On Virgintiy (St. John Damascene, 8th century)

NOTE: This article is taken from The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Chapter 24. This is one of the few catechisms that are blessed for spiritual children under Geronda Ephraim—and by extension the Father Confessors under him—to read. Catechisms and authors to be avoided due to frequent errors: Metropolitan Kallistios Ware, Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, Archbishop Paul of Finland, Archbishop Lazarus Puhalo, Metropolitan Sotirios of Canada, Fr. Stanley Harakas, Fr. Anthony M. Coniaris, etc. the list is endless. Suspect publishing houses include Light & Life, Conciliar Press, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Synaxis Press, etc.


Men who are carnal and given to pleasure belittle virginity and offer by way of testimony the saying, ‘Cursed be every man who raiseth not up seed in Israel.’1 But we, made confident by the fact that God the Word took flesh of a virgin, declare that virginity is from above and was implanted in men’s nature from the beginning. Thus, man was formed from the virgin earth. Eve was created from Adam alone. Virginity was practiced in paradise. Indeed, sacred Scripture says that ‘they were naked, to wit, Adam and Eve: and were not ashamed.’2 However, once they had fallen, they knew that they were naked and being ashamed they sewed together aprons for themselves.3 After the fall, when Adam heard ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust return,’ and death entered into the world through transgression, then ‘Adam knew Eve his wife: who conceived and brought forth.’ 4 And so to keep the race from dwindling and being destroyed by death marriage was devised, so that by the begetting of children the race of men might be preserved.5


But they may ask: What, then, does ‘male and female’ mean, and ‘increase and multiply’?6 To which we shall reply that the ‘increase and multiply’ does not mean increasing by the marriage union exclusively, because, if they had kept the commandment unbroken forever, God could have increased the race by some other means. But, since God, who knows all things before they come to be, saw by His foreknowledge how they were to fall and be condemned to death, He made provision beforehand by creating them male and female and commanding them to increase and multiply. So let us continue along the road and see what the increments from virginity are, which is nothing else than to talk about chastity.

Noah's Ark

When Noe was ordered to enter the ark and was entrusted with the safeguarding of the seed of the earth, he was given this command, which reads: ‘Go in thou and thy sons, and thy wife, and the wives of thy sons.’7 He separated them from their wives, so that with the help of chastity they might escape the deep and that world-wide destruction. However, after the cessation of the flood, the command was: Go out thou and thy wife, thy sons, and the wives of thy sons.’ 8 Here, see how marriage was again permitted for the sake of increase. And, then, did not Elias, who rode up to heaven in a fiery chariot,9 embrace celibacy and was not approval of this shown by his being endowed with a superiority over men? Who closed the heavens? Who raised the dead? Who divided the Jordan?10 Was it not Elias the virgin? And did not Eliseus, his disciple, ask for the grace of his spirit in double, and receive it, when he displayed equal virtue?11 And what about the three children? Was it not by practicing virginity that they became stronger than the fire, because by virginity their bodies had become impregnable to fire? Was there not a Daniel, whose body the teeth of wild beasts could not penetrate, because it had been hardened by virginity?12 When God was about to appear to the Israelites, did He not enjoin them to keep their bodies pure?13 Did not priests purify themselves and thus enter the sanctuary and offer sacrifices? 14 Did not the Law proclaim chastity to be a great vow?


Thus, the prescription of the Law must be taken in the more spiritual sense. For there is a spiritual seed which through charity and the fear of God is conceived in the womb of the soul, which in turn travails and brings forth the spirit of salvation. It is in this sense that the passage is to be taken which reads: ‘Blessed is he who has seed in Sion and kindred in Jerusalem.’15 What, indeed! Even though one be a fornicator, a drunkard, or an idolater, will he be blessed, provided only that he has seed in Sion and kindred in Jerusalem? No one in his right mind would say that.


Virginity is the habitual state of the angels, the peculiar characteristic of every incorporeal nature. We are not saying all this to decry marriage, God forbid, because we know that the Lord blessed marriage by His presence,16 and we know the passage which says: ‘marriage honorable and the bed undefiled.’ 17 We do, however, know that virginity is better than good. For with the virtues, as well as with the vices, there are greater and lesser degrees. We do know that, with the exception of the first parents of the race, all mortals are offspring from marriage, for our first parents were the work of virginity and not of marriage. Celibacy, however, is an imitation of the angels, as we have said. So, virginity is as much more honorable than marriage as the angel is superior to man. But what am I saying an angel? Christ Himself is the glory of virginity, not only because He was begotten of the Father without beginning, without change, and without coition, but also because, when He became man like us, He for our sake took flesh of a virgin without any carnal union and exhibited in Himself the true and perfect virginity. But He did not make this a law for us, because ‘all men take not this word,’18 as He Himself said. He did, however, instruct us by His example and give us the strength to keep virginity, for to whom is it not clear that virginity is being observed among men now?

Glykofilousa (Filotheou Monastery)

The begetting of children which results from marriage is certainly good. Marriage, too, is good, because it does away with fornication and by licit intercourse prevents the frenzy of concupiscence from being excited to illicit actions.19 Marriage is good for those for whom continence is impossible, but virginity is better, because it increases the fecundity of the soul and offers prayer to God as a seasonable fruit. ‘Marriage honourable, and the bed undefiled. For fornicators and adulterers God will judge.’20



  1. Deut. 25.5-10.
  2. 2.25.
  3. Gen. 3.7.
  4. 3.19; cf. Rom. 5.12; Gen. 4.1.
  5. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man 17 (PG 44.188-189).
  6. 1.27,28.
  7. 7.1; 6.18.
  8. 8.16,
  9. 4 Kings 2.11.
  10. 3 Kings 17.1; 17.22; 4 Kings 2.8.
  11. 4 Kings 2.9,14.
  12. Dan. 3.50; 6.22.
  13. Exod. 19.15.
  14. Lev. 21.
  15. 31.9 (Septuagint).
  16. John 2.2.
  17. 13.4.
  18. 19.11.
  19. 1 Cor. 7.2.
  20. 13.4.




Epistle on Dragons (St. John Damascene)

NOTE:  The main purpose of St. John Damascene is to persuade his readers that dragons are real living creatures and not mythical personages like ghosts, werewolves and so on. To confirm this idea, St. John describes their birth, development, size, behavior, and refers to the catching of a dragon and the measuring of his hide.


Some people contrive that dragons can both take the human form and turn into serpents, sometimes small, sometimes huge, differing in body length and size, and sometimes, as was already stated above, having turned into people, start to associate with them, appear to steal women and consort with them; so we would ask [those who tell such stories]: how many intelligent natures did God create? And if they do not know the answer, we will respond: two – I mean angels and humans… So He created the two intelligent natures; but if a dragon changes its form while associating with people, becoming at one moment a serpent, at another a man… so it follows with all possible clarity that dragons are intelligent beings exceeding men greatly, which has not [ever] been true, and never will be.

Let them also say who in particular tells about it. For we trust the teaching of Moses, and, more exactly, the Holy Spirit, having spoken through [the prophet]. This [teaching] reads: And God brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever [Adam] called every living creature, that was the name thereof (cf. Gen. 2:19). Hence, a dragon was one of the animals. I am not telling you, after all, that there are no dragons; dragons exist but they are serpents borne of other serpents. Being just born and young, they are small; but when they grow up and get mature, they become big and fat so that exceed the other serpents in length and size. It is said they grow up more than thirty cubits; as for their thickness, they get as thick as a big log. Dio the Roman (A.D. 155 – 236) who wrote the history of Roman empire and republic, reports the following: one day, when Regulus, a Roman consul, was fighting against Carthage, a dragon suddenly crept up and settled behind the wall of the Roman army. The Romans killed it by order of Regulus, excoriated it and sent the hide to the Roman senate. When the dragon’s hide, as Dio says, was measured up by order of the senate, it happened to be, amazing, one hundred and twenty feet long, and the thickness was fitting to the length.”


There is one more kind of dragon; those have wide head, goldish eyes and horny protuberances on the back of the head. They also have a beard [protruding] out of the throat; this kind of dragons is called “agaphodemons” and it is said they have no faces. This dragon is a sort of beasts, like the rest of the animals, for it has a beard, like a goat, and horn at the back of its head. Its eyes are big and goldish. These dragons can be both big and small. All serpent kinds are poisonous, except dragons, for they do not emit poison.

The tale is also told that dragons can be driven away by thunder; as if a dragon goes up and gets killed. When I heard this I laughed! Is it possible to see a dragon now a human-like and intelligent creature, now a serpent; now a rebel against God, now a being pursued by Him? Ignorance is truly an unreliable thing.

We harm ourselves most of all when we ignore reading of the Holy Scriptures and studying them according to the Word of our Lord.





Holy Scriptures, Church Fathers and Mythological Creatures

St. John Damascene is not the only Church Father to write about dragons (or other mythological creatures).


In his Commentary on Job, St. Ephraim the Syrian writes, “The Behemoth is a dragon, that is, a land animal, just as the Leviathan is an aquatic sea animal.”

St. John Chrysostom writes in his Commentary on Job, “If God has created these two enormous beasts, He did so in order that you might know that He may create all of them according to their own type. But God does not do so because creation is oriented to provide what is useful to you. Notice how these beasts preserve their proper laws: they haunt that part of the sea which is not navigable. But one may ask, ‘What is their use?’ We ignore what is the mysterious utility of these monsters, but, if we went to take the risk of an explanation, we may say that they lead toward the knowledge of God.”

An early 15th-century icon of St Theodore.
An early 15th-century icon of St Theodore.

Incidentally, the existence of dragons, or at least the early Orthodox Christian belief in the existence of dragons, is validated by the Synaxarion accounts of Apostle Philip (May 3rd), St. Marina of Antioch (July 20th), St. Samson of Dol (July 28th), St. Martha of Bethany (July 28th), St. George the Great Martyr (April 23rd), St. Theodore the Great Martyr (Feb. 17th) and dozens of other saints.

During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, while St. Barsanuphius of Optina was stationed as a priest for the military hospitals in Manchuria, he wrote the following in his cell notes: “…I will note, incidentally, that I also happened to hear from soldiers that stand post at the Hantaza Station, 40 miles from Mullin, that two years ago they often saw an enormous winged dragon creep out of one of the mountainous caves. They have not seen it since that time, but this proves that the tales of the Chinese and Japanese about the existence of dragons are not at all fantasies or fables, although the learned European naturalists, and ours along with them, deny the existence of these monsters. But after all, anything can be denied, simply because it does not measure up to our understanding…” (pp. 232-33). [Note: Essentially, the hearsay of some soldiers was enough to validate the existence of dragons for St. Barsanuphius].

St. Marina of Antioch (4th c.) is swallowed and exploded from the dragon's belly at the same time
St. Marina of Antioch (4th c.) is swallowed and exploded from the dragon’s belly at the same time


The unicorn (Hebrew reem; Greek monokeros) is mentioned nine times in the Old Testament. St. Athanasios the Great gives a description of unicorns in his Commentary on the Psalms:

“The unicorn received one horn from nature” (Ps. 91:10 LXX). “The unicorn is the beast which is invincible on account of the sharp horn upon his forehead, by which he kills all other beasts” (Ps. 77:69 LXX).

The Lady & the Unicorn (15th c.) Museum of Cluny
The Lady & the Unicorn (15th c.) Museum of Cluny


The “satyr” is also mentioned in the Old Testament. In Greek and Roman mythology, the satyr (or “faun”) was said to be a half-man/half-goat creature. This is also how it appears in the Hagiographical account of St. Anthony the Great which was written by St. Athanasios the Great.

Agiou Antonios Agiou Antonios

The above icons show St. Anthony the Great with the Satyr (l) and with the centaur (r). This fresco is in the katholikon of St. Demetrios Skete, Mt. Athos.


The “cockatrice” (Hebrew tsepha; Greek basiliskos) is mentioned five times in the Old Testament. In English mythology, the cockatrice is a snake hatched from a cock’s egg.

A cockatrice overdoor at Belvedere Castle (1869) in New York's Central Park.
A cockatrice overdoor at Belvedere Castle (1869) in New York’s Central Park.