Snakes, martyr medics and holy shrinks. The Holy Unmercenaries, Agioi Anargyroi

This summer I had a short holiday in SE Cyprus, near to where I’d lived as a child when my dad was stationed there during his army days. I can barely remember that time, apart from attending my first primary school, eating watermelon grown in our garden, and falling into a lime-pit…

I was intrigued by the name of a small church I came across: it was dedicated to ‘Agioi Anargyroi’. I knew from my postgrad research into medieval English hagiography that the first element was Greek for ‘saints’ or ‘holy men’, but had to look up ‘Anargyroi’.

Icon of Sampson the Hospitable

Icon of Sampson the Hospitable

It means ‘Holy Unmercenaries’.  The epithet is applied to a group of saints who performed charitable works, usually as Christian physicians treating the poor and vulnerable, but without taking any payment for their services.

First I’d like to consider the central structure and themes of these legends, which are all essentially similar. The polar opposition between the representatives of Christianity and paganism is clearly dramatised in these narratives, which are didactic and salutary rather than biographical. Their purpose is to edify the faithful who read or hear them (Latin ‘legenda’ means ‘to be read)’: these Acta (legends of the early Christian martyrs) and Lives of Saints would have initially been read aloud in monastery refectories or church services, and later in private devotion. The misguided forces of evil and paganism are seen defeated by the superior forces of Christianity, embodied in the saints. By suffering martyrdom (‘martyr’ is Greek for witness) the saints symbolically transcend persecution and suffering and are ‘crowned’ through their ultimate sacrifice (so-called ‘red martyrdom’; Jesus can be seen as the archetype). After the early centuries of persecution, when Christianity became the state religion, witness was enacted through acts of extreme asceticism and eremitism, as seen in the stories of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers, like my own research subject, Mary of Egypt) – known as ‘white martyrdom’.

The Unmercenaries’ legends follow a similar narrative pattern to the Acta: the protagonists set up unpaid charitable or medical practice in the face of local opposition by pagans, are arrested, taunted and tortured in an attempt to force them to apostatise. They heroically survive various gruesome methods of attempted execution, or divine intervention thwarts the attempts (the iconographical attribute of St Lawrence is a griddle, on which he was being roasted; in a rare example of dark hagiographical humour he told his tormentors that he needed turning over – he was done on one side…) often resulting in the conversion from paganism to Christianity by some of the impressed onlookers. Their acta are commemorated thereafter by the faithful on the anniversary (or ‘feast day’) not of their birth but of their death, which is seen as a rebirth .

This in a way is the underpinning dynamic of the narrative trajectory of heroes in much popular secular fiction, from Harry Potter to The Hobbit: overcoming daunting powers of darkness and tricky deception, trial and temptation to emerge transformed and delivered at the narrative’s end. It’s also the template for many traditional tales and fairy stories.

The Holy Unmercenaries include:

Zenaida (or Zenais) of Tarsus (in Cilicia, modern Turkey) and Philonella (feast day

Zenaida and Philonella

Zenaida and Philonella: Menologion of Basil II, c. 1000 AD

Oct. 11), sisters who were the first Christian physicians after the evangelist Luke, possibly related to the apostle Paul. They lived an ascetic life in a cave near Demetriada, Thessaly, a region known for its shrines to Asclepius (Aesculapius to the Romans), the Greek god of medicine, who like his father Apollo bore the epithet ‘Paean’ (healer), and was father of several daughters who were personifications of aspects of healing, such as Hygieia (hygiene) and Panacea (universal remedy). He was trained in the science of medicine by the learned and cultured centaur

Chiron and Achilles

Education of Achilles by Chiron: fresco from Herculaneum, Mus. Arch.-Naz., Naples

Chiron – a wonderful kourotrophic character (usually in early coroplastic iconography a nurturing/nursing maternal deity; Hathor is an Ancient Egyptian example  – the Madonna and child is the archetypal Christian equivalent), mentor and tutor to numerous Greek culture heroes such as Achilles and Jason, even Heracles — to whom (Chiron) I intend to return at a later date in a blogpost about the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs – the centauromachy! His image decorates the cap badge of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the labels of Rémy Martin cognac bottles: versatile creature.

The term ‘Theraputae’, a Latinised version of the Greek, signifies servant or worshipper of a god (one of the first was Hippocrates). Those who attended on Asclepius in a temple or other building dedicated in his name, known as an Asclepieion, transmitted the god’s healing powers through unusual rituals – anathema to Christians, who saw these as pagan superstition. People suffering from medical ailments would spend the night in wards in an Asclepieion where the non-venomous Aesculapian snakes roamed

Asclepius with his rod

Asclepius with his rod

(can snakes ‘roam’?) freely. The rod of Asclepius – a stick with such a snake entwined – is still the symbol of medicine. The caduceus has two snakes, and has become mistakenly associated since the nineteenth century with medicine. It was the symbol of Hermes or Mercury, and is therefore connected with eloquence, communication and commerce and, by extension, thieving and trickery; this image features in the cap badge of my brother’s old army regiment, the Royal Corps of Signals, to indicate their area of expertise.

Hermes with caduceus: cap badge of the Royal Corps of Signals

Hermes with caduceus: cap badge of the Royal Corps of Signals

Asclepieion inmates were encouraged to report to the theraputae the nature of their dreams, the interpretation of which formed the basis for the rituals of healing treatment. In some Asclepieions sacred dogs were deployed to lick the wounds of the sick. It’s not surprising that the Unmercenaries deprecated such rituals, although Freud would doubtless have no problem with the interpretation of dreams as a basis for therapy.

Physicians in this region charged extortionate fees in treating their rich patients. As in all of these legends of the Unmercenaries, the sisters upset the pagan rivals by administering their healing free of charge, and according to some versions of their story were stoned to death as a consequence. Zenaida went on, interestingly, to specialise in psychiatry, especially the treatment of clinical depression. A holy shrink…

Hermione: Menologion of Basil II

Hermione: Menologion of Basil II

Hermione, a Palestinian of the first century AD, feast day Sep. 4, founded a free clinic in Ephesus. (Hermione, like St Lawrence, was seared on a griddle; she was then boiled in oil in a cauldron, but felt no pain). Her legend has a variant of the topos often appended in martyr narratives: the two servants sent to behead her outside the city begin their task without giving her time to pray. Consequently their hands wither, rendering them incapable, they repent and convert to Christianity, and are happily martyred along with her.

I’ll skim over the next few in order to focus next time on Cosmas and Damian. The narrative elements outlined above are found in most of these legends:

Tryphon: Serbian orthodox icon

Tryphon: Serbian orthodox icon

Tryphon of Phrygia (modern Turkey, died c. 250, feast day 10 Nov.) is the patron saint, among other things, of gardeners and winegrowers, and he is invoked, like most of these Unmercenaries, to counteract the destructive forces of nature, either visibly in the form of pests like locusts and rodents, or invisibly as disease or clinical malady.

Pantaleon (or Panteleimon in the east: his name means ‘mercy for everyone’) is invoked against the usual unwelcome suspects (locusts, headaches, consumption,accidents – and loneliness), but

Panteleimon: icon from St Catherine's monastery

Panteleimon: icon from St Catherine’s monastery

he is also, strangely, patron of midwives and livestock; he’s said to be a helper of crying children. Useful to know. He’s one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, who became particularly popular during a Rhineland outbreak of Black Death in the fourteenth century. The sailors who mutinied on the Russian battleship Potemkin in 1905 renamed the vessel after him.

The cohort is completed by Thalalaeus (d. 284, another Cilician martyr) and the ‘thaumaturgoi anargyroi’ (wonderworker unmercenaries) Cyrus and John (d. 304 or

Cyrus and John: Menologion of Basil II

Cyrus and John: Menologion of Basil II

311); they are invoked by the faithful who have trouble sleeping. Sampson the Hospitable (died c. 530) was particularly venerated in Russia (and had a St Petersburg cathedral dedicated in his name) after Peter the Great defeated the Swedish in the Battle of Poltava on his feast day, June 27, 1709.

That leaves my favourites: Cosmas and Damian, about whom I shall post soon, in order to keep this piece down to manageable proportions.

As always, images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons