The poem Erotokritos

The poem

Erotokritos is one of the most remarkable works of the early Modern Greek literature. It is a romance in verse, consisting of 10.012 fifteen-syllable rhymed verses. It was written by Vitsentzos Kornaros in Sitia and Heraklion around 1600 AD, in the hight of the Cretan Renaissance, which lacks nothing compared to the Western European Renaissance. It narrates the great love of Erotokritos, a charismatic young man of humble descent, and princess Aretousa. The story has much in common with the romantic poem Paris et Vienne by the French poet Pierre de la Cypède, which was published in 1487. However, the Cretan masterpiece is of significantly higher quality in writing and meaning. The story unfolds in five parts, and it is about love, bravado, hardship, warfare and redemption.

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Erotokritos is written in a flowing language, in the beautiful dialect of Eastern Crete, in a fifteen-syllable iambic verse, which is well known and loved until today in the form of the local rhyming 15-syllable couplets, known as “mandiniades”. Erotokritos celebrates love, friendship, ethos-guided manliness, as well as the right to pursue happiness, typical to the Renaissance man, and the fight for freedom from every kind of oppressive authority -religious, royal, paternal- which stands in the way. The worth of gender equality also stands out in this work. Erotokritos was an instant favourite with the Cretan people, who would draw life standards from it, and have been singing its verses up to this day in everyday life. On the other hand, its reception by the scholar community went through various stages, until it received its current universal recognition. Indeed, at a certain stage it was considered a light read, harmful to the linguistic, nationalistic and moral ideals; in that spirit, it was even re-written in “purist” formal Greek (“katharevousa”).

Erotokritos has been translated in many languages, it is taught in universities around the world and continues to inspire musicians, theatre directors, sculptors and painters.

The plot

Erotokritos is the love story of a young couple, Erotokritos and princess Aretusa, which finally flourishes after facing a series of difficulties and hardships. The plot is divided into five parts: the young couples’ love; the joust; the secret engagement and Erotokritos’ exile; the imprisonment of Aretusa and Erotokritos’ heroism; the testing of faith and the triumph of love.

Part 1: The love of Erotokritos and Aretusa

The story takes place in a mythical Athens, where king Iraklis rules, alongside with his wife, queen Artemi, and their only daughter, Aretusa, a young lady of incomparable grace and beauty. Young Erotokritos, son to a king’s councellor, Pezostratos, falls in love with the princess and decides to reveal his passion to his friend Polidoros. His friend tries to talk him out of this love; however, he consents to accompany him to a serenade under Aretusa’s window, and he stands by him when the king sends ten men against him. Aretusa begins to fall for the unknown youth, however in the meantime Erotokritos is persuaded to travel to Egripos, Euboea, to try to forget her. During his absence, his father gets sick and the young princess, visiting him with her mother, discovers some manuscripts of the songs Erotokritos sang to her, as well as a painting of herself, in his bedchamber. When he returns to Athens, Erotokritos realizes that Aretusa has been in his chamber and has discovered his identity. The thought that she appears to reciprocate his love puts an end to his worries.

Part 2: The joust

King Iraklis organizes a jousting competition, wishing to entertain Aretusa and find a suitable husband for her. Fourteen noblemen arrive from various places: Filaretos from Mothoni, Iraklis from Egripos, Drakokardos from Patras, Dimofanis from Mitilini, Andromachos from Anapli, Glikaretis from Axia, Pistoforos from Byzantium, Drakomachos from Koroni, Nicostratos from Macedonia, Tripolemos from Sklavounia, Kipridimos from Cyprus, Haridimos from Crete, and Spitholiondas from Karamania. The two latter fight with each another, because Spitholiondas accuses Haridimos that his father had stolen a sword from his own father. The joust begins on the following day. The king names the opponents, the duels follow, and the two of the three predominant duelists that will take part in the final contest are decided by means of a drawing. The Cretan is disqualified and leaves in anger. Erotokritos fights Kipridimos, wins the competition and receives the winner’s wreath from the hands of Aretusa.

Part 3: The secret engagement and the exile of Erotokritos

The two youths secretly meet at night and chat, kept apart by an iron-barred window. Aretusa urges Erotokritos to persuade his father to go and ask for her hand in marriage. Pezostratos agrees reluctantly and goes to see Iraklis. The king is infuriated; he believes that a wedding between a princess and a commoner is out of the question and punishes Erotokritos with exile. Unsuspecting of what has preceded, he announces to his daughter that she is to marry Pistoforos, the prince of Byzantium. Aretusa does not respond. However, later on, she decides to get engaged to Erotokritos on the same night. In this clandestine nighttime meeting, the two youths are forced to part one another; however, they swear eternal devotion and Aretusa gives her ring to Erotokritos, as a token of their engagement.

Part 4: The imprisonment of Aretusa, and Erotokritos’ heroism

Aretusa is pressured by her parents to wed the prince of Byzantium, yet she refuses. The king is furious and imprisons her along with her nanny, Frosini, whom he judges jointly responsible for her daughter’s conduct. While in Egripos, Erotokritos is informed about the suffering of his beloved, by Polidoros. Three years later, Vladistratos, king of Vlachia, invades the kingdom of Athens. Erotokritos turns the colour of his face black using a magic concoction, so that he isn’t recognized, and returns to Athens, to defend his homeland. He causes great damage to the enemy and even saves the life of Iraklis. In the meantime, Aristos, nephew to Vladistratos, arrives, and proposes to put an end to the war with a duel between himself and the most valiant warrior of Athens. Erotokritos is willing to fight with him and, after a hard confrontation, despite his injuries, he manages to kill Aristos.

Part 5: The testing of faith and the victory of love

Erotokritos, heavily injured and unrecognizable, is carried to the palace of Iraklis. The king offers him all his kingdom for saving Athens, yet the youth only desires the hand of his daughter in marriage. Aretusa, who still denies to get married, receives a visitor in prison: the stranger warrior. The young woman keeps denying him, yet he, upon taking his leave, hands Frosini the engagement ring, given to him by Aretusa. Seeing it, the princess is very agitated. She weeps, longing for dawn to come, so that the stranger explains how her ring came to be in his possession. The following day, Erotokritos further tests her faith and devotion, reciting her the supposed death of her beloved. Aretusa bursts into tears and threatens to kill herself. Then, Erotokritos applies the antidote to his face and its colour returns to normal. He uses the magic concoction again, though, when they announce their decision to wed to the king. After that is settled, he changes back to his usual self, revealing his true identity to everyone. The king gives them his blessing, and the two youths get married. Later on, they become king and queen and live happily ever after.

The poet’s inspiration

Cretan literature at its peak was influenced by the Italian Renaissance, which is why the works of that period are usually based on a Western model. Cretan poets, however, incorporated this influence in a creative manner in their work and, in many cases, reached a significant degree of originality.

From the outset, researchers working on Erotokritos expressed various views concerning its archetypes and origins. Some associated it with folk songs and fables; others with Italian Medieval and Renaissance-period texts, or with Late Byzantine vernacular romances and Greek Classical period works that reached Venetian-occupied Crete through their Italian translations. Stephanos Xanthoudides’ point of view is placed in between the two theories, characterizing Erotokritos as a personal creation which combines “water from many different small springs”.

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However, even before the above views were expressed, Christophoros Philitas from Epirus, a 19th century scholar and professor at the Ionian Academy, had associated Erotokritos with the French romantic poem Paris et Vienne by Pierre de la Cypède. Unfortunately, his notes on the subject were never published, but are nowadays kept in the Library of the Hellenic Parliament. In 1935 the Romanian literary historian Nicolae Cartojan also expressed, in print, the view that Erotokritos is related to the French romantic poem Paris et Vienne and its Italian translations. The French work was printed in 1487 and by the end of the 16th century it had been translated in eleven languages. From a total of thirteen variations in Italian, only three were published, one in prose and two in verse, which, along with a Latin variation from 1516, make up a body of texts which are studied regarding their degree of influence on Erotokritos.

The opinion that Kornaros handled his archetype in an innovative, creative way, is common ground among researchers. Kornaros is believed to have boldly mixed various literary genres in his own masterpiece, introducing dialogue, establishing a five-act structure and strengthening the theatrical quality of Erotokritos. Furthermore, he simplified the plot and omitted interposing scenes. Additionally, he worked on his characters and their sentiments to perfection, with unique detail and depth. He excluded the element of religion and adopted a more philosophical view of the world. He proposed reasonable explanations for natural phenomena and used a language that is clear and lively. Most importantly, using anachronism and a variety of literary subjects, Kornaros managed to create an ideal mythical poetic world, which is based on Medieval tradition on the one hand, and on the other enfolds all the freshness and boldness of the Renaissance.

Language and Diffusion

Vitsentzos Kornaros composed Erotokritos in Greek, in the Eastern Cretan idiom, consciously keeping the poem free from scholarly and foreign words, free from the mixed idioms used by other poets. According to Stephanos Xanthoudides, the language used in Erotokritos is the “authentic common-people’s language”, mainly due to the fact that certain types and mannerisms which would normally clash with the contemporary language spoken at the time, are avoided. The poem is organised in rhyming couplets, while even quadruple rhymes are also present in the text. The expression is carefully worked upon, in order to paint even the finest shades, without ever losing its naturalness. The verse is rhythmical, owing to the variety of tones, the use of synizesis, and the well-balanced number of words per couplet. Quoting Giorgos Seferis on the subject: “a poetic pacing, a straight and low tone which is one of the most graceful aspects that poetry offers us”.

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Erotokritos influenced the Cretan works of literature written before and after the fall of Candia and was widely appreciated by the people of Crete. According to the Cretan editor of its first edition, published by Antonio Bortoli (1713), after 1669 Cretan refugees carried Erotokritos in their belongings. It also had a great influence over the Cretan folk rhyming couplet known as “mantinada” (“mantiniada”, in Eastern Crete). The use of the vernacular language appears to be the primary reason for its great popularity with readers among the common people, as well as of the lack of interest in it by scholars between the late 18th century and the early 19th century. In 1818, following the scholarly spirit of the period, Dionysios Foteinos published Erotokritos in Vienna, rewritten in purist formal Greek (“katharevousa”), under the title New Erotokritos.

The considerable diffusion of the particular work to the people led the philological criticism to new approaches of Erotokritos, mainly after the Second World War. Large excerpts of the poem were memorised by Cretans, recited in companies and gatherings, set to music and loved by the people. There are testimonials of public carnival performances of adaptations of the joust in the Ionian Islands, in the region of Ileia, in the town of Amphissa and other places. In May 1941, when Chania was being bombarded by the Germans, Seferis remembered the wandering book-sellers in the streets of Smyrna of his childhood, selling a cheap edition of Erotokritos with its “rose pink” or “pistachio green” cover. Through his phenomenally broken memories, Seferis finds, in this way, an unexploited national and transnational treasure which effortlessly and steadily led the Greek nation from the ancient years of Homer to Dionysios Solomos and modernity.

Manuscripts and Editions

Erotokritos was composed around 1600 and was initially circulated in manuscripts. The only remaining copy is the Ionian Isles manuscript dated 1710. It is kept in the British Museum and comes from the private collection of Lord Harley, who bought it in 1725 from Nikolaos Rhodostamos, from Corfu. The manuscript is decorated with 121 pen drawings, with some titles written in Italian, featuring large initials decorated with floral patterns and various other foliate decorations. It was possibly copied from an earlier manuscript written in Latin, a fact which is confirmed by the way that the Cretan idiom is transcribed using the Latin alphabet.

Erotokritos was first printed in 1713 in Venice, at Antonio Bortolis’ printing house. Three copies still exist from this first edition, one in the Gennadius Library in Athens, one in the Biblioteca Civica Bertoliana in Vicenza and one in the Public Central Library of Grevena.

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The editor of the first printed edition reported that he had to study “a lot of different manuscripts” to be able to edit the poem and asked readers to send him other manuscripts, if available, in order to “reprint” Erotokritos at a later date in an improved version. The poem was republished at the same printing house in 1737, a copy of which can be found in the National Library of Greece, in Athens. It was reprinted several times, again in Venice, by Nikolaos Glykys, and later on by the “Phoenikos” printing house, all according to the 1737 edition. Less meticulous publications were also issued in Athens at the same time. The first literary, critical edition of Erotokritos was published by Stephanos Xanthoudides in 1915 and was based on the Ionian Isles manuscript of 1710. Xanthoudides was the first to scientifically prove the Cretan origin of the poem and its dating, as mentioned in the introduction of his edition. He also engaged in subjects which would, at a later date, be subjects of further study, such as the identification of the poet and his literary sources. Another critical edition came out in 1980 by Stylianos Alexiou, based on the 1713 Bortoli edition. Georgios Savvides republished Erotokritos in 1998, also according to the Bortoli edition.   

Philosophy and Readings

The conception of Erotokritos and the creative way of handling its material lead to a wide range of interpretations of the story, and raise many questions. The divergence of Kornaros from his Western model was a conscious choice which urges the reader to carefully consider the ideas, the symbols and the philosophical implications of the particular work. The efforts of researchers to link Erotokritos to the work of other poets, such as Homer and Ariosto, as well as to philosophers such as Plato, the Neoplatonics and Epicurus, point to the specific influences. However, the particular work is considered an original creation in many different ways. The difficulty to classify Erotokritos itself as a literature genre, rather confirms that it is indeed a breakthrough in European literature; a verse romance which harmoniously encompasses an array of various philosophical, ethical, political and social views at the same time.

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The Neoplatonic intellectual pursuits of the Accademia degli Stravaganti most likely influenced Kornaros’ work, given the fact that he was a member of it himself. His characters struggle in the field of morals and virtue; they have control over their passions and prove their worth aided by their pure love and their steadfast devotion to virtue and idealism. To be more precise, Erotokritos matures and changes while in exile. By losing his beauty and his eloquence, he is free from the external characteristics which make him attractive, relying only on his bravery and his generosity (he saves the king who banished him); indeed, showing great selflessness, he does not hesitate to even reach the threshold of death, in order to defend what his duty commands. Such a character, that achieves a certain kind of spiritual perfection, having gone through exile, wandering, adventure and psychological trial, is connected to the Platonic quest for a higher standard of ethical conduct that leads to happiness. However, he is also connected to the Aristotelian actuality (“entelecheia”). Even the functions of nature in Erotokritos have interesting connotations. The presence of the Sun and the Stars, the ever-present natural forces, the brightness of the fire that attracts the moth, leading it to its own destruction, as well as to catharsis, reflect Platonic views.

In Erotokritos, music seems to help an ex auditu love materialize, reminding us of the Pythagorean view on the harmony of the universe. The songs that Erotokritos wrote act therapeutically and Aretusa contents herself with just reading them to decide on the qualities and the ethical supremacy of their unknown composer; from something tangible she presumes something extrasensory, as if the straight analogy between the microcosm and the macrocosm that Pythagoras described is hereby valid.

Current philological research, considering new views and prospects of the particular work, even focuses on a possible influence from Epicurus, which may have reached Kornaros via Lucretius. The deep contemplating on the “nature of things” and the variability of life is evident throughout the work: slavery, poverty and riches come and go, leaving the essence and the truth of things unchanged.

However, the poetic horizon of Erotokritos encloses a deep humanism that expresses the quests and the spiritual struggle of the Renaissance man, as well as the open character of the Hellenic culture, being a scholarly and a popular work at the same time, with the characteristics of folk songs. Personal virtues, individual choices, and autonomy of man against the limitations set by social convention are the base of the European and humanistic identity of Erotokritos. In the Renaissance of Crete and of Kornaros though, liberation coexists with moderation, because its values are marked by opposite extremes; they represent change, as well as wisdom, at the same time.

The central position of Aretusa in Erotokritos is innovative even for the period of the Renaissance. She, being her own master, takes all necessary initiative in order to meet Erotokritos, as well as to make their liaison official. She is tormented, humiliated, imprisoned, as she not only disregards social conventions and the wish of her father, but, above all, she disregards the violence of authority. Erotokritos fights alongside with her against his own self, suppressing his feelings in the beginning, until he finds the strength to identify himself and to claim his right to happiness. The complex struggle for self-governing finds its best expression in the struggle of the two young lovers.

There may also be a political intent concerning the reading of Erotokritos, possibly as an answer to The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli; the princedom here is won with no scheming and plotting, reaching the exact opposite of the Machiavellian priority which dictates that the ends justify the means.

The numerous aspects from which the poem can be seen, prove its multitude of meanings and its internal power. This is possibly why each reader can decide upon a personal approach to the poem, depending on their own life experiences, perceiving it in a different way: as a love story, as a heroic epic, as a didactic story, or as philosophical reflection.

Read the text

Erotokritos was a very popular work, and circulated in manuscripts throughout the 17th century. Nowadays, the only surviving one is the 1710 Ionian Isles manuscript, which is available on-line, at the Harley collection of the British Museum (see the entry, the manuscript and 19 selected illustrated pages). The first printed edition of Erotokritos was published in 1713 in Venice, by Antonio Bortoli -three copies of which exist today- and was followed by many reprints.

The first thorough literary approach to Erotokritos was made in the 1915 critical edition by Stephanos Xanthoudides, which is available on-line at “Anemi”, the Digital Library of Modern Greek Studies of the University of Crete (see the entry and the text). The 1998 literary edition by Georgios Savvides, which is available on-line at the non-profit organization Center for Neo-Hellenic Studies (see the digital text) was a result of the editing process on the first Venice edition.

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