11 May 2024

Erotokritos, an epic love
poem written 400 years
ago, is still loved and
celebrated in Crete

Erotokritos remains alive in Cretan hearts … Erotokritos seafood restaurant at the harbour in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I was recently asked to write the prologue or foreword to a new book on Greek folk songs by Professor Panos Karagiorgos and is being published in Thessaloniki this month. As I was walking around Rethymnon on my last day in Crete last month, the name of Erotokritos, a seafood restaurant on the harbour and some other musical images on the streets reminded me of one of the great epic poems that was written in Crete and that continues to have a profound and deep influence on poetry, song and music in Greece.

The Greek poet Odyssesus Elytis (1911-1996) was born in Iraklion in Crete; his great epic poem Το Άξιον Εστί (To Axion Esti, It is Worthy), published 65 years ago in 1959, was inspired by both the Greek Orthodox liturgy and the 17th century epic poetry of Crete, including the Erotokritos (Ἐρωτόκριτος) by Vikentios Kornaros.

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 (1545-1610), constitute classic examples of Greek Renaissance literature, and are considered the most important works of Cretan literature.

A poster for a performance of ‘Erotokritos’ in the Erofili Theatre in Rethymnon in 2019 (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 King Heracles of Athens.

The setting is ancient Athens, but the world it introduces 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 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 her 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, Aretousa is engaged secretly to Erotokritos. She refuses to consider any other 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.

Traditional Greek folk music celebrated at Raki Ba Raki restaurant on Radamanthuos street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Erofili (Ερωφίλη) is the literary contemporary of Erotokritos. It 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.

Traditional musical instruments in an antique shop on Emmanouil Vernardou street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Erotokritos extols true love, honour, friendship, courage, faith, patriotism and bravery, which explains its enduring popularity throughout Greece. It remains a timeless masterpiece and its place in Greek literature is comparable to that of Romeo and Juliet in western European literature.

Erotokritos was a source of inspiration for Dionysios Solomos and has influenced Greek poets as diverse as Kostis Palamas, Kostas Krystallis, and George Seferis.

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).

The epic poem still lives in Cretan hearts; excerpts are often recited in public, everyone in Crete knows at least a few verses by heart. The poet and the poem are celebrated in the name of Kornarou Street in Rethymnon and in a sculpture by Giannis Parmakelis in Kornarou Square in Iraklion.

An archway leading from Tsouderon street into Kornarou street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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