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Choral Corner #27: What does "Eis polla eti, Despota" mean?

When a hierarch gives a blessing, the singers (or those standing about, if in a non-liturgical context such as a diocesan assembly or council meeting) respond by singing “Eis polla eti, Despota”, a Greek phrase which translates as “Many years to you, Master”. This tradition grew out of Byzantine secular society and was quickly incorporated into the Byzantine Cathedral (Imperial) Rite, where it was initially reserved for the emperor.

In a short lecture on the topic given in 2003 at St. Nicholas OCA Cathedral,

Archdn. Vselovod Borzakovsky speculated that the singing of “Many years” was soon expanded to include the entire royal family, and soon thereafter extended to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Today, this expanded form of “Many years” usually takes place at the end of the Divine Liturgy, and in the same language. When sung in response to a hierarch’s blessing, however, we acknowledge the Byzantine origins of the practice by retaining the original Greek.

Outside of the Hierarchal Divine Liturgy, “Eis polla” is customarily chanted simply, without repetition. At a Hierarchal Liturgy, however (as opposed to a service where the hierarch serves as a priest), we sing an extended version — still in Greek — that bears much greater resemblance to the English “Many years” we sing almost every week: Ton Despotin ke Arkhierea icon, Kirie filate, eis polla eti, Despota! (Preserve, O Lord, our master and hierarch. Many years to thee, Master!). This occurs twice near the beginning of the service.

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