#12. Sappho, and the origin of soap

The following article is a machine-translation of “Η οικογενειακή επιχείρηση του Οδυσσέα Ελύτη που έφτιαχνε σαπούνια”, “The family business of Odysseas Elytis who made soaps”, published in News on July 21, 2017. Odysseas Elytis (1911-1996), was a Greek poet, essayist and translator.[1]. His real name is Odysseas Alepoudelis. The name Alepoudelis[Αλεπουδέλης] is also the name of the soap factory in Heraklion, Crete.

Odysseas Alepoudelis was born on November 2, 1911 in Heraklion, Crete and was the son of Panagiotis Alepoudelis, a businessman from Lesbos[2], who had one of the largest and most famous soap factories in Greece.

The Alepoudelis soap factory was founded in Heraklion, Crete, in 1895. In the time of World War I, Elytis’s father, Panagiotis, moved his soap factory to Athens, to the area of ​​Piraeus. The Alepoudelis family, and of course Benjamin Odysseas, also moves to Athens. However, the origin of Elytis’ father, Lesvos, was determining the choice for a soap factory.

What we all know today is that a traditional soap, made from olive oil (a product that – remarkably – abroad is considered particularly valuable and a kind of luxury), comes, according to Greek mythology, from Lesbos. A legend tells that the women of ancient Lesbos washed their clothes in the river (as all women did at that time). So they noticed that the animal remains, along with the fats from the animals that were burned as sacrifices in the ancient sanctuaries near the river, swept away the ashes and formed a pale yellow stream that ended up in the river. On the days when the yellow stream flowed into the river, the clothes were washed better. And the soap was made! According to the ancient Greek legend, the soap got its name from the famous poet of Lesbos, Sappho[3][4].

[The word soap is related with the Latin word “sapo”, the French “savon”, the Italian sapone, and the Spanish “jabon”[5]. Those who have studied medicinal herbs and their active ingredients know about the so-called saponins[6], which have indeed characteristics of what we name soap. The word soap, and the term saponification[7] are therefore without any doubt only related with the term saponin. Admin]

Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BCE)

Until the time of the industrial revolution, all over the (known) world, soaps were produced in exactly the same way as the women of ancient Lesbos invented it. There have been soap factories on the island all these centuries. After the revolution of 1821, until the destruction of Izmir[8] (1922), soap making was a very lucrative Greek productive activity, with Lesvos soaps being exported from Constantinople[9] to Alexandria[10] and New York.

It should be noted that shortly before the Asia Minor[11] catastrophe, over 50% of Greek soap exports were from Lesbos. It was also the sttlement of 1 or 2 soap factories in the country.

One of the most famous soap factories (originating from Lesbos, based in Crete and then Piraeus, as mentioned above) was the company “Alepoudelis”, owned by the family of the poet Odysseas Elytis. “Alepoudelis” soaps were known all over the world, thanks to the pure olive oil they contained and the softness they offered. The “Alepoudeli” factory was one of the most modern at that time (of the first decades of 1900), and at the same time it was a huge export company since most of the production was exported to Egypt, Turkey, England and the USA. When Elytis’ father died in 1925, the business passed into the hands of Pangiotis’s younger brother and co-founder of the soap factory, Thrasyvoulos Alepoudelis, Elytis’s uncle, had the business idea to establish a separate department in the company, for the production of soaps that used only excellent olive oil and coconut oil, something that then put them at the top of European quality standards.

The company “Alepoudelis and Co.” also had branches in Crete, Corfu, Thessaloniki and – of course – Mytilene (Lesbos). The production of the soap factory continued unabated, surviving the enormous obstacle of World War II. Despite the huge business and commercial success of the company that bore his ancestral name, however, Odysseas did not want to deal with it. In fact, according to the information regarding his biography, the main reason that he changed his name to “Elytis” was precisely to separate his position and his … fate from the family business. The rest is history of course for the Greek poet … As for the family business: Alepoudelis soaps are produced until today. If you take a closer look at the well-known green soaps that are sold in many tourist shops throughout Greece, you will see the brand “Alepoudelis” in them.

The family soap-business lost Odysseas, but Art welcomed him.


References and additional information:
  1. Odysseas Elytis – Wikipedia
  2. Lesbos – Wikiwand
  3. Sappho – Wikiwand
  4. Guide to the classics: Sappho, a poet in fragments – The Conversation
  5. Soap – Online Etymology Dictionary
  6. Saponification – Merriam Webster dictionary
  7. Saponin – Wikipedia
  8. Izmir – Wikiwand
  9. Constantinople – Wikiwand
  10. Alexandria – Wikiwand
  11. Asia Minor – Wikiwand
  12. Alepoudelis Soap Factory – Blog In Silencio
  13. Documentary: Αθηνά & Σαπουνοποιίες στο Ηράκλειο / Athena & Soap Factories in Heraklion – YouTube
  14. All bar none: How ancient soap making methods are reinvigorating Crete – Geographical

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