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Liminal Time and Liminal Space in the Middle Byzantine Hagiography of Greece and the Aegean

Liminal Time and Liminal Space in the Middle Byzantine Hagiography of Greece and the Aegean

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Published by billcaraher
This is a rough draft of a paper that will be delivered at the International Anchoritic Society Conference, September 16-18, 2011 at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.

My paper today will look at four relatively understudied saints’ lives dating from the Middle Byzantine Aegean World: Ay. Ioannis "O Xenos", Os. Theodoros of Kythera, Ay. Theoktiste of Lesvos, and Ay. Nikonas "O Metanoeite". Each of these texts - which I regard as more or less typical of the genre - deals with a saint who goes off into the wilderness. During their time in the wilderness, these saints all encounter ruined buildings around which the saints have mystical, ascetic, or otherwise religious experiences. I'd like to argue today that the presence of ruined buildings suggests that the wilderness was not just a place, but also (at least in the context of the hagiography of the Middle Byzantine Aegean) a time. The wilderness not only marked out the limits of civilization and population, but also the limits of the present and its connection with lived and experienced time.
This is a rough draft of a paper that will be delivered at the International Anchoritic Society Conference, September 16-18, 2011 at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.

My paper today will look at four relatively understudied saints’ lives dating from the Middle Byzantine Aegean World: Ay. Ioannis "O Xenos", Os. Theodoros of Kythera, Ay. Theoktiste of Lesvos, and Ay. Nikonas "O Metanoeite". Each of these texts - which I regard as more or less typical of the genre - deals with a saint who goes off into the wilderness. During their time in the wilderness, these saints all encounter ruined buildings around which the saints have mystical, ascetic, or otherwise religious experiences. I'd like to argue today that the presence of ruined buildings suggests that the wilderness was not just a place, but also (at least in the context of the hagiography of the Middle Byzantine Aegean) a time. The wilderness not only marked out the limits of civilization and population, but also the limits of the present and its connection with lived and experienced time.

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Published by: billcaraher on Aug 16, 2011
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ROUGH DRAFT – DO NOT CITE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION © 2011 WILLIAM R. CARAHER 
1
Liminal Time and Liminal Space in the Middle Byzantine Hagiography of Greeceand the AegeanWilliam CaraherUniversity of North DakotaDelivered at the International Anchoritic Society ConferenceSeptember 16-18, 2011University of North DakotaGrand Forks, NDMy paper today will look at four relatively understudied saints’ lives datingfrom the Middle Byzantine Aegean World: Ay. Ioannis "O Xenos", Os. Theodorosof Kythera, Ay. Theoktiste of Lesvos, and Ay. Nikonas "O Metanoeite". Eachof these texts - which I regard as more or less typical of the genre - dealswith a saint who goes off into the wilderness. During their time in thewilderness, these saints all encounter ruined buildings around which thesaints have mystical, ascetic, or otherwise religious experiences. I'd liketo argue today that the presence of ruined buildings suggests that thewilderness was not just a place, but also (at least in the context of thehagiography of the Middle Byzantine Aegean) a time. The wilderness not onlymarked out the limits of civilization and population, but also the limits ofthe present and its connection with lived and experienced time.This argument will draw upon work done over the last 30 years on time in boththe field of anthropology and archaeology. Anthropologists like JohannesFabian have made it clear that it is impossible to think of space withouttime and time without space. Archaeologists (and I am a field archaeologistas well) have long recognized that interlacing of time and space in thepractice of stratigraphic excavation and the lively debates surrounding thelimits of concepts like "formation processes" for understanding therelationship between archaeological evidence and past behaviors. Like theircolleagues in anthropology, archaeologists have increasing recognized thattime scale, periodization schemes, and chronology play vital roles inestablishing the relationship of the researcher to the evidence upon whichtheir arguments are based. Critiques of time, most recently by post-colonialtheorists, have emphasized that the relationships framed by time are notvalue free and carry with them deep seated assumptions about human nature,social structure, economies, politics, and even culture.The four Middle Byzantine saints' lives that I will analyze here will notprovide the final word on the limits of the present in Byzantium. Theirprovenience in the politically, administratively, and militarily unstableworld of the early Middle Byzantine Aegean provides a distinct backdropagainst which to reflect on how space and time intersect to frame the limitsof the present.
Theodore of Kythera
The Life of St. Theodore of Kythera most likely dates to the very early 10
th
 century, and it was likely written in the significant provincial city ofMonemvasia in the southeastern Peloponnesus. The life tells the story of St.Theodore who fled from his marriage to become a monk. After a suitable periodof training in Rome, and a time as an anchorite in Monemvasia, he and acompanion chose to engage their ascetic vocation more rigorously on theisland of Kythera off the south coast of the Peloponnesus. The island, the
 
ROUGH DRAFT – DO NOT CITE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION © 2011 WILLIAM R. CARAHER 
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life tells us had been completely abandoned as a result of activities ofMuslim raiders based on Crete. In fact, Theodore barely made it to the islandbecause of a Muslim raiding fleet despite hitching a ride with a Byzantinewarship.According the life, the island was abandoned when the two arrived, and thisallowed Theodore and his companion to settle around the ruins of an oldchurch dedicated to Sts. Sergius and Bacchus - two Syrian soldier saintswhose cult had spread across the Mediterranean at the end of antiquity.After a time at the site where they subsisted on locust and roots, Theodore'scompanion, ironically named Antonius, returned to the softer life of themainland. Theodore lived amidst the abandoned church for another year beforesuccumbing to rigors of ascetic life. To show he had achieved a significantlevel of spiritual knowledge, he inscribed on a broken potsherd the date ofhis own passing.The abandoned church and the broken pot sherd represent particularly usefulobjects for thinking about time in the context of Middle Byzantinehagiography. Both objects stand outside of their primary "use context". Inother words, both objects have a present function that is somehow distinctfrom their past use. As a result, placing both the church and the discardedpot sherd in the context of the wilderness, it reinforced the island ofKythera as being not only somehow disconnected with civilization but also outside of the continuous flow of the present. The final use of the potsherdreinforced this temporal dislocation when it received an inscription thatdated to after the death of the inscriber. This kind of temporal rupturechallenges the basic understanding of human mortality and reminds the readerthat divine knowledge of life and death is not dependent upon human time.
Theoktiste of Lesvos
The Life of St. Theodore of Kythera, placed the saint on an abandoned islandsurrounded by discarded objects. The Life of St. Theoktiste of Lesvos wasalso set against the backdrop of an abandoned island and an abandoned churchbuilding. This early 10
th
century life features a more complex narrative formof a story-within-a-story, but all the stories are set on the island of Parosand amidst the abandoned Katapoliane church which, as the text says,"preserved vestiges of its former glory". The island of Paros had,apparently, at the time of these stories reverted to a wilderness where monkslived among the abandoned church and meet with travelers who would come tooffer their prayers there.The church on Paros, like the abandoned church on Kythera, serves as anuseful backdrop to emphasize the wilderness conditions on the island. When agroup of sailors stopped at the island to venerate the ancient church, a monkapproached them from out of the wilderness and refused to divulge hisparentage or homeland or "any of the other things that city dwellers pridethemselves." He also stated that he lived alone in this wildernessappropriating the mantle of the desert fathers on his deserted island. Themonk, named Symeon, goes on to tell the story of another ascetic, Theoktiste,who lived alone in the wilds of Paros. The story of Theoktiste is looselybased on the Late Antique Life of Mary of Egypt.The narrative structure of the Life and the setting for the stories reinforceone another. By drawing on older models likely familiar to the readers (or
 
ROUGH DRAFT – DO NOT CITE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION © 2011 WILLIAM R. CARAHER 
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listeners) to this Life, the author is grounding the Life of Theoktiste in alongstanding tradition of hagiography. At the same time, setting thesestories within an abandoned church, the author juxtaposed the past and thepresent. The church of the Katapoliane stands in what modern archaeologistswould call "secondary use" as a place of sanctuary for local ascetics and anoccasional place visited by local pilgrims. The "vestiges of its formerglory" clearly locate the church in the past and contrast it with a presentwhere it stands surrounded by wilderness. There is an obvious contrastbetween the Godly life of St. Theoktiste which paralleled to the life of thebetter-known St. Mary of Egypt, and the manmade "life" of the church whichstands neglected and surrounded by wilderness. Through this contrast, theauthor juxtaposed the sacred time of the saint and the human time of thechurch itself. In this way, the Life of St. Theoktiste finds clearlyparallels with the life of St. Theodore who likewise defies the constraintsof human time by knowing the hour his death.To make the comparison between the Lives of Theoktiste and Theodore morecompelling, there are sufficient parallels between the two lives to suggestthat the latter drew upon the former life. Both Theodore and Theoktistesettled around an abandoned church on an island and their bodies were laterdiscovered and venerated by hunters who had come to the island for game.Moreover, both Lives present a model of desert-style asceticism that wasrather less common in post-iconoclastic Byzantine lives, and, again, suggestscertain parallels between the two texts.
St. John “O Xenos” 
The life of St. John "O Xenos" or the stranger represents a variation on thefirst two lives discussed in this paper. The life of John is among a smallcorpus of autobiographical saints lives from the Middle Byzantine period.The goal of the life was to document the founding of a group of monasterieson Crete sometime in the early 11th century. The saint described hiswanderings into the mountainous regions and his work to both restore andfound churches on Crete after the Byzantine reconquest of the island in 961.John describes a rugged wilderness complete with mountains and caves. Theaudience for hagiography would immediately recognize this kind of asceticlandscape as it evokes the mountainous interior of Syria, Egypt, and Anatoliawhere monks and hermits had fled for centuries to escape civilized life.John, in fact, explicitly contrasted his upbringing in the village of Siba tohis life as a monk "wandering in the wilderness from mountain to mountain".In this mountain wilderness, John encountered abandoned buildings andreligious sites which he set about restoring usually at divine urging. Thefirst encounter featured the neglected tombs of two saints - Eutychios andEutychianos - where a voice called on John to build a church. The nextencounter was a "Greek building" where John had decided to spend the winter.During this time, he was struck blind and the voice once again called uponJohn to build a church. The church on the site was to the Theotokos, and itlikely became the the katholikon of his monastic foundation calledMyriokephala.The episodes recorded by St. John in his life provide some additionalinsights into the relationship between time and place in Middle Byzantinehagiography. Like in the Lives of Sts. Theoktiste and Theodore, we continue

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