On Tuesday 12 December 1916 thousands of Athenians gathered in the Pedion tou Areos to curse Eleftherios Venizelos. According to newspapers of the period, the entire city participated in an act of extreme frustration for an endless series of hardships and sorrows; these had arisen from the inability of Prime Minister Venizelos and King Constantine to agree on a course of action regarding the participation of Greece in the First World War. In September 1916 Venizelos formed a provisional government in Thessaloniki and declared war on Germany, while also turning against the government in Athens.
In November the French landed marine forces in Piraeus and demanded the surrender of the Greek navy, the railway network, and the port. Constantine refused these demands, so they bombarded the capital. Then their forces attempted to occupy Athens but they were driven back by the Greek forces, while groups of Reservists (Epistratoi), a royalist paramilitary unit organized by Ioannis Metaxas to suppress the enemies of the Crown, turned against any supporters of Venizelos.
A bull’s head
The archbishop of Athens, Theocletus I, decided to employ the power and esteem of the church to punish Venizelos. At noon on the 12th of December he officially cursed the prime minister as a traitor. Since Venizelos was away in Thessaloniki, the archbishop used the head of a bull. Then a sea of people that included elegant ladies, working class women, bishops, graduate students, reservists, young girls, and small children threw a stone at the head and repeated the curse first uttered by Theocletus: “May Eleftherios Venizelos, who schemed against the Crown and the country, and persecuted and imprisoned priests, be damned”. Soon there was a massive heap of stones, rocks, boulders, and masonry. Foreign visitors to Athens were left speechless.
The community president runs for his life
Events in Athens were bound to affect Eleusis. Antonis Hatzimeletes, a passionate Venizelist, had become president of the community soon after the formation of the provisional government in Thessaloniki. His family had been one of the first to settle in Eleusis after the War of Independence (1821-1829); his father, Yannis Hatzimeletes, had played a prominent role in that conflict, since he provided the funds to establish and maintain hundreds of armed men for many months near Eleusis. But when the Reservists turned against all the prominent supporters of Venizelos, Hatzimeletes abandoned the town in haste and went to Crete on the 6th of December.
Venizelos’ unlawful hand
Hatzimeletes was replaced by Georgios Peppas, a rabid supporter of the king, who until then had served as the vice-president of the community. His first act as president, on December 9, was to assemble the Community Council and denounce “with the utmost abhorrence the miserable traitor of the nation, Venizelos, who dared to raise his unlawful hand against our esteemed King Constantine and our glorious army”. There were also some expressions of gratitude and congratulations towards the Greek army that managed to overturn the “traitorous and heinous plans” of Venizelos and arrest the “villainous riffraff”. The minutes were adopted unanimously, since all supporters of Venizelos either absconded or refrained from expressing their opinion. Peppas did not forget his predecessor either; he formally deposed him for deliberately deserting his post
A goat from Senegal
Three days later, the Reservists of Eleusis expressed their hate for Venizelos in public by organizing a local cursing ceremony to coincide with the one that would take place in Athens. All participants gathered in the market and proceeded to the ancient acropolis, where they cast their stones and damned the leader of the Liberals. The supporters of Venizelos stayed home, with the exception of the well-known Venizelist Meletis Pogkas, who was forced to cast a large stone with his name written on it.
The ceremony in Eleusis was almost tame compared to what happened in other cities. The bishop of Phocis, Amvrosios (1864-1928) must have surpassed all others in his hatred for Venizelos, at least judging by the curse he composed against the “goat from Senegal” who betrayed the nation to the British and the French and hurt the feelings of the “beloved king”. Amvrosios was inspired by the commands of “thousands of reservists and citizens” to express the wish that Venizelos would suffer from the “the boils of Job, the giant fish of Jonah, the leprosy of Jehovah, the withering of the dead, the agony of the dying, the thunderbolts of Hell, the curses and the condemnations of the living”.
Let the stones be
While the people and the Church condemned Venizelos in the Pedion tou Areos, the French imposed a naval blockade. The king was eventually forced to depart for Switzerland on 15 June 1917, while Venizelos returned to Athens as a saviour. His supporters returned as well, including Hatzimeletes, who resumed his duties as president of the community. The Eleusinians, who only recently had cast the stones, were now free from the “terror of the Reservists” and were eager and willing to express their enthusiasm for the safe and auspicious return of the Prime Minister, as well as the restoration of the ordinary operation of the “violently derailed constitutional engine”.
Venizelos opposed the removal of the stones used in the cursing ceremony. He believed that they had to stay in place as a reminder of the true value of a religious condemnation when the Church interferes in politics. He wanted people to remember that he was damned when the final victory came. These sentiments did not extend to the bishops of Athens and Phocis of course; both were defrocked in October 1917.