The Patriarch’s Gloss

by Josephine Balmer

A rare Greek word – and a homoerotic line – from a lost tragedy,  preserved in a Lexicon compiled by an uncompromising Byzantine Pope, provides a link between atrocity, justification and language.


photiusPhotius I (later St Photius the Great) was a secular clerk who was appointed Patriarch (or Pope) of Byzantium in 858 following a time of often bloody religious schism in the city between the iconclasts, who wanted to destroy images of God as idolatrous, and the orthodox church, which viewed such depictions as holy relics. In 868 Photius was temporarily unseated but returned to the patriarchal throne in 877 when he continued his persecution of the city’s Jews.


phot-lexiconAt the same time, Photius was revered as a cultured man whose classical scholarship was second to none. His Lexicon, probably written in his youth and revised later, contains many rare Greek words and their usage, including abdeluktos, an adjective meaning something like ‘absolved of blame’. Photius tells us the word originates in a line from Aeschylus’s lost play Myrmidons, probably from a  scene in which the grieving hero Achilles caresses the body of his dead lover Patroclus. In recording it, this uncompromising Church father preserved perhaps one of the most controversial scraps of  Aeschylus’s tragedy for the future. The following sonnet from my new collection  The Paths of Survival (Shearsman, April 2017)  first appeared in New Statesman, and explores the link between atrocity, justification and language:


(Photius I, Byzantium, 858/877)


I worked my way up by my wits, from clerk
to city Patriarch. I corrected
each schism, effaced the iconoclasts
until our gilded streets turned black. And red.

In broken churches we counted the deaths.
I remembered a reed-slim boy of nine
or ten, the taste of his salt lips on mine –
weed-choked detritus dragged from Golden Horn.

Now terms were defined in my Lexicon.
I started with alpha: Abdeluktos.
Above blame. Any heretics tortured,
maimed. Absent of guilt. All Jews slaughtered.
[ᴂbdɛlʊktos]. A sword hissing through bone.
Absolved. Assaults washed clean by each fresh gloss.

Josephine Balmer