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What is Oktoih?

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  • Written By: Diane Goettel
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2016
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Oktoih is the Slavic version of the English Book of Psalms. Oktoih was the first book that was printed in the Slavic Cyrillic language. It was originally printed as an incunabula in 1494. An incunabula is a very rare kind of printed material that was printed before 1501. The volume was printed in present-day Montenegro. At the time, however, the area was known as Zeta.

It is known that five books of Oktoih were printed by an educated ruler in Montenegro. The name of the printer was Durad IV Crnojevic' in the Printing House of Crnojevic'i. The book was printed in five volumes from the years 1490 to 1496. Currently, the Serbian Orthodox Church museum is home to the only two known remaining books of Oktoih. These two volumes of Oktoih were printed in 1493 and 1494.

The two surviving volumes are Oktoih Provoglasnik and Oktoih Petoglasnik. These titles mean “Oktoih, the first voice” and “Oktoih, the fifth voice” respectively. The book of the first voice was printed on January 17, 1494. A total of 108 copies of this book still exist tody. This book contains a total of 538 pages. The book of the second voice was printed in the same year. Only fragments of this second book still exist. The longest complete fragment is 37 pages long.

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One of the most incredibly things about Oktoih is how expertly crafted they were. Although they are of the oldest printed matter, they are full of incredibly beautiful design, some of which incorporates two colors. Many historians have noted the incredible quality of the books’ craftsmanship and design. Like many ancient texts, these documents have been scrutinized by many academics for specific information about the time in which they were developed and created. It is the survival of documents like the first and fifth voices of this hymn that we know about the printing capabilities in Montenegro during those years.

Although only five books are known to have been printed, it is understood that Oktoih was a book of religious hymns which were intended for eight singers, or eight “voices.” These hymns were intended for religious serviced in the Orthodox church. Although the original printed matter no longer exists, the content of them was not lost. It was transcribed many times over and widely distributed in other formats and languages. In fact, the content of Oktoih is still used in ecclesiastical cycles in Orthodox services today.

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