Some years ago, I was re-reading Stratis Myrivilis’ classic anti-war novel Η ζωή εν τάφω (Life in the Tomb), a harrowing account of life in the trenches of the Macedonian Front during World War I, first published in 1924. Suddenly I stopped. In a scene describing how he was billeted with a Slav family, the author describes the woman as a Μακεδονίτισσα, that is, a Macedonian woman. In another passage, the author goes on to observe that the Slavs of the region he found himself in, “δὲ θέλουν νά ᾽ναι μήτε Μπουλγκάρ, μήτε Σρρπ, μήτε Γκρρτς. Μονάχα Μακεντὸν ὀρτοντόξ“, that is, “they don’t want to be neither Bulgarian, nor Serbian nor Greek. Only Macedonian Orthodox.” Tellingly, in later editions, Myrivilis, who came from the island of Lesvos, removed this most contentious sentence, but allowed the reference to the Μακεδονίτισσα to remain.

I was dumbfounded. Here was no less a personage than Stratis Myrvilis, three time nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and strident anti-communist, in a novel that established him as a master craftsman of Greek prose, and with the work itself constituting a turning point in the development of Modern Greek prose fiction, describing Slavs as Macedonian, at a time when, according to the vast majority of accounts, the so-called “Macedonian ethnic identity” had neither been invented nor articulated. Furthermore, his subsequently deleted observation seemed to attest to the fact that despite Greek and Bulgarian assertions to the contrary, in some sections of the regional Slavic population at least, there must have, during the First World War, which is the period Myrivilis describes, some sort of conviction that they had a “Macedonian identity”, regardless of whether this was historically plausible. I was deeply disquieted.

My sense of mystification grew upon discovering in Ion Dragoumis’ influential book Μαρτύρων και ηρώων αίμα (Blood of Martyrs and Heroes) published in 1907, presents a dialogue between a Greek and Bulgarian prisoner in Thessaloniki, in which reference to a Μακεδονικὴ γλῶσσα (a Macedonian language) is made. In the dialogue, the Greek protagonist goes on to deny that the language is Bulgarian, stating: “Σεῖς θέλετε νὰ κάμετε δικὸ σας τὸ διαμέρισμα τοῦ Μοναστηριοῦ καὶ τὸ Μοναστήρι, ἐπειδὴ βρίσκονται μερικὰ χωριὰ ἐκεῖ ποὺ μιλοῦν τὴν μακεδονικὴ γλῶσσα, ποὺ τὴ λέτε σεῖς βουλγάρικη” (“You want to make the region of Monastiri and Monastiri yours, because there are a few villages there that speak the Macedonian language, which you call Bulgarian”). Astoundingly, Ion Dragoumis has the Greek prisoner go on to state that: “Τὴ γλῶσσα αὐτὴ πρῶτα-πρῶτα δὲν τὴν μιλοῦν ὅλοι, ἀλλὰ μόνο μερικοὶ Μακεδόνες, χωριάτες. Ἔπειτα, ἐκεῖνοι ποὺ τὴ συνηθίζουν, τὴ μιλοῦν μόνο στὸ σπίτι καὶ ὄχι στὴν ἀγορὰ, ὅπου μιλιοῦνται τὰ ἑλληνικὰ, καὶ τέλος ἡ γλῶσσα αὐτὴ δὲν εἶναι βουλγάρικη, ἀλλὰ ἕνα ἀνακάτωμα ἀπὸ σλαυικὰ καὶ ἑλληνικἀ. Βουλγαρικὴ γλῶσσα δὲν εἶναι . . .
“Firstly, this language is not spoken by all but only by some Macedonians, villagers. Further, those who use it, only speak it at home and not in the marketplace, where Greek is used and finally, this language is not Bulgarian, but a mixture of Slavic and Greek. It is not Bulgarian.”

In one fell swoop, Ion Dragoumis not only appears to disagree with the Modern Greek contention that the language of FYROM is Bulgarian, but is adamant in showing that it has no relationship with Bulgarian whatsoever.

This is significant because Ion Dragoumis was one of the main instigators of the Macedonian Struggle and it is arguable that if it was not for him, Macedonia would not have been liberated and included within the Modern Greek state at all.

Indeed, his book Blood of Martyrs and Heroes, which contains the above contentious passages, was written by Dragoumis to tacitly argue for the annexation of the region to Greece. What possible reason could this ultra-patriotic nationalist Greek hero have to advance a position which, if propounded today, would have him branded a traitor and a communist by even mild-mannered contemporary Greek patriots?

In her 1937 children’s book about the Macedonian Struggle Τα μυστικά του βάλτου (Mysteries of the Swamp) Penelope Delta referred to the slavic idiom as “Μακεδονική διάλεκτο” (the Macedonian Dialect). Elsewhere, she states: “Ἦταν ἕνα κράμα ὅλων τῶν βαλκανικῶν ἐθνικοτήτων τότε ἡ Μακεδονία. Ἕλληνες, Βούλγαροι, Ρουμάνοι, Σέρβοι, Αλβανοί, Χριστιανοὶ καὶ Μουσουλμάνοι, ζοῦσαν φύρδην-μίγδην κάτω ἀπό ταὸν βαρύ ζυγὸ τῶν Τούρκων. Ἡ γλῶσσα τους ἦταν ἡ ἴδια, μακεδονίτικη, ἕνα κράμα καὶ αὐτή ἀπὸ σλαβικὰ καὶ ἑλληνικά, ἀνακατωμένα μὲ λέξεις τούρκικες…” (“Macedonia was then a conglomeration of all the Balkan ethnicities: Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanian, Serbs, Albanian, Christians and Muslims lived higgledy-piggedly under the heavy Turkish yoke. Their language was the same, Macedonic, a conglomeration of Slavic and Greek, mixed in with Turkish words.”)

Quite apart from the fact that Penelope Delta was Ion Dragoumis’ lover, in possibly one of the most powerful and tragic love affairs of early Modern Greece, Delta, like Dragoumis, was a staunch proponent of the necessity to liberate and annex Macedonia to the Greek state.

How is it possible then, that she would advance a position about the language of the region that appears to refute the oft-cited Greek contention that there is no such thing as a Macedonian language and that the concept was invented by Tito in 1944, especially when Delta predates Tito by seven years and Dragoumis, by 37 years?

Furthermore, as early as 1858, in the newspaper Αυγή (Dawn) intellectual Alexander Rhangavis made fun of Bulgarian philhellene and accomplished poet in the Greek language Grigor Parlichev, also known as Grigorios Stavridis, for writing a poem protesting the disrespect shown by a visiting Russian, in a Greek church. Rhangavis stated that as Parlichev, the winner of the prestigious Academy of Athens poetry prize and hailed as the “Second Homer” was a ‘Macedonian’ (he was born in Ohrid) he ought to be grateful to the Russians. Parlichev himself identified as Bulgarian. Why would Rhangavis, refer to him as a Macedonian, almost a century before the concept of such an ethnic identity existed?

From the above examples we can see that even among nationalistic Greeks there has been inconsistency in the use of terms to describe the Slavs of the region and/or their language.

In Rhangavis’ example, the term Macedonian is used maliciously, he is seeking to impugn Parlichev’s attachment to Greece by emphasising his Slavic roots supposedly giving him an affinity to the Russians he so derides.

There is no evidence, however, that Rhangavis is using the term in an ethnic sense. He is merely being extremely nasty and stupid.

Even in the cases of Dragoumis and Delta, their musings over the “Macedonian language” should not necessarily be taken as supporting the linguistic aspirations of the modern inhabitants of FYROM. None of them were linguists. Instead, their observations are deeply political.

In the face of Bulgarian claims on the region and the irrefutable fact that a Slavic idiom was spoken there, both Dragoumis and Delta are seeking to differentiate that idiom from Bulgarian as much as possible, by emphasising its hybrid quality (both claim it is a conglomeration) and its regional quality, which is why Dragoumis describes it as “Macedonian” and Delta as “Macedonic.” None of them recognise a “Macedonian” ethnic identity.

Dragoumis’ dialogue in his book then cleverly goes on to state that language is no determinate of ethnic identity, having his Greek protagonist state: “Θέλουν ὅμως ἢ δὲν θέλουν νὰ εἶναι ἕλληνες; Καὶ ἀφοῦ τὸ θέλουν, δὲν ξέρω ἂν ἡ γλῶσσα ποὺ μιλεῖ κανεὶς εἶναι ἀρκετὴ ὰπόδειξη τοῦ ἐθνισμοῦ ἑνὸς λαοῦ.” (“Do they or do they not want to be Greeks? And since they do, I don’t know whether the language one speaks constitutes adequate proof of a people’s ethnic identity.”)
In other words, in a period before any ‘Macedonian identity’ was claimed, Dragoumis tried to differentiate a regional language from Bulgarian nationalist aspirations by regionally rebranding it, in a manner that would have been completely out of context today. He then goes on to advance the contention that the Slavs speaking the idiom he terms Macedonian are lapsed Greeks, which is why linguistic considerations, in his view, are unimportant when assessing ethnic identity.

As for Myrivilis’ observation that persons he came across identified as “Macedonian Orthodox,” does this constitute evidence of the emergence of such an identity, much earlier than is commonly accepted by Greeks? Or does it merely evidence a reaction of a people, caught between competing nationalist claims and not wishing to buy into either? A theory considered by historian Nada Boskovska in her book Macedonia [sic] Before Tito. The fact that he caused the observation to be removed in later editions, when the Macedonian issue took a different turn, probably suggests that he too, was merely trying to distance the Slav speakers he came across from the Bulgarians, in order to “gain them from Hellenism,” in a manner which would be unacceptable to the contemporary Greek position on the Macedonian Issue.

After all, just because the people Myrivilis describes felt that they were “Macedonian,” doesn’t mean that they actually were.

Ultimately, the terms we use reflect political necessities and context of the times. Their meanings and connotations shift over time in a manner over which their original coiners have no control, and if taken out of their historical frame of reference can give rise to misunderstandings and misconceptions. Had they lived now, it is most likely that the abovementioned authors would have avoided those contentious terms.

Nonetheless, the way they employed them in their writing testifies to crucial changes in the negotiation of identity, within the geographical region of Macedonia, prior to the emergence of the Macedonian issue in its most modern form.