Digenis regretted being bigger jerk in response to woman loving jerk

Byzantine lovers

“He’s nice” usually functions as a polite opposite for “He’s hot.” The more gynocentric society encourages men to be weak, effeminate, apologetic women-pleasers (“nice guys”), the more women swoon for jerks. Most men don’t enjoy acting like jerks. Men who seek beautiful women’s love often feel torn between being a bigger jerk than the other guy and withdrawing from gynocentric society. [1] In the twelfth-century Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis, Digenis vacillated between acting like the bigger jerk and living separately from gynocentric society.

Aware of his father’s suffering under matriarchy, Digenis left his family to journey to inner Syria and the isolated plains of Arabia. He was only fifteen years old. Digenis journeyed and lived with only his wife. He commonly left her in their tent and traveled roads alone. Alone on the road, he could be his own man in his thoughts and in finding directions. Back in the tent with his wife, he could also be a man in relation to her.[2] They could delight in each other and not have their joy weighed down by the jealousies and derangements of others mired in gynocentric ideology.

One day, Digenis felt thirsty while traveling alone on a road through the desert. He saw a palm tree. Palm trees figured sexual intercourse in Byzantine culture.[3] Digenis headed toward the palm tree with the hope that he could slake his thirst in a spring moistening it. He found a spring near the palm tree. In it was a beautiful, naked, young woman crying mournfully. When she saw Digenis, she immediately jumped up and clothed herself.[4]

The girl joyfully called out to Digenis. Just as women do to men who are just their friends, the girl sought emotional comfort from Digenis. She said to him:

Where are you from, fine young man, and where are you traveling on your own?
Surely you too are not lost here because of passion?
But since it looks as though you have been guided by God
to rescue me in my misery from the desert,
rest here for a while, my lord,
so that you can hear more exactly what has happened to me
and I can find some consolation for my sorrow. [5]

Listening to sob stories isn’t the type of consolation that most men prefer to provide to beautiful women. But Digenis felt joyful. At least the girl wasn’t a demonic damsel in distress attempting to lure him to his doom.

Digenis dismounted from his horse and placed his spear between the roots of the palm tree. He satisfied his thirst with some water. Then he listened to the girl’s story. She was an Arab girl, a Muslim, and the daughter of an Arab general. Her father captured a Byzantine Christian in battle. This prisoner was tall, young, blond, and the son of a famous Byzantine general. The girl fell in love with him. While the girl’s father was away, engaged in the men-on-men violence of war, she and her mother freed the prisoner. They gave him her father’s best horses and established him as a local ruler in Syria. The Arab Muslim girl deeply loved her Byzantine Christian boyfriend. He seemed to love her.

The boyfriend urged the girl to escape with him to Byzantine territory. He feared her father’s return. He swore he would marry her if she agreed to flee. So she did. When her mother fell sick and all in the house were wailing at her death-bed, the girl and her boyfriend seized many valuables from the house. Following their carefully laid plans, they fled on horseback into a moonless night.

The girl nostalgically recalled their escape. They shared passionate delight that substituted for rites of marriage. She recounted:

I blush to speak of our rites of passion
and the love shown me by him.
For he named me his soul, he called me the light of his eyes,
and after a while he said I was his wife and his dearest,
kissing me insatiably, holding me in his arms.

Eventually they came to the spring where she now was. There for three days and nights they indulged in “insatiable and passionate lovemaking.” While they were sleeping together on the third night, the boyfriend quietly got out of bed, collected their money and provisions, and saddled their horses. The girl eventually perceived her boyfriend’s preparations. She got up and dressed for traveling.

The boyfriend mounted his horse and rode off without the girl. He even led her horse away so that she could move only on foot. The girl perceived disaster:

I ran behind, on foot as I was, shouting,
“Are you going off, my dearest? Where are you leaving me on my own?
Have you forgotten the kindness which I showed you?
Do you not remember your exceptional oaths at the beginning?”
When he did not turn around, I cried out all the more,
“Have mercy, take pity, save me in my misery,
do not leave me here to be eaten by wild beasts.”
And I made further pleas like this to him as I lamented,
but he just vanished without saying a word.

The girl lay down, alone and exhausted. Her feet were bloody from running over rocks. She eventually, painfully, walked back to the spring. There she had been crying and lamenting for ten days.

Digenis urged the girl to have hope. He gently restrained her hands from pulling at her braided hair. She lamented her loss of her boyfriend:

Alas, alas, most wretched and most miserable fate,
to be deprived unexpectedly of such a benefit,
to have lost sweet beauty before drinking it,
and to have withered before time like a newly planted tree.

Suddenly, more than a hundred Arab warriors burst out of the marsh and attacked Digenis. He counter-attacked fiercely and killed many of those men. Others then recognized that he was the renowned Digenis Akritis. They threw down their weapons and fled. Digenis was the biggest man among men.

The girl had climbed a tree and watched the battle. It revealed to her that the man who had found her was the renowned Digenis Akritis. After the battle, she climbed down from the tree and rushed to met him. She had heard that Digenis had saved her ex-boyfriend from being killed. Nonetheless, she worried that her ex-boyfriend, whom she still called “my dearest,” had subsequently died from a wound. Just after he had slaughtered countless men in a surprise battle, the first question the girl asked Digenis was whether her ex-boyfriend was still alive.

Digenis wasn’t the most important man to the girl. She didn’t ask whether he had been hurt. She didn’t ask what she could do to help avoid another surprise attack like the one that had just occurred. The girl’s heart and mind were still filled with love for her ex-boyfriend. Digenis recounted:

Astonishment seized me and made me wonder
as I saw the girl’s great love for the boy
who was responsible for her unimaginable disasters —
separation from her parents, deprivation of her wealth,
and horrifying desertion in a trackless desert
where she could expect nothing except for an unjust death.
And then for the first time I discovered that a woman’s love
is much more intense than that of men,
and wrongful and illegal intercourse corrupts it more.

By “wrongful and illegal intercourse corrupts it more” Digenis meant that such intercourse makes women love more intensely. That’s a distasteful pill for norm-abiding men to swallow.

When Digenis offered to force her ex-boyfriend to marry her, the girl was “carried away with joy.” Religious belief was no obstacle to a Christian marriage, because the girl had already renounced her Islamic faith and converted to Christianity:

I had received holy baptism
before my union with the man, on his instructions;
for, enslaved as I was by desire, I could do nothing other
than carry out what I was told by him,
the man for whom I reckoned my parents and relations as nothing.

Her ex-boyfriend was a foreigner and a vicious jerk. How could this woman love him so passionately and so devotedly?

Personally encountering the reality of the girl’s love for a jerk deeply disturbed Digenis. The subliminal message “be a bigger jerk” kindled a fire within Digenis:

When, my friend, I heard this from the girl’s mouth
it was as if a flame entered my heart
and aroused passion and illegal intercourse.

I could not control what came over me, I was all on fire,
with passion growing overwhelmingly within me.
Dismounting then to perform our natural functions
— my eyes in beauty, my hands in touch,
my mouth with kisses and my hearing with words —
I began to do everything that was unlawful.
And all that I wanted to do was done,
and our journey was besmirched by the lawlessness,
with the complicity of the devil and my soul’s heedlessness,
even if the girl resisted the act vigorously,
calling to witness God and her parents’ souls. [6]

Digenis raped the girl. Despite hateful and absurd claims about rape widely distributed through authoritative media today, men, like other primates, almost never force women to have sex with them. Most men strongly believe that raping a woman is being a complete jerk, as well as committing a felony crime. After raping the girl, Digenis brought her to her ex-boyfriend and forced him to marry her. Digenis told her ex-boyfriend that if he ever sought to leave her, he would be killed. Killing a person is even worse than raping her or him. After hearing the story of the girl’s jerk boyfriend, Digenis acted like a bigger jerk.

Digenis ardently sought for his wife to love him like the girl loved her jerk boyfriend. The intensity of women’s passion for jerk men indicates the intensity of gynocentrism. But Digenis didn’t want to be a big jerk. He came to deeply regret raping the girl.[7] He never expressed any remorse for forcing marriage upon the ex-boyfriend and threatening him with death for divorce. Such stark differences between concern for women and concern for men characterize gynocentric societies. After a while, Digenis understood that his actions resulted not just from his personal failings, but also from women and men’s preferences and values under gynocentrism.

Digenis again withdrew from gynocentric society. He decided to “move away on my own with my lovely girl.” They moved to an isolated garden. There Digenis expressed his love for his wife by acting like the chivalric hero of European romances. He slayed a dragon for her. Many men still fantasize about behaving likewise. Withdrawing from gynocentric society isn’t enough for men to realize their own intrinsic human worth. Withdrawing from gynocentric society isn’t enough for men to gain sex, admiration and devotion from women they love. Men must have imagination to understand that only their masculine being is enough.[8]

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[1] Scholars haven’t sufficiently appreciated the tension between men’s human dignity and gynocentric society. With respect to the Escorial version of Digenis Akritis, scholars have argued:

The ideal hero is represented by a man who reinforces society, accepting its code and imposing it on its enemies.

Ekdawi, Fann & Philokyprou (1993) p. 33. Within society that systematically devalues men’s lives and treats men as merely instruments for providing resources to women and children, heroic men in sophisticated literary representations can express tension between reinforcing gynocentric society and realizing themselves. The Grottaferrata version of Digenis Akritis is pitched at higher literary level than the Escorial version. The tension between the hero Digenis and the imperatives of gynocentric society is stronger in the Grottaferrata version.

[2] Magdalino emphasized the “decisive importance of oikos and genos {parentage} in the social world of Digenes.” Magdalino (1989) p. 194. Houses represent sedentary civilizations like that of Byzantium. Tents were associated with nomadic people such as the Bedouins of Arabia. Living in a tent emphasized Digenis and his wife’s separation from Byzantine society. On the opposition between house (oikos) and tent (tenda) in Digenis Akritis, Galatariotou (1987) pp. 37-40.

[3] E.g. Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias 10.3.2:

if she is not satisfied with kisses alone and her passion is not assuaged with lips but, like female palm trees, she seeks a shoot from the male palm to penetrate into her innermost soul, I shall demonstrate first with you

Trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 254. For related discussion, see my post on men’s romantic simplicity.

[4] Women bathing naked in a spring is the context for Imruʼ al-Qays’s Muʻallaqah as well as al-Farazdaq’s witty re-enactment of it. Both these sophisticated works of classical Arabic literature are deeply concerned with social regulation of men’s sexuality. Biographical stories about Imruʼ al-Qays tell of him allying with the Byzantines and dying from betrayal far from home. For discussion, see note [12] in my post on al-Farazdaq.

The girl’s city was Meferke (modern-day Silvan in Turkey). Her father, an emir, was Aploravdis (Haplorrabdes), and her mother was Melanthia. Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata 5.66-68, from Greek trans Jeffreys (2012) p. 139. On these names, id. pp. 388, 394.

[5] Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata 5.45-51, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 137. Subsequent quotes, which also are from the Grottaferrata version, are (cited by book.lines and page in id.):  5.105-9, p. 141 (I blush to speak…); 5.113, p. 141 (insatiable and passionate lovemaking); 5.126-34, p. 143 (I ran behind…); 5,173-6, p. 145 (Alas, alas…); 5.204-12, p. 147 (Astonishment seized me…). 5.226-30, pp. 147, 149 (I had received holy baptism…); 5.231-3, 240-50, p. 149 (When, my friend…); 6.13, p. 153 (move away).

[6] Digenis’s response to the girl’s devotion to her jerk boyfriend is psychologically complex and surprising. Galatariotou simplistically interpreted the rape through currently dominant gender ideology: “{Digenis’s} own negative feelings towards such a transgressor of gender norms are expressed by his own act of asserting his physical power over her.” Galatariotou (1987) p. 58. Laiou psychologically flattened the story through impersonal reasoning:

This rape is presented with a certain equanimity, which, however, is not difficult to understand. … Although she did not consent to sex with the hero, her prior life was such that sex was almost inevitable

Laiou (1993) pp. 213-4. Apparently following such tendentious, men-disparaging literary analysis, Jeffreys perceived in the story “psychological crudity”; “Digenis is unable to think beyond her womanly weakness in surrendering to illicit sexual urges”; “The prior life of Aploravdis’ daughter and her being alone on the open highway meant Digenis’ actions were almost inevitable….” Jeffreys (1998) p. 135, intro. note; p. 147, note for 210-12; p. 149, note for 256.

Trilling superficially analyzed Digenis’s actions toward the girl in terms of abstract moralizations:

In terms of the story, the offense for which he displays such ostentatious remorse is a catastrophic failure of self-control. Married to a woman whom he adores, he is nevertheless unable to resist the temptation of the moment. That he satisfies his lust by force only underlines his perfect selfishness.

Trilling (2016) pp. 154-5. Men aren’t beasts who restrain themselves from satisfying their lust by force only through exercise of rational self-control. For most men, satisfying lust by force is repugnant. Most men greatly prefer to satisfy their lust with a warmly receptive woman than by force. Primates other than humans lack humans’ highly developed understanding of rational self-control. Non-human primates also rarely satisfy their lust by force. Digenis’s behavior toward the girl at the spring is a sophisticated literary representation that requires subtle literary analysis.

[7] The story of Digenis and the girl at the spring isn’t in the Escorial version of the epic. Nonetheless Digenis’s character and his relation to society are similar in both the Escorial and Grottaferrata versions. With respect to the Escorial version, scholars have insightfully observed:

Digenis, who fights alone, lives in isolation with his wife, and does not produce an heir, is motivated in his actions by the needs or desires created by society

Ekdawi, Fann & Philokyprou (1993) p. 33. That’s also true with respect to the women-loving-jerks dynamic exemplified in the story of the woman at the spring in the Grottaferrata version.

[8] Galatariotou argues that the fundamental dynamic of Digenis Akritis is “one man’s fruitless pursuit of one woman’s unconditional love.” Galatariotou (1987) p. 66. Trilling asserts:

the central motif of Digenis Akritis: the vividly realized man of action who excites our interest (and perhaps even our sympathy) in precisely the degree to which he fails as a human being.

Trilling (2016) p. 162. Both Galatariotou and Trillings’s interpretations both seem to me too individualistic. Within the subtle literary text of Digenis Akritis, they don’t convincingly account for Digenis’s surprising behavior toward the woman at the spring, nor for Digenis’s withdrawal from gynocentric society.

[image] Seated man (perhaps Digenis) embracing woman. Byzantine sgraffito ceramic plate. Probably from northern Greece or Eastern Thrace, 12th or first half of 13th century. Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth (item no. 1685).


Ekdawi, Sarah, Patricia Fann, and Elli Philokyprou. 1993. “Bold Men, Fair Maids and Affronts to their Sex: The characterisation and structural roles of men and women in the Escorial ∆ιγενής Aκρίτησ.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 17 (1): 25-42.

Galatariotou, Catia. 1987. “Structural Oppositions in the Grottaferrata Digenes Akrites.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 11 (1): 29-68.

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

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, trans. and notes. 2012. Four Byzantine novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles; Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias;  Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea; Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Laiou, Angeliki E. 1993. “Sex, Consent, and Coercion in Byzantium.” Part Two: Byzantium (pp. 109-221) in Angeliki E. Laiou, ed. 1998. Consent and coercion to sex and marriage in ancient and medieval societies. Boston, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Magdalino, Paul. 1989. “Honour among Romaioi: the framework of social values in the world of Digenes Akrites and Kekaumenos.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 13 (1): 183-218.

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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