Byzantine epic, c. eleventh century. Also known as Digenes Akritis.
Byzantium's sole surviving epic poem, Digenes Akrites recounts the adventures of a half-Arabic, half-Roman warrior in the Byzantine frontier near the Euphrates during the ninth and tenth centuries. Digenes Akrites is a great hero who learns the art of war as a child and defends Byzantium for the remainder of his life. The text of the epic was compiled from disparate sources including folk songs and legends by an unknown redactor, or redactors, and is written in a style emulating the Greek used in ancient classics. Digenes Akrites was unknown in modern times until a manuscript was published in 1875, followed by independent discoveries of several other manuscripts in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The romantic epic, consisting of between three and four thousand lines, is now known through six different Greek manuscripts, one of which is prose, as well as one Russian version; the Grottaferrata version receives the most critical attention. Ever since its rediscovery, Digenes Akrites has held the attention of scholars working in a variety of disciplines who find it an important source for the study of ancient myths and a key to understanding the development of Greek oral poetry.
Plot and Major Characters
Digenes Akrites begins by telling the story of Digenes's parents. His father, Mousour, is a great Emir who has conquered Syria. He kidnaps the beautiful Roman girl Eirene, falls in love with her, and agrees to convert to Christianity and join her in Roman territory. They marry, Mousour is baptized, and they have a son, Digenes Akrites. He learns to read and write, to use the spear and sword, and becomes a great runner and wrestler. At age twelve, on his first hunt, he slays two bears, catches a deer on foot, and kills a lion with one stroke of his sword. As a young man he confronts a group of bandits and singlehandedly disarms the entire brigade. He meets a girl named Evdokia, who is jealously guarded from suitors by her father, a general. Digenes woos Evdokia and they ride off together under pursuit. Digenes defeats his pursuers, makes peace with the general, and takes Evdokia back to her home for their wedding and three months of celebration. Evdokia often joins Digenes as he defends the borders of the Roman territories. Digenes's military accomplishments are rewarded by the Emperor. Most of the remainder of Digenes Akrites consists of tales told by its hero in the first person. It concludes with a description of the palace Digenes has built for himself on the banks of the Euphrates and a brief recounting of his death.
Digenes Akrites is a romantic adventure tale that presents an account of the exploits of its hero, Digenes. It stresses his preternatural skill in hunting, his bravery in combat, and his honorableness in defending the borders of his country against all attackers. The episode of his wooing and winning his wife has proved interesting to cultural historians for what it suggests about abduction of women, sexual consent, and marriage customs in medieval Byzantium. The poem ends with the traditional description of the rewards the hero reaps for having excelled in performing his duty.
Michael J. Jeffreys explains the interest of scholars in Digenes Akrites by noting that “It provides material for literary historians at different levels of Greek, for students of traditional literature, for specialists in Arabic, Armenian and Russian studies, for codicologists and art-historians as well as for the general student of byzantine history, culture and society.” Although its historical importance is acknowledged by critics, they have not focued on its literary qualities. Some critics agree with Jeffreys that the work is disorganized and unsophisticated, yet other scholars counter that nothing else could be expected from a narrative pieced together from diverse, mostly oral sources. John Mavrogordato, editor of the standard modern edition of the work, surveyed the many manuscripts of Digenes Akrites and their textual histories. He emphasizes that the work is a folktale that incorporates legendary elements and contends that its political and religious aspects have been overemphasized. Numerous other scholars, among them Roderick Beaton, have also focused attention on the oral roots of Digenes Akrites. Andrew R. Dyck argues that Book 5 of the Grottaferrata version does not fit in well with the rest of the text and was probably originally an isolated song that was later incorporated into the narrative. Hugh F. Graham contributes to the comparative studies of different manuscripts by concentrating on the major differences of the Russian version, known as the Devgenievo Dejanie. Digenes Akrites is an invaluable tool for social historians and Angeliki E. Laiou uses it as a means to examine Byzantine sexual mores and marriage practices of the time. Beaton traces these influences of Digenes Akrites on Greek poetry, and notes that its impact is evident even on certain works of modern times.
SOURCE: Mavrogordato, John. Introduction to Digenes Akrites, edited by John Mavrogordato, pp. xi-lxxxiv. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.
[In the following excerpt, Mavrogordato examines the discovery of Digenes Akrites, compares the poem's many versions, and surveys assorted critical analyses.]
In the middle of last century nothing was known of the Byzantine epic of Digenes Akrites; but the atmosphere had been prepared by the publication of several ballads of what is now called the Akritic Cycle (a name first used by Legrand in 1874). The discussion of these—(in particular a paper by Büdinger who had used the headline ‘A Greek Mediaeval Popular Epic’, although the Song in question, The Sons of Andronikos, was only seventy lines in length)—had opened the way for further revelations of an heroic age of mediaeval Greece.
(i) The discovery was made at Trebizond. Manuscripts could not be photographed at Trebizond, and after considerable correspondence the precious work was sent to Paris by post; and in 1875 Sathas and Legrand published Les Exploits de Digénis Akritas—épopée byzantine du dixième siècle … d'après le manuscrit unique de Trébizonde. The manuscript is said to be not earlier than the sixteenth century. There are several gaps in it. The poem is divided into ten books of which the first and...
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SOURCE: Graham, Hugh F. “Digenis Akritas and the Devgenievo Dejanie—A Reappraisal.” Studies in Medieval Culture 4, no. 3 (autumn 1974): 483-95.
[In the following essay, Graham analyzes the Russian version of Digenes Akritas, the Devgenievo Dejanie.]
The fascinating comparative study of the manuscripts of Digenis Akritas and the Devgenievo Dejanie has continued to attract international scholarly attention, although it suffered a great loss with the recent death of M. Henri Grégoire, who numbered it prominently among his scholarly interests and who developed many provocative hypotheses concerning it. At present our Soviet colleagues are taking the lead; worthy of particular commendation is the way in which they pay careful attention to both the Greek and the Russian versions, as the work of Kuz'mina1 and Syrkin2 abundantly testifies. Their work has finally brought Akritic studies to the position that Grégoire repeatedly called for; he always emphasized that the failure to consider systematically the Russian tradition had distorted and truncated all serious scholarly study of the entire problem.3
At the outset certain fundamental points should be raised that have not received the attention they deserve. The first is that no definitive and universally acceptable solution has up to now been found to the tantalizing problem...
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SOURCE: Beaton, Roderick. “Was Digenis Akritas an Oral Poem?” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 7 (1981): 16-27.
[In the following excerpt, Beaton analyzes the influence of the oral tradition on Digenes Akrites.]
The first question to be asked, as we come to consider the composition of Digenes, is: Which version is the most authentic? The opinion is now generally held that G represents the oldest version of the poem as well as the oldest text, although the claims of Kyriakidis and Grégoire for the superior authenticity of the E version have recently been restated by Stylianos Alexiou. Alexiou has brought forward new evidence that elements in the E text faithfully reflect the historical period in which the poem is set, and this certainly confirms that the text derives from a tradition going back to an early period. (As much had been accepted by Trapp, who has a much lower estimation of the authenticity of E.) Similar evidence has been brought forward for G,1 and there is the additional prima facie case in favour of G that it is closer in time by as much as two hundred years to the period of composition of Digenes. This is not to say that I believe G to be a close copy of the poem as first composed; merely that if we are to identify the type of tradition within which the poem came into being, our investigation ought to begin with the text closest in time...
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SOURCE: Dyck, Andrew R. “On Digenis Akritas Grottaferrata Version Book 5.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 24, no. 2 (summer 1983): 185-92.
[In the following essay, Dyck analyzes the bride-theft motif in Digenes Akrites.]
Only two versions of the epic Digenis Akritas narrate the hero's encounter with the daughter of the Syrian emir Haplorrhabdes: Book 5 of the Grottaferrata version (G) and Book 6 of the version Z which the latest editor, E. Trapp, reconstructs from the Trebizond manuscript and the Andros manuscript now in Athens.1 For this material, however, as Trapp notes,2 Z is likely to represent a contamination of its source, Y, with γ, the source of the Grottaferrata version; hence the following discussion will be based on the more authentic Grottaferrata version alone. The episodic character of this material has been previously recognized, but the appropriate conclusions have not, I think, as yet been drawn from it. Thus, Kyriakidis hypothesizes that the incident was added by the redactor of the Grottaferrata version.3 This cannot be true, however, even of the redactor of γ, since, as Trapp has shown, the Escorial manuscript contains two verses from the introduction to this episode.4 I will argue that this material is likely to have derived from a separate song incorporated not without difficulty into the epic Digenis...
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SOURCE: Jeffreys, Michael J. “Digenis Akritas and Kommagene.” In Popular Literature in Late Byzantium, edited by E. M. and M. J. Jeffreys, pp. 5-28. London: Variorum Reprints, 1983.
[In the following essay, Jeffreys discusses the origins of Digenes Akritas and examines some of the variations between its various existing manuscripts.]
Few byzantine texts offer more interest to a wider variety of scholars than Digenis Akritas. It provides material for literary historians at different levels of Greek, for students of traditional literature, for specialists in Arabic, Armenian and Russian studies, for codicologists and art-historians as well as for the general student of byzantine history, culture and society. There is an attractive edition accompanied by an English version,1 and other independent translations2—though the original will not be very difficult for those with a good knowledge of the Greek of any period. The scholarly bibliography has reached several hundred items in a wide variety of languages.3
After this introduction it is sad to have to admit that readers are likely to be disappointed by the poem's literary quality. The Grottaferrata version (G)4 begins in a purposeful, organised way, but the last five of its eight books are episodic and poorly linked. The scene is the Euphrates frontier of Byzantium, and the time...
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SOURCE: Laiou, Angeliki E. “Sex, Consent, and Coercion in Byzantium.” In Consent and Coercion to Sex and Marriage in Ancient and Medieval Societies, edited by Angeliki E. Laiou, pp. 198-221. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Laiou examines Digenes Akrites for what it reveals about twelfth century laws regarding abduction and social attitudes concerning sexual consent.]
What can literature contribute to an inquiry such as ours? If handled carefully, it can instruct us as to contemporary concerns and underlying attitudes. It can also be vastly misleading, for literature is not necessarily a reflection of reality, indeed it can be and often is a reversal of reality, and that too, if identified, is valuable information. But a straight reading of literary sources can lead us down a primrose path to lands that never were. Above all, one must remember that literature has its own rules and its own concerns: tension, conflict, taut situations are at a premium, as is their resolution. Abduction, rape, seduction, adultery, and temptation of all sorts make for a tense plot and good reading. Their presence in literary sources does not mean that they were rampant in society; it does mean that they provide a juicy plot, but what they reflect may be the very opposite of social practice.
In the Byzantine context, the pertinent...
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Beaton, Roderick. “‘Digenes Akrites’ and Modern Greek Folk Song: A Reassessment.” Byzantion 51 (1981): 22-43.
Searches for the roots of Digenes Akrites in the oral tradition and discusses the poem's impact on certain Greek ballads of modern times.
Dyck, Andrew R. “On Digenes Akrites, Grottaferrata Version, Book 6.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 28, no. 3 (autumn 1987): 349-69.
Contends that problems in Book 6 are likely the result of the careless joining of a source epic and folk song material.
———. “The Taming of Digenes: The Plan of Digenes Akrites, Grottaferrata Version, Book IV.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 35, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 293-308.
Describes the inner unity of Book 4.
Frantz, Alison. “Digenis Akrites: A Byzantine Epic and its Illustrators.” Byzantion 15 (1940-41): 87-91.
Examines illustrations on Byzantine pottery that may be based on episodes from Digenes Akrites.
Galatariotou, Catia. “Structural Oppositions in the Grottaferrata Digenes Akrites.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 11 (1987): 29-68.
Analyzes contradictions and conflicts in the text of the Grottaferrata manuscript.
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