The origins of the Akathist Hymn
There are many varied stories as to the origins of the Standing Praises to the Theotokos, or Akathist Hymn, but the sources seem to agree that it began in the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, in 626 AD. The city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire was unusually free of defence that year. The emperor had taken almost all the soldiers into the East where he was defending the empire from the unceasing attacks by Persian troops. This was a necessary strategic move, but it left Constantinople open to attack – and it was attacked by the Avars, nomadic tribes from the Russian steppes. For months, the people of Constantinople were under siege, forced behind the city walls by enemy ships in the harbour and enemy soldiers on land. Their sources of food began to dry up and the people knew that they were outnumbered, and desperate.
Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople, along with the clergy, took up an Icon of the Theotokos and began to march along the city walls, chanting and censing. They were not expecting a miracle, only hoping to bolster the spirits of the people. However, before the eyes of the City, a miracle occurred. In the bay of the Golden Horn, filled with enemy ships, a tornado appeared. The ships were torn to pieces, and the remaining attackers fled for their lives.
The Patriarch led the people into the small Church of the Theotokos at Blachernae, on the Golden Horn. Here they prayed all night. Their gratitude made it possible for them not only to chant praises to Panagia without sleeping, but also to stand for the whole night. Some of their praises still appear in our Akathist Hymn, but most were composed by St Romanos the Melodist many generations later. If there is one theme to the Akathist, it is to ‘Rejoice!’ – the timeliest reminder of all during the period of Great Lent.
Source: February- March 2014 Lychnos Edition