The Passions of Digenis Akritis

I honor Francis Schaeffer as one of the great Christian voices of the 20th century.  While I am not certain, I think he was one of the first to urge Christians to focus on the power of art to shape culture.  He also urged us to pay attention to environmental and stewardship concerns decades before such topics became mainstream.  As well as he commented on the modern age, I feel he badly misrepresented early Christian and medieval culture in his How Shall we Then Live? series.  In his view medieval culture indulged in too much spiritualization, too much “etherealizing,” and missed the stark reality of the Kingdom of God.  He acknowledged Dante’s genius, but then proceeds to essentially dismiss The Divine Comedy because of his idealization of Beatrice and her role as his guide to Heaven.  I fail to see how one can accuse an era that went on the Crusades, built cathedrals, and founded the first universities, of too much “spiritualization.”  As Schaeffer resided in the Reformed Protestant camp, perhaps he carried too much anti-Catholic baggage to see the medieval era straight.

And yet . . . when it comes to his essential critique of Dante, he has a partial point.  Before I continue, I should say that I regard The Divine Comedy, along with Shakespeare’s plays, as the greatest literary achievements of the western world in the last 1500 years.  I have no idea who could possibly challenge them.  But Dante had some of the faults as well as the great strengths of his culture.

The aristocratic tradition of courtly love came out of the positive development of the possibility of men pursuing women romantically and remaining “men,” as C.S. Lewis points out in his Allegory of Love.  But then it morphed into a kind of love that had no feet on the ground.  Romantic love without its proper end in marriage has all of the substance of leaves in the wind, a dance of disembodied heads.  Courtly love could descend into a kind of idealization of a mere passion, which could then become an idealization of lust itself.*

The Orthodox Byzantine epic poem Digenis Akritas** (translated, “The two-blood border lord”), for all its charm and energy, cannot match up to some other contemporary western epic poems such as The Song of Roland.  But its simplicity and clarity reveals a strength, a helpful corrective to the whole courtly love tradition.  To outsiders, Eastern Orthodox practice probably looks “mystical,” with its icons, incense, and so on.  Those with more experience know that Orthodox life and worship has a decided earthy practicality about it.

We see this in the story.  It begins en media res with the life of hero’s father, a prominent Moslem emir.  He raids a Christian town and captures one particularly beautiful Christian woman.  Utterly captivated, he eventually agrees to convert to Christianity and marry her, forsaking family, title, and everything for the sake of her love.  So far we might see parallels to The Divine Comedy, where Dante comes to God through love of Beatrice.  But again, the “earthiness” of Orthodoxy stands out, for in this story the man actually marries the woman.

Interestingly, while Digenis Akritas celebrates the marriage and the emir’s conversion, it warns that such ardent passion can lead also lead to “madness.”  It celebrates the results of the passion of the Emir, but not the passion itself.

In time our hero is born, and as a young man, like his father, he forms an unquenchable passion for  a young maiden.  They marry and live happily.  But . . . the poem’s earlier warning about the possible destructive possibilities in such a passion come to fruition with Digenes.  Twice he commits adultery.  The first time it happens he recounts his repentance bitterly.  The second time, he defeats an Amazon warrior, and then, carried on by his passions, one thing leads to another.  His wife accuses him of infidelity and he denies it.  But again, now possessed by anger and shame, he goes back to the Amazon woman and murders her.

Our hero and his wife die together in the faith, but his tale recognizes what medieval Christendom did not.  When controlled by our desires, if we end up doing the right thing it may be no more than mere luck.  Just as often, such desires lead us into destructive behaviors.  Malory’s version of the Arthurian legends perhaps hint at something similar by showing how Lancelot and Guinevere destroyed the fellowship of the Round Table.  But Digenes Akritas is much more direct.

We see this directness in Orthodox iconography.  From the outside I understand those who may feel that, whatever the merits of the artists, icons remain static and lifeless.  But viewed from within the tradition, one sees that icons often depict (though in different ways) victory over the passions.  This victory does not banish emotion, it gives us dominion over them.  Hence, the saints remain quiet, yet alert, like St. Anthony the Great (below) in any all circumstances They have freedom because they have been freed from the dominion of the passions.

The Life of Saint Anthony the Great

Though Digenis Akritis falls a bit short in overall literary merit with other epic poems, it possesses a directness and practicality its western counterparts often lack.


*As I mentioned, I don’t agree with Schaeffer’s main point.  But on the fringes . . . . ?  For example, the scholastic movement in the late Middle Ages over-rationalized theology.  Too much emphasis on reason, like courtly love, can put one in danger of living purely in a mental construct and risk falling into a kind of gnosticism.

**Many modern perspectives assume that  medieval Christians from the east and west had an implacable, ignorant hatred of Moslems.  And yet, our hero here is half Arab/Persian, half “Roman.”  In Malory’s Morte de Arthur, he includes admirable accounts of Sir Palomides, a Moslem knight.