Digenis Akritis shows Byzantine matriarchy devaluing men’s lives

Mother of God as Empress

Most men deeply love their mothers. Most mothers deeply love their sons. Unfortunately, the mother-son relationship tends to support oppressive gynocentrism. The preeminent power of a mother over her son is evident in the eleventh-century Latin romance Ruodlieb. A mother’s power also appears in the Grottaferrata version of the tenth-century Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis.[1] The latter has particularly enduring value for helping women and men to recognize still-common, damaging patterns in the mother-son relationship.

Digenis Akritis tells the story of Basil Digenis Akritis. He’s a strong, independent man of action who realistically lives out his love for women in challenging, culturally diverse circumstances of gynocentrism. This epic is set on frontiers between the Byzantine and Islamic empires about the tenth century GC. Digenis’s father, an unnamed Islamic emir, became a Christian to marry Digenis’s Christian Byzantine mother. The name Digenis Akritis means literally frontiersman of double descent. That double descent involves a man making a wrenching change to conform to his beloved woman’s society.

In Christian understanding, the savior of the world Jesus Christ is born of a woman without the labor of a man. The prologue of Digenis Akritis immediately evokes Christian worldly gynocentrism:

I shall now reveal to you the deeds
which he {Digenis} performed in this present life,
how powerful and brave warriors
he terrified and all beasts,
with aid of the grace of God
and of the unconquerable Mother of God [2]

The prologue then goes on to credit and praise four men military saints. Christianity does not necessarily imply the devaluation and subordination of men to women. Yet powerful social forces independent of Christianity often produce that gynocentric outcome.

With the subtle irony characteristic of this epic, Digenis Akritis begins with a lengthy account of the life of Digenis’s father. His father was a high-born, rich, brave, strong, handsome Islamic emir (general). Along with conquering much Byzantine territory, the emir overran the house of Digenis’s maternal grandparents. His maternal grandfather, a Byzantine general, was away from his home under exile. Digenis’s maternal uncles were away engaging in men-on-men violence on the frontiers. Following common practice of gender distinction in violence, the emir’s forces killed all the men remaining at the home, but not all the women.[3] Digenis’s maternal grandmother wasn’t killed. She somehow escaped from the attackers. The emir, however, held Digenis’s mother as a prisoner. He provided her with sumptuous, highly privileged accommodations. He did not force her to have sex with him, but implored her to marry him.

Digenis’s grandmother incited her five sons to engage together in a dangerous, violent attempt rescue their sister from the emir. The mother wrote to her sons:

Most longed for children, pity your mother
whose soul is afflicted and who is about to die.
Remember the love of your sister,
hasten to free your sister and your mother,
her from bitter slavery and me from death.
Let us surrender our very being for the sake of our dearest one;
do not prefer life to your sister;
pity your own sister, my children.
Go with speed to her rescue.
If not, you will see your mother dying for her child
and you will receive my curse and that of your father.

The mother emotionally manipulated her sons with the claim that she would die if they didn’t attempt to rescue their sister. The mother urged her five sons to recognize that their lives are worth less than freeing their sister from privileged captivity. The mother threatened to curse her sons if they didn’t do what she told them to do. She also assumed authority to make a similar threat on behalf of their father.

Rather than decisively rejecting their mother’s emotional manipulation, the sons abjectly surrendered their own lives. With deep sighs and tears for their sister’s situation, the sons eagerly urged each other on to the dangerous rescue mission. Without personal consciousness of the poet’s surely deliberate irony, they said seriously to each other:

Let us go; let us be slaughtered on her behalf. [4]

Via a written request, the sons were granted an audience with the emir. They met with the emir amid his vast army. They said to him:

Emir, servant of God and first man in Syria,
may you reach Panormos {Jeddah, port for Mecca and Medina} and see the mosque {in Mecca},
may you do obeisance , emir, to the hanging rock {Ka’aba in Mecca}
and be deemed worthy to kiss the Prophet’s tomb {in Medina}
and hear the sacred prayer {Takbīr, Shahada, etc.}
You have abducted a delightful girl, our sister.
Ransom her to us, servant of the most high God,
and in return for her we will give you as much treasure as you ask.
For our father mourns for her since he has no other daughter,
our mother wishes to die since she cannot see her
and we who also have a boundless desire for her
have all sworn with most terrible oaths
that if we do not recover her we shall all be slaughtered. [5]

In appreciation for their bravery, the emir offered to fight in single combat any one of the sons. If the emir won, he would have all the sons as slaves. If the son won, the emir would return their sister.

The sons agreed to the violent challenge. By lot the youngest son was chosen for the fight. He was his sister’s twin. That underscores the much higher value of his sister’s life than his. His brothers advised him:

Do not, brother, let shouts shock you at all,
nor let noises alarm you nor wounds frighten you;
if you see the naked sword do not give way and flee,
if you see something yet more dreadful do not retreat and run away.
Do not spare yourself though you are young but think of your mother’s curse

The single combat was brutal. Both the emir and the son broke their spears against each other. After drawing swords, they hacked away at each other for hours. They became covered with wounds. Their blood flowed all over the ground. Finally, the son prevailed.

The emir initially deceived the sons. He told them to look for their sister. They found only women’s dead bodies much like men’s dead bodies after a battle. The sons returned to the emir and declared:

Give us, emir, our sister, or if not, kill us;
not one of us returns to our house without her,
but let us all be slaughtered instead of our sister.

The emir apparently again was impressed with the sons. He asked them about their parentage. He learned that they were high-born and had served as Byzantine generals on the frontier. The emir in turn explained to them:

I subdued all Syria and I captured Kufah,
then I swiftly wiped out Herakleia.
Coming past Amorion as far as Ikonion,
I subdued hosts of brigands and all wild beasts.
The generals could not withstand me, nor the armies,
but a most lovely woman has completely conquered me.
Her beauty enflames me, her tears are wasting me away,
her sighs torture me; I don’t know what to do.
Because of her I was testing you, to know for certain,
for she never stops lamenting for you.
However, I declare to you and I tell you the truth,
if you do not reject having me as a brother-in-law,
because of the delightful beauty of your sister
I shall come over to Roman {Byzantine} territory and become a Christian.
And know for certain, by the great Prophet,
she has given me neither a kiss nor a word.
Come then, to my tent and see the girl you are looking for. [6]

The sons found their sister on a couch draped with gold. At great risk to themselves, the sons thus rescued their sister from “slavery” as their mother had instructed them. The emir converted to Christianity and moved to their mother’s house.[7] Their sister then married the emir in a lavish wedding ceremony.

The emir subsequently had to deal with emotional manipulation from his own mother. From Syria his mother sent him a letter “full of lamentation, reproach and blame.” Her letter began:

Most beloved child, how could you have forgotten your mother,
blinded my eyes and extinguished my light?
How could you renounce your kinsmen and faith and country
and become a reproach to all Syria?
We are abominated by all men
as deniers of the faith, as law-breakers
and for not having observed well the Prophet’s words.
What has happened to you, my child? How have you forgotten these things?

The emir’s mother then recounted how Byzantine soldiers had hacked his father to death because he would not abandon his Islamic faith. She accused the emir of destroying everything “for the love of a pig-eater.” She declared that if he didn’t return quickly to Syria, she would be beheaded, his children killed, and his Islamic wives given to other men. The emir’s mother concluded her letter with specific instructions to her son:

Look, I have sent you, as you see, choice horses.
Mount the chestnut, lead the black,
let the bay follow and no one will catch you.
Bring the Roman girl too {the emir’s Christian wife}, if you are upset because of her,
but if you disobey me, may you be accursed.

Men tend to regard betraying their faith and moving to enemy territory as much less fearful than disobeying their mother. When the emir read his mother’s letter, he was “filled greatly with the compassion a son feels for his mother.” He decided to travel back to his mother in Syria.[8]

Since Digenis Akritis is a Christian romance, the emir was able to address readily all his mother’s concerns. When the emir returned to his mother in Syria, he was embraced with joyful tears. He was also subjected to his mother’s anguished questioning:

My sweetest child, light of my eyes
and comfort of my soul in my old age,
my charming delight, my consolation,
tell my why you have lingered, child, in Roman territory?
For when I did not see you I no longer wished to see the light
or the gleaming sun or to live in the world.
Do wonderful miracles happen in Roman territory,
such as are performed, my child, at the Prophet’s tomb,
to which you came with me when I went to pray?

How have you, my child, become a renegade from all this
and spurned power and great renown?
All expected you to conquer Egypt,
but you have thwarted your own fortune,
you have destroyed everything for the sake of one Roman girl.

The emir’s response was simple. He announced that Christianity is the light and the truth. He recited to his mother the Christian creed. He then urged his mother to return with him to Roman/Byzantine territory, be baptized as a Christian, and live with him in his wife’s mother’s home. Many sons probably find the mother’s response unbelievable:

She did not reject her child’s excellent counsel
but, like fertile soil that has accepted the seed,
she immediately brought forth fruit and pronounced these words:
“I believe, my child, through you in the Triune God,
and with you I will travel happily to Roman territory,
being baptised for the remission of my many faults
and acknowledging thanks that through you I have been enlightened.” [9]

That response makes good sense within a Byzantine Christian epic. Men in the real world throughout history have probably been considerably less successful in counseling their mothers.

Mothers’ manipulative behavior in the life of Digenis Akritis’s father provides key context for Digenis’s life. Digenis sought to live with his young, beautiful wife in lovely gardens apart from gynocentric society.[10] Many men today, valuing their own lives as equal to those of women and observing mothers acting like the mothers in the emir’s life, similarly imagine living in love with a woman in isolation from gynocentric society.

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[1] The main character’s name is variously spelled as Digenes and Digenis, and Akritas, Akrites, and Akritis. Other than folk-songs sharing such a name for a character, the epic Digenis Akritis has survived only in six Greek manuscripts and some Russian manuscripts. A version of the epic was probably written in Constantinople about 1150. Jeffreys (1998) pp. xviii-xxiii, lvi-ii. The two oldest manuscripts are Greek, the Grottaferrata manuscript (G) (written in south Italy about 1300) and the Escorial manuscript (E):

in dealing with the same basic subject-matter they are very close, yet at the same time fundamentally different: they come out of different milieux; they address different audiences; they have, as literary texts, different preoccupations. E has effective simplicity of language, earthy humour, direct expression, epic oral style; Go does not have these — but then G is not interested in having them. Its interests lie elsewhere: in literary texts, in romance against a military background, in flowery language, in long ekphraseis.

Galatariotou (1993) p. 49. The Grottaferrata version fits easily into the cultural context that produced the twelfth-century Byzantine novels. The Escorial version has no parallels in that period. Id. pp. 51-4. Both are in unrhymed, fifteen-syllable verse lines. Much discussion of Digenis Akritis has focused on differences between the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions. Beaton & Ricks (1993).

[2] Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata 1.13-8, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 3. Jeffreys supplies the Greek text along with her English translation. The four men military saints subsequently named in the prologue are Theodore of Heraclea, Theodore of Amasea, George, and Demetrios of Thessaloniki.

Subsequent quotes from Digenis Akritis are from the Grottaferrata version and cited by book.lines and page number in id. The subsequent ones above are: 1.70-81, p. 7 (most longed for children…); 1.85, p. 7 (Let us go…); 1.100-12, p. 9 (Emir, servant of God…); 1.34-8, p. 11 (Do not, brother…); 1.259-61, p. 19 (Give us, emir, our sister…); 1.293-309, p. 21 (I subdued all Syria…); 2.52, p. 27 (full of lamentation…); 2.53-59, pp. 27, 29 (Most beloved child…); 2.82, p. 29 (love of a pig-eater); 2.94-8, p. 31 (Look, I have sent…); 2.106, p. 31 (filled greatly with compassion); 3.132-40, 153-57, pp. 53, 55 (My sweetest child…); 3.229-35, pp. 57, 59 (She did not reject…)

[3] Jeffreys translated the relevant line without reference to gender:

For he {the emir} killed all those who were found there

{Πάντας γὰρ ἐθανάτωσε τοὺς ἐκεῖ εὑρεθέντας}

1.59, p. 7. The accusative masculine plural πάντας (all), under the historical linguistic gender effacement of men, could include females. But the context clearly indicates that the emir didn’t kill the daughter or the mother. Killing all men but keeping women as prisoners is well-attested gender bias in violence. See, e.g. Deuteronomy 20:13-4, Numbers 31:17-8. A better translation for 1.59 is thus, “For he killed all the males who were found there”.

[4] Penninck (2007) recognizes the dramatic irony in the Grottaferrata Digenis Akritis.

[5] On the Islamic context in Digenis Akritis, Muhammad (2010).

[6] Byzantium historically continued the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The Byzantines called themselves Romans and regarded their territory as the Roman Empire.

Book 1 of Digenis Akritis concludes:

And it became well-known throughout the whole world
that an exceedingly high-born girl, with her delightful beauty,
had broken up the famed armies of Syria.

1.335-7, p. 23. The power of women’s beauty tends to be willfully ignored today.

[7] The mother expressed considerable concern about her daughter marrying the emir:

Will the bridegroom be your equal in beauty?
Will he share the views of high-born Romans?
I fear, my lovely child, that he may be lacking in affection,
being a heathen, he may have a fierce temper, and there may be no point in my living.

2.22-25, p. 25. The mother may have preferred to have selected her daughter’s bridegroom herself, as mothers did in Byzantine bride-shows.

[8] The prologue to Book 3 explains:

Receiving a letter from his mother in Syria,
he decided to leave, fearing her curse,
for it is certainly right not to provoke one’s parents.

3.16-8, trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 45. Moral codes commonly require honoring one’s parents, e.g. Exodus 20:12. Here there seems to be subtle irony with the curse and consequential reasoning.

The emir told his wife of his plan to leave and asked her to come with him. When his wife’s brothers confronted him and denounced that plan, the emir wrongly accused his wife of not keeping his secret. She responded:

Why, my husband, do you accuse the one who longs for you so much?
It is unthinkable for me — may this never happen — to reveal your plan.
If I did that, may the earth swallow me up alive,
so that I may become an example to all the world
of one who makes public her husband’s secrets.

2.210-15, p. 37. Wives’ failure to keep their husbands’ secrets is major concern in literature of men’s sexed protest.

[9] The simile “like fertile soil that has accepted the seed” is a feminine Christian figure for being a good Christian. It comes from the parable of the sower influential in early Arabic thought. See Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:1-15.

[10] Both Penninck (2007) and Trilling (2016) contrast in literary interpretation the emir’s social position and Digenis’s. Yet, immersed in the dominant ideology, they fail to recognize the significance of gynocentric oppression to that contrast. Dokou (2005) documents the dire intellectual consequences of uncritical acceptance of the dominant ideology.

[image] Mother of God portrayed as Byzantine Empress. Tapestry icon from sixth-century Egypt. Thanks to Cleveland Museum of Art (preserved as item 167.144) and Wikimedia Commons.


Beaton, Roderick, and David Ricks. 1993. Digenes Akrites: new approaches to byzantine heroic poetry. Aldershot, G.B.: Variorum.

Dokou, Christina. 2005. “‘’tis a Pity She’s A’ Chora – Theoretical Transformations of the Marriage Metaphor in the Epic of Digenis Akritas.” Neohelicon. 32 (1): 231-239.

Galatariotou, Catia. 1993. “The primacy of the Escorial Digenes Akritis: an open and shut case?” Ch. 4 (pp. 38-54) in Beaton & Ricks (1993).

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, ed. and trans. 1998. Digenis Akritis: the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Muhammad, Tarek M. 2010. “The Conversion from Islam to Christianity as viewed by the Author of Digenes Akrites.” Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 7: 121-149.

Penninck, Mieke. 2007. “Two heroes, two lives in the Grottaferrata Digenes Akrites.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 31(1): 32-52.

Trilling, James. 2016. “Re-Introducing Digenis Akritis: A Byzantine Poem of Strength, Weakness, and the Disturbing Absence of God.” Viator. 47 (3): 149-170.

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