A Case Study in Byzantine Dragon-Slaying: Digenes and the Serpent
Oral Tradition, Vol. 26:1 (2011)
Digenes Akritas, called Akrites in our earliest sources, is the hero of several texts from the medieval and early modern periods and of several Modern Greek folk songs. Six Greek and one Slavic version of the epic survive. The earliest manuscript, named after the monastery at Grottaferrata, has been dated to approximately 1300. It has been argued that the long narratives are attempts to form a single cohesive story out of loosely connected songs about a hero who may have lived in the ninth century,during the reign of Basil I.The songs and epics of Digenes have been mined for historical information more often than they have been studied as works of verbal art.
Scholarship on the epic tends to favor a date of origin in the twelfth century based on societal structures portrayed in the text, but a date closer to that of the Grottaferrata manuscript’s production circa 1300 is possible. The epic is thoroughly nostalgic, celebrating the frontier spirit that protected the Empire before it lost its vast Asian territories, and an author attempting to celebrate a lost age might inadvertently reproduce the way of life of a more recent, more familiar past. Elizabeth Jeffreys argues that parallel verses found in Grottaferrata and in twelfth-century texts demonstrate that “a version of the Digenis poem resembling G” was in existence in the twelfth century. The similarities may, however, result from a common store of traditional oral formulae.
The texts of Digenes Akrites that we have tell us little or nothing of value about the time of Basil I, but they do attest to the nostalgia with which later Byzantines thought of the time before the loss of the Empire’s eastern territories. Digenes is a warrior of superhuman power who lives in the Empire’s far eastern regions. The name Akrites means “frontiersman.” Though he exists at the borders between Christendom and Islamic lands, there is not the slightest suggestion of religiously motivated war. Digenes’ own father is an Arab emir, and the hero’s epithet literally means “born of two races.” His Christian name, Basil, evokes both Basil I and Basil II, the great military leader who ruled from 976-1025, in what later generations would recall as the last glorious period in their civilization’s history before the defeat at Manzikert in 1071 and the ensuing loss of the Anatolian hinterland to the Turks. The hero’s name thus has a cultural significance similar to that of the Spanish warrior commonly known as El Cid, who shares the name Rodrigo with the last Visigothic king. In Digenes Akrites, the emir voluntarily converts to Christianity out of love for Digenes’ future mother, but there is never any hint of forced conversion. The characters never fight over religion, and many of the hero’s enemies are Christian bandits. The very circumstances of the emir’s conversion seem to tell us that the Christian poet, for all the violence of his subject matter, would have his religion spread through love or not spread at all. A climate of religious coexistence is one of several traits shared by the Spanish and Byzantine frontier epics. Parallels with Iranian traditions, which I hope to demonstrate in this article, indicate that Digenes Akrites came out of a milieu of cultural exchange as lively as the one inhabited by its characters.