March 22, 2024

Introduction to the Akathist Hymn

By Michael Koutsos, Philologist

The Akathist Hymn was established when the Avars besieged Constantinople in AD 626. However, the poem had been composed and set to music before this event.

The Akathist Hymn consists of the Kontakion (The Salutations) and a Canon. The Salutations are the only Kontakion that has such a wide response. This Kontakion has some peculiarities. It consists of troparia, which are called "oikoi" and form an acrostic, that is, each troparion/oikos begins with a letter of the alphabet, so there are 24 troparia/oikoi. Another peculiarity is that some troparia end with "Salutations" and others with the word "Allelouia". In the oikoi, or stanzas, with odd numbers (Gabriel, the Shepherds, Magi, etc.), they are addressed with Salutations, while in the oikoi, or stanzas, with even numbers, the coming of the Lord is recounted in the various stages of His life on earth. All troparia are not chanted but recited melodically.

Together with the Kontakion of the Akathist Hymn, the Canon of the Akathist Hymn ("I shall open my mouth...") is chanted, which has eight Odes and each Ode has 4 to 6 troparia. The first troparia of the eight Odes, called Eirmoi, constitute the Katavasia of the Akathist Hymn. So while the Canon of the Akathist Hymn is chanted on the five Fridays of Lent, the Katavasia of the Akathist Hymn is chanted many times, in various ecclesiastical periods.

From a poetic and melodic point of view, the Akathist Hymn is considered one of the most beautiful hymns of the Orthodox Church and has a special significance both for Orthodoxy and for the Greeks. It was admired for its incomparable composition not only by Orthodox Christian peoples, but also by other peoples and for this reason it was translated into many languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Romanian, Arabic etc.

The hymn refers to the entire mystery of Christ's incarnation, in which the Theotokos is a key factor, which is why all the salutations refer exclusively to the praise of the Theotokos.

Regarding the content (letters according to the Greek):

The first part (A-M) is historical – narrative.

In the 1st "Stanza" (oikoi A-Z) the Annunciation of the Theotokos.

In the 2nd "Stanza" (oikoi H-M) the Nativity of the Lord, the Flight to Egypt and ends with the Reception of the Lord.

The second part (N-Ω) is theological - dogmatic.

In the 3rd "Stanza" (oikoi N-S) the Incarnation of Jesus.

In the 4th "Stanza" (oikoi T-Ω) the Praise of the Theotokos.

The poet of the Kontakion is anonymous and unknown. The prevailing opinion is that it is Romanos the Melodist, who is also considered the preeminent hymnist of the Theotokos.

The Canon of the Akathist Hymn is most likely to be the work of two poets: a) John of Damascus and b) Joseph the Hymnographer.

The Akathist Hymn is described as a masterpiece of Byzantine hymnography, written according the rules of homotony, that is to say that the words are stressed on the same syllable, isosyllabic (having equal syllables), and partially rhyme (having the same ending). The language of the hymn is serious and flowing, full of aesthetic elements and many figures of speech.

The Service of the Akathist Hymn is integrated into the Service of Small Compline and ends with the beautiful reading "You who at all times and in every hour...", as well as two very popular prayers, one to the Most Holy Theotokos: "Spotless, undefiled, immaculate, unstained, pure Virgin ...", and one to the Master Christ: "Grant us, Master, as we depart for sleep...", and finally closes with the beautiful troparion "At the beauty of your virginity...".

The Akathist Hymn shows the deep faith of our ancestors in God and our Nation, a faith that reveals that high ideals and values, religious and national, coexisted in those people as well.

The Akathist Hymn was a model for many artistic creations, such as "Axion Esti" by Odysseas Elytis.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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