Elias Petropoulos

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Elias Petropoulos
Died3 September 2003
SchoolDecadence, Folklore

Elias Petropoulos (Greek: Ηλίας Πετρόπουλος; 1928–2003) was a Greek author, folklorist and urban historian. He was born in Greece but spent much of his life in France, holding a unique place in the intellectual life of Europe. A self-described "urban anthropologist," he wrote widely and seriously on aspects of Greek life which were rarely considered objects of serious study: the design of the ubiquitous balconies, courtyards, ironwork, and windows of Greek buildings, the methods and vocabulary of preparing coffee and the art of telling fortunes from coffee-grounds, the traditional layout and functioning of brothels, the role of bean soup as an unheralded Greek national dish, the specialized slang of the Greek homosexual scene — it is claimed that his book Kaliarda (Καλιαρντά) was the first dictionary of gay slang in any language — the Greek drug users' underworld, and above all, the Greek musical form rebetiko, of which he was certainly the major historian. His work, Rebetika Traghoudhia, extensively documents the lyrics and instrumentation of this music, as well as the lifestyle associated with it. The publication of the first edition of this book in Greece in 1968 so scandalized the ruling dictatorship that he was jailed for five months.[1] Subsequent controversial books he authored resulted in several more jail sentences and fines, resulting ultimately in his decision to leave Greece to live permanently in France.[2] He also published poetry, both original and in translation.


Early life[edit]

Petropoulos was born in Athens on 26 June 1928, but spent his early years in Thessaloniki, where his father, a junior civil servant, was transferred when Elias was six. During World War II, Petropoulos was active in Greek resistance movement against Nazi occupation[3]. His father was killed at the front. The body was never found and this scarred young Elias for the rest of his life. In 1947 during the Greek Civil War, he was briefly imprisoned for his participation in Democratic Army of Greece. Afterwards he finished high school, got a job in the Thessaloniki city council as a minor civil servant, and finished a degree in Law in the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. In 1949 he was fired from his post because of his convictions, after which he spent 8 years unemployed and marginalised. During this period he was a region secretary of United Democratic Left In 1958 he started his long trajectory as a writer, essayist and political commentator which lasted until his death. In 1963, when progressive politician Gregoris Lambrakis was assassinated by right-wing extremists in Thessaloniki, Petropoulos wrote lengthy articles in local newspapers. Despite writing anonymously, he was interrogated by the police for his opinions. He married and later divorced Nafsika Kataki (Bebe) and they have a daughter named Lyda Petropoulou (architect).

Later years[edit]

In 1965 he moved to Athens and started working as a columnist in "Mesimvrini" newspaper and "Eikones" monthly. At the same time he published his first major treatise, concerning three significant figures of contemporary Greek culture, eponymously titled "Elytis Moralis Tsarouchis". In the following ten years he embarked in a thorough and systematic exploration of Greek marginal subcultures. He befriended homosexuals, prostitutes, rebetiko musicians, hashish smokers, petty thieves and many other people that populate the margins of Greek society. He studied their culture, language and customs, and wrote extensively about them. At the same time he turned his critical skills and corrosive sense of humour against the hypocrisy of dominant culture and the corruption and repression of the Greek state. The most notable books of this period are:

·"The manual of the good thief" ("Το εγχειρίδιο του καλού κλέφτη"), a satirical but precise description of the criminal underworld, the practices of the police (including an extensive and detailed description of the methods of torture employed) and the state of the Greek prisons of the time.

·"Kaliarnta" ("Καλιαρντά"), a glossary of the idiom used between homosexuals and transvestites at the time, which is thought to be the first gay slang dictionary written in any language.

·"Rempetika Traghoudia" ("Ρεμπέτικα Τραγούδια"), an extensive cataloguing and analysis of the Rebetiko musical style, an urban music that emerged in Greece in the early 20th century and was prohibited and marginalised until well after the 1950s.

The publishing of this controversial material that is often irreverent towards the establishment and defies attempts at censorship, earned Petropoulos three different jail sentences during the dictatorship of the colonels. It is an interesting fact that Petropoulos was the only Greek during the 7-year dictatorship that had an identity card stating that he was an atheist. (Religious beliefs were obligatorily mentioned on Greek identity documents until recent years). The continuous persecution that outlasted the dictatorship forced him to self-exile in Paris, where he continued writing and publishing ethnographic works. There he studied Turkology and later he started lecturing at various Universities, most notably the Free University of Berlin.

In 2003 he died of cancer in Paris at the age of 75. According to his will, his body was cremated and his ashes were thrown in a sewer by his lifelong partner Mary Koukoule. This scene was captured on film in the 2004 documentary "Elias Petropoulos: A world underground" ("Ηλίας Πετρόπουλος: Ένας κόσμος υπόγειος"), directed by Kalliopi Legaki. The documentary, that contains the last interview given by Petropoulos and an overview of his life and work, was given the Award of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) in the 2005 Thessaloniki Film Festival.

Published works[edit]

Petropoulos was the author of a large number of books, most of which have not been translated into English and many of which are out of print. The following select bibliography attempts to list all of his books in English or French, and the major works in Greek.

Books by Elias Petropoulos:

  • Καλιαρντά 2nd. ed, Athens, Kedros, 1971.
  • A macabre song: testimony of the goy Elias Petropoulos concerning anti-Jewish sentiments in Greece. With a postscriptum by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, texts translated from the Greek and from the French by John Taylor. Paris: [s.n.], 1985 (Paris: Atelier Mérat)
  • Old Salonica. Athens, Kedros, 1980.
  • Rebetika: songs from the Old Greek Underworld translated by John Taylor, illustrated by Alekos Fassianos. London, Alcyon Art Editions, 1992. ISBN 1-874455-01-5
  • Ρεμπέτικα τραγούδια. 2nd ed., Athens, Kedros, 1983.
  • Songs of the Greek Underworld: The Rebetika Tradition. Trans. with introduction and add. text by Ed Emery. London, Saqui Books, 2000.

Film about Elias Petropoulos


  1. ^ Ed Emery. "Songs of the Greek Underworld". Retrieved 5 October 2008.
  2. ^ Taylor, John "Elias Petropoulos the Mounopsira", Maledicta V. 5 Nos. 1-2 (Summer-Winter 1981) p. 12.
  3. ^ "Rizospastis.gr - Πέθανε ο Ηλίας Πετρόπουλος". 2003-09-05.