Qantara Qantara

Depiction of Digenes Akritas on a ceramic dish

  • Title/name : Depiction of Digenes Akritas on a ceramic dish
  • Discovery place : Kherson, Ukraine
  • Date / period : Late twelfth century–early thirteenth century  
  • Materials and techniques : Ceramic; Zeuxippus ware decoration, scratched on slip and under the glaze (sgraffito)
  • Dimensions : D. 31.8 cm
  • Conservation town : Saint Petersburg
  • Conservation place : State Hermitage Museum
  • Inventory number : no. X728

In Byzantine civilisation, the epic of Digenes Akritas occupied a place comparable to that of the Thousand and One Nights in classical Islam or of the Iliad in ancient Greece. It is an epic poem set against the backdrop of the history of Byzantium and its relations with Islam.

An Arab emir from Syria captures a Byzantine noblewoman during an incursion into Byzantine territory. The young woman’s mother sends her sons in search of him so that they can set their sister free. After a terrible confrontation, the emir is defeated. But instead of leaving the woman he loves, he converts to Christianity, brings his entire family to Byzantine territory and marries his beloved. Digenes (“he who is born of two races”) is born of their union. A precocious child, he is extraordinarily strong and courageous. This is the story told in the first part of the epic, which features characters and events from the ninth and tenth centuries. The second part, longer and more fictionalised, relates the adventures of this character of great stature: Digenes takes part in a wild beast hunt, and, like his father, carries off the daughter of a powerful strategos. They get married, then he takes her to lead the life of a wanderer along the border where he confronts dragons, Amazons and brigands. Finally, he builds a magnificent palace near the Euphrates, dying there suddenly in the prime of life. The existence of this man at the crossroads of two cultures earned him the name of Akritas, “frontiersman”. The term akritai may be found in the Byzantine military treatises of the tenth and eleventh centuries, usually designating those who lived on the furthermost bounds of the imperial territory, along the eastern border.

There are six manuscripts recounting this story, sometimes with a few variations. The narratives are said to come from a lost text thought to have been written in the twelfth century. The content, form and language of the poem in demotic Greek suggests that it was written during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (1081–1118), probably in the first decades of the twelfth century. However, the action recounted claims to take place much earlier: the enemies of the Byzantines are Arabs and not Turks, which had been the case since 1050. Therefore, the work takes place in a legendary past of frequent Arab raids into Byzantine territory; the historical references, serving to give the poem an air of verisimilitude, had their origins in popular tradition.

Hunters and warriors, such as Digenes Akritas, are iconographic themes found on Byzantine crockery. Digs brought to light dishes whose decoration represents a warrior we would like to identify as Digenes Akritas in combat with a wild beast or fantastic animal. One of these plates is now exhibited in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. It was discovered in Crimea and is thought to date from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. A second example was found in Thebes and dates from the same period. On it, we also see a warrior attacking a dragon with a snake’s body, a fantastic creature found in the epic poem. These dishes belong to a type of high-quality Byzantine pottery known as Zeuxippus ware.

The epic of Digenes Akritas was widely known: it was known all over the Near East and even in Russia where a Slavic translation was undertaken. The transmission of this text from the Middle Ages to the modern era testifies to the popularity of the myth of Digenes and of its adaptability to the realities of different cultures.

BIBLIOGRAPHY RELATED TO THE ITEM

Actes du VIIe Congrès international sur la céramique médiévale en Méditerranée, Thessaloniki, 2003, Athens.

Cappel, A.-J., “Akritai”, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Vol. 1, New York, 1991, Oxford University Press.

Jeffreys, E. J., “Digenes Akritas”, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Vol. 1, New York, 1991, Oxford University Press.

Odorico, P.,, L’Akrite: l’épopée byzantine de Digénis Akritas, Toulouse, 2002, Anacharsis.

Megaw, A. H. S., “Zeuxippus Ware”, Annual of the British School of Athens, 63, 1968, p. 67–88.



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