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What does Molon Labe Mean?
Molon labe (Greek: μολὼν λαβέ molṑn labé; Ancient Greek: [molɔːn labé]; Modern Greek: [moˈlon laˈve]), lit. “come and take”, is a classical expression of defiance reportedly spoken by King Leonidas I in response to the Persian army’s demand that the Spartans surrender their weapons at the Battle of Thermopylae. It is an exemplary use of a laconic phrase.
The first word, μολών molōn, is the aorist active participle (masculine, nominative, singular) of the Greek verb βλώσκω blōskō “to come”, meaning “having come”. The root is evidently ΜΟΛ, so that βλώ-σκ-ω is apparently a contraction for μολώ-σκ-ω (the suffix -σκ, being a common specialized present stem inchoative suffix). The
form λαβέ labe is the aorist active imperative (second person singular) of the verb λαμβάνω lambanō, translated as “you take” with an emphasis since it is in the imperative form. That is to say: it is better represented in English as “Take!” (with you singular understood, “you take”).
The two words function together in a grammatical structure (not as common in English as in Greek) called the circumstantial participle. Where English would put two main verbs in two independent clauses joined by a conjunction: “come and take”, a strategy sometimes called paratactic, Ancient Greek, which is far richer in participles, subordinates one to the other, a strategy called hypotactic: “coming, take”. The first action is expressed with a participle with adverbial force. In this structure, the participle gives some circumstance (the coming) attendant on the main verb (the taking).
The aorist participle may be used where the action is completed, called the perfective aspect. That is: the action of the participle occurs before that of the main verb. Thus the Greek provides a nuance not seen in English translation, making clear that the coming must precede the taking (i.e. “having come, take”). The latter λαβέ is in second person singular, and therefore is not being spoken to a large group of people, but rather to an individual. King Leonidas I of Sparta spoke directly to Xerxes I personally, and not to the Persians en masse.
While English normally requires an explicit object in a transitive imperative construction (“Take them!” or “take it!”), Ancient Greek does not; the object them is understood from context.
Molon labe has been used once again in Greek history, on 3 March 1957 during a battle in Cyprus between members of the EOKA organization and the British Army. After someone had betrayed his location, the British forces surrounded the secret hideout of the second-in-command of EOKA, Grigoris Afxentiou, near the Machairas Monastery. Inside the hideout were Afxentiou and four of his followers. Realizing he was outnumbered, Afxentiou ordered them to surrender themselves whilst he barricaded himself for a fight to the death. The British asked Afxentiou to come out and surrender. He replied with the phrase Molon labe, imitating the ancient Spartans. Unable to get him out, and after sustaining casualties, the British set fire to the hideout, and he was burnt alive. The British buried his body in the yard of the central jail of Lefkosia, where it lies today.
In the United States of America, both the original Greek phrase and its English translation are often heard from pro Second Amendment activists as a defense of the right to keep and bear arms. It began to appear on web sites in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the Second Amendment or firearms freedom context, the phrase expresses the notion that the person uttering the phrase is a strong believer in these ideals and will not surrender their firearms to anyone, including governmental authority. Challenge coins similar to those used by military service members have been created with the Molon Labe text and firearm images.
In college football, the Michigan State Spartans football team wore alternate jerseys featuring the phrase in their 2011 rivalry game with the Michigan Wolverines.