Originally, a kontakion (Slavonic kondak) was a long, structured liturgical poem - a sort of sermon in verse - used in the Byzantine Rite. Although such "complete kontakia" are now rare, the initial verse(s) of many kontakia are still sung at Matins, the Divine Liturgy, and other services.

The kontakion in early Byzantine liturgy

The kontakion comes to us from fifth or sixth century Constantinople, where popular preachers were well-known for their festival sermons - orations or homiles which recounted in detail the events of a feast or saint whose day was being kept. These sermons were considered examples of rhetorical art in God's service - icons for the ear rather than the eye.

The original kontakia were essentially festival sermons in poetic form, set to music. They consisted of an initial stanza called a proemium or "prelude", and up to twenty-four additional stanzas or oikoi (oikos is the Greek word for "house"), having the same meter and all ending with the same final line as the proemium.

The proemium served as an introduction, establishing the topic to be presented. This oikoi developed this topic, sometimes in story form, using dialog or contrast. The repeated final line served as a refrain, tying the entire hymn together. In many kontakia, the initial letters of the oikoi formed an acrostic. For example, they might spell out the letter of the alphabet (in Greek), or give the name of the poet who wrote the kontakion.

Kontakia were sung by skilled soloists, who stood at the ambo - not the solea or raised area before the iconstasis as we have it today, but a raised pulpit in the middle of the church. Due to their length, kontakia were written on scrolls, and unrolled as they were sung. The scrolls were wrapped around a pole (kontax), and the hymn was said to be sung "from the pole". (This is the origin of the word "kontakion", whch dates from the ninth century.) The singer was often a deacon, and there is some evidence that the choir or even the entire body of the faithful joined in singing the refrain which concluded each stanza. Unfortunately, the music used to sing kontakia has been lost.

Saint Romanos the Melodist

According to tradition, the first kontakion was sung in the sixth century by a Syrian deacon named Romanos. Serving in the church of Blacharnae in Constantinople at the all-night vigil on the feast of the Nativity of Christ, he was ridiculed by the other clergy for his lack of skill in chanting. In tears, he prayed to the Theotokos, who appeared to him in a dream, and gave him a scroll, with instructions to swallow it. Upon awakening, he asked permission to sing, mounted the ambo, and in an an angelic voice sang:

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One;
and th earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable.
The angels sing his glory with the shepherds;
the wise men journey with a star.
The eternal God is born for us as an infant child....

The clergy and people were amazed both by the grace of his singing, and its theological content; he went on to write hundreds of kontakia, of which perhaps fifty authentic examples have survived.

The Akathist Hymn

One complete kontakion remains in liturgical use in the Byzantine Rite: the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God. This hymn consists of a proemion (prelude) and twenty-four oikoi which tell the story of the Incarnation. This hymn is sung at Matins on the fifth Saturday of the Great Fast. Other akathists, following the same basic pattern, are included in our liturgical books for devotional use .

The demise of the complete kontakion

In the ninth century, the kontakion gave way to an even more structured hymn, the canon. Where the kontakion was generally a straightforward discussion of a single theme, the canon could combine several themes; canons also incorporated imagery and history from the Old Testament. The opening verses of the old kontakion (the proemion and the first oikos) continued to be sung at Matins, usually inserted into the canon after the sixth ode, where they were labelled "kontakion" and "oikos" (in Slavonic, kondak and ikos).

Early Slavic liturgical manuscripts (from the 12th century) only contain kontakia in this abbreviated form. The musical notation given along with the texts is quite complicated, suggesting that very ornate melodies were used. However, the information necessary to decipher this so-called kondakarion notation has been lost.

The modern kontakion and (o)ikos

Today, the kontakion is a short hymn sung

Some of these kontakia were originally the proemia of complete kontakia; others were composed later, using existing kontakia as models. In essence, the kontakion is now simply a short hymn like the troparion, but perhaps more inclined toward rhetoric or storytelling to make its point. Each kontakion is assigned to one of the eight tones.

Similarly, the ikos is now just a short hymn chanted at Matins, after the kontakion. (The spelling "ikos" is generally used, rather than "oikos"; this is the rare exception to the preference for Greek rather than Slavonic liturgical terminology.) In Greek and Slavonic, the ikos generally ends with the same words as the associated kontakion. Unfortunately, this common thread is not always maintained in English translations.

Sometimes, hymns labelled "kontakia" appear in occasional services such as those in the Euchologion. Here, too, they are basically a variant kind of troparion.


The kontakion and ikos of Great and Holy Saturday:

He who closed the depth of the sea
is beheld wrapped in linen and embalmed with myrrh;
the deathless One is placed in a tomb like one who is dead.
The women came to embalm him, weeping bitterly and crying:
Behold the Sabbath transcendent in blessings
in which Christ has slept and shall rise on the third day.

He who holds the whole universe in his hand is raised upon the Cross,
and all creation weeps as it sees him hanging on the Wood:
the sun hides its rays, and the stars lose their brightness;
the earth quakes and is filled with fear;
the sea draws back and the rocks split in two;
the tombs open and the bodies of the saints rise;
Hades laments and the Sanhedrin gathers to fabricate story to deny the Resurrection of Christ;
and the women cry out:
Behold the Sabbath transcendent in blessings
in which Christ has slept and shall rise on the third day.

Singing the kontakion and ikos

In the prostopinije tradition, kontakia are sung to stylized melodies similar to those for troparia - one melody for each of the eight tones. See Melodies for kontakia.

Ikoi are normally "read" (that is, chanted to a simple recitative melody). If the concluding words are the same as those of the associated kontakion, then the same ending melody can be used as well.

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