The Trisagion

Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός
Ἅγιος Ἰσχυρός
Ἅγιος Ἀθάνατος
ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς

Holy God
Holy mighty
Holy immortal
Have mercy on us

The above little prayer is one of the great treasures of the ancient Church. It’s called the Trisagion, and appears in the fourth century, after which to the present day it is used in the anaphora of Byzantine Divine Liturgies, and apparently in some Western liturgies as well. The thrice-holy hymn is generally understood to have emerged from the vision granted to the Holy Prophet Isaiah of the heavenly Seraphim, chanting, “Holy, holy, holy” at the throne of God (Isaiah 6), through the mediation of the vision granted to St John the Theologian in the Apocalypse (ch. 4). But real certainty, and much of its history, is not what interests me here. It’s rather an interesting thing that I noticed differs between the way this prayer is understood in the Greek and the English.

I think most people who read the English Trisagion think of this as a prayer addressing God as “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal.” Yet, while this is a possible reading in the English, it is not the case in the Greek. There, instead of a vocative address, we have a series of declarative statements, which are through ellipsis lacking verbs and connective particles: “Holy [is] God, Holy [and] Mighty, Holy [and] Immortal.”

In addition, I think the first phrase bears an implied personalization in the first person plural, following from the final phrase. So, the full prayer should be thus understood:

“Holy is our God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal. Have mercy on us!”

Only in the final phrase are we addressing God with this prayer. Before that, it is a prayer of confession, that our God is holy, mighty, and immortal. Could it be that this prayer emerged out of the martyrdoms? Was it a confession of faith on the part of some being tortured to death for their faith? It’s entirely possible, but we just don’t know. Regardless, it’s beautiful.

(These are some ideas that I had upon waking one day, while clearing my head of the fuzziness of the dream world. Usually my first waking moments are not so productive!)

15 Replies to “The Trisagion”

  1. Dear Mr Edgecomb,

    You will find that the English rendering, while not perfect, does accurately convey the vocative sense of the prayer. This is attested to by the fact that in ancient Greek the nominative form of Θεός substitutes for the awkward, though later prevalent, Θεέ. I believe this is standard throughout the Scriptures, Old and New (cf. the Latin, Deus meus). Many Grammars discuss the phenomenon, sometimes late, of nominatives acting as vocatives. And this is supported by the Church Slavonic translation of the prayer, which unequivocally translates all the substantives in the vocative case.

  2. Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash) suggests that in fact the nominatives are correctly read as vocatives in Greek, citing Moulton’s Grammar of New Testament Greek vol. 3. The Moulton citation says: “…there is a tendency for nominative forms to usurp the vocative. […] There is no vocative of the article in Greek, and so if the article was required the nom. form was used.” Moulton actually gives the use of nominatives as vocatives its own article pp. 34-5 of Vol. III (Google Books preview found here: http://tinyurl.com/3al8eg6). Archimandrite Ephrem notes that they are rendered as vocatives in Slavonic as well (his essay, which also contains some useful history about the English tradition of the Trisagion and who uses which translation, is found here: http://www.anastasis.org.uk/THE%20TRISAGION02.pdf).

    In any event, my observation is that the presence of the imperative would imply what precedes it as being the subject, which would bolster the idea that they are intended to function as vocatives. The Syriac rendering of the Trisagion isn’t a lot of help because Syriac doesn’t have a vocative case per se, but rather an “emphatic state” which can function as a vocative or as a nominative, but Gorgias Press’ new edition of the Syriac Divine Liturgy (http://tinyurl.com/385morl) certainly translates it as though they are vocatives.

    On the other hand, I think the nuances you notice are certainly there nonetheless. Perhaps, as some Orthodox love to say, the answer is “both/and” rather than “either/or”.

    Richard

  3. Thank you, both Tikhon and Richard. Yours are very interesting and helpful comments. I will certainly be looking up St John’s account of the origins of this prayer, Tikhon. And I think, Richard, that the “both/and” solution is where we need to situate this grammatical oddity.

    There is an ambiguity built into the prayer in that peculiar lack of a subject until the end is certainly striking. But I do think it works both ways.

    The first clause (Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός), standing alone, is simply a sentence: “Holy is God.” It’s a common statement phrased in a common way, and coming to the ear of a Greek, it’ll be heard as a simple declarative sentence. The amplification of it with the substantives (Ἅγιος Ἰσχυρός Ἅγιος Ἀθάνατος) is also clear, following on that, saying, effectively “Holy is the Mighty One, Holy is the Immortal One.” Implied is that this God/Mighty One/Immortal One is our God, etc, simply by the fact of recognizing and declaring His attributes. These are not things one would say about someone else’s god! The implication is that no other god is holy, mighty, and immortal. Only ours is. Then comes an imprecation of our God, naturally following.

    But what I think we need to consider (and what I see) is not that the nominative somehow stands in for or acts as the vocative, but rather (in opposition to our more rigidly syntactic approach to syntax) that the mix of cases was simply something that was natural. The combination of the declarative three clauses and the imprecatory fourth clause is, however, a situation that we prefer to fit into a mode that fits our own idea of how it should work, thus the translations picking up on an implied vocative and making it explicit. The Greeks who used and use the prayer have no problem in extrapolating that the God being declared Holy and Mighty (or as Lash would have it, Strong, which just doesn’t ring well, though it is certainly more accurate; and it’s a hard word to chant!) and Immortal is precisely the one being addressed for mercy in the final clause. Locking it into a particular meaning (as translations tend to do) robs it of its poetic richness in Greek, of it’s working on two levels, one explicit and one implied. That’s something I think people should keep in mind.

    In any case it’s a very interesting and beautiful prayer.

  4. I’m going to be nitpicky about a particular grammatical point, and say that strictly speaking, the position of the definite article ὁ means that Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός is better rendered in English as “God is holy” than “Holy is God”. The nominative case in predicate position isn’t an ellipsis; the verb “to be” just isn’t necessary in that case. I’ll also say that while Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός can be clearly rendered as a standalone predicate sentence in Greek, the other two Ἅγιος attributions are a little less clearcut. I suppose you could render it as “God is holy: holy, strong, immortal” or something like that.

    I do have to disagree with you that “mighty” is easier to chant than “strong”. The diphthong in “mighty” and the unvoiced consonant of “t” actually make “mighty” a harder word to sing, particularly for an amateur choir. “Strong” has one open vowel, and the closing consonant is voiced, meaning the phonation never has to be interrupted while singing the word. I’m not sure I agree that “strong” doesn’t ring well, either — again, an open vowel, ending with a voiced consonant. From a standpoint of sound, there’s not any reason it shouldn’t ring well.

    In any event, as my first Greek teacher might put it, I think it’s an English problem and not a Greek problem. The Greek says Ἅγιος ἰσχυρός and not Ἅγιος κράτος. I’ve been asked, when I’ve sung “Holy Strong,” “Since when was God strong and not mighty?” The reverse is actually the better question.

    But all of that aside, I agree with you that the lovely thing about the Greek version is that all of these nuances are there and would have been understood by a native speaker, and that in translating it into English we have to make unfortunate choices about what to bring out and what to leave behind.

    Richard

  5. In the particular tune to which the Trisagion is chanted in the Greek Orthodox Church (which is what I should have specified), you’ll find that “mighty” is a much better fit than “strong”. The tune is the same as that used for the Greek, of course, and the English doesn’t truly fit either way, but it does certainly sound better with “mighty”. And “strong” does sound weird. What, like God has muscles?

    And yes, it’s definitely an English problem and not a Greek one. My problem with discussing such things is all of this hypergrammatical rigamarole that has been built up to describe this language that one can learn and understand and grasp the nuances of without any of that stuff. In fact, I think it’s more of a hindrance, imposing such a system prior to fluency. I’ve learned more Greek and learned it better by attending a Greek Orthodox parish than from any of the grammars and lexica, hands down. Highly recommended to all.

  6. Well, we shouldn’t be shoehorning English texts into melodies that were tightly tied to a Greek text in the first place — I’m a big fan of recomposing for English using Byzantine principles, rather than trying to make the English fit to a melody that was intended for a totally different set of word stresses — but the point is not unreasonably made that the syllable structure of the second line of the Trisagion mirrors that of the first line in Greek, Slavonic, and even Latin. That is, in Greek it’s six syllables per line, in Slavonic and Latin it’s four — and, “Holy God/Holy Strong” better reflects that structure than “Holy God/Holy Mighty.” Also, it’s been pointed out to me that English is the only language into which the Trisagion has been translated where “strong” isn’t the word used — for example, the Slavonic word Крѣ́пкїй, the Latin word fortis, the Syriac word hayelthono. English is really the outlier where that’s concerned.

    You’re not the first person to suggest that the word “strong” somehow conveys the image of some musclebound dude for God, but I’m always scratching my head when I hear that. That’s not the first image that comes leaping to mind when I hear that word — it’s actually the opposite for me. I hear “mighty” and I think “Mighty Mouse.” So, I dunno. I have people at my parish here in Bloomington, Indiana who only half-jokingly tell me that it’s not enough to do services in English, we need to do them in “Hoosier”, so maybe the idea that there can ever be a satisfactory English translation in the first place is misguided. A standard or “high” English (like there’s a “Hochdeutsch” for German) is perhaps an unworkable idea at its core.

    Richard

  7. Hoosier would be hilarious! I didn’t even know there was really a separate dialect. How ethnic!

    We’ve got a choir that sings the responses, probably over 90% of which is in Greek. (Our priests pretty organically switch from Greek to English and back again throughout the service, so it’s roughly half and half.) The Trisagion is one of the few instances where there’s some English slipped in (three times: Greek, English, Greek). I’m not sure who’s score we’re using, but both “mighty” is spread over five and “immortal” over six distinct notes, so, in our case, at least, “strong” would just be lost in there and sound too much like “straw”, especially as the most common translations in the Greek Archdiocese all use “mighty” there. So, it’s tradition, I suppose.

    Really, it would be spectacular were somone to put together a really good English translation (the Greek Archdiocese is working on one, but with no intentions of eliminating Greek–it’s our primary language) and put it to a really good score, perhaps something along the lines of Sir Hubert Parry, one of my faves. That’d get my vote hands down. Otherwise, this kind of Anglobyz chant is seldom done well. The Holy Transfiguration Monastery texts show real skill in translation and attention to the tones, and the recordings make it sound so easy, but I seldom hear them done so well as they do them. We really don’t often hear much attempted in English in our parish anyway. Orthros is always almost entirely in Greek. And that’s beautiful! Still, maybe more English would help for new visitors, in particular. Well, I could go on….

  8. I find both the HTM translations and their recordings a little less than ideal. We use them for weekday Vespers and I find the syntax and sentence structure to be, well, labored. I am, shall we say, less sold on the King James idiom as time goes on. Papa E. at St. Anthony’s Monastery can do a reasonable job of setting them, however. My preference tends to be Lash (although I concede he doesn’t have a full cycle of texts translated yet, which is a problem), and I think the Cappella Romana Divine Liturgy in English is about as good as Byzantine chant is gonna get in English.

    I’m not sure about high church Anglican Parry/Stanford/Byrd-style settings for Orthodox purposes. There was a time when I would have agreed wholeheartedly, but I’ve become uncertain at best that that’s really a fitting musical ethos for what we do. There’s a Greek Divine Liturgy that is very self-consciously Palestrina-ish (I’ve been to a Liturgy once where it was used and I cannot remember the name of the composer) and it just sounded overwrought. What I almost think would be better would be a folk idiom — maybe Appalachian music.

    My main thought along these lines over the years has become that there will not be an Authentic American Orthodox Music until we stop trying to fix the tradition that’s already there to be received. That said, I know that Byzantine chant in any form already presses too many “ick” buttons for some Westerners, and it won’t matter how well you do it in English — It Still Won’t Sound Right To Them. So, I dunno.

    Richard

  9. In regards to so-called “Orthodox” Music I am firmly of the opinion that there needs to be NEW American English Hynms and music. The Serbs, Russians, Albanians, Ukranians, Romanians, ets., have all put there own gloss on Orthodox Music, why not Americans?

    As much as I would love to stay Greek, I was born here and when asked I naturally say I’m American, not Greek-American, but American. English, not Greek, is my language. So the GOA and the other Orthodox jurisdictions are currently struggling to get proper translations done in English. Kevin rightly said that the GOA is currently working on translating the Divine Liturgy into an Official Engilsh Verison.

    The GOA, OCA and others really need to convene a meeting of translators to work this stuff out and do so not necessarily quickly, I mean its only been 2 1/2 centuries Orthodox Christians have been in the English-Speaking part of the world so why rush (Add sarcasim here), but expiditiously and properly. We can get the Greek right and have for the most part. So I am not worried about the skill and ability, just on “WHEN” will they do it.

    Take it from me I am translating the Septuagint into English and I keep asking myself, why me? Why not people much more qualified them me from the GOA, OCA, etc., I mean come on already get it done.

    Oh wait! I forgot about the Orthodox Study Bible. Ok forget everythibg I just said. (Add sarcasim here too).

    God Bless

    Peter

  10. Thanks for this post, I found it very illuminating. I had not previously realized that the Latin “Sanctus” shared a grammatical preculiarity with the Trisagion, namely the use of a nominative when a vocative seems called for:

    “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth, pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua. Hosanna in excelsis. Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Hosanna in excelsis.”

    Rather than, “Sancte, Sancte, Sancte, Domine Deus…”.

    Much of what you wrote could equally be applied to this Latin hymn. In the English translations, these nominatives are typically treated as if they were vocatives, probably because of the use of the second person at the end of the sentence: “heaven and earth of full of thy glory”. But I have always wondered whether that second person singular didn’t imply the existence of an implicit “Tu es” in the hymn: “[Thou art] the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, the God Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of thy glory…”

  11. You’re welcome, Rob!

    I think you’re exactly right about the understood “Tu es” there. It’s the same in the Greek of this very hymn. I suppose the Greek was earlier, but even if not, the nominative is there. In this case, though, we can tie it directly to the Biblical text of Isaiah 6.3, in which the Seraphim are crying out to one another in the presence of God. While in Isaiah the reference to God in the singing of Seraphim is third person (“his glory”), in the Greek and Latin it is second person. So, implied would be a change in the address as well, that it is directed immediately toward God. Very interesting!

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