The Ballad of Tsamadós and His Son
Translated from the Greek by Joshua Barley
Among the plane trees of St George a festival was happening,
the festival was large; St George’s spot was small,
the dance it spiralled twelve times round, among sixty two tables;
a thousand animals were killed for all the festival.
The elders pleaded with St George, vowed him offerings,
that Tsamados be kept away; he wrecks the festival.
The words were still upon the air when Tsamados appeared,
tearing down the mountainside towards the festival.
And when he steps the mountain shakes, he cries and the valleys ring;
he carried upon his shoulder the trunk of an uprooted tree,
and on its branches he had hung the corpses of wild animals.
‘Good day, elders,’ he said to them. ‘Welcome to you, fine man’.
‘Who here has a marble chest and hands made of iron,
and will come out and fight with me on the marble threshing floor?’
No one responded to Tsamados, not one of the revellers,
until the widow’s son cried out, the brave son of the widow:
‘I have a marble chest and hands made of iron,
and I’ll come out and fight with you on the marble threshing floor.’
The two went out with swords in hand, they went to fight each other.
When Tsamados trod the ground, the threshing floor sunk down,
and when the young man trod the ground, it sunk again and foundered.
When Tsamados struck the boy, his blood ran like a river,
and when the boy struck Tsamados, he made his bones to shatter.
‘Hold on, young man,’ said Tsamados, ‘and let me ask you something.
What bitch-mother gave birth to you, and what man was your father?’
‘My mother, when she was widowed, had not given birth to me,
and I was like my father, and I will overcome him.’
And Tsamados grabbed the boy’s hand, they went to find his mother.
She saw them from afar and she prepared a table.
And as they drank and as they ate, she poured them each a drink,
wine she poured for Tsamados, and poison for her son.
‘Mother, you have poisoned me; you’ll answer unto God!’
Since the writings of Spyridon Zambellios (1815-1881), Greek folk songs have been seen as a link connecting modern Greece to its long-lost ancestor, ancient Greece.
This ballad is one of the so-called Akritic songs: a cycle of heroic epics composed around the Greek world, particularly in Asia Minor, during the era of the Byzantine Empire.
The son often does not die: in other versions he perceives his mother’s treachery before drinking the cup; in one case, which may be the earliest, he inherits his father’s kingdom. Their fight is his rite of passage.
The ‘widow’s son’ is an important character of folklore. Like bastard children, the absence of the superego grants him the ability to develop his powers unchecked and become a hero.
The etymology of Tsamados’ name is unclear, but he bears resemblance to Charos, the personification of Death in modern Greek mythology. Many subsequent Greek folk songs have a young man fighting Charos on the same ‘marble threshing floor’: rite of passage became struggle with Death. In these cases, the young man always loses.
The Ballad of Tsamados and his son is translated from the version in N. Politis, Εκλογαί από τα τραγούδια του Ελληνικού Λαού, Athens, 1914.
Athenian Red-figured Hydria, with sphinx
Greek, Classical Period
3117, Freud Museum London