April 19, 2024

Akathist Hymn: The History of a Hymn in Honor of the Panagia

By Spyros Symeon

The Akathist Hymn, or as it is known in more popular language as the Salutations to the Panagia, was chanted for the first time in the Temple of Blachernae in Constantinople in the 7th century and is a masterpiece of Byzantine hymnography.

During it, all the faithful stood up for joy but also to pay honor to the Panagia to whom the hymn refers, hence the name Akathist [Non-Sitting] Hymn.

It glorifies the Panagia and through her the All-Good God, which is done with many expressions of joy in a triumphant tone and with the use of many flattering adjectives and figures of speech with metaphors and contrasts to emphasize the graces of the Panagia.

It consists of 24 oikoi, i.e. stanzas, that each begin with one of the corresponding 24 letters of the Greek alphabet and all these oikoi are in absolute alphabetical order from Alpha to Omega, while at the same time they are written with isosyllabic and homophonic and in many cases rhyming canons.

Its first 12 oikoi (i.e. from A to M) are in a way the historical part of the hymn since it refers to the events of the Annunciation, the visit of the Panagia to Elizabeth - her cousin according to the flesh and the mother of the Honorable Forerunner John, the doubting of Joseph, the veneration of the shepherds and the magi, the Reception of Christ in Solomon's Temple by the Righteous and Holy Symeon as well as the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt.

The last 12 oikoi (i.e. from N to Ω) constitute the doctrinal-religious-theological part of these oikoi that glorify the purpose of the incarnation of Christ through the actual extension of the exposition and incarnation of the Son and Word of God.

Among these odd numbered oikoi (i.e. A, Γ, E etc.) there are 144 "Rejoices" [or "Hails"] to the Ever-Virgin which are a poetic continuation of the salutation of the Archangel Gabriel during the Annunciation of the Panagia (Rejoice, you who are full of grace...).

As we said above, it was chanted for the first time in the Temple of Blachernae, and for this reason until today, on the 3rd Friday of Great Lent, the respective Patriarch of the Ecumenical Throne goes to the Temple of Blachernae, where he chants, giving due honor to the Panagia, the oikoi of the Third Stasis of the Akathist Hymn, in memory of that first time when this entire Hymn was chanted with gratitude in their temple centuries ago.

It was chanted for the first time on August 8, 626 AD, when the inhabitants of Constantinople flocked to the Temple of Blachernae and through this Hymn they gave thanks to the Champion Leader of the City of cities through the emblematic, glorious and joyful style of the chanting of these oikoi for their salvation from their enslavement to the besiegers.

At that time the emperor of Byzantium was Heraclius who was absent from the city because he had campaigned against the Persians.

The city was almost unguarded since a large part of the army had to follow the emperor on the campaign.

The Avars then found the opportunity and suddenly sailed towards Constantinople in order to capture it.

The inhabitants of the City together with the minimal army fortified the walls of the City while having the fear of the threat of the besiegers and the absence of the entire army.

They tried to come to a truce agreement with the Avars, but it was known to them that a large part of the army was absent, so every proposal was rejected. As a result, on August 6, they occupied the location where the Temple of the Panagia of Blachernae was located, while they cooperated with the Persians, and on the night of August 7th to 8th they were preparing their final attack.

The people of Constantinople had found themselves in the most difficult position in history until then.

Then Patriarch Sergios, who had saved the icon of the Panagia of Blachernae, went around all the walls of the City with this Holy Icon in his arms, encouraging the people to resist and saying that they have the Panagia on their side.

Indeed, that night the walls were guarded internally by the inhabitants of the City, but the entire City was guarded by the Panagia.

Suddenly a terrible whirlwind broke out at a time when there was almost no wind and created a storm that destroyed the fleet of the besiegers and their troops, and then the defenders of the City seized the opportunity and with an all-out attack halted the siege by putting the besiegers to flight.

The people of Constantinople saw this whirlwind as a divine sign which they associated with the icon of the Panagia of Blachernae, which in the informal way we described earlier was processed throughout the City.

Some researchers connect the Akathist Hymn with other similar historical events of sieges of the City, but all describe beyond the dates and the nations involved as besiegers the other things such as the informal procession etc. and describe them exactly the same.

According to tradition, this Hymn was spontaneous and came from the hearts of the people of Constantinople without having been written by anyone in particular.

But scholars, although in a sense embracing this tradition in terms of spontaneity and heart-felt chanting, have a different opinion, because it would be difficult to compose it overnight and have such a smooth style as well as being perfectly coordinated in terms of syntax of the syllables and their performance in the "Byzantine" style of chanting the music through the mouths of the faithful.

Among these opinions, some cite as the author Romanos the Melodist who lived at that time and many parts of this Hymn fit the character of the Hymns composed by Romanos, while others cite as the author Germanos the Patriarch of Constantinople. And, of course, there are other less dominant views, while it is also mentioned that there may have been some additions to the wording of this Hymn over time.

In history, however, it has been said that the Hymn has no author or its author is probably unknown or chose to remain anonymous because he probably did not want the author himself to be revealed, since his purpose was to honor the Panagia herself through this masterpiece and not to overshadow this by dealing with the name and origin of its authorship.

Of course, time may simply not have preserved the authorship, since soon after the empire was plagued by iconoclasm and many things were lost in this difficult battle.

What is certain, however, is that it was not written before the Third Ecumenical Synod (432 AD) because the Hymn expresses doctrinal positions that were explained in that Synod.

It is also known that it was chanted for the first time in the month of August, while it has now been transferred and is chanted during Great Lent, which is a bit of a paradox since Great Lent has a more solemn style and even more mournful, while this Hymn has a joyful and festive style.

But this also has an explanation, since always within this period the celebration of the Annunciation coincides, which due to the character of Great Lent has neither pre-festive nor post-festive time periods, and with this transfer of time of the performance of the service of the Akathist Hymn it covers over this lack of additional festive days to honor the Panagia.

In fact, it is placed on Friday night, when the most celebratory days of the week begin, since the Resurrection Divine Liturgy is approaching on Sunday, which always has a joyful character, and many times feasts are moved to the weekend so that the faithful can celebrate them with a more brilliant character.

On the first four Fridays of Great Lent in some regions of Orthodox Christianity, including Greece, the Four Stasis' of the Akathist Hymn are chanted in sections, while in the Orthodox world on the 5th Friday all four are chanted.

The "feast" of the Akathist Hymn is held exactly 16 days before Holy Easter.

Finally, I would like to mention a tradition that has to do with the Salutations of the Panagia, as it has prevailed to refer to these oikoi.

In this tradition it is said that in an appearance of the Panagia, she herself said that whoever reads daily the Salutations to her, then she herself will be present next to them on the day of their judgment by her Son and our Savior to defend them.

And what a good thing, my brethren, that the Panagia herself defends us before the Throne of Christ.

Rejoice, through whom joy shall shine forth
Rejoice, the restoration of mankind
Rejoice, through whom shines the archetype of the Resurrection
Rejoice, for you abolished him who corrupts reason

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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