Pagans, a Pope, & the Fall of Sauron: How We Got New Year’s Day (Dwight Longenecker, 2013)

NOTE: This abridged article is taken from

The earliest records of a New Year celebration are from Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. Then about the time of Father Abraham, the new year was heralded not in mid winter, but at the Spring equinox in mid-March. Following these already ancient customs, the first Roman calendar had ten months and also recognized March as the beginning of the year. This is why September, October, November and December have their names: from March they were the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months.

The second king of Rome, Numa Pontilius added January and February to the calender1 and in 153 BC we have the first record of January first being celebrated as New Years’ Day. The change was decreed for civil reasons (the consuls began their term at that time) but many people still recognized March as the start of the year.2


When Julius Caesar replaced the old lunar based calendar3 in 46 BC with a solar calendar,4 he also formally established the beginning of January as New Year’s Day. As the Empire fell and Europe transitioned to the new religion and rule of Christianity, the vestiges of pagan culture were purged. New Years’ Day at the beginning of January was officially eliminated at the Council of Tours5 in 597,  and across Europe the start of a new year was celebrated variously at Christmas, Easter or most significantly March 25.

The date of March 25 not only connected with the most ancient celebrations of the new year at the Spring equinox, but in the Christian calendar March 25 is the celebration of the Annunciation–the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son. The date of March 25 was determined by the Jewish belief that great men were conceived on the same day of the year as their death. Jesus Christ died on March 25, (so the theory goes) which means he was conceived on March 25. Incidentally this is also the origin for the traditional date of Christmas–nine months from March 25.

Medieval Christians understood that the beginning of the life of the Son of God in the Virgin Mary’s womb was the beginning of God’s work among mankind, the restoration and redemption of the world and the beginning of a new creation. It was therefore theologically fitting that March 25 or Ladyday (in honor of the Virgin Mary) should be celebrated as New Years’ Day. And so it was for a thousand years.

Then in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII tinkered with Julius Caesar’s ancient calendar. Because of imprecise calculations, the date of Easter had been drifting and the pope decided it needed fixing. Part of the reform was to re-establish January first as New Years’ Day. Seeing this as papal presumption, the Eastern Orthodox rejected the reform.6 Seeing this as not only papal presumption, but paganism restored, the Protestants also rejected the new Gregorian calendar. The British did not adopt the new calendar until 1752. The Greeks held out until 1923. The monks of Mt Athos still hold on to the Julian calendar.7

13 days

What about the fall of Sauron—the nemesis in The Lord of the Rings? J.R.R.Tolkien was very sly in the way he wove Christian symbolism into his epic myth. He records the dates of the great events in the cycle of the ring, and we discover that it is on March 25 that the ring of power is cast into the fires of Mount Doom, and so the destruction of Sauron heralds a new beginning for Middle Earth. Thus Tolkien gives a nod to the medieval Christian tradition that March 25 is the true New Years’ Day.

As you celebrate New Years’ Day remember that for one thousand years the welcoming of a new year was not just a calendar event, but a culturally religious event which linked the renewal of nature with the redemption of the world.


  1. By tradition, Numa promulgated a calendar reform that adjusted the solar and lunar years, introducing the months of January and February (Livy’s History of Rome, 1:19).
  2. The January Kalends came to be celebrated as the new year at some point after it became the day for the inaugurating new consuls in 153 BC. Romans had long dated their years by these consulships, rather than sequentially, and making the kalends of January start the new year aligned this dating.
  5. In AD 567, the Council of Tours formally abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on December 25 in honor of the birth of Jesus; March 1 in the old Roman style; March 25 in honor of Lady Day and the Feast of the Annunciation; and on the movable feast of Easter. These days were also astronomically and astrologically significant since, at the time of the Julian reform, March 25 had been understood as the spring equinox and December 25 as the winter solstice. Medieval calendars nonetheless often continued to display the months running from January to December, despite their readers reckoning the transition from one year to the next on a different day.
  7. Though all the monks on Mt. Athos follow the Old Calendar, there is a divide between those under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (new calendar) and those who adhere to other ecclesiastical jurisdictions not in communion with the churches that follow the new calendar.

The monk who left the Holy Mountain to destroy a statue of Neptune in the Ministry of Education with a sledgehammer! (1976)

Poseidon holding a trident. Corinthian plaque, 550-525 BC. From Penteskouphia.

NOTE: The following article is taken from “Time Machine,” July 23, 2015. Poseidon (Greek: Ποσειδῶν) was one of the twelve Olympian deities of the pantheon in Greek mythology. His main domain was the ocean, and he is called the “God of the Sea”. He is usually depicted as an older male with curly hair and beard. Poseidon was a major civic god of several cities: in Athens, he was second only to Athena in importance, while in Corinth and many cities of Magna Graecia he was the chief god of the polis.



An unprecedented incident of religious fanaticism made headlines in April 1976.

The protagonist was a monk from Mount Athos, who went to Athens in order to destroy the statue of Poseidon that stood at the entrance of the Ministry of Education.


It all started from an article by the Metropolitan of Florina, Augoustinos Kantiotes, “concerning the genitals of the pagan God and the shame of Athens,” which enraged the monk. In the article, Kantiotis mentioned—among other things—the plaster copy of the Poseidon statue that adorned the entrance to the Ministry of Education. The monk was furious and decided to act. He got a car and traveled from Athos to Athens to eliminate what he believed was the Ministry’s shame.

He invaded the building early in the morning and started hitting the statue with a large sledgehammer. The Ministry officials tried to stop him, but did not manage.

The monk was furiously beating Poseidon shouting: “Down with the idols.” 

The monk broke the statue’s hands and feet. Police officers arrived at the Ministry and arrested him before he could shatter the head. “It was a corruptive idol; disgusting and shameful. Those who set it up in the Ministry of Religious Affairs are not Christians,” the monk said to justify his action. Reporters gathered and submitted questions at the police station where he was led.

“What bothered you most about the Poseidon statue? Perhaps his nakedness? -That too. Why do they have the idol in the ministry? Do they want to restore paganism, as did Julian the Apostate? No, they will not succeed in that.”

The monk was not penitent. Rather, he said to himself: “Oh I did not have the honor to also break its head with the hammer.” The monk even threatened to return to Athens at night with two cases of dynamite and turn Poseidon to ash. According to his plan, he would break the glass and enter the Ministry with the wicks ready for firing. In an emergency, as stated, he would be killed together, like Samuel in Kougki.

The case was brought to justice. People who supported the monk had gathered in court. When the accused asked the chairman what he had to say about the matter, he replied calmly: “I accept. I broke the statue because it was the shame of the city and caused the indignation of Christians.” When they asked him if he sought exemption from the charges, he categorically said no. The court sentenced the monk to prison for eight months, but he appealed and was released.

St. Nicholas destroys idols, 13th c. fresco


Saint George topples the pagan idols (Decani, 14th c.)
Saint George topples the pagan idols; Decani, 14th Century
Saint Abraham of Rostov destroys a statue of pagan god Veles (11th century)
St. Abraham of Rostov destroys a statue of the pagan god Veles (11th century)



Saints Who Destroyed Religious Images (Icon Reader, 2012)

NOTE: The following article is taken from:

For completeness, if nothing else, this post addresses how religious images not depicting Christ and His Saints were regarded by the Church, using the testimony of her martyrs. Below, is a roughly chronological list of Saints known to have destroyed idols: i.e. the religious images and statues venerated by non-Christians, and considered holy by them. The list is by no means exhaustive.

King Hezekiah (+687 B.C.)

This king of Judah gives a scriptural precedent for the physical destruction of idols (2 Kings 18-20). King Hezekiah is glorified because, in order to restore true worship of God in his kingdom, he“removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made…”; and as Scripture explains, the righteous king did these things because “he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses.”
Commemorated Aug 28

King Hezekiah asherah-pole
King Hezekiah removed pagan shrines, smashed the sacred pillars, and knocked down the Asherah poles.

King Josiah (+609 B.C.)

In a similar way to King Hezekiah, Josiah also used his royal authority to “clean up” the faith of Israel, and destroyed idols and other objects related to the worship of Baal. Scripture describes his legacy thus: Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses. (2 Kings 23:25).
Josiah is included in the genealogy of the Evangelist Matthew and so is celebrated on the second Sunday before Christmas.

King Josiah Destroying the Idols of Baal. (Gustave Dore)


The Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother (1st Century A.D.)

As part of the Church’s tradition, it is believed that during Christ’s flight into Egypt, statues to the native gods crumbled and fell at His presence; this led to the conversion of some of the inhabitants. This story is enshrined in the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, which contains the following stanza addressed to Jesus:

By shining in Egypt the light of truth, Thou didst dispel the darkness of falsehood; for its idols fell, O Saviour, unable to endure Thy strength;

Flight into Egypt, showing the idols (white figures) falling from the city walls
Flight into Egypt, showing the idols (white figures) falling from the city walls

The Apostle Paul (+67 A.D.)

As recounted in the Book of Acts (19:11-20), the miracles of the Apostle Paul led many pagan sorcerers in Ephesus to convert to Christ, whereupon they publicly burned their spell-books. Scripture concludes this episode with the words: So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.

The destruction of Books of Magic at Ephesus..jpg

The Apostle Matthew (+ 1st century A.D.)

Some accounts of the Evangelist’s life state that in the place of his martyrdom the local ruler repented of executing the Saint and was baptized, taking the name Matthew. The newly-illumined king then proceeded to destroy the pagan idols in his temples.
Commemorated November 16 and June 30

The Apostle John (c. +97 A.D.)

Some accounts of the Life of John the Evangelist state that his exile to Patmos was a result of the Apostle causing pagan idols to fall through his prayers. In the Anglo-Saxon homilies from the 10th/11th centuries, there is an explicit mention of the Apostle John turning the idols to dust by the power of God (see here).
Commemorated September 26, May 8, and June 30

Twin-Martyrs Florus and Laurus (+ 2nd Century A.D.)

These Saints were stonemasons who settled in Ulpiana (in modern-day Kosovo) and were there employed by the Roman prefect in building a pagan temple. The Saints gave away all their salary to the poor. After the temple was complete, Ss Florus and Laurus gathered all the local Christians together, and then proceeded to smash all the statues of the temple before erecting a cross. The local authorities executed 300 Christians for this act, including the Twin-Saints, who were thrown down into a well.
Commemorated August 18.

Twin-Martyrs Florus and Laurus
Twin-Martyrs Florus and Laurus

Abercius of Hieropolis, Equal-to-the-Apostles (+ 167 A.D.)

After praying fervently for the conversion of the pagan-dominated Hierapolis, an angel of the Lord appeared to the bishop, and ordered him to destroy the pagan idols. Having done so, he presented himself to the pagans, who would have murdered him were it not for his miraculous healing of three demon-possessed youths.
Commemorated October 22.

St. Abercius striking the temple gods with his rod
St. Abercius striking the temple gods with his rod.

Martyr Julian of Dalmatia (+ 160 A.D.)

This youth was mercilessly tortured over a period of days for not offering sacrifice to the idols. During this time, the temple of Serapis and all the idols within it were destroyed. The pagans attributed the destruction to St Julian’s “magic” and demanded his immediate execution. Of the idols, Julian said boldly: “Listen, accursed ones, do not trust your gods, which you have made with your hands. Know, rather, the God Who out of nothing, has created Heaven and earth.”
Commemorated July 28.

Virgin-Martyr Paraskevi (+ 170 A.D.)

This famous Orthodox saint was arrested for converting many pagans to Christ. After many tortures she meekly let herself be led to the Temple of Apollo to offer sacrifice. However, upon entering the temple, St Paraskevi made the sign of the cross and the statues in the temple were destroyed. The furious pagans ensured the Saint was condemned to death.
Commemorated July 26.

St. Paraskevi Smashes the Idols of Apollon
St. Paraskevi smashes the idols of Apollo.

Holy Martyrs Speusippus, Eleusippus, Meleusippus and their grandmother Leonilla (+ 175 A.D.)

Triplets who lived in France, as youths they were converted to the Christian faith by their grandmother, Leonilla, and in their zeal destroyed the pagan idols in the area.
Commemorated January 16.

Saint Glykeria (+ 177 A.D.)

The daughter of a Roman official in Thrace, she was a secret Christian who was forced to attend a pagan high-festival at the largest temple in the area. During the service, overcome by having to witness the ministering to false idols, she toppled the statue of Jupiter and upbraided the pagans for their folly. For this she was executed. Read more>>
Commemorated May 13

Saint Charalampus (+202 A.D.)

When already 113 years old, St Charalampus was subjected to fierce tortures for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. Upon witnessing his steadfast faith, the daughter of the Emperor Severus – called Gallina – converted to the Christian faith and destroyed all her pagan idols.

St. Haralambos trampling on a demon

Great-Martyr Christina of Tyre (+ 3rd Century A.D.)

The daughter of a pagan governor, Christina was instructed in the faith by an angel of the Lord, and afterwards she destroyed all the idols in her room and threw them from the window. When her father discovered the truth he had her cruelly tortured before he died. The next governor finished the job and executed St Christina by the sword.
Commemorated July 24.

Great-Martyr Tatiana of Rome (+225)

Secretly Christian, Tatiana was ordained as a deaconess, captured by the pagan authorities, brought into the sanctuary of Apollo, and forced to offer sacrifice. Through her prayers, the earth shook, toppling the statue of Apollo and causing some of the pagan priests to be crushed. As the statue fell, witnesses saw a demon flee from behind it. St Tatiana was cruelly tortured and beheaded.
Commemorated January 12.

Martyr Polyeuctus of Melitene, in Armenia(+ 255 A.D.)

A Roman soldier who confessed faith in Christ during the persecution by Emperor Valerian (253-259). In zeal he went to the public square and tore up the edict of Decius which required everyone to worship idols. A few moments later, he met a procession carrying twelve idols through the streets of the city. St Polyeuctus dashed the idols to the ground and trampled them underfoot.
Commemorated January 9.


Martyr Agatha of Palermo (+251)

Was also cruelly tortured under the edict of the Emperor Decius (see above) for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. During interrogations she openly mocked the idols as “not gods but demons”, and also mocked the city prefect who worshiped them. Before her final execution an earthquake shook the city destroying a number of the pagan temples, attributed to the prayers of St Agatha.
Commemorated February 5

Martyr Heliconis of Thessalonica (+ 3rd Century A.D.)

Suffered under the governor Perinus for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. After many tortures the virgin-martyr appeared to relent and so was brought to the temple. After requesting to be alone in the temple, St Heliconis manfully tore down all the idols and smashed them to pieces. On returning, the enraged pagans demanded her execution.
Commemorated May 28

Martyr Sozon (“Saved”) of Cilicia (+ late 3rd century)

A pious young shepherd who was foretold his martyrdom in a dream. Awaking he headed for the city of Pompeiopolis, where a festival to a golden statue was taking place. Secretly he broke off the hand of the statue and distributed the fragments to the poor. When persecutions began in order to find the culprit, St Sozon immediately presented himself to the emperor Maximian, confessing: “I did this, so that you might see the lack of power of your god, which offered me no resistance. It is not a god, but a deaf and dumb idol. I wanted to smash it all into pieces, so that people would no longer worship the work of men’s hands.” St Sozon gave up his life under pitiless tortures.
Commemorated September 7

Saint Victor of Marseilles (+290 A.D.)

A Roman army officer in Marseilles, who publicly denounced the worship of idols. At the orders of Emperor Maximian he was brought before a statue of Jupiter in order to offer incense before it. Not only did St Victor refuse, he kicked the statue, causing it to fall and shatter. Crushed under a millstone.
Commemorated July 21.

Priest-Martyr Mocius of Amphipolis (+ 295 A.D.)

Overturned the altar during a pagan service to Dionysius (Bacchus) and exhorted those gathered to turn to Christ. Captured and forced to offer sacrifice to false gods, the Saint called upon the name of Jesus Christ and the idols shattered. He was finally brought to Byzantium and executed there.
Commemorated May 11

Sainted-bishop Sisinios and Artemon, Presbyter of Laodicea (+303)

When the Emperor Diocletian ordered a persecution of the Christians in the late 3rd century, St Artemon was already an elderly and long-serving priest of the Church. Saint Sisinios, knowing about the impending arrival in the Laodiceian district of the military-commander Patricius, went together with the priest Artemon into the pagan-temple of the goddess Artemis. There they smashed and burnt the idols. Although arrested and tortured, St Artemon’s life was miraculously spared so that he could go on preaching until 303 A.D., when he was finally seized by pagans and murdered.
Commemorated April 13.

Martyr Blaise of Sebaste (+ 316 A.D.)

An old man living a life of prayer in a secluded cave, the pagans did not forget his earlier life as a zealous bishop for the Christians. Dragging him back to the city to face trial, St Sebaste fearlessly mocked the idols (as shown in this detail from a Russian icon) for which he was savagely beaten and eventually executed along with pagan women who had been converted by his words and miracles.
Commemorated February 11

Great-Martyr Theodore Stratelates, or “the General” (+ 319 A.D.)

Was appointed military-commander in the city of Heraclea Pontica, during the time the emperor Licinius began a fierce persecution of Christians. Theodore himself invited Licinius to Heraclea, having promised to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods. He requested that all the gold and silver statues of the gods which they had in Heraclea be gathered up at his house. Theodore then smashed them into pieces which he then distributed to the poor. After tortures, St Theodore was beheaded

Theodore Strataletes smashes the idols and gives the pieces to the poor
Theodore Strataletes smashes the idols and gives the pieces to the poor

Commemorated February 8.

Martyr Acacius of Apamea (+ early 4th century)

Holy Martyr Acacius was brought to trial for his belief in Christ. Sent from city to city enduring tortures along the way, the Saint publicly caused the toppling of pagan idols through his prayers… twice!
Commemorated July 28.

Saint George the Victory-Bearer (+ 303 A.D.)

Among the many stories relating to this great Saint, is one relating to the smashing of idols (and shown in the picture at the very top of this post). After being offered great riches and power, the Holy George was brought to the temple of Apollo to give sacrifice. St George made the sign of the Cross approaching an idol and turned towards it, as though it were alive: “You wishest to receive from me sacrifice befitting God?” The demon inhabiting the idol cried out: “I am not God and none of those like me are God. The One-Only God is He Whom thou preachest. We are of those servant-angels of His, which became apostate, and in the grips of jealousy we do tempt people.” “How dare ye to be here, when hither have come I, the servant of the True God?” – asked the saint. Then was heard a crash and wailing, and the idols fell down and were shattered.
Commemorated April 23.

Saint George topples the pagan idols (Decani, 14th c.)
Saint George topples the pagan idols; Decani, 14th Century

Priestly-Martyr Erasmus of Ohrid (+ 303)

Born in Antioch and after living a life of prayer on Mt Lebanon, he was ordained bishop and sent into Ohrid to preach the Gospel. Through miracles and preaching he converted many pagans in Ohrid, and overturned their altars. Brought before Emperor Maximian, Erasmus was commanded to worship a copper statue of Zeus. St Erasmus through prayer caused a terrible-looking dragon to appear from behing the idol and, again through prayer, caused it to wither and die. Through this sign the demonic nature of idol-worship was revealed, and the power of Christ to overcome it, converting 20,000 pagan souls. St Erasmus was beaten and imprisoned, but later was released and died in peace.
Commemorated June 2 (read his life here)

Empress Helena (+ 329 A.D.)

The pious Christian mother of Constantine the Great, Empress Helena is best remembered in the Orthodox Church for finding the Holy Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the site of the finding she erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Less well-known perhaps, but no less significant, is that a temple to the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) needed to be flattened for the church to be built. St Helena probably also ordered the destruction of a temple to Zeus (Jupiter) in order to build a church dedicated to St. Cyrus and St. John.
Commemorated, with St Constantine, on May 21.

The empress gave orders to destroy the pagan temple and the statues in Jerusalem.
The empress gave orders to destroy the pagan temple and the statues in Jerusalem.

The finding of the true Cross is commemorated on September 14, and is one of the Great Feasts of the Church.

Saint Nino (or Nina), Enlightener of Georgia (+ 332)

A native of Cappadocia, the Saint Nino is called “Equal-to-the-Apostles” for her evangelism of Georgia in the 4th century. One time, St Nino was traveling to Mtskheta with a group of Georgian pilgrims on their way to venerate the god Armazi. There she watched with great sadness as the Georgian people trembled before the idols, and prayed:“O Lord, send down Thy mercy upon this nation …that all nations may glorify Thee alone, the One True God, through Thy Son, Jesus Christ.” A violent wind began to blow and hail fell from the sky, shattering the pagan statues.
Commemorated January 14.

Achillius of Larisa (+ 330 A.D.)

The earliest recorded bishop of Larisa, St Achillius was present at the first Ecumenical Council, where he defending the Orthodox faith. In his city, the miracle-working Achillius embodied well the fuller Orthodox understanding of “religious images”: he was renowned for both tearing down pagan temples and adorning the Christian churches with icons. Reposed peacefully.
Commemorated May 15.

Nicholas the Wonder-Worker of Myra (+ 345 A.D.)

One of the most celebrated Saints of the Orthodox Church worldwide, the wonderful feats of this miracle-working bishop abound. Among these acts is the destruction of all the temple of Diana and other pagan shrines in his city of Myra, after he was reinstated as bishop there during Constantine’s reign. Much of the demolition was carried out by his own hand, though he also had to struggle in prayer to overcome the demons that inhabited the temples. That this act of Nicholas is celebrated is evidenced in later church frescoes showing the event, and this account taken from his biography.
Commemorated December 6, May 9, and July 29.

St. Nicholas destroying the idols.

Martyr Mark, Bishop of Arethusa, in Syria (suffered 360 A.D.)

Under Constantine the Great St Mark, with the help of his deacon Cyril, had tore down a pagan temple and built a church in its place. When Julian the Apostate became emperor, idol-worship again grew, and the pagans wished to take revenge upon the now elderly bishop. Beaten, slashed with knives, his ears sliced off with linen, and with his hair pulled out, St Mark steadfastly refused to offer up any money in order to rebuild the pagan temple he had demolished. Even after the pagans kept lowering the price, St Mark refused to pay a single coin. Exhausted, and seeing that people were converted to Christ through his endurance, the torturers let St Mark go!
St Gregory the Theologian writes highly of St Mark, and uses his example in his writings against Julian the Apostate.
Commemorated March 29.

Saint Emilian of Thrace (+ 362 A.D.)

A servant of the governor of Dorostolon, in Thrace, during the reign of Julian the Apostate. When an imperial delegate arrived in Dorostolon to kill the Christians, he did not find a single one there. Delighted by this, he ordered a great feast in honour of the idols to take place the next day. That night, Emilian went throughout the town and smashed all the idols with a hammer. The next day, the outraged citizens grabbed a man, supposing him to be the culprit. Emilian said within himself: ‘If I conceal my action, what sort of use has it been? Shall I not stand before God as the slayer of an innocent man?’ He therefore confessed everything before the governor, explaining: ‘God and my soul commanded me to destroy those dead pillars that you call gods.’ The enraged governor ordered St Emilian to be flogged and burned.
Commemorated July 18.

Spyridon the Wonderworker of Tremithus, in Cyprus(+ 348 A.D.)

A shepherd who gave all his wealth to the poor, St Spyridon was made bishop of Tremithus after the death of his wife, under the reign of Constantine the Great. All the Lives of the saint speak of the amazing simplicity and the gift of wonder-working granted him by God. Through a word of the saint the dead were awakened, the elements of nature tamed, the idols smashed. At one point, a Council had been convened at Alexandria by the Patriarch to discuss what to do about the idols and pagan temples there. Through the prayers of the Fathers of the Council all the idols fell down except one, which was very much revered. It was revealed to the Patriarch in a vision that this idol had to be shattered by St Spyridon of Tremithus. Invited by the Council, the saint set sail on a ship, and at the moment the ship touched shore and the saint stepped out on land, the idol in Alexandria with all its offerings turned to dust, which then was reported to the Patriarch and all the bishops.
Commemorated December 12

Great-Martyr Irene of Thessalonica (+ 4th century A.D.)

Born in Persia, Irene was the daughter of the pagan king Licinius, and her parents named her Penelope. Locked in a tower to keep her away from Christian influence, Penelope received instruction from her tutor, Apellian, who was secretly Christian. Baptized by a priest named Timothy, she took the name Irene (meaning “peace”), and then smashed all her father’s idols, urging her parents to be Christians.
Commemorated May 5.

Emperor Theodosius the Great (+ 395 A.D.)

As ruler of the western and eastern Roman Empires, St Theodosius was zealous in upholding the Orthodox confession of the Holy Trinity, and is honored with the epitaph: “Right-Believing”. He ordered the destruction of many pagan temples, outlawed the old Olympic Games, and successfully defeated numerous armed, pagan rebellions, which sought to re-establish worship of the pagan gods.
Commemorated January 17.

Julius the Presbyter and Julian the Deacon (+ 5th Century A.D.)

Natives of Myrmidonia, these two brothers visited many outlying lands of the Byzantine Empire in order to win converts to Christ. To this end, they obtained permission from the Emperor Theodosius the Younger (+450) to build churches over the sites of dismantled pagan shrines. The grave of St Julius, which lay within a church built by Julius himself, dedicated to the Twelve Holy Apostles, became a site of healing.
Commemorated June 21.

Saint Porphyry of Gaza, Bishop and Confessor (+ 420 A.D.)

After many years as a monk, St Porphyry was elected Bishop of Gaza, a city where the Christian population numbered less than three-hundred, and idolatry was wide-spread. Discriminated against by the pagans, St Porphyry went to Constantinople and gained the support of Emperor Arcadius and the Archbishop, St John Chrysostom, to close down the idolatrous temples. Officials sent to close down the pagan shrines of Gaza were often bribed, and so after much labouring, St Porphyry undertook the destruction of the temples personally with his flock of Christians. Many temples were destroyed, including those dedicated to Aphrodite, Hecate, the Sun, Apollo, Kore (Persephone), Tychaion, the shrine of a hero, and the Marneion, dedicated to Zeus. In their place, Christian churches were erected. The pagan idols were burnt, and the marble from their temples were used to pave the way to the new Christian churches, so that all Christians on their way to worship would trample upon the remains of idolatry. These acts, along with much preaching, prayer, and humiliations suffered by St Porphyry, won the entire city of Gaza over to the Christian faith.
The Life of St Porphyry, recounting his struggles against the pagans, was written by the deacon Mark.
Commemorated February 26.

Saint Gregory the Great (+ 604 A.D.)

A Holy Father among the Saints, St Gregory is also known for sending, as the Bishop of Rome, the missionary St. Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the English in the late 6th century. In a letter to Abbot Melitus, St Gregory writes:

Tell [Bishop Augustine] that I have decided after long deliberation about the English people, namely that the idol temples of that race should not be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Let blessed water be prepared, and sprinkled in these temples, and altars constructed, and relics deposited. For if these temples are well built, it is essential that they should be transferred from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.

We can be confident that St Augustine of Canterbury carried out faithfully the orders of St Gregory, and can also be counted among the list of those Saints which have destroyed pagan religious artifacts.

In another letter to Aethelbert, the first Christian king of England, St Gregory gives further exhortations to destroy the idols:

Almighty God raises up certain good men to be rulers over nations in order that he may by their means bestow the gift of righteousness upon all those over whom they are set… So, my most illustrious son, watch carefully over the grace you have received from God and hasten to extend the Christian faith among the people subject to you. Increase your zeal for their conversion; suppress the worship of idols; overthrow their buildings and shrines…

It should be noted that King Aethelbert is also revered by the Orthodox Church, even if he is not outrightly proclaimed as a Saint. Both these letters are found in full in St Bede’sEcclesiastical History of the English people (Book I).
St Gregory commemorated March 12 and September 3.
St Augustine commemorated May 26.

Edwin of Northumbria, King and Martyr (+ 633 A.D.)

A thoughtful king who took many years before finally accepting baptism by the hand of St Paulinius, despite his wife already being a pious Christian. After much deliberation, it was a miracle which finally convinced the king of Christ’s power, and upon making the decision to convert, his loyal lords and pagan priests were convinced too by his firmness of confession. The first thing St Edwin did, before even being baptized, was to order the “profaning” (according to Bede’s history) of the pagan altars and shrines. The chief-priest, Coffi, volunteered to do this, riding on horseback to the main pagan temple and throwing a spear at the altar, before tearing the whole edifice down (this happened not far from York, UK).
Commemorated October 12.

Saint Romanus (also Godard) of Rouen (+ 640 A.D.)

A sainted bishop of Rouen, before his consecration the faithful of the city asked Romanus to do something about the Temple of Venus in the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre. St Romanus entered the temple and tore the dedication from the altar, causing the temple to miraculously crumble and collapse.
Commemorated October 23.

Saint Boniface (+ 754 A.D.)

Born Wynfrith in Devonshire, England, St Boniface went on to spread the Gospel throughout the German lands. One of his most famous evangelic feats was the felling by his own hand of a sacred Oak dedicated to Thor, using the timber to build a chapel on the site where today stands the cathedral of Fritzlar.
Commemorated June 5.

Saint Michael, first Metropolitan of Kiev (+ 992 A.D.)

Possibly a native of Syria, St Michael was sent by St Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople to be the first Metropolitan (head-Bishop) of Kiev, after that nation’s ruler, Prince Vladimir, accepted baptism. Saint Michael spent the rest of his days tirelessly traveling the Kievan lands preaching, shepherding the faithful, establishing churches, and overturning the pagan shrines.
Commemorated September 30 and July 15.

Holy Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles (+ 1015 A.D.)

Previously a war-monger, fanatic idol-worshiper, and polygamist, the change in Prince Vladimir after his baptism in the year 988 cannot be more dramatic. Immediately after his baptism, the newly-illumined ruler also had his twelve sons baptized, along with many boyars. Prince Vladimir then went on to have the wooden idols he had erected, torn down and hacked to pieces, with a statue of the chief pagan God, Perun, cast into the River Dnieper. These acts of Prince Vladimir had such far-reaching consequences that they later became known as the Baptism of Rus’. Prince Vladimir spent the rest of his twenty-eight years establishing churches and Christian schools throughout his lands, supported in his efforts by Sainted Metropolitan Michael (see above).
Commemorated July 15, also the day designated to celebrate the Baptism of Rus.

Saint Abraham of Rostov (+ 1077 A.D.)

A pagan convert who became a monk and dwelt in the areas around Rostov, in Russia. St. Abraham prayed fervently before an icon of Christ that he may be able to topple the idol of the local’s chief god: Veles. In answer to his prayers, the Apostle John appeared to the monk, and gave him a staff. With this, St. Abraham went to the shrine of Veles and toppled the statue of him, smashing it into pieces. Abraham founded the monastery of the Theophany in Rostov, as well two parish churches.
Commemorated October 29.

L: St. Abraham receives a staff from the Apostle John R: St Abraham uses it to destroy the idol of Veles


Some of the saints listed above are chiefly remembered for their fearless acts of destroying idols, though the majority are not. However, all the saints listed above are, among their other works, openly celebrated by the Church for their destruction of non-Christian temples, shrines, and statues.

What to take from this all? As with other miraculous deeds of the Saints, the destruction of the idols can be understood symbolically as the victory of right-believing Christians over all other idols, whether they be demons pretending to be gods or man-made constructs that lead our minds from the contemplation of God. This can be done without denying the historical fact of the Church’s Saints physically destroying non-Christian religious images. Of course, when considering other deeds of the Saints, we try to use their acts as an example for our own conduct. In the case of idol-smashing, most Christians today would shy away from literally following the Saints’ example, even though non-Christian idols abound. Perhaps this is wise, though the courage of these idol-smashing Saints is certainly something worthy of imitation. In striving for this, we can pray to Christ that we may emulate the martyr’s strength:

Thy Martyr, O Lord, in his courageous contest for Thee
Received the prize of the crowns of incorruption
And life from Thee, our immortal God.
For since he possessed Thy strength, he cast down the tyrants
And wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption.
O Christ God, by his prayers, save our souls,
Since Thou art merciful.

(General Apolytikion to a Martyr)

Saint Abraham of Rostov destroys a statue of pagan god Veles (11th century)
Saint Abraham of Rostov destroys a statue of pagan god Veles (11th century)

The Basil-Cake of the Greek New Year (Margaret M. Hasluck, 1927)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jun. 30, 1927), pp. 143-177. A link to the full 36 page pdf. is contained at the end of this article.

Vasilopita (Agia Skepi, 2016)
Vasilopita from Holy Protection Monastery (Whitehaven, PA)

As unfailingly as turkey and plum pudding are eaten in England at Christmas, a certain cake is eaten at the New Year over practically the whole Greek area. Round, flat, and thin, savoury oftener than sweet, it is a glorified edition of the pasties which form the staple food of many poor Greeks. The reason for its figuring on New Year menus is commonly said to be the commemoration of St. Basil, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia who is celebrated by the Greek church on the first of January.1 Accordingly its usual name, basilopitta (βασιλόπιτα), is interpreted as meaning cake of Basil


When ready, the cake is cut up in the presence of the whole family. The cutter is always the most important person present, the (male) head of the household, the eldest male present, or, failing them, the house-mistress… Immediately before inserting the knife, the divider invariably makes the sign of the cross with the knife across the cake… The cutting follows a traditional course. A round is first cut out in the centre, and from the edges of this round lines are drawn like the spokes of a wheel to the circumference. When the whole cake has been thus separated into segments, the portions are allotted. The round from the centre, considered the most important, is generally set aside for St. Basil. Since the ceremony is in his honour, this provision is only fitting. But sometimes, by an apparent anomaly, the centre piece is reserved for the house or for the Virgin Mary. In such a case St. Basil has to content himself with the first of the side pieces. But there again he may be ignored in favour of Christ or some saint other than himself who happens to be a favourite with the family.” He may even be ignored altogether. That is to say, at the ceremony said to commemorate him he may play only a secondary part, or even no part at all. The saints having received their dues, pieces are generally set aside in agricultural households for the cattle, sheep, goats, and even the inanimate property of the family. Then the remaining pieces are distributed, as in other households, among the members of the family, whether present or not at the New Year gathering. This distribution may be mechanical, that is, according to age and sex, the old taking precedence over the young and the male over the female. [NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the sequence of pieces cut is usually Christ first, then Panagia, the Saint of the monastery and Geronda Ephraim. Afterwards, pieces are cut for the monastics. If the superior decides to cut the Vasilopita with the laymen who are there, then they come after the monastics in the following order: children first, then the men and the women, as usual, are always last]…


On New Year’s Day Greek families cut the Vasilopita to bless the home and to bring good fortune for the New Year. The head of the household uses a knife to etch a Cross over the face of the cake.
On New Year’s Day Greek families cut the Vasilopita to bless the home and to bring good fortune for the New Year. The head of the household uses a knife to etch a Cross over the face of the cake.

All the mystification which surrounds the cake is to heighten the excitement of finding a coin which it contains. This coin brings good luck. Thus, if the finder is the head of the house, he will prosper in all his undertakings during the coming year. If unmarried, he or she will be married or at least betrothed before the year is out. If a child, he or she will have a happy year. If one of the saints other than Basil, the family as a whole will enjoy prosperity. If St. Basil himself, the general prosperity will reach the highest possible pitch. [NOTE: In traditional Orthodox households, finding the coin is said to be a blessing. In more secular households, the coin is said to bring good luck. The baking of sacred cakes into which objects associated with luck or abundance were placed (including silver coins) also took place on other holidays, including those that were originally pagan feast days].

The coin is generally any small silver coin that is in ordinary currency… In normal practice the nature of the hidden coin is without intrinsic significance, for it is merely an instrument by which the luck of the coming year may be divined…

Once the coin has been found in the basilopitta, the saints’ pieces of cake, whether they contained the coin or not, and the coin itself have to be disposed of. The children, who are seldom lacking in a Greek household, attend to the former, eating them up after their own portions. The coin meets various fates. It may be worn by the finder as a charm, or it may be hung up beside the house-eikons for the general good. In Trebizond a girl finder puts it under her pillow, and hopes it will show her future husband in a dream. In agricultural villages it is carefully preserved until seedtime. Then it is sewn on the first sack of seed-corn which is carried out to the fields. It protects the growing crops against the evil eye, and it ensures a bountiful harvest. Very rarely a finder is sceptical enough to spend the coin like any other and to throw its luck away…

Vasilopita Coin with Collectors Case & Recipe.
Vasilopita Coin with Collectors Case & Recipe.


Let us ask why St. Basil should be commemorated at all with a cake. No reason can be given off-hand. His life is amply, if not always correctly, documented, but no document mentions the basilopitta. Oral tradition is not much more helpful. The most pertinacious inquiries from Greek peasants elicit only the foolish answer, “it is our custom” (sc. to eat the cake). Such poverty of invention is noteworthy, for popular legend is usually only too ready to explain a saint’s attributes, material and otherwise, by some real or alleged incident in his life, and from popular circulation the explanation normally finds its way into hagiologies. But of St. Basil and his cake we can find no explanatory legend,-until we go to Constantinople.

In the history of Cappadocia, St. Basil’s own country, his cake is unknown; i.e. the Vasilopita tradition is not observed there.

There Mr. Ph. Koukoules collected from schoolboys a folktale1 which appears to contain the information we seek. It may be summarised as follows:

“At the time when St.. Basil was bishop of Caesarea, a particularly avaricious and oppressive governor ruled over that province. On one occasion this governor intimated a desire to visit the town of Caesarea. At the news a great trembling fell on the people, but St. Basil bade them collect all their valuables and go out and present them to the governor when he arrived. They obeyed the saint, and the governor, melted by the apparent warmth and splendour of his welcome, refused to accept any of the presents and went on his way. As soon as he was gone, St. Basil found himself in a difficulty about returning the presents to their rightful owners. He therefore devised the stratagem of having a number of cakes made in which the various articles were concealed. The cakes were distributed the following Sunday, and by a miracle each man received the cake which contained his property. In commemoration of St. Basil’s device Christians insert a coin in the cake which they eat on St. Basil’s day.” At first sight this tale appears to explain the basilopitta most satisfactorily. Why, then, is it not more widely known ? Why is it not in popular currency in Greece as distinct from Constantinople? The answer to such questions may be deduced from a story told in the Life of St. Basil by the pseudo-Amphilochios. In brief summary the relevant passage is as follows : “Once upon a time the Emperor Julian passed through Caesarea on his way to the Persian wars. Meeting St. Basil, he informed him that he meant on his return to raze the town to the ground because of its attacks on paganism. During his absence at the wars, St. Basil, hoping that rich gifts might turn him from his cruel purpose, collected money and other valuables from the citizens to give him on his return. But Julian died before he could come back to carry out his threat. Then St. Basil, who had carefully labelled each article as received with its owner’s name, wished to give the citizens back their property. But in gratitude for their deliverance they refused to take it back and bestowed it on the church.” 2

Chapel Of Saint Basil, Cappadocia Turkey

It is clear at once that a connection exists between the folktale from Constantinople and the story from the Life of St. Basil. The nature of the connection is made clear both by chronology and style. The folktale must be new. Otherwise it would have been found outside Constantinople. The story is of uncertain age. It does not occur in the version which Ursus (858-67 A.D.) 3 made of the pseudo-Amphilochian Life, the omission being excusable enough since the alleged meeting between Julian and St. Basil can hardly have taken place.4 The editions of the Life, however, which give the story, are several centuries old.5 Such chronological considerations bring us to the conclusion that the story, being comparatively old, is the parent of the folktale, which is recent. This putative relationship accords with the way in which the theme is handled in the two versions. In the Life, St. Basil is business-like and Julian’s name is recorded. In the folktale, St. Basil has to call a miracle to his aid and Julian has sunk to a nameless “governor.” Such a difference in crispness is thoroughly characteristic of the literary as opposed to the popular rendering of a subject,6 and confirms our conclusion that the folktale is a literary bastard. Its consequent elimination leaves us without any literary .or genuinely popular explanation of St. Basil’s association with the lucky basilopitta, as our analysis of early written evidence destroyed the usual explanation of his association with 1st January, the date of the basilopitta.

Now the tale collected by Koukoules mentions the basilopitta, whereas the other tale [the Inje Su tale] does not do so. The Greeks from whom Koukoules collected his version were presumably interested in the basilopitta and correspondingly ready in true folklore fashion to believe, or to invent, a plausible aetiological legend which explained its peculiarity. On the other hand, the “avocat” of Inje Su was not interested in the basilopitta. For in Cappadocia, St. Basil’s own country, his cake is unknown.

My authority for making such a statement is the present bishop of Kastoria. A native of Silleh in Cappadocia, he states that at the New Year Cappadocians eat, not the basilopitta, but “forty sweets,”7 commemorating, not St. Basil, but the Circumcision of Christ. The principle involved, he pointed out, reappears in the feasting by which a mortal’s circumcision is accompanied. The mystic importance in the Near East of the number “forty ” is a commonplace.”8 It is not only with regard to the basilopitta, however, that the Cappadocians are unorthodox in their treatment of St. Basil. As is well known, Greeks usually observe Ist January as his festival and sing carols9 in his honour. In Cappadocia priests chant his office on 1st January, but the people postpone his festival till Easter Saturday and Pentecost.10 On those days the whole population of Caesarea, for instance, goes out to Mount St. Basil, the Ali Dagh11 of the Turks. There they honour the saint by indulging in the favourite Greek pastime of roasting and eating lambs in the open air. To this mountain, says Levides,12 quoting the pseudo-Amphilochios, St. Basil retired to entreat God to soften Julian’s heart and avert his threat to Caesarea….

St. Basil the Great gives three loaves to the Emperor Julian the Apostate. Picture bible. France, circa 1200.
St. Basil the Great gives three loaves to the Emperor Julian the Apostate. Picture bible. France, ca 1200.

Our examination of St. Basil’s standing in his native country, Cappadocia, thus shows that, so far as the basilopitta, carols, and festival are concerned, St. Basil is not commemorated there as elsewhere in the Greek world. Since Cappadocian traditions can hardly fail to be nearer to the facts, this result suggests that the methods of commemorating the saint in the outside Greek world have little or no historical basis. In that world, too, it will be remembered, divination of the year’s luck rather than commemoration of the saint seemed the main purpose of the basilopitta. No genuinely popular tradition exists there to connect the saint with the cake. His festival seemed to have been ordained for 1st January, the day consecrated to the basilopitta, for extraneous reasons. We are therefore bound to wonder whether he has any real connection with the cake.


Our wonder increases when we consider the practice of the daughter churches of the Greek rite. They all celebrate St. Basil on 1st January, and eat a New Year cake which contains a lucky coin, but they do not associate the saint with their cakes.


In Little Russia a pirog (pastry) is baked on New Year’s Eve and contains a lucky coin. The pirog is cut into pieces at dawn on New Year’s Day, and divided among members of the family. He who finds the coin is given presents by the others, for it is thought that he is lucky and will bring luck to the others. But St. Basil is not associated with the ceremony.


Similarly, the Romanians  eat a special cake on New Year’s Eve and draw lots to determine the relative degree of prosperity which each person may expect during the year, but they make no reference to St. Basil.


The Serbs bake a cake called chesnitza.13 It contains a lucky coin, but is eaten on Christmas Day and is not associated with St. Basil.

The česnica was used in folk magic for divining or influencing the amount of crops.


Albanians also, whether Christian or Mohammedan, eat a cake with a lucky coin at the New Year, but they call it simply pitta (cake, pastry) and do not refer it to the saint.14


Bulgarian practice varies. Within the kingdom, a cake containing a lucky coin is eaten at either Christmas or the New Year. On the whole, Christmas is the date preferred. The cake is called pogatcha (flat cake) or Novogodichna banitza (New Year’s cake), and no allusion is made to St. Basil. Bulgars from East Macedonia have told me that they eat two cakes, one on Christmas Eve and the other at the New Year. Both contain lucky coins. The Christmas cake is called para bogatcha14  (coin cake), and the other Svity Vasileva bogatcha (St. Basil’s cake, basilopitta). Bearing in mind Mrs. Garrett’s information from the kingdom of Bulgaria, one may perhaps infer that the para bogatcha is the real cake of Macedonian Bulgars, and that their basilopitta has been borrowed from their Greek neighbours. My informants were patriarchists, i.e. adherents of the Greek Patriarch rather than the Bulgarian Exarch, and as such would be particularly sympathetic towards Greek customs.

But, even if we accept the basilopitta .of Macedonian Bulgars as a genuinely Bulgarian, and not a borrowed, institution, we find the evidence overwhelming that by the daughter churches of the Greek rite St. Basil is not associated with the New Year cake. Stated otherwise, over a large area bordering on Greece eating a lucky New Year cake similar to the basilopitta is an established custom which seems entirely independent of saints. Such a conclusion increases the probability that St. Basil has been connected with the basilopitta of Greece for artificial reasons.

Even in Greece saint and cake are not inseparable. In the Ionian Islands the cake is called, not basilopitta, but κουλούρα της γωνίας (corner ring-cake) or χριστόπιτα (Christcake), and it is eaten, not on New Year’s Day, but on Christmas Eve.15 No reference whatsoever is made to St. Basil during the ceremony of partaking. In view, then, of all these difficulties, is not the Basil of the basilopitta different from the saint of Caesarea? And if he is different, who and what is he?

St. Columba's Bannock
St. Columba’s Bannock: On St. Columba’s feast day in Scotland, an oaten cake is baked in his honor, and a coin is placed in the dough. The child that finds the coin receives the honor of being put in charge of the new lambs for the next twelve months, an office very popular with small shepherds.


A hint of the answer to these questions is given by the word basilopitta. On the analogy of such words as basilopaidi, basilopoulo, and basilopoula, which occur frequently in Greek folktales with the respective meanings of ” child of the king ” (or ” kings “), ” son of the king ” (or ” kings “), ” daughter of the king ” (or ” kings “), basilopitta may be translated ” cake of the king ” (or ” kings “) as correctly as ” cake of Basil.” …

Thus the custom of selecting a King of the New Year revels seems to have extended right across Europe from Greece to France and England. The cakes of Albania, Bulgaria, and Serbia are referable perhaps to the same custom, but the evidence available at this stage is not conclusive.

3 kings cake
Three Kings Cake


Who, then, is this “king” of the basilopitta? …

One feature of the Saturnalia was that men drew for a king with a bean, and held high revelry under his leadership for the duration of the festivities…

In Greece the festival was identified “by the unanimous voice of antiquity” with the festival of Kronos,16 the ancient god whose right to the title of ” king ” was pre-eminent.17 To Pindar he was ” ruler.”18 To Julian he was “King Kronos” as distinguished from “Father Zeus.”19 At Athens his consort Rhea was “Queen.”20 His priests at Olympia were called “kings.”21 Each year he resumed his ancient royalty throughout Greece for a period of seven days.22 In the reign of Maximian and Diocletian, less than a hundred years before St. Basil’s time,23 Roman soldiers stationed on the Danube kept the “festival of Kronos” by drawing lots for a king. When he had been selected, they clothed him “in royal attire” to represent Kronos-Saturn, feasted and honoured him as a king for thirty days, and then forced him to commit suicide.24 From such evidence we conclude that the Saturnalia and its “kings” were familiar to the ancestors of the Greeks who eat the basilopitta today.

Summing up, therefore, we note that St. Basil’s connection with the basilopitta does not bear analysis, that the resemblances between the basilopitta and the gâteau des Rois are too numerous to be merely fortuitous, that the the gâteau des Rois is a characteristic feature of the popular celebration of the Twelve Days, that the Twelve Days are identified by modern scholars with the Saturnalia, and that the Saturnalia were anciently equated to the Kronia. Consequently, with some confidence we identify the Basil of the basilopitta with the basileus, the “king” of the Saturnalia. To go even farther and identify him with King Kronos himself is tempting, but our knowledge of that shadow-king is too slight for us to venture so far.

Even against the identification with the “king” of the Saturnalia something may be said. It is unfortunate, for instance, that no early record either of the basileus or of the basilopitta exists, though the widespread observance of the ceremony of eating the basilopitta indicates its ancient origin…

Rosca de reyes
In keeping with the country’s Catholic traditions, Mexican sweet bread (Rosca de Reyes) is baked with a coin or charm hidden in the dough. When the bread is served, whoever gets the slice with the coin or charm is said to be blessed with good luck for the New Year.


1 Published by Koukoules in the periodical Ξενοφάνης, vol. iv., pp. 155 et seq., and republished by Mr. M. D. Volonakis in his  Ιστορία του εορτασμού της πρώτης του έτους, (Athens, 1917), pp. 26-7. I am indebted to Mr. Volonakis for both these references.

2 Migne, Patrologiae Graecae, vol. xxix., pp. cccii-iv. : W. R. Halliday in (Liverpool) Annals of Archaeology, vol. vii., pp. 91-3.

3 Cf. above, p. 150.

4 Migne, loc. cit., p. ccciii. n. 40; Halliday, loc. cit., p. 97.

5 Migne, loc. cit., pp. cccii-iii.

6 See F. W. Hasluck, Letters on Religion and Folklore, p. 215.

7  Σαράντα Γλυκίσματα

8 F. W. Hasluck, Christianity and Islam, pp. 391-402.

They have been collected and exhaustively discussed by Professor Halliday in the Annual of the British School at Athens, vol. xx. (1913-4), pp. 32-58.

10 Carnoy and Nicolaides, op. cit., p. 191; Levides (a native of Caesarea), op. cit., p. 56.

11 Texier, Asie Mineure, vol. ii., p. 61 ; Carnoy and Nicolaides, loc. cit.; Levides, loc. cit.

12 Loc. cit.; cf. Rizos, op. cit., p. 138.

13 Christmas cake, from the root chest (part). The preparation of this bread may be accompanied by various rules and rituals. A coin is often put into the dough during the kneading; other small objects may also be inserted. At the beginning of Christmas dinner, the česnica is rotated three times counter-clockwise, before being broken among the family members. The person who finds the coin in his piece of the bread will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year. The česnica was used in folk magic for divining or influencing the amount of crops.

The česnica may be used for divination in some regions. In Bosnia, when the dough is shaped and ready for baking, a number of notches are cut in the upper surface of it, and seeds of various crops are placed into the notches. The more a notch has risen when the česnica is baked, the more productive the crop whose seed is in it will be in the following year. In Jadar, western Serbia, the number of embers of the badnjak equal to the sum of grain and livestock sorts grown by the family are taken out of the fire and placed on the česnica. Each of the sorts is associated with its own ember on that loaf. The sort whose ember retains its glow longer than the others should be the most productive in the coming year.  To ensure an abundance of grain, some people place a bowl filled with grain on the česnica.

In 19th-century Herzegovina, two men would rotate the česnica between themselves, one of them asking, “Am I protruding [from behind the česnica]?” and the other responding, “You are, a little.” The first man would then say, “Now a little, and next year not even a little.” The purpose of this conversation was to invoke an abundance of grain in the coming year. A similar practice was recorded in the 12th century among West Slavs on the island of Rugia in the Baltic Sea. Those Slavs were adherents of the cult of Svantovit, and had a big temple dedicated to that god at Cape ArkonaSaxo Grammaticus described, in the Book XIV of his Gesta Danorum, the festival of Svantovit which was held annually after harvest in front of that temple. In one of the rituals, a round loaf of bread covered with honey, with the diameter equal to a man’s height, was held vertically in front of the statue of Svantovit. The priest of the temple went behind the loaf, before asking the gathered people whether they saw him. After they responded that they did, the priest expressed the wish that next year they would not see him. The aim of the ritual was to ensure a rich harvest of grain in the following year.

14 In the languages of the Near East the letters p and b are frequently interchanged.

15 B. Schmidt, op. cit., p. 62 : E. A. Tsitselis, loc. cit., pp. 420-I, followed by M. Hamilton, Greek Saints, p. I86. In Athens and generally in Old Greece, as Mr. D. P. Petrocochino informs me, a Christmas cake called χριστόψωμο is eaten, but it does not contain a coin.

16 Frazer, The Scapegoat, p. 351.

17 The references are collected in Roscher’s Lexikon, s.v. Kronos, column 1458.

18 Τύραννος (Ol. ii. 24)

19 Convivalia, 317 D.

20 Βασίλη (Roscher, Lexikon, column 1518).

21 Βασίλαι (Pausanias, vi., 20, I, and the inscription published by Roehl, Inscrr. Gr. Ant. (Berlin, 1882), No. 112, p. 39). See also Frazer, The Scapegoat, p. 352, and n. i, and The Golden Bough (900oo), vol. iii., p. 148, and L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, vol. i., p. 27. Farnell considers (op. cit., vol. i., p. 30) that the cult of Kronos was much wider than our scanty records indicate.

The “Dragon-Slayer” Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church

NOTE: The following article is a brief compilation of dragon accounts found in the Synaxarion of pre-Schism Orthodox Saints. Though some Orthodox commentators interpret these incidents as allegorical—either symbolizing the devil, paganism, or heresy—the fact remains that many of the Synaxarion of both Eastern and Western Saints before the Great Schism contain accounts of dragons, satyrs, centaurs, and other mythological creatures.


20th century Christian “rationalism” easily allocates dragons to the category of “allegory.” Yet even in the 21st century many of the simple village Greeks (Οι χωριάτες) still interpret these synaxarion literally—i.e. they believe that these saints literally slew dragons. It is impossible to determine the percentage of the medieval population that interpreted these stories literally. However, even the highly educated and God-inspired Church Fathers wrote and taught about the real existence of mythological creatures [St. Photius the Great, St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Damascene, St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, etc.] Though the following compilation is by no means a complete list, it will give the reader an understanding of the widespread belief in dragons (and other imaginary creatures) throughout medieval Orthodox Christendom.


Prophet Daniel (December 17, †6th century BC): Bel and the Dragon is an apocryphal Jewish story which appears as chapter 14 of the Septuagint Greek version of the Book of Daniel and is accepted as scripture by some Christians, though not in Jewish tradition.  Daniel slays the dragon by baking pitch, fat, and hair (trichas) to make cakes (mazas, barley-cakes, but translated “lumps”) that cause the dragon to burst open upon consumption:


“And in that same place there was a great dragon, which they of Babylon worshipped. And the king said unto Daniel, Wilt thou also say that this is of brass? lo, he liveth, he eateth and drinketh; thou canst not say that he is no living god: therefore worship him. Then said Daniel unto the king, I will worship the Lord my God: for he is the living God. But give me leave, O king, and I shall slay this dragon without sword or staff. The king said, I give thee leave. Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and hair, and did seethe them together, and made lumps thereof: this he put in the dragon’s mouth, and so the dragon burst in sunder: and Daniel said, Lo, these are the gods ye worship. When they of Babylon heard that, they took great indignation, and conspired against the king, saying, The king is become a Jew, and he hath destroyed Bel, he hath slain the dragon, and put the priests to death. So they came to the king, and said, Deliver us Daniel, or else we will destroy thee and thine house. Now when the king saw that they pressed him sore, being constrained, he delivered Daniel unto them: Who cast him into the lions’ den: where he was six days.” (Daniel 14:23-31)

St. Thomas the Apostle (October 6, 72): St. Thomas slays a dragon in India (see Acts of Thomas 30-3, ca. 220-40 AD). The apocryphal Acts of Thomas exhibit both Gnostic and Encratite affinities. The action takes place during St. Thomas’ mission to India. The fundamental correspondence with the Gospel of Thomas Tale and in particular with Lucian’s Philopseudes tale is striking.

St Philip Driving the Dragon from the Temple of Hieropolis (detail)
St Philip Driving the Dragon from the Temple of Hieropolis (detail)

St. Philip the Apostle (November 4, 80): It is to St. Philip that the richest of all early hagiographical dragon-slaying narratives attach. Two closely related 4th-century AD Greek texts, the Acts of Philip and the Martyrion of Philip, bestow upon him three major dragon fights—doublets in origin, no doubt, but each now strongly differentiated and of considerable interest in its own right. These tales are important not only for their complex engagement with the classical dragon-slaying tradition, but also for the light they shed upon the religious battles of their own day. [See Acts of Philip 8:4, 7, 15-17, 9(V), 11:2-8, 13:1-4, 14:1-3, 14:7-9, 15.1 Martyrion of Philip 2(A), 7(V), 12-17 (V), 19-20 (V), 24(V), 26-8(V), 32(V), 39(V), 42(V)]

martamarylazarusSt. Martha of Bethany (June 4, †1st century): According to legend, St Martha left Judea after Jesus’ death, around AD 48, and went to Provence with her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus. With them, Martha first settled in Avignon (now in France). A further legend relates that Martha then went to Tarascon, France, where a monster, the Tarasque, was a constant threat to the population. The Golden Legend describes it as a beast from Galicia; a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, that dwelt in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon. Holding a cross in her hand, Martha sprinkled the beast with holy water. Placing her sash around its neck, she led the tamed dragon through the village.

St Clement & the Graoully
St Clement & the Graoully

St. Clement, first Bishop of Metz (November 23, †1st century): According to legend, St. Clement, disciple of St. Pierre, would have arrived in Metz in the 1st century, accompanied by two disciples, Celeste and Felix. According to critics, the arrival of St. Clement only dates back to the end of the 3rd century, thus backing up allegations that St. Clement was a disciple of Saint Pierre.

The Graoully in the crypt of Metz Cathedral
The Graoully in the crypt of Metz Cathedral

St. Clement of Metz, like many other saints, is the hero of a legend in which he is the vanquisher of a local dragon. In the legend of Saint Clement it is called the Graoully or Graouilly. The legend states that the Graoully, along with countless other snakes, inhabited the local Roman amphitheater. The snakes’ breath had so poisoned the area that the inhabitants of the town were
effectively trapped in the town. After converting the local inhabitants to Christianity after they agreed to do so in return for ridding them of the dragon, Clement went into the amphitheater and quickly made the sign of the cross after the snakes attacked him. They immediately were tamed by this. Clement led the Graoully to the edge of the Seille, and ordered him to disappear into a place where there were no men or beasts. Orius did not convert to Christianity after Clement tamed the dragon. However, when the king’s daughter died, Clement brought her back from the dead, thereby resulting in the king’s conversion. The Graoully quickly became a symbol of the town of Metz and can be seen in numerous demonstrations of the city, since the 10th century.

Saint Beatus Hermit of Thun, Apostle of Switzerland (ca. †112)

St. Beatus Hermit of Thun, Apostle of Switzerland (ca. †112): While legend claims that he was the son of a Scottish king, other legends place his birth in Ireland. Beatus was a convert, baptized in England by St. Barnabas. He was allegedly ordained a priest in Rome by St. Peter the Apostle, whereupon he was sent with a companion named Achates to evangelize the tribe of the Helvetii. The two set up a camp in Argovia near the Jura Mountains, where they converted many of the locals. Beatus then ventured south to the mountains above Lake Thun, taking up a hermitage in what is now known as St. Beatus Caves, near the village of Beatenberg, probably in the ninth century. Tradition states that this cave is where he fought a dragon. St. Beatus’ grave is located between the monastery and the cave entrance.

St. Beatus Caves
St. Beatus Caves

St. Quirinus of Vaux-sur-Seine, France (October 11, †285): No trustworthy historical report exists of the martyrs Nicasius, Quirinus, Scubiculus, and Pientia. One legend states that they died in 285 AD and that Nicasius was one of the first missionaries sent from Rome to evangelize Gaul in the first century. Nicasius thus may have been a regionary bishop. Quirinus is stated to have been his priest while his deacon was Scubiculus (who is known as Egobille in France). According to the legend he was put to death, together with Nicasius, in the pagus Vulcassinus (Vexin).

One variant of the legend states that Quirinus, Nicasius, and the deacon Scubiculus were sent to Gaul by Pope Clement, accompanying Saint Denis there. At Vaux-sur-Seine, Quirinus fought and defeated a dragon, which had lay waste to the area and poisoned a well.


St. Bienheuré of Vendôme, France (†3rd century): Tradition states that he lived in a cave near the town. Like St. George, he is said to have fought a dragon. His legend was conflated with that of Beatus of Lungern. The legend states that Bienheuré fasted and prayed before fighting the dragon. According to the legend, the dragon was so large that when it went to drink from a river at some distance away, its tail still lay in its cave. It was also so large that it drained the Loir when it drank from it. There are three versions of this combat: the first states that the dragon fled at the sight of St. Bienheuré; the second version states that Saint Bienheuré defeated the dragon with one blow from his staff; the third states that the dragon strangled itself with its chain.

St. Julian, First Bishop of Le Mans, France (January 27th, †3rd or 4th century): p He was consecrated a bishop at Rome and around the middle of the 3rd century, Julian was sent to Gaul to preach the Gospel to the tribe of the Cenomani. Their capital city was Civitas Cenomanorum (Le Mans), which was suffering from a shortage of drinking water. According to the legends surrounding his life, Julian thrust his staff into the ground and prayed. Water began to gush out of the ground. This miracle allowed him to preach freely within Le Mans. Other traditions state that St. Julian and one of his successors—St. Pavatius—killed the monsters which guarded a spring.

Red Dragon Fresco, St. Savin-sur-Gartempe, Vienne, France
Red Dragon Fresco, St. Savin-sur-Gartempe, Vienne, France
St. Crescentinus Kills the Dragon
St. Crescentinus Kills the Dragon

St. Crescentinus of Umbria, Italy (June 1, †303): Patron saint of Urbino. Crescentinus is traditionally said to have been a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity. To escape the persecutions of Diocletian, he fled to Umbria, and found refuge at Thifernum Tiberinum (the present-day Città di Castello). His defeat of a dragon led to a successful evangelization of the region together with his companions. His mission was confined particularly to the Tiber valley and the ancient Thifernum Tiberinum. He was subsequently beheaded.

St Margaret of Antioch & the Dragon, Medieval Book of Hours Illustartion
St Margaret of Antioch & the Dragon, Medieval Book of Hours Illustartion

St. Marina (Margaret of Antioch, July 17, †303): According to the version of the story in Golden Legend, she was a native of Antioch, and she was the daughter of a pagan priest named Aedesius. Her mother having died soon after her birth, Margaret was nursed by a pious woman five or six leagues from Antioch. Having embraced Christianity and consecrated her virginity to God, she was disowned by her father, adopted by her nurse and lived in the country keeping sheep with her foster mother (in what is now stmargaret02Turkey). Olybrius, Governor of the Roman Diocese of the East, asked to marry her but with the price of her renunciation of Christianity. Upon her refusal she was cruelly tortured, during which various miraculous incidents occurred. One of these involved being swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon, from which she escaped alive when the cross she carried irritated the dragon’s innards. The Golden Legend, in an atypical passage of skepticism, describes this last incident as “apocryphal and not to be taken seriously” (trans. Ryan, 1.369).

St. Ammon of Nitria (October 4, †357): I don’t believe that what we heard about Ammon, from a certain holy man we saw in the wilderness in the place in which he had lived, should be omitted. And so when, having parted from the blessed Apollonius, we proceeded to the part of the wilderness opposite Meridianum, we saw a dragon’s huge dragging tracks across the sand; his size had appeared so great that it looked like some treetrunk had been drawn through the sand. So that as we looked, we were struck with huge terror.


But the brothers who had escorted us encouraged us to dread nothing at all, but to rather to take hold of faith and follow the dragon’s track. ‘For you will see,’ they said, ‘how much faith may prevail, when you would have quenched it out of us. For we kill many dragons and snakes and vipers* with our hands; for as we read it written that the Savior allows those believing in Him “to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy.”‘ (Lk. 10:19) But with them saying this, we dreaded more and more because of the fragility of our faithlessness, and we asked them not to want to follow the dragon’s tracks, but rather that we might proceed straight on the road. Yet one of them, impatient, had followed the dragon with alacrity. And when he had found its cave not far off, he called us so that we might have gone to him and seen the end of the business.

Yet another of the brothers who dwelt nearby in the desert hurried to meet us, and forbade us to follow the dragon, saying we could not endure his appearance, especially because we were not used to seeing anything such as that. Truly, he said that he himself frequently saw that same beast of incredible devastation, and that it was fifteen cubits long. And when he had advised us against approaching the place, he hurried himself to pull away, recall, and turn back the brother who had awaited us, prepared for the beast’s killing and unwilling to depart unless he had killed it…

St Ammon of Nitria

“Afterwards, at a different time, with a certain most immense dragon having laid waste to the neighboring regions and killed many, the inhabitants of that place came to the above-mentioned Father, asking him that he might kill the beast for their region; and at the same time, that they might persuade the old man to mercy, they brought a shepherd’s young son with them who had been terrified out of his mind by only a sight of the dragon, and had felled and been carried off, unable to move and swollen, from only the dragon’s breath. Then he restored health to this boy, indeed by anointing him with oil.

“Meanwhile, he would promise nothing to those urging him to kill the dragon himself, as if one who could not help them with anything. But rising early, he went off to the beast’s sleeping place, and fixed his knees to the earth, begging the Lord. Then the beast began to come against him with a huge attack, sending out foul snorting and hisses and rattles. But fearing nothing of this, he said, turning toward the dragon, ‘May Christ, the Son of God, Who shall destroy the great whale, destroy you.’ And when that old man spoke, immediately that direst dragon also vomiting poison with every breath, blew up, bursting down the middle.

“But when the neighboring inhabitants would have gathered and wondered at it, unable to bear the violence of the stink, they got together an immense mass of sand over it — with Father Ammon still standing by, because not even when the beast was dead did they dare approach it without him.” (St. Rufinus of Aquileia’s Historia Monachorum, chapter 8. (PL 21: 420, 14 – 422, 4.)

St. Sylvester I, Pope of Rome (January 2, 335): Pope Sylvester I was called in to kill a dragon that lived in a moat and devoured three hundred people daily. He went up to the beastie, called out Christ’s name, and bound its jaws together with a rope, when he then fixed permanently with the sign of the cross. St. Sylvester is often depicted leading a dragon on a chain.

Saint Silvester stops the dragon (Romanesque fresco) [12th century]
Saint Silvester stops the dragon (Romanesque fresco) [12th century]
There are two different versions of the Acts of Silvester—one dated ca. 500 AD and the other text a century or so earlier. Both texts project the dragon as an object of pagan cult. The A text has the Vestal Virgins taking food down into its cave to it. The B text is less specific about the identity of the virgins and ascribes the lead role in its cult rather to an undefined group of ‘mages’, no doubt in a desire to emphasize the fraud and illegitimacy of the creature’s worship. Whilst the A text does not specify the actual location of its dragon’s cave, the B text locates it in the Tarpeian rock. This was some 300 yards distant from Vesta’s temple in the Forum. Cakes of grain and honey were regularly given to the sacred snakes, both real and imaginary, that lived in Greek and Roman shrines. These narratives offer one of the most striking examples amongst Christian ones of the pestilential breath the dragon can produce. Silvester defeats the dragon by locking it up with key and chain in an abyss; thus the dragon is confined deep inside the earth, albeit in its own hole. This is also the final fate of the dragons faced by Thomas and Philip.

Saint Silvester stops the dragon
Saint Silvester stops the dragon

St. Donatus of Arezzo (August 7, †362): Passio of Donatus’ life was written by a bishop of Arezzo, Severinus. It states that Donatus brought back to life a woman named Euphrosina; fought and slew a dragon who had poisoned the local well; gave sight back to a blind woman named Syriana; and exorcised a demon that had been tormenting Asterius, the son of the Roman prefect of Arezzo.

180px-Hilarion_the_GreatSt. Hilarion the Hermit (October 21, †371): In Croatia, St. Hilarion destroyed a dragon by bidding the people to make a fire, into which he commanded the dragon to go. It did so and was cremated: “An enormous serpent, of the sort which the people of those parts call “boas” because they are so large that they often swallow oxen [boves], was ravaging the whole province far and wide, and was devouring not only flocks and herds, but husbandmen and shepherds who were drawn in by the force of its breathing. He [Hilarion] ordered a pyre to be prepared for it, then sent up a prayer to Christ, called forth the reptile, bade it climb the pile of wood, and then applied the fire. And so before all the people he burnt the savage beast to ashes. But now he began anxiously to ask what he was to do, whither to betake himself. Once more he prepared for flight, and in thought ranged through solitary lands, grieving that his miracles could speak of him though his tongue was silent.” (St. Jerome, Life of St. Hilarion the Hermit, Paragraph 39, )

[It is perhaps worth mentioning that a short way down the coast from Epidaurus was the town of Bouthoé, (now Budva, Montenegro), famous in legend as the place to which the dragon-slaying hero Cadmus and his wife Harmonia had retired in old age, and where by some accounts they had themselves assumed reptilian forms. The town was supposedly named for the oxen (boés) which had drawn their cart from Greece to Illyria.]

Mercurialis of Forlì

St. Mercurialis, First Bishop of Forlì (May 23, †406): was the Christian bishop of Forlì, in Romagna. The historical figure known as Mercurialis attended the Council of Rimini in 359 and died around 406. He was a zealous opponent of paganism and Arianism. Many remarkable adventures were woven onto legends about his life. The legend states that he was the first bishop of Forlì, during the Apostolic Age, and saved the city by killing a dragon. He has often been depicted in this act, imagery that resembles that associated with St. George. The cathedral of Forlì is named after him.


St. Marcellus, Bishop of Paris, Confessor (November 1, †5th century): The life of St. Marcellus was written by Venantius Fortunatus. St. Marcellus scared off a dragon that was attacking tiny pre-medieval Paris. The dragon in this story is ambiguous, being either chthonic or aquatic, and the saint in banishing it gives it the choice of disappearing into the desert, that is the wilderness, or the sea, which in the Parisian case is the river.

Fortunatus  then goes into all sorts of considerations of dragons in the Fathers, dragons in medieval saints’ legends, Rogation procession dragons, and so on. He points out that dragons often are explicitly a symbol of a particular nation (like the Welsh and Saxon dragons fighting each other, or the Draco Normannicus), or are thought of as just an impressive animal (Romans and medievals believed that dragons were the largest animal in existence, as Mediterranean whales were big but not as big as oceangoing whales), or as a symbol of pagan beliefs or an unjust government. They don’t always represent the Devil, although they often do. St. Marcellus came to be known as the “Patron Saint of Vampire Hunters.”


St Keyne (October 5, †505): The virgin recluse, called variously St. Cain, Keyne or Ceinwen, migrated from Brecknock in Wales to Keynsham in Somersetshire. The town is named after the Saint. It is said that when she arrived there, the lord of the manor gave her a piece of land, but it was so infested with huge venomous snakes that no prospective converts would visit her. Undismayed, she turned the snakes into stone, and tradition claims that the fossilised ammonites, which abound in the area, are their remains.

St Vigor

St. Vigor, Bishop of Bayeux (November 1, 537): When he had made the Sign of the Cross and made the dragon unable to resist him, and he had leashed the dragon with his stole in the best approved French style (making it “like a tame sheep”), he handed the dragon’s leash to Theudemir, with instructions to take it to the seashore, so that it would have no more power on the land.  the taming of the Dragon of Cerisy Forest was legendarily the reason that Volusianus, a local nobleman, gave the land to St. Vigor to start the monastery of Cerisy.

Horsham - St Leonard's Forest Dragon
Horsham – St Leonard’s Forest Dragon

St. Leonard of Limousin (†559): A Frankish nobleman who was baptised at the court of King Clovis in 498 by St Remigius, Bishop of Rheims, and then settled for a religious life. St. Leonard’s prayers ensured the safe delivery of Clovis’s child, and he was given as a reward as much land as he could ride round on a donkey in a day. He established a monastery on this land at Noblac near Limoges, and became its abbot. In his old age he became a forest hermit. There is a forest in West Sussex, England named after him.

Horsham - St Leonard's Forest Dragon Bench
Horsham – St Leonard’s Forest Dragon Bench

There is also a legend of St. Leonard the Dragon Slayer who lived in the forest and slew the last dragon in England. Æthelweard’s Chronicle of 770AD mentions “Monstrous serpents were seen in the country of the Southern Angles that is called Sussex”. St. Leonard was injured and Lilies of the Valley grow where his blood fell – an area of the forest is still called The Lily Beds. As a reward he requested that snakes be banished and the nightingales which interrupted his prayers should be silenced. However, dragons were still around in August 1614 as a pamphlet was published with the title “Discourse relating a strange and monstrous Serpent (or Dragon) lately discovered, and yet living, to the great Annoyance and divers Slaughters both of Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent Poyson. In Sussex, two miles from Horsam, in a Woode called St. Leonards Forrest, and thirtie miles from London, this present month of August, 1614”.

St. Samson and Dragon

St. Samson of Dol (July 28, †565): Some historians have argued that the St. Vigor story is drawn from the first Vita of Samson of Dol. However there are crucially different details in the two stories. The two saints do have a young companion in each story, but in the Samson story the boy is merely an observer and does not lead the tamed dragon away. Moreover, Samson flings the dragon from a height, and there is no mention of waters of any kind, in contrast to the sea in the Vigor story. Finally the dragon is commanded to die by Samson, while it is clearly left alive by Vigor. Saint Samson defeats another dragon later on, which he does fling into the sea, and charges to die in the name of Christ. In another of St. Samson’s dragon stories, he banishes the dragon without killing it. But instead of flinging it into the sea, the saint commands it to cross the river Seine, and to remain under a certain stone, revealing this dragon as a chthonic figure.

Saint Serf or Serbán (Servanus) (July 1, †583) is a saint of Scotland. Serf was venerated in western Fife. He is also called the apostle of Orkney, with less historical plausibility.  At Dunning, in Strathearn, he is said to have slain a dragon with his pastoral staff.


St. Veranus, Bishop of Cavaillon (October 19, †590): A French saint, with a cultus in Italy. St. Gregory of Tours writes of miracles performed by Veranus, including the expulsion of a dragon. St. Veranus captured and expelled a winged dragon that had been terrorizing the region near his hermitage in Vaucluse. Making the sign of the cross, he commanded the creature “by the living and eternal God” never to harm anyone again.

St Gregory of tours

St. Gregory of Tours (November 17, †594):  In 589, a great flood of the Tiber River sent a torrent of water rushing through the city of Rome. According to Gregory, a contemporary bishop of Tours with contacts to the south, the floodwaters carried with them some rather remarkable detritus: several dying serpents and, perhaps most strikingly, the corpse of a dragon. The flooding was soon followed by a visitation of bubonic plague, which had been haunting Mediterranean ports since 541: “…In the month of November, the River Tiber had covered Rome with such flood water…A great school of water-snakes swam down the course of the river to the sea, in their midst a tremendous dragon as big as a tree trunk, but these monsters were drowned in the turbulent salt sea-waves and their bodies were washed up on the shore. As a result there followed an epidemic, which caused swellings in the groin” (History of the Franks, Book X, chapter 1).

Saint Carantoc of Wales (May 16, †6th century): Many details of his life are obscure or contradictory. The people of Carhampton who had been terrorised by a flying dragon. King Arthur said that he would strike a bargain with the saint. If St Carantoc could call up the dragon from the marches then he would restore the Altar to its owner. St Carantoc nodded and turned away in prayer, uttering a strange incantation over the swamp. Immediately the bog heaved and parted and amidst a terrible smell the dragon appeared right in front of the retinue. Only Arthur and the Saint stood their ground while the rest backed away in horror. The dragon the trotted up to the Saint and bent its head in submission. St Carantoc then led the dragon to the court of King Catho at Dunster Castle where the dragon was forced to vow never to hurt another soul again. So transformed was the dragon by the Saint that it never ate meat again and only used its fiery breath to aid the villagers in lighting bonfires in the rain. St Carantoc was granted land by the Kings and built his chapel by the river at Carhampton.

Saint Romanus, Gargouille, and presumably, the convict

St. Romain of Rouen, France (October 23, †640): The Catholic Encyclopedia claims that his legend has little historical value with little authentic information. St. Romain caught the Gargouille. On the left bank of the Seine were wild swamps through which rampaged a huge serpent or dragon who “devoured and destroyed people and beasts of the field”. Romanus decided to hunt in this area but could only find one man to help him, a man condemned to death who had nothing to lose. They arrived in the serpent’s land and Romanus drew the sign of the cross on the beast. It then lay down at his feet and let Romanus put his stole on him as a leash, in which manner he led it into the town to be condemned to death and burned on the parvis of the cathedral (or thrown into the Seine according to other authors). This legend was the origin for the bishops’ privilege (lasting until 1790) to pardon one prisoner condemned to death each year, by giving the pardoned man or woman the reliquary holding Romanus’s relics in a procession.

793 - Image of a fire dragon

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Entry for 793: “In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”

Viking Dragon Ship.  Manuscript, Northumbia, England, 900s AD
Viking Dragon Ship. Manuscript, Northumbia, England, 900s AD

Saint Hermentaire (†10th century): Draguignan is a commune in the Var department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, in southeastern France. According to legend, the name of the city is derived from the Latin name “Draco/Draconem” (dragon): a bishop, called Saint Hermentaire, killed a dragon and saved people. The Latin motto of Draguignan is Alios nutrio, meos devoro (I feed others, I devour my children).  The name of Draguignan (“Dragonianum”) appeared for the first time in 909.

Coat of arms of Draguignan
Coat of arms of Draguignan

Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains (R. Joseph Hoffman, 1994)

Fifteen volumes long, Against the Christians was written by the Roman pagan Porphyry circa 280 and was an educated man’s studied attack on Christian theology. An exceedingly powerful and successful work, it and commentaries on it were condemned by the imperial church in 448 and burned. Only remnants which were contained in books that were primarily about other matters have survived until the present. As you will see, Porphyry used a literal interpretation of the Bible, a scathing wit, and an attack on Christian’s intelligence, integrity, and morals (piety, loyalty to the state, and character) to undermine the new, up-start religion, Christianity.


This book is divided into 2 parts: part one contains translations of Porphyry’s writings while part two contains Hoffman’s analysis of Porphyry’s writings.

  1. Referring to Mark 16:18, Porphyry writes: “In another passage Jesus says: “These signs shall witness to those who believe: they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover. And if they drink any deadly drug, it will hurt them in no way.” Well then: the proper thing to do would be to use this process as a test for those aspiring to be priests, bishops or church officers. A deadly drug should be put in front of them and [only] those who survive drinking it should be elevated in the ranks [of the church].

If there are those who refuse to submit to such a test, they may as well admit that they do not believe in the things that Jesus said. For if it is a doctrine of [Christian] faith that men can survive being poisoned or heal the sick at will, then the believer who does not do such things either does not believe them, or else believes them so feebly that he may as well not believe them.” page 50

  1. Referring to Matthew 17:20, Porphyry writes: “A saying similar to this runs as follows: “Even if you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, I tell you in truth that if you say to this mountain, Be moved into the sea – even that will be possible for you.” It seems to follow that anyone who is unable to move a mountain by following these directions is unworthy to be counted among the faithful. So there you are: not only the ordinary Christians, but even bishops and priests, find themselves excluded on the basis of such a saying.” page 51
  1. Porphyry writes: “The God concept with which Israel began was basically polytheistic (Exodus 20:3). God was limited in power (Exodus 4:24) and local in character (Exodus 18:5; 33:3; 14-16). The most that could be claimed for yahweh was that as a national god he protected his people from neighboring peoples and their gods. His throne was on the high mountain; storm and volcanic phenomena were taken as manifestations of his presence (Exodus 19:16-19; 33.9f; 40:34-38).

The transition from desert to settled life on the land (believed to be his gift to a “chosen” people) produces a change in the character of this God paralleling the change in people’s fortunes. Yahweh became the god of the armies of Israel, a was God – the God of hosts – who aided Israel in the subjugation of neighboring peoples or the defense of territory already taken. His other face, if not benevolent, was less severe: as giver of land, he was also the ball (fertilizer) of the soil and took responsibility for its fertility and for the rain, as well as for the famines that were occasionally used to winnow the population and the floods that might be sent to winnow the population and the floods that might be sent to wash away the unrighteous, “as in the time of Noah” (Gen. 6:1f). As revealed in his political dealings with his chosen people, Yahweh was fickle. Peace and security are less thematic in the history of Israel than political instability, warfare and religious apostasy.” page 96

A drachm (quarter shekel) coin from the Persian province of Yehud, apparently showing the god YHW (Yahweh) as a bearded man seated on a winged and wheeled throne
A drachm (quarter shekel) coin from the Persian province of Yehud, apparently showing the god YHW (Yahweh) as a bearded man seated on a winged and wheeled throne
  1. Porphyry writes: “Apparently Jesus declared the Pharisees beyond the scope of salvation for their interpretations of the law (Matthew 5:20). which tended to focus on technical requirements rather than personal conversion.” page 117
  1. “Jewish tradition and later pagan critics knew Jesus as the son of a woman named Miriam or Miriamne, who had been violated and become pregnant by a Roman soldier whose name often appears a Panthera in talmudic and midrashic sources. The “single parent” tradition, if not the story of Jesus’ illegitimacy, is still apparent in Mark, the earliest gospel (Mark 6:3), as is an early attempt to show Jesus’ freedom from the blemish of his background (Mark 3:33-4).” page 122

“To counter the reports of Jesus’ illegitimacy more than to secure his divine stature, his mother was declared the recipient of a singular divine honor: Jesus was the son of Mary – a virgin – “through the holy spirit” (Matthew 1:20). As is typical of his writing, Matthew comes closest to revealing the argumentative purpose of his birth story and its links to Jewish polemic against Christian belief in his reference to Joseph’s suspicion of Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:19). He is also careful in the birth story and elsewhere to provide evidence and proofs from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible – as a running narrative. ” page 122


Tombstone of the Roman soldier Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera (c. 22 BC – AD 40), in Bad Kreuznach.
Tombstone of the Roman soldier Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera (c. 22 BC – AD 40), in Bad Kreuznach.
  1. Regarding the Biblical prophecies concerning Jesus: “Porphyry notes that what is said in Hebrew prophecy could as well apply to a dozen other figures, dead or yet to come, as to Jesus.” page 131
  1. “As the mission progressed with its apocalyptic teaching persistently an issue in debates with itinerant Jewish teachers, the churches developed a variety of strategies for dealing with the delay: the gentiles would be converted before the last days (Mark 13:10) the power of pagan Rome and of the emperor would decline before God’s son could be revealed in glory (Romans 16:20, Thess 2:2-10) Jesus himself had professed ignorance about the time of this coming (Mark13:32), or had refused to speculate about the signs of the last days (Mark 8:11-12) the kingdom of God was already working “secretly”and was being progressively realized through the success of the Christian mission (Luke 12:49-56; 17:22-37; Matthew 38-42).

It is best to regard these rationales as defensive and experimental. Jewish apocalyptic tradition itself had been mystically vague, studiously mysterious with respect both to the “timing” of the apocalyptic events and to the identity of the son of man.” pages 135-136


Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones Dura-Europos Synagogue-Syria
Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones Dura-Europos Synagogue-Syria
  1. “According to the early critics Tacitus, Pliny, and Aristides, Christianity was to be judged according to the unwillingness of its adherents to compromise. They were superstitious fanatics given to outpourings of enthusiasm, or they occasionally indulged in sexual orgies in association with their eucharistic banquets.

With the satires of Lucan, the moral critique of the church enters a new phase. Born at Samosata (Syria) around 120, Lucian regarded Christianity as a form of sophistry aimed at an unusually gullible class of people – a criticism later exploited by Celsus. The members of the new sect worship a “crucified sophist,” an epithet that suggests the influence of Jewish views of the church on pagan observers. Like Galen, Lucian imagines the Christians as men and women with little time, patience or ability for philosophy, and who are willing to enthrone new leaders and gurus at the drop of a hat. To make his point, Lucian invents a mock Cynic-turned-Christian priest, Peregrinus Proteus, who dabbles in a thousand different sects and philosophies before becoming an “expert” in “the astonishing religion of Christianity. . . .


Lucian’s “hero” is a shyster -the first example in literature of an anything-for-profit evangelist who bilks his congregation. . . . For all its looseness of detail, Lucian’s portrait of Peregrinus can be said to reflect a popular view of the Christians at the close of the second century.” page 145 – 146


  1. “In his comments, Celsus attempts impartiality: He is no admirer of Judaism [‘runaway Egyptian slaves who have never done anything worth mentioning’] but acknowledges the antiquity of Jewish teaching and juxtaposes it with the newness of Christian doctrine. He thinks Christian teachers are no better than the begging priests of Cybele and the shysters of popular religions. Importantly, Celsus does not dwell on the impurity of Christian ritual (though he alludes to it), but emphasizes that Christians are sorcerers like their founder, that they lack patriotism, and that every Christian church is an illegal association which exists not because their God arranges it (thus Tertullian), but because the emperor does not choose to stamp them out entirely.


The True Word or True Doctrine of Celsus was divided into two sections. In the first, Celsus presents a Jew as the antagonist to Christianity; in the second, he argues his own case. The strategy seems intended to show that Christianity is opposed not only by the philosophers of the “pagan” empire, but also by those with whom the Christians claims to have the closest affinity. In this way, the church could be seen to have neither the wisdom of the philosophical schools nor the antiquity of custom and law to its credit. Its teaching was merely eccentric -sectarian in the mean sense of the word. In his hierarchy of civilization, the Egyptian were beast-worshipers, the Jews infinitely worse in their religious practices, and the Christians renegade Jews “whom their miserable countrymen despised and hated.” What would have aroused official distaste for Christianity, however, was Celsus’ suggestion that the Christians were “breaking the religious peace of the world.” With an outlaw as their head, they were rebels by nature and tradition.

Celsus’ “Jew” is strident in his dialogue with the Christian teacher on the failure of the life of Jesus, a theme to which Porphyry will return over a century later. That Celsus would emphasize this theme is unsurprising: we have already noted that it was at the heart of the earliest Jewish-Christian “dialogue” and their fictional reenactments by teachers like Justin. Celsus’ “Jew” is, however, a more worthy opponent that Justin’s. In the pagan dialogue, the Jew lectures the Christian; in Justin’s the Christian lectures – and defeats – the Jew.

 koumbelidiki-kastoria (18)

Familiar slanders resurface in the True Doctrine : Jesus was the son of a woman named Mary by a Roman soldier named Panthera. . . .The resurrection is rejected on the grounds that the only witnesses were “women half crazy from fear and grief, and possibly one other from the same band of charlatans, who dreamed it all up or saw what he wanted to see – or more likely, simply wanted to astonish his friends with a good tale.” pages 148-149

  1. “Church fathers from Eusebius to Augustine were intimidated by Porphyry’s challenges and arguments – so much so that his worthiest opponent (Macarius Magnes) is not an especially articulate one, wholly unable to play the role of Origen to his Celsus. [Origen wrote Contra Celsum, the best classical refutation of Celsus’ True Doctrine.] Constantine in the fourth century and Theodosius in the fifth decided that the only way to overcome Porphyry’s objections was to put his books to the torch. Thus, the extent of his writings against Christianity is unknown.” page 155

  1. “The process of disputation (propositions followed by refutation) was the Socratic means of arriving at truth. Christian teachers such as Justin, Origen, and Minucius Felix had long since affected this style of literary opposition, though their opponents were either dead (Celsus) or fictionalized (Justin’s Trypho), thus rendering them more amenable to persuasion.” pages 156-157



  1. “The “end” of knowledge is truth, though one could also call it a “god.” This “god” is not the Christian god, nor even the Christian idea of God. Theologians from the second century onward had misread Plato (and would later misread Plotinus and Porphyry) on this fundamental point.” page 159
  1. “Porphyry’s “God,” therefore, has no need to save because he is not affected by sin. This is not to say that the philosopher fails to recognize a category of actions which are displeasing to God. But these actions are expressions of active failure and not of a passive genetic deficiency in a Godcreated race of men, as Augustine theorized. God strengthens those who practice virtue and “noble deeds” (Marcella 16), but he does not (cannot) punish those who fail to practice virtue or who do things contrary to virtue (Marcella 17), since the divine nature can only work for the good.

Accordingly, the classical Christian theodicy does not arise in Porphyry’s thought; he thinks it foolish to speculate, on Christian premises, about an all-good God, creator of an originally good world, over which, through lack of foresight (omniscience) or power (omnipotence) evil reigns and in which he is obliged to intervene time and time again. The puzzles of Christian theology are non-puzzles for Porphyry: The pieces comprise not a picture but a muddle, and can only be slotted together by trimming edges and omitting embarrassingly contorted segment. This, however, does not prevent Christian priests and teachers from selling their wares as a kind of philosophy. While religious observances -pagan or Christian – are not actually harmful, they encourage the simple-minded in a belief that God has need of them. The only true priests are the wise of the world, not the “fools praying and offering sacrifice”. The only truly sinful man is “he who holds the opinions of the multitudes concerning God” (Marcella 17), and those who think that tears, prayers, and sacrifices can alter the divine purpose. The Christian god fails, in Porphyry’s view, because he epitomizes false opinion, baseless hopes. He is changeable, fickle, unpredictable. His priests preach “mere unreasoning faith [in a God] who is gratified and won over by libations and sacrifices,” without perceiving that men making exactly the same request receive different answers to their prayers (Marcella 23). Worse, human beings seem to believe that their basest actions can be erased by prayer, or, caught in the web of their illogic, they become haters of the world and the flesh and mistakenly accuse the flesh of being the source of all evil (Marcella 29). “Salvation” for Porphyry cannot begin with self-hatred or the abnegation of the flesh. In its demythologized form, it is simply the “soul’s” quest for wisdom as expressed in the pursuit of virtue – an acknowledgment of redemption being natural to the soul because of the soul’s affinity to God. Porphyry does not think of the body as vile; he thinks of it as the discardable “outer man,” whose satisfaction cannot be a final end or goal because it is corruptible, limited, and earthbound. The body defines creaturely existence and not the soul’s quest.” pages 162-164

  1. “In a devastating critique which has not survived, but which has evoked plenty of reaction from his critics, Porphyry began Against the Christians with an attack on the Christian view of prophecy. Although Platonism had actually inspired the allegorical interpretation of prophecy by teachers such as Origen, the philosopher’s nemesis, Porphyry condemned the use of allegory as a means of explaining away difficulties and contradictions in the biblical text. It has even been suggested that Porphyry drew some of his polemic directly from Origin’s book on the difficulties of interpreting scripture, the Stromatesis. All he had to do was to “accept Origen’s negative statements . . . and reject the deeper spiritual meanings” that Origen found for them . . . . Despite his contempt for allegory – a feature which shines through rather clearly in Macarius’ fragments – the philosopher was more concerned with chronology than interpretation. He denied the extreme antiquity of the Moses story, the traditional dating of the law, and the ascription of the Book of Daniel to the period before the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C.E.” page 166
  1. “Furthermore, we know from Augustine (City of God) that Porphyry complained of the influx of educated women into the church; in his Philosophy from Oracles, written around 263, he laments (en masque as Apollo, the god of enlightenment) that it is almost impossible to win back anyone who has converted to Christianity: it is easier, he says, to write words on water than try to use argument on a Christian. They simply cannot understand the folly of worshipping as a god a man who had died as a criminal.” page 168
  1. “The truth seems to be that Porphyry regarded Jesus as a criminal, justly punished for his crimes by the power of the Roman state, and hence undeserving of the status of hero or of the divinity conferred upon him by his misguided followers.

Whatever Porphyry may have thought of Jesus, the bulk of his criticism was reserved for the evangelists, the apostles of Jesus – especially Peter – and the Christian mission epitomized by Paul. . . Macarius’ “pagan” deals with most of the same subjects we know, from Augustine’s Harmony, to have attracted Porphyry’s criticism: that the apostles fabricated genealogies, that there are discrepancies concerning the time of Jesus’ death, that Jesus had not claimed to be divine, and that the teaching of Jesus was obscure and self-contradictory. ” page 171

  1. “A general view of Porphyry’s work yields the following picture: Beginning with an introduction in which the ambitions of the Christians were repudiated (“they want riches and glory. . . they are renegades seeking to take control” . . . , Porphyry went on to show their unworthiness. They accepted but misunderstood the “myths” and oracles of the Jews, then turned around and altered these to make them even more contemptible . . . . Their religion had neither a national anchor nor a rational basis; they required initiates to accept everything on blind faith. Moreover, the initiates themselves were the worst sort of people, moral invalids who (cf. Celsus) found security in their common weakness . . . . The Christians had proved that they cared nothing for those who had lived in the era before the coming of Jesus: these could not be saved.

The Christians taught absurd doctrines about the suffering of God or the suffering of a some of the supermen god. They also prayed for the destruction of the world, which they hated because they were hated by it – and believed that at its end they alone would be raised bodily from the dead . . . . The sky would be destroyed and the ruler of the world would be cast into an outer darkness, as a tyrant might be driven out by a good king. By such thinking the Christians showed contempt for God. How could god be angry? How, if all powerful, as even some of their teachers said, could his property have been stolen in the first place?

After attacking the chronology of the Old Testament . . . and arguing against Christian allegorical interpretation, Porphyry took up the subject of the writers of the gospels and epistles, whom he regarded as ignorant, clumsy, and deceptive. The fact that he wages his assault chiefly against the “pillar” apostles, Peter and Paul, suggests that he regarded the destruction of their reputations essential to wiping out the claims of an emergent Catholic Christianity . . . . Thus Paul himself had called Christian believers “wretches” (1 Cor. 6:9f) and promised his followers the resuscitation of the “rotten, stinking corpses of men” (cf. Augustine, City of God 22.27). As for Peter, he had been called “satan” even by Jesus, yet was entrusted with the keys to the kingdom of heaven . . . . The apostles proved themselves traitors, cowards, weaklings, and hypocrites – even in the accounts written by them.

Hecate, Greek goddess of the crossroads
Hecate, Greek goddess of the crossroads

The Jesus allegedly praised for piety and wisdom by Hecate in Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles, finds no grace in Against the Christians. His parables are trivial and incomprehensible. They are “hidden from the wise but revealed to the babes” (Matthew 11:25), a state of affairs which encourages ignorance and unreasonableness. Jesus and his followers represent a lethargic ethic of the status quo, the very opposite of the Greek quest for moral excellence; indeed, his blessing on the poor and downtrodden and his repudiation of the rich make moral effort impossible. Had he not taught that selling everything and giving it to the poor (Matthew 19:21), thereby becoming a lout and a beggar and a burden on others, was the height of Christian perfection? . . .

Isis changing the sex of Iphis. Engraving by Bauer.
Isis changing the sex of Iphis. Engraving by Bauer.

Furthermore, Jesus did not follow his own advice. His show of weakness in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest was disgraceful: having preached fearlessness in time of persecution to his disciples, he exhibited only fear and trembling at the moment of his capture. When Jesus stood before his accusers, he spoke like a guilty man, not like a hero on the order of Apollonius of Tyana who had been hauled before Domitian . . . . Had he been a god on the order of the ancient heroes, he would have flung himself from a parapet of the temple, he would have appeared after his death to haunt Herod and Pilate – or, indeed, to the Senate and People of Rome, to prove he had risen from the dead. That would have convinced everyone of the truth of Christian belief, and it would have spared his followers the punishment they now suffered for their beliefs. In short, had Jesus cared for his followers he could have taken care to spare them their martyrdom.” pages 172-173

Imaginary debate between Averroes (1126–1198 AD) and Porphyry (234–c. 305 AD). Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century
Imaginary debate between Averroes (1126–1198 AD) and Porphyry (234–c. 305 AD). Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century

The Traffic in Relics: some Late Roman Evidence (E.D. Hunt, 1980)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Byzantine saint: University of Birmingham Fourteenth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies:


As the controversial monk Pelagius was defending his views before a synod of bishops in Palestine in December 415, news arrived of miraculous events at the village of Caphargamala in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem.1 Impelled by a series of dream-visions of the New Testament rabbi Gamaliel, the local presbyter Lucianus had unearthed three burials – of Gamaliel himself, his fellow-rabbi Nicodemus, and (the real prize) of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen (whose place of burial had been unknown since the time of his death). The bishop of Jerusalem and others hurried to the scene to preside over the revelation of Stephen’s remains: Lucianus (to whose first-hand account we owe our knowledge of these events) describes the fragrance that filled the air as the tomb was opened, such that ‘we thought we were in paradise’. In this heady atmosphere seventy-three people (it is asserted) were cured of sundry ailments, before the martyr’s body was solemnly laid to rest in the great basilica on Mount Sion in Jerusalem, on his feast day of 26 December.2

"Hair Relic" of St. Stephen Protomarty @ St. Stephen Church in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Hair Relic” of St. Stephen Protomarty @ St. Stephen Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

The interment of Stephen’s remains in Jerusalem is far from the last word in the story. For, after his rediscovery, the first martyr was to become one of the most widely-travelled of Christian saints. According to a fifth-century sermon in praise of Stephen (attributed to bishop Basil of Seleucia) ‘every place is glorified and hallowed by your remains; your protection shines out overall the earth’. 3 Certainly it was not long before some of the relics reached Constantinople and the pious court of Theodosius II and his sister Pulcheria.4 The saint made a journey even further afield by the hand of the Spanish presbyter Orosius, on his return to Augustine in north Africa after the vindication of Pelagius by the Palestinian bishops;5 through this channel of distribution relics of Stephen were circulated among Christian congregations in Africa, where he effected miraculous cures and was believed to intervene in the life of the community in a variety of ways to alleviate day-to-day hardships (whether the consequences of nature or the Roman government).6 Orosius, unable to reach his native Spain, also deposited relics of Stephen on the island of Minorca, where the saint inspired the local congregation to an onslaught against their neighbouring Jewish population, and achieved a mass conversion.7

Relics of St. Stephen Protomartyr @ St. Andrew Memorial Church, South Bound Brook, NJ)
Relics of St. Stephen Protomartyr @ St. Andrew Memorial Church, South Bound Brook, NJ)

The distribution of relics

The widespread distribution of Stephen’s relics, and the miraculous achievements associated with them, illustrate what has become a ‘fact of life’ in the Christian Roman empire of the early fifth century. Christian saints escape from their tombs to become the possession of congregations far and wide.8 Churches denied traditions associating them with apostles and martyrs could acquire such pedigree by the import of relics, to lend authority and prestige: by such means, as is familiar, the city of Constantinople sought to make up for its lack of Christian history.9 In the era of St Ambrose, new churches were dedicated at Milan and elsewhere in northern Italy over the shrines of apostolic relics which had become the prize of eastern pilgrimages.10 So Gaudentius, bishop of Brescia, housed relics which he had himself acquired on such a journey;11 while the Holy Land pilgrim Silvia (whom tradition also associates with Brescia) is said to have promised her friends in the West that she would return with the remains of ‘many martyrs from the East,12 This traffic was predominantly, but not exclusively, from east to west – there was a ‘counter-flow’, for instance, in the sample of the remains of the three Christian missionaries martyred in 397 by the pagans of the Val di Non which was sent to John Chrysostom in Constantinople;13 or the Roman relics of Peter and Paul which Theodosius I’s praetorian prefect Fl. Rufinus (brother-in-law, incidentally, of the pilgrim Silvia) transported to grace his new church across the Bosphorus at Chalcedon.14 Clearly there was already a considerable One final example befits a symposium on the Byzantine saint: chief among the remains which Gaudentius carried back to Brescia were those of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, which he had acquired from the family of bishop Basil at Caesarea – both Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, in their sermons on these martyrs, acclaim the ubiquity of the soldier-saints: ‘they are offered hospitality in many places, and adorn many lands’.15

L-R: Relic of the True Cross from Mt. Athos. Relic of 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. Relic of St. Necktarios (oval box). These relics are located at St. Anthony's Monastery, Florence, AZ.
L-R: Relic of the True Cross from Mt. Athos. Relic of 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. Relic of St. Necktarios (oval box). These relics are located at St. Anthony’s Monastery, Florence, AZ.

Concern about translations

It is not self-evident why this distribution and proliferation of relics should have arisen in the later fourth century, especially in view of the long-standing assumptions of antiquity about not interfering with the dead in their tombs. Laws continued to be issued in the late empire reaffirming the traditional prohibitions against tampering with the dead,16 and in 386 this was specifically applied to the martyrs; in a law addressed to the eastern praetorian prefect Theodosius ordered ‘no person shall transfer a buried body to another place [by the time of Justinian’s Code the clause ‘except with the permission of the emperor’ is added] ; no person shall sell the relics of a martyr; no person shall traffic in them […] ‘.17 Not only the powers of the state were marshalled to preserve the body in peace; on occasions the saints themselves communicated their wish not to be disturbed. As early as 259, at Tarragona in Spain, bishop Fructuosus made a post mortem appearance to prevent the separation of his ashes and to secure proper burial;18 while, in their so-called ‘Testament’, the Forty Martyrs leave specific directions against any division of their remains. 19 Delehaye long ago observed a difference of practice here between East and West, and that Western Christendom (far less richly endowed with tombs of apostles and martyrs) was reluctant to sanction the disturbance of precious remains: the Roman Church in the time of Gregory the Great was still affirming that the saints’ bodies were inviolable (though promoting sacred objects which had had contact with the remains as substitute relics).20 Not long before the bishop of Jerusalem was enthusiastically transferring Stephen’s newly-discovered relics into the basilica on Mount Sion, Exsuperius, bishop of Toulouse in Aquitania, had reluctantly contemplated the removal of the body of the local martyr Saturninus to a new church – he needed to be reassured by a dream, and by imperial authorisation.21 But if Ambrose’s energetic excavations of martyrs’ remains are any guide, not all western bishops were so particular in respecting the peace of the dead.22

Some church authorities strove at least to contain the enthusiasm for relics pervading their congregations. As the shrines and miraculous accomplishments of Stephen proliferated in the African province, Augustine instituted the practice of publicly authenticating and documenting the martyr’s achievements, both to give the miracles currency and also to guard against fraudulent claims23 he warned against bogus monks going the rounds with relics for sale, alleged to be those of martyrs.24 Similarly a council at Carthage in 401 had urged congregations against shrines and relics which were not authentic but merely the result of ‘dreams and empty revelations.’25 The search for authenticity and the acknowledgement of the possibilities of fraud only emphasise the degree to which the movement of relics was now incorporated into the life of the Church; as does its emergence as a subject of ecclesiastical debate. Jerome’s defence of the cult of relics against Vigilantius’ attacks on the veneration of mere ‘scraps of dust’ is perhaps the classic contemporary statement:

“While the devil and the demons wander through the whole world and present themselves everywhere, are martyrs after the shedding of their blood to be kept out of sight shut up in a coffin from whence they cannot escape?”26

Relics of St. Ambrose of Milan
Relics of St. Ambrose of Milan

Later Theodoret was to parade before pagan critics the salutary deeds of martyrs achieved through their scattered remains.27 One theme is common to all such treatises and sermons – and fundamental to the thinking behind the spread of relics: that the saint is indivisible and omnipresent, and wherever the smallest portion of his remains is to be found he is there in his entirety. Thus Gaudentius on his fragments of the Forty Martyrs, ‘pars ipsa, quam meruimus, plenitude est,.28 With such an argument the Church came to terms with the increasing dismemberment of its treasured saints.

The influence of the pagan past

We may wonder, with Vigilantius, what was the attraction for pious individuals and congregations in the possession of these bones and ashes. In some respects it seems to represent only the thinnest Christian veneer veiling the traditional practices of pagan antiquity. When St Makrina, for example, like many others, kept by her precious fragment of the wood of the Cross, it functioned much as a pagan talisman – a good luck charm to keep misfortune at bay.29 Superstition knew no religious boundaries. Similarly, relics deposited in churches afforded potent collective protection for congregations, even (of course) whole communities. 30 Yet there was more to this than institutionalised superstition. The saints who were present in diverse places through the mobility of their remains turn out to be late Roman patroni par excellence; their intercessions would vanquish the influence of earthly potentes. The language of patronage pervades our accounts of the accomplishments of saints and martyrs through their relics: so Gervasius and Protasius in Milan would overwhelm the forces of the Arian court of Valentinian II;31 so, too, Stephen, in effecting the conversion of the Jews in Minorca, outclassed the worldly standing and aristocratic prestige of the Jewish leaders.32 The record, furthermore, of Stephen’s interventions at Uzalis in north Africa is that of the patronus communis of the Christian congregation, behaving as a leading local citizen protecting the interests of his clients in the community.33 Not for nothing is emphasis placed on the relics representing the physical praesentia of the saint in the earthly community – access to his influence and patronage demanded that he be present in their midst, and not confined in a distant (and unknown) grave.

Relic of St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church with original authentics dated 1766 signed by Domenico Giordani.
Relic of St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church with original authentics dated 1766 signed by Domenico Giordani.

The relics of the Holy Land

The experience of these late Roman congregations may be illuminated by reference to a specific group of relics which came to the fore in the fourth century those from the holy places of Palestine.34 St Makrina’s fragment was only one of the many pieces of the wood of the Cross scattered, according to bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, all over the Mediterranean world.35 The enthusiasm to possess a portion of the sacred wood is vividly glimpsed in the story, told to the pilgrim Egeria in Jerusalem, of the worshipper who had bitten off a piece as he knelt down to kiss the relic.36 As with the remains of apostles and martyrs, so the wood of the Cross came to adorn the foundation of new churches: a martyrium at Tixter in Mauretania, for instance (359), or Sulpicius Severus’ new basilica at Primuliacum in Gaul (c.400).37 A close second in popularity to the True Cross was the earth from the Holy Land on which Christ had walked – St Augustine knew of an ex-official in his diocese who had a lump of Holy Land earth hanging in his bedroom.38 The favoured quarry for such soil was the spot at the summit of the Mount of Olives said to have borne Christ’s last footprints on earth before the Ascension (the footprints, like the True Cross in Jerusalem, were miraculously preserved despite the depradations of the relic-hunters).39 Another increasingly popular Holy Land relic (or very nearly a relic) was a small flask of oil from the lamps which burned at the Holy Sepulchre – the same variety of memento was favoured by devotees at the shrines of saints.40

06_08_28_relic_monica 06_08_28_relic_Augustine

We are in a position to understand something of the kind of devotion which surrounded the acquisition of these Holy Land relics thanks to the record of the early pilgrims at the holy places in the years after Constantine.41 There is already a clue in the ampullae, the oil-flasks mentioned above: surviving examples are distinguished by the realistic representations of the shrines at the holy places as they appeared to contemporary pilgrims – they give us an idea of what the holy places actually looked like.42 Pilgrims, we are reminded, went to the Holy Land not just to be there, where Christ had been, but also to see the evidence of his presence on earth before their eyes.43 For Jerome, it was the ‘eyes of faith’ which revealed to the pilgrim Paula the whole biblical scene in all its detail at the sites she visited – the Bethlehem manger and the surrounding characters assembled (even the star shining above), the Cross with Christ hanging upon it, and so on.44

Throughout her travels in the Holy Land hers was an essentially visual experience, conjuring up to a vivid imagination the biblical past in the Palestine of the present. The pilgrims’ experience was not confined to the New Testament: others, like Egeria, saw (for example) in the Sinai desert the very bush from which the Lord had spoken to Moses out of the fire, or saw in the sand on the shores of the Red Sea the tracks of the Egyptians’ chariot wheels disappearing into the waters.45 The imagination came to be aided not only by the constant reading of the appropriate biblical passages in situ but also, in Jerusalem, by the development of a distinctive church liturgy designed to re-enact, in strongly visual terms, the events of Christ’s life at the places where they had occurred.46 Egeria’s description of the round of worship in Jerusalem captures the immediacy and visual realism of experiences such as accompanying the bishop from the Mount of Olives into the city on Palm Sunday – a direct echo of Christ’s own entry into Jerusalem – or hearing the Passion narratives read at Golgotha on Good Friday: ‘you could hardly believe how every single one of them weeps during the three hours, old and young alike, because of the manner in which the Lord suffered for us.’47

The characteristic pilgrims’ response at the holy sites was thus, with the ‘eyes of faith’, to recreate the biblical past as a present reality; and to come away from the Holy Land with relics from the holy places, wood of the Cross, a portion of earth, was to enable that present reality to be recreated wherever the relics might come to rest. The experience of pilgrims in the Holy Land might thus become the experience of congregations far and wide, and of those who had never been anywhere near the holy places. The point is discussed by Paulinus of Nola in a letter he wrote to Sulpicius Severus to accompany a fragment of the Cross which he was sending for the dedication of Sulpicius’ new church at Primuliacum.48 All that Severus will see with the naked eye is a few scraps of wood: but his ‘interior eyesight’ will be stimulated to behold the whole series of biblical events surrounding the Crucifixion and their implications for belief – he will see ‘the whole force of the Cross in this tiny fragment’. Paulinus is sending the relic, he urges, so that Severus may possess the physical reality of the faith which he has long adhered to in the spirit. There seems little reason to doubt that Severus’ ‘interior eyesight’ here and the pilgrims’ ‘eyes of faith’ are one and the same; and that, through the medium of the relic of the Cross, the immediacy and vividness of the pilgrims’ experience is being reproduced far away from the Holy Land. The Cross and its implications are to be as present to the community in Aquitania as they are on Golgotha.


The part and the whole

Against this background the ubiquitous presence of the saint or martyr through the distribution of his remains becomes, I believe, less of an abstraction. Picture the scenes described by Jerome, as the remains of the prophet Samuel were transported from Palestine to the court of Arcadius at Constantinople: as the relics made their journey the route was lined by the faithful, linking the Holy Land to the Hellespont (so he asserts) in a unison chorus of acclamation; they were welcoming, not a casket of dust and ashes, but the prophet himself as though he were still among them ‘quasi praesentem viventemque’.49 The fragmentary relics were the visible testimony of the prophet’s continued presence. The same kind of language will be found characterising the devotion to martyrs and their relics. Asterios of Amaseia pictured the tomb of the martyr Phokas as evoking a vision of the saint’s life and martyrdom – and he has an explicit parallel with pilgrims at the Holy Land site of Mamre visualising the biblical history of Abraham and the patriarchs which the shrine commemorated so Gregory of Nyssa portrays the faithful approaching a casket of relics of the martyr Theodore:

“Those who behold them embrace them as though the actual living body, applying all their senses, eyes, mouth and ears; then they pour forth tears for his piety and suffering, and bring forward their supplications to the martyr as though he were present and complete” […J. 51


Victricius bishop of Rouen, an enthusiastic collector of relics, justifies the practice in similar terms: the physical remains, the ‘blood and gore’ (‘cruor et limus’) are what the eye sees; yet through this visual experience the ‘eyes of the heart’ (another variant of the ‘eyes of faith’) are opened to apprehend the presence of the saint himself – ‘where there is any part, there is the whole’.52 Victricius’ relics of saints have the same capability as Sulpicius Severus’ fragments of the Cross: to engender the effective presence of the saint in the Christian community which possessed his relics.

France's Amiens Cathedral contains a preserved skull (facial bone sans lower jaw) which is supposedly St. John the Baptist.
France’s Amiens Cathedral contains a preserved skull (facial bone sans lower jaw) which is supposedly St. John the Baptist.

The traffic in relics, then, may be seen to have originated from a species of devotion which hankered after physical objects and remains which could be seen to embody, for individual and community, the saint and his powers. That there were many whose piety had this concrete, visual propensity may be established from the evidence of pilgrims’ reactions to the holy places, and the evident reality, for them, of the biblical past which they commemorated. For the Church at large, the age of the martyrs was past; but that did not mean that their presence could not be revived (on a much more widespread scale than their previous earthly existence (through the circulation of their remains. It may be supposed that St Stephen was as real a presence to the Christian community in Minorca or to the congregations in north Africa as were the living holy men of Syria or Egypt – and his impact on local life comparable to theirs.

The purported head of Saint John the Baptist, enshrined in its own Roman side chapel in the San Silvestro in Capite, Rome
The purported head of Saint John the Baptist, enshrined in its own Roman side chapel in the San Silvestro in Capite, Rome


  1. For a recent summary of the political background, see J .N.D. Kelly, Jerome: his life, writings and controversies (London 1975), 317ff.
  2. The text of the Epistultz Luciani (Avitus’ Latin translation of the presbyter’s account) is to be found in PL 807ff.
  3. Basil Seleuc. 42 (PC 85. 469).
  4. Chronographia, s.a. 420 (ed. de Boor, 86-7): a fragment of Stephen’s right hand in return for Theodosius’ gift of a gilded cross for Golgotha.
  5. For Orosius as the bearer of the relics, see Aviti, PL 41. 805-8.
  6. For the arrival of the relicli in Africa, see Augustine, 317-8 (PL 38. 1435ff.), and the record of miraculous cures in Civ. Dei xxii.8. For incidents at Uzalis, De Miraculis S. Stephani (PL 41. 833ff.).
  7. The events are described in the Letter of Severns, bishop of Minorca, PL 82Iff.
  8. The classic study remains H. Delehaye, Les origines du culte des martyrs (SubsHag 20 (1933]), ‘Developpements du culte des martyrs’.
  9. g. Philostorgius, HE iii.2 (Andrew, Luke, Timothy); cf. Jerome, Chron. (ed. Helm) s.a. 356, with G. Dagron, NaiSSllnce d’une capitale (Paris 1974), 409.
  10. See E.D. Hunt, ‘St Silvia of Aquitaine’,JTS 23 (972),370-1.
  11. Gaudentius, xvii. 14ff. (ed. Glueck, CSEL 68).
  12. Not. Ep. 31.1. On Brescia, see iTS 23 (1972), 362ff. and P. Devos, ‘Silvie la sainte pelerine II’, AnalBolln (1974), 321ff.
  13. Trident. Ep. 2 (PL 13. 552ft).
  14. Callinicus, Vita Hypatii, 66 (ed. Bartelink [SC 177),98); on Rufinus, see John Matthews, Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court (Oxford 1975), 134ff.
  15. The story of the Forty Martyrs (its first appearance in the West) is the theme ofGaudentius, xvii (loc.cit); cf. Basil Caesar. at PC 31.521, and Greg.Nys. at PC 46. 784.
  16. CTh 17, passim; e.g. ix.17.4 (356): ‘nothing has been derogated from that punishment which is known to have been imposed on violators of tombs’.
  17. CTh 17.7, with Cl iii.44.14.
  18. Martyrium Fructuosi, 3 (H. Musurillo, The acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford 1972], 182).
  19. Testament of the Forty Martyrs, 3 (Musurillo, 354).
  20. Delehaye, Les origines,
  21. , 67 (citing the Acta Saturnini)
  22. In addition to Sts Gervasius and Protasius, Ambrose brought to light Sts Vitalis and Agricola, and Sts Nazarius and Celsus; cf. F. Homes Dudden, The Life and Times of St Ambrose (Oxford 1935), 316ff., and Delehaye, Les origines, 75-80.
  23. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (London 1967), 414-5, based on fundamental studies by Delehaye. For the text of a libellus documenting authentic cures, see August. Serm. 322 (PL 38. 1443).
  24. De opere monachorum, 36.
  25. Carthag. 13 Sept 401 (CChr 149, 204)
  26. Contra Vigil. 6; on the treatise in general, Kelly, Jerome, 286ff.
  27. Theodoret, Cure of Pagan Ills, lO-ll (ed. P. Canivet [SC 57]): ‘no one grave conceals the bodies of each of them, but they are shared out among towns and villages, which call them saviours of souls and bodies, and doctors, and honour them as founders and protectors [… )’.
  28. Tract. xvii.35-6; cf. Theodoret, loc.cit., with Chromat. Aquilei. (ed. J. Lemarie, SC 164) Sermon 26.1 Paul.Nol. Corm. 27.440ff., Victricius, below, 179.
  29. Nys. Vita Macrinae, 30 (P. Maraval [SC 178], 240ff, with notes). Cf. Jerome, Comm. in Matt. iv, 23.5 (CChr 77.212), on the phylactenes carried by ‘superstitiosae mulierculae’.
  30. As at Primuliacum: Paul.Nol. 31.1
  31. g. Ambr. Ep. 22.10
  32. At Severi 4 (PL 41. 823).
  33. De miraculis Stephani, iLl (PL 41. 843); cf. P. Brown, Augustine ofHippo, 413.
  34. For a catalogue of Holy Land relics, see B. Bagatti, ‘Eulogie Palestinesi’ OCP 15 (1949), 126-66.
  35. Cyril, Catecheses, 10, x.19, xiiiA. For testimonia of the fragments of the Cross, see A. Frolow, La relique de la vraie croix (Paris 1961), 155ff.
  36. Eg. 37.2.
  37. Tixter: MEFR 10 (1890),440-68 (=CIL viii, suppl.iii, 20600]; cf. similar dedication at Rusguniae, CIL viii, 9255 (with J.F. Matthews, CR 88 (1974],104). Primuliacum: Paul. Ep.31.1.
  38. Civ. Dei, xxii.8 (CChr 48. 820); cr. the Donatists who venerated earth from the Holy Land, id. Ep. 52.2.
  39. Sev. Chron. ii.33.8; cf. Paul.Nol. Ep. 31.6 (on the Cross)
  40. On these flasks, cr. Anton. Placent. 20 (CChr 175. 139). Martyr-shrines: Joh.Chrys. Hom. in Martyres, PC 50. 665: ‘Lobe efaion hagion (…J’.
  41. For the texts, see ltineraria et alia geographica (CChr 175 (1965]), and translations by J.D. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels (London 1971) and Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades (Warminster 1978).
  42. See A. Grabar, Ampoules de Te”e Sainte (paris 1958). For their use in reconstructing the original building at the Sepulchre, cf. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, , and ‘The Tomb of Christ’, Levant 4 (1972), 83-97.
  43. Nol. Ep. 49.14
  44. Jerome, 108.9ff; cf. Kelly, Jerome, U8ff., on Paula’s ’emotional transports’. For Jerome’s more succinct version of his own experience, see Apol.c.Ruf iii.22
  45. Burning Bush: Eg. 4.6ff., Chariot tracks: Pet. Diac. (deriving from Egeria) Y5 (CChr 175. 100-1); Orosius, Hist. i.10.17, knew they were still visible.
  46. The liturgy is described by Egeria, Eg, 24ff.; cf. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, 54ff. The best modern study is A. Renoux’s introduction to his edition of the Armenian Lectionary, PO 35 (1969). For Bible-reading, cr. It.Eg. 4.3 (10.7.
  47. Palm Sunday: Eg. 31 (ND 31.3) Good Friday: ibid. 37.7.
  48. Nol. Ep. 31.lff.; the fragment had been brought from Jerusalem by Paulinus’ kinswoman, Melania the elder.
  49. Vigilant. 5. For Samuel’s arrival in Constantinople, cf. Chron. Pasch. s.a. 406 (ed. Dindorf,569).
  50. ix, PG 40. 301-4: the worshippers become ‘spectators’ of the biblical record.
  51. in S. Theod. PG 46. 740B.
  52. De Laude Sanctorum, 10.
Relic of the skull of Saint John the Baptist in Munich.
Relic of the skull of Saint John the Baptist in Munich.