Nikos Kazantzakis

Last updated

Nikos Kazantzakis
Nikos Kazantzakis.jpg
Born(1883-03-02)2 March 1883
Kandiye, Crete, Ottoman Empire
(now Heraklion, Greece)
Died26 October 1957(1957-10-26) (aged 74)
Freiburg im Breisgau, West Germany
(now Germany)
OccupationPoet, novelist, essayist, travel writer, philosopher, playwright, journalist, translator
Nationality Greek
Education University of Athens
(1902–1906; J.D., 1906) [1]
University of Paris
(1907–1909; DrE, 1909) [1]

Nikos Kazantzakis (Greek : Νίκος Καζαντζάκης [ˈnikos kazanˈd͡zacis] ; 2 March (OS 18 February) 1883 [2]  26 October 1957) was a Greek writer. Widely considered a giant of modern Greek literature, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in nine different years. [3]


Kazantzakis's novels included Zorba the Greek (published in 1946 as Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas), Christ Recrucified (1948), Captain Michalis (1950, translated Freedom or Death), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). He also wrote plays, travel books, memoirs, and philosophical essays, such as The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises . His fame spread in the English-speaking world due to cinematic adaptations of Zorba the Greek (1964) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

He translated also a number of notable works into Modern Greek, such as the Divine Comedy , Thus Spoke Zarathustra , On the Origin of Species , and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey . [4]


Kazantzakis in 1904 Nikos Kazantzakis 1904.jpg
Kazantzakis in 1904

When Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Kandiye, now Heraklion. Crete had not yet joined the modern Greek state (which had been established in 1832), and was still under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. From 1902 to 1906 Kazantzakis studied law at the University of Athens; his 1906 Juris Doctor thesis title was Ο Φρειδερίκος Νίτσε εν τη φιλοσοφία του δικαίου και της πολιτείας [1] ("Friedrich Nietzsche on the Philosophy of Law and the State"). Then he went to the Sorbonne in 1907 to study philosophy. There he fell under the influence of Henri Bergson. His 1909 doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne was a reworked version of his 1906 dissertation under the title Friedrich Nietzsche dans la philosophie du droit et de la cité ("Friedrich Nietzsche on the Philosophy of Right and the State"). [1] Upon his return to Greece, he began translating works of philosophy. In 1914 he met Angelos Sikelianos. Together they travelled for two years in places where Greek Orthodox Christian culture flourished, largely influenced by the enthusiastic nationalism of Sikelianos.

Kazantzakis married Galatea Alexiou in 1911; they divorced in 1926. Kazantzakis met Eleni Samiou in 1924. [5] They began a romantic relationship in 1928, though they were not married until 1945. Samiou helped Kazantzakis with his work, typing drafts, accompanying him on his travels, and managing his business affairs. [5] They were married until his death in 1957. Samiou died in 2004. [6]

Between 1922 and his death in 1957, he sojourned in Paris and Berlin (from 1922 to 1924), Italy, Russia (in 1925), Spain (in 1932), and then later in Cyprus, Aegina, Egypt, Mount Sinai, Czechoslovakia, Nice (he later bought a villa in nearby Antibes, in the Old Town section near the famed seawall), China, and Japan.

While in Berlin, where the political situation was explosive, Kazantzakis discovered communism and became an admirer of Vladimir Lenin. He never became a committed communist, but visited the Soviet Union and stayed with the Left Opposition politician and writer Victor Serge. He witnessed the rise of Joseph Stalin, and became disillusioned with Soviet-style communism. Around this time, his earlier nationalist beliefs were gradually replaced by a more universalist ideology. As a journalist in 1926 he got interviews from Miguel Primo de Rivera and the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

During WWII he was in Athens and translated the Iliad , together with the philologist Ioannis Kakridis. In 1945, he became the leader of a small party on the non-communist left, and entered the Greek government as Minister without Portfolio. He resigned this post the following year. In 1946, Kazantzakis became the head of the UNESCO Bureau of translations, the organization which promoted translations of literary work. However, he resigned in 1947 to concentrate on writing, and indeed produced most of hist literary output during the last ten years of his life. [7] [8]

In 1946 The Society of Greek Writers recommended that Kazantzakis and Angelos Sikelianos be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1957, he lost the Prize to Albert Camus by a single vote. Camus later said that Kazantzakis deserved the honour "a hundred times more" than himself. [9] In total Kazantzakis was nominated in nine different years. [10]


Epitaph on the grave of Kazantzakis in Heraklion. It reads "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free." Grabmal von Nikos Kazantzakis-1.jpg
Epitaph on the grave of Kazantzakis in Heraklion. It reads "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

Late in 1957, even though suffering from leukemia, he set out on one last trip to China and Japan. Falling ill on his return flight, he was transferred to Freiburg, Germany, where he died. He is buried at the highest point of the Walls of Heraklion, the Martinengo Bastion, [11] looking out over the mountains and sea of Crete. His epitaph reads "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free." (Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα. Δε φοβούμαιτίποτα. Είμαι λέφτερος.) Kazantzakis developed this famously pithy phrasing of the philosophical ideal of cynicism, which dates back to at least the second century CE. [12]

The 50th anniversary of the death of Nikos Kazantzakis was selected as main motif for a high-value euro collectors' coin; the €10 Greek Nikos Kazantzakis commemorative coin, minted in 2007. His image is on the obverse of the coin, while the reverse carries the National Emblem of Greece with his signature.

Literary work

Kazantzakis's first published work was the 1906 narrative, Serpent and Lily (Όφις και Κρίνο), which he signed with the pen name Karma Nirvami. In 1907 Kazantzakis went to Paris for his graduate studies and was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson, primarily the idea that a true understanding of the world comes from the combination of intuition, personal experience, and rational thought. [13] The theme of rationalism mixed with irrationality later became central to many of Kazantzakis's later stories, characters, and personal philosophies. Later, in 1909, he wrote a one-act play titled Comedy, which was filled with existential themes, predating the post-World War II existentialist movement in Europe spearheaded by writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus. After completing his studies in Paris, he wrote the tragedy, "The Master Builder" (Ο Πρωτομάστορας), based on a popular Greek folkloric myth.

Medallion honoring Kazantzakis in the Venetian loggia of Heraklion Kazantzakisloggia.jpg
Medallion honoring Kazantzakis in the Venetian loggia of Heraklion

Through the next several decades, from the 1910s through the 1930s, Kazantzakis traveled around Greece, much of Europe, northern Africa, and to several countries in Asia. Countries he visited include: Germany, Italy, France, The Netherlands, Romania, Egypt, Russia, Japan, and China, among others. These journeys put Kazantzakis in contact with different philosophies, ideologies, lifestyles, and people, all of which influenced him and his writings. [14] Kazantzakis would often write about his influences in letters to friends, citing Sigmund Freud, the philosophy of Nietzsche, Buddhist theology, and communist ideology and major influences. While he continued to travel later in life, the bulk of his travel writing came from this time period.

Kazantzakis began writing The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel in 1924, and completed it in 1938 after fourteen years of writing and revision. [14] The poem follows the hero of Homer's Odyssey , Odysseus, as he undertakes a final journey after the end of the original poem. Following the structure of Homer's Odyssey, it is divided into 24 rhapsodies and consists of 33,333 lines. [13] While Kazantzakis felt this poem held his cumulative wisdom and experience, and that it was his greatest literary experience, critics were split, "some praised it as an unprecedented epic, [while] many simply viewed it as a hybristic act," with many scholars still being split to this day. [14] A common criticism of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel was aimed at Kazantzakis's over-reliance on flowery and metaphorical verse, a criticism that is also aimed at his works of fiction. [13]

Many of Kazantzakis's most famous novels were published between 1940 and 1961, including Zorba the Greek (1946), Christ Recrucified (1948), Captain Michalis (1953), The Last Temptation of Christ (1955), and Report to Greco (1961).

Scholar Peter Bien argues that each story explores different aspects of post-World War II Greek culture such as religion, nationalism, political beliefs, the Greek Civil War, gender roles, immigration, and general cultural practices and beliefs. [13] These works also explore what Kazantzakis believed to be the unique physical and spiritual location of Greece, a nation that belongs to neither the East nor the West, an idea he put forth in many of his letters to friends. [14] As the scholar Peter Bien argued, "Kazantzakis viewed Greece's special mission as the reconciliation of Eastern instinct with Western reason," echoing the Bergsonian themes that balance logic against emotion found in many of Kazantzakis's novels. [13]

Two of these works of fiction, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ had major motion picture adaptations in 1964 and 1988 respectively.

Nikos Kazantzakis commemorative coin 2007 Greece 10 Euro Nikos Kazantzakis front.jpg
Nikos Kazantzakis commemorative coin

Language and use of Demotic Greek

During the time when Kazantzakis was writing his novels, poems, and plays, the majority of "serious" Greek artistic work was written in Katharevousa, a "pure" form of the Greek language that was created to bridge Ancient Greek with Modern, Demotic Greek, and to "purify" Demotic Greek. The use of Demotic, among writers, gradually started to gain the upper hand only in the turn of the 20th century, under the influence of the New Athenian School (or Palamian).

In his letters to friends and correspondents, Kazantzakis wrote that he chose to write in Demotic Greek to capture the spirit of the people, and to make his writing resonate with the common Greek citizen. [13] Moreover, he wanted to prove that the common spoken language of Greek was able to produce artistic, literary works. Or, in his own words, "Why not show off all the possibilities of demotic Greek?" [13] Furthermore, Kazantzakis felt that it was important to record the vernacular of the everyday person, including Greek peasants, and often tried to include expressions, metaphors, and idioms he would hear while traveling throughout Greece, and incorporate them into his writing for posterity. [13] [14] At the time of writing, some scholars and critics condemned his work because it was not written in Katharevousa, while others praised it precisely because it was written in Demotic Greek.

Several critics have argued that Kazantzakis's writing was too flowery, filled with obscure metaphors, and difficult to read, despite the fact that his works were written in Demotic Greek. Kazantzakis scholar Peter Bien argues that the metaphors and language Kazantzakis used were taken directly from the peasants he encountered when traveling Greece. [13] Bien asserts that, since Kazantzakis was trying to preserve the language of the people, he used their local metaphors and phrases to give his narrative an air of authenticity and preserve these phrases so that they were not lost. [13]


Throughout his life, Kazantzakis reiterated his belief that "only socialism as the goal and democracy as the means" could provide an equitable solution to the "frightfully urgent problems of the age in which we are living." [15] He saw the need for socialist parties throughout the world to put aside their bickering and unite so that the program of "socialist democracy" could prevail not just in Greece, but throughout the civilized world. [15] He described socialism as a social system which "does not permit the exploitation of one person by another" and that "must guarantee every freedom." [15]

Kazantzakis was anathema to the right-wing in Greece both before and after World War II. The right waged war against his books and called him "immoral" and a "Bolshevik troublemaker" and accused him of being a "Russian agent". [16] He was also distrusted by the Greek and Russian Communist parties as a "bourgeois" thinker. [16] However, upon his death in 1957, he was honored by the Chinese Communist party as a "great writer" and "devotee of peace." [16] Following the war, he was temporarily leader of a minor Greek leftist party, while in 1945 he was, among others, a founding member of the Greek-Soviet friendship union.

Religious beliefs and relationship with the Greek Orthodox Church

While Kazantzakis was deeply spiritual, he often discussed his struggle with religious faith, specifically his Greek Orthodoxy. [17] Baptized Greek Orthodox as a child, he was fascinated by the lives of saints from a young age. As a young man he took a month long trip to Mount Athos, a major spiritual center for Greek Orthodoxy. Most critics and scholars of Kazantzakis agree that the struggle to find truth in religion and spirituality was central to a great deal of his works, and that some novels, like The Last Temptation of Christ and Christ Recrucified focus completely on questioning Christian morals and values. [18] As he traveled Europe, he was influenced by various philosophers, cultures, and religions, like Buddhism, causing him to question his Christian beliefs. [19] While never claiming to be an atheist, his public questioning and critique of the most fundamental Christian values put him at odds with some in the Greek Orthodox Church, and many of his critics. [18] Scholars theorize that Kazantzakis's difficult relationship with many members of the clergy, and the more religiously conservative literary critics, came from his questioning. In his book Broken Hallelujah: Nikos Kazantzakis and Christian Theology, author Darren Middleton theorizes that, "Where the majority of Christian writers focus on God's immutability, Jesus' deity, and our salvation through God's grace, Kazantzakis emphasized divine mutability, Jesus' humanity, and God's own redemption through our effort," highlighting Kazantzakis's uncommon interpretation of traditional Orthodox Christian beliefs. [20] Many Orthodox Church clergy condemned Kazantzakis's work and a campaign was started to excommunicate him. His reply was: "You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I" ("Μου δώσατε μια κατάρα, Άγιοι πατέρες, σας δίνω κι εγώ μια ευχή: Σας εύχομαι να ‘ναι η συνείδηση σας τόσο καθαρή, όσο είναι η δική μου και να ‘στε τόσο ηθικοί και θρήσκοι όσο είμαι εγώ"). While the excommunication was rejected by the top leadership of the Orthodox Church, it became emblematic of the persistent disapprobation from many Christian authorities for his political and religious views.

Modern scholarship tends to dismiss the idea that Kazantzakis was being sacrilegious or blasphemous with the content of his novels and beliefs. [21] These scholars argue that, if anything, Kazantzakis was acting in accordance to a long tradition of Christians who publicly struggled with their faith, and grew a stronger and more personal connection to God through their doubt. [18] Moreover, scholars like Darren J. N. Middleton argue that Kazantzakis's interpretation of the Christian faith predated the more modern, personalized interpretation of Christianity that has become popular in the years after Kazantzakis's death. [20]

The Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, the leader of the Orthodox Church, declared in 1961 in Heraklion: “Kazantzakis is a great man and his works grace the Patriarchal library.”

Bibliography of English translations

Plaque for Kazantzakis, 13 rue Du Sommerard, Paris Plaque Nikos Kazantzakis, 13 rue Du Sommerard, Paris 5e.jpg
Plaque for Kazantzakis, 13 rue Du Sommerard, Paris
A bust in Heraklion Nikos Kazantzakis Statue in Heraklion.jpg
A bust in Heraklion
Postcard from Nikos Kazantzakis to his physician Max-Hermann Horder, 13 September 1957, Chongqing Nikos Kazantzakis Postkarte an Max-Hermann Horder 1957 aus China.jpg
Postcard from Nikos Kazantzakis to his physician Max-Hermann Hörder, 13 September 1957, Chongqing

Translations of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, in whole or in part

Travel books



Memoirs, essays and letters


Related Research Articles

<i>The Last Temptation of Christ</i> (novel) 1955 historical novel by Nikos Kazantzakis

The Last Temptation of Christ or The Last Temptation is a historical novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis, first published in its original Greek in 1955 before being translated into English in 1960. The novel depicts the life of Jesus and his struggles with various forms of temptation, including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust.

The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel is an epic poem by Greek poet and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis, based on Homer's Odyssey. It is divided into twenty-four rhapsodies as is the original Odyssey and consists of 33,333 17-syllable verses. Kazantzakis began working on it in 1924 after he returned to Crete from Germany. Before finally publishing the poem in 1938 he had drafted seven different versions. Kazantzakis considered this his most important work. It was fully translated into English in 1958 by Kimon Friar.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Constantine P. Cavafy</span> Greek poet, also known as Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis (1863–1933)

Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, known, especially in English, as Constantine P. Cavafy and often published as C. P. Cavafy, was a Greek poet, journalist, and civil servant from Alexandria. His work, as one translator put it, "holds the historical and the erotic in a single embrace."

Nikos Gatsos was a Greek poet, translator and lyricist.

<i>Captain Michalis</i>

Captain Michalis is a 1953 novel by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. In the English, German, and French translations it is known as Freedom or Death. The writer was influenced by his early years on the island of Crete and uses explicit Cretan Greek words and the Cretan idiom in a way that preserves it untouched. It is one of the most widely read books of modern Greek literature which has been translated and published in several languages.

Kimon Friar was a Greek-American poet and translator of Greek poetry.

Edmund Leroy "Mike" Keeley was an American novelist, translator, and essayist, a poet, and Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English at Princeton University. He was a noted expert on the Greek poets C. P. Cavafy, George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, and Yannis Ritsos, and on post-Second World War Greek history.

Ascesis: The Saviors of God is a series of "spiritual exercises" written by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis. It was first written between 1922 and 1923, while staying in Vienna and Berlin, and subsequently published in 1927 in the Athenian magazine Anayennisi (Renaissance). The text was later revised on various occasions and reached its final state in 1944.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George Zorbas</span> Greek miner, basis of Zorba the Greek

Georgios Zorbas was a Greek miner upon whom Nikos Kazantzakis based Alexis Zorbas, the protagonist of his 1946 novel Zorba the Greek.

The Nikos Kazantzakis Museum is a museum in Myrtia village in the Heraklion regional unit of Crete, in Greece. It is 20 km south of the town of Heraklion and it is dedicated to the life and work of the famous writer Nikos Kazantzakis, a 9 times candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature and known worldwide for his book "Zorba the Greek" and "The Last Temptation of Christ"..

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Philip Sherrard</span>

Philip Owen Arnould Sherrard was a British author and translator. His work includes translations of Modern Greek poets, and books on Modern Greek literature and culture, metaphysics, theology, art and aesthetics. In England he was influential in making major Greek poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries known. He also wrote prolifically on theological and philosophical themes, describing what he believed to be a social and spiritual crisis occurring in the developed world, specifically modern attitudes towards the biophysical environment from a Christian perspective.

Nikiforos Vrettakos was a Greek writer and poet.

Jonathan Griffin (1906–1990) was a British writer and translator. During the Second World War he served as the director of BBC European Intelligence.

Ian Stanley Scott-Kilvert OBE was a British editor and translator. He worked for the British Council, editing a series of pamphlet essays on British writers, and was chairman of the Byron Society. Amongst his translations were several classical texts, including Plutarch and Polybius, for the Penguin Classics series.

Yorgo Voyagis is a Greek actor.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Elli Lambridi</span>

Elli Lambridi, also spelled Helle Lampride or Helle Lambridis, was a Greek philosopher who wrote extensively in the fields of ancient and modern philosophy. She also wrote on archaeology, wrote fiction and produced translations. She was also an educator and was active in Greek left-wing politics and feminism from an early age. It has been claimed that her prominence in twentieth-century Greek philosophy has "only recently become widely known". Her life and work was celebrated on 8 March 2017 at a talks event in the old Senate chamber of the Parliament of Greece in Athens.

The Full Catastrophe is a comic phrase usually used to characterize any kind of disaster.

Richard Staples (Dick) Dodge was an American illustrator.

Andonis George Manganaris-Decavalles January 25, 1920 – June 9, 2008, known under his pen name of Andonis Decavalles, was a Greek-American poet and professor of literature. Described by M. Byron Raizis as “the outstanding poet of the Greek diaspora in America," Decavalles published poetry, translations, and literary essays in a wide variety of American and Greek journals and was the author of 5 volumes of original poetry in Greek. A volume of his selected poems was translated into English by Kimon Friar. He authored Greek translations of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets and the poetry of W. H. Auden, and he translated works of Greek writers into English, including Odysseus Elytis. In 1977 he was awarded the Academy of Athens Poetry Award for his book Armoi, Κaravia, Lytra [Greek: Αρμοί, Καράβια, Λύτρα; Joints, Ships, Ransoms], the first writer of the Greek diaspora to be so honored.

Dimitrios Antoniou, better known by his pen name D. I. Antoniou was a Greek poet.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Nikos Kazantzakis" at E.KE.BI / Biblionet
  2. The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis, p. 691
  3. "Nomination Database". Retrieved 29 June 2016.
  4. "ΕΚΔΟΣΕΙΣ ΚΑΖΑΝΤΖΑΚΗ". Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  5. 1 2 "The Return and the Odyssey".
  6. "Eleni Samiou (1903-2004) - Find a Grave Memorial". Find a Grave .
  7. Chrysopoulos, Philip (18 June 2022). "Nikos Kazantzakis: The Greatest Greek Writer of the 20th Century". Greek Reporter.
  8. Bien, P. A. Translator's Note. Faber and Faber. pp. 577–589. ISBN   978-0-571-17856-8.
  9. The Philosophers' Magazine, Issues 13–20, 2001 p. 120
  10. Nomination Database
  11. "Nikos Kazantzakis Grave".
  12. Σταματίου, Ελίνα (28 August 2016). ""I do not hope for anything, I am not afraid of anything, I am free" ("Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα, δεν φοβούμαι τίποτα, είμαι λέφτερος")" (in Greek). Celebrity Reporter.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Peter, Bien (1989). Nikos Kazantzakis, Novelist. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press. ISBN   1853990337. OCLC   19353754.
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 Kimon, Friar (1979). The Spiritual Odyssey of Nikos Kazantzakis: A Talk. Stavrou, Theofanis G., 1934-, Σταύρου, Θεοφάνης Γ. 1934-. St. Paul, Minnesota: North Central Pub. Co. ISBN   0935476008. OCLC   6314676.
  15. 1 2 3 Bien, Peter (1989). Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit, Volume 2. Princeton University Press. pp. 265–266.
  16. 1 2 3 Georgopoulos, N. (1977). "Marxism and Kazantzakis". Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 3: 175–200. doi:10.1179/030701377806931780. S2CID   153476520.
  17. Owens, Lewis (1 October 1998). ""Does This One Exist?" The Unveiled Abyss of Nikos Kazantzakis". Journal of Modern Greek Studies. 16 (2): 331–348. doi:10.1353/mgs.1998.0041. ISSN   1086-3265. S2CID   143703744.
  18. 1 2 3 Middleton, Darren J. N. (2007). Broken Hallelujah: Nikos Kazantzakis and Christian Theology. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. ISBN   9780739119273. OCLC   71322129.
  19. Middleton, Darren J. N. (24 June 2010). "Nikos Kazantzakis and Process Theology: Thinking Theologically in a Relational World". Journal of Modern Greek Studies. 12 (1): 57–74. doi:10.1353/mgs.2010.0139. ISSN   1086-3265. S2CID   146450293.
  20. 1 2 Middleton, Darren J. N. (1 October 1998). "Kazantzakis and Christian Doctrine: Some Bridges of Understanding". Journal of Modern Greek Studies. 16 (2): 285–312. doi:10.1353/mgs.1998.0040. ISSN   1086-3265. S2CID   142993531.
  21. Constantelos, Demetrios J. (1 October 1998). "Kazantzakis and God (review)". Journal of Modern Greek Studies. 16 (2): 357–358. doi:10.1353/mgs.1998.0029. ISSN   1086-3265. S2CID   141618698.

Further reading