The psalis are hymns recited before the Odes and the Theotokia. The psalis could be sung with the Adam tune or with the Batos tune. There are several types of psalis. The first and most ancient type is the psalis “My Lord Jesus Christ” that could date prior to the eighth century. Some of the psalis are acrostic, meaning that the first letter of each stanza follows the alphabet. Some of these psalis end with the letter “O” (omega), the last letter in the Greek alphabet, while others end with “Ti,” the last letter of the Coptic alphabet. Two Coptic psalis use the reverse order of the Coptic alphabet. At times, an author of a psali would put his name at the beginning of each stanza.
The most ancient psalis are anonymous, but later the authors of the psalis would insert their names in the last stanza. Sarkis is one of those authors of the psalis. He was a cantor in the Coptic Church in Jerusalem in the 14th century, where he learned Greek. He is the author of the psali of the three young men in the fiery furnace, as well as the Greek paraphrases that are recited on Sunday evening during the month of Kiahk. In his psalis, Sarkis used many Greek words, and at times, whole verses are given in Greek. In the 15th century, the Bishop of Assiut, Manfalut, and Abu Tig wrote a psali for the Sunday Theotokia. He borrowed several phrases from the Theotokia as well as from other psalis. Nicodemus is another author of psalis from the 18th century. He is of Upper Egyptian origin but lived in Cairo and wrote psalis commemorating saints who lived in the city.
He visited the Monastery of al-Baramous, where he wrote a psali to Apollo and Abib. Nicodemus’ style is totally Coptic, but at times he stereotypes expressions and idioms. Another monk, named Solomon the Hegomenus, from the Monastery of the Syrians, wrote two psalis in the early 19th century in honor of St. John Kame, but they are full of linguistic mistakes.
The psalis in the Coptic Church originated prior to the ninth century and are chanted to the present day. The earliest manuscript is from the library of the Monastery of the Archangel Michael at Hamuli preserved in the collection of Pierpont Morgan Library, dated 897 a.d. The first publication was edited by Qommos Philotaos al-Maqari, Kitab al-absaliyat wal-Turuhat Watos wa Adam [The Book of Psalis and Turuhat Watos and Adam], in Cairo in 1913. It contains the psalis for the first part of the year according to the Coptic calendar. Bishop Matteos edited a reprint of this book, adding a second part. The reader will find also several psalis in the Book of the Psalmodia of the year and the Psalmodia of Kiahk. See also MUSIC, COPTIC.