Sacred words, profane music? The Free Monks as a musical phenomenon in contemporary Greek Orthodoxy

Sacred words, profane music? The Free Monks as a musical phenomenon in contemporary Greek OrthodoxyThe Free Monks (Eleftheroi) are a Greek rock band of black-robed Orthodox monks who, through their music and other activities, have attempted to interact with Greek young people and to break away from the mould of Orthodox clergy as stiff and distant. The example of the Free Monks provides an instructive case study of current attempts to modernize Greek Orthodoxy and to enhance its popular appeal, particularly among young people.


In order to grasp the social mission and appeal of the Free Monks it is important to understand the Greek religious landscape--i.e. the socio-religious environment from which the group was born. Crucial in this respect is the link between national identity and the religious tradition in Greece. The bonds between Hellenism and Orthodoxy in Greece are summed up in the concept of "Helleno-Christianity", an all-encompassing notion embracing not only culture, but also a larger historical, intellectual and spiritual heritage that continues to shape modern Greek identity up to this day. (1) "Helleno-Christianity" is the term used by Greek historians and intellectuals to represent the historical and cultural continuity of ancient Greece, through Byzantium, to modern Greece (Makrides 1991; Tsoukalas 1999). Helleno-Christianity is in some respects synonymous with Helleno-Orthodoxy, which has played such a key role in modern Greek identity.

Orthodoxy lends itself historically to nationalism, and it is with this in mind that the Church of Greece continues to justify its legitimacy in Greek society. Helleno-Orthodoxy is a body of thought which holds together the national unity of Greece both institutionally and culturally. On the one hand, the bonds of Greek society and Orthodoxy are maintained through a variety of institutions (Church, state, education) as well as cultural and religious activities. On the other, Helleno-Orthodoxy resonates in various aspects of contemporary Greek public life, including Church-state relations, civil/religious celebrations, popular religiosity, rites of passage and the education system.

After the Greek War of Independence and the creation of the autocephalous Church of Greece, the Church was placed under the authority of the newly created Greek state, a move that prevented both the creation and the development of a free and truly independent Greek Church (Agouridis 2002). (2) The Church of Greece is governed by its own Holy Synod but remains under the authority of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, which pays the salaries of priests and approves the appointments of bishops and the licensing of church buildings for all religious denominations (Makrides 1994; Stavrou 1995; Papastathis 1996). (3) According to Article 3 of the Greek Constitution of 1975, which is declared in the name of the Holy Trinity, the prevailing religion of the Greek population is Eastern Orthodoxy, under the authority of the autocephalous Church of Greece, but united in doctrine to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Although Article 13 of the Constitution protects freedom of religious conscience and worship for known religions, proselytism is prohibited (Pollis 1992; Alivizatos 1999; Konidaris 1999). The Orthodox Church is granted significant legal and financial privileges compared with other churches in Greece. (4) Furthermore, the Orthodox clergy are frequently invited to give a blessing during national civil celebrations, military parades (which coincide with religious feasts and ceremonies), presidential and government inaugurations, and in prisons. As a result of these arrangements, the Church expects state protection through the Constitution and other legal and financial means, just as the state depends on the Church as a homogenizing and unifying force in Greek society (Kokosalakis 1996).

Although belief in God remains relatively high, Greek society is characterized by a passive rather than active attachment to the Church, with attendance limited for the most part to special occasions (Kokosalakis 1996). (5) Almost all Greek people turn, for example, to the Orthodox Church for rites of passage--i.e. baptisms, marriages, and burials. (6) Popular religious and national festivals and major feasts of the Christian year are also important and reveal the presence of popular religion in Greece (Kokosalakis 1995, 1996; Alivizatos 1999; Stavrou 1995; Makrides 1994; Dubisch 1990). (7) It is important to note, however, that church attendance has showed signs of growth rather than decline between 1985 and 2000 (Georgiadou and Nikolakopoulos 2001). It is also clear that the monastic life in Mt. Athos is undergoing something of a revival--some monasteries being strengthened by new recruits coming from Australia and America as well as from traditionally Orthodox countries. Small but visible conservative groups ("Neo-Orthodox" groups) continue to exist, seeing religion as synonymous with Greek citizenship (Kokosalakis 1996; Stavrou 1995). Forms of "Neo-Orthodoxy" emerged in the 1990s, supported by intellectuals, artists and theologians, aiming to revive a forgotten and, in their terms, more authentic Orthodox tradition (Fokas 2000; Makrides 1998). Finally, despite recent attempts to liberalize Greek religious education, the Greek school system continues to transmit Helleno-Orthodoxy into the new generations through mandatory weekly religious instruction. The religious education curriculum consists essentially of an Orthodox interpretation of Christian faith and ethical issues (Argyriou 1992; Sotirelis 1998; Molokotos-Liederman 2004). (8)


Christian rock and pop music, particularly in the USA, is commonplace. We have also become accustomed to the international success of a group of Benedictine monks who, in the 1990s, introduced Gregorian chants to the domain of popular music. Eleftheroi (literally meaning "Free" in modern Greek), or Free Monks, as they call themselves in English (see their web, are a new phenomenon for Orthodox Christianity. The Free Monks, most commonly called Paparokades (the Rocking Priests) in Greece, are a group of Greek Orthodox monks and ordained priests from the independent monastery of Saint Augustine and Seraphim Sarof in the village of Trikorfo, in Central Greece. Aged between 18 and 35 years and clothed in long black robes, they look like any traditional Greek Orthodox monk that you would expect to meet in a monastery. Their goal, however, is to break the archetype of Orthodox clergy as being rigid, narrow-minded, passive and out of touch. Their slogan is "if you do not come to our side, then we will come to yours" (translation/

Since 2000 the Free Monks have produced four musical albums. The first, I Learned to Live Free, struck a chord among Greek youth, with its debut song and other titles such as Anarchy and Rock and Pal, I'm Down. The word Eleftheroi has been chosen to convey both the "freedom to think, speak, decide and act according to one's will," and the "freedom from passions and sins and every type of fascism, which may attempt to dictate or impose their opinion on the individual" ( It follows that the Free Monks want to convey a message of freedom and autonomy through God from any form of control and oppression. The songs contain patriotic and biblical themes, and warnings against the negative consequences of globalization, drugs, materialism and technology. Accompanying MTV style videos feature monks singing a type of modern rock music that is very different from the slower and evenly paced rhythm of traditional sacred music (Martin 2002). The "Europop and ecclesiastically influenced rock vocals" are, however, accompanied by relatively traditional musical ideas, for example, a chorus, the sound of church bells and traditional Greek musical instruments (BBC News OnLine, 22 April 2002).

The Free Monks give regular concerts across the country usually featuring Father Panteleimon and Father David (the lead singers) in traditional black robes, and other male and female singers. A chorus of young people in contemporary dress accompanies the group, singing and following the music with subtle body movements. These subtle movements are as non-provocative as possible, possibly reflecting the Church's somewhat unfavorable view of dancing, often associated with eroticism (Martin 2002). Proceeds from the concert performances are almost always donated to charities and social causes, including programs to treat diabetics, drug addiction, the Special Olympics and children with special needs (Vossou 2002).