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Exploring Byzantine Heroic Poetry – Digenes Akrites

November 7, 2022

As the month of November continues, it is a perfect time to replenish the to-be-read list with a few volumes that offer insights into perhaps lesser-known aspects of Hellenic literature such as Byzantine heroic poetry and specifically, Digenes Akrites. The complicated text is the subject of scholarly study in a collection of essays by renowned academics and also the inspiration for a Marvel-style graphic novel whose first two volumes were recently released.

Digenes Akrites: New Approaches to Byzantine Heroic Poetry, edited by Roderick Beaton and David Ricks, offers insights into the poem of Digenes Akrites which has been called the Byzantine epic, the epic of Modern Greece, an epic romance, and simply a romance.

Rediscovered in the late 19th century, the story captured the imagination of scholars in various disciplines from around the world along with those in Greece. A unique work, “there is nothing quite like Digenes Akrites in either Byzantine or Modern Greek literature,” according to the book’s description. “However, this uniqueness is not confined to its problematic place in the literary canon and literary history.

“As historical testimony, and in its complex relationship to later oral song and to older myth and storytelling, Digenes Akrites again has no close parallels of comparable length in Byzantine or Modern Greek culture,” the description continued. “Whether as a literary text, a historical source, or a manifestation of an oral popular culture, Digenes Akrites remains, more than a century after its rediscovery, persistently enigmatic.”

“This Byzantine ‘epic or romance’ has now become the focus of new research across a range of disciplines since the publication in 1985 of a radically revised edition based on the Escorial text of the poem, by Stylianos Alexiou,” according to the description, “the papers in this volume, derived from a conference held in May 1992 at King’s College London, seek to present and discuss the results of this new research.”

Digenes: The Mark of Cain by Konstantinos Dimitriou, Kallia Papadaki, Avgoustos Kanakis, and Dennis Yatras. (Photo: Jemma Press)

Digenes Akrites: New Approaches to Byzantine Heroic Poetry is the second in the series published by Variorum for the Centre for Hellenic Studies, King’s College London.

David Ricks taught at King’s College London from 1989 to 2020 and has written on the work of many Greek poets, among them Solomos, Kalvos, Cavafy, SIkelianos, Anagnostakis, Sinopoulos, Vayenas, and Ganas. He is editor (with Ingela Nilsson, Uppsala) of the journal Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, which welcomes strong contributions, and especially from younger scholars.

In 2018, Konstantinos Dimitriou launched a Kickstarter campaign for a dynamic retelling of the epic of Digenes Akrites as a graphic novel. According to the description, the story features “a dark, mythical quest set along the Silk Road” in the 10th century AD. Two of the five intended volumes of the graphic novel, ‘Digenes: The Mark of Cain’ and ‘Digenes: Fire and Brimstone’, by the team of Dimitriou, Kallia Papadaki, Avgoustos Kanakis, and Dennis Yatras are already available in Greek from Jemma Press and may be ordered online: https://www.digenes.com.

Beaton, former Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College London, is the author of the must-read ‘Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation.’



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