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The Deeds of Digenes


In the eleventh to twelfth centuries a translation was made of the Byzantine epic about the adventures of Digenes Akritas. The Greek original is not extant. Only some fourteenth- to sixteenth-century copies have survived of a Greek poem about Digenes which evidently reflects an earlier version of the work.29

The Old Russian translation of the tale of Digenes, usually called The Deeds of Digenes, recounts how Tsar Amir of Arabia carries off a beautiful young Greek girl. Her three brothers set off in pursuit and overpower him. He decides to become a Christian and settle in Greece with his beloved. The marriage of Tsar Amir and the Greek girl produces the child Digenes. Even in childhood he astounds everyone with his strength and courage: out hunting he strangles a bear with his bare hands and cleaves a lion in two. Later it tells of Digenes’ victory over Philipapa 30 and the giant maiden Maximiana. Maximiana tells him that he will live sixteen years if he marries her and thirty-six if he marries Stratigovna. This makes Digenes seek the hand of Stratigovna. There is a detailed description of his wedding. In the Greek poem his betrothed has the name of Eudoxia, but in the Old Russian version she is called Stratigovna after her father Stratig (strategus is Greek for “general”, and in the Russian version the title of a military rank is turned into a proper name). Digenes arrives on a splendid horse at the town where the girl lives, and parades under her window, singing “sweet songs”. The young people meet, and Digenes begs Stratigovna to elope with him. She agrees, but Digenes believes that he will disgrace himself if he takes the girl away in the absence of her father and brothers, who are out hunting. So the young man waits for his beloved’s relatives to return and takes her away openly almost before her father’s eyes. Stratig is warned by his servants, but refuses to believe such a bold abduction possible. Digenes waits by the town walls for Stratig and his sons to come in pursuit of him, and overcomes them in battle. Stratig agrees to his daughter marrying Digenes. The families of the bride and bridegroom exchange gifts and a magnificent wedding is held. The final section of The Deeds of Digenes tells of his victory over Emperor Basil.

The Deeds of Digenes has all the features of the heroic epic. The hero is not only a handsome and valiant warrior, but his strength (like that of his mother’s three brothers too) acquires totally fantastic features: he kills several thousand warriors at one go. For all its lack of authenticity the scene of the abduction of Stratigovna is most effective: Digenes rampages in her father’s courtyard for three hours, challenging him to a duel and rending the gates with his spear, but Stratig insists stubbornly that not even a bird would dare to fly into his courtyard! The strength of Digenes’ enemies is also greatly exaggerated. Thus, the kmeti (warriors) of Tsar Amir are capable of taking on a thousand singly and hordes in pairs.31

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