For literary Tuesday, we’re going back in time and place to meet a contemporary of William Shakespeare, the Greek epic poet Vincenzo Cornaros. He is the greatest of all the Cretan poets and one of the most significant and influential figures in the entire course of modern Greek poetry. He was the son of a Venetian/Cretan aristocrat and was born near Sitia, Crete in 1553. Later, when he married, he came to live in Candia (now Iraklion) where he joined the Academia dei Stravaganti. Kornaros died in about 1617. His masterpiece is “Erotokritos” a romantic epic, comprising 10,052 fifteen-syllable rhymed verses. The poem was well known in Crete at the time and had a long oral tradition. The Venetian Antonio Bortoli edition (1713) in Greek is considered to be the first definitive printed version.
Erotokritos unites the magic of myth with a deep understanding of everyday life and sympathy for the universal human emotions. It expresses the threefold ideal of the time, which is bravery, beauty and wisdom. Erotokritos sets great store by true love, friendship, courage and patriotism, and this is the reason for its later popularity all over Greece. It was a great source of inspiration for Dionisios Solomos and influenced Greek poets as diverse as Kostis Palamas, Kristallis and Seferis. English translations of the complete poem are available, as are also English adaptations.
The story takes place in Athens where King Herakles lives with his wife Artemis and their very beautiful daughter Aretousa. Erotokritos, a handsome and brave young man, son of the king's advisor, has fallen in love with Aretousa. After many difficulties and trials, the couple is married amidst celebrations and magnificent contests. The language of this work is authentic Greek and Cretan, a synthesis and conscious effort of the poet to express lofty human feelings and values with simplicity, directness and truth.
The form of the poem gave rise to many imitations, and the tradition of 15 syllable rhymed couplets called “Mantinades” (μαντινάδες) is a characteristic feature of Cretan life even today.
Ότι και να ΄χει ο Κρητικός με λόγια δεν το λέει
με μαντινάδες χαίρεται, με μαντινάδες κλαίει.
“In plain words Cretans never speak, whatever they may feel,
With mantinades they will weep, with them will laughter peal!”
In Crete the ability to compose apt mantinades on the spur of the moment is considered to be a highly desirable talent and is greatly admired.
Parts of Erotokritos have been set to traditional Cretan music and the poem has also been adapted for theatrical performance. In the YouTube video below, a portion of the Erotokritos music, sung by the great Nikos Xylouris can be heard:
The whole of the epic is available on the internet in Greek. The illustration is from the Theatrical Company of Crete’s production of “Erotokritos – The Play”.