to have been compromised, however, with the result that the revolution started on the 24th of February in modern-day Iasio, Romania. After the formal announcement of the Greek revolution in mainland Greece in March 1821, the Philiki Etaireia was somehow dissolved and its members participated in numerous battles fought across Greece. The founding members of the society were not elected to public office, nor did they claim fortune and fame for their struggles. In essence, the Philiki Etaireia was a formidable example of a patriotic society that managed in less than seven years to create a revolutionary spirit in Greece and then disappeared, as mysteriously as it had arisen, into the realm of history. Even nowadays, the full history of the Philiki Etaireia has not been sufficiently uncovered, and especially the almost miraculous way in which it managed to remain impervious to outside infiltration. How it managed its resources successfully in an era without the modern conveniences of telecommunications and transport is another engaging question for researchers today.

Similar societies both before and after have drawn from a rich tradition of esoteric customs, symbols and activities. These can be traced ultimately back to the pagan mystery cults of Greek Antiquity, and the later crypto-Christian groups (when Christians were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire). It can even be argued that the pyramidal, multi-leveled organizational hierarchy of the Philiki Etairia resembles somewhat the neo-Platonic conception of the universal organization of ideality and divinity as laid out by ancient authors such as Porphyry and Plotinus.

If all of these are indeed manifestations of the unique Greek passion for convoluted and complex organization, irrational rules and secrecy (the undoing of which would open onto time-honored themes of scandal and betrayal), then one can perceive a continuous historical tradition, in which Greek secret societies become just one epoch’s manifestation of the seminal impulses and psyche of a people.

Numerous historical incidents and developments have been either shaped or influenced by societies in Greece resembling the original Philiki Etaireia one. The expulsion of King Otto in 1862, the Greek-Turkish war in 1897, the revolution in 1909 and the installation of Venizelos, and many other cases, attest to this dynamic. There is a strong linkage between the formation of secret societies in Greece and the expectation of either peripheral or worldwide events of national interest. Due to the unique history in Greece of society ordered alternately by city-states and local self-rule, social dynamics often have called for the participation of informal groups of individuals, sharing kinship or often intellectual interests.


(1) Yiannis Kordatos, Rigas Feraios and Balkan Federation, (Athens, 1974)







Panagiotopoulos, V., “Oi tektones kai i Philiki Etaireia. Emm. Xanthos kai Pan. Karagiannis”, Eranistis, (1964)

Vakalopoulos, A., “Symvoli stin istoria kai organosi tis Philikis Etaireias”, Ellinika, 12 (1952-1953)

Vournas, T., Philiki Etaireia. A’: To paranomo organotiko tis. B’: O diogmos tis ap’ tous xenous, Athens, Tolidi, 1982

Yiannis Kordatos, Rigas Feraios and Balkan Federation (Athens, 1974)

Further readings on secret societies:

Arkon Daraul, (1961). Secret Societies. London. Citadel Press. ISBN-13: 978-1567312911

Axelrod, Alan (1997). The international encyclopedia of secret societies and fraternal orders. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0-8160-2307-7.

Barrett, David V. Secret Societies. From the Ancient and Arcane to the Modern and Clandestine. London. Blandford.ISBN 0713727721

Whalen, William Joseph (1966). Handbook of secret organizations. Milwaukee: Bruce Pub. Co. LCCN 66-026658
06-16-2010, 08:36 AM,
RE: The History of a Greek Secret Society: Structure and Rites of the Philiki Etaireia

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