Michaletos Ioannis
(RIEAS Junior Analyst and Coordinator for the World Security Network Foundation Southeastern Europe Office)

Copyright: www.rieas.gr

During the first decades of the 19th century, a series of structural changes begun to be formatted in Europe that had as a consequent result the transformation of the then society. The Napoleonic wars, industrial revolution and the emergence of nationalism played a crucial role in shaping the world as we experience it nowadays, and laid down the foundations for the creation of most modern day, nation-states. The role of societies, such as the Philiki Etaireia – “Friends Society”, is vital, if one wants to comprehend the history by the angle of societal culminations, often being developed in an inconspicuous and even esoteric mode.

The Greek revolution in 1821 was an event being sought by generation upon a generation of Greeks, and the role of secret societies was fundamental to its success. The organizers of the first societies aiming to overthrown the Ottoman Empire, were mostly merchants and intellectuals that held strong contacts with the Greek Diaspora, or were in tune with the seismic changes that were occurring across Europe. Since 1790’s, Rigas Feraios (1) drafted the plan for a Balkan federation by throwing the Ottoman yoke and creating a society that would adhere to the basic principles of the Enlightenment and the humanitarian approach towards the needs of the then society.

Moreover, 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 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 with a select few. 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 already by 1812 the Greeks in Moscow were 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) the ancient symbol of the Phoenix – the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes – is frequently encountered in Greek mysticism. Ioannis Kapodistrias would become the first head of state in Greece (1827-1831) and was the head 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 Xenodocheio, - “Greek-speaking hotel- was founded by the Greek intellectual, Gregorios Salykes and amongst the original membership Athanasios Tsakalof could be found; one of the triad that formed Philiki Etaireia. This particular society has as an official purpose to promote the spirit of the ancient Greek civilization, in reality though 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 “Bound 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, so as to promote their goals.

In 1813, another society, named the Filomousos Etaireia, -“Society of friends of music”-, was inaugurated in Athens (5) and had a pro-British orientation and recruited its members through 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, instead it quickly dissolved.

The most important society and the one that is the scope of this paper; is the Philiki Etaireia that was established on the 14 of September 1814 in Odessa by 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 has been 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 has associated themselves with other revolutionary secret organizations and were equipped intellectually in coping 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 “Charcoal-burners” Carbonarism 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 Ellinoglwsso Xenodoxeio (the “Greek-speaking Hotel”), an 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 populous by recruiting significant numbers of prominent and important individuals to its ranks. Up until 1816 only 20 members were active, whilst by 1820 there were at least 1096 and the following year they must have topped 10,000, even though historical research hasn’t 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, Saint Petersburg and Trieste. Also the members involved with the Philiki Etaireia included most of the protagonists of the Greek revolution and the likes of Kolokotronis, Mavrokordatos, Kountouriotis, Androutsos, Negri, Palaion Patron Germanos, Zaimes, Papaflessas, anagnostaras and many other; virtually the revolution was staged by members of the Philiki Etaireia.

The organizational structure of the society was based in models already being 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. Of course it 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 type 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 opperandi. 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 for their intentions and examined their character and motivation. Afterwards, there 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 believed that is an organization that generally protects the rights of the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire.

The ones promoted to the rank of the “Priest” were the members that showed courage and aptitude of character beyond any doubt. A series of dialogues and thoughtful consideration was needed before anyone was admitted in this degree. When it was decided the following events took place: The candidate along with his initiator met in a “Safe house” where the candidate holds a lit candle in front of a Christian Orthodox icon. Afterwards the “Big oath” was sworn and after that the “Priest” acquired the rights and obligations of its rank. He had to learn the signs and gestures in order to communicate in orderly fashion with the rest of the society. Nevertheless the “Priests” could never get acquainted with the Heads behind the whole of the society’s structure and communicated with them, only through the “Shepherds” that 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, and at least two cases have been historically documented.

In 1818 Philiki Etaireia, transferred its base from Odessa to Constantinople, whilst the same year Skoufas died. Later on Ioannis Kapodistrias the Greek foreign Minister of the Russian state was cajoled in order to become the supreme leader of the organization, but he declined. Only in 1820, another Russian domiciled Greek, Alexandros Ypsilanti accepted 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, therefore the revolution started on 24th of February in modern day Romania, in Iasio. After the formal announcement of the Greek revolution in mainland Greece in March 1821; Philiki Etaireia was somehow dissolved and its members participated in the numerous battlefields across Greece.

The founding members of the society weren’t elected in public offices or claimed fortune and fame for their struggles. In essence 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 mysteriously in the realm of history. Even nowadays, the full course of Philiki Etaireia has not been sufficiently uncovered, and especially the miraculous way by which it managed to remain unruffled by outside infiltration and most importantly how it managed its resources successfully in an era without the modern conveniences of telecommunications and transport.

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. Needless to say that 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. 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 between dominated by the existence of city-states and locales; the social dynamics often call for the structure of social dynamics based upon the existence of  informal groups of individuals, sharing kinship or often intellectual like interests.

In modern day era, a very intriguing enquiry would be as to how relevant and organizationally viable such societies would be. The emergence of the “Global village” through the use of internet and telecommunication revolution greatly assists any similar operations. Moreover the Diaspora of the Greeks is considerable and world-wide, to a greater extent than it was two centuries ago. Amongst the members of the Philiki Etaireia, the conclusive pattern of behavior was the one influenced from the experience of either living or studying abroad and the exclusion from the traditional power-structures, being dominated by the state officials (Ottoman then), the local chieftains and the Greek Patriarch church in Constantinople. Eras might have changed, but the pursuit of national ideals remains, especially if the administration selected and elected is not willing or capable of honoring its mandate and advancing the common good.

Drawing the comparison to the contemporary age and taking into consideration the different societal structure, one cannot firmly exclude the creation of a similar “Philiki Etaireia” in relation to issues affecting modern day Greece. The various economic, social and political affairs that perennially hinder Greek development might be addressed by groups of people organized on a similar fashion like their ancestors 200 hundreds years ago, or even in related organizations in the 20th century.

The great advantage for them would be the existence of an extraordinary telecommunication infrastructure system, namely the internet that facilitates communication, recruitment, vetting, observation, information gathering and analysis. In a sort of way technology has made available to the wider public tools to empower itself, especially in the form of secret societies and related associations. Therefore it cannot be excluded that already such societies are operational and most probably fully comprehend the need of addressing all-timely values using latest technological know-how. Times change and at the same time remains stagnant, so as to paraphrase the great Greek philosopher Heracletus and his ingenious approach to the complexities of life.


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

(2) http://www.balkanalysis.com/2006/09/28/freemasonry-in-greece-secret-history-revealed/

(3) http://web.mit.edu/dryfoo/Masonry/Altf/gl-greece.html

(4) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbonari

(5) http://w38.fhw.gr/chronos/11/tgr/en/frameset.html?431

(6) http://www.macedonian-heritage.gr/Athos/Monastery/dionysiou.html


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. 

BarrettD avid 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

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