Digenis Akritis: A Border Guard Transcending Borders

October 11, 2018
Digenis Akritis: A Border Guard Transcending Borders

A hybrid of oral epic and literary romance from 12th-century Byzantium, Digenis Akritis has it all: Bride-stealing and romance, bravery and battle, uncanny strength and folkloric anecdotes.While the hero works to safeguard the frontier regions of the empire, his parentage blurs the lines: His father an Arab emir, his mother the daughter of a Byzantine general. Digenis Akritis translates literally into “Twice-Born Border Guard,” a term which serves as an epithet for the epic poem’s titular hero. Like Digenis, the manuscripts we have today come from varied locales that transcend borders, resulting in several versions with unique features and local flavors. Digenis

One such version is the Old Slavic Digenis Akritis, which is at the core of Robert Romanchuk’s current project as a HURI Research Fellow. While retaining the epic’s Mediterranean frame and stylistic features (exaggerating certain of the latter), it is the fruit of a translation in either 13th century Ukrainian Galicia or 14th century Macedonia. Its exact birthplace remains a mystery -- one which Romanchuk is working to solve. The answer potentially has implications for how we view the medieval Mediterranean world and Ukraine’s relation to it.

On Monday, October 15, Romanchuk will give HURI’s Seminar in Ukrainian Studies, where he will discuss the Old Slavic Digenis Akritis. More specifically, he will present the formulaic elements that diverge from (and converge with) the Greek versions, thus addressing the question of whether it should be called a translation or an adaptation.

“A comparative study of oral-formulaic features in the manuscripts of Digenis Akritis, Greek folksongs, and Slavic epic shows that in many places where the Slavic Digenis diverges from the Greek versions, it makes use of formulas or themes -- these are technical terms for the building blocks of oral epic -- that are found in either Greek or Slavic folksongs,” Romanchuk explained. “Yet the Slavic text is not the transcription of an oral epic: rather, its formulaic style shows its translator, whose local tradition did not know the romance, authorizing his vernacular writing by ‘referring the audience to [the] familiar semantic world’ (in the words of Paul Zumthor) of the epic singer of tales.”

We sat down with Romanchuk for preliminary insight into his talk and his research at HURI. The talk, “The Old Slavic Digenis Akritis: Its ‘Formulaic Style’ and the Question of Adaptation or Translation” is at 4:30 pm on Monday, October 15, in Room S-050, CGIS South, Harvard University. All are welcome to attend.

digenis akritis ceramicHURI: In your talk “The Old Slavic Digenis Akritis: Its “Formulaic Style” and the Question of Adaptation or Translation” on Monday, what will you discuss?

Romanchuk: My talk will concentrate on a writing that exemplifies the medieval Mediterranean, perhaps even a kind of “Greater Mediterranean.” Composed in 12th century Constantinople on the (probable) basis of a 10th century Anatolian oral epic, on a romantic frame borrowed from Hellenistic Greece, Digenis Akritis had reached either Danylo of Halych’s Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia in the 13th century or, a century later, Macedonia in Stefan Dušan’s Empire of the Serbs and Romans.

There are reasons to think that Digenis was translated in Danylo’s Galicia, which is more or less the field’s default position. Should this be the case, this blast from the past would fit together with the idea of contemporary Ukraine as a participant in Mediterranean culture – a view that has been articulated by Yevhen Hlibovitsky of the Nestor Group and the Ukrainian Russian-language poet Igor Pomeranzev.

The stylistic features I’ll be discussing are part of the shared Mediterranean cultural inheritance as well: the formulaic style represents a popular Mediterranean rhetoric, analogous to, yet distinct from the classical Mediterranean rhetoric found in the writings of learned churchmen such as Metropolitan Ilarion or Kyryl of Turiv.

HURI: What is Digenis about? (What story does it tell? In other words, what would be on the back of the book?)

Romanchuk: The best back cover blurb is still probably Ihor Ševčenko’s, from Three Byzantine Literatures

The greatest of the Akritic poems deserves a place among the works of world literature. This is the epic of Digenis Akritas, a work of about four thousand lines. The name Digenis, “man of double origin,” comes from the plot: Digenis was the son of an Arab Emir and of the daughter of a Greek general and governor of Cappadocia. The Emir kidnapped the daughter during one of his raids against the Byzantine territory; he fell in love with her and settled the matter of kidnapping with the maiden’s brothers. He embraced Christianity, of course, married the general’s daughter, and settled on Byzantine soil. Digenis, the issue of this mixed marriage, is the hero to whose warlike and amorous exploits along the lonely border the epic is devoted. […]

When we read the epic for enjoyment, we are impressed by the hero’s precocious youth (as a young boy, he kills two bears and a lion on one hunting expedition); we admire his pride in his meeting with the Byzantine emperor (he is sure of the emperor’s good manners but not of those of his retinue. He therefore asks for a private audience; otherwise one of the emperor's soldiers might make an untoward remark, in which case he would be a dead man); finally, we notice his tact and his exuberance in his duel with the Amazon Maximo. (21–22)

Digenes PlateHURI: Aside from the stylistic elements you'll be telling us about at the talk, how does the Old Slavic version differ from the Greek versions?

Romanchuk: All the versions of Digenis add further episodes or substantially alter the received ones. Generally speaking, alongside its extension of the oral-epic style, the Slavic version exaggerates Digenis’s heroic traits (or epic ethos) in many places where the Italo-Byzantine Grottaferrata ("G") version “legalizes” his behavior in accordance with Byzantine aristocratic norms and even canon law. G transforms the hero’s abduction of his bride into an acceptable elopement; in the Slavic version, the hero brutally threatens the abducted girl, who claims to have fallen in love with him anyway. These differences are especially vivid in the episode of meeting the emperor: in G, court ceremonial wins out; in the Slavic version, the emperor wishes to destroy the hero and is defeated in turn.

HURI: How does the seminar topic fit into the research you are doing at HURI?

Romanchuk: In my research at HURI I am focused on completing a comparative study of linguistic features of Slavic Digenis and the “Serbian” Alexander Romance manuscripts, to help establish where the former might (or might not) have been produced. Perhaps even more importantly, I am working on the production of a critical edition of the Slavic Digenis.

A critical edition aims to establish a text while allowing the reader to understand change in a work across time and to evaluate the editor’s understanding of this change, by documenting variant readings across the manuscripts and modern emendations. Before beginning work on such an edition, you need to solve numerous problems. I’ve been working on them for around five years and have finally resolved most of them, if not entirely to my satisfaction, then at least to the point that I can begin working on the edition. (No critical edition can ever be the final word on a text, it should go without saying.) Of these problems, the Slavic version’s so-called “folkloric” or “fairytale” style has been a huge stumbling-block for Byzantinists to accept it as a source, on the one hand (this led them to think it was either an exceptionally early or late version, but an eccentric one in either case); and for Slavists to appreciate its real value (i.e., as the earliest reliable witness of oral-formulaic composition in Slavic).

HURI: Why did you choose to analyze this work?

Romanchuk: I first encountered the Slavic Digenis when I was asked to teach a course in the History of the Russian Language and the Introduction to the Reading of Old Rusian texts at Florida State University (FSU). I wanted a reading that was exciting and would hold students’ interest throughout the semester, so I normalized and “didacticized” a portion of the Slavic Digenis on the model of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers' Reading Greek course. After some years of getting to know the Slavic Digenis and its Greek relatives in my teaching, I decided that I might as well try my hand at producing a critical edition, and thus, started to learn all that this entailed.

Digenis - wuxia comicHURI: Is there one particular fact or insight about the topic that you find especially interesting? Anything in your research that surprised you?

Romanchuk: As I get older, I find that the forms and content of secular culture (in medieval Christian or other contexts) move me a great deal. Even more moving is to see them crossing vast, almost unimaginable distances, meeting and “hybridizing” with analogous local forms and content.

This is the story around Digenis: Anatolian oral epic songs meet Hellenistic romance in the Roman capital; the product is later diffused to new borderlands where, in the case of the Slavic version, it “hybridizes” anew with oral-traditional forms and content as it is rendered into a local language.

I think I was surprised at how well the Slavic Digenis, when carefully examined, fits into the Greek tradition: both disciplines, Byzantine and Slavic, seem to have had an interest in presenting it as eccentric, so as not to have to deal seriously with material that crosses linguistic/disciplinary boundaries.

HURI: Anything else we should know?

Romanchuk: Much of my recent work was made possible by my wonderful undergraduate assistants Thuy-Linh Pham, Ravital Goldgof, Lily Shelton, Simon Prado, and Shaimaa Khanam of FSU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Semester after semester, they analyzed and tabulated passages from English translations of the versions of Digenis and the Greek and Slavic folksong traditions. This was truly collaborative work and I wish that they could be here.

Hear more about the Slavic Digenis and Romanchuk's research on Monday, October 15 at our Seminar in Ukrainian Studies. More information here.

Romanchuk will continue the discussion with a talk at the Early Slavists’ Seminar at Harvard on Friday, November 30 at 12:00pm in Room S-354, CGIS South, called “The Old Slavic Digenis Akritis: Translation out of Greek vs. Translation into Slavic”; and a paper at the ASEEES 2018 Convention in Boston on Sunday, Dec. 9 at 10:00am, called “The Directionality of Grammatical and Lexical Patterning in the Slavic Translations of the Alexander Romance and Digenis Akritis.”

Robert RomanchukRobert Romanchuk (PhD Slavic, UCLA 1999) is Pribic Family Associate Professor of Slavic and Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University. His fields are philology and psychoanalysis. He is a 2018 HURI Research Fellow at the Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University.