Greeks and the Sea. A love affair

Greeks don’t like the sea; they adore her. Thalassa (θάλασσα, η), as they call her, is a Greek primordial goddess after all. Together with another god named Pontos, they created all sea creatures.

It goes without saying that many nations, such as Japan, have a close bond to the sea and the activities that take place in our oceans. Today, we will explore why Greeks have developed this special bond and how they express their love for the body of salty water that surrounds them.

Why Greeks Adore the Sea:

  1. Greece is Surrounded by the Sea
  2. Greece is a Seafaring Nation
  3. The Hellenic Navy is One of the Greatest in the World
  4. Greeks are Inspired by the Deep Blue Color of their Seas
  5. Greeks are Spiritually Connected to the Sea

Greece is Surrounded by the Sea

To begin with the obvious, Greece is surrounded by the sea and specifically by the Aegean, Ionian, and Cretan Seas, with all three being part of the Mediterranean basin. The country is basically a peninsula with thousands of islands.

Greece actually has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean, which is over 13.000 km long, and approximately 6.000 islands and islets. Some of them are inhabited, while the great majority are uninhabited. Due to its unique geography, Greece is associated with the sea and its people view the large body of water as part of their lives. The deep blue color of the Greek seas was even the inspiration behind the colors of the Greek national flag.

greek maritime shipping

Greece is a Seafaring Nation

If you deconstruct Greece, you will, in the end, see an olive tree, a grapevine, and a boat remain.”

-Odysseas Elytis

Are modern Greeks just like the mythical Argonauts who explored the seas in search of the golden fleece of Colchis? Believe it or not, modern Greeks are still a great seafaring nation. It is even rumored that the great explorer of the seas, Christopher Columbus (Χριστόφορος Κολόμβος), had a Greek ethnic background. Although his origins are not exactly clear, if you travel to the Greek island of Chios, you will find what is known as the Columbus’ family home in Pirgi village. The village had been under the rule of Genoa in the past and that is why many believe that he is considered Genoan rather than Greek. But as you can imagine, this topic is quite ambiguous and controversial.

As a seafaring nation, Greeks also financially rely on maritime transportation. If you watched Helinika’s video on Greece’s Christmas traditions, then you already know that Greeks initially decorated miniature wooden boats for the holidays, instead of Christmas trees. That is because most Greek families have at least one close family member who works in maritime shipping. The vessels stand near the family dinner table in the place of those who are traveling during the holidays, transporting goods from port to port.

This comes as no surprise thinking that the small European country has the biggest shipping fleet in the world based on carrying capacity. Greeks carry 17.77% of the world’s goods that are transported in our oceans and Greek shipowners control a big part of the global carrying capacity.

Let’s not forget that one of the most well-known and wealthiest maritime shipping owners to have ever existed is no other than the Greek Aristotle Socrates Onassis. At the same time, one of the greatest seafarers of all times was Odysseus, king of Ithaca, as we’ve seen in Helinika’s podcast episode that is dedicated to ancient Greek heroes.

The Hellenic Navy is One of the Greatest in the World

Along with maritime shipping, the navy of Greece – the Hellenic Navy – is one of the most important in the world. In fact, it is ranked as the 22nd largest navy globally by total number of vessels, despite Greece being a relatively small country. The Hellenic Navy is a Green-water navy, meaning that it is able to operate in the open oceans of its surrounding regions. Its motto is “Μέγα τὸ τῆς θαλάσσης κράτος” from Thucydides’ account of Pericles’ oration that “the rule of the sea is a great matter”.

It is important to note that the Hellenic Navy hails from the naval forces which fought during the Greek War of Independence that started in 1821. The symbol of the naval forces of Greece are the anchor, the Christian cross, and the trident. The latter is no other than the weapon of the ancient Greek god of the seas, Poseidon.

The Greek military has always been strong at the seas. Let’s not forget the battle of Salamis in 480 BC against the Persian Empire. Although the Greeks were outnumbered, they managed to win against the forces of King Xerxes thanks to their impeccable naval skills. This victory is historical, since it could have changed the course of the Greek history.

Greeks are Inspired by the Deep Blue Color of their Seas

If you ask a Greek whether they’d prefer to spend their summer holidays in the mountains or by the sea, they will probably think you are making a joke. And many will agree that, even if it would be cheaper to fly to an island, there is nothing like traveling to your destination by boat. And there is nothing like a house on top of a hill, overlooking the archipelago.

The sea has been a source of inspiration for Greek people, especially writers, poets, and artists, who often moved to small islands before producing one of their greatest works. George Seferis, who won the Nobel prize in literature in 1963, how he “went past many capes many islands the sea, leading to another sea, gulls and seals.” And Odysseas Elytis wrote how Eros, love, is an archipelago or a ship and

on its highest mast the

sailor waves

A song”.

Countless paintings, books, and poems have been created by artists who had the Greek seas as their muse. And it doesn’t come as a surprise that the Greek language has multiple words to describe the sea and the seaside: θάλασσα, γιαλός, ακρογιαλιά, ακροθαλασσιά, παραλία, ωκεανός…

Greeks are Spiritually Connected to the Sea

The sea is not only a source of inspiration for the Greeks. Thalassa, the sea, is often seen as living entity. Not only was there a goddess, Thalassa, who represented the salty body of water, but there was an Olympian god who ruled the seas: Poseidon. Many more deities and, such as Triton, were also associated with the sea. And let’s not forget the most recent folktale of mermaid Thessaloniki, sister of Alexander the Great, who is thought to lurk in the waters of Northern Aegean.

If you think that the spiritual connection to the sea is now lost, you are mistaken. Modern Greeks have a Saint who protects sailors and sea travel: Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas).

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Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.