Acritic songs

The acritic songs, ακριτικά τραγούδια or frontiersmen songs, is the heroic or epic poetry that emerged out of 10th century Byzantium and was inspired by the almost continuous state of warfare with the Arabs in eastern Asia Minor. It gave birth to several Byzantine romances, most famous of all being the Digenis Acritas, setting up what is considered to be the beginnings of modern Greek literature.

Subject

Written in Medieval Greek, the acritic songs deal with the ανδραγαθίες (heroic deeds) of ακρίτες (frontiersmen), warriors that lived near the Arab frontiers and fought against the enemy. The constant state of war in the region and the repeated confrontations with the Arabs inspired poets to write down tales of chivalry as a response to society that wished to be informed or hear details, whether factual or imaginary, for the adventures caused by enemy invasions or the martial valor of their countrymen who drove them out. The fate of the inhabitants who after each invasion often had to face the loss of family members as well as their own pain is also a major theme.

The invasion and reposte, the hatred for the invader, the desire for revenge, the fate of female prisoners and the endeavours undertaken to their rescue, all inspire the poet who, based on direct narrations by eyewitnesses, organizes and develops this pool of information and emotions into a live language with an easily rememberable verse. The poet too narrates in recitation, or in a simple, recurring and easily taught pace the enslavement, duels, massacres, escapements, the release of captives and often the bonds of affection between kidnappers and women that lead to marriage and reconciliation.

Origins

The majority of academics trace the origins of Byzantine acritic romance in the oral epic poetry of the 9th - 10th century. Greek scholar Socrates Kougeas (Σωκράτης Κουγέας) dates the earliest reference to oral epics of the 10th century, in a speech given by bishop Arethas of Caesaria condemning the local αγύρται (agyrtae - the Greek counterpart of French troubadors) of Paphlagonia for gloryfying violent acts instead of the saints and god. Kougeas amptly observed that Arethas suggest a tradition developed at that time exactly in central Asia Minor which was the craddle of acritic literature. The preservation of such important oral songs in Asia Minor up to 1922 when the entire region was depopulated of Greeks prooves that Kougeas' assumption is valid.

These folkish singers may have been professionals, or semi-professionals that temporarily abandoned their jobs to sing their songs by pay. This tradition remains today in Cyprus with the ποιηταράδες (chanters) that sing regularly in festivals and holidays.

It is certain that starting with the 12th century the various oral epics began to be written down and copied.

Background

With the Arab expansion in the late 7th century came a life of warfare for the residents of easternmost territories. Syria was occupied in 640 and from then on, every year, Saracens attempted invasions in Asia Minor carying captives on their way back. Cities were usually retaken by the Byzantine army, with the exception of Tarsus and Adana that remained under occupaton until the 10th century, but each year after the invadors left the pain and suffering of the inhabitants remained along with their despair for their beloved ones that were missing. This continuous state of warfare set the stage for acritic poetry.

The hero of these poems, Ακρίτης (acritis), is the personification of all Byzantine soldiers that guarded those territories. As early as emperor Alexander Severus soldiers were vested with land that would pass on to their sons in exchange for their service in the army. Justinian consolidated these lands as tax-free, the owners of whom Procopius names as λιμιτανέους (limitanei). With the creation of the Byzantine theme system the landowners were given further privileges, that also excluded lakes from taxes. During the reign of Constantine Porphyrogenitus acritic lands were not allowed to be sold, even with the consent of the owner. This was necessary for the preservation of cavalry which was important for dealing with thieves (απελάτες). Following Byzantine successes against the Arabs after the 10th century, the borderlands were stabilized, tensions between them settled down and attention was diverted away from foreign afairs towards internal dangers.

Poems

Most poems did not survive the Ottoman occupation of Greece, and only a fraction remains of the original number of works, yet the ones we do hold today were famous enough to have existed in enough copies to survive. The most well known oral songs were written down and copied in great numbers, the most exceptional case being the Digenis Acrites which was well known even in western Europe outside the Byzantine empire.

The most important acritic romances are:

  • Digenis Acritas (Διγενής Ακρίτας).
  • Andronicus' Steed (Ο Ανδρόνικος και ο Μαύρος του).
  • Son of Andronicus (Ο υιός του Ανδρόνικου).
  • Song of Armoures (Το άσμα οτυ Αρμούρη).

Legacy

Acritis, as a representation of acritic poetry is greatly influential in modern Greek literature. Besides its prose of popular idiom which went on to influence and shape modern Greek, the poems themselves were nationalistic enough in character that they became a symbol of Greek continuity. Byzantine nationalism during the formation of the Greek state and in the age of the utopic new Greek Great Idea was widened and intensified. Costas Palamas, among the greatest of Greek poets, was preparing his own version of Digenis Acrites before his death. Byzantine history as part of Greece's wider history derives from historian Constantine Paparregopoulus and it is that which inspired Palamas in one of his poems (Αναπαίστους) to praise the hero of Digenis Acrites as the connecting link between Greece of the Persian Wars and Greece of 1821:

Ο Ακρίτας είμαι, Χάροντα,
έν παιρνώ μέ τά χρόνια,
ίμ' εγώ η ακατάλυτη ψυχή τών Σαλαμίνων,
τήν Εφτάλοφην έφερα το σπαθί τών Ελλήνων.

It is I, Death, Acritas,
years wont fade me away,
I'm the indestructable soul of Salamis,
bringing to you in Sevenhill, the sword of the Greeks.


With the defeat of Greece in the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) signaling the death of the Greek Great Idea, and along with the complete depopulation of Asia Minor of Greeks, the legend of Acritas was weakened, although not completely erased. The myth was resurged after the Second World War by Nikos Kazantzakis, who planned on writing his own poem centered on Acritas, who this time would not be the personification of a nation but of the higher and continuous spiritual fight of man. Its historical context would not be Byzantine.

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