The Abbot’s Sexual “Right” In Pre-Modern Romanian and Other European Culture (Andrei Oisteanu, 2016)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Studies in the History of Religions XIXXX:317-351.


  • “Do as the Priest Says, Not as the Priest Does!”
  • “I Worship the Icons | My Eyes on the Matrons”
  • Men vs Women: Isolation And Discrimination
  • “The Abbots’ Right Over Gypsy Women”
  • Homosexuality and Pedophilia in the Monasteries


At the beginning of the 18th century, Romanian Metropolitan Antim Ivireanul created, through his Didahii (Sermons), a genuine “theology of sin,” setting the stage for the immorality of erotic voluptuousness. To him, women were “reprobate and tempting to evil things.” All vices, but especially sexual ones (“the bitter sweetness of foul fornication”) were demonized by the Metropolitan (“He who sins is from the Devil”), Hell being “the consummate payment for sin”:

“Think […] that you have defiled your soul with fornications, adulteries, sodomies, soblazne-s [= pollutions], with debaucheries and food galore; your hands, with foul fondling [= masturbation], with perversions and rapes [= sexual violations], with killings and others.” Didachies (Sermons), 1709-1716.

The metropolitan was speaking not only to Christian laymen, but also to clerics, handing them genuine “textbooks of the confessor.” The confessor had to know “how he will question” the wretched sinner during “confession” and “how to bring him back to the righteous path” (Teachings for Confession, 1710).1

…Most of the sins confessed into the priest’s ear were surely those of an erotic nature. As Michel Foucault put it: “sex has been the privileged matter of confession.”2 Compared to the rigorism of the clerics, the peasants’ mentality was more flexible, more permissive…Quite often, however, the confessors needed confessors themselves, as they were not immune to the temptation of sin either…More than that, “due to uninterrupted idleness and abundant food,” some clerics “are naturally more exposed to the temptation of the body than other people.”3

The sinner’s confession took place in the intimate and dark space of the confessional or, with the Orthodox Christians, in a less “hygienic” space, under the priest’s apron (patrafir, Neo-Greek epitrahilion = “around the neck”).4 The confessor (who played the role of the psychiatrist in ancient times) had to know relevant details, but he also wanted to hear them. Listening to countless illicit sexual exploits, told by their parishioners with hundreds of licentious details, the confessors saw them with the mind’s eye, becoming inclined towards erotic fantasies. They were prone to sin first “in thought” and then “in deed.” As an old Romanian proverb goes, which was recorded in a manuscript dating back to the middle of the 18th century: “The appetite for fornication is much whetted by gazing” (Mss. BAR no. 273, 1759)5 . “Gazing,” but also “lending an ear” whets “the appetite for fornication.” That is what Antim Ivireanu also said explicitly, at the beginning of the 18th century:

“You have defiled your ears with dirty songs and words […] you have [defiled] your eyes with impious sights and signs of fornication” (Didahii [Sermons], 1709-1716).

“There are men who rape a woman with their eyes,” says a character from a novel by Octav Şuluţiu (Ambigen, 1935)6. The sensory system plays a paramount role. The rest is a matter of the imagination. The main sexual organ is not the penis or the vagina, but the brain.

One of the first Romanian poets who addressed the hypocrisy of the Christian Orthodox priests was Alecu Văcărescu, around 1795: “Should a priest walk your way | He acts in a hallowed way | But he’s masked his face away.”7 When Eminescu wrote in a poem (Egipetul, 1872) about the “debauched clergy,” he was surely not referring only to ancient Egyptian clergymen. Presumably, he also had in mind contemporary Romanian, Christian Orthodox clerics. There are many debauched priests and monks in Romanian literature…

A caricature on the cover of a Romanian magazine, 1896, representing a hetero- and homosexual orgy of members of the clergy.
A caricature on the cover of a Romanian magazine, 1896, representing a hetero- and homosexual orgy of members of the clergy.

Even when they were married, some Orthodox priests would not refrain from bedding one of their women parishioners or from raping a maid. The following is the real testimony, from a complaint dating back to 1791, submitted to the Metropolitan’s office and probably signed by a neighbour, who bears witness to the way in which a certain Father Toma had raped and deflowered his young maid, Pena:

“(One evening), as he came back home drunk, [Father Toma] beat up his wife and threw her out of the house and then he turned upon this girl [Pena] and spoiled [=deflowered] her. And to prevent her from shouting, he gagged her. And he repeated that exploit twice that night.”8

Following the girl’s complaint, the Metropolitan’s office launched an inquiry, opening a “case.” The confrontation was, however, asymmetrical and unjust. The priest’s sexual privileges, even if they are not provided for (and are even banned) by law, through custom and use, became tradition, into lex non scripta: “[b]ut the legal battle did not give [the maid] a winning hand”, Constanţa Vintilă-Ghiţulescu rightly comments, “for the priest had on his side his friends from the slum, his prestige and his power. To denounce such a master involved much greater risks than keeping the secret: losing the job, dishonour, the impossibility of finding another job.”9

In their turn, abbots and monks from Christian Orthodox monasteries were not guileless either. On seeing a beautiful maiden, they feared they would be tempted to sin:

The poor monk’s desire, See his soul burning on fire […] Where he sees a maiden fair His frock is blown in the air, For his soul is in despair, Afraid a great sin to bear!10

Obviously, some monks got over their “fear to sin” and raped girls. One of them, in a monastery in Moldova, in 1739, tried (without success) to avoid sanctions (“beating” and “gaol punishment”), confessing that it had been a freely consensual act, not a sexual violation: “with the girl’s approval he committed fornication, not forcefully.”11

The monk and priest Eufrosin Poteca (1785-1858), the future prior of the Gura Motrului monastery, also suffered from “the disease of loving maidens,” being always “consumed by love” and feeling “in the depths of his heart, the fire of love” for fair maidens. These are almost innocent vices, which, he claimed, he had to experiment in order to be able afterwards “to bring others to the right path as well”: “I wanted to learn better the passion of love so that I might learn by trial and error how I might lead others to the right path, too.”12

Small wonder that the reformist theologian was deeply resented by the senior clergy of the Romanian Orthodox Church. For the early decades of the 19th century, but not only, Eufrosin Poteca behaved at the limit of scandal and sacrilege. As to Prior Eufrosin Poteca, the Metropolitan was “full of rabid venom.”

Eufrosin Poteca promoted a sort of “erotic mysticism,” as George Călinescu dubbed it. In 1828, for instance, while in Pest, the Romanian monk and priest experienced a state of supreme spiritualization, of mystic de-materialization (“she seemed to have turned me all into spirit), making love to “a mystery maiden.” A very beautiful maiden, true, but who proved to be of light mores, “a harlot”:

“[The girl] was very pretty, indeed, like a fresh rose bud, like an angel, like a goddess […] We slept together in bed and we tasted a sweetness, a pleasure which to me, seemed a blessing from God […]. She seemed to have turned me all into spirit.”13

And all this, he confesses to the reader, not because he might have been a “virgin,” it was “as if he hadn’t known a woman before.” More than anything, the reformist priest-monk and Prior Eufrosin Poteca stood up against monastic asceticism. “He did not fast or bow down to the ground in church,” G. Călinescu wrote. He lamented his fate (and the fate of the monk in general) of leading a sad and unfulfilled life without a wife: “[t]his is a life against nature, against the consorting law, against God.”14


A whole chapter in the index of folk motifs by ethnologist Stith Thompson (Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 1932-1937; T330- T350) is devoted to the theme of folk tales and legends related to the sexual temptations of monks and hermits: T350. Anachorites under temptation.15

The monks in Buddhist monasteries were banned from all sexual activities: masturbation, sodomy, zoophilia, etc. As we have seen, it is precisely the bans of some practices that prove their existence. However, paradoxically, the greatest sin was the heterosexual sex act. A woman could not be penetrated by a monk in any of “the three impure orifices” (the vagina, the anus, the mouth). The erect penis was not allowed to penetrate inside “not even the length of a sesame seed,” according to the Buddhist texts.16

…For the Christian-Orthodox space, see Cânticul călugărului (The Monk’s Song), collected at the middle of the 19th century by Vasile Alecsandri17 and the song Călugăritul (Donning the Monk’s Frock), collected around 1868 from the repertory of the Bucharest Gypsy rhapsodists by G. Dem. Teodorescu18, a great admirer of Eufrosin Poteca19. The poor monk lived in a true state of schizophrenia, his eyes and his mind juggling “from icons to matrons”20 and “from (the pages of) the Bible,” to “fair maids”:

I was not good for the frock, For my heart is like a rock, Nor was I good for the cloth, But for love I am no sloth, ‘Cos I worship all the icons My eyes set on the fair matrons, As I read, the Bible fades When I watch the fairest maids, When a fair maid walks my track, My frock shivers on my back. The Monk’s Song, 1856. 21

Continuing the Orthodox tradition of hypocritical pietism, Fr. Luke Melackrinos was suspended for sending lewd selfies to a female parishioner.
Continuing the Orthodox tradition of hypocritical pietism, Fr. Luke Melackrinos was suspended for sending lewd selfies to a female parishioner.


Or, as one of those “matrons” sexually harassed around the nooks and corners of the church might say, the priest or the monk is “His mind all to the Kingdom come, his hands deep in my bosom.” That is a popular saying collected by the beginning of the 19th century “by Lord Governor (dvornic) Iordache Golescul” (Pilde i tâlcuirea lor (Parables And Their Meaning), c. 1832). 22 Sometimes, worshipping icons and reciting verses from the Holy Book could appease sexual impulses. In other cases, it did not work that way:

When to church I go to pray, My lover stands in my way, I try to worship the icons, My lover around me fawns, He beguiles me from my canons; I pray and I cross my heart, My lover thinks it is smart To think that hell won’t us part. Tulip leaves will entwine, Lord, it is no fault of mine: If my sins do make me blunt My lover should bear the brunt. La biserică (In Church), 1871. 23

The Christian icons (and the saintly women painted on them) are not always remedies that repress the erotic fantasies of the monks, secluded behind the walls of their monasteries. On the contrary, they even provoke fantasies, verging on blasphemy.  It is not by accident that Gustave Flaubert (The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1872) imagines the Christian theologian Tertullian (early 3rd century AD) urging “the smashing of icons” (that was a long time before the iconoclastic crisis), as a proponent of asceticism and of the cultivation of values:

“Smash the icons! Cover the virgins with veils! Pray, fast, cry, make penance!”24

Even if the religious motivation is replaced by the sociopolitical one, we are not too far from the romantic revolt of Eminescu’s proletarian, who claimed the smashing of “all that entices their sick heart”, of all that sparks “the voluptuousness of the ribald orgy”:

Smash down the antique bronze that Venus naked shows, Let pictures that do wickedly entice be brought to dust.Emperor and Proletarian, 1874. 25

…The monk Hans (Adeodatus, by his monastic name) – a character imagined by novelist Liviu Rebreanu (Adam şi Eva [Adam and Eve], 1925) – passionately falls in love with the icon of the Holy Virgin adorning his cell in the Abbey of Lorsch, near the town of Worms, in Germany: an icon which had accompanied all his trials as a young man, throughout his monastic life. Adoring the icon, he had started to notice the anatomical details of the painted body of the Holy Virgin, her “alluring and caressing” eyes, her “beguiling” smile, “(her) round bosom heaving under the silky gown,” etc. Eventually, due to his erotic fantasies, the monk’s love for the icon becomes carnal, bodily, sexual:

| “Adeodatus took the icon, with both hands, and kissed it rapturously, without realizing that his passion might be unholy. (…) The Virgin Mary seemed like any woman of flesh and blood, and he himself, without true faith in his soul. And they made love with a sinful love: they embraced each other passionately and bit their lips with such devilish pleasure that, waking up, he still felt for a few moments, in all his body, that damning voluptuousness. […] All day long, he flogged his body, but he dared not glance at the icon. And the following night, the dream repeated itself, even more wicked than before. (…) And the third night, the same.”26

…It might be that the apocalyptic state around him, the Sodom and Gomorrah atmosphere, is leading the monk towards such “Satanic” fantasies. It must be the millennium crisis situation, of a “world gone out of joint,” which motivated and pushed Rebreanu to insert that strange episode into his strange novel…

Obviously, not only the monks, but also the nuns – “the brides of Christ” – were (are) dominated by sexual impulses in the convent. “With a courtesan’s smile and a churchgoer’s eyes,” as Eminescu might say (Scrisoarea [Letter] V, 1881).27 Unbridled, these propensities can lead to the supreme sin, of replacing religious feelings with erotic ones. Even worse, to replacing their supreme “groom,” Jesus Christ, with a young, beautiful and very much alive layman, of flesh and blood:

“Woe betide the poor nun, For her heart is on the run, Where she sees a handsome lad, Her white veil will billow glad, Where she sees a youth, Her step’s small in sooth, For she would follow, smooth; Where she sees a dapper man She bends down as much she can To pray, like to Jesus then.”28

Obviously, the sin is lurking around the nun all the more so as to bring the sinning layman closer to her. As the popular saying goes, which was reported by Governor Iordache Golescu around 1832: “I tell him that I’m a nun and he unties my pants (to tell the brassy ones).”29

In the first decades of the 19th century, the custom had it that some of the daughters of the boyars from Moldova should take the veil, especially at the Agapia and Văratec convents in northern Moldova. That is how two younger sisters of Gheorghe Sion took that path. Around 1840-1841, Gheorghe Sion (then aged 18-19) led them to the Agapia nunnery. He spent three to four days there, and he met many novice nuns, all coming from aristocratic families:

“Some (young nuns) were so fair,” Gheorghe Sion reminisced, “and even, God forbid, so flirtatious, that, had I not feared to sin and had I not been naïve and shy (as I was at that time), who knows how many sins I would have burdened my soul with! (…) Besides the jams, cups of coffee, breakfasts and lunches I was treated to (by these nuns), I felt bathed in their charming glances and rocked in dreams of voluptuousness.”30

Constanţa Vintilă-Ghiţulescu associates this story with the fact that, at the same time (1 st May 1844), upon the express request of the Metropolitan, reigning Prince Mihai Sturdza issued an order for young unmarried men to avoid visiting the Agapia and Văratec convents, where they would have gone only to commit “misdeeds.” “In other words,” – the scholar concludes – “to twist the minds of the young nuns. Knowing the story of Anton Pann or of Barbu Mumuleanu, we also know why the Prince was right to be worried…” 31

In a well known apocryphal text, The Apocalypse of the Holy Mother, which has some eighty versions in the Romanian language, attested to the 18th -19th centuries, the “Pregesta” (The Holy Mother of God) visits Hell and sees the sinners doomed to infernal ordeals. The wanton nuns have a special place in “The River of Fire.” At some point, “The Holy Mother of God saw another place of great toil, and only women labouring there”: “These are the nuns which have slipped into fornication (…) and are led by their carnal desires, and who do not seek to redeem their souls from sins.”32

In an article dating from 1922, Tudor Arghezi raised his voice against the common mentality that perceived the monk as a “hypocritical libidinous man.” The great poet and publicist considered that it was just a stereotype, a bias, a mental cliché:

“Whoever sees in monasticism the permanently present image of sex, and nothing else, is making a simplistic and vulgar judgment.”33 However, Arghezi realized that erotic drives are hard to rein in during a prolonged monastic seclusion. In a poem also written in the 1920s, he tried to describe the sexual fantasies of an ordinary deacon, Iakint (a kind of Eufrosin Poteca). It is about the phantasms experienced by a deacon during the period of spiritual and food fasting which the other monks from the monastery observed before the Easter holidays:

While all the hermits, Lord, it grieves, Are punishing themselves, like thieves, With bitter fasting and obedience, In Holy Week, doing their penance, In his small cell (the deacon’s), last night, A real girl made darkness bright With her firm breasts and narrow hips Of Florentine lute, an ellipse. Mâhniri [Sorrows], 1927.34

The materialization of the deacon’s erotic vision was so strong, so concrete and real, that even the almighty God, “who sees all,” caught a glimpse of the girl, as she sneaked out from monk Iakint’s cell, in the morning.

The love of beauty, specific to God, can mitigate the guilt of some sins committed “willingly and unwillingly,” “in deed,” but also “in thought.” As we have seen, for the rigorist Antim Ivireanul, the eyes are soiled “with unbecoming views and with signs of fornication” (Didahii [Sermons], 1709-1716). As Cantemir put it: “by day and night, he would punish and torment himself in his thought even worse and in a more terrible fashion than in his body” (Istoria ieroglifică [The Hieroglyphic History], 1705)…


In the sacred spaces of the temples, the meeting and the nearness of men and women were limited, if not altogether banned. The mere sight of a woman was considered to be apt to distract a man’s concentration from “the things holy.” An erection could even happen in the space of a church, as happens, according to the Romanian popular saying: “The poor man’s oxen won’t pull the cart, his bread falls in the mud and his cock gets a rise in church.” That is why special, isolated, places have been imagined and built for women in churches, synagogues and mosques. The idea is to isolate women, doubled by their discrimination. Not only did women sit completely separated from men in synagogues and in mosques (on a floor upstairs, behind a parting screen), but sometimes they also had separate entrances (like in the Choral Temple, built in Bucharest over 1864-1866). Sometimes, in the Jewish quarters of some mediaeval cities (for instance, in the judería from the city of Gerona, in Catalonia), there were so-called “women’s streets,” which they could use to get to the synagogue, without meeting men on their road.

The worshipping men used to sit (in the conservative regions they still do) separated from the women in the Christian Orthodox churches too, even if not on different floors. The men sat in front, in the naos, and the women at the back, in the pronaos.35 Or the men sat to the right side of the naos, while the women sat on the left. The gender considered “weaker” (the woman) was seated on the side which was considered “weaker” (the left)36. Exceptionally, following the Islamic (Turkish) model, even in some Christian Orthodox churches in Romania, the women sat on a different floor.37 As I have said, the separation of men from women goes hand in hand with the negative discrimination of the latter. In the synagogue, church or mosque, the place destined for women is always in a less favourable space, a “weaker” space from a symbolic and ritual point of view: behind a screen, on a higher floor (on a different floor than the altar and the officiating priest); in the pronaos or in the back (further away from the altar); in the naos, but on the left, etc.

Another way to limit the temptation of men (this time, of Christian monks) is the interdiction of women to enter the precincts of a monastery dressed in an “immodest” (“indecent”) way, or with their hair untied and uncovered. There are also other places where there are prohibitions for women, regarding “immodest clothes”: in the public space in some Islamic states, but also in the district of the ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, called Mea She’arim (“One Hundred Gates”).

In some monastic spaces, the presence of women is totally prohibited. The best known case is the monastic complex at Mt. Athos (20 monasteries and 12 hermitages), where the interdiction of women is total. “If women came here, – one monk from Mount Athos said, – two-thirds of us would follow them and would get married.”38 This is, of course, an exaggeration, but a significant one. From the so-called “ascetics of the wilderness” (3rd -4 th centuries A.D.) to the monks from Mt. Athos, the total repression of any sexual intercourse (happening “in thought or in deed”) was a steadfast rule: “Looking at a female, even at a chicken,” – as I. P. Culianu ironically said – “posed a great spiritual danger.”39

An old monastic parable – also reported by Culianu, – says much about the monk’s interdiction to look at (to admire) a girl, even accidentally. The hero of this story is Serbian Athonite monk St Sava (1175-1235), the founder of the Hilandar monastery on Mount Athos, who became the first archbishop of the autocephalous Serbian Orthodox Church, and was later canonised. The parable attests to a test of monastic restrictions, of total erotic abstinence. Whoever failed the test was excluded:

“When the old Saba (= Sava) and a disciple walked on their way past a good-looking girl, Saba said that she had only one eye, and his disciple protested: he had seen that the girl had both eyes. That had been however, a trick of Saba’s, to see if his disciple had taken a good look at the girl. Then the disciple was driven away.”40


Besides the settlements of “princes’ gypsies” and of “boyars’ gypsies,” there were also gypsy slaves living around the monasteries in Wallachia and Moldova. They are the so-called “monastery gypsies”.41 In this case, the “abbot’s right” (that of the egumen, in Romanian: from the Neo-Greek igúmenos), worked just as the “boyar’s right” worked over “the boyar’s gypsies”.42 Speaking of the sexual privileges which the boyars arrogated over the young slaves, historian Radu Rosetti synthesized in a few lines the similarity of behavior with that of abbots in monasteries of the 18th century, and the first half of the 19th century:

“You should not believe that only the lay masters (the boyars) used royal rights over the gypsy women belonging to them: these slaves made up genuine harems for the abbots of the monasteries which the generosity of the pious donors had endowed with a great many gypsy souls. Especially the Greek abbots of the dedicated monasteries had a reputation of knowing how to build up seraglios of gypsy beauties, through exchanges (of slaves).”43

…It is not only the lord of the land that was entitled to ius primae noctis over the boyars’ slaves, but also the abbot, over the monastery slaves. Let us switch to the non-fiction area. Some documents attest to the existence of this situation until very late. In 1843 (and previously, in 1836), the slaves from the Râncăciov Monastery (Muscel county) sent a complaint to Wallachia’s ruling Prince Gheorghe Bibescu (and previously to ruling Prince Alexandru Ghica), exposing the “tyrannical” behaviour of the “famous abbot, Father David.” One of the complaints in the princely supplication went as follows:

“Our daughters who are of marrying age, if we want to marry them to a lad, the abbot hides them and he puts them under lock and key, with his armed guards, ordering us first to take the girls to his Holiness, to deflower them, and then only to be free to marry them”44

The supplicant slaves – who most probably were helped by a lawyer – note the fact that the abbot illegally applied this sexual “right” (“like a lawless man”), both from ecclesiastic and legal points of view: “a consequence totally alien to the church and political laws.” Moreover, as we saw how things happened with the boyars, the abbot’s erotic privileges did not stop only at the gypsy women slaves of the monastery, but extended over “the wives in the village with (whom) he has his pleasure.”

The sexual slippages of the priors and abbots were so usual that they could be invoked even when they did not happen. Blaming them was quite likely, even if the erotic abuses of the monks were not always real, but on occasion estaged. In the spring of 1785, for instance, a girl named Stana went to Prior Gavrilă (a confessor at the Radu-Vodă monastery in Bucharest) to pay the rent for the hovel on the monastery estate where she was living. The monk jokingly made some sexual innuendos to the girl, but nothing more. However, prodded by a neighbour, the young Stana sent a complaint to the Metropolitan, alleging that she was raped and deflowered, thinking that “she would get 300 thalers from the confessor”: “Then, at the moment of giving the money (for the rent), the said Prior (Gavrilă) allegedly took her in his cell and spoilt her virginity.”

Fr. George Passias inhaling Ethel Bouzalas' feet.
Fr. George Passias inhaling Ethel Bouzalas’ feet.

To stay in the spirit of the age, we are not too far from the stories told by Marquis de Sade, in his novel Justine (Justine ou Les Malheurs de la vertu, 1791). The accusation brought against prior Gavrilă was easy to believe. It was plausible because, at the time, in the monastic environment, that was a fairly common sin. In order to be even more persuasive, Stana cut a chicken’s crest and, with the blood dripping from it, smeared her blouse, as a proof of the deflowering. Although some witnesses (especially women neighbors), conniving with Stana, defended her version, the Metropolitan council ruled in favour of Prior Gavrilă, also taking into account that the poor man was old, sick and impotent: “And even more vigorously as we have ascertained (Confessor Gavrilă) is also a man tormented by rupture (hernia) and he is also past his prime.”45

For her false statements and perjury, Stana was banished to the convent of Viforâta, near the town of Târgovişte (Wallachia).

This true story reminds me of a hagiographic legend from the collection Vieţile sfinţilor (The Lives of The Saints).46 It is an etiological legend about the genesis of the Gypsy people, told by Costache Negruzzi in 1839. Negruzzi’s text is titled exactly like this: Pentru ce ţiganii nu sunt români (Why Gypsies Are Not Romanians).47 It says that several heretics, some “lost sheep,” complained to ecclesiastic authorities that Bishop Gregory (Grigorie) was a sexual profligate and that he had a mistress, “a young and beautiful girl.” A priestly synod was sent to the place to look into the facts. And indeed, in the bishop’s bedroom, they discovered “a young girl,” in a state of “scandalous lack of clothing.” The bishop was sentenced to death. But in order to convince the priests that “he doesn’t know what the sin of fornication” is, St. Gregory “lifted the hem of his frock.” And then, “the gathering was dumbstruck, for the holy father was…like Abeilard [sic]”. In other words, he was castrated, just as had happened to French theologian Pierre Abélard (1079-1142), as a punishment for having deflowered his beloved Héloїse. St. Gregory was exonerated, and the heretics who had “badmouthed the man of God” were cursed to be “black skinned,” “to live from thieving,” and “in eternal slavery from father to son,” with their owner “having the right to sell them as beasts,” “to call them Gypsies,” etc. “The Romanians immediately rushed in and took them as slaves.” This is how the Gypsy population allegedly appeared in the world…48

Sifting through and reading the supplications kept at the Department of National Archives, researcher Constanţa Vintilă- Ghiţulescu found many important social history documents. Some of them are related to the subject under discussion. Here, for instance, is a case dating from the end of the 18th century, which happened in a monastery in Wallachia. The Butoiu Monastery (village of Potoc, Dâmboviţa county) was rebuilt in 1648-1649, under ruling Prince Matei Basarab, who also endowed it with a settlement of Gypsy slaves. At the beginning of the year 1799, some Gypsies belonging to this monastery mustered their courage and complained to father Climent (probably a bishop) and then higher up, to his Holiness the Metropolitan, alleging that Abbot Ignat lived with a young slave woman, Gherghina, and also committed other abuses. In their complaint, they alleged that “due to one woman called Gherghina the gypsy, we cannot live.”

It is interesting that if a boyar had been in the same situation as the abbot, the civil authorities (“the lay judge”) would not have intervened at all. The boyar would not have infringed any rule, be it legal or moral. The sexual “right” of the boyar over the Gypsy women slaves from the settlements on his estate was tacitly recognized by everybody, even if it was based only on an archaic custom, on a lex non scripta. An unwritten law which dates back to the Greek-Roman Antiquity. Artemidorus of Ephesus, for instance, defined as being “links in keeping with the norm” (kata nomon) the sexual relations between a master and his slave, be the latter “a man or a woman.” “Unfit for the norm” (para nomon) would have been only if the slave had been the one who “possessed” the master, not the other way round: “It is no good to let yourself to be possessed by the slave: through his touch, he would show contempt towards you.”49

In the case of Butoiu monastery, however, the monk was not violating the lay norms, but those of the church. Even more, the actions of the abbot ran counter to the rules of monastic asceticism. In keeping with their own regulations, the ecclesiastical authorities were compelled to intervene, be it only to appease public opinion. Indeed, in the summer of 1799, the Metropolitan’s office sent a group of priests, led by Father Nicodim, to investigate the case and to propose possible sanctions, This is what the situation in Bucharest looked like, at the beginning of the 19th century:

“Besides the jail, besides the police prison from the dungeons of the Old Princely Court, and the vaults of the military governor and of the Aga, the Metropolitan also had a jail for priests.50

Returning to the case of the Butoiu Monastery, before the authorities, even the ecclesiastical, all the slaves from the settlement (except for the signatories of the complaint) were afraid to confirm the situation which was known to all the Roma community. Especially as they were accused of sending over the complaint. The fear of the authorities was a typical behavioural attitude for the traditional Romanian society. That psycho-social illness has tenaciously survived to date. For the collective mind, nothing good could come from the authorities. Be they administrative or ecclesiastical, central or local, police or financial, the authorities in the Romanian space have been high-handed, corrupt, abusive and punitive over the centuries. The situation was even more dramatic with respect to “aliens” (Romas, Jews, etc.). As such, the Romas under investigation at the Butoiu Monastery in 1799 shrugged in fear, insisting they knew nothing: “(We) had no idea, nor did we prompt them to make a complaint.” Eventually, it seems that Abbot Ignat was not found guilty of fornication with the Gypsy woman slave Gherghina. The only culprits were the elderly Gypsies from the settlement. Headed by their chieftains, Nedelco and Stan, they wrote (probably under dictation) and signed a deed whereby they pledged to make the younger slaves “more submissive”: “In duty being bound, we, the elders, to advise all the other younger ones to do good and to be submissive.”51


Seraphim Storheim, former OCA Archbishop of Canada, was convicted of sexually assaulting a young altar boy at a Winnipeg church has been demoted to a monk.
Seraphim Storheim, former OCA Archbishop of Canada, was convicted of sexually assaulting a young altar boy at a Winnipeg church has been demoted to a monk.

Exactly ten years later, in February 1809, things repeated at the same Butunoiu Monastery. This time, another abbot was accused by another two slaves of the monastery of other “frightening deeds,” including homosexuality, pedophilia and rape:

“For abbot Constantin there have been many a complaint against him, that for a while now he has fallen into fornications (…); also that for a young gypsy boy that he started to rape him.”

This was a copycat scenario: the dean sent an investigating commission to look into the case, and the Gypsies were herded “in front of the church” and investigated “one by one.” For fear of reprisals, they disassociated themselves from the two “rattling” plaintiffs. Eventually, the latter were the only culprits and they were sentenced to have their soles flogged. Afterwards, they were forced to sign a writ, whereby “they recognized their guilt and that they would desist.”

Serial child molester, Archimandrite Stanley Adamakis, started abusing church members in the 70s.
Serial child molester, Archimandrite Stanley Adamakis, started abusing church members in the 70s.

Historian Constanţa Vintilă-Ghiţescu is right when she wonders whether things really went that way at the Butoiu Monastery, in 1799-1809 (which is very likely), or if the Gypsy slaves had other misunderstandings with the two abbots of the monastery, and tried to have them punished, knowing that the worst accusations in the eyes of the ecclesiastical authorities were fornication, sodomy, pedophilia, rape and the exertion of the lord’s right, etc.52

It is common knowledge that heterosexual and homosexual (including pedophilic) relations were quite usual in the Christian monastic milieu, be it Orthodox or Catholic. I need not go into too many details; only a few examples from Romanian and world culture…

In the middle of the 14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio (The Decameron, 1352) had the courage to raise the thorny issue of debauchery and carnal sins accomplished by “all” the Catholic cardinals, priests and monks. He wrote about sodomy, fornication, pedophilia, etc.:

“From the most senior to the most junior one, the (Catholic) priests were all sinning through carnal debauchery; and not only in those ordred by nature, but even in the debauchery of sodomy, without knowing the rein of repentance or shame, so much so that the most wicked women and the small children had the greatest appeal when it was about winning their favours” (The Decameron I.2).53

The homosexual relationships among monks are also present in Romanian literature, for instance, in Vasile Voiculescu’s prose. In one of his short stories (Chef la mânăstire [Revelry at the Monastery], 1952), which the writer presented as a “true story,” Father Iosafat, the abbot of a monastery in Moldova lives with a very young monk, Brother Minodor. The latter was “the abbot’s darling,” “a rosy-cheeked lad,” “a girlish boy,” “with long and sweet lashes,” who “was inclined more towards women’s sweet and liquor wines.” Everything happens under the complacent gaze of Father Dean Ilie, “the ecclesiastical head of the county,” who had come on an inspection at the respective monastery:

“The Abbot [Iosafat], heaving in his armchair, drew to him, holding him on a protruding knee, Brother [monk] Minodor, who, with his chubby cheeks, his languid blue eyes, and a semblance of black hairs on his upper lip, with rings of hair floating on his back and along his monastic frock, looked like an angel reclining on the chest of an old saint.”54

The defrocked monk Ion Creangă could speak volumes on this subject: “he had learned some of the secrets of life in a monastery.” He was always critical of the monks, the priests and other clergymen: “they burst out of their belts, pot-bellied as they are.”55 Creangă lived among priests and, as a teenager and as a young man, he lived in boarding houses of all kinds of “factories of priests,” such as the theological schools in Fălticeni and Socola. Small wonder that the only homosexual episode in his work has a priest as its hero, in his famous Poveste a poveştilor (The Story of All Stories): “And as he was whistling in surprise, the cock dashed with a smack! right in the priest’s ass! Then, the priest started to yell…”56

As an old popular saying goes, which was commented upon around 1832 by boyar Iordache Golescu: “Another one in the priest’s ass (used when something happens unawares, something irksome).” The same learned boyar wrote down another popular saying, which concerns a man who is in love with a priest: “One loves the priest, another the priest’s wife, and another the priest’s daughter (it shows the variety of pleasures).”57 Speaking openly about “the variety of (sexual) pleasures,” Golescu had a quite Liberal attitude for a boyar from Wallachia, in the first half of the 19th century. True, he was a boyar who had travelled across Europe.

Homosexuality and pedophilia are still big problems among priests and monks today, especially among the Catholic, problems that the Pope himself is at a loss to solve.58 The Vatican is being blamed for putting a lid on these forbidden sexual practices, for decades (centuries, actually).

Coming back to the illicit erotic relations between the Orthodox abbots and the slaves in the monasteries, we must say that homosexual, even pedophilic relations have been attested. Obviously, the latter did not go unpunished by the church authorities. Not only were the jails for priests – as we have seen above – special, but so were their punishments. It seems that for the crime of pedophilia, the clergymen got a special physical punishment, called “the iron child”:

“A device used to punish the priests, when they committed an immoral act, was the “iron child.” This “child” weighed 50-60 kg. The punished priest was forced to hold that weight in his arms for four to five hours.”59

At the end of the 18th century, it was proved that Abbot Teofil of the Căldăruşani Monastery (near Bucharest) “had committed sodomy with the Gypsies, but the Gypsies have committed sodomy with him.” On account of this “ill and wicked deed,” the abbot was demoted to the lowest rank, that of “simple monk.” Moreover, he was banished to the Tismana monastery, “to weep for his sins” there.60

Virtually, in the case of the abbot of the Căldăruşani Monastery, the law (glava (chapter) 333, titled “For Sodomy”), was applied in its letter and spirit:

“If it were that anybody from the church clergy is found to be a sodomite, he shall then be bereft of everything, as the law of the church writes, of all the good he will have had from the church and they shall take him and lock him in a faraway monastery; and they shall even more vigorously demoted him from his position…”

Exceptionally, in aggravated situations, the “sodomite” clergyman was handed over to “the lay judge,” who was supposed “to scold him with death, namely, to behead him.” (Pravila de la Târgovişte [The Codex from Târgoviște], 1652). As the folk saying goes: “Do as the priest says, not as the priest does!”

Perhaps all these illicit sexual practices – which sparked more or less public scandals – have hastened the moment of the liberation of Gypsies from slavery in the Romanian space, which happened around the mid-19th century. Or, at any rate, perhaps they did not push the liberation per se of the slaves from the monastic settlements (1844 in Moldova and 1847 in Wallachia) to happen around one decade before the liberation of the Gypsies owned by boyars (1855 in Moldova and 1856 in Wallachia). The big landowners (and implicitly owners of Gypsy settlements) blocked as much as they could the act of liberation of the boyars’ Gypsies. Although he was in an open conflict with the government of ruling Moldovan Prince, Mihail Sturdza, Kogălniceanu paid homage to the ruling prince for promulgating the law of the emancipation of the monastery Gypsies on 31st of January 1844:

“We, the youth from Moldova, – I speak only of those with whom I have worked – forgot that day our fierce fight against ruling Prince Mihail Sturdza for his abuses” (Dezrobirea ţiganilor, ştergerea privilegiilor boiereşti, emanciparea ţăranilor [The Liberation of the Gypsies, The Eradication of The Boyars’ Privileges, The Emancipation of The Peasants], 1891).

On 6 th of February 1844, a few days after the liberation of the Gypsy slaves from the monasteries, Mihail Kogălniceanu – who was fairly aware of the mechanism which had led to the decision to abolish slavery, “the most heinous social enormity,” – did not forget also to pay tribute to the Romanian Orthodox Church:

“Honour be to the Church, too, today, which has no slaves any longer; for it now shows itself as the true Church of Christ, who brought freedom on Earth, saying that before him there are no rich or poor men, no masters or slaves!” (Dezrobirea ţiganilor [The Emancipation of the Gypsies], 1844).61

Obviously, in the Catholic Middle Ages, too, the sacred space of the churches and monasteries could also become a place for the forbidden fantasies and love affairs, be they homo- or heterosexual. The nuns and abbesses from the Catholic convents were also subject to those types of sins. Boccaccio’s stories (The Decameron, 1352) abound in such erotic monastic prowess. 62

Adam Metropoulos, former priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bangor was sentenced Monday to 12 years in prison with all but 6½ years suspended for sex crimes involving children.
Adam Metropoulos, former priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bangor was sentenced Monday to 12 years in prison with all but 6½ years suspended for sex crimes involving children.


  1. Dan Horia MAZILU, Law and Sacrilege in the Old Romanian Society, Iaşi: Polirom, 2006, pp. 394-397.
  2. Michel FOUCAULT, Istoria sexualităţii [The History of Sexuality], Romanian translation by B. Stanciu and A. Onete, Vest Publishing House, Timisoara, 1995, p. 48.
  3. Andreas Capellanus, Despre iubire (About Love), bilingual edition, translation and notes by Eugenia CRISTEA, study, introductory note, notes and bibliography by Anca Crivat, Polirom Publishing House, Iasi, 2012, p.215.
  4. With Alexandru Macedonski: “Father Cioaca care on Christmas Eve to put his apron over our heads,” or in Dan Botta’s translation, with François Villon: “The Holy Apostles” are “Girdled with sacred aprons | To better seize the villains | who revel in their sins” (François VILLON, Balade şi alte poeme, translation by Dan Botta, presentation by Tudor Arghezi, the Publishing House of the Romanian Cultural Institute, Bucharest, 2006, p.47).
  5. Folclor vechi românesc (Old Romanian Folklore), edition, preface, notes and bibliography by C. Ciuchindel, Bucharest: Minerva, 1990, p. 246.
  6. Octav ȘULUȚIU, Ambigen [Ambigenous], novel illustrated with etchings by I. Anestin, Bucharest: Vremea, 1935, p. 26.
  7. Nicoleta ROMAN, „Deznădăjduită muiere n-au fost ca mine”. Femei, onoare şi păcat în Valahia secolului al XIX-lea, Bucharest: Humanitas, 2016, p. 37.
  8. Constanţa VINTILĂ-GHIŢULESCU, Focul amorului. Despre dragoste şi sexualitate în societatea românească (1750-1830) (The Fire of Love. About Love and Sexuality in Romanian Society (1750-1830), Humanitas Publishing House, Bucharest, 2006, p. 55.
  9. Ibid.
  10. G.Dem. TEODORESCU, Poezii populare române [Romanian Folk Poems], critical edition, notes, glossary, bibliography and index by George Antofi, preface by Ovidiu Papadima, Bucharest: Minerva, 1982, p. 349.
  11. Dan Horia MAZILU, op. cit., 2006, p. 422.
  12. Constanţa VINTILĂ-GHIŢULESCU, Focul amorului. Despre dragoste şi sexualitate în societatea românească (1750-1830) (The Fire of Love. About Love and Sexuality in Romanian Society (1750-1830), Humanitas Publishing House, Bucharest, 2006, p.221.
  13. George Calinescu, Istoria literaturii române de la origini până în prezent (The History of Romanian Literature From The Origins to The Present), second, revised and enlarged edition, overseen and with preface by Al. Piru, Minerva Publishing House, Bucharest, 1986, p.121. Constanţa VINTILĂ- GHIŢULESCU, Focul amorului. Despre dragoste şi sexualitate în societatea românească (1750-1830) (The Fire of Love. About Love and Sexuality in Romanian Society (1750-1830), Humanitas Publishing House, Bucharest, 2006, pp. 219-220.
  14. G. CĂLINESCU, Istoria literaturii române de la origini până în prezent (The History of Romanian Literature from the Origins to the Present), second, revised and enlarged edition, overseen and with preface by Al. Piru, Minerva Publishing House, Bucharest, 1986, p. 121.
  15. Stith THOMPSON, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books and Local Legends, revised and enlarged edition, vol. 5, Rosenkilde and Bagger, Copenhagen, 1958, pp. 379- 381.
  16. Bernard FAURE, Sexualités bouddhiques: Entre désirs et réalités, Paris, Flammarion, 2005, pp. 71 sq.
  17. Vasile Alecsandri, Poezii populare ale românilor (Folk Poems of The Romanians), preface and bibliography by Stancu Ilin, Minerva Publishing House, Bucharest, 1982, p.228.
  18. G. Dem. TEODORESCU, Poezii populare române [Romanian Folk Poems], critical edition, notes, glossary, bibliography and index by George Antofi, preface by Ovidiu Papadima, Bucharest: Minerva, 1982, p. 349.
  19. G. Dem. TEODORESCU, Viaţa şi operile lui Eufrosin Poteca (cu câteva din scrierile’i inedite), Academy Press, Bucharest, 1883.
  20. A similar saying is also attested by Dinicu Golescu, in 1832: “One eye on the icon and another near the icon” (Iordache GOLESCU, Scrieri alese, [Selected Writings], edition by Mihai Moraru, Bucharest: Cartea Românească, 1990, p. 192).
  21. Vasile Alecsandri, Poezii populare ale românilor (Folk Poems of The Romanians), preface and bibliography by Stancu Ilin, Minerva Publishing House, Bucharest, 1982, p.228.
  22. Iordache GOLESCU, Scrieri alese [Selected Writings], edition by Mihai Moraru, Bucharest: Cartea Românească, 1990, p. 193.
  23. G. Dem. TEODORESCU, Poezii populare române [Romanian Folk Poems], critical edition, notes, glossary, bibliography and index by George Antofi, preface by Ovidiu Papadima, Bucharest: Minerva, 1982, p. 393.
  24. Gustave FLAUBERT, Ispitirea Sfântului Anton [The Temptation of St. Anthony], Romanian translation by Mihai Murgu, preface by Irina Mavrodin, Bucharest: Univers, 1977, p. 68.
  25. Mihai EMINESCU, Poezii [Poems], text selected and established, critical fragments by Perpessicius, volume supervised and chronology by D. Vatamaniuc, Bucharest: Romanian Cultural Institute, 2004, p. 67. English translation by Corneliu M. Popescu,  
  26. Liviu REBREANU, Adam şi Eva, edition supervised by Niculae Gheran, preface by Ion Simut, Minerva Publishing House, Bucharest, 1998, p. 173.
  27. Mihai EMINESCU, Poezii [Poems], text selected and established, critical fragments by Perpessicius, volume supervised and chronology by D. Vatamaniuc, Bucharest: Romanian Cultural Institute, 2004, p. 164 (our translation).
  28. G.Dem. TEODORESCU, Poezii populare române [Romanian Folk Poems], critical edition, notes, glossary, bibliography and index by George Antofi, preface by Ovidiu Papadima, Bucharest: Minerva, 1982, p. 349.
  29. Iordache GOLESCU, Scrieri alese [Selected Writings], edition by Mihai Moraru, Bucharest: Cartea Românească, 1990, p. 170.
  30. G. SION, Suvenire contimpurane [Contemporary Memories], complete edition, Iaşi: Polirom, 2014, p. 372.
  31. Constanţa VINTILĂ-GHIŢULESCU, Patimă şi desfătare. Despre lucrurile mărunte ale vieţii cotidiene în societatea românească, 1750-1860 [Passion and Delight. The Small Things of Everyday Life in Romanian Society, 1750-1860], Bucharest: Humanitas, 2015, p. 353.
  32. Timotei OPREA, Rai şi Iad în cultura populară românească. File de apocalips (sec. XVIII-XIX) [Heaven and Hell in Romanian Folk Culture. Pages from an Apocalypse (18th -19th c.)], Buzău: Alpha MDN, 2005, p. 167.
  33. Tudor ARGHEZI, Opere, vol. V: Publicistică (1919–iulie 1928) [Works, vol. V: Journalism (1919-July 1928)], edited by Mitzura Arghezi and Traian Radu, preface by Eugen Simion,), Bucharest, National Foundation for Sciences and Arts & Univers Enciclopedic, 2004, pp. 132-134.
  34. Tudor ARGHEZI, Cuvinte potrivite [Fitting Words], preface by Liviu Papadima, anthology by Mitzura Arghezi and Traian Radu, Bucharest: Minerva, 1990, p. 13 (our translation).
  35. Nicolae IORGA, Istoria românilor în chipuri şi icoane [The History of the Romanians in Faces and Icons], Foreword by Andrei Pippidi, Bucharest: Humanitas, 2012, p. 164.
  36. See the study by Andrei OIȘTEANU, „Stânga versus dreapta. Farmecul discret al dihotomiei” [“Left vs. Right. The Discreet Charm of Dichotomy”], in ID., Mythos & Logos. Studii şi eseuri de antropologie culturală [Mythos and Logos. Studies and Essays in Cultural Anthropology], second, revised and enlarged edition, Bucharest: Nemira, 1998, pp. 267-282.
  37. Under Turkish influence, ruling Prince Petru Cercel (1583-1585) built a balcony behind the naos of the Big princely Church in Târgovişte, above the entrance to the naos, where the Prince’s wife would sit during the mass, hidden behind a curtain. She got to that balcony in the church through a passageway built right from the Princely Palace.
  38. Robert DRAPER, “Chemarea muntelui sfânt” [The Call of the Sacred Mountain], National Geographic Romanian edition, December 2009, p. 104 (our translation).
  39. Ioan Petru CULIANU, Cult, magie, erezii. Articole din enciclopedii ale religiilor [Cult, Magic, Heresies. Articles from the Encyclopaedias of Religions), Romanian translation by Maria-Magdalena Anghelescu and Dan Petrescu, afterword by Eduard Iricinschi, Iași: Polirom, 2003, p. 120 (our translation).
  40. IBID., p. 188 (our translation).
  41. Neagu DJUVARA, Între Orient şi Occident. Ţările române la începutul epocii moderne (1800-1848) [Between East and West. The Romanian Principalities at The Beginning of The Modern Times], Romanian translation by Maria Carpov, Bucharest: Humanitas, 1995, p. 267 (our translation).
  42. See Chap. 27, “The Boyar’s ‘Right’ over Gypsy Women Slaves” in Andrei OIȘTEANU, Sexuality and Society. History, Religion and Literature, Iași: Polirom, 2016.
  43. Radu Rosetti, Amintiri. Ce-am auzit de la alţii, (Memories. What I Heard From Others). Edition and Preface by Mircea Anghelescu, Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, Bucharest, 1996, p.155.
  44. Bogdan Mateescu, Căsătoria robilor. Între alegerea cuplului şi voinţa stăpânului, (The Marriage of The Slaves. Between The Couple’s Choice And The Master’s Will), Etnous Publishing House, Braşov, 2014; Bogdan Mateescu, „Căsătoriile robilor din Ţara Românească după 1830: reglementări ale Statului și ale Bisericii”, (“The Marriages of The Slaves in Wallachia after 1830: State and Church Regulations”), lecture delivered on April 14, 2014 at the New Europe College, as part of the project “Group of Reflection on Political and Social History (18th -19th centuries).” I thank researcher Bogdan Munteanu (a doctoral student at the Nicolae Iorga History Institute of the Romanian Academy) for signaling the presented documents.
  45. Constanţa VINTILĂ-GHIŢULESCU, Focul amorului. Despre dragoste şi sexualitate în societatea românească (1750-1830), (The Fire of Love. Of Love And Sexuality in Romanian Society (1750-1830), Humanitas Publishing House, Bucharest, 2006, p.49.
  46. The legend of St. Gregory, bishop of Agrigento (7th c. AD), is old. On a Byzantine thread, it penetrated the collection of The Lives of the Saints, translated in Wallachia.
  47. Constantin NEGRUZZI, Păcatele tinereţilor [The Sins of Youth], Iaşi: Adolf Bermann, 1857, pp. 271-285.
  48. O mie de ani de singurătate. Rromii în proza românească, (One Thousand Years of Loneliness. The Romas in Romanian Prose), Selection, notes and afterword by Vasile Ionescu, “Aven Amentza” Publhsing House, Bucharest, 2000, pp.74-84 (our translation).
  49. Paul Veyne, “Homosexualitatea la Roma”, (Homosexuality in Rome) in the volume Georges Duby et alii, Amor şi sexualitate în Occident, (Love And Sexuality in The West), introduction by Georges Duby, Romanian translation by Laurenţiu Zoicaş, Artemis Publishing House, Bucharest, 1994, p. 53 (our translation).
  50. Gr.I. Dianu, Istoria închisorilor din România. Studiu comparativ. Legi şi obiceiuri, (The History of Jails in Romania. A Compared Study) Laws And Customs) The Royal House Publishing House, Bucharest, 1900, p. 44 (our translation).
  51. Constanţa VINTILĂ-GHIŢULESCU, Focul amorului. Despre dragoste şi sexualitate în societatea românească (1750-1830), (The Fire of Love. Of Love And Sexuality in Romanian Society (1750-1830), Humanitas Publishing House, Bucharest, 2006, pp. 163-164 (our translation).
  52. Constanţa VINTILĂ-GHIŢULESCU, Focul amorului. Despre dragoste şi sexualitate în societatea românească (1750-1830), (The Fire of Love. Of Love And Sexuality in Romanian Society (1750-1830), Humanitas Publishing House, Bucharest, 2006, pp.164-166.
  53. Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameronul, (The Decameron), Romanian translation by Eta Boeriu, with an introductory study by Alexandru Balaci, vol. I and II, State Publishing House for Literature and Art, Bucharest, 1957, I, p. 78 (our translation).
  54. Vasile Voiculescu, Capul de zimbru, Povestiri, (The Aurochs Head, Stories) vol. I, Edited bby Victor Iova, Cartea Românească Publishing House, Bucharest, 1982, p. 147.
  55. Maria Luisa Lombardo, Erotica magna. O istorie a literaturii române, dincolo de tabuurile ei, (Erotica Magna, A History of Romanian Literature, Beyond Its Taboos), Western University Publishing House, Timişoara, 2004, pp.80/81.
  56. Ion Creangă, Povestea lui Ionică cel Prost (poreclit şi Irimiea) şi Povestea poveştilor (povestea pulei), (The Story of Ionica the Dumb (also nicknamed Irimiea) And The Story of All Stories (The Story of the Cock)), introductory study by Paul Anghel, edited by Nedic Lemnaru, „Roza vânturilor” Publishing House, Bucharest, 1990, p. 31 (our translation).
  57. Iordache GOLESCU, Scrieri alese [Selected Writings], edition by Mihai Moraru, Bucharest: Cartea Românească, 1990, pp. 166, 176.
  58. This very day, as I am writing these lines (September 25, 2011), Pope Benedict XVI (meantime, the former Pope), while visiting Germany, said he was “moved and deeply troubled” after his meetings with persons / children and youths / who had been the victims of the sexual abuse committed by Roman Catholic priests.
  59. Marian Munteanu, Folclorul detenţiei. Formele privării de libertate în literatura poporană. Studiu, tipologie, antologie de texte şi glosar, (The Folklore of Detention. The Forms of Freedom Deprivation in Folk Literature. Study, Typology, Anthology of Texts and Glossary), Valahia Publishing House, Bucharest, 2008, p. 645.
  60. Constanţa VINTILĂ-GHIŢULESCU, Focul amorului. Despre dragoste şi sexualitate în societatea românească (1750-1830) (The Fire of Love. About Love and Sexuality in Romanian Society (1750-1830), Humanitas Publishing House, Bucharest, 2006, pp. 162-163 (our translation).
  61. Mihail Kogălniceanu, Tainele inimei, (The Secrets of The Heart), selected writings, edited by Dan Simonescu, The Publishing House for Literature, Bucharest, 1964, pp. 205, 348 (our translation).
  62. Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameronul, (The Decameron), Romanian translation by Eta Boeriu, with an introductory study by Alexandru Balaci, vol. I and II, State Publishing House for Literature and Art, Bucharest, 1957, I, p.265; II, p.366, a.o.

Adolf Hitler: “Saint John’s Disciple” (Michael Onfray, 2010)

An image of Adolf Hitler greeted visitors to Mount Athos in 1941 (Source: Mönchsland Athos)

NOTE: It is widely believed that the Nazis were heavily involved in neo-Germanic religion (tantamount to diabolism in orthodox Christian circles). This was not really the case. Among the top Nazi leaders, for example, only Himmler and Rudolf Hess ever resigned from their Christian Church affiliations. The God of Hitler was not Satan or Wotan. When Hitler spoke of his own religious conceptions, he spoke entirely in terms of a Christian God (as he understood it). Hitler tolerated and made use of the widespread neo-heathenism in Germany because he thought it provided “unrest” in the populace–unrest that he could direct toward his own ends. “These professors and obscure men who found their Nordic religions corrupt the whole thing for me,” he stated. This is the documented reality of the personal attitude of Hitler toward neo-heathen religion.

The Nazis attempted to institutionalize a new religion based on their own party’s doctrines and given shape by religious and magical pageantry with symbolism drawn from the established churches, but also Imperial Rome and, to a lesser degree, what they knew of the ancient Germanic cult.Many of the leaders of the Nazi hierarchy had unusual beliefs. Hitler merely allowed these leaders to indulge in their passions, as long as they moved his major agenda forward.

The deeper motivating factors for the Nazis’ actions are not rooted in magical or pagan ideas. They are rooted in the hatreds and fears first conjured in the Middle Ages. The obsession with the Jews and the belief that they were agents of evil in the midst of the good Christian folk of Germany, and ultimately responsible for every social, political, and economic ill suffered by the people, is all thoroughly medieval. Such ideas were part and parcel of establishment thinking in the Christian Middle Ages. the only direct root for Nazi enmity toward the Jews is in the medieval Christian hatred of them as “Christ killers.” The only modern addition to this is that the Nazis now augmented the theological argument for the Jews being an “evil race” (an idea introduced by the Christian Church Fathers) with scientific and pseudo-scientific arguments stemming from Darwinism and even Theosophical doctrines. 1

Hitler defended some of his measures by invoking Jesus driving the moneylenders from the Temple…

Jesus Christ driving the money changers out of the temple

Adolf Hitler thought highly of the story of the Temple moneylenders, taken from the Gospel according to John. A Christian who never renounced his faith, Hitler praised the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church, marveled at its creation of an unrivaled civilization, and prophesied its continued vigor in the centuries to come. For the moment, I shall merely note that in Mein Kampf (volume 1, chapter 11, page 307),* he mentions Jesus’ actions in the Temple and refers explicitly to the whip (scourge) — Saint John was the only evangelist to provide this detail. This was the kind of Christianity Hitler admired: true Christianity ( loc. cit. ) and apodictic faith (volume 2, chapter 5, page 454). Apodictic, the exact word Hitler used, meaning “expressing essential truth or absolute certainty.”

Kristallnacht NYT 11-10-38

A Christian who does not deny the dual message of his Bible can also draw on Exodus (21:23—25) to evoke the lex talionis. As we know, it calls on us to exchange an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but also hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. And as we have seen, Jesus proposed turning the other cheek as an alternative to this ancient tribal formulation. But if we abrogate this Gospel parable and replace it with the vengeful Old Testament prescription, and couple this with the New Testament episode of the Temple moneylenders, the worst of excesses can easily be justified. With such a cargo of sophistries, we could justify Kristallnacht as a modern-day eviction of the moneylenders—let us remember that Jesus reproached them with transacting business and money-changing . . . Then, pursuing the same hysterical line of argument and invoking the lex talionis, the Final Solution becomes the logical response to the National Socialists’ nightmare of the racial and Bolshevik Judaization of Europe . . . Unfortunately, the metaphoric scourge permits the dialectician and the determined theoretician to legitimize the gas chambers. Moreover, Pius XII and the Catholic Church succumbed to the charms of these Hitlerian contradictions from the very beginning. Indeed the church continues to do so, if we accept as an admission of collusion its enduring unwillingness to acknowledge the error implicit in the Vatican’s support for Nazism. I shall return to this later.

Hitler Admired Islam


Hitler—Abu Ali in Arabic — admired the Muslim religion in its very essence, virile, warlike, conquering, and militant. And many of the Muslim faithful subsequently repaid that kindness: there was the pro-Nazi grand mufti of Jerusalem during the Second World War, of course, but there were also the eternally anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist militants who recycled former Nazis into the highest ranks of Middle Eastern military staffs and secret services after the Second World War, who protected, concealed, and cared for many of the Third Reich’s war criminals in their territories — Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine. Not to mention an unbelievable number of conversions of former Reich dignitaries to the religion of the Koran. Pursuant to our examination of the Torah, New Testament, and Koran, let us consider additional contradictions and examples of selective borrowing from the sacred texts as a pretext for evil deeds. The Old Testament prohibits killing but simultaneously condones the annihilation of certain enemies of the Jews. Christian brotherly love is juxtaposed with sanction of violence, when dictated by God’s anger. The Koran, too, is full of inconsistencies. The mixed messages in all three monotheistic books have the potential of leading to monstrous consequences.

The Vatican admired Adolf Hitler.

The love-marriage between the Catholic Church and Nazism cannot be denied. Instances — and they are not minor ones — abound. Their complicity did not reside in unspoken approval, explicit omissions, or calculations made on the basis of partisan positions. The facts are clear to anyone who approaches the issue by interrogating history: it was not a marriage of reason, determined by concern for the survival of the church, but a shared loathing of the same implacable enemies: Jews and Communists — most often packaged together in the same grab bag labeled Judeo-Bolshevism. From the birth of National Socialism to the extrusion of the Third Reich’s war criminals after the regime’s collapse to the church’s silence on these questions ever since, the domain of Christ’s heir Saint Peter was also that of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, German Nazis and French fascists, collaborators of the Nazis, Vichyites, fascist militias, and other war criminals. Even today, it is still impossible to consult the Vatican’s archives on the subject. The facts, then. The Catholic Church approved the rearmament of Germany in the 1930s, which was of course contrary to the spirit of the Versailles Treaty but also to a part of Jesus’ teachings, particularly those celebrating peace, mildness, love of one’s neighbor. The Catholic Church signed a concordat with Adolf Hitler as soon as the chancellor took office in 1933. The Catholic Church held its tongue over the boycott of Jewish businesses, remained silent over the proclamation of the Nurem-berg racial laws in 1935, and was equally silent over Kristallnacht in 1938. The Catholic Church provided the Nazis with its genealogical records, which told them who in Germany was Christian, and therefore non-Jewish. (On the other hand, the Catholic Church did invoke the principle of “pastoral secrecy” in order not to communicate the names of Jews converted to Christ’s religion or married to Christians.) The Catholic Church supported, defended, and aided the pro-Nazi Ustachi regime of Ante Pavelic in Croatia. The Catholic Church gave its absolution to France’s collaborationist Vichy regime in 1940. The Catholic Church, although fully aware of the policy of extermination set in motion in 1942, did not condemn it in private or in public, and never ordered any priest or bishop to condemn the criminal regime in the hearing of his flock. The Allied armies liberated Europe, reached Berchtesgaden, discovered Auschwitz. What did the Vatican do? It continued to support the defeated regime. The Catholic Church, in the person of Cardinal Bertram, ordered a requiem Mass in memory of Adolf Hitler. The Catholic Church was mute and showed no disapproval at the discovery of the mass graves, the gas chambers, and the death camps. Even better, the Catholic Church did for the Nazis (shorn of their Führer) what it had never done for a single Jew or victim of National Socialism: it set up a network designed to smuggle war criminals out of Europe. The Catholic Church used the Vatican, delivered papers stamped with its visas to fugitive Nazis, established a chain of European monasteries that served as hiding places for dignitaries of the ruined Reich. The Catholic Church promoted into its hierarchy people who had performed important tasks for the Hitler regime. And the Catholic Church will never apologize for any of these things, particularly since it has acknowledged none of them.

Catholic Bishops giving the Nazi salute in honor of Hitler

If there is ever to be repentance, we shall probably have to wait four centuries for it, the time it took for a pope to acknowledge the church’s error in the Galileo affair. Chiefly because the doctrine of papal infallibility proclaimed at the first Vatican Council in 1869—70 ( Pastor Aeternas) forbids challenging the church — for when the supreme pontiff speaks or makes a decision he does so not as a man capable of being wrong but as the representative of God on earth, constantly inspired by the Holy Spirit — the famous doctrine of “saving grace.” Are we to conclude from all this that the Holy Spirit is fundamentally Nazi? While the church remained silent on the Nazi question during and after the war, it missed no chance to act against Communists. Where Marxism is concerned, the Vatican has given proof of a commitment, a militancy, and a vigor better ex-pended in fighting and discrediting the Nazi Reich. Faithful to church tradition (which, through the grace of Pius IX and Pius X, condemned human rights as contrary to the teachings of the church), Pius XII, the pope so famously well-disposed toward National Socialism, excommunicated the Communists of the whole world en masse in 1949. He asserted collusion between the Jews and Bolshevism as one of the reasons for his decision. To recapitulate: no run-of-the-mill National Socialist, no Nazi of elevated rank or member of the Reich’s staff was ever excommunicated. No group was ever excluded from the church for preaching and practicing racism or anti-Semitism or operating gas chambers. Adolf Hitler was not excommunicated, and Mein Kampf was never put on the Index. We should not forget that after 1924, the date Hitler’s book appeared, the famous Index Librorum Prohibitorium added to its list — alongside Pierre Larousse, guilty of the Grand Dictionnaire Universel (!) — Henri Bergson, André Gide, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Adolf Hitler never appeared on it.

Greek Orthodox Bishop giving Nazi salute (1940s)

Hitler admired the Vatican.

A widely held notion that fails to stand up to the most rudimentary analysis, still less to a reading of the texts, represents Hitler as a pagan fascinated by Nordic cults, a lover of Wagnerian horned helmets, of Valhalla and of generous-breasted Valkyrie, an antichrist, the very antithesis of Christian. Apart from evoking the difficulty of being at once atheist and pagan — denying the existence of God or gods while at the same time believing in them — to believe this means that we must ignore Hitler’s writings ( Mein Kampf), his political action (the Reich’s failure to persecute the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church, as opposed, for example, to its treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the Führer’s private confidences (his published conversations with Albert Speer), in which he consistently and unambiguously expressed his admiration for Christianity. Was it an atheist Führer who decided to stamp the words Gott mit uns on the belt buckles of the Reich’s soldiers? Do people know that the slogan comes from the scriptures? Notably from Deuteronomy, one of the books of the Torah, which says, “For the Lord thy God is he that goeth with you” (Deuteronomy 20:4). These words were lifted from the speech Yahweh addressed to the Jews leaving to fight their enemies, the Egyptians, to whom God held out the promise of unspecified extermination (Deuteronomy 20:13). Was it an atheist Führer who ordered all schoolchildren in the National Socialist Reich to begin their day with a prayer to Jesus? Not to God, which might have made a deist of Hitler, but to Jesus, which explicitly labels him a Christian. The same supposedly atheist Führer asked Goering and Goebbels, in the presence of Albert Speer who recorded the conversation, to remain within the bosom of the Catholic Church, as he himself would until his dying day.

Roser 02 (Chip)

Christianity and National Socialism: points in common.

The understanding between Hitler and Pius XII went far beyond personal compatibility. The two doctrines shared more than one point of convergence. The infallibility of the pope, who we should remember was also a head of state, could not have been displeasing to a Führer also convinced of his infallibility. The possibility of building an empire, a civilization, a culture with a supreme guide invested with full powers — like Constantine and several Christian emperors who succeeded him—was something that fascinated Hitler during the writing of his book. The Christian eradication of everything redolent of paganism? The destruction of altars and temples? The book burnings (remember that Paul recommended them)? The persecution of all who opposed the new faith? All excellent things, Hitler concluded.

Hitler in a place of honor at St Panteleimon Monastery, Mt. Athos. The picture was later replaced with a portrait of Queen Frederica of Greece.

The Führer admired the theocratic evolution of Christianity. He wrote ( Mein Kampf, volume 2, chapter 5, page 454) that it was only by virtue of “passionate intolerance” for pagan altars that an”apodictic faith” could grow up — Hitler’s term for “unshakable faith.” He marveled at the church’s determination to give up nothing, even and especially in the face of science when it contradicted certain of its positions or took its dogma to task (page 459); the flexibility of the church, for which Hitler predicted a future well beyond what people might imagine (page 459); the permanence of the venerable institution (volume 1, chapter 3, page 115) despite the occasionally deplorable behavior of clergy (which did nothing to affect overall church policy). In all this, Hitler asked his readers to “take lessons from the Catholic Church” (page 459, but also pages 114-20). What is the “true Christianity” Hitler mentions in Mein Kampf (volume 1, chapter 11, page 307)? That of the “great founder of the new doctrine”: Jesus, the same Jesus to whom children in the schools of the Third Reich prayed. But which Jesus? Not the one who turned the other cheek, no, but the angry Jesus who ejected the moneylenders from the Temple with a whip. Hitler specifically mentioned this passage from John in his argument. Also, let us not forget what sort of people this most Christian whip served to drive out: unbelievers, non-Christians, vendors, merchants, money-changers—in short, Jews, the unspoken key word in this complicity between Reich and Vatican. John’s Gospel (2:14) does not invalidate Hitler’s philo-Christian and anti-Semitic reading; indeed, it makes it possible. Particularly if we take note of the many passages in the N e w Testament consigning the Jews to hellfire. The Jews were a race of deicides. Here lies the key to this fatal partnership: they use religion, said Hitler, in order to do business; they are, he adds, the enemies of any kind of humanity; he goes on to specify that it was the Jews who created Bolshevism. Let everyone make up his own mind. But to Hitler himself things were clear: “to the political leader, the religious ideas and institutions of his people must remain inviolable” (page 116). So the gas chambers could be operated in the name of Saint John.

Wars, fascisms, and other pursuits

The partnership of Christianity and Nazism is not an accident of history, a regret-table and isolated mistake along the wayside, but the fulfillment of a two-thousand-year-old logic. From Paul of Tarsus, who justified fire and the sword in turning a private sect into a religion contaminating the empire and the world, to the Vatican’s twentieth-century justification of the nuclear deterrent, the line has endured. Thou shalt not kill . . . except from time to time … and when the church tells you to.

Augustine, a saint by trade, dedicated all his talent to justifying the worst in the church: slavery, war, capital punishment, etc. Blessed are the meek? The peacemakers? Augustine is no more enthusiastic than Hitler about this side of Christianity, too soft, not virile or warlike enough, squeamish about bloodshed—the feminine face of religion. He offered the church the concepts it lacked to justify punitive expeditions and massacres. These things the Jews had practiced to acquire their land, on a limited geographical scale, but the Christians drew from that local action inspiration for action across the face of the globe, for their goal was converting the world itself. The chosen people generated catastrophes that were first of all local. Universal Christianity created universal up-heavals. Once it triumphed, every continent became a battlefield. With the church’s blessing, Augustine, bishop of Hippo, sanctioned just persecution in a letter (185). A choice formulation, which he presents in contrast to unjust persecution! What differentiates the good corpse from the bad? Flaying of victims—when is it defensible and when is it indefensible? All persecution by the church was good, because motivated by love; while persecution directed against the church was indefensible, because inspired by cruelty. We should relish the rhetoric and talent for sophistry of Saint Augustine, who preferred his Jesus to brandish the whip and not to suffer it at the hands of the Roman soldiery. Which brings us to the concept of just war, itself formulated by the same church father, a man who decidedly never shrank from brutality, vice, or perversion. As the heir of the ancient pagan fable — Greek as it happened—Christianity recycled trial by ordeal. In a war, the victor was designated by God; so too, therefore, was the vanquished. By deciding in the conflict between winners and losers, God designates the true and the false, good and bad, legitimate and illegitimate. Magical thinking, to say the least.

To understand more about the relationship between the Vatican, Christianity and National Socialism, see:

*The page numbers cited correspond to the paperback edition of Mein Kampf, American translation by Ralph Manheim, published by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin.

Hitler Christianity


  1. See Stephen E. Flowers, Lords of the Left-Hand Path: Forbidden Practices and Spiritual Heresies, Chapter 7, pp. 209-232. Also see: The Secret King: The Myth and reality of Nazi Occultism:”In Mein Kampf and elsewhere Hitler repeatedly and enthusiastically ridiculed the whole idea of “neo-Germanic ideology.” He never resigned from the Church (as did Alfred Rosenberg, Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, and several other high-ranking officials) and in fact created the legal and political relationship between Church and State which remains in effect in Germany to this day. The original party program, the “Twenty-Five Points of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party,” mandated that Germany was a Christian nation, and made Christianity the official religion (regardless of denomination).To characterize National Socialism as being fundamentally “anti-Christian” is therefore misleading. Hitler’s political movement emerged out of the wider German social conditions of the early 20th century, and as such it was affected by all the complex cultural traits generally prevalent in that period in the Western world. This included significant, but not dominant, doses of paganism and some ideas popularly thought of as being “occult.” Pagans and so-called Gottgläubigen (those with faith in a deity) proliferated in Germany to a certain degree, not unlike other “New Religions” that were similarly gestating in Europe, England, and America, and which were typically based either on indigenous pagan or more exotic Eastern—and, in the case of ceremonial occultists like Aleister Crowley, even Egyptian –models, often intertwined with Freemasonry.If we were to catalog the most fundamental spiritual currents present during the Third Reich, however, we would have to rank Christianity at the top. A reading of Mein Kampf reveals hundreds of references to the Christian religion and the Bible, yet there is almost no mention of Germanic mythology. This is not to discount a certain influence from the pagan factions of the völkisch movement among various National Socialists at all levels of the Party. However, no organized effort to revive the worship of the Germanic gods in an official or public way ever emerged. The most influential “anti-Christian” trend among National Socialists is connected to the official resignation (Austrit) from the established church denominations by some Nazi leaders. There were also government officials who were explicitly anti-Christian, but this need not have had anything in particular to do with paganism, occultism, or Satanism.” ( pp. 30-31)
Watercolor of St. Charles’s Church in Vienna by Adolf Hitler

The Truth about the Holy Mountain and its Monks (Dr Panagiotis Grigoriou, 2001)

NOTE: This article is taken from the Sunday Typos, June 10, 2001. It was written to refute Monk Michael’s accusations. Dr. Gregoriou is a Neurologist-Psychiatrist and director of the Psychiatric Department of the Halkidiki General Hospital.1 In this article, Dr. Gregoriou validates Monk Michael’s claim that there are Hagiorite monks who have mental disorders, see psychiatrists, and take psychiatric drugs.

Halkidiki General Hospital.

I was motivated to write this article when I read the Monk Michael Hatziantoniou’s interview with the journalist Peter Papavasileios (see the magazine “E” in the Sunday Eleftherotypia, April 22, 2001).

The reason I thought of myself to be a “substantive qualifier” is that I’ve practised psychiatry for 20 years. For the past 12 years, I’ve been the Director of the Psychiatric Department of the Halkidiki General Hospital in whose jurisdiction Mount Athos falls in terms of health coverage.

With my position, I know very well the question under dispute (the use of psychiatric drugs on Mount Athos). Moreover, the fact that I have regularly visited Mount Athos since 1974 (I was then a graduate student at the Medical School of Athens University) permits me to know the people and things of the area quite well.

Ιατρικής Σχολής του Πανεπιστημίου Αθηνών
Medical School of Athens University

Firstly, why did the news use the pompous title with the exclamation that “They Take Psychiatric Drugs on Mount Athos?” For a prudent and impartial reader, it has the same “originality” as “They take antibiotics or antihypertensive or anti-rheumatic medications on Mount Athos.” Psychiatric drugs are also medications that relieve and help the people who need them. I don’t understand why particularly on Mount Athos the mentally ill should not take psychotropic drugs. Is it not a shame to be excluded from the therapeutic means of modern medical science?

Fr. Michael rents his garments: “I cannot bear this situation,” he says. He maintains that anyone can cure their mental symptoms with personal effort. Something that is heard daily amongst the ignorant: “Banish your anxiety, pull the sadness from your soul, throw it out,” etc. Similar views proceed either from ignorance or out of some unconscious fear against mental illness and psychotropic drugs. If such counsels were effective then the existence of our psychiatrists would probably have been unnecessary.


Another “scandalous revelation” Fr. Michael makes—that Hagiorites are visiting psychiatrists—pertains to the same spirit! But are we psychiatrists such defiled beings that all sensible and virtuous people must avoid us “so as not to be defiled?” The fact that Hagiorites visit psychiatrists constitutes an occasion of praise, not reproach. If they didn’t visit psychiatrists then they should be accused of medievalism and criminal omission.2


I stress here that the attitude of some religious people—even spiritual fathers—who claim that anyone who lives in God should never resort to psychiatrists or psychotropic drugs is, in every respect, incorrect.3 They believe that psychiatrists wrongly assume responsibilities that belong exclusively to God and the spiritual father. The Hagiorite monks, following the vibrant spiritual tradition, avoid such absolutes. They recognize the difference between mental and spiritual problems. Like all other diseases, they consider mental illnesses result from defects and the corruption of post-Fall man. They do not identify mental illnesses with outside demonic influences. The respect of the Hagiorites towards the proper use of its results is an example of wisdom and ampleness of spirit.

If I understood correctly, Fr. Michael implies amongst his contradictions that the way of life imposed upon the monks (militarization) is what causes psychiatric problems. He also insinuates that some Hagiorites (I wonder what percentage?) who regretted becoming monks were trapped in the system and because they were prevented from leaving the monastery occasionally they killed themselves or set themselves on fire.4 Then the abbots, in order to deter their escape from Mount Athos, issue them psychotropic drugs to bend their will and make them thoughtless, subservient zombies! Yet, Fr. Michael doesn’t complain that he had such a treatment when he decided to abandon his monastery. Contrary to what one not acquainted with such things might imagine, the way of life on the Holy Mountain is not disease producing but rather psychotherapeutic.

Thic Duc
On June 11, 1963, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc shocked the world when he burned himself to death in public as a protest against the Vietnamese government, a gesture known as self-immolation.

The reference to famous boxes with mysterious contents is naive at the very least. The monasteries obtain their drugs from pharmacies, usually from Thessaloniki, because they don’t operate a pharmacy on Mount Athos. The medication orders for the needs of 80-100 people (with a large percentage of elderly) for a period of one or two months apparently have some volume and should be packed well in “boxes” to reach their destination safely. Usually, these boxes contain drugs of every kind and a portion of them are psychotropic drugs. Let he who doubts ask any pharmacy serving a population of 2,000 residents and let him learn what the current monthly consumption of psychotropic drugs is and a percentage of all drugs, but also an absolute number inserted in boxes and let him calculate their approximate volume. It should be taken into consideration that a significant portion of these drugs are consumed for the extraordinary needs of the numerous visitors as well as the hundreds of laymen who work on the Mountain.5


Mount Athos is also entitled to have its mentally ill. It would be very unnatural if they didn’t exist since the percentage of those in the adult population who exhibit mental disorders at any given time has been estimated at around 15% for residents in the Western hemisphere.

Besides, as we know, one does not require a bill of health to become a monk, nor is a monk expelled from his monastery when some serious illness appears.6 Mount Athos is not an unrealistic place, nor does it aspire to present an outward image of an “elite” community, like the “caste” of Eastern religions or Gnostics or whatever else. The Athonite State, Panagia’s Garden, is an open space, social and genuinely human; a struggling society journeying towards God. The sick have their place and even honour in such a community! Where else would the remaining healthy monks show their love, patience and ministry if not to those who are beside them even if they happen to be sick?

Caste system

I cannot tolerate that Fr. Michael—the author of the article—professes the popular unscientific opinions: “Don’t go to the crazy doctor, he will make you completely crazy and you will be stigmatized for life!” Or, “Don’t take psychiatric medicine, they’re narcotics, you’ll become dependent and you’ll be rendered a vegetable!” Such positions need no response, this would be futile.7

As a doctor, my ascertainment is that the mentally ill on Mount Athos are treated more correctly, more scientifically and more effectively than whatever in the outside world.8 The monastic family surround the suffering brother with much care, love and tolerance and spare neither expense nor labor to ensure the best possible treatment and aid.9 He is provided a treatment rarely seen in today’s society, with respect to mental illness, the suffering monk’s soul and his dignity—a treatment that preserves the patient’s self-esteem.10 It should be made clear that in no way is an incompetent person involved in the treatment process. They follow the indication on the medication from the specialist physician, which is prescribed under the responsibility of the rural clinic in Karyes. Also, the administration of drugs and the assessment of the patient’s clinical progress are not made by upstart monks. Most of the monasteries have at least one or more doctor-monks with extensive experience who have impressed me with their scientific competence and awareness.11 The long existing journey of mentally ill Athonite monks is many times better than those who have mental illnesses in the world, where human dignity is trivialized with confinement in psychiatric asylums or the taunts of their fellow villagers.12

The Town of Karye
The Town of Karyes

Fr. Michael’s inappropriate parallelism of Bedouin doped out on hashish and the Athonite monks is an unfortunate verbal exaggeration.13 It might have been worthwhile before the interview was published to have a psychiatrist (of a trusted newspaper) examine the text and question whether Fr. Michael’s allegations have any scientific standing. I am certain that he would have agreed with me that the anti-psychiatry opinions usually belong to uneducated people.14


Regarding Fr. Michael’s “showcase” allegation, Mount Athos does not claim to be a society of perfect men.15 Moreover, he stresses in the last paragraph of the interview (essentially negating everything previous): “The majority of monks are very nice guys! The love, they look at you with clean eyes. I speak for the majority because there are certainly a very small number of monks who have a pure heart…” If this is the case then what is with all the scandal-mongering throughout the rest of the interview? He did not clarify for us from the start of the interview that he was only speaking about a few exceptions! He allowed us to believe that this is the picture of Mount Athos in general. According to Fr. Michael, what is the real and representative showcase of Mount Athos? The 5-10 likeable mentally ill patients, 5-10 unruly monks and the one monk who set himself on fire? Do we not wrong the 2000 struggling monks who live imperceptibly with ascesis, a pure life and hard work, and are happy and normal?16

We were distressed in seeing the exceptions generalized. The error of one was aggrandized and expressed while the virtue of the many was hushed up. The Hagiorites know this and it is natural and imperative for them to take precautions. We accuse them of hypocrisy because they protect themselves? What family would voluntarily surrender the proclamation of their son or daughter’s deviation to public vilification and shaming? By protecting the reputation of the person who erred, as well as the family’s reputation, from the sneer of the voracious publicity, we hope to heal the wounds. Otherwise, “the last error becomes worse than the first.” Mount Athos is a community of true love where the erring sinners are neither ostracized nor pilloried or stoned.17 They are consoled and covered as suffering brothers and they are “economized” with sympathy and spiritual treatment so they are induced to “repentance and come to salvation.”

Elder Makarios

Fr. Michael’s interview saddened me. He light-heartedly accuses holy people—humble and obscure to the general public—but accomplished in the heart of whoever knew those who apparently “raised themselves as charismatic figures” to captivate souls! It is a shame for a monk to offer his brothers and fathers as victims to the Moloch of publicity in exchange for the silver pieces and the honorary title of “debunker” and “whistle-blower” who apparently tells everything out right. The monastic life starts out with promises of obedience, humility, and devotion to the brotherhood. Self-projection and self-complacency are not included in these promises. In searching for the deeper “why”, I would say that Fr. Michael’s position against the Holy Mountain, in a psychodynamic interpretation, serves as a personal apology.18

Finally, I want to reassure and cheer up those who were perhaps troubled by reading the publication of “E”. No! The Mountain is not a “concentration camp,” nor some “mental hospital” for dissidents.19 The Kassandres and those appearing as benevolent dirge singers have no place here!20 Mount Athos did not lose the “rota”, it is not sinking! The Holy Mountain continues to sail correctly as it has for centuries. For over a thousand years, the rowers stand vigilant night and day at their oar. The Captain—the Lady of the Mount—holds the steering wheel firmly and the compass firmly shows God’s Kingdom. It is not shipwrecked and it collects castaways!

The island of Amoulianni, off the northwest coast of Athos, was once said to be run like a sort of ‘concentration camp’ for naughty monks.


  1. A google search of Dr. Grigoriou’s name in Greek only produces results in connection to this article. There is no photo, articles or a record of him anywhere in Greece other than in relation to this article. Other doctors with the same name do not have the same credentials as listed here. There is a Dr. Panagiotis Dimitrios Grigoriou in the UK, GMC # 7015533. His primary medical qualification is listed as Ptychio Iatrikes 2006 National Capodistrian University of Athens and he is obviously not the same person as the author of this article.
  2. According to the contemporary spiritual fathers of Greece, all neuroses stem from the guilt of unconfessed sins. The monastery is a hospital where the sick go to be healed. However, if daily confession and revelation of thoughts, combined with frequent Holy Communion and the Jesus Prayer isn’t helping the monk, will a psychiatrist be able to help the individual monk more than his own spiritual father? Hierotheos Vlachos writes, “Orthodoxy is mainly a therapeutic science and treatment. It differs clearly from other psychiatric methods, because it is not anthropocentric and because it does not do its work with human methods, but with the help and energy of divine grace, essentially through the synergy of divine and human volition… I know that the term `psychotherapy’ is almost modern and is used by many psychiatrists to indicate the method which they follow for curing neurotics. But since many psychiatrists do not know the Church’s teaching or do not wish to apply it, and since their anthropology is very different from the anthropology and soteriology of the Fathers, in using the term `psychotherapy’, I have not made use of their views. It would have been very easy at some points to set out their views, some of which agree with the teaching of the Fathers and others of which are in conflict with it, and to make the necessary comments, but I did not wish to do that. I thought that it would be better to follow the teaching of the Church through the Fathers without mingling them together. Therefore I have prefixed the word `Orthodox’ to the word `Psychotherapy’ (healing of the soul), to make the title “Orthodox Psychotherapy”. It could also have been formulated as “Orthodox Therapeutic Treatment”.(Orthodox Psychotherapy, Introduction)
  3. Most contemporary spiritual fathers are not against their spiritual children going to psychiatrists and, in certain cases, taking psychotropics. See However, some spiritual fathers do not agree with monastics seeing psychiatrists or taking psychotropic drugs.
  4. It is amazing that Dr. Grigoriou, with all his experience, is unaware of the vast amount of research in his field on the subject of blind obedience, authoritarianism, cult-like mentalities, and the emotional and psychological abuse that exist in such oppressive atmospheres. Evidence shows that these things lead to neuroses, PTSD, and various other mental illnesses. Studies on the emotional and psychological effects of confinement and feeling trapped are also in abundance.
  5. Dr. Grigoriou does not clarify if these medications are administered to laymen by monastics that are licensed professionals, or if these professionals have up-to-date training.
  6. This statement is not true, at least for the monasteries under Geronda Ephraim. There are numerous stories in circulation about the numerous monastics Geronda Ephraim sent packing on Mount Athos. The reasons ranged from not doing obedience, causing to many scandals, becoming a danger to themselves or others, homosexual incidents, or just so deluded that something really bad could have happened if they were allowed to stay. Geronda Ephraim has also sent a number of novices home from Arizona for various issues. As for prerequisites, homosexuals are generally not allowed to become monks. Geronda Ephraim has said it’s like inviting the devil into your monastery, and without going into specifics, he has hinted at the damage such men have caused in monasteries on Mount Athos. Also, people with mental illnesses are gently discouraged from becoming monastics in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries and are usually told it would be better for them to remain and struggle in the world.
  7. Monk Michael did not say those things in his interview. Perhaps Dr. Grigoriou heard read them in some of his other writings?
  8. As a layman who visits the monasteries and witnesses the front stage behavior—without actually living in a monastery or being a monk and witnessing the back stage behavior—Dr. Grigoriou is not in a position to make such a catch all statement. Monastics who make statements like this usually have a PR agenda.
  9. Sick monks—either physically or mentally—have all had their own experiences of neglect from their brother monastics. One who has to stay in his cell may be forgotten and not have meals brought to him, or the person who tends to them may get caught up in another obedience and not show up to help, etc, in some cases remaining in a dirty diaper for a day or so before his monk-attendant comes to change his diaper and bathe him. A monastic suffering from some ailment may not be able to go to a doctor for a long period of time due to whatever circumstances, thus prolonging the suffering. At other times, the Geronda may say do patience and one has to endure. Again, one may have been given specific instructions for recovery and the Geronda will cut it short, saying it’s not necessary, you’re fine and you have to work, now go.
  10. Again, Dr. Grigoriou is trying to paint an unrealistic utopia experience for ailing monks. Fr. Makarios of St. Anthony’s Monastery, AZ is a perfect example of how this is not always true. After he received his head injury and remained in a somewhat vegetative state, it put a strain on the brotherhood. Some of the younger monks giggled and mocked some of his newly acquired idiosyncrasies, especially during the services when he would stand up abruptly and say insensible things or pass wind in church throughout the night. Initially, Geronda said, “What use is he now? He has the mind of a baby,” and wanted to send him home. However, he did not send him away because he felt obliged to keep him (Fr. Makarios’ father is a priest who helps out at Geronda Ephraim’s nunneries). Of course, there was economia given to him due to his mental incapacitation but not all his brother monks had patience and understanding towards him. The reality in a monastery is once you start losing your usefulness you are made to feel like a burden. Woe unto those who get old and have nothing to contribute to the monastery; even more so if they need to take other monastics from more useful jobs to help them in their daily routine.
  11. In many of the monasteries, the doctor monastics do not keep up-to-date with their training. Thus, many times one finds a doctor with an outdated degree. Of course, the basics don’t change much but would you trust going to a doctor who graduated from university in say 1990, never had a practice, and has not kept up-to-date on his training or the new breakthroughs in science and medicine nor had his license renewed?
  12. Again, this is a far stretch of a statement. A perfect example would be the monasteries here in North America where fat-shaming is quite common among the monastics. The following information is not written to center anyone out or further fat shame individuals, but to point out that these things happen in the monasteries just as they do in the world. Furthermore, there is a complex link between obesity and mental illness and fat shaming is a method of stigmatizing. In the beginning, Fr. Germanos was constantly the brunt of jokes and taunts about his weight (both to his face and behind his back). In the mid-90’s, when Fr. Germanos was visiting Archangels Monastery in Texas, Geronda Dositheos walked up to him and said, “Do you know what we use to do to fat kids in school?” and he bumped his stomach into Fr. Germanos’ stomach. Also in the mid-late 90s, while Fr. Germanos was looking for property in New York, Geronda Ephraim gave many homilies to the Fathers in Arizona. In a couple of homilies, he’d joke about Fr. Germanos with his cheeks puffed, arms outstretched indicating fat, and wobble his body back and forth. All the Fathers would break out in laughter at this display. Though Fr. Germanos was not present for these homilies, he’d hear his brothers laughing and mocking him years later when these cassettes were digitalized and all the monasteries were given the DVDs. Another time, Fr. Germanos had forgot to erase his data from the treadmill they bought for the monastery. Fr. Kassianos, Fr. Michael and Fr. Kosmas had to move it from the living room up to the attic to make room for pilgrims and read the data which included his weight. These monks then joked about it and revealed to the other fathers, including Geronda, how much Fr. Germanos weighed. As time went on, stress-eating and high dessert diets increased in the other monasteries and the other superiors and second-in-commands also started to increase in weight and size; many hitting the 300lb + mark. As the other monastics’ weights increased, the teasing of Fr. Germanos decreased. Once, when the subject of how much weight all the abbots have been gaining came up, Fr. Germanos said jokingly, “It’s because you all judged me.” Taunts and shaming exist in the monasteries and neither the physically deformed, the handicapped or mentally ill are spared. Of course, those who become offended are given this explanation, “We do it out of love, not malice.” But in what universe can this be considered monastic, let alone Christian conduct? Sarcasm, contempt and mockery are not indications of brotherly love nor the presence of the Holy Spirit.
  13. It’s not a far stretch. For example, when Fr. Gergory was a hieromonk at St. Anthony’s Monastery, he drank skullcap, St. John’s Wort, and various other nerve relaxant teas around the clock. And he walked around like he was zoned out and doped up. Other monastics that have a blessing for sleeping pills or herbal remedies to help them sleep also have similar demeanors. The monastics who have a blessing to take Lorazepam for anxiety attacks, panic or stress also have similar doped out demeanors. However, the monastics who take antihistamines with pseudoephedrine are a little more alert and tweaked out (though in some monasteries the use of allergy medicine with pseudoephedrine is no longer blessed. This is because some monastics were abusing the medicine and taking it even when they had no allergy symptoms).
  14. Dr. Grigoriou opens his article with his credentials, familiarity with Mount Athos and the fact that there are Hagiorite monks on psychotropic drugs. These things, he states, make him a “substantive qualifier” to address Monk Michael’s interview. Now, Dr. Grigoriou suggests any psychiatrist is quite capable of analyzing the subject. Someone in Dr. Grigoriou’s position must be aware that many Greek psychiatrists are atheists and have biases and predispositions against Christianity, especially the monastic life.
  15. The deeper issue is when the showcase and external image of a monastery become more important than the individual monastics. How often does the showcase image lead to harm (either of a monastic or a laymen)? To what lengths will a monastery go—lying, perjury, gaslighting, cover-ups—what illegal activities will it commit, to ensure that its image remains spotless? And how do these methods damage individuals?
  16. This is a classic example of monastic minimization of serious issues. Not to mention, Dr. Grigoriou is actually stigmatizing the mentally ill by indirectly calling them “abnormal,” when he states that the other monks are “happy and normal.”
  17. Ostracizing does occur in monasteries. This usually happens when a monastic is not doing obedience or toeing the line. Many times, the superior may instruct the members of the brotherhood to ignore this individual, do not talk to him/her, walk away if this individual tries talking to you, etc. Ostracizing also occurs when one is punished in the Lity or given only rusks or one piece of fruit for a meal while everyone else has a full meal. Ostracizing erring monastics is suggested as an instructional technique by St. Basil the Great, St. John of the Ladder and many other Church Fathers.
  18. This resembles a spiritual father’s reproach to his spiritual child; the wording is attempted to instill guilt. The author is playing the Judas card; a classic amongst the Elders. A similar tactic was used in the HOCNA circles when former monastics started revealing the homosexual abuses perpetrated by their Geronda, Fr. Panteleimon Metropoulos. Ad hominen and straw man attacks and arguments were used against the former monastics that were sexually abused and raped. Gaslighting and dismissing them as deluded liars and Judas traitors was a common tactic used. In the last century, similar methods were used in other Orthodox scandal stories against the accusers/ whistle-blowers. In many of these situations, it eventually came to light that the accused were guilty and they ended up in prison or defrocked.
  19. The island of Amoulianni, off the northwest coast of Athos, was once said to be run like a sort of ‘concentration camp’ for naughty monks. (See Ralph H. Brewster, The 6,000 Beards of Athos, 1935, p. 26). Up to early 1900s, Ammouliani was a dependency of Vatopedi Monasteryof Mount Athos. In 1925, the island was given in the refugees’ families who had come from islands of Propontis (Marmaras Sea), after Asia Minor Disaster. The population of the island was developed quickly and today the island has over 500 residents. Nowadays Ammouliani is a touristic place with frequent transportation with the opposite coast.
  20. The Cassandra metaphor(variously labelled the Cassandra ‘syndrome’, ‘complex’, ‘phenomenon’, ‘predicament’, ‘dilemma’, or ‘curse’) occurs when valid warnings or concerns are dismissed or disbelieved. The Cassandra metaphor is applied by some psychologists to individuals who experience physical and emotional suffering as a result of distressing personal perceptions, and who are disbelieved when they attempt to share the cause of their suffering with others. In 1963, psychologist Melanie Klein provided an interpretation of Cassandra as representing the human moral conscience whose main task is to issue warnings. Cassandra as moral conscience, “predicts ill to come and warns that punishment will follow and grief arise.” Cassandra’s need to point out moral infringements and subsequent social consequences is driven by what Klein calls “the destructive influences of the cruel super-ego,” which is represented in the Greek myth by the god Apollo, Cassandra’s overlord and persecutor. Klein’s use of the metaphor centers on the moral nature of certain predictions, which tends to evoke in others “a refusal to believe what at the same time they know to be true, and expresses the universal tendency toward denial, [with] denial being a potent defence against persecutory anxiety and guilt.” (See Klein, M., Envy and Gratitude- And Other Works 1946–1963)
  • Filotheou Brotherhood late ca. 80s/early 90s [Geronda Paisios of Arizona, kneeling far right, Fr. Germanos of NY kneeling opposite]
    Filotheou Brotherhood late ca. 80s/early 90s [Geronda Paisios of Arizona, kneeling far right, Fr. Germanos of NY kneeling opposite]

Sokushinbutsu (即身仏): The Japanese Art of Self-Mummification

Sokushinbutsu (即身仏) refers to a practice of Buddhist monks observing austerity to the point of death and mummification. It is a process of self-mummification that was mainly practised in Yamagata Prefecture in Northern Japan by members of the esoteric Shingon (“True Word”) School of Buddhism.

Shingon Buddhism (真言宗 shingon-shū) is one of Japan’s mainstream schools of Buddhism and one of the few remaining esoteric branches, based on the teachings of Kūkai (空海, posthumously known as Kōbō-Daishi 弘法大師, 774–835) who brought this practice from Tang China as part of secret tantric practices. The practioners of sokushinbutsu did not view this practice as an act of suicide, but rather as a form of further enlightenment.


It appears that self-mummification was practised in Japan from the 11th century to at least the late 19th century. While Egyptian mummies were posthumously embalmed, Buddhist monks underwent a special rite known as nyūjō (入定) that would turn them into “Living Buddhas”: for one thousand days they would engage in strict ascetic exercise and live on a special diet consisting of water, seeds and nuts in order to shed body fat. For the next thousand days, they would feed on roots and pine bark and start to drink urushi tea(漆樹, made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum). The toxic sap, normally used to lacquer bowls and plates, served to repel maggots and other parasites and would later prevent decay of the body. In the next stage, the monks would be buried alive in a stone tomb barely big enough to allow them to sit in the lotus position. They were able to breathe through a tube and would ring a bell once a day to signal their still being alive. Once they failed to ring, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed.

After another one thousand days, the tomb was opened to see if the body had been successfully mummified. Those few who had actually succeeded had immediately attained Buddha-hood and were put on display at their temples, while those, whose bodies were decomposed, remained entombed, nonetheless highly respected for their denial and endurance. So far, 24 “Living Buddhas” have been documented.

The practice was banned by the Meiji government in 1879 as assisted suicide. Today, the practice is not advocated or practiced by any Buddhist sect, and is banned in Japan.


Mummies are still on display at

  • Ryusui-ji Dainichibou Temple (瀧水寺大日坊) in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata. Prefecture, where the body of Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin (1687-1783), who after a life of asceticism turned into a “Living Buddha” at the age of 96 after 42 days of fasting, can be seen.
  • Nangaku-ji Temple (南岳寺) in Tsuruoka.
  • Kaikou-ji temple (海向寺, Jisan Shingon sect) in Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture.
  • Zoukou-in temple (蔵高院, Zen Soutou sect) in Shirataka City, Yamagata Prefecture.


Here is the Shingon-approved self-mummification process a few easy steps!

  1. For three years, eat nothing but nuts and berries. This caused monks to lose a lot of weight, keeping pesky fat off of the body for the mummification process.
  2. For the next three years, only eat bark and roots. Eating only these things removed a lot of moisture from the body, moisture that could cause the body to decay instead of mummify.
  3. Drink a special tea. By drinking tea made out of urushi tree, a substance which is poisonous and usually used to lacquer bowls. This made the body poisonous and made it harder for bacteria to eat away at the body.
  4. Bury yourself alive. Seal yourself in a giant stone tomb. The monks gave the mummy-to-be a bamboo pipe for air and a bell. The mummy-to-be rang the bell every day to let his fellow monks know that they were alive. When they didn’t hear the bell ring, they knew that the monk had died.


Mountains, Mummies, and Modern Art: Ascetic Practice in Yamagata Prefecture

For over a thousand years, Yamagata Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan side of the northern Tōhoku region, has drawn pilgrims and mystics to its mountains. As the native Shintō faith intertwined with imported Buddhism, Yamagata became the site for scores of shrines and temples, some of which remain to the present day.

Pilgrimage to the Three Holy Mountains

The holiest of all the sites in the region are the three sacred mountains of Dewa, or Dewa Sanzan (literally: “three mountains of Dewa”): Gassan, Haguro, and Yudono. These peaks boast what is thought to be Japan’s longest history of mountain worship, stretching all the way back to Prince Hachiko, a sixth-century royal who devoted his life to religion, establishing centers of worship on all three mountains.

The five-story pagoda of Mount Haguro.
The five-story pagoda of Mount Haguro.

The slopes of Mount Haguro, the lowest and most accessible of the three sacred peaks, are particularly rich in shrines, Jizō statues, and other religious iconography, along with a stunning five-story wooden pagoda built without nails in 1372, itself a reconstruction of a similar monument built over a thousand years ago. Historical figures like the great poet Matsuo Bashō and the twelfth century warrior monk Benkei are also said to have lingered on this hallowed ground.

After the area was visited in the late seventh century by their spiritual forebear En no Gyōja, the three Dewa peaks became a site of great importance to the yamabushi (literally, “those who lay in the mountains”), a sect of ascetic adherents of Shugendō, an ancient religion combining aspects of Shintō and Buddhism.

Shrines at the base of Mount Haguro.
Shrines at the base of Mount Haguro.

These mountain mystics, clad in white and saffron robes and bamboo skullcaps, revere the fearsome-looking divinity Fudō Myōō and devote themselves to the contemplation of nature and study of martial arts. In the village at the base of the mountain are numerous lodgings that still host these pilgrims, serving traditional vegan shōjin ryōri in the austere quarters of the often thatched-roofed buildings.

Self-Denial in Pursuit of the Inner Buddha

The monks from the area around nearby Mount Yudono became famous for an even more rigorous strain of asceticism, with rather macabre results.

The temple Dainichibō stands near a prehistoric cedar tree beneath which, according to Chief Abbot Endō Yūkaku, Mimorowake—son of the first century Emperor Keikō—is buried. The original temple is said to have been established in 825 by Kūkai, the pioneer of esoteric Buddhism. Among his many teachings, Kūkai espoused the concept of sokushin jōbutsu: that all living things carry within them the potential to attain Buddhahood.


The temple’s medieval statue of Fudō Myōō.
The temple’s medieval statue of Fudō Myōō.

Over the centuries, with this aim in mind, some devout followers attempted to mummify themselves prior to death through a punishing six-year regime. For three years they kept to a meager diet of nuts and berries while exercising relentlessly to eliminate body fat. This was followed by a further three years eating only bark and roots. In the final phase, they drank preparations made from the arsenic-laden water of a local spring and the lacquer-like sap of the urushi tree, eliminating intestinal bacteria and essentially varnishing their innards.

At the culmination of the process, a monk would enter a narrow stone pit and assume a position of prayer. This tomb was covered with a stone slab through which protruded a bamboo pipe to enable the subject to breathe. Each morning, if still alive, he rang a small bell. When the chimes finally ceased, the other priests would remove the pipe and seal the tomb, leaving it for a thousand days.

Frozen in Prayer for All Eternity

When the lid was opened, in most cases, the tomb contained a rotten corpse. But if everything had gone according to plan, there would be a perfectly preserved mummy, still in the lotus position. Thissokushinbutsu would be transferred to the temple, dressed in lavish vestments, and revered as a Buddha—one who had not died, but had rather entered a state of perpetual prayer for the benediction of mankind.

Shinnyokai-shōnin, the sokushinbutsu of Dainichibō.
Shinnyokai-shōnin, the sokushinbutsu of Dainichibō.

Along with an incredible collection of antique statues, some dating back to the Nara period (710–94), Dainichibō is home to the sokushinbutsu Shinnyokai-shōnin, a priest said to have achieved Buddhahood in 1786, at the age of 96. The nearby temple Chūrenji (also founded by Kūkai) also hosts a sokushinbutsu named Tetsumonkai-shōnin, as well as a series of sumptuous murals—some antique, some modern—decorating the ceilings of its many chambers.

In all there are some two dozen sokushinbutsu worshipped at temples throughout this region. Although monks attempting the feat became so numerous in the nineteenth century that the Meiji government outlawed the practice, Yamagata Prefecture remains the only place where successfulsokushinbutsu exist.



Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan:

Sokushinbutsu of Dainichi Temple: The self-mummified monks of Japan

The Japanese Art of Self-Preservation

The “Incorruptible” Hambo Lama Itigelov:

Dying to Live Forever: The Reasons behind Self-Mummification

Asceticism and the Pursuit of Death by Warriors and Monks

Buddhist mummies:


Toxicodendron vernicifluum:



Hypocrisy and Deception (Béla Szabados and Eldon Soifer, 2004)

NOTE: This article is the first of three on the aspects and roles of deception. It is taken from the 14th chapter of Hypocrisy: Ethical Investigations.

Hypocrisy - Ethical Investigations cover

“We often do good to be able to accomplish evil with greater immunity.” La Rochefoucald1

“When we and the hypocrite have learned how hypocrisy is exposed, we might have to cope with the second order hypocrite, the double-bluffer who has learned how not to act like a hypocrite.” Gilbert Ryle2


That hypocrisy necessarily involves deception has struck some writers as so obvious that it has been put forward without argument as a shared basic intuition.3 Indeed, hypocrites are commonly characterized as falsely professing to be virtuously inclined; as assuming a false appearance of virtue or goodness while dissimulating their real character or inclinations; as feigning virtue that they do not have, or pretending to be more virtuous than they really are. So there is good reason to think that deception is essential to hypocrisy.4

Nevertheless, it is possible to have doubts about this conventional picture. Perhaps it is shaped and nourished by an overly narrow diet of examples, which are ultimately unrepresentative of the broad range of hypocrisies. Perhaps deception is characteristic of only a small, albeit striking, range of cases. It is in this spirit that some philosophers have lately denied the necessity of any sort of deception or insincerity for hypocrisy, arguing for example that persons who openly admit to not practising what they preach are still correctly called hypocrites.5 In this chapter we examine such arguments and claim that, even though they point to neglected  or unnoticed parts of the conceptual landscape, they sabotage their very goal by oversimplifying the nature of deception and the various roles it can play in hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy and Gluttony confront a wandering monk.
Hypocrisy and Gluttony confront a wandering monk.


Those who deny that deception is essential to hypocrisy generally offer an account of hypocrisy that centres on inconsistency—on a failure to live up to one’s own principles. The etymological history of this usage, as we have seen, goes at least as far back as the accusation of Jesus against the Pharisees that they are hypocrites because “they do not practice what they preach.”6

Several philosophers have followed this usage and, since inconsistency does not imply deception, these philosophers need not take deception to be essential to hypocrisy…


Dan Turner offers an account of hypocrisy that focuses on “disparity pairs,” such as words versus deeds, pretended beliefs versus genuine beliefs, or beliefs versus desires.7 Turner claims that this model of properly restricted disparity pairs captures shared basic intuitions about hypocrisy, without legislating away conflicting ones, and “is enough to generate most, if not all, of the central structure of the notion.”8 Turner sees it as a virtue of his account that it does not presuppose or entail any sort of deception or insincerity, nor that hypocrisy is always a bad thing.9

Although there are noteworthy differences in the details of these accounts of hypocrisy, our primary focus is the negative claim they have in common: that hypocrisy need not involve deception or insincerity of any sort. We will argue that this claim is mistaken. For one thing, we will argue10 that philosophers who focus on an account of hypocrisy as inconsistency have difficulty explaining how hypocrisy differs from what appear to be distinct forms of inconsistency, such as weakness of will, change of mind, or mere forgetfulness. It is instructive in this context to note how readily such accounts blend hypocrisy with weakness of will. Consider, for instance, what Thomas Hurka asserts in the following passage: “In a common form of hypocrisy, you believe the moral principles you state and wish you could live up to them. But you can’t—you’re weak willed.”11 First, however, let us consider some of the examples defenders of the inconsistency accounts of hypocrisy put forward in support of their conception. We will argue that, when cases are treated with sufficient depth, it emerges that only the cases that involve deception at some level are clear candidates for hypocrisy.


Dan Turner offers an argument in the form logicians call modus tollens for the conclusion that hypocrisy need not involve deception. First, he states that “if hypocrisy is a form of deception, then there can be no ‘out-of-the-closet’ hypocrites.”12 He goes on to say that there are, however, “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites. Therefore, hypocrisy is not a form of deception. Clearly, the force of this argument depends on the claim that there are “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites. The expression is used by Turner to describe people who openly and “freely acknowledge that they do not always practice what they preach.”13 Such alleged hypocrites are intended to provide a contrast to hypocrites who conceal their failure to practise what they preach, who are still in-the-closet.

The expression “out-of-the-closet hypocrite” is provocative, for it resonates with the figure of speech now used to describe homosexuals who are open about their sexual orientation and publicly identify them as gay. Since they no longer conceal their sexual identity, they no longer pretend to be what they are not—hence, they no longer hide in-the-closet.

The analogy only needs to be explicit to see that it is misleading. A gay person, whether s/he is in- or out-of-the-closet, is still gay. It is far from clear, however, whether a person who openly and freely declares that s/he does not practise what s/he preaches is still a hypocrite. This is a crucial dissimilarity, and Turner owes us a much more compelling case for the existence of “out-of-the-closet hypocrites” before helping himself to this analogy.

Modus Tollens

Turner provides two examples which he thinks are appropriately described as “out-of-the-closet” hypocrisies, as hypocrisies without any sort of deception or insincerity. One of these, which concerns a vegetarian who sometimes eats meat, we will consider in a later section.14 For now, consider Turner’s case of a cigarette smoker, who says, “I admit I am a hypocrite because I smoke, but I also want to urge you not to smoke; it is a terrible thing that no one should do.”15

The first interpretation of this case that comes to mind might be that the person involved is a nicotine addict. As such, the case can be generalized to include addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or whatever. An addict who desperately needs a fix may say, in the middle of getting that fix, “Whatever you do, don’t get yourself into this mess by becoming addicted,” thereby apparently satisfying the requirement for “out-of-the-closet” hypocrisy.


Yet we would argue such cases are not plausible as hypocrisy. There are relevant differences between addiction and hypocrisy. One is that calling someone a “hypocrite,” laden as that term is with moral overtones, suggests that the person could have behaved differently, and could have practised what s/he preaches. An addict, on the other hand, can preach but cannot practise. As Crisp and Cowton observe, “it may be that the smoker is addicted to nicotine to the point that she really cannot do anything about it. In this case, she would be misusing the term ‘hypocrisy’ … If the smoker is unable to give up, then she cannot be required to give up, then she cannot be required to give up, since ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ to use Austin’s phrase.”16

If this is correct, then the defender of the inconsistency view needs a case where a person says, “I’m a hypocrite because I do what I’m telling you not to do,” but the reason for doing it is not that one is unable to do otherwise. But then what is the reason the person does what s/he advises others not to do?

One other sort of case worth considering here involves people who are not strictly addicted, and could do otherwise, but are in the habit of acting in a particular way. A useful example along these lines is that of “a teacher who tells his pupils not to put their hands in their pockets because it looks slovenly and ruins one’s clothes and yet always has his own hands in his pockets.”17

Presumably we would not say such a teacher is “addicted” to putting his hands in his pockets. But it is not obvious whether the teacher “could have done otherwise.” Bad habits are hard to break, although presumably not impossible. Perhaps this case is not different in essence from the case of the addict after all. If that is right, then the critics have again failed to provide a case in which a person could have lived up to his/her stated principles but does not. Of course, establishing the conditions under which people could have acted differently than they did would require us to address the issue of free will in a way that lies beyond the scope of this project, but if we are right that hypocrisy must involve the ability to have done otherwise, then we do not yet have here a compelling case of hypocrisy without deception.

Even if we ignore the “could have done otherwise” argument, there are other reasons for thinking that people who do not practise what they preach are not necessarily hypocrites. For one thing, hypocrites are typically after social approval, cultivating the appearance of being principled persons by their preaching. The admitted miserable condition of the addict or habit-bound person is, by contrast, an object lesson as to why people should not smoke (or perhaps more convincingly, should not do crack-cocaine).


Finally, the inconsistency between the addict’s statements and behaviour may be more apparent than real. If the statement “Don’t smoke” is taken to be an elliptical way of saying “Don’t start smoking” then the addict’s ongoing behaviour is not after all contrary to the universal prescription. The addict may believe that it is acceptable for those who are already addicted to cigarettes to continue to smoke, but not acceptable for those who are not to start. But if this is the general proposition, then the addict’s behaviour in continuing to smoke does not after all contradict his/her stated principles, (the addict is not, after all, starting to smoke), and thus there need be no inconsistency.18 Although such people might commonly be referred to as hypocrites, we argue that this description may be inaccurate even if we count mere inconsistency as sufficient for hypocrisy, let alone if, as we maintain, use of the term should be reserved for cases in which there is deception of some sort involved.

Of course, to say that hypocrisy and addiction are distinct is not to say that it is impossible to be both a hypocrite and an addict. We are not referring here to con artists who pretend to be addicts to embezzle funds, say, from the Addict’s Aid Society. Indeed, such a person is not really an addict at all, and may not be a hypocrite either.

The Smoking Monk (Mount Athos)

Rather, the hypocritical addict is a person who uses his/her public confessions of failure and apparent concern for others, to establish his/her reputation as a crusader against smoking or to deflect blame or criticism from his/her own conduct. The simple addict engages in self-disclosure when s/he openly admits to not practising what s/he preaches. The hypocritical addict uses such openness to conceal motives s/he thinks others would find unworthy of respect or unacceptable. Such people come out-of-the-closet only to hide in another, perhaps more difficult to detect, closet. This is indeed a compelling case of hypocrisy, but notice that it also involves some sort of deception or insincerity. While in standard cases of hypocrisy, the deception often consists of concealing the gap between the preaching and practice, the “out-of-the-closet” sort of hypocrite, we suggest, has learned how such standard hypocrisy is detected or exposed, and how not to act like a standard hypocrite. S/he openly acknowledges the gap, yet continues to deceive or be insincere about his or her motives or inner core. Hence, these addict/hypocrites, when properly described, direct attention to a neglected range of hypocrisy and help us to better understand the concept, but do not provide an example of hypocrites who are not deceivers.


A classic example along these lines arises in Moliere’s play Tartuffe (the alternate name of which is The Hypocrite). The title character is a man who pretends to extreme religious piety so as to work his way into the home of a man named Orgon, where he is not only fed and sheltered, but generally fawned upon and treated as an honoured guest. Tartuffe takes advantage of his host’s hospitality, and even goes so far as to make advances on Orgon’s wife, Elmire. Orgon’s son, Damis, reports this scandalous behaviour to his father, in Tartuffe’s presence. The key passage for our present purpose is Tartuffe’s reaction, speaking to Orgon, when thus accused:

Yes, brother, I am wicked, I am guilty, A miserable sinner, steeped in evil, The greatest criminal that ever lived Each moment of my life is stained with soilures; And all is but a mass of crime and filth; Heaven, for my punishment, I see it plainly, Would mortify me now. Whatever wrong They find to charge me with, I’ll not deny it But guard against the pride of self-defence. Believe their stories, arm your wrath against me And drive me like a villain from your house; I cannot have so great a share of shame But what I have deserved a greater still. Ah! Let him speak; you chide him wrongfully; You’d do far better to believe his tales. Why favour me so much in such a matter? How can you know of what I’m capable? And should you trust my outward semblance, brother, Or judge therefrom that I’m the better man? No, no; you let appearances deceive you; I’m anything but what I’m thought to be, Alas! And though all men believe me godly, The simple truth is, I’m a worthless creature.19

Is Tartuffe being hypocritical in this passage? If deception is crucial for hypocrisy, then it might seem the answer has to be no, since what he says is true. He tells Orgon that he is a scoundrel—which we know to be true—and further warns Orgon not to be taken in by appearances, because he is anything but the godly man he is thought to be. Now if all this is intended as a genuine confession, then it seems there cannot be any hypocrisy involved on Tartuffe’s part. However, there is reason to think this is not after all a genuine confession. First of all, the very fact that Tartuffe does seem to be a thoroughgoing scoundrel makes us suspicious of any sudden transformation, and his later behaviour in the play (e.g., by again trying to seduce Orgon’s wife) confirms these suspicions. Even more telling, however, is Orgon’s reaction to Tartuffe’s speech. Orgon takes this confession as yet one more indication of Tartuffe’s piety. He not only gets angry at Damis for accusing such a saintly man of wrongdoing, but tries to earn Tartuffe’s forgiveness for the slur of his character by offering him the deed to his home, and his daughter’s hand in marriage. Since Tartuffe’s entire success is based on playing upon the sensibilities of his gullible host, it seems most likely that Tartuffe intended his speech to bring about exactly the sort of reaction it did. In that case, he says things that are true, in the confidence that they will not be believed, and will be viewed instead as a poignant demonstration of the virtue of humility.20


If this reading is correct, does the resulting situation amount to hypocrisy? It certainly has the element of trying to obtain a better reputation than one deserves, and thus we are surely tempted to consider this speech hypocritical. But again, what Tartuffe says in this passage is true. Accordingly, this might seem like exactly the sort of test case we were looking for. This appears to be a case of hypocrisy without deception, unless one merely stipulates it away, claiming it is not hypocrisy solely because it does not have this feature taken to be essential.

On more careful consideration, however, it can be seen there is deception here after all. It is true that the words are literally true.21 Nevertheless, part of what is communicated through the speech is not true at all. Tartuffe is deliberately conveying the idea of someone who scrutinizes himself carefully for fault, and chastises himself soundly when he finds it, with genuine remorse. Yet he is none of this. He is indeed full of what the world considers fault, but even when he becomes aware of this, he has no interest in changing. He apparently believes that being a scoundrel is exactly the right way to be, especially if one can take advantage of others’ gullibility, to one’s own selfish advantage. Thus the appearance of remorse and humility that Tartuffe conveys in this speech is indeed deceptive, even though the words are literally true. And it is exactly this deception that provides an advantage for Tartuffe, gaining for him benefits that he could not obtain if people knew the truth. This does indeed seem to be a case of hypocrisy, then, but it is a case that turns out to support rather than undermine the account of hypocrisy as deception aimed at getting a better reputation than one deserves.22

Fr. George Passias
Fr. George Passias

So far, those who want to maintain that there can be hypocrisy without deception have failed to provide a compelling case. Some of the proposed cases, such as those involving addicts (or people with bad habits) who advise others to avoid the same predicament do not amount to hypocrisy. Other cases, such as that of Tartuffe, turn out to involve deception, though at a more subtle level than is immediately obvious. There are still other cases to consider, however.

Another group of people who do not practise what they preach consists of those who believe that rules that apply to most people do not apply to them. Although this seems to meet exactly the definition of hypocrisy as inconsistency, we will argue that such cases often cannot plausibly be considered hypocrisy at all. Consider, for example, a person who has special skills or abilities that make it unlikely that s/he will be hurt by actions that would be very risky for others. This is the point behind examples where people on TV say things such as “Don’t try this at home, kids,” or “Remember, I’m a trained professional.” But surely there is no reason to think such people are hypocrites. If the general rule is that “only individuals with characteristic x can or should do action a,” then a person who has characteristic x is not being hypocritical in saying to those who do not, “I am going to do this, but you should not.” Similarly, society may authorize some individuals to do some things that are prohibited to the general public. For example, emergency workers are entitled to drive through red lights when the rest of us cannot. If such emergency workers say as they drive by “I’m doing this, but you shouldn’t,” they are displaying the kind of inconsistency Turner and others identify, but surely nobody would think they were being hypocritical. Even if people are mistaken about their beliefs—even if they do not really have the skills that will shield them from injury, for example, or are simply deluded as to whether they are emergency workers, their failing to practise what they preach would not amount to hypocrisy. People who genuinely believe they are exempted from a rule in light of some specific characteristic are not being hypocritical if they act contrary to the rule while still recommending it to others.

What would make such an individual a plausible candidate for hypocrisy would be if that person’s reason for being exempted boiled down to nothing more than “I don’t have to do that, and you do, because I’m me and you’re not.”23 Besides failing any plausible version of a universalizability test of morality, a person taking such a stance is likely to be doing exactly what we are arguing is crucial for hypocrisy—engaging in deception. People who simply assert that they are special, and that ordinary moral rules do not apply to them, are not likely to have much credibility. Accordingly, people who think this way are not likely to make their views explicit. They will publicly endorse the rule, urging others to follow it as if they think it applies to everyone, and keep secret their belief that it does not apply to them. Such people are indeed strong candidates for hypocrisy, and their failure to practise what they preach is crucial for identifying them as such, but notice that they are also deceivers. They deceptively suggest that they think the rule applies to everyone including them, when they really think it applies to everyone except them.

Geronda Ephraim

We have argued that cases of “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites”24 are candidates for hypocrisy only if there is some sort of deception or insincerity also involved. Deception in hypocrisy often takes the form of concealing from others a breach between one’s preaching and practice. However deception may take other forms too. The modified versions of “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites we elaborated show that a person may acknowledge or confess a failure to practise what s/he preaches, and deceptively use this apparent “openness” to evade moral censure or blame. The deception here is about inner motive or intention and this suggests that people may be hypocrites, even though they practise what they preach—if they pretend to be motivated by certain considerations while in fact being motivated only by a desire to appear to be motivated by those considerations. Here again, however, it seems that situations can only properly be described as involving hypocrisy when there is deception present.


There is another adaptive variation of hypocrisy that needs to be considered when searching for “hypocrisy of inconsistency” without deception. This variation involves people who make the actions of others a condition for practising, saying, “I’ll follow this principle only if others join in.” An example, provided by Saul Smilansky, is that of a person who says: “I am an egalitarian. If egalitarianism triumphs I would be willing to give up two-thirds of my salary in taxation. But until then, as long as the present social order persists, it is perfectly legitimate for me to pay only a quarter of my salary in taxes … I am all for changing the rules, but why should I now be the only one to pay?”25 Smilansky claims that, although such an individual readily admits she does not practise what she preaches, she “is no less a hypocrite than her more immediately recognizable partner”26 who conceals her actions so that the failure to practise what she preaches is not noticed. If Smilansky is right, perhaps we have here an example of a person who is hypocritical in light of inconsistency alone, without appeal to deception.

There are two reasons Smilansky cites to support his claim that this amounts to hypocrisy. The first is that “(with certain limited exceptions) one is obliged to practise what one preaches irrespective of the degree of acceptance of this preaching by others.27 This reason has a kind of Kantian resonance in that it suggests that principles are categorical imperatives, and anyone who qualifies them with “ifs and buts,” or compromises them by conditions, is already well on the way to the hypocrisy allegedly inherent in consequentialism. This reason, let us note, is only as sound as the Kantian theory it presupposes, and there are reasons for serious misgivings about the latter. Indeed, the difficulty of maintaining this approach is indicated by Smilansky’s need to qualify the assertion by allowing “certain limited exceptions.” He would, for example, allow deviating from the path one advocates when “doing one’s bit in the direction of one’s preaching, without the support or parallel action of others, would be more or less suicidal,”26 such as might be true of an advocate of gun control in “the Wild West or Beirut.”28 Similarly, he allows deviation from one’s preaching when “the achievement of the social aim depends on mass conformity, since one individual’s contribution, when it is quite certain that others will not join in, is insignificant or nonexistent.”29 After such qualifications, which we agree are necessary, the Kantian claim no longer seems as striking or powerful.


The second, and more powerful, reason Smilansky gives for believing that the person who says “I’ll do so if others join in” is a hypocrite will not in fact help the persons looking for an example of hypocrisy without deception. Smilansky claims that, contrary to appearances, there is deceit going on in such cases: “The deceit follows from the fact that there is a pretence of principle being declared, together with the knowledge that it is highly unlikely that the principle will be put to the test. Making the actions of others a condition for one’s actions pretty much guarantees that.”30 In other words, the person is in a sense stating a conditional of the form, “If others do x, then I’ll do x, too.” If one knows the antecedent is false, however, then it seems the only reason to make such a statement is that one hopes to gain a reputation for being willing to do x, without the cost of actually having to do it. We agree that in such cases there is a plausible, even compelling, case of hypocrisy, of a sort that might be called “counterfactual hypocrisy.” Note that, if the antecedent condition were miraculously to be met, such people might or might not carry through on their commitment to x. Although the one who does not do x when others have x’d is the clearer hypocrite, having made a blatantly false counterfactual statement, arguably even one who does do x when the circumstances call for it—perhaps to avoid further damage to one’s reputation—may be considered a hypocrite. This might be true, for example, if the person would never have made the statement in the first place, if s/he had realized there was a chance of actually having to carry through on it.

So we agree with Smilansky that people who make insincere counterfactual claims about what they would do if others behaved as we know they won’t are engaged in a form of deception and thereby qualify as hypocrites. But Smilansky seems to have described the case too broadly. Although he has identified an important and neglected area in which hypocrisy might arise, we believe that not all cases fitting his basic mould are in fact hypocritical in this way.

Consider again the case of the egalitarian who does not conceal his or her present practice, acknowledging that s/he pays only as much tax as presently required by law.  Suppose that s/he formulates the egalitarian principle clearly, and preaches in a manner that explicitly spells out the conditions for practice, as well as giving, so Smilansky himself says, “a principled set of reasons for not practicing what s/he preaches.”31 Consider then the above egalitarian, plus the following relevant new information. S/he knows that it is very unlikely that the preaching will be put to the test of practice in his or her lifetime, and says so. However, s/he works hard toward the realization of those conditions, investing considerable time, effort and money in the process. The “principled reasons” for not practising what s/he preaches are fairly applied and s/he does not demonize others who disagree. This person’s arguments suggest a genuine interest in a better society; s/he is not privileging his or her own role, but sees him or herself as one in a group of like-minded people. This person satisfies all of Smilansky’s requirements for hypocrisy, yet s/he seems like a genuine and realistic social reformer. We believe that it is the total lack of pretension in this case that makes us reluctant to label the egalitarian in question a hypocrite.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew kneel to kiss the Stone of Unction, traditionally claimed as the stone where Jesus' body was prepared for burial, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem May 25, 2014.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew kneel to kiss the Stone of Unction, traditionally claimed as the stone where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem May 25, 2014.

Smilansky’s basic sketch of the egalitarian-as-hypocrite is that of someone who not only conditionalizes his or her practice on the cooperation of others, but rigs those conditions in such a way that they in fact sabotage the goals of the principle itself. Furthermore, suppose that s/he flaunts the ideals, yet makes invidious judgments about those who live conventional lives—like him/herself—but do not avow egalitarianism. It is natural to see such a person a hypocrite, since in this case there is no pretension to principle and deceit going on.

To sum up our point then: To preach, not practise, openly admitting the breach, and conditionalizing one’s practice on the cooperation of others, does not necessarily involve deception, and does not as such amount to hypocrisy. Whether such a scenario adds up to hypocrisy depends on what these conditions are and how they are specified. If the latter are deceptive, we have good reason to suspect hypocrisy. In any event, there are diverse cases, requiring different treatment. For example, the successful practice of chastity does not generally require the cooperation of others, while bringing about an egalitarian society does. Accordingly, it is almost certainly hypocritical to say “I would be chaste if other people were, but they’re not, so I won’t be either,” but the comparable case of the egalitarian we have described need not be hypocritical at all. In any event, we have argued the cases of the “I will only if others do” sort are hypocritical only when the principles are “rigged,” and there is thus deception involved.


We have argued that the defenders of the “hypocrisy as inconsistency” theory have not yet provided a compelling case of hypocrisy, in which one could have acted on one’s stated principles and did not, that does not involve deception of some sort. We have yet to provide a positive argument to the effect that deception is required to distinguish hypocrisy from other forms of inconsistency, such as weakness of will, forgetfulness, or changes of mind. Before proceeding to this positive argument, however, we need to consider one more range of cases of potential counter-examples to our claim that hypocrisy does require deception. We will argue that these cases also involve deception, but that the deception involved is of a particular sort. In the next chapter, we consider the relationship between hypocrisy and self-deception.


1. La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, 1931.
2. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 1949, p. 174.
3. See e.g., Eva Feder Kittay, “Hypocrisy,” 277-89.
4. On this view, all that remains to be done is to explain how hypocrisy is to be distinguished from other forms of deception.
5. People who argue in this fashion include: Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices; Dan Turner, “Hypocrisy”; Roger Crisp and Christopher Cowton, “Hypocrisy and Moral Seriousness,” 343-49.
6. Matthew 23:3.
7. Turner, p. 265.
8. Ibid., 266.
9. Ibid., 266 and 286.
10. In Chapter 14 of this book.
11. Hurka 266.
12. Turner 265.
13. Ibid. 264.
14. See Chapter 14, Sections D and E of this book.
15. Turner 265.
16. Crisp and Cowton, 345.
17. Ibid.
18. We owe this insight to Leanne Kent, a former student.
19. Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere, Tartuffe; Or, The Hypocrite, Act III, Scene 6 (Harvard Classics, Vol. 26, Part 4, on-line edition).
20. This technique was first laid out by the Apostle Paul who reproaches himself as “the first among sinners.” Orthodox Christian texts have continued this tradition for the last 2000 years. Geronda Ephraim is a continuer of this tradition: he reproaches and accuses himself in every letter and homily he writes. His devoted disciples, who are under blind obedience to him, believe that these accusations he makes against himself are a testimony to his humility and saintliness.
21. It is interesting to compare this case with cases of irony. In standard cases of irony, the speaker says something that is false, expecting the listener to take it in the opposite way, understanding that what is meant is not what is literally said, but the reverse. In the present case, the speaker again expects the listener to take what is said in the opposite way, but in this case the words are literally true, and the expectation is that the reader will invert it and come to a false belief on that basis.
22. Monasteries have received countless large donations by utilizing such techniques of feigning humility and self-reproach. This technique leaves such a deep impression on gullible lay people that it reinforces their belief that the abbots or abbesses are holy (especially if they’ve already been prepped by other pilgrims with miracle stories about these individuals). A common phrase heard is, “S/he’s so holy and yet so humble, what a saint!”
23. In not so many words, this is a very common statement in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries. “Because I’m the Geronda (or Gerondissa),” is often heard by monastic disciples who confess logismoi or are scandalized by the un-monastic behaviors they witness in the abbots/abbesses. It is common for new novices who have not yet been completely broken by the elder to get scandalized easily by various behaviours that occur in the monastery; especially of the superiors and older monastics. This is natural because the young novices are continually reading monastic texts which censure different behaviours as unmonastic and many times these behaviours are quite commonplace in the monasteries from the head down. After a strict indoctrination process of being continually humbled (either verbally or other methods), long work hours, sleep and food deprivation, etc., the novice is either completely subjugated to the superior, or after a series of mini breaks, realizes the monastic life is not for them.
24. We discuss Turner’s other case, that of the meat-eating vegetarian in Chapter 14 of this book.
25. Smilansky, “On Practicing What We Preach,” American Philosophical Quarterly, (1994) 75.
26. Ibid., 77.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid., 75.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid., 74-75.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.

Extraterrestrial Life and Christianity (Michael J. Crowe, 2007)

NOTE: This article is taken from the 34th chapter of Science, Religion & Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy, pp. 297-303. Sources for the Orthodox teaching on this subject are given at the end of the article:


The debate about whether intelligent extraterrestrial life exists began in antiquity and has continued almost without interruption since then. Religion has frequently played a major role in responses to questions about the possible plurality of worlds, an issue religious authors have been dealing with for centuries. More than a century ago, three Christian religious denominations incorporated extraterrestrials into their scriptures.

Devotional and Philosophical Writings, c. 1330. Prior to the condemnations, many scholars relied heavily on Aristotle.
Devotional and Philosophical Writings, c. 1330. Prior to the condemnations, many scholars relied heavily on Aristotle.

Ancient and Medieval Ideas on Plural Worlds

As early as Greek antiquity, the extraterrestrial life debate was underway. Arguing in support of extraterrestrials were the atomist philosophers Leucippus (fl. 480 BCE) and Democritus (d. 361 BCE). Later ancient atomists, such as Epicurus (342–270 BCE) and the Roman poet Lucretius (99–55 BCE), ably continued their advocacy. Epicurus, for example, asserted in his “Letter to Herodotus” that “there are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. For the atoms being infinite in number . . . are borne far out into space.” Arguing against extraterrestrials were Plato (428–348 BCE), who maintained that the uniqueness of the demiurge implies the uniqueness of the world, and Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who cited both theological and physical arguments against the atomists’ claims.


Because early Christian authors typically favored the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle over the materialist, frequently atheistic claims of the atomists, these Christians tended to oppose the idea of a plurality of worlds, as belief in the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life was called for many centuries. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), for example, criticized this doctrine in his City of God, though he was more concerned to criticize the Stoic notion of successive worlds in time.


The interest evoked by the question of extraterrestrials was evident in the thirteenth century when Albertus Magnus (1193–1280) suggested: “Since one of the most wondrous and noble questions in Nature is whether there is one world or many…it seems desirable for us to inquire about it.” Nonetheless, he concluded in the negative as did his most prominent pupil, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274), who devoted an article of his Summa theologica to critiquing, largely on Aristotelian grounds, the idea of a plurality of worlds. Shortly after this, the debate among Christians took quite a new direction when in 1277 the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, became concerned that philosophers and theologians were overstepping themselves in making claims about how God must have worked in the universe. In response, Tempier issued the famous Condemnation of 1277, in which he criticized claims that seemed to limit God’s powers. One of the propositions condemned, article 34, was “that the First Cause [God] cannot make many worlds.” This opened the door for Christian authors to explore the idea of a plurality of worlds in a manner quite different from how it had been done within Aristotelian cosmology. This freedom influenced such fourteenth-century authors as Jean Buridan (c. 1295–1358), rector of the University of Paris, Nicole Oresme (1325–1382), eventually bishop of Paris, and the Franciscan philosopher William of Ockham (c. 1280–1347), all of whom criticized some of the (mainly Aristotelian) arguments against the doctrine, even though they too ended up rejecting claims for extraterrestrials.

Giovanni di Paolo's St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës. Tempier investigated the works of both Aquinas and Averroës.
Giovanni di Paolo’s St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës. Tempier investigated the works of both Aquinas and Averroës.

No such scruples were evident when in 1440 Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) published his famous Of Learned Ignorance, in which he devoted a chapter to advocating the possibility of extraterrestrial life even on the moon and sun. Rather than being censured for this view, he was named a cardinal a few years later. The debate took yet another turn when William Vorilong (d. 1463) raised, apparently for the first time, the question of whether belief in extraterrestrials is compatible with the central Christian notions of a divine incarnation and redemption. In his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Vorilong gave reasons for believing that God could create another inhabited world, then added: “If it be inquired whether men exist on that world, and whether they have sinned as Adam sinned, I answer no, for they would not exist in sin and did not spring from Adam. . . . As to the question whether Christ by dying on this earth could redeem the inhabitants of another world, I answer that he is able to do this even if the worlds were infinite, but it would not be fitting for Him to go unto another world that he must die again.”

Extraterrestrials and the Scientific Revolution

In 1543 a brilliant if largely unknown cleric published a book so mathematical that few could read it, so shocking that few would at first believe it, and so important that it is arguably the keystone work of modern physical science. This book was De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, its author was the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543), and its message was the heliocentric theory, the claim that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of our universe. In the fullness of time, astronomers and many others came to see that this theory turned earth into a planet, planets into earths, stars into suns (themselves possibly orbited by planets), and humans into denizens of a portion of a vast universe that was possibly packed with other intelligent beings. Although nowhere in Copernicus’s writings did he express himself on extraterrestrials, it was not long before others raised this issue.

download (2)

Already in 1550 in his Initia Doctrinae Physicae, the prominent Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560) warned against the Copernican cosmology and the idea that Christ’s incarnation and redemption could have occurred on another planet: “the Son of God is One;…Jesus Christ was born, died, and resurrected in this world. Nor does he manifest Himself elsewhere, nor elsewhere has He died or resurrected. Therefore it must not be imagined that Christ died and was resurrected more often, nor must it be thought that in any other world without the knowledge of the Son of God, that men would be restored to eternal life.”

Bronze statue of Bruno by Ettore Ferrari at Campo de' Fiori, Rome.
Bronze statue of Bruno by Ettore Ferrari at Campo de’ Fiori, Rome.

The sixteenth-century author who most boldly pressed the possible implications of the Copernican theory for the extraterrestrial life debate was Giordano Bruno (1548–1600). In the last two decades of the century (and his life), he published three books in which he not only argued for extraterrestrials, but also asserted that they roamed the planets of our solar system and the planetary systems that he postulated must orbit other stars. So enthusiastic was Bruno for extraterrestrial life that he attributed souls to planets, stars, meteors, and the universe as a whole. Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 by the Catholic Inquisition, but there is no clear evidence to justify the claim that he was a martyr for extraterrestrials. Scholars for the most part agree that the range of heresies Bruno championed, including his denial of the divinity of Christ, were most probably what led the inquisitors to sentence him to death.


The most astronomically astute astronomers at the time of Bruno’s death, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), distanced themselves from his claims. Although Galileo in his Siderius Nuncius (1610) had reported observations made with the newly invented telescope that indicated such terrestrial features as mountains on the moon, in his famous defense of the Copernican system, his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632), Galileo suggested that if life existed on the moon, it must be “extremely diverse and far beyond our imagining.” Kepler, although the author of a fictional account of life on the moon, worried when he heard reports of Galileo’s early observations, but upon reading the Siderius Nuncius, as he wrote in his Conversation with Galileo’s Sidereal Messenger (1610), he was delighted to find that it contradicted “Bruno’s innumerabilities.” In the same book, Kepler went to some lengths to design a universe in which the earth retained a primacy, in which humankind was the “predominant creature” in all creation.

Johannes Kepler

One of the chief sources of Bruno’s advocacy of the existence of extraterrestrials was his commitment to a religious and metaphysical claim that Arthur Lovejoy has called the principle of plenitude, the doctrine that “no genuine potentiality of being can remain unfulfilled, that the extent and abundance of the creation must be as great as the possibility of existence and commensurate with the productive capacity of a ‘perfect’ and inexhaustible ‘Source,’ and that the world is better, the more things it contains.” In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this notion of plenitude and the associated idea of a great chain of being combined with the growing evidence for the Copernican theory to make the idea of a plurality of worlds seem plausible.

Andreas Cellarius, illustration of the Copernican system, from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660).
Andreas Cellarius, illustration of the Copernican system, from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660).
The Geocentric Universe
The Geocentric Universe

Two very influential books advocating extraterrestrials appeared in the latter half of the seventeenth century. In 1686, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757) attracted a huge audience for his Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, which was translated into at least nine languages and went through dozens of editions. Whereas his contemporaries deemed it delightful, the Roman Catholic Church designated it as dangerous, placing it on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1687. The other book appeared in 1698, written by Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), who ranked second only to Newton among late-seventeenth-century physical scientists in the magnitude of his scientific contributions. Entitled Cosmotheoros—its English title was Celestial Worlds Discover’d: Or, Conjectures Concerning the Inhabitants, Plants, and Productions of the Worlds in the Planets—it was soon available not only in its original Latin but in five other languages. Because Huygens possessed far more credibility in scientific matters than Fontenelle, his book carried more weight than Fontenelle’s charming advocacy.


In the Enlightenment, poets as prominent as Alexander Pope, Edward Young, and Friedrich Klopstock celebrated the idea of a plurality of worlds, while philosophers as famous as Voltaire and Kant championed it. The pioneers of stellar astronomy—Thomas Wright, Immanuel Kant, Johann Lambert, and William Herschel—developed its astronomical implications. There was a paucity of scientific evidence for extraterrestrials, but the argument derived from the principle of plenitude—that God would not waste space by leaving planets uninhabited—created the assumption that probably every planet in our solar system and others was inhabited. Moreover, many intellectuals assumed there were extraterrestrials on the moon, and scientists as prominent as Johann Bode, Roger Boscovich, and William Herschel populated even the sun and stars.

As this suggests, theism seemed to present few obstacles for belief in life elsewhere; in fact, it could be used to support it. Nonetheless, tensions did develop, especially after 1793, when Thomas Paine published his Age of Reason. One question was whether the Christian notions of a divine incarnation and redemption on this planet were believable in a universe of vast size and, it seemed, populated by extraterrestrials. In his book, Paine argues that although the existence of intelligent life only on the earth is not a specific Christian doctrine, it is nonetheless “so worked up therewith from . . . the story of Eve and the apple, and the counterpart of that story—the death of the Son of God, that to believe otherwise . . . renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous.” Paine challenges the “strange conceit” that Christ would “come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman had eaten an apple! And, on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a redeemer? In this case, . . . the Son of God . . . would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of death.”


Reconciling Extraterrestrials and Christianity

Thomas Paine’s claim that belief in Christianity cannot be reconciled with belief in extraterrestrials attracted widespread attention, some challenging it and others supporting it. One alternative view came from Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), who in the period from about 1820 to 1847 was not only Scotland’s leading evangelical but also the most prominent Scottish religious figure. Chalmers rose to fame in 1817 with the publication of his extraordinarily widely read Astronomical Discourses on the Christian Revelation, based on a series of sermons he had given in Glasgow. In a deeply moving manner and with elegant prose, Chalmers sketched a universe that seemed open to extraterrestrials yet compatible with Christianity.


Ellen White (1827–1915), chief foundress of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church during the second half of the nineteenth century, would incorporate a similar idea into the scriptures she supplied that denomination. Not only did the Seventh-Day Adventists incorporate extraterrestrials into their scriptures, but two other religious denominations founded during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did likewise, although in a quite different manner. These are the Church of the New Jerusalem (also known as the Swedenborgians) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons).

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Most educated people in the early nineteenth century believed that life was widely spread throughout the universe. Although no substantial evidence of extraterrestrials had become available, arguments for alien life based on natural theology continued to carry conviction. That situation began to change in 1853 when an anonymous book, Of the Plurality of Worlds: An Essay, created a sensation by challenging belief in extraterrestrials. The book’s author, the British scientist William Whewell (1794–1866), was also an Anglican priest and master of Trinity College at Cambridge University. He correctly anticipated the shock his book would create; in its preface, he observed: “It will be a curious . . . event, if it should now be deemed as blamable to doubt the existence of inhabitants of the Planets and Stars as, three centuries ago, it was held heretical to teach that doctrine.” In this volume, Whewell dissected the arguments, both theological and scientific, that had been cited in support of intelligent life throughout the universe. He noted, for example, that the inner planets must receive far more heat from the sun than is compatible with living forms, and that the planets beyond Mars must receive far less heat than needed for life and are of such low density that they probably lack a solid surface.


In response to the theological argument that God’s efforts would have been wasted were celestial bodies bereft of intelligent life, Whewell stressed that geologists, although assigning a vast age to Earth, had concluded that humans appeared only comparatively recently. This, Whewell asserted, shows that the manner in which God works, whatever that may be, is compatible with vast periods (and correspondingly vast spaces) lacking intelligent life. A key factor in the gradual acceptance of Whewell’s claims was the conversion of Richard Proctor (1837–1888), a prolific British writer about astronomy, to what he called the “Whewellite” position.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, the only other planet in the solar system that seemed capable of sustaining life was Mars. The theory that Martians might exist gained support in 1877 when the respected Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835–1910) reported sighting what have been described as canals on the surface of the planet. From 1877 to 1915, dozens of books, hundreds of telescopes, thousands of articles, and millions of people were focused on Mars as possibly the best hope for extraterrestrials in our solar system. Percival Lowell, Camille Flammarion, and others championed Schiaparelli’s observations, whereas E.W. Maunder and Eugène Antoniadi, among others, countered the claims for the canals and for Martian life. By 1915, at least among the astronomical community, the latter scientists had succeeded.

Mars Atlas by Giovanni Schiaparelli, 1888.
Mars Atlas by Giovanni Schiaparelli, 1888.

Around the time that the Martian canal claims were abandoned, serious difficulties beset the island universe theory, the claim that other Milky Ways exist in the universe. During the 1920s, however, Edwin Hubble and others successfully resurrected the theory, providing evidence of the vast number of galaxies comparable in size to but far beyond our own. Another theory was the nebular hypothesis, the idea that planetary systems form from rotating and condensing nebular material, and that stars probably are surrounded by planets. The nebular hypothesis was replaced for a time by encounter theories of planetary formation, which entail that planetary systems are rare. During the 1940s, the nebular hypothesis regained credibility.


These theories as well as the development after World War II of radio telescopes capable of receiving signals from distant regions of space led to increased interest in the possibilities of intelligent extraterrestrial life. The recognition around 1970 of various extremophiles, terrestrial organisms capable of existing in what had seemed forbidding environments, for example, at temperatures near the boiling or freezing points of water, led some astronomers to argue that lower forms of life may be fairly widespread in the universe. On the other hand, astronomers since perhaps 1990 have come to recognize that the conditions necessary for the development of intelligent life are sufficiently restrictive that it is possible that intelligent life is quite rare.

Throughout the extraterrestrial life debate, astronomy and religion have frequently interacted. Theological reasons have been cited both for and against the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials. Moreover, authors have attempted to marshal extraterrestrials both for and against numerous religious, ethical, and metaphysical positions. In general, theism and belief in extraterrestrial life claims have rarely been in tension, although specific aspects of the Christian religion have in the eyes of some believers created significant tensions. But these difficulties have been addressed over a number of centuries by an array of theologians and religious writers, to an extent that were Earth to come into contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, Christians would have an extensive theological literature to draw on in attempting to assess the religious significance of this development.


  • Ashkenazi, Michael. “Not the Sons of Adam: Religious Responses to ETI.” Space Policy 8 (1992): 341–50.
  • Crowe, Michael J. The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750–1900: The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999.
  • Dick, Steven J. The Biological Universe: The Twentieth-Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • ———, ed. Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life, and Its Theological Implications. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation, 2000.
  • ———. Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Guthke, Karl S. The Last Frontier: Imagining Other Worlds from the Copernican Revolution to Modern Science Fiction. Trans. Helen Atkins. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Hennessey, Roger. Worlds Without End: The Historic Search for Extraterrestrial Life. Stroud, UK: Tempus, 1999.
  • Lovejoy, Arthur. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of Ideas. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950.
  • O’Meara, Thomas. “Christian Theology and Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life.” Theological Studies 60 (1999): 3–30.
  • Whewell, William. Of the Plurality of Worlds: An Essay. 5th ed. London: John W. Parker and Son, 1959.
Jollain/De Jode edition of Saliba’s map of the cosmos, integrating ancient Pagan and medieval Christian cosmology with Renaissance beliefs and experiences.
Jollain/De Jode edition of Saliba’s map of the cosmos, integrating ancient Pagan and medieval Christian cosmology with Renaissance beliefs and experiences.

The Western Calendar: Religion and Science Intertwined (Matthew F. Dowd)

NOTE: This article is taken from the 33rd chapter of Science, Religion & Society, pp. 290-296:

Reconstruction of Fasti Antiates, the only calendar of the Roman Republic still in existence.
Reconstruction of Fasti Antiates, the only calendar of the Roman Republic still in existence.

Calendars represent an important arena in which religion and science have historically operated fruitfully together. Calendars typically incorporate both scientific material, such as the motions of the sun and moon, and religious concerns, such as the proper celebration of religious festivals. Because temporality is an element essential to many religious practices, properly understanding the functioning of the regular natural processes used to mark time becomes an essential ingredient in the creation of a calendar. We are not talking here about the physical object of a calendar, though that is part of the regulation and promotion of a calendrical system. Our subject is the calendar as a theoretical construct: the periodic natural phenomena used to mark time and the points in time that are set down as being important to the culture that uses the calendar. This analysis will focus only on selective aspects of the calendars of Rome and Christian Europe (the latter of which eventually became the most commonly used calendar in the world), but similar remarks apply to the calendars of many different cultures of many different periods.

Calendar with removable pins.(Saturn, Sun, Luna, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus) From the stone plate of the 3rd—4th centuries A.D., found in Rome.
Calendar with removable pins.(Saturn, Sun, Luna, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus) From the stone plate of the 3rd—4th centuries A.D., found in Rome.

Fundamentally, calendars are purely human inventions. They need not follow any particular natural processes; however, because calendars delineate recurrent events, only a limited number of reliable, periodic natural phenomena are useful for a calendar. The most commonly used phenomena are the movements of the sun and moon, and indeed these motions have been the basis of the Western calendars.

An early Roman calendar
An early Roman calendar

The length of the solar year is approximately 365.242 days. Because a calendar year uses a whole number, 365 days, a calendar based on the sun must periodically intercalate, or insert, an extra day to compensate for the extra time (a little less than one-quarter of a day) that accumulates with each passing year, or else the date will begin to drift in relation to the seasons or with respect to the stars. The length of the lunar month (the period between the same lunar phases, such as the full or new moon) is approximately 29.53 days, and lunar calendars typically alternate between months of 30 and 29 days. A lunar year, or twelve lunar months, is about 354 and one-third days, about eleven days short of a full solar year. Thus, to keep in line with a solar year and to deal with the fractional difference between the lunar period and whole numbers of days, an extra month or day, respectively, must occasionally be intercalated. These problems lead to serious difficulties when one tries to combine the motions of the sun and moon within a single calendrical system.

The side A of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
The side A of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

Calendars also represent human choices about important events to be marked down or celebrated. Holidays and festivals are the most obvious religious events that calendars mark. And, as we will see below, natural phenomena are often used to set down the proper date for events, either at the same time each year (using the sun, or sometimes the moon, to date the events) or on moveable dates (which typically use a combination of the motions of the sun and moon).

The side B of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
The side B of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

The Roman Calendar

The origins of the Roman calendar are lost in antiquity. The Romans, however, attributed the origin of the calendar to the first two, semi-mythical kings of Rome: Romulus and Numa. Romulus was said to have created the initial calendar, and Numa was said to have modified it and to have instituted the college of pontifici, a category of priests whose responsibilities included monitoring and regulating the calendar. Very little reliable knowledge of the precise history of the calendar of the Roman republic is available, but certain general characteristics can be gleaned from ancient sources.

Romulus & Remus
Romulus & Remus

The first thing to note about the Roman calendar is that it was simultaneously a civil and religious calendar. The Romans believed that the proper functioning of society arose from maintaining the proper relationship to the gods, which entailed making the proper sacrifices to propitiate the gods. Only when the divine powers were propitiated could human society function in an orderly manner. This meant that various religious festivals had to be celebrated both in the proper fashion and at the proper time throughout the year. It was the responsibility of those who held priestly offices to make sure this happened, and the calendar was one important means by which they did so.

The calendar also performed the very practical function of setting out what sorts of activities could take place on which days. Each day of the year had one or more labels applied to it, indicating what kind of activity could take place on those days (we can see similarities in the modern calendar in the way holidays or religious worship take place on certain days). The dies fas were days on which legal business could be conducted, while the dies nefas were days on which legal business was not permitted. On the nefas feriae publicae, public festivals, which included propitiatory sacrifices to the gods, took place. Assemblies (political, legislative, and so on) were held on the comitialis, and markets were held on the nundinae. Essential elements—economic, legislative and political, and religious—of the proper functioning of society were embodied in the calendar.

Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, observed on February 13 through 15.
Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, observed on February 13 through 15.

The Roman calendar appears to have arisen out of a lunar calendar. According to later Romans authors, the calendar reform of Numa made the year 355 days long, with months of 31 or 29 days, but 28 for February, plus an intercalated month to keep the calendar in step with the seasons. Another indication is the system of referring to dates of the year according to the kalends, ides, and nones. The kalends of a month was the first day of that month, which originally may have corresponded to the new moon. The ides would then fall close to the full moon, which meant the 13th or 15th of the month (depending on the number of days in the previous month). The full system of naming the days can be understood in relation to these two important days of the month. The ides fell on the 13th or 15th of the month; the prior days, counting backward (the Roman calendar employed backward counting when it came to naming the days), would be referred to as the day before ides, the third day of ides, and so on. In the case of the ides, this ran for eight days each month, which gets one back to the 5th or 7th day. The 5th or the 7th day was then known as the nones of that month. Similar backward counting went on for the four or six days of the nones, which got one back to the kalends on the first day. The kalends then ran backward into the previous month (for example, the last day of January would have been referred to as the day before the kalends of February) until one reached the ides of that month, and hence there could be between sixteen and nineteen kalends for a month.

Many years ago, a wise soothsayer warned Roman leader Julius Caesar that he was in danger and to “Beware of the Ides of March.”   As predicted, Caesar, who did not heed the soothsayer’s warnings, was murdered on March 15, 44 B.C., the Ides of March.   Caesar was brutally stabbed by a group of conspirators, both friend and foe, and reportedly bled to death.
Many years ago, a wise soothsayer warned Roman leader Julius Caesar that he was in danger and to “Beware of the Ides of March.” As predicted, Caesar, who did not heed the soothsayer’s warnings, was murdered on March 15, 44 B.C., the Ides of March. Caesar was brutally stabbed by a group of conspirators, both friend and foe, and reportedly bled to death.

Because of the difficulty of maintaining congruence between solar and lunar elements in the calendar, the Romans faced numerous calendrical difficulties, particularly when the religio-civil officials in charge of its upkeep could not accomplish their task (for example, because of war or political struggles). By the time of the late republic, the calendar was in need of reform. Julius Caesar, who had been in the college of pontifici some years previously and was now dictator of Rome, undertook such a reformation in 46 BCE. He instituted what has since taken his name: the Julian calendar. On the advice of the astronomer Sosigenes, Caesar changed the number of days in each month (and Augustus, some years later, changed them to have the modern values) to make the calendar a solar year: 365 days per year, with a day intercalated every four years to account for the extra part of a day that accumulates each year.


The Roman calendar, then, shows a mix of astronomical and religio-civil concerns. Both the moon and the sun are used to mark time through the use of measurement of physical quantities. But the reasons for doing so are quite outside what we think of as scientific: to keep society functioning properly by helping Romans to observe and preserve the inseparable civil and religious aspects of their culture that they understood to be vital to maintaining their society.


The European Christian Calendar

When the Western Roman Empire began to dissolve in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, being replaced by successive Germanic kingdoms, Christianity had already taken on a prominent cultural role within the region. To continue to make use of the Roman calendar was only natural, especially given that Christianity had become intertwined with the Roman Empire when it was made the legal religion of the empire at the end of the fourth century. But the Roman calendar was in certain ways inappropriate for a Christian community. Three particular concerns led to significant changes in the calendar during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages: the numbering of years, the problem of pagan religious festivals, and the dating of Easter. Each of these led to modifications of the calendar, though only the last required significant astronomical science (the replacement of pagan festivals sometimes was peripherally related to astronomical phenomena).

Dionysius Exiguus (c. A.D. 470-544)
Dionysius Exiguus (c. A.D. 470-544)

The Romans had typically referred to a year in one of two ways: either by the rulership of its leaders (for example, the consuls or the emperors) or by reference to the mythical founding of Rome (753 BCE by modern reckoning). Dionysius Exiguus, a monk living in the early sixth century CE, proposed instead numbering the years according to the birth of Christ, so that the first year of the Christian era would begin on the first day of January after the nativity. Due to a mistake in reckoning, he chose a year that was apparently three years too late, placing Jesus’s birth in the year 4 BCE, rather than 1 BCE. Some modern scholars speculate that the birth may have occurred some years prior to that. What is important, however, is not whether Dionysius got it right but that, in a conscious rejection of traditional practice, he changed the calendar to fit a cultural demand, replacing a secular event (the founding of Rome) with a religious event (the birth of Jesus) as the founding event on which the calendar would be based. By doing so, Dionysius was self-consciously incorporating religious belief into the calendar. Though Dionysius’s change was adopted only sporadically and over centuries, it eventually became common across Europe.

Easter cycle of Dionysius Exiguus. Marble. Ravenna, 6th cent. Museum Ravenna.
Easter cycle of Dionysius Exiguus. Marble. Ravenna, 6th cent. Museum Ravenna.

As the Christian church spread across the Roman world and northern Europe, it confronted older religious traditions in which festivals and observances celebrated astronomical events or were tenuously tied to celestial events to fix the time of the holiday. It was a common Christian practice to replace these traditional celebrations with Christian festivals. Certain practices of a holiday might be kept or altered, but the reason for the event was replaced with a thoroughly Christian one. One famous example is the replacement of Samhain, a Celtic holiday oriented around the position of the sun, with the Christian holiday of All Saints Day. In this case, ecclesiastics self-consciously and explicitly stated that church officials should try to replace the traditional celebrations with ones of a more Christian tenor, or at least modify existing customs to be in keeping with Christian celebration. Other examples abound, both in the patristic period, when the Roman religion was the object of attack, and in the early medieval period, when the Germanic or Celtic religions were seen as a threat. In all cases, the calendar was a means by which to convey religious beliefs and counteract undesired influences.

celtic wheel 1

The final issue for the Christian calendar during this period was the dating of Easter, and thereby all the moveable feasts. A moveable feast was a religious celebration or observation that had a different date from year to year. Easter is dated according to a lunar calendar because of the biblical narrative and the sequence of the passion following the commencement of the Jewish Passover festival, the date of which was fixed by the moon. Easter was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox; thus the phases of the moon had to be calculated in order to know the date of Easter, and thereby to work back to the other moveable feasts of the year, such as Lent. There were controversies over how the calculation should be made; for example, Bede, in his History of the English Church and People, recounts the events of the famous synod of Whitby at which rival claimants to ecclesiastical authority debated the proper method of determining the date of Easter.

However, the Roman calendar had long ago lost its lunar character. In order to calculate the dates of Easter, the church adopted a nineteen-year cycle of lunar months, with occasional intercalated days, so that it would be easy to know when the new and full moons would occur. This cycle could then be superimposed on the Julian calendar, and one could calculate ad infinitum when Easter and the moveable feasts should fall. A nineteen-year cycle was chosen because this allowed a close correspondence between the solar and lunar calendars. This led to a new science of calendrical computation known as computus, the texts for which frequently incorporated various other elements of the physical sciences. Thus computistical works were often the vehicle by which more general scientific education could be accomplished.

St. Wilfrid
St. Wilfrid

The correspondence between the nineteen-year lunar cycle and solar calendar was not perfect, and as centuries passed, it also became clear that the solar calendar had gotten off track. Fairly simple observations showed that full moons and eclipses were not occurring at the times that the calendar said they should, and therefore the nineteen-year cycle was in error. Eventually it also became clear that the solstices, the most northern and southern points that the sun reaches, were not occurring at the expected times, showing that the solar calendar was in error. The calendar clearly needed to be fixed.

The Gregorian Reform

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Latin Europe learned that the Arabic world was far more advanced scientifically, both because they had preserved the Greek science that Latin literature hinted at and because Islamic scientists had preserved and improved upon ancient science. Various Latin scholars began to seek out and translate Greek and Arabic scientific works, a process that has since come to be known as the translation movement. The appropriation of this scientific corpus had a significant effect on the Western European calendar, as scholars soon learned that errors in the calendar could be remedied. It would take centuries, however, for the reform of the calendar to be enacted, and additional centuries for the new calendar to be adopted around the world.

Papal coat-of-arms of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585)
Papal coat-of-arms of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585)

Some of the earliest calls for reforms came from the English scholar and ecclesiastic Robert Grosseteste. In his Compotus correctorius, probably written in the 1220s, Grosseteste argued that various phenomena showed that the contemporary calendar was in error, and that the work of the Arabic astronomers could be used to correct the calendar. He was, however, not very explicit on how the fundamental nature of the calendar might be changed to correct these errors. For example, he knew the length of the solar year must be calculated more precisely, but he did not offer practical advice for how this would be accomplished.


The problem of errors in the calendar was not merely a scientific one. The real issue was that errors could lead to the improper celebration of religious festivals like Easter. And this had clear theological implications, especially since the celebration of religious festivals was understood as important to salvation. Science might be the means to correct errors, but the goal in so using it was a religious one.

Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar.
Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar.

Despite repeated calls for reform, the issue of correcting the calendar did not spur ecclesiastical officials to take action until late in the sixteenth century. Pope Gregory XIII brought together a commission to resolve the issues of correcting the calendar and officially announced the reform of the calendar in 1582. The lunar cycle was modified to be more precise. A few intercalated days were removed. And to bring the solstices and equinoxes back to their “proper” dates, ten days were removed from the year 1582: October 5 through 14. Thus in 1582, October 15 followed October 4.

The Gregorian reform was not immediately adopted across Europe. In Catholic realms, it carried the weight of the pope’s official backing and was adopted very quickly. Most Protestant regions, however, refused to change their calendars for many years. Germany finally adopted a similar reform in 1700, whereas England waited until 1752 to do so. The rejection of the reform had little to do with the scientific work of Gregory’s commission but was instead due to the authority that tried to impose it: the Roman Catholic Church. Just as religious reasons were at the heart of calls for reform, the unwillingness to adopt this particular reform was fueled by religious and thereby political sentiment, namely, that the Roman Catholic pope had no authority in those places. But the practical considerations of operating under separate calendars proved too difficult, and eventually all of Europe was unified under a single calendrical system. Due to the economic and political clout of Europe in the succeeding centuries, the Gregorian calendar spread across the world and now is used nearly everywhere.

The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Day (1572)
The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day (1572)

The calendar is one arena in which religious and scientific concerns by necessity run concurrently. Scientific information and analysis are vital to creating a calendar that can serve its purpose: tracking recurrent cycles of time. But in many cases, the parameters of what counts as important for the calendar—the dates that need to be figured, the cycles that need to be tracked— are not based on scientific goals or theories. Rather, the history of the Western calendar shows that religious concerns have been an important factor both in creating the calendar and in conducting scientific investigation regarding it.

The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Day (1572)
The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day (1572)


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