Digenes Akritas

Epic of Digenes Akritas, Athens National library manuscript.

Digenes Akrites (Greek: Διγενῆς Ἀκρίτης, pronounced [ðiʝeˈnis aˈkritis]), known in folksongs as Digenes Akritas (Διγενῆς Ἀκρίτας, [aˈkritas]) and also transliterated as Digenis Akritis, is the most famous of the Acritic Songs. The epic details the life of the hero, Basil (Βασίλειος), whose epithet Digenes Akritas ("Two Blood Border Lord" or "Twain-born Borderer") refers to his mixed Byzantine-Cappadocian Greek and Arab blood. The first part of the epic details the lives of his parents, how they met, and how his father, an Emir, converted to Christianity after abducting and marrying Digenes' mother. The remainder of the epic discusses, often from a first-person point of view, Basil's acts of heroism on the Byzantine border.


The Digenes Akrites is an extensive narrative text, although it is not in a pure epic-heroic style. No fewer than six manuscripts have been found dedicated to stories about him.[1] The oldest two are the Escorial (or E, 1867 lines) and Grottaferrata versions (or G, 3749 lines), from the names of the libraries in which the respective manuscripts are held. While the form (or forms) in which it has survived is not the product of oral composition, it has nevertheless retained a considerable number of features of its oral origins. The common core of the two versions preserved in the E and G manuscripts goes back to the twelfth century. The text of E appears to be closer to the original composition while G represents a version that is heavily marked by learned reworking. Both texts give enchanting descriptions of the life of the martial societies of the border regions of the empire, while in the figure of Digenes are concentrated the legends that had accumulated around local heroes. The Escorial version is the superior of the two in respect of the power and immediacy of the battle scenes and austerity of style. The epic descriptions of the mounted knights and battles are marked by drama, a swift pace and lively visual detail.


Digenes Akritas and the dragon. 13th century Byzantine dish.

The Byzantine-Arab conflicts that lasted from the 7th century to the early 11th century provide the context for Byzantine heroic poetry written in the vernacular Greek language. The Akritai of the Byzantine Empire of this period were a military class responsible for safeguarding the frontier regions of the imperial territory from external enemies and freebooting adventurers who operated on the fringes of the empire. The work comprises two parts.

In the first, the "Lay of the Emir", which bears more obviously the characteristics of epic poetry, an Arab emir invades Cappadocia and carries off the daughter of a Byzantine general. The emir agrees to convert to Christianity for the sake of the daughter and resettle in Romania (Ρωμανία, the lands of the Ρωμηοί (Romioi) or mediaeval and early modern Greeks) together with his people. The issue of their union is a son, Digenes Akritas.

The second part of the work relates the development of the young hero and his superhuman feats of bravery and strength. As a boy, he goes hunting with his father and kills two bears unarmed, strangling the first to death and breaking the second one's spine. He also tears a hind in half with his bare hands, and slays a lion in the same manner. Like his father, he carries off the daughter of another Byzantine general and then marries her; he kills a dragon; he takes on the so-called apelatai (ἀπελάται), a group of bandits, and then defeats their three leaders in single combat. No one, not even the amazingly strong female warrior Maximu, with whom he commits the sin of adultery, can match him. Having defeated all his enemies Digenes builds a luxurious palace by the Euphrates, where he ends his days peacefully. Cypriot legend has it that he grabbed hold of the Pentadaktylos ("Five Fingers") mountain range north of Nicosia in order to leap to Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The mountain range, as the name suggests, resembles five knuckles sprouting from the ground.

The tale of Digenes continued to be read and enjoyed in later centuries, as the text survives in various versions dating to as late as the 17th century. The epic tale of Digenes Akritas corresponds in many ways to a cycle of much shorter Acritic songs, particularly from Asia Minor, Cyprus and Crete, some of which survive until the present day. In the later tradition Digenes is eventually defeated only by Death, in the figure of Thanatos/Charon, after fierce single combat on "the marble threshing floors". Thanatos had reportedly already wrestled with Heracles. The Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis has used this text as the basis for a portion of his "Constantinople".

The story of Digenes Akritas, defeated by Death personally, was used as a basis of a Russian bylina (a folk ballad) about Anika the Warrior.[2]


Digenes Akritas and the dragon. 12th century Byzantine dish.

The Digenes Akritas is written in early Demotic Greek and is composed in fifteen syllable blank verse. Rhyming occurs rarely.

The poem does not diverge from the standard political verse of popular Byzantine literature. Each line holds its own and every hemistich is carefully balanced. The poem flows, is cadential, with no cacophonies with very scarce sound repetitions.

Below is an excerpt from the translation of the Escorial manuscript, lines 32-55, by E. M. Jeffreys (pp. 240–3):

Line Original Translation
[32] Εὐθὺς ἐκαβαλίκευσαν, 'ς τὸν κάμπον κατεβαίνουν. They mounted at once and they came to the battlefield.
[33]   Ὡς δράκοντες ἐσύριζαν καὶ ὡς λέοντες ἐβρυχοῦντα   They hissed like dragons, they roared like lions,
[34] καὶ ὡς ἀετοί ἐπέτουντα, καὶ ἐσμίξασιν οἱ δύο· they soared like eagles, and the two clashed.
[35] καὶ τότε νὰ ἰδῆς πόλεμον καλῶν παλληκαρίων. And then you could see a fight between fine brave youths.
[36] Καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς μάχης τῆς πολλῆς κροῦσιν δι|ασυντόμως· In the heat of the battle they struck continuously,
[37] καὶ απὸ τὸν κτύπον τὸν πολὺν καὶ ἀπὸ τὸ δὸς καὶ λάβε and from the great clashing and the cut and thrust
[38] οἱ κάμποι φόβον εἴχασιν καὶ τὰ βουνιὰ ἀηδονοῦσαν, the plains grew fearful and the mountains re-echoed,
[39] τὰ δένδρη ἐξεριζὠνουντα καὶ ὁ ἥλιος ἐσκοτίσθη. trees were uprooted and the sun was darkened.
[40] Tὸ αἷμαν ἐκατέρεεν εἰς τὰ σκαλόλουρά των Blood flowed down over their horse-trappings
[41] καὶ ὁ ἵδρος τους ἐξέβαινεν ἀπάνω ἀπ' τὰ λουρίκια. and their sweat ran out over their breastplates.
[42] Ἦτον <καὶ> γὰρ τοῦ Κωνσταντῆ γοργότερος ὁ μαῦρος, Constante’s black horse was speedier,
[43] καὶ θαυμαστὸς νεώτερος ἦτον ὁ καβελάρης· and its rider was a marvelous young man.
[44] κατέβηκε εἰς τὸν αμιρὰν καὶ κρούει του ραβδέα He charged at the emir and struck him a blow with his stick
[45] καὶ τότε ἐχέρισε ὁ ἀμιρὰς νὰ τρέμη καὶ νὰ φεύγη. and then the emir began to tremble and flee.
[46]   Σαρακηνὸς ἐλάλησεν τὸν ἀμιρὰν τῆς γλώσσης:   A Saracen addressed the emir in his own tongue:
[47] «Πιάσε, μούλε, τὸν ἄγουρον, ταχέως νὰ τὸν νικήσης, "Baseborn, seize the youngster, to beat him speedily,
[48] μὴ εἰς σύντομόν του γύρισμα πάρη τὴν κεφαλὴν σου· so that he doesn’t take your head off with a sudden turn of his.
[49] αὑτὸς καλὰ σ' ἐσέβηκεν, τώρα νὰ σὲ γκρεμνίση. He has made a fine attack on you, and now he might bring you down.
[50] Ἐγώ, μούλε, οὐ τὸ ἐγνοιάζομαι νὰ τὸν καταπονέσης, I don’t think, o baseborn, you are going to do him much harm,
[51] ἀλλὰ μὴ τὸ καυχάσεται ὅτι ἔτρεψεν φουσάτα.» but don’t let him boast that he routed an army."
[52]   Καὶ ὁ αμιρὰς ὡς τὸ ἤκουσεν, μακρέα τὸν ἀποξέβην,   When the emir heard this, he withdrew some way from the youth,
[53] ἔριψεν τὸ κοντάριν του καὶ δάκτυλόν τοῦ δείχνει he threw away his spear and pointed his finger at him,
[54] καὶ μετὰ τοῦ δακτύλου του τοιοῦτον λόγον λέγει: and with this gesture he said these words:
[55] «Ζῆς, νὰ χαίρεσαι, νεώτερε, ἐδικόν σου ἔν' τὸ νίκος.» "May you live and rejoice, young man, victory is yours."

See also


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  1. Jeffreys (1998): p. xv
  2. Эолова арфа: Антология баллады, Москва, "Высшая школа", 1989, ISBN 5-06-000263-2, page 625


Further reading

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