by  Stelios Papantoniou

As published in Volume 9, No 1, March. 2012


event_odysseas_elytisCommencing with the divine Axion Esti and the related Mount Athos tradition, I will present here information provided by Elytis concerning the birth of his own Axion Esti and, in general, on the content of The Genesis, The Passion, and The Gloria.

Next, I will discuss the points selected for the study: first, the solitary but within society; second, the angelic and divine nature of the poem with its acheiropoieton (not hand-made) manuscript, which points to the conception of the eternal through the spiritual poetic course; third, logos-language as the manifester of things and as the creator of the world and of the poet; fourth, the suffering of the poet and of Greece during World War II, and the identification of the undying rose (the Virgin Mary) with Hellas; fifth, The Gloria of Holy Mother Hellas; sixth, the music of Mikis Theodorakis. All this leads to the conclusion that a correlation between the two Axion Esti exists not only in the title, but also in many essential elements.


1.1 The Angel-given Axion Esti

1350148261-the-axion-esti-icon-from-the-holy-mount-athos-in-thessaloniki_1519863“The Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel” is celebrated on June 11. The monastic cell called ”Axion Esti” is located within a pit now named “Adein” (from the Greek verb “to sing”) because it was there that the angel of God gave the homonymous hymn to a monk. According to our religious tradition, the Axion Esti is the Megalynarion of the Theotokos (the Magnificat) composed of two separate hymns: the angel-given opening hymn “Axion Esti,” (Worthy it is to bless thee, O Theotokos) and the Holy Friday canon “More honorable than the Cherubim.” According to the Mount Athos tradition, the hymn“Axion Esti”was recorded in The Synaxarium (the book of Saints) in 1548 by the Father Superior in the form that it was given to the Church by the Archangel Gabriel. Near the Monastery of the Pantocrator there is a large hermitage with cells. In one of these cells lived an elder with his disciple. On Saturday evening, during the wake, the elder went to the Skete of the Protatos, leaving the disciple alone. It was then that a foreign monk arrived, asking to stay. During Matins, the two monks began to chant the mass and, during the Ninth Ode of the Canon when they began to sing the Magnificat, the disciple sang the original hymn “More honorable than the Cherubim…” while the foreign monk began differently. He chanted: “Worthy it is to bless thee, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God.” Then he continued with the customary hymn “More honorable than the Cherubim…” The local monk asked the foreigner to write down the hymn, and he recorded it on a slate using only his finger. He said: “From now on, thou shall chant this also, along with all Orthodox Christians.” This miraculous event took place on June 11, in the year 982, precisely one thousand and twenty nine years ago.

1.2 How was Elytis’ Axion Esti born?

As the poet confided to George Savidis: “As strange as this may sound, the impetus for the poem was provided by my stay in Europe between 1948 and 1951.” Elytis described the stark contrast between Greek and Swiss children, the former “clad in rags, pale, dirty, emaciated with deformed knees and sunken faces,” and the latter “rosy, smiling and dressed like young princes, with escorts sporting uniforms with golden buttons.” Elytis continued: “This was the second time in my life (the first was in Albania) when I stepped out of my individual self and felt, not simply interdependent, but wholly identified with my people. I realized that we were being ignored by everyone, at the margins of an improbable map. The inferiority complex and the meditative disposition had overwhelmed me again… I clearly saw that the fate of Greece among the other nations was the same as the fate of poet among other people, i.e. the people of power and money. This provided the first spark, the first discovery, while my need for prayer provided the second: my need to protest the injustice through an ecclesiastical liturgy. This is how Axion Esti was born.”

1.3 Conclusion

From the above, we conclude that the fate of Elytis is identified with the fate of Greece, and that the Axion Esti of the Virgin Mary becomes the model for the Axion Esti by Odysseus Elytis in the points that we will discuss below.

1.4 Content

It is well known that the Axion Esti is lengthy composition in three parts:

The first part, The Genesis, poetically records the birth of the poet and of the world, or rather the birth of world through the poet, since the world exists as long as man exists. Especially here, however, the world is not only created but also molded by the poet.

In the second part, The Passion, the suffering of the poet is interwoven with the suffering of Greece during WWII, and commences with the Italian attack against the homeland.

The third part, The Gloria, is a praise of the Hellenic world, as seen through Elytis’ lucid Hellenic poetic gaze.

1.5 Points

From the above, let us keep in mind the following points:

First, the solitary but within society; second, the angelic and divine nature of the poem with its acheiropoieton (not hand-made) writing, which points to the conception of the eternal through the spiritual poetic course; third, logos-language as the manifester of things, and as the creator of the world and of the poet; fourth, the suffering of the poet and of Greece during World War II and the identification of the undying rose (the Virgin Mary) with Hellas; fifth, The Gloria of Holy Mother Hellas; sixth, the music of Mikis Theodorakis. All this leads to the conclusion that a correlation between the two Axion Esti exists not only in the title, but also in many essential elements.


2.1 Solitude within society

“I will tonsure my head, monk of things verdant, And reverently serve the order of birds.” A solitary Elytis delivers into poetry a world written within his gut. “All is within us,” according to Plotinus.

“Your commandment,” he said, “is this world and it is written in your entrails Read and strive and fight” he said “Each to his own weapons” he said.

And Elytis creates and molds his world, synthesizing the opposites.

“And the One I really was, the One of many centuries ago, the One still verdant in the midst of fire, the One not made by human hand, drew with his finger the distant lines sometimes rising sharply to a height sometimes lower: the curves gentle one inside the other land masses that made me feel the smell of earth like understanding.”

The senses are clear, the erotic element is pervasive and pure, as it will be repeated many time in the poem. “That’s purity” he said “It’s the same on the slopes as in your entrails.” The inner catharsis clarifies and records the world.

Like the monk, the solitary poet also conceives the inner reality and evangelizes it, in his own way, insisting on his desolation.

“But first you will see the wilderness and give it your own meaning” he said “The wilderness will precede your heart and then again the wilderness will follow it.”

The solitude of the poet conceals not only a high degree of dignity but also his effort to conceive the eternal and the everlasting, behind the now and the forever of the world, interwoven.

Yet solitude also corresponds to asceticism. “I explored the night’s bounties like an ascetic his God.” The anti-consumerist view and the utilization of things. “From the minimal you will arrive faster anywhere, he says.” This minimal, simple, and without excess, gives him the substance of things, the idea. And this is why “If you unravel Greece, in the end you will see that what remains is an olive tree, a vineyard, and a ship. Which means that, with just as much, you can put it back together.” He arrives at complete abstraction in order to capture the essence and to create the possibility of the creation of the poetic world from the bare essentials. This small world, the Great.

Man is social being. The poet and the monk are not outside society, and this is why contact with society – with the historically preexisting, as well as with the present and the future – is necessary.

“You see” he said “they are the Others and it cannot be They without You nor can it be You without Them.” “You see,” he said “they are the Others and you must face them without fail, if you want your image to be  indelible and remain what it is.” The poet walks toward his plenitude, one with nature, one with his fellow man, whether friend or foe.

2.2 The angelic and angel-given nature of the poem will be realized through ascesis and through the ascent to the realms of ideas

The road up and the road down are the same thing, according to Heraclitus. The archangel came down to earth, and Elytis went up to the sky: an essential aspect of poetic creation.

“The Sun assumed its face, the Archangel forever on my right This is then and the small world the great!” In Open Papers Elytis admits: “On a coast alongside we walked one not sensing the other. He – “the wings of the angel were preventing him from walking.” And further down: “The lightness, the absence of gravity, the fluttering in the heights, like an idea and like an experience of the free hours of my sleep, have always given me an inexpressible pleasure.”

And even: “The meaning of my vision is concentrated on the purity of soul that it presupposes, for it to become easily legible and comprehensible. … I spoke of a purity whose metaphysical meaning is directly superimposed upon the ethical meaning and that directly upon the aesthetic. Its spectrum is so wide that it stretches from the senses as far as the idea, or more accurately, from confidence in the material world to confidence in the ‘divine.’”

In order to ascend to and to conceive the world, and to create it on the intellectual plane as he has done, purity of the soul and of the senses was required as the foundation. Thus, in Axion Esti, Elytis feels “his blood homing clean, himself pure from end to end and in the hands of death a useless utensil, and as time devours the substance, the oracle on his face becomes clearer and clearer,” and above all, “know this: whatever you salvage under lightning will remain pure eternally.”

Lightning sparked and the young man came to know himself, or the Heraclitian “the lightning steers the universe”

He suffered to achieve this purity, this lucidity of conception and expression, waiting to “clear the earth of its murky clouds to reveal the Meadows of Bliss.”

He molds his world with effort, ascending from the respectable information of the senses to the lucidity of the soul, and to the grasping and expression of the concept. And all this not only theoretically but also aesthetically and morally, with the fight for innocence at the precipice of virtue and with his personal struggle for liberation, and according to the edicts of surrealism, facing constant dangers on the hard-to-traverse roads that the poet opened, in order to record the purity of the world that he conceived with his immaculate mind. But the immaculate mind works only with pure ideas, once it has been purified, according to Plato’s Phaedon.

In philosophy we encounter analogous images of purity in Socrates’ fabulous description of the brilliant and beautiful world in Phaedon. Plato, an incurable poet, does not abandon philosophy or poetry, like the poet with the philosophical fundamental principles, Elytis.

2.3 Myth, logos-language, and the revelation of things through language

We can attempt an explanation of Elytis’ conception of the cosmos from another perspective, according to the philosophical base provided by Ioannis Koutsakos in his book Phenomenological And Ontological Studies About Life And The Spirit. He considered a person’s moment of birth, not the infant’s, as a suitable basis for his philosophy. He considers as point zero the disconnection of a person from the darkness where he cannot yet distinguish persons and things, or “where things resemble black cows in the dark,” and progressively – between the moving sand of the conscious and the unconscious, between knowing and the pre-mnemonic period – the light emerges. Things begin to be distinguished, and the first meanings take shape with the repetition of similar pictures. And Elytis:

“In the beginning the light And the first hour when the lips still in clay try out the things of the world” “My soul  called out for a Signalman and Herald. It was the sun, its axis in me many-rayed, whole, that was calling And the One I really was, the one of many centuries ago the One still verdant in the midst of fire, the One still tied to heaven I could feel coming to bend over my cradle And his voice, like memory become the present, assumed the voice of the trees, of the waves.”

Genesis, under this prism, is the beginning of the discernment of things, the passage from the state where everything was an amorphous mass to the naming of beings, which will be distinguishable henceforth. The model is, on the one hand, the Old Testament with “he said and it was done” and, on the other, with Adam who gives names to things. “The Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name.”

According to Elytis, in Axion Esti: “Then he spoke and the sea was born and I gazed upon it and marveled In its center he sowed little worlds in my image and likeness.” Logos-language brings light or things into existence. Things begin to be distinguished and to exist when they are given a name, when man names them. This is how Elytis experiences the marvel of the genesis of the world. Through language, man outgrows his infantile age, the absence of language, and by forming meanings he rises to the world of ideas while simultaneously getting to know himself. “I was clearing the silence to plant seeds of phonemes and golden shoots of oracles The hoe still in my hand, I saw the great short-legged plants, turning their faces, some barking, others sticking out their tongues: There the asparagus there is the kale there the curling parsley acanthus and dandelion liatris and fennel Secret syllables through which I strove to utter my identity. This I then and the small world, the great!”

The world is molded by the poet, who is – in turn – molded along with the world, through language.

2.4 The suffering of the poet and of Greece, identified with Holy Mother Greece

The whole world is in language now. “Greek the language they gave me,” and here in the language there is the nature, geography and history of Greece, as well as its culture, the poet himself and his people that suffer during WWII, just like Jesus.

“Many a time they afflicted me from my youth: yet they have not prevailed against me” reads the frontispiece of The Axion Esti. 

“Here am I, face to face with the black shirts of the ruthless and of the years’ empty belly that aborted its own children, in heat! Wind releases the elements and thunder assaults the mountains. Fate of the innocent, alone again, here you are in the Straights! Fate of the innocent, you are my own Fate!”

The poet becomes identified with his nation at a concrete historical moment, as well as with the timeless generation of innocents.

But like the resurrection follows the passion, freedom will also follow the passions of Greece in History. “God, my Master-Builder, You too among the Easter lilacs, You felt the scent of Resurrection.”

But he also sings, tying his suffering with the suffering of the homeland, and identifying his life and spirit with Greece, with its geography, history and culture: “You built me into the mountains, You enclosed me in the sea.”

Looking now toward the second topic of the symposium Literature, Philosophical and Historical Dimension, we notice that History provides the starting point for poetry. But the poet creates his myth, weaving and polishing his images; he is not historical but conscious of events, which he raises up to the universal war between good and evil, between light and darkness.

They came dressed up as “friends,” came countless times, my enemies, trampling the primeval soil. And the soil never blended with their heel. They brought the Wise One, the Founder, and the Geometer, Bibles of letters and of numbers, every kind of Submission and Power, to sway over the primeval light. And the light never blended with their roof.”

The land of the light will not tolerate the profane and the unholy.

In the end, both the poet and his land are delivered of their plight, and he can give thanks and praise.

2.5. Gloria

It is truly worthy to bless thee, O Theotokos.

The third part of this great synthesis by Odysseus Elytis consists of a Magnificat for Hellas-Mother Mary that praises her life and her beauty, the now and forever of the world, starting with the reminder of the miracle celebrated today.

“Praised be (Axion Esti) the light and the man’s first rock- carved prayer

Axion Esti the Mermaid’s hand, the tolling winds that perform liturgies, the wooden table, the heatwave hatching the beautiful boulders under the bridge, the islands with all their minium and lampblack, Myrto standing on the stone parapet facing the sea. Praised be on the remembrance day of the holy martyrs Cyricus and Julitta.”

And then transporting us to the Salutations, he continues with

“Hail Girl Burning and hail Girl Verdant, Hail Girl Unrepenting, with the prow’s sword Hail you who walk and the footprints vanish Hail who wake and the miracles are born.”

The Axion Esti, the praises of the Theotokos, the divine liturgy, ancient tragedy, the prophecies, poetry and prose, philosophy and history commune wonderfully in Elytis’s work. This miracle of the harmonious union of so many diverse elements in the poetic work was completed with the music of Mikis Theodorakis.

2.6 The music

20110221164605839In antiquity the meaning of music indicated a broader education and, according to Socrates, even philosophy. Yet in antiquity and in more recent times, in our demotic song, the three indivisible elements are language, music and dance. According to Lignades “the most important accomplishment of The Axion Esti is that it renders an impression of the original triad of the poetic creation. The poetic language of the synthesis imposes a sense of musicality, and its rhythm is an orchestral movement.”

Beyond the musicality of the work itself, it is without doubt that Mikis Theodorakis performed his own miracle. “I believe it was in the spring of 1963 when I received The Axion Esti, a thoughtful gift of the poet. By that same evening I had already drafted the first two parts: Genesis and Passion. By saying this I want to show that the music preexisted within me, and that it required only the strike of the sword on the rock for the living water of sounds to spring up… May the soul of our music be incorruptible, dressed in mist and dew, dancing to the Roman tabor. Let us leave the spectacles to those who have lost their soul. Let us sing again of the simple longings and hopes of Hellenism.”

(Mikis Theodorakis, from the note on the record of the first edition of The Axion Esti.)

3.0 Epilogue

Dear friends,

Great works of the intellect are inexhaustible. In this paper I have tried to convey some sense of the content and of the philosophical and historical dimension of this great milestone in Greek Letters, identifying the celebrated miracle of the tradition of The Axion Esti and its direct relationship with the poetic work of Odysseus Elytis. Miracles are still at work. Blessed be those who conceive and express them.

Translated by Irena Joannides
Odysseus Elytis, The Axion Esti, Translated by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis, Anvil Press Poetry
*  This paper was presented at the two-day Symposium organized by the Cyprus PEN in Pedhoulas on the subject Literature, Historical and Philosophical Dimensions, on June 11 and 12, 2011.

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