Litanic Verse I

Origines, Iberia, Slavia et Europa Media

by Witold Sadowski (Volume editor) Magdalena Kowalska (Volume editor) Magdalena Maria Kubas (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 364 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 45


The book contains comparative analyses of the development of litanic verse in European poetry, from medieval to modern times. Litanic verse is based on different syntactic devices, such as enumeration, parallelism, anaphora and epiphora. However, it is not to be seen merely as a convention of versification as the popularity of different variants of the verse in Europe reflects the religious, intellectual, social and political history of various European regions. The essays in the first volume focus on the origins of the Litany (the Near East, Greece, Byzantium, Rome), as well as the emergence of litanic verse in the Iberian languages (Castilian, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese) and Slavic and Central European literatures (Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Serbian, Russian).

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Some Necessary Preliminaries
  • Origines
  • In principio erat enumeratio: The Origins of Litanic Patterns in the Ancient Near East
  • Looking for the Origins of Biblical Litanies: The Hymn of the Three Youths in Daniel 3:52–90deut
  • Three Short Litany-Like Texts from Ugarit: Translation and Commentary
  • Litanic Elements in Ancient Greece: Orphic Hymns
  • Byzantine Liturgical Litany
  • Litanic Verse in Latin
  • Iberia
  • Religious Poetry, Religio Amoris and Panegyric Poetry in Spain before the End of the Fifteenth Century
  • Castilian Poetry and Autos Sacramentales during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
  • Praise, Litany and Cantigas: Catalonian, Galician-Portuguese, and Portuguese Poetry up to the End of the Seventeenth Century
  • The Iberian Peninsula from the Eighteenth Century till the 1930s: Opening Remarks
  • “Thou, the most beautiful; thou, in whom the pink morning star shines”: Castilian Poetry in the Eighteenth Century
  • “I do not know the name”: Castilian Poetry from the Nineteenth Century to the 1930s
  • On the Trail of Litany in Catalan, Galician, and Portuguese Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the 1930s
  • Slavia Meridionalis et Orientalis
  • Southern Slavs: At the Meeting Point of Traditions
  • “From besmeared lips, from hating heart, from unclean tongue”: Writing and Rewriting of the Canon in Serbia
  • “The Word that feeds hungry human souls, the Word that gives power to your mind and heart”: Bulgaria from Clement of Ohrid to the “September Literature” Circle
  • “Oh the blessed one, oh the most holy one, oh elevated above all the blessed ones”: Litanic Patterns and Folk Inspirations in Croatian Poetry
  • A Separate World. Russian Poetry Between the Native and the Universal
  • Europa Media
  • “Krleš! Krleš! Krleš!” Litany and its Derivatives in Czech Literature to the 1930s
  • “I gave night music to my heart from which deep litanies pealed”: Hungarian Poetry
  • Polish Litanic Verse until 1939. An Outside Perspective
  • Subject Index
  • Index of Names

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Witold Sadowski

University of Warsaw

Some Necessary Preliminaries

With these first two volumes on litanic verse, a research project on this Pan- European literary phenomenon is being launched. As the title indicates, the papers in this collection are devoted to this verse convention, which has over the centuries left its distinctive and easily recognizable traces on European poetry from the Middle Ages to the present day. Thus, the issues in question may be termed the history of verse.

It may at first be surprising that none of the foremost metrical systems that are of great importance for national versifications have been selected for this comparative analysis. What is being analyzed here is not iambic pentameter, nor hendecasyllable, nor alexandrine, namely forms that are so closely related to the specific and hard-to-follow features within particular languages or language families. Instead, the subject of study here is litanic verse, which can hardly be called a verse system. Yet, the chosen form allows scholars to avoid to a certain extent a comparison of national prosodic structures which it would in reality be difficult to compare. The advantage of litanic verse over systems widely discussed in textbooks on the theory of verse is that it is less burdened with peculiarities of pronunciation, since its segmental repeatability is achieved on a syntactical rather than phonological level.

This obviously does not mean that syllabic or accentual rhythm are of no importance, nor were the issues related to recitation or singing excluded from the analyses. In fact, the contrary is true. Yet the following observation appears to be instructive: the fact that all the European languages have syntactic structures and rhythmical units which fit well with the litanic convention allowed this ancient form to spread throughout Europe easily and in a way to move across linguistic borders. The differing manner in which the litanic matrix was assimilated by the poetry of various European nations, as well as the direction of its adaption from one type to another, are thereby scrutinized herein.

The first – and indeed most basic – step is to understand the huge body of available research material, which has not been categorized to any extent by earlier ← 9 | 10 → scholars. The sole exception is Polish poetry1. Additionally, it may come as somewhat of a surprise that the litanic pattern is both recognizable and unrecognized. In this situation, it is necessary to pose certain basic questions concerning the reasons for either the interest in litany or the lack thereof in given cultural, political and religious milieux. Since European litanic verse has not been studied before, it is vital that certain parts of these books be devoted to the basic operations, and thus an initial estimation of the quantity of litanic poems, which differs considerably depending on the nation, country and region, is essential. As a consequence, the metrical analyses are in most cases limited to specific examples, since a more detailed discussion would require six books instead of two.

The challenges of the research, which is pioneering in several ways, have also made us focus on the most central issues as well as determine which aspects are more complex, which require more in-depth analysis etc.— these aspects without doubt will need to have more space devoted to them. Thus, the present volumes end with the 1930s, which means that the overwhelming popularity of litany-shaped enumerations that over the last century have pervaded both the most sophisticated poetry and pop lyrics, such as Enya’s famous “Only Time,” must be left for future research. For the same reason, two great European literatures do not appear in the present books. The impressive and rich bodies of material – that is, F r e n c h a n d I t a l i a n p o e t r y, which were in fact two of the main seedbeds of the litanic convention as well as a source of inspiration for other countries – are to be the subject of the n e x t t w o v o l u m e s to be published.

The two present volumes, together with those to be devoted to French and Italian poetry, should provide a wide-ranging overview of the different national and regional histories of the form in question. In t h e f i f t h v o l u m e, the results of the previous studies will be collected and collated in an attempt at a comprehensive history of E u r o p e a n l i t a n i c v e r s e from the Middle Ages until the 1930s – and there will also be a discussion of the characteristics of its theoretical rules and philosophical foundations. It is hoped that a good understanding of the past will in some way allow us to understand the inclination among contemporary poets to use the litany.

The authors of some of the papers included here refer to a study by Witold Sadowski on poetic litany in Polish literature. Since this essay was published only in Polish, it is necessary to briefly explain several terms. ← 10 | 11 →

In Sadowski’s book, litanic verse is very closely linked to the genre of litany, considered to be a heterogeneous phenomenon which comprises certain basic patterns, namely genes.2 These probably betray the archaic past of litany, as they might be constituents of specific archaic genres that existed before Antiquity and that, perhaps, were combined to create the new genre with which we are dealing. Apart from their complicated and indeed unclear history, these generic components are today visible as three sets of rules that can be hold responsible for the differences in the semantic and emotional character of a litany in prayer or poetry.

The following genes may thus be distinguished:

C h a i r e t i s m i c g e n e derives its name from the chaire-list in the Byzantine Akathist Hymn. It is responsible for the anaphoric benedictions and greetings, as well as other forms of laudation or acclamation, which are formulated either in apostrophe or in a poetical description of an individual, who seems to be the hidden addressee of a poem.

E k t e n i a l g e n e derives its name from the Byzantine and Orthodox prayer called ektene. This gene, as a component of litany, appears in supplications and deprecations, which tend to form a responsorial dialogue. One part is reserved for the priest, the corypheus or the poet, who recites the series of requests on behalf of the congregation or suggests the theme on which to meditate. The other part belongs to the choir, who with short responses upholds the subsequent apostrophes to God or replies to the poet with an elliptic refrain. The characteristics of the ektenial gene are thus of an epiphoric rather than anaphoric order. Certain well-known formulae, such as Kyrie eleison, Miserere nobis, Exaudi nos, Libera nos Domine, are typical of this gene.

P o l y o n y m i c g e n e derives its name from the Greek word for the “many-namedness” of God. It is responsible for enumerative lists of an individual’s titles that form a lengthy invocation, which may be either overt and direct or hidden and indirect. The titles of the addressee are in fact antonomasias, which may also be recognized as a kind of description. Anaphora and epiphora are not required, though they are frequently used to facilitate the rhythm. Parallelism appears by definition.

These genes may support a poem either separately or together. In the litany genre, the presence of at least one is obligatory; however, it is not a given set of formal means that plays the key role but rather a definite g e n e r i c w o r l d v i e w, as a result of which these means still constitute the same repertoire as they have ← 11 | 12 → through the ages. Therefore, the study of litany requires a two-pronged investigation. On the one hand, it relies upon specifying the poetical rules on which the litanic poem is built, but on the other, it uses the same poem to reconstruct the semantic background of the genre.

As the articles collected in the present books show, the genre of litany has acquired very different positions and, as a consequence, has played somewhat different roles in specific European regions, with regard both to prayer books and to religious and non-religious poetry. Accordingly, in the present research, instead of presupposing that it is always the same genre with which we are dealing, a more restrained approach has been chosen. Strictly speaking, it is not so much the litany genre responsible for the composition of an entire poem that is analyzed here, as its rhythmical layer, which may constitute a versification of either the whole text or a part of it, or even appear as a peripheral component subordinated to other formal elements derived from different genres. Litanic verse has been as it were taken out of litany, an operation which is believed to facilitate scholars in their study of the multi-directional, multi-causal, and multi-aimed wanderings of this unusual form of versification, wanderings that led to its presence varying considerably across the European regions.

1 Cf. Witold Sadowski, Litania i poezja. Na materiale literatury polskiej od XI do XXI wieku [Litany and Poetry. On the Body of Material of Polish Literature from the Eleventh to the Twenty-First Century] (Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2011).

2 Witold Sadowski, “Geneza litanii w aspekcie formalno-kompozycyjnym,” [“The Genesis of Litany from the Formal and Compositional Perspective”] in Litania i poezja, 25–59.

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Łukasz Toboła

Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań

In principio erat enumeratio: The Origins of Litanic Patterns in the Ancient Near East


The article discusses the litanic patterns, which can be discerned in early Mesopotamian literature (mainly Sumerian). The key objectives of the study are:

i. an indication of the possible origins of litanic patterns in Ancient Near Eastern literature;

ii. an examination of the various contexts in which they appear;

iii. a description of their rhetoric and artistic functions.

The paper proposes that the origins of Ancient Near Eastern litanies can be found in the rich tradition of Mesopotamian lexical lists. However, additionally the issue of a secondary use of litanic patterns as an artistic form of expression in historiographical narratives and poetic texts will be addressed. The linguistic aspect of litanic patterns will also be analyzed.

Early Mesopotamian Scribal Culture

Manfred Krebernik1 has already emphasized certain connections between lexical lists and the poetic, ritual or mythological texts based on the Early Dynastic sources of Fara and Abu Salabikh. He has suggested that the main reason for this lies in their common didactic function within the scribal schools.

By the end of the fourth millennium BC, the Mesopotamian kingdoms had implemented a sophisticated literate system in order to control and to manage of their assets and labour force. Consequently, a new social class emerged, namely scribes, who were neither economically productive nor politically influential, but ← 15 | 16 → whose role was to write lists of various goods (either bought or sold) and lists of employees, as well as to note charges and payments, etc.2

During their education3, scribes copied and memorized many thematic lists of proper nouns that contained terms denoting textiles, wooden and metal objects; fish, birds, and other animals; names of professions and administrative titles; names of cities and countries. While the thematic range of these early word lists clearly reflects the officials’ needs (for instance, there are no lists of gods or wild animals), their lexical range is much wider: they record many words that in practice were never used by the bureaucrats, as far as we know.

For much of the third millennium BC the political structure of the Mesopotamian states remained stable. However, individual towns tended to retain their own identities and cult of local divine patrons, while sharing a common culture and management structure. Writing accrued new powers as it was adopted for a variety of purposes, from recording legal documents to documenting political events4. Scribal training itself continued to rely on much the same types of exercise as before. Scribes still worked with traditional lists of words — even if some of them were no longer in use5. At the same time, new lists were also added, such as ← 16 | 17 → lists of gods6 or rulers7, out of which innovations a new function of writing was instigated that can be termed “literary” (poetic and mythological texts).

Possible Archetypes for Early Litanic Texts

The historical, cultural, and epistemological importance of Mesopotamian lexical lists has been underlined by many scholars (under the term Listenwissenschaft).8

Some of the earliest literary texts in Sumerian belong to an obscure genre somewhere between the practical lexical lists and artistic texts. The so-called “Tribute list” (alternatively named “Word List C”)9 is attested by about sixty copies and fragments from the Uruk III period, several Early Dynastic tablets from Fara, Ebla, and Abu Salabikh, an unpublished Ur III fragment from Nippur, and two versions in Old Babylonian.

The idea that the Sumerian “Word List C” represents the earliest evidence of a literary text was first proposed by Robert K. Englund10 and is based on the fact that a considerable portion of the text, namely that containing the list of commodities, is repeated in its entirety. As Englund observed, such a repetition seems meaningless from a practical point of view. At the same time, the repetition of ← 17 | 18 → particular parts of a text is an important characteristic of certain narratives and hymns.11

Another archaic, para-litanic composition is represented by three variant tablets from Ebla12. The text seems to be a scribal exercise based on a list of similarly constructed phrases (perhaps personal names?)13 with the lexeme LUGAL (“king”), which have been expanded into elaborate sentences about a “king” and can thus be interpreted as a self-praise litany:


[The King of Mighty Words / The King of Abundance / The King of High Esteem / The King who has been awarded with High Esteem / The King Concerned Himself with Me / I am (this) King!]

At this point, a text resembling an onomastic litany à rebours from the Old Babylonian temple school at Nippur that records evidently derogatory names such as Di-bi-ir-A-bi, Di-bi-ir-A-ḫi, Di-bi-ir-Mu-ti15, should be mentioned. The lexeme dibir in this instance replaces a supposedly divine name. Consequently, I. J. Gelb links this with the root dwr (“to turn around” or to “dwell”), and interprets it as Diwir (presumably, ← 18 | 19 → “the One, who dwells [in a temple]”16). However, such a divine name seems to be unattested in the ancient sources. Instead, the Akkadian noun dibru (“misfortune”) could serve equally well in the creation of artificial personal names in a scribal exercise:17 “Misfortune is my father, misfortune is my brother, misfortune is my husband.”

Zami Hymns and Other Early Litanies

Amongst the earliest literary works which can without doubt be identified as litanic compositions is the cycle of so-called zami18 hymns (more precisely, zami-litany) from twenty-fifth-century Abu Salabikh.19 The list-like character of this text and its affinity to lexical lists has already been noted.20 The first fourteen lines of this unique composition seems to constitute a prologue:

1. uru an-da mu2

2. an-da gu2-la2

3. dingir nibru.ki

4. dur.an.ki

5. den.lil2 kur.gal

6. den.lil2 en nu:

7. nam.nir

8. en dug2-ga

9. nu-gi2-gi2

10. LAK 809 nu-LAK 809

11. den.lil2 a.nun

12. ki mu-gar-gar

13. dingir gal-gal

14. za3-mi3 mu-du11

[1. City, grown together with heaven, /2. embracing heaven, /3. god of Nippur,/ 4. Bond of heaven and earth /5. Enlil — Great Mountain, /6. Enlil — Lord / 7. Nunamnir, /8. whose ← 19 | 20 → command /9. is irrevocable /10. (the meaning uncertain)/ 11. Enlil who placed the Anunna gods /12. below earth, /13. the great gods /14. may be praised!]

The zami-litany comprises about seventy sequences, each of which begins with a place name and ends with the name of the deity of that place followed by the formula “Divine Name + za3-mi3” — “God / Goddess (such-and-such), may be praised!” This phrase gives structure to the text and seems to demarcate each strophe:

117. gir2-su

118. e2 gir2-nunš

119. dNin-gir2-su za3-mi321

[117. Girsu, /118. home of the precious dagger: / 119. Praise to (god) Ningirsu!]

This composition is little more than an enumeration of geographical and divine names, embellished with a number of adjectives and short commentaries. All the invocations begin with the name of a specific place and end with the name of its divine patron followed by the formula za3-mi3 (“be praised”). The zami-litany is perhaps the clearest example of a process that moves from lexical lists to more sophisticated, rhetorically enriched enumerations.

The enumeration of elements in a lexical set is a well-attested aspect of Sumerian poetry and appears to be the structuring principle in several poems such as “Nanše and the Birds”22 or “Home of the Fish”.23 Each of these compositions is constructed around a lexical enumeration (the names of birds or the names of fish, respectively) and proceeds by describing the individual items, which are then framed by a repeated formula.

For example, “Home of the Fish” is a first-person speech to fish, inviting them to enter a house in which there are plenty of victuals. The first part of the composition contains the invitation in general terms, and also promises an enjoyable feast. This is followed by a section in which various species of fish are specifically invited:

70. sun4? sag9-sag9 u2-lal3 gu7

71. ku6-ğu10 suḫur-gal ku6-u10 he2-ga-me-da-an-ku4-ku424 ← 20 | 21 →

[70. (The fish) with beautiful barbels, who feeds on the honey plant, / 71. O, my suḫur-gal fish: may he also enter with you, my fish!]

Other compositions similarly use the enumeration of a lexical set, though without making it the main structural element. For example, the hymn dedicated to the divine warden, the goddess Nungal, contains a para-litanic section that describes the gates of the Netherworld’s prison (lines 12–21):

12. e2 uš ki ğar-ra-bi ni2 gal im-da-ri

13. ka2-bi u2-sa11-an sig7-ga su-zi il2-la-am3

14. kun4-bi ušumgal ka duh-a lu2-še3 nu2-a

15. zag-du8-bi ğir2 mah a2 2-bi lu2-erim2 sur-sur-ru-de3


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (September)
syntax religion Europe poetry
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 364 pp.

Biographical notes

Witold Sadowski (Volume editor) Magdalena Kowalska (Volume editor) Magdalena Maria Kubas (Volume editor)

Witold Sadowski heads the Section for the Poetics of Verse at the University of Warsaw. He specialises in the theory of verse and the history of literary genres. Magdalena Kowalska obtained her Ph.D. from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun´. She specialises in the history of the romantic period and Polish-French literary relations. Magdalena Maria Kubas obtained her Ph.D. from the University for Foreigners of Siena. She specialises in the twentieth-century Italian literature and the relations between poetry and music.


Title: Litanic Verse I
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