Epic Songs of Warriors and Heroes
The publication includes 30 songs, inspired by the popular tradition of story-telling, relating tales of brave warriors, both high-ranked lords and lowly soldiers. Centering on heroic Digenis, they originate from all parts of Greece. The publication also contains a detailed booklet analyzing the history surrounding the songs, and their interpretation. The collection is the first to be issued by the Association since Domna’s death in 2012.
In parallel with her other activities, between 1959 and 2011 she oversaw the preparation and publication of a number of important song collections in Greece and abroad. Having worked with various record companies, she founded the Domna Samiou Greek Folk Music Association in 1981 to ensure, as she put it, ‘the best possible results in terms of both music and presentation’.
Epic Songs of Warriors and Heroes is the first collection to be issued by the Association since Domna's death. In fact, Domna had almost completed work on the collection: committed as she always was to excellence and to an authentic and elegant product, she had done her research, selected the songs from her collection, decided which were to be included in their original performances, taught others to her associates, and recorded a number herself. Naturally, we dearly wanted to bring her work to fruition, but it took some time to regroup and summon the courage to publish without Domna at our head.
Domna Samiou left an enormously important oeuvre behind her. And while she achieved a great deal over a life lived to the full, there was still a good deal planned when she finally ran out of time. It is these plans we are committed to bringing to fruition - because we want the songs she saved to live on, along with the qualities that marked everything she did: her vision and her faith.
We forge ahead in the hope that the present publication and those that will follow – Weddings Songs, The Earth’s Three Bounties and Songs of Asia Minor by Domna Samiou – will convey to all who hear them at least some of the qualities that made Domna unique: her love for the songs of her native Greece, her sensitivity, and her ethos.
Domna and her Heroes
And these musical preferences were, of course, reflected in the recordings she made and the discography she supervised throughout her life. Her passing left us with a major unfinished task: the half-finished Akritic songs, as she liked to call the long, narrative songs that told of brave men and heroes.
Our approach to this ideologically-burdened category of songs took into account the history of their publication and interpretation, but also what concepts like ‘borders’, ‘frontiers’ or ‘akritic songs’ could mean today. We wanted to understand what groups that could themselves be described as ‘akritic’ in many ways actually hear when they listen to these songs, when and why they choose to incorporate them into their repertoires, which ‘akritic’ values and needs songs serve when they are performed collectively and ritualistically, and how the group adapts the songs to their requirements, keeping their traditional meaning up-to-date but simultaneously imbued with timeless, universal values.
We started out with an academic reading and categorization of the songs informed by classical philological approaches and the historical links they essayed. At the same time, we used contemporary theory to analyze both texts and performances.
The songs centre on Digenis and narrate heroic tales inspired by the popular oral traditions of a particular area against a vast and epic backdrop. The heroes of these tales, most of whom are infant-prodigies whose future is writ clear from birth, are graced with many gifts: strong and brave, unbeatable in battle and famed for their superhuman feats; they are also skilled musicians and singers, cultivators of crops and vines, men who kidnap but also protect women and who remain arrogant, even in the face of death. Their natural environment - the distant, arid deserts, rugged mountains and white waters, home to dragons and wild beasts, talking horses and birds - is as unfamiliar as it is ‘uncivilized’ and red in tooth and claw. And yet it is the tame, civilized, inhabited world of castles, palaces, farmland and paradisical gardens in which lords devoted themselves to hunting and sport, feasts, drunkenness, erotic fantasies and song that these heroes give their all to protect.
But for the akrites of the songs, the borders and frontiers are more than just fields of battle. They are also shared places where people live side by side and intermarry. Places where cultures communicate, exchange and absorb aspects of one another. They are an epic land on a human scale.
We are proud to have brought Domna's work to fruition in this new release and hope we have remained true to her vision.
1Akrites: the inhabitants and armed defenders of the akres, the Eastern frontier of the mediaeval Byzantine empire.
Μiranda Terzopoulou (2017)
Of course, common people never knew these songs as akritika, a term coined by scholars who conducted research into folk songs (indeed, even the term dimotiko tragoudi (folk song) is a scholarly invention). The ordinary people have always referred to these songs by the name of the hero whose brave deeds they relate - whether it be Akritis or Digenis, Armouris or Porphyris; by their subject matter or by when and by whom they were sung (songs of love and wedding, uprooting and separation, table or processional songs, Easter songs, fabulous tales, rhymes, etc.). Paraloges (fables) is a term often used to define songs with the same heroes whose epic element served as a backdrop for narratives in which the dramatic content might focus on the familial or the mythical, the supernatural and marvellous. In all these cases, we can detect in the songs social ethics and deeds which have been reductively labeled as ‘akritic’ and which do refer to a particular historic period - that of the Medieval Byzantine era. We can, therefore, define more correctly and broadly as the folk songs of the Byzantine world all those songs we can considerate as ‘akritic’ due to their style or feel (heroic narratives, rhymes, fables) rather than narrowly the heroic songs about the akrites, which are preeminently akritic.
But how can we define the Byzantine, akritic features of these heroes and these songs, including the paraloges?
a) The names of the heroes, which serious studies declare to date from the Byzantine era, with some also linked to the Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis (which probably dates from the 11th-12th century but has come down to us in later scholarly and demotic variations) and which made use in its turn of a still older oral tradition of songs about the heroes of the Byzantine - Arab conflict in Asia Minor: Akritas, Alexandros, Alexis, Amiris / Kalomoiris, Amouropoulos, Armouris, Andronikos, Areti, Vasilis, Vardas, Vdokia / Evdokia, Giannis / Giannakis / Monogiannes, Digenis, Digiannos, Doukas, Kali, Kalana, Kalitsa, Kostantinos / Kostantis / Mikrokostantinos and Xantinos, Nikiphoros, Marantos, Marialis, Maroudia, Mavrianos, Mavroudis, Porphyras, Skliros, Synadinos, Synadinopoulos, Syropoulos, Tsimiskis, Varytrachilos/Petrotrachilos, Tremantacheilos, Tsamados, Philiopappous / Paliopappous / Chiliopappous, Phokas, Charzanis et al. It should be noted that scholarly narratives about Alexander the Great and Digenis Akritis' own epic both provide subject-matter for the creation of new heroic songs or embellishments for pre-existing folk songs.
b) A specific human geography with references to the outer limits (akres) of the Byzantine world and in particular to the East - Syria, Armenia, Babylon, the Euphrates, the deserts, the barren uplands with their deep wells and unfordable rivers -is considered another feature specific to the heroic akritic songs.
c) Another key marker for these songs, considered as akritic, is the reference to the conflicts between the ‘Romans’ (Romaioi = Byzantines), Hellenes or Trantellenes (super-Greeks) of Romania (= Byzantium) on the one hand and the Saracens, Syrians, Arabs or Moors on the other. Also, key marker is the union of the opposite Roman (Byzantine) and Arab and the creation of two races, of two-blood border lords, like Digenis Akritis, and the extended narration of a collective or individual clash or adventure involving Muslims and other enemies, in rhymes, long table songs - meaning they are almost never danced - or ritual songs featuring magical and supernatural elements.
d) We can also date back to the Byzantine era some songs considered as paraloges in which the feats of the heroes surpass those of mere mortal men. The hero (often with a Byzantine epic name) is pitted against his foes, whether they be Saracens or Moors, but also against the forces of nature, though he defeats these, too, thanks to his code and his muscles. Mountains, rivers, trees, day and night, distances and the sky itself with moon, sun and stars are reduced to nothing or submit to his will. Though not his fate, which cannot be defeated, however epic the struggle he wages against it.
e) Finally, many songs with no obvious epic features are very close to the akritic heroic songs' atmosphere, with heroes shepherds, farmers, wine growers (wine and drunkenness are heroic characteristics) who, like Akritis, hunt, plough, and sow emblematically, raise flocks and herds, travel, wander, fall in love, kidnap maidens, take part in celebrations, eat and drink at lordly tables, wrestle in the ring, get drunk, take offence and pick fights.
Which is to say that the heroes of these mediaeval demotic songs, with these features passed down to us, participate like Digenis - which means ‘of two races’, with mixed blood - in both the supernatural and larger-than-life and the everyday ordinary human life. Their arms, too (lances, bows, swords, boulders) are supernatural and frightening, their horses fly, drink wine and get drunk, they have stars, adders, astrites and snakes for reins, horseshoes and spurs. Their bodies and their appetites are also gigantic and superhuman; in this, the songs borrow from popular legends and folk tales: threshing floors, windmills and stables fit on their heads and nostrils, and their appetites - gastronomic and sexual - are equally gargantuan, as they eat bread by the oven-load and suck up troughs full of wine like their steeds. Their members, too, are super-sized. Ultimately, the hero is unique but alone in his permanent conflict with every form of political and religious power. He will shake the sky, make earth and heavens shudder. Most epic of all are Digenis' fight with Death, the rivalry and the wager between Giannakis and the Sun, their battle against dragons, snakes and spirits of the desert, forests and waters. Yet the dramatic outcome of all these episodes, the divestment of their heroic status, declares their tragic, human fate. But even after death - in Digenis' case, especially - the earth cannot hold them and takes fright, their gravestone shivers. Rarely, however, are metaphysics or the heroes' religiosity mentioned. Instead, the songs limit themselves either to exhortations to military saints or references to holy figures, especially in songs associated with saint's day celebrations or initiation rites.
Despite their supernatural powers, they may also be endowed with more commonplace features, ways and concerns which would have been familiar to the community that sang their praises, making it easier for the simple folk to make them their own, to learn from their example and to be redeemed through them. Thus, in addition to their primary status as military heroes, they have secondary characteristics (these vary from song to song) which relate them to the norms of society and which seem to conform to its rules. The heroes' moral compass is grounded in the warrior's traditional virtue: bravery, in the codes of honour and respect in which just and unjust - however they are defined - create the moral code by which the traditional mediaeval community lived. Heroes usually defend justice and fight injustice. However, if certain rules are imposed by force and from above, the hero may disregard or even break them, find himself in conflict with the king and end up being punished.
In a more ‘edgy’ take on the meaning of akri or ‘extremity’, some paraloges, fables with akritic features, present their protagonists as non-exemplary heroes of excess who still transcend the physical - or, perhaps it would be better to say the ‘norm’ - behaving in an obviously extreme and ‘hubristic’ way, committing almost ‘epic’ acts of high-handedness, necrophilia, sacrilege, incest and murder, taking maidens' virginity, committing predatory acts, and sowing disorder of every kind. In addition, a lot of ribald priapic and wedding songs have intensely akritic, extremely heroic elements, though these have been turned on their head. Kostantis or Giannaros has a dick forty fathoms long and sexistly challenges the king and the powers-that-be with it. This - the inversion of the hero's hegemonic seriousness - is one aspect of the so-called akritic songs which has yet to be studied and take its rightful place in the akritic corpus. The same is true of the warrior maid and the necrophilic act. The akritic horseman Kostantis makes love seven or nine times to the dead girl he finds when his horse, tethered to a tombstone ring, hauls the stone to one side to reveal her freshly-buried corpse. The maid is brought back to life by the surfeit of sex and requests the horse of the insatiable stud to take her to avenge herself on the unfaithful youth who abandoned her. This is an ancient myth transformed into a perfect ‘akritic’ song, as are the songs that tell of a Dead Brother risen from the dead after the curse of his mother, who travels to Babylon to bring his sister back to Romania (= Byzantium) or the song about the castle of Syria or Oria, which are usually classified as paraloges, fables.
Many of these almost archetypal themes have been transformed as they travelled through time and space, evolving or remaining relatively unchanged, and provide us with a selection as varied as the lands and dialects of the Greek-speaking world. On their journey from antiquity through the Middle Ages and into modernity, these themes were draped with new elements offered up by the new historical reality. It was during the Byzantine period that the ancient themes were initially adapted and enriched with akritic elements, and their byzantinisation and ‘akritisation’ occurred. Then, during the years of Ottoman rule when everything shrunk and the epically-sized was no more, many heroic akritic song in the Greek-speaking Balkan peninsula donned a klephtic foustanella and were reworked into armatolika, klephtika and bandit songs, while many others in the Pontus, Cappadocia, Cyprus, the Dodecannese and Crete retained in some way their akritic feel fairly unchanged. This development occurred in a social context typified by inequalities and clashes between agrarian communality, trade, pastoral and island life in the Balkans and the Aegean, all of which was far removed from the imperial world of the landed gentry and epic warriors of Byzantium. The soldier, trader, boatswain, and warrior (even the warrior ant in a satire) shift locale from the East, from Syria and Babylon, to Wallachia and Bogdania, Venice and the Barbary coast; Saracens and Arabs become Catalans, Franks, Albanians and Turks; the ford across the Euphrates and the bridge of Adana and Deva become rivers and bridges in the Balkans and in Arta most of all. Still, the rebellious spirit remains paramount in the heroic songs of clashing families, along with a resurrectionary expectation that unites the conflicting factions.
It is precisely this heroic spirit of rebellion and the bringing together of extremes that constitutes the thematic heritage of these heroic mediaeval songs, even through their subsequent transformations: In these songs, Digenis, as an akritic soldier, a giant, a hunter, a lover or a wine-maker, Giannakis, whether as a lover, a magician, or a warrior, Digiannos or Monogiannos, no matter if he's a wanderer or an only son in love, Kostantis, Andronikos, Mavrianos and Porphyras all embody heroes who battle injustice but also express the chimaeric need to seek the imaginary and the impossible in the Upper World. Nature, the earth, this beloved world is the beginning and the foundation on which the hero will stand foursquare and shake the heavens: ‘his feet planted in the earth...’. For everything is of the world - passion and excess, justice and injustice - there is no metaphysics for rewarding the vindicated, and the Under World is simply the shadow of the other.
Thus the akritic ideal of Byzantine heroic folk songs is fighting and bringing together the extremes, an ongoing priority and mentality of a digenis people, meaning one made up of extremes in which East and West coexist and have been converging since the time of Alexander into a desired union. According to folk songs ‘the nightingales and the apples of the East together with the birds and quinces of the West’, Love and Death together, Heaven and Hell, all of them here and now, in the only existent Upper World, are always damned to be in a constant battle in the extreme borders of the mythic geography of our mind and of our desires, both beside us on the marble threshing floors and far ‘on the edge of the edge, at the end of the world’.
lias Anagnostakis (2016)