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Christianity and Mythology in the Greek Church

By the year 313, when the Edict of Milan marked a decisive rapprochement between the Roman Empire and the Church, the Church already had behind it two centuries of existence at the heart of a Hellenism that had itself been drawn into the flow of history during that time. To be sure that ancient religious system was still in place, under the benevolent aegis of the reigning power and elites and in the collective conservation of tradition. The place and times of rites persisted, with their developments, their mythic justifications punctuated by major or minor names from the classical pantheon. This picture, however, needs some important retouching. The first is the increasing attraction of sources of wisdom attributed to the East. These initiate one into paths to a happy personal and stellar immortality, founded on terrestrial asceticism, and are placed under the patronage of long adopted exotic gods and goddesses such as Isis, or, at least, gods renewed by exoticism such as the Egyptian Thoth-Hermes. Next, there is the flowering, on various levels, of symbolic speculations fueled by the Greek myths, portrayals of episodes invested with new hope (such as the labors of Hercules on sarcophagi, of the flight of the Dioscuri on the subterranean vault of the Porta Maggiore in Rome), as well as the extensive philosophical constructions of a Plotinus in the third century. In such a perspective, one is confronted less by the continuity of ancient mythology than by the fabrication of a contemporary mythology in the second and third centuries, produced by imperial Hellenism in response to the questions of the time. The ancient traditions and their symbolic interpretations are combined with borrowings of varying antiquity from cultures bearing little or none of the stamp of Hellenism from the Roman or Persian East. Among these cultures is Judaism in its diverse currents, which at that time was elaborating its theory of angels and defining the figure of Satan, itself undergoing influences from Persia. This was also the time when an obsession with demons, invisible and omnipresent assailants, was developing, an obsession that Christianity would claim for its own from the start. Finally, the myths taught in the Gnostic sect, of which some existed within Christianity itself, are perhaps the most striking monument to the powers of invention that were manifesting themselves at the time. These would have a medieval posterity of their own.

It was in this cultural context that the young Christian Church had to find its place. An Origen or a Clement of Alexandria were deeply imbued, on a philosophical level, with the very culture they found so easy to combat on a literally narrative or naively ritual level. This leads to an essential, secular ambiguity. The Byzantine elite, whether or not it was of the Church, would not abandon the philosophical approach, the rhetorical discipline and the literary baggage of ancient Hellenism: the teaching it received assured its cultural preservation, with greater or lesser success from one period to another, and its distinctive social value remained intact as a result. On the other hand, Hellenic Christianity as a whole integrated into its new faith those traditions whose function remained necessary, such as the annual cycle of festivals. As a result, the encounter of the Eastern Church with the complex mythology that existed around the year 313 is not an encounter between a scholarly culture and a popular culture, but rather the beginning of a thousand-year coexistence of cultural practices at different levels of society and different levels of consciousness, levels whose respective scope and depth would vary according to the efficacy of the official repression imposed upon the ancient religion.

We may pass quite quickly over the well-known dates and facts that serve as landmarks in the battle against the old gods carried out publicly in the fourth century by the Church, which was associated with the ruling power except during the short restoration under Julian (361-363). The repression that had begun with Constantine reached its official end with the general prohibition against the ancient religion proclaimed by Theodosius I in 392. Nevertheless, the reign of Justinian I (527-565) was still marked by the confiscation of sanctuary properties and the prohibition of teaching by pagans. Although Bishop Porphyry tore down the sanctuary of Marneion of Gaza at the end of the fourth century, the last internal missions, notably those in the mountains of Asia Minor, were established around 542, and te last matters involving personalties of the capital, including the patriarch himself, occurred around 570. The whole of the sixth century is still marred by skirmishes that erupt in the cities on the days on which the old festivals, the Vota and Bromalia, provoke excitement. The seventh century marks the real threshold, for in Byzantium this was the period of invasions perpetrated by peoples who were in every way non-Christian Arabs, Avars and Slavs. The result is a definitive identification between the Christian cause and that of the political Roman-ness of Hellenic culture. In 626, the Virgin appears on the walls of Constantinople under siege by the Avars and their troops, and saves it. The victory of Christian Hellenism is complete thenceforth and for all time.

The realm of Christian Hellenism would be immense if it were defined as that of churches born, directly or indirectly, of the Eastern Roman Empire, from Alexandria to Kiev and Moscow, from the Caucasus to the Balkans. The focus here is on those lands that remained, virtually, Hellenic in language and, at least predominantly Hellenic in culture for to venture further, especially into Slavic lands, would be to pursue the Christianization of too different a substratum. Delimited in this way, the history of Christian Hellenism presents three great continuities on three cultural levels: the elite, the Church and the Christian people.

Most manifest is the great secular culture of an elite in which service to the State is closely associated with service to the Church: both are taught at the same desks, and in a language whose mythological allusion remains a sign of recognition all the more appreciable for the fact that it is scholarly. To be sure, the formalism of an Agathias, in the century of Justinian, is not the scholarship of a Photius in the ninth century, nor the classical mastery of Psellus and his friends in the following period. However, literary references to mythology adorn even sacred speeches, even episcopal correspondence, and even a Life of a saint of the eleventh or twelfth centuries that likens the struggle of the missionary saint Nikon in the region of Sparta to the labors of Hercules. In the same way, though to a lesser degree, the iconographic setting of secular life draws on the ancient repertory. The Neoplatonist current flows without interruption from Plotinus, through Proclus and the Athenian Academy of the fifth century, to the philosophers of the capital of the eleventh century, and then beyond to the person of Georgius Gemistus Plethon as the empire dragged to its close. There was always a very fine line, right down to ideas which were suspect and subject to prosecution, as with John "The Grammarian" and of Leo the Philosopher in the ninth century, the difficulties experienced by Michael Psellus, the accusations he himself made against the patriarch Michael Cerularius, and the trials of John Italos in the eleventh century. Plumbing the depth of the temptations thus denounced is difficult. We must not forget that people like Psellus and, it would seem, Cerularius drew from ancient Hellenism more than merely the forms and ideas of that great cultural tradition. They were also nourished with its obscure and dangerous curiosities, and recovered from it the magical or divinatory practices that the end of antiquity had developed, especially against demons for demons continued to offer the same face to people of the eleventh century, arousing in them the same obsession.

The greatest source of information on the relations of the Greek church and its people with Hellenic mythology is to be found in the documents written by clerical or monastic scribes. Such information thus has a twofold application, to the practices of the Christian people but first and foremost to the clerics themselves, We find it in accounts of martyrs (increasingly flamboyant as time passes), in the Lives of the saints (which range from quite fictional works of spiritual edification to biography), in the observations and interdictions of Church councils, and in the commentaries of later canonists. Finally, liturgical books, like the collections of magic formulas that continue an earlier tradition, throw light on the marginal areas in which the Church accepts and absorbs the practices of its people, and in which Christianity imprints its own forms on ancient responses.

The most immutable grounding, and undoubtedly the oldest even with regard to the ancient religion, is that of the calendar, the annual cycle of festivals. The council held in 692 in Constantinople to extirpate the heretical contagion, whether Judaizing or Hellenic, still fully recognized the ancient rituals of the traditional festivals that mark the year: the Calends of January 1st, the Vota of the 6th, the Bromalia of November-December, and March 1st. The council condemns the wild dancing that drives women out into the streets, encourages costumes and masques, and is performed, according to the Fathers, in the name of the false gods of the Greeks (i.e., the pagans). The Fathers refrain from naming these gods, with one exception: their explicit prohibition from proclaiming the name of the "infamous Dionysus" while trampling grapes in the press. The hagiography of Steven the Younger, martyred in 764 for his defense of icons, gives his date of death as November 28th the day on which the iconoclastic emperor, by his own testimony hardened in his Hellenism (i.e., paganism), celebrates the Bromalia, proclaiming the names of Dionysus and Bromius, the fathers of seed grains and wine. Commenting on these canons in the twelfth century, Theodorus Balsamon asserts that the practices they condemn have not yet disappeared. Demetrius Chomatianus, archbishop of Achrida at the beginning of the thirteenth century, mentions the same festivities while also giving details about the Rousalia carnival, which Balsamon indicated as a practice found on the borders of the Empire. This immemorial cycle, in which the dead and living take part in the succession of the agrarian seasons, persists throughout the empire. Its culminating periods are the Twelve Days that separate Christmas from the Epiphany, the three weeks of Carnival (during which the pantomimes of the Kalogheroi reproduce an archaic Dionysian ritual of death and resurrection), Saint george's Day in April (a festival of shepherds, like the ancient Parilia), Pentecost in its connection with the dead, and the night of Saint John in June. The sites bear witness to the same permanence, especially the sanctuaries dedicated to Christian saints to whom people still come in search of healing, most often through the ancient ritual of spending the night there (incubation): the practice is attested to without a break through the medieval period.

This victorious perenniality was bought at the price of the almost total obliteration of the names of the gods themselves. At the beginning of the Greek Middle Ages, a lesser power, often malevolent, doomed to defeat in the end but uncontested in the present, as the lingering sign of the old gods in the Hellenic Christian consciousness (starting with that of the clergy itself). Yet the names of those gods were quickly repudiated, which is equally significant; the council of 692 passed over their names in silence in reference to their festivals, but also in the important and oft-renewed prohibition against forms of oath-taking and especially of divination. In the stories of martyrs composed after the triumph of the Church, the gods are named wrongly or driven into anonymity. These tales recount the victory of their hero over the Hellenic gods his persecutor has ordered him to worship, gods whose statues crumble to dust at the invocation of a Christian. The designation of the gods shows to what extent their memory has become blurred in the mind of the ordinary cleric. Sometimes a single god, such as Apollo, is designated as superior to all others. Sometimes they are degraded collectively as anonymous "demons." In the same vein, the Lives of the saints up to the sixth century relate militant episodes of destruction of local sanctuaries. Yet in the same period, and even later, they also envoke victories over demons of the in trees or lurk in isolated tombs or ancient ruins. The action taken by the Church thus represented the other side of a general belief that it shared, and with which it was imbued, at both a popular and a local level, even in its own ritual.

Christian Hellenism, then, did not forget the ancient religious strand but eclipsed the names of the gods under whose patronage he old rituals were performed and, by that act, dissolved the mythic accounts that explained those rituals.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest