“We know from ancient stories filled with wondrous names how heroes fought for glory, won their fight for fame, their flowing feasts and pleasures, their tears, their moans, their mourning, their noble quarrels and courage, and here once more is more of the same.”
– Song of the Nibelungs
The Medieval Avengers
Deep in Moorish Spain, doomed to die of the mortal wounds he has received while defending the rear of the French army against an unnumbered Arab host, Charlemagne’s nephew Roland strikes his sword again and again on a rock in a futile attempt to break the faithful steel so it won’t be pillaged by marauders after his death.
Somewhat later but again in Spain, the legendary Mio Cid having conquered vast lands on his lord’s behalf, sent hundreds of well-bred horses his way, masochistically endured scorn and exile at his hands, is still pleading for readmission into the cruel don’s service.
All this as an outcast at birth tramples tribal and gender bounds and goes on to achieve great glory in the Byzantine-Arab wars a continent away, on the other side of the East-West frontier; her name: Dhat al-Himma.
And at last her mirror double, Digenis of double kin (Arab and Greek), lord Akritas of the Eastern reaches of the Byzantine empire, having lost interest in giving and taking blows is now happily looking after his own garden of Eden on the Euphrates.
The entrants on this shortlist of wondrous names – Roland, Cid, Dhat al-Himma, Digenis Akritas – all performed extraordinary feats, survived against impossible odds, overcame insurmountable challenges, and were glorified for their efforts in songs and epic tales.
Today these songs and tales might seem odd to us or even put us off with the amounts of violence, phantasmagorical exaggeration, and plain primitive thinking that saturates them.
Of course, when you are dealing with narratives composed between the 11th and 13th centuries, way before any semblance of modernity in the making that is, you can’t really expect a progressive outlook.
But still, you might ask: how am I expected to enjoy a story that has too much action and no handsome Hollywood actors, a story that represents reality about as well as a three-year-old with a crayon?
The Hero’s Journey
You can look at it this way: whether you realize it or not, epics are human. They are direct and simplistic but not crude. Behind every one of them is a living consciousness ticking and tinkering with bits of legend and lore – stories of people who lived and died hundreds of years ago, snippets of the one truly great story, the story of Us.
Like the heroes in those medieval tales, people today are all the time waging battles of their own, diligently recording their deeds in their internal chronicles, which all contain some level of exaggeration – but that is only all too human also.
In light of this realization, I have decided to recast the chanson de gest of Digenis Akritas (12th century), long considered “the national epic” of Greece, as rather a story of growth and self-realization. I was aided well in this endeavor by the framework provided by Joseph Campbell’s classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he breaks down the archetypal mythological hero’s journey into three phases: Departure, Initiation and Return, during which occur other typical elements of myth, such as: “The call to Adventure”, “Crossing of the First Threshold”, “The Road of Trials”, “Meeting with the Goddess” etc.
Digenis – summary, exegisis and translation
We can summarize the ascent of Digenis this way: at the start of the epic he is little more than a wild beast – freakishly strong, reckless and uncouth; he goes after other beasts, not knowing what they are, not knowing how to fight them, attacking with his bare hands… But then he discovers love and music, and suddenly he’s not fighting just to satisfy those violent urges anymore, he’s defending his beloved, he’s winning glory for them both. At last, as he has vanquished all enemies – animal, human and supernatural – he undergoes a final metamorphosis from destructive predator to cultivator of heavenly bliss.
Two manuscripts exist recounting Digenis’ story, and though neither is entirely free from the influences of the classical tradition, one is closer to the variety of modern Greek spoken today, while the other preserves many more anachronistic elements. In my translation based on the more colloquial version I have attempted to mimic the mixing of the two stylistic varieties, but also to convey the strangeness of the original abounding in outlandish forms, some of which scholars are still struggling to decode.
A quirk of the text that will become immediately apparent to the reader and should therefore be addressed here is the seemingly random mixing of tenses – in Digenis switches from the past to the present occur sometimes in the same sentence. I have preserved this oddity of the original to the best of my ability.
In questions of philological fidelity versus creative freedom, I have invariably erred on the side of artistic effect over mechanistic rendering of the Greek source into English. Neither have I denied myself the occasional linguistic gimmick. All this I did to maximize for myself and the reader the pleasure of reading, which ultimately is the end goal of every literary production.
Digenis – a thematic translation
Chapter 1: The Hero’s Birth
The epic begins with an invasion led by the first emir of Syria into Byzantine-ruled Asia Minor. In the course of the assault the emir has captured a Christian girl and has subsequently returned with her and the rest of the spoils to his native Syria. The five brothers of the hostage, on pain of their mother’s curse, set off to retrieve her. They reach the Arab camp and hold council. It is decided that the youngest one will face the emir in single combat, and should he win, their sister would be set free. Which is precisely what transpires, however, the emir proves treacherous and sends them on a wild goose chase around the tents of his camp in search of the lost sister. On a tipoff from a nameless Arab the five brothers go to investigate the site of a mass slaughter of Christian girls. They find the bodies too bloodied and disfigured to tell who’s who but nonetheless assume their sister dead. After burying the girls in a mass grave and addressing a long lament to Master Sun in which they demand to know wherefore after Christ’s sacrifice men and women continue to be massacred in this way, the five grieving brothers journey back to the camp determined to wage open war on the emir.
Chapter 2: Departure
This section of the poem begins with a panegyric on the power of Love. It recalls the fate of ancient Greek heroes, who despite possessing great courage and fame were still tortured by passion. The poet takes care to ensure us of the authenticity of his narrative, denouncing Homer and other Greek poets for their embellishments. Then, we get to learn more of the emir’s accomplishments prior to his fateful expedition in Asia Minor. He had travelled to Babylon and on account of his great prowess and astuteness the elders had recommended him to the Sultan to be appointed emir. He had commanded an army of Turks and Arabs three thousand strong and also had a personal guard of five hundred young men. With all of these he had pillaged the towns of Asia Minor – Heraklion, Konya and Amorium, before himself falling victim to love.
I. The Call to Adventure
II. The Crossing of the First Treshold
Chapter 3: Initiation
There is a gap in the text in which it is believed, Digenis kills the lion and first lays eyes on the beautiful daughter of the Byzantine general or strategos, who is to become his wife. It is unclear what exactly comes to pass between the two but from the extant text we know that vows have been exchanged and that Digenis has promised to return in the cover of night to initiate their elopement. In what follows he is riding home by himself and praying for the moon to come out so it may keep him company in the journey he is about to undertake.
I. The Meeting with the Goddess
II. The Road of Trials
III. Woman as Temptress
After this episode, Digenis is approached by three brigands (apparently of higher stature) who have heard of his feats and want to test his courage. Though the fight against these much more experienced and braver brigands proves challenging, Digenis manages to scatter them. Ashamed of their defeat and eager to prevent the hero from boasting, they resort to seeking the help of a woman warrior – an Amazonian called Maximou. She is more than happy to assist her old outlaw friends yet knows not that she’s being deceived. The three brigands have told her that Digenis has abducted a girl intended for one of them and furthermore that he has a whole army at his command. When the maiden warrior and all her host arrive and see the young man alone leaning on his cane, Maximou – outraged by the cowardice of her comrades – runs to cross the rapids of a river so as to challenge him to single combat.
IV. The Ultimate Boon