From the Greek ἀ -κάθιστος, meaning not seated, standing. It is perhaps the most celebrated hymn of the Byzantine Church, and belongs to the poetical genre known as kontakion (see byzantine rite, chants of). It is performed at the vigil service of the fifth Saturday in Lent, a calendar position that it occupied from an early date; its original association, however, was more probably with the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25.
The body of the poem comprises 24 stanzas (oikoi ) linked by an alphabet acrostic—the first 12 treating of the Incarnation and the infancy of Christ, the last 12 alternating the praises of God and His Mother in the even-and odd-numbered stanzas respectively; the concluding stanza, by exception, is addressed to the Virgin. Each of the stanzas presents the same seven-line metric pattern, but the odd ones add to this a series of salutations to the Virgin: 12 lines in metrically matching pairs, each line beginning with Xα[symbol omitted]ρε (Hail), and the entire stanza concluding with the unvarying refrain Xα[symbol omitted]ρε, νύμφη ἀνύμφευτε (Hail, unwedded Bride). The even stanzas have simply "Alleluia" as refrain. As an introduction (prooimion ) to the 24 stanzas, early MSS give another stanza, of independent metrical design and standing outside the alphabet acrostic: τ[symbol omitted] [symbol omitted]περμάχ[symbol omitted] στρατηγ[symbol omitted]… (To the invincible Leader…), a hymn of thanksgiving to the Virgin for the delivery of Constantinople from siege; in fact, the chronicles mention several such occasions at which the Akathistos was presumably sung. It has been conjectured that the original prooimion was not this but another stanza, now found as an independent hymn for the same office: Tò προσταχθ[symbol omitted]ν μυστι[symbol omitted]δ λαβών … (Receiving secretly the command…), which corresponds more closely to the 24 stanzas in wording and theme. But quite possibly neither stanza was part of the original composition of the hymn.
The authorship and date of the Akathistos have been the subject of much discussion; the medieval sources offer different attributions, and modern scholars in turn have advanced the claims of various candidates for the honor: Romanos in the sixth century, Patriarch Sergios and George Pisides in the seventh, Patriarchs Germanos and Photios in the eighth and ninth centuries respectively. The latest of these claimants has been eliminated by the discovery of a Latin translation of the Akathistos that can hardly be later than the early ninth century. As for the others, the prevailing tendency in more recent scholarship has been to assign the hymn to the sixth century, or even somewhat earlier; and the case for the authorship of Romanos himself has been forcefully argued, notably by Wellesz, despite its weakness in the MS tradition. For other scholars the hymn remains anonymous, perhaps the work of some imitator of Romanos; thus the question of attribution seems unlikely to receive any definitive solution.
The earliest extant musical sources for the Akathistos, completely notated, date from the thirteenth century; there is little reason to suppose that the music they contain was that originally accompanying the text. The melody conforms to the highly ornate and formulaic style characteristic of the kontakion in that period; the service book in which it occurs was, in all likelihood, of a type designed for the use of soloists. The music is written out in full over the individual stanzas, suggesting that, at a time when virtually all kontakia had been reduced to prooimion and a single oikos, the Akathistos, at least on occasion, was performed in its musical entirety. In the present-day service the medieval melody has been replaced by one of more recent origin, and the stanzas succeeding the first are generally read, not sung.
As mentioned previously, the Akathistos existed in a Latin version by the late eigth or early ninth century; thereafter, its rhetoric and imagery appear as the inspiration of a considerable repertory of Latin hymns. The subject is given detailed exposition in the study of G. G. Meersseman cited below.
Bibliography: e. wellesz, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography (2d ed. Oxford 1961). The Akathistos Hymn, introd. and transcribed by e. wellesz (Monumenta musicae byzantinae, Transcripta 9; Copenhagen 1957). e. wellesz, "The ‘Akathistos': A Study in Byzantine Hymnography," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 9 and 10 (1956) 141–174. c. de grande, L'Inno acatisto (Florence 1948). G. G. meersseman, "Der Hymnos Akathistos im Abendland," in Spicilegium Friburgense, v. 2–3 (Fribourg 1956–60). p. maas, "Das Kontakion," Byzantinische Zeitschrift 19 (1910) 285–306. p. f. krypiakiewicz, "De Hymni Acathisti auctore," Byzantinische Zeitschrift 18 (1901) 357–382. m. huglo, "L'Ancienne version latine de l'hymne acathiste," Muséon 64 (1951) 27–61. For a more recent English translation, see mother mary and k. ware in The Lenten Triodion (London-Boston, 1978) 422–37.