12 July 2019

A classic Cretan poem
is remembered in Iraklion
in sculpture and in song

Erotokritos remains alive in Cretan hearts … the statue by Giannis Parmakelis of Erotokritos and Aretoussa in Kornarou Square in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing last week about the Greek poet Odyssesus Elytis (1911-1996), who was born in Iraklion in Crete, and his poem, ‘The Blood of Love’ (Της αγάπης αίματα).

I discussed how his great epic poem Το Άξιον Εστί (To Axion Esti, It is Worthy), published 60 years ago in 1959, was inspired by the Greek Orthodox liturgy and the 17th century epic poetry of Crete, including the Erotokritos (Ἐρωτόκριτος) by Vikentios Kornaros.

Later, I came across some photographs I had taken in Iraklion of the life-size sculpture in Kornarou Square in Iraklion by Giannis Parmakelis, showing Erotokritos as he says farewell Aretousa.

The sculpture is probably the most modern statue in Iraklion, showing the subjects in multiple poses at one and the same time. It shows Erotokritos with two heads and his horse with three heads and six legs. The multiple forms of the hero and his horse may be confusing, but they are the sculptor’s way of expressing the movement and drama of the moment, inviting us to watch them in motion.

The poet Vikentios Kornaros (1552-1613) was born in Sitia, but grew up in Iraklion, then known as Candia and a major city in the far-flung Venetian empire. He is one of the main representatives of the Cretan Renaissance. His Erotokritos is a narrative poem or verse romance written in the 17th century in the Cretan idiom, his mother-tongue.

Erotokritos and its contemporary, Erophile by Georgios Hortatzis, constitute classic examples of Greek Renaissance literature, considered the most important works of Cretan literature.

The sculpture of Erotokritos and Aretousa by Giannis Parmakelis in Kornarou Square in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Erotokritos runs to 10,012 15-syllable, rhymed verses, the last 12 of which refer to the poet himself. Its central theme is the love of Erotokritos – referred to only as Rotokritos or Rokritos – and Aretousa. Around this theme revolve other themes such as honour, friendship, bravery and courage.

The poet narrates the trials and tribulations suffered by two young lovers, Erotokritos and Aretousa, daughter of Heracles, King of Athens.

The setting is ancient Athens, but the world displayed is a complex construct that does not correspond to any particular historical period. Alongside references to classical Greece there are anachronisms and many elements particular to Western Europe, such as jousting.

After several years of marriage, a daughter Aretousa is born to King Heracles of Athens and his wife. The son of the faithful adviser to the king, Erotokritos, falls in love with the princess. Because he cannot reveal his love, he sings under her window in the evenings. Gradually, she falls in love with the unknown singer. When Heracles learns about the singer, he organises an ambush to arrest him, but Erotokritos with his beloved friend kill the soldiers of the king.

Erotokritos realises his love cannot have a happy ending. He travels to Chalkida on the island of Euboea to forget. During his absence, his father falls ill and when Aretousa visits him, she finds in the room of Erotokritos a painting of hers and the lyrics he sang.

When Erotokritos returns, he realises Aretousa has found his drawing and songs. His identity has been exposed and he may be at risk. He stays at home, pretending he is ill, but Aretousa sends him a basket of apples.

Erotokritos wins a jousting competition organised by the king to entertain his daughter. The couple begin to meet secretly under her window and she pleads with Erotokritos to ask her father to allow them to marry. The king is angry with the audacity of the young man and has him exiled.

Meanwhile, a marriage proposal arrives from the king of Byzantium. Before he leaves, Arethusa is engaged secretly to Erotokritos. She refuses to consider any marriage proposals and is imprisoned. Three years pass and the Vlachs besiege Athens. Erotokritos returns in disguise, saves the king in battle and is wounded.

To thank the heroic but wounded stranger, the king offers his daughter in marriage. Aretousa declines, not knowing the stranger is Erotokritos in disguise. Erotokritos finally reveals his identity, the king accepts the marriage and is reconciled with Erotokritos and his father, and Erotokritos finally ascends the throne of Athens.

Its literary contemporary, Erofili (Ερωφίλη), is the most famous and often performed tragedy of the Cretan theatre, but is a very different love story. It was written around 1600 in Rethymnon, then a Venetian city, by Georgios Chortatzis and first published in 1637 in Venice, probably after Chortatzis had died.

Chortatzis started to write Erofili at the end of the 16th century. As was custom, Erofili was written in verse. It consists of 3,205 verses in Cretan Greek, rhymed in 15-syllables, apart from the choral parts. It is organised in five acts, with four lyrical interludes.

Filogonos, king of Memphis in Egypt, murders his brother to gain his throne and marries his widow. Filogonos has a daughter, Erofili, and raises her with Panaretos, an orphan boy of royal descent. Panaretos becomes the general of the king’s army. Erofili falls in love with Panaretos and they marry secretly.

However, Filogonos planned to wed Erofili to the heir of a rival kingdom, and he asks Panaretos to negotiate. The secret marriage becomes known and the king is enraged. Filogonos has Panaretos executed and sends his head, heart and hands as a wedding gift to his daughter. When she receives the ghoulish gift, Erofili is appalled and stabs herself to death. The chorus of maids overthrows Filogonos and kills him.

Giannis Parmakelis (Γιάννης Παρμακέλης), the creator of the sculpture of Erotokritos and Aretoussa in Kornarou Square, was born in Iraklion 87 years ago on 27 June 1932 and one of Greece’s best-known sculptors.

Parmakelis was educated in Iraklion and at the Athens School of Fine Arts, and continued his studies in Paris. He has represented Greece at many international exhibitions and Biennales. His work is anthropocentric, characterised by elliptical figures that combine solid structure and expressive mobility.

His best-known work is the Amiras Memorial in Crete, a memorial of the worst massacre in Greece during the German occupation in World War II. One critic has called this work ‘anthropocentric, abstract, and expressionistic – all at the same time.’

His memorial to ‘Ellinismos in Asia Minor’ (2014) in Iraklion is made of bronze and aluminium and commemorates the expulsion of Greeks from Anatolia in the 1920s.

Erotokritos remains a timeless masterpiece of true love, honour, friendship, courage, faith, patriotism and bravery. Its place in Greek literature is comparable to that of Romeo and Juliet in western European literature.

Several musicians in Crete have added selected parts of the poem to their music, including Christodoulos Halaris, who has composed music for the poem, and Nikos Xylouris (1936-1980). It still lives in Cretan hearts; excerpts are often recited in public, and everyone in Crete knows at least a few verses by heart.

A poster for a recent performance of Erotokritos in the Erofili Theatre in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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