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)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
42, 11 May 2024

‘Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world to preach the gospel of his kingdom’ (Post-Communion Prayer) … the Great Commission depicted in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Easter is a 50-day season that continues until the Day of Pentecost (19 May 2024). We are in an-between time in the Season of Easter, between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost, and tomorrow is the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Easter VII). Easter was celebrated in the Greek Orthodox Church on Sunday (5 May), and today is known in the Orthodox Church as ‘Bright Saturday.’

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another’ … a fresco in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 16: 23-28 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 23 ‘On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.

25 ‘I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.’

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 11 May 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with some Reflections.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (11 May 2024) invites us to pray:

Help us Lord, to be witnesses of your love to our family, our friends and communities. May each of us be willing to ask you how we can share the love of our Father in Heaven with the people we know.

The Collect:

O God the King of glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
we beseech you, leave us not comfortless,
but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us
and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God, giver of love and power,
your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world
to preach the gospel of his kingdom:
confirm us in this mission,
and help us to live the good news we proclaim;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Risen, ascended Lord,
as we rejoice at your triumph,
fill your Church on earth with power and compassion,
that all who are estranged by sin
may find forgiveness and know your peace,
to the glory of God the Father.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

We are in an-between time in the Season of Easter, between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost … a fresco depicting the Ascension in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org