Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2010.02.61 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.02.61

Athanasios Markopoulos (ed.), Gia ten poiese tou Symeon tou Neou Theologou.   Athens:  Ekdoseis Kanake, 2008.  Pp. vii, 159.  ISBN 9789606736056.  

Reviewed by Eirini Afentoulidou, Universität Wien (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

(Johannes Koder, one of the contributors, was the reviewer's supervisor at the University of Vienna.)

The volume consists of "four texts", Tessera keimena, on the poetry (the "Hymns") of the Byzantine mystic Symeon Neos Theologos, papers first presented at a post-graduate seminar conducted by the editor. The first three authors are professors of Byzantine Studies at the Universities of Vienna, Ioannina and Athens respectively; the fourth is a philosopher who focuses on Greek identity and on Orthodox tradition.

In the introductory paper Johannes Koder reflects on three problems: why Symeon wrote his "Hymns", why he preferred poetry to prose to express his mystical experiences, and to which genre the "Hymns" should be assigned. Koder analyses the evidence drawn from the "Hymns" in the context of medieval Christian mysticism. Symeon obeyed an overwhelming inner urge to communicate his visions, while at the same time experiencing a desire to remain silent. Sporadic references to the visions are to be found in his prose texts addressed to the monks of St. Mamas monastery. The mystical experiences, however, are described mainly in the "Hymns", written during his exile and subsequent voluntary retirement to the Propontis and were known to few. Their limited circulation can be better understood if one bears in mind Symeon's decision to limit his teaching to a small select group in order to avoid distraction. A demanding literary form, poetry was in medieval times considered the most suitable medium for highly emotional subjects, such as mystical experiences. Symeon's poems were not hymns in the sense of a text meant to be sung by the community in a liturgical service; the title "τῶν θείων ὕμνων οἱ ἔρωτες" was not given by Symeon himself. Koder finds in Symeon's poems elements of didactic, autobiographic and lyric poetry as well as versified homilies. Koder analyses the lyricism of "Hymns" 57 and 10, concluding that "a 'history of Byzantine lyrical poetry' might be perhaps a short volume; but it could be written."

In the next paper and in order to show the extent of Symeon's education, Alexandros Alexakis analyses the morphology of the Euche mystike, the prose prayer that precedes the "Hymns", arguing that the "Hymns" were (also) prayers. Hence the Euche mystike can be approached in the same way as the "Hymns". The tripartite structure of the Euche mystike is reminiscent of ancient Greek and Latin prayers (invocatio--pars epica--precatio); the second part is a narration of the history of salvation and as such a christianized version of the ancient da, quia dedisti and da, quia hoc dare tuum est. Prayers with a tripartite structure were not uncommon in the works of the Church Fathers, notably in Gregory of Nazianzus, an important source for Symeon. If the Euche mystike was influenced by Gregory, it was at least indirectly based on classical models, argues Alexakis. In any case, the undeniable literary character of the prayer, underlined also by figures of speech, testifies to Symeon's debt to classical tradition.

In the third paper Athanasios Markopoulos analyzes "Hymn" 13, beginning with observations on Symeon's language and style. He finds that Symeon was little influenced by ancient models; that his position in the Byzantine literary tradition is unique; and that his use of language is highly personal. "Hymn" 13 supports these observations. The Subject of the "Hymn" is the poet's experience of the union of the Body and the Spirit. Markopoulos suggests that the "Hymn" could be read as a rite of the "wedding" between the Body and the Spirit. The structure of the "Hymn" supports the dramatisation of the event. After a long introduction, which explores the preconditions of the union, the poem culminates in the description of the poet's mystical experience, written in a highly emotional language. The marital vocabulary and the accumulation of figures of speech emphasize the ritual character of the poem.

The fourth paper in the Tessera keimena is an essay by Stelios Ramfos on the anthropology of Symeon Neos Theologos and its position in Orthodox thought. As a philosopher, Ramfos is writing within a different paradigm; his paper is a reflection (an insightful one) rather than a scholarly study and lacks footnotes. Ramfos argues that Symeon, following the ascetic tradition, considered the purification of the soul a precondition for the vision of the Divine, with the spiritual senses serving as the means of the vision. The novelty of Symeon's mysticism is the emergence of the individual. The spiritual senses enable the beholder to envisage God and himself. The individual is both the subject and the object of the mutual contemplation between God and human. This anthropology interest in the individual is to be understood in the context of the 10th-11th c., a period witnessing new approaches to the self, as in Michael Psellos.1 According to Ramfos, with Symeon Byzantine anthropology took a step forward, but the step remained incomplete, since it concerned only the soul and/or the spirit, and excluded the physical part of the human. Without the body, the individual is not fully distinct from the community. Ramfos regards this depreciation of the body and the subsequent incomplete individualization--with all its sociological implications--as a central problem of Eastern Christianity.

The volume under review presents various approaches to the poetry of Symeon Neos Theologos by renowned scholars. It is a valuable companion both to specialists and to students of other disciplines. The editor's intention to reach a larger audience beyond the borders of Byzantine Studies or Orthodox Theology is underlined by the book's cover, which--very appropriately in my opinion--represents Paul Klee's "Eros".

Table of Contents

Johannes Koder, Ο Συμεών ο Νέος Θεολόγος και οι ύμνοι του (1-35)

Alexandros Alexakis, Μορφολογικὲς παρατηρήσεις στὴν Εὐχὴ Μυστική, δι' ἧς ἐπικαλεῖται τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον αὐτὸ προορῶν τοῦ Συμεὼν τοῦ Νέου Θεολόγου (37-60)

Athanasios Markopoulos, Θέωση και σωτηρία. Απόπειρα ανάγνωσης του ύμνου αρ. 13 του Συμεών του Νέου Θεολόγου (61-87)

Stelios Ramfos, Αἴσθησις ὀξύμωρος. Θεογνωσία ποιητικὴ στὸν τρίτο ὕμνο τοῦ ἁγίου Συμεὼν τοὐπίκλην Νέου Θεολόγου (89-135)


1.   See E. Papaioannou, Writing the Ego: Michael Psellos' rhetorical Autography (unpublished doctoral thesis). Vienna 2000; idem, "Michael Psellos. Rhetoric and the self in Byzantine epistolography", in: W. Hörandner--M. Grünbart (ed.), L'épistolographie et la poésie épigrammatique: projets actuels et questions de méthodologie. Paris 2003, 75-83.

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