Babis Dermitzakis







Εισήγηση σε Συμπόσιο με θέμα «The romantic epic poem», Λιουμπλιάνα, 4-6 Δεκεμβρίου 2000.


  Ruzprava proucuje znacilnosti nazadovanja ljudske epike na Kreti. Avtor podpira svoje dokaze s primerjavo med posnetkom recitacije svoje matere in zapisanimi besedili. Za nazadovanje so znacilne nepripovedne zastranitve, uceno besedisce, ucene jezikovne oblike in odmik od tradi-cionalne rime, vse to pa je otezevalo pomnjenje besedil.


  The paper traces the characteristics of the decline of the folk epic in Crete. The author supports his arguments by comparing a recorded recitation of his mother with the written texts. Non-narrative digressions, scholarly words, scholarly linguistic forms and divergence from traditional rhyming, which made memorization difficult, are the features of this decline.


  Captain Kazanis (Kapetan Kazanis) and Kritsotopoula, the last Cretan epics, were written by a Cretan scholar, Michael Diallinas (1853-1927) and they were published in 1909 and 1912, respectively. They were written in iambic 15-syllable rhyming verse in pairs (with the exception of some 14-syllable lines), which is the standard verse of the Cretan poetic tradition, in which the Cretan rhyming erotic couplets known as mantinades are still written.

  The outstanding works of the Cretan renaissance were written in this verse around the beginning of the 16lh century, when Crete was still occupied by the Venetians. These works are eight dramas and Erotocritos by Vicenzo Cornaro, an extensive epic of romantic love and bravery, entitled after the main male character. This latter work is considered - among others also by the Greek Nobel-prize-winning poet George Seferis - the top-ranking work of new Greek literature, which has greatly influenced our poetic production.

  In Crete there are still people who know extensive pieces of this work by heart. In the past there were people who could recite the entire work by heart. This epic is an exemplary manifestation of contact of an inspired poet with his people, who take his work and make it their own.

  Like Erotocritos, Captain Kazanis and Kritsotopoula were also memorized and recited, mainly by women. This is not the case, however, with Odyssey, the lengthy

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work of Nikos Kazantzakis, consisting of 33333 lines, though he considered it an epic. It is not only the different verse - iambic 17-syllable - that made memorization difficult. This work is quite alien to folk sensibilities, as it appeals mainly to intellectuals.

  The Cretan renaissance came to an end with the occupation of the island by the Turks. After this juncture there are to be no more inspired poets. Short poems will appear, referring to the Cretan resistance to the foreign conqueror. Among them there is the lengthy Song of Daskaloyannis (1034 lines). This poem was composed by an illiterate man, pere Batzelios, who dictated it to a church reader. It refers to the failed Cretan revolt of 1770 and to the cruel execution of its leader, Daskaloyannis (John the Teacher), by the Turks, who skinned him alive. This poem gave rise to shorter folk songs with the same theme. Some scholars have contended that the longer Song of Daskaloyannis is a compilation of these short poems,1 but more probably it is the other way around.

  What distinguishes Song of Daskaloyannis from Captain Kazanis and Kritsotopoula is that pere Batzelios was a contemporary of the hero, while Michael Diallinas writes about two heroes of the Greek Independence War of 1821, roughly a century later, during a decisive period of recent Greek history.

  Crete, after liberating itself from the Turks, had just obtained the status of an independent state (1898).2 In Greece, the bourgeois forces were rapidly developing, defeating the old conservative political forces after a victorious revolt of some units of the Greek arm forces in Goudi,3 in 1909, the very same year of the publication of Captain Kazanis. They supported the use of dimotiki, folk language against katharevoussa, an artificial language modeled after ancient Greek, which was the official language of the State.

  After that victory, the Greek bourgeoisie undertook the liberation of Greek territories, still enslaved to the Turks. The Cretans, who were experts in warfare after their successive revolts against the Turks, volunteered for the new war, which, though officially started in 1912, in fact had started at least a decade earlier. The then Prime minister of Greece was a Cretan revolutionary, the most eminent politician of modern Greece, Elefterios Venizelos.

  In this atmosphere of enthusiasm for national liberation Michael Diallinas writes and publishes his two epics, which refer to two heroes of the Greek Revolution of 1821, in order to arouse the national feeling, by proposing as examples of bravery Captain Kazanis and Kritsotopoula.

Captain Kazanis is a brief epic of 364 lines, full of dramatic tension. The motif of revenge is prevalent in it. It deals with an incident from the youth of Captain Kazanis.

1 Cyril Mango, Quelques remarques sur la Chanson de Daskaloyannis, Kritika Khronika (Cretan Annales) VIII, Iraklion. 1954, 44-54.

2 It was actually united with Greece in 1913.

3 A neighborhood of Athens.

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  The real name of Captain Kazanis was Emmanuel Rovithis. When he was a baby and about to be baptized in a monastery, a group of Turks broke in, smashing everything. Among the things destroyed was the baptismal font. The priest, not wanting to leave the child unbaptized, baptized it in a caldron, which in Greek is called kazani. Thus later in life the boy was given the nickname "Kazanis."

  The robust youth was once challenged by a Turk named Alidakos, a friend of his father, to a wrestling match, to see who would manage to throw the other down to the ground. Alidakos tries first, unsuccessfully. But when Manolios' turn comes, he instantly throws the Turk down. While he was still on the ground in a daze, Manolios was urged by the Greeks watching the wrestling match to run away, or else he would be killed by the Turk. So the young man runs away, saving his life. Alidakos was furious, but it was too late. The youth was already running away to the mountains. The Turks, it should be noted, were renowned for their fury, so that in Greece the proverbial phrase persists: "He became a Turk because of his fury."

  Alidakos did not forget the incident. Since he was unable to avenge Manolios, he took revenge on his father. When Manolios' father went to Houmeriako, Alidakos' village, to sell fruits - pears, apples and quinces - loaded on his mule, Alidakos thrashed him and urged the Turkish children who were playing nearby to scatter his merchandise. Thus they did and they even cut off the ears and the tail of the mule. Manolios became very angry with this and carefully prepared his revenge. One cold night he went to Alidakos1 village. He hid himself nearby, waiting for him to come home from the coffee house. Alidakos returned at about midnight. Threatening him with his gun, Manolios brought him to Marmaketo, to their home. His father was greatly surprised to see Alidakos, wearied, and even more surprised to hear Manolios' order to thrash him back. He refused, but Manolios, furious, tells him:

  If you don't give him back the thrash he gave you,

  God forgive me, I will thrash you instead,

  and when I have finished thrashing you,

  I will kill Alidakos, your friend, before your eyes.4

  Alidakos, seeing that his life is in danger, urges Manolios' father to give him "a light thrashing in his back, lest the youth has taken an oath and realizes his threat." So it is done. Alidakos took his lesson and, the poem concludes, he never dared even tease Christians.

  Kritsotopoula is a much lengthier work, consisting of 1367 lines. The heroine of the epic is Rothanthi (Rosebud), the daughter of the arch-priest of Kritsa, a village near Agios Nikolaos, nowadays a famous tourist resort. A Turk, passing by her house and hearing her singing, fell in love with her. One day, when most of the men of the village were away in Ierapetra to attend the burial of a young man, he went to her house with his friends, killed her mother and took her away. He had already

4 Michael Diallinas, Apanta (Collected works,), volume A, Neapolis,  1977, 36. Translation by B. Dermitzakis.

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made the preparations to marry her that very evening. Kritsotopoula however, deceiving him, managed to stab him with his own knife. Then she ran away disguised as a man to the mountains, to the protection of captain Kazanis. She presented herself with the name "Manolis", and, since she had no hair in her cheeks, he was given the nickname "Spanomanolis", meaning "beardless Manolis." Thereafter some of her heroic deeds are narrated, and the epic concludes with her heroic death in the battle of Kritsa, which took place in 1823.5

  Less than five years seem to separate one work from the other, and the signs of decadence of the genre are evident. Captain Kazanis has a tight plot throughout the narrative, with only minor digressions, full of "nuclear" incidents, according to Roland Barthes' terminology,6 incidents triggering each other. In Kritsotopoula, after the climax of revenge with the slaughter of the Turk, the narrative interest fades away and the story, according to Aristotelian terminology, becomes episodiodis (επεισοδιώδης),7 with incidents loosely connected with each other.

  My mother used to recite these two epics to me, especially on colds nights sitting by the fire. She knew them by heart, and she had assured me that she had read them only once. However exaggerated this claim may be, it is indicative of the fact that she had no great pains in memorizing them. I myself had memorized quite a few lines.

At that time I thought that it was only my mother who had learned these epics by heart. Later, however, I read an article of one of my high school teachers, declaring that quite a few women knew these poems by heart.

  My mother died in 1979 at the age of 71. One year before, coming back home from Athens for the Christmas holidays, sensing that her death was imminent, I recorded her reciting these two epics and some other folk material. I was just in time.

Three years afterwards I searched for the texts. I found them, Captain Kazanis in the first volume of the Collected works, and Kritsotopoula in a hectograph edition, in a bookstore in Neapoli, the poet's native town. I have not been able to find the original edition of 1912. Comparing the written text with my mother's recitation, I made some interesting observations.

  First of all, from the incessantly narrative Captain Kazanis she remembered nearly all the lines, with the exception of a didactic passage, of only 32 lines, of which she remembered only the first two: "Alas! The old people are dead. / Their glory, their exploits."8

5 For a detailed summary of both stories see Babis Dermitzakis, Ι laikotita tis kritikis logotekhnias (The Folk Character of Cretan Literature), Athens, 1990, 119-139.

6 Roland Barthes, Introduction a l’analyse structurale des récits, in Barthes et al. Poétique du récit, Paris, 1977,21-25.

7 Aristotle’s, Poetics, 1451b 10.

8 M. Diallinas, Collected works, 28. Translation by B. Dermitzakis.

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  These lines introduce a prevailing theme in both works: the poet's lamentation for the passage of the heroic times of the pure and brave fighters for motherland's freedom, and the decadence of morals in this "brave new world," where money is the prevailing value.

  The concluding lines of this passage are the following:

  Alas! Today the matter, the dishonest money

  changes every right idea,

  and buries deeper into the grave

  what the others are trying to put upright.

  But I have digressed from my subject-matter without noticing it.

  I am afraid I have bored you with all this digression.

  Alas! The old times bring tears to my eyes,

  So I come back to my subject-matter, apologizing for the digression.

The theme of lamenting the passing of old times recurs in literature, and every art of storytelling. Antigone is an outstanding example. Sophocles, the great Greek dramatist, compares the noble world of Antigone, where communal blood ties and reverence to God is prevalent, to the new world of "nomos," law, where the main motive of man's actions is money. Masaki Kubayasi in his film Samurai laments the passing of the noble era of the Samurai with an austere sense of honor, and the coming of a new era of fire guns, where a depraved scoundrel can kill with his pistol the noble samurai. This is also the main theme in an outstanding modern Greek drama, Gregory Xenopoulos' Countess Valerena's secret. But we need not comment any further on this theme.

  In Kritsotopoula the digressions and the non-narrative material are abundant. The respective passages were difficult for my mother to memorize. A characteristic example is the prayer Kritsotopoula says before an icon in a chapel, on her way to the mountains. When my mother, a deeply religious woman, reached this point, she simply stopped and said "I don't remember the prayer." What is surprising, however, is that a few lines later she remembers some lines of the prayer and recites them. She considered it quite natural not to remember the lines of the prayer, sensing that they do not add to the narrative interest of the epic, so she doesn't make any effort to remember the few lines she had actually memorized.

The theme of comparing the old good times with the new era is constantly recurring, interrupting the flow of the narration.

  Alas! Those times the medals were won in battle,

  Nowadays they are received by those having good relations with the Palace.

  Those times the people amused themselves in the open air,

  drinking pure drinks, rarely coffee,

  while now people drink western spirits, bordello drinks

9 op.cit.,29.

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  like beer, in cafe chantants.

  Young girls had natural cherry lips,

  and there was no need to paint them...

  you, young men, who wear glistening collars,

  and instead of Greek songs you sing serenades.

  Folk epic flourishes in more or less homogenous communities, where cultural divergence is very little. Crete was such an example until nearly the end of the 19th century. However ruptures happen, due to western influences coming to Crete through Greece, and the development of a local bourgeoisie, educated in Athens, where "katharevoussa" is the language of the educated. Only after the fall of junta as late as 1974, "dimotiki," the folk language, will be institutionalized as the official language of the state and the educational institutions.

  Michael Diallinas is a formal case of a Cretan bourgeois of that time. He grows up in Crete, listening to recitations of Erotocritos and mantinades, the local love rhyming couplets with the accompaniment of the lira, the local stringed instrument, and lute, sung in the fairs of the villages. Later he goes to Athens, where he studies law and becomes a lawyer. This same course was taken by the great Greek politician, Elefterios Venizelos, and the renowned Greek writer, Nikos Kazantzakis. It is quite curious that so many young Cretans chose law as the object of their academic studies. Actually this specialty proved more resistant to dimotiki, and even today there are attorneys using katharevoussa while pleading in court.

  Michael Diallinas is himself a victim of this same cultural rupture he laments, bearing the tragic opposition of the old with the new in his own work. His moral-didactic digressions with which he expresses this opposition are themselves an expression, on the formal level, of this very opposition. The fluent epic form of the narration is disrupted, and this disruption leaves its traces in my mother's memorization. The narrative elements are memorized, the non narrative elements are rejected from her memory. The protracted, melodramatic death of the heroine, one of the best parts of the work, equally non-narrative, resists memorization.

  The rupture in form is also evident in the easy violation of the pairing rhyming in many parts of the epic, in favor of a crosswise rhyming, a line with the c line and b line with d line, prevalent at that time in mainland Greece. My mother had difficulties in memorizing such lines. In the beginning of Captain Kazanis, for example, she omits the b line, in order to bring into rhyme a and c. Since however there is an enjambment,10 she distorts slightly the c line to make it autonomous in meaning, totally disconnecting it from a, but nonetheless making them both easy to memorize. It is notable that Vicenzo Cornaro in his Erotocritos never uses enjambment, sensing that this impedes memorization. This is not the case with

10 In Encyclopedia Britannica, in the entry "couplet," we find the definition of enjambment: "A couplet may be formal (or closed), in which case each of the two lines is end-stopped, or it may be run-on, with the meaning of the first line continuing to the second (this is called enjambment)."

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Michael Diallinas, who makes a frequent use of it in an attempt to show adroitness. It is no wonder that my mother could not remember the relevant lines.

There is finally a lexical rupture, with the use of scholarly types of katharevoussa, like the participle sinkekinimeni, instead of sinkinimeni (moved), to gain a syllable for the meter, the accusative anoisias alias instead anoisies alles (other nonsense), to make a rhyme, ancient Greek words like frono (φρονώ) instead of nomizo (I think), only for metrical reasons, etc.

  There is still another rupture, which is however a retrogression to the akritic epics. The akritic epics, composed at the turn of the first millennium, praised the heroic deeds of the brave soldiers who guarded the frontiers (akra) of the Byzantine Εmpire. They were composed in the 15-syllable iambic non-rhyming verse. In some of them the first half of a line is omitted, creating thus a dramatic effect, especially at the end." The same half lines are to be seen at the end of Kritsotopoula, when Rothanthi is dying a long, melodramatic death, like an opera heroine. My mother could not memorize those verses. What is however curious, is that she herself created half lines, omitting the first part, which shows that the half lines were not alien to her poetic sense.

  To summarize, these two epics, being the last ones, testify to a rupture in the cultural homogeneity of the Cretan society at the turn of the 19'" century, with the introduction of western influences on matters such as recreation, clothing, musical entertainment, etc., bringing with it decadence in morals, a fact which heavily grieves the poet. This rupture is criticized in the moral-didactic digressions of the poet, which themselves are nevertheless a manifestation of this rupture, violating the traditional epic in form as well as in language. Michael Diallinas is unconsciously himself a victim of the changes he denounces.

Works cited

Roland Barthes, 1977: Introduction a l’ analyse structurale des recits. In Barthes et al.: Poetique du recit. Paris.

Babis Dermitzakis, 1990: I  laikotita tis kritikis logotekhnias (The folk character of Cretan Literature). Athens.

Michael Diallinas, 1977: Collected works, volume A. Neapolis.

Morgan Gareth, 1960: Cretan poetry: Sources and inspiration. Kritika Chronika (Cretan Annals) XIV. Iraklion. 7-68, 203-270, 379-334.

Cyril Mango,  1954: Quelques remarques sur la Chanson de Daskaloyannis. Kritika

Khronika (Cretan Annals) VIII. Iraklion. 44-54.


11Gareth Morgan has extensively commented on the subject. See Gareth Morgan, Cretan poetry: Sources and inspiration, Kritika Khronika (Cretan Annals) XIV, Iraklion, 1960, 44-68.

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Poveljnik Kazanis in Kritsotopoula sta dva kratka epa, ki ju je v 15-zloznemjambskem rimanem verzu. znacilnem za kretsko ljudskopesnistvo, spesnil kretski ucenjak Michael Diallinas in ju objavil leta 1909 oziroma 1912. Ukvarjata se z glavnimi osebami grskega odporniskega gibanja in osvo-bodilne vqjne proti turski okupaciji na zacetku 19. stoletja. Njun namen je bil prebujanje rodoljubnih custev v prizadevanjih za osvoboditev mnogih se vedno podjarmljenih podrocij; to je bilo delno uspesno v desetletju med 1912 in 1922.

Kratka epa sta imela izrazito ljudske poteze in ljudje so se ju zlahka naucili na pamet. To je se posebno veljalo za zenske, ki so ju potem recitirale ob razlicnih priloznostih s stevilnim poslusal-stvom. Moja mati, rojena leta 1908, je bila ena tistih, ki so se epa naucili na pamet, in ju je potem recitirala meni, ko sem bil se otrok.

Eno leto pred njeno smrtjo leta 1979 sem njeno recitiranje posnel na magnetofonski trak. Tri leta kasneje sem nasel tiskani besedili, karmi jeomogocilo primerjavo med materino recitacijo in tiskano verzijo. Ko sem ugotovil mesta, ki se jih je mati s tezavo spomnila, sem izpeljal nekatere zakljucke o znacilnostih upada umetnosti ljudskega pripovedovanja. Zdi se, da so prodor nepripovednih, vecinoma poucnih delov, bolj ucena raba rime ter raba ucenih besed in jezikovnih oblik vidni vzroki tega upada, ki pa je bil pogojen tudi s porajanjem mescanske druzbe na otoku.

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