Leafy Pants and Angel Bread

06 12 onuphriusToday is the feast day of Saint Onuphrius, a desert dwelling hermit saint of the fourth or fifth century. The only evidence we have that he ever existed at all, comes from another saint called Paphnutius, who claimed to have met him.

I mentioned desert dwelling saints back in January when I wrote about Saint Anthony. In the third, fourth and fifth century there were a remarkable amount of hermits living in the deserts of Egypt and Syria.

When the Romans stopped persecuting Christians and made their religion legal, martyrdom was less of an option. So devout followers needed a new way to give up their lives to God. Many chose a life of austerity and solitude. They were all terribly fond of John the Baptist, who had lived in the desert, eating locusts and wild honey, before he baptised his famous cousin. They thought, all that dwelling in the wilderness had made him very holy and they wanted to emulate him.

So, Saint Paphnutius had gone to the desert to see if the life of a hermit would be for him. He wandered for seventeen days and, during that time, he came across a man who he tried to shake by the hand, but then realised he’d been dead for ages when his arm came off. Next he met someone who claimed that an angel had come, taken out his liver, healed it, and put it back. Then, he came across a wild man on all fours. He had a long beard and his body was covered with fur. He was wearing a loincloth of leaves and he was shouting a lot. Unsurprisingly, Paphnutius tried to run away and hide, but the man called him back, telling him he was a man of God. Paphnutius returned and the wild man introduced himself as Onuphrius, a hermit and former monk. The two went to the hermit’s cell where they spent the evening together. Onuphrius told Paphnutius that he had been living in the desert for sixty years, enduring extreme thirst, hunger and discomforts. An angel had brought him to this place and given him a date palm and a magic spring (the water kind). The angel also brought him bread every Sunday. They talked a long time and, at sunset, some bread appeared for them, which they ate and then spent all night praying.

The next day Paphnutius discovered that Onuphrius was dying. Paphnutius thought it might be a sign that he was to stay in the desert and move into Onuphrius’s cell. Onuphrius said no, he must return to civilisation and tell everyone all about their meeting. The old hermit then blessed him and died. Paphnutius tried to bury his body but it was hard in a rocky desert. According to one account, he stuffed the saint’s body in a crack in the rocks and covered it with his cloak. In another, some lions helped to bury his body.

So maybe Saint Onuphrius was a real person. Or maybe he is just the sort of thing that the mind conjures up, in someone who has been wandering about in the desert for seventeen days. I’m pretty sure that such a harsh environment, with its extremes of heat and cold, combined with a lack of food and water would be bound to produce some kind of mystical experience sooner or later.

06 12 wild manFor reasons I can’t really fathom, the saint who was clad only in leaves and his own hair has become a patron saint of weavers. Oddly, hairy saints were once quite popular, Saint Onuphrius is not the only example. They fit in quite well with medieval European legends of wild men who live in the forest. Sometimes they possess a secret wisdom and if you get them drunk and tie them up, they might exchange that wisdom for their freedom. This sounds similar to the story of Silenus who is a character from Greek myth. He wasn’t at all like Onuphrius, but wild men in general seem to dwell just beyond our world. In the deserts, in the forests, in a country far away that a friend of a friend once visited. Or they live on the edges of our imagination, in myths and legends. Hairy saints probably belong with all the other wild men, giants with one eye and people who have a dog’s head instead of a human one. People like Saint Christopher, who I wrote about in my third ever post on this site last July.

Drink to the Future

800px-Sileno_(Museo_del_Louvre)Well, today has been difficult. I have spent most of the day researching a person only to find that Wikipedia had lied to me about a date. Never mind, I didn’t really like him anyway. But, by happy chance I’ve also spent part of the day talking with a friend about a character from Greek Myth called Silenus. He was much more fun, so I’m going to tell you about him instead.

Silenus was the foster father, companion and tutor of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. His origins seem to be very old indeed. He has no mother but Gaia, the earth herself, and sprung fully-formed out of the ground. He’s a sort of man of the forest, who is sometimes described as having the ears, tail and perhaps legs of a horse. You can often see him in paintings of Dionysus and his companions. The one thing you need to know about Silenus, is that he is always drunk. So drunk that he can’t really walk very well. He will be the one sitting on a donkey, falling off a donkey, being supported on a donkey by some satyrs or generally being held up by someone.

02 19 silenus di cosimoRemarkably, he is also very wise. When intoxicated, which as I mentioned is all the time, he possesses special knowledge and the power of prophecy. His favourite things are wine, music and sleep. If you can catch him sleeping and surround him with flowers or chains, he would be under your spell and he might sing for you, tell you a story or foretell your future. That is probably how he came to be at the court of King Midas. Either Midas tempted him with a fountain full of wine, so that he drank it and went to sleep, or some shepherds found him, put a crown of flowers on him and brought him to the king.

For five days, Silenus entertained the king and his court with stories. He told them about a vast continent, far beyond the known world that was peopled by happy and long lived giants, who, by the way, enjoyed an excellent legal system. Once, ten million of them had sailed to our lands but they thought it wasn’t very nice, so they went back again. He told them of a giant whirlpool that no traveller may pass and of two streams nearby. There were fruit trees on the banks of the streams. By one stream, the fruit made people weep and pine away, but eat the fruit on the bank of the other and your youth would be renewed. In fact, you would start living your life backwards, getting younger and younger, until you finally disappeared. Silenus wasn’t keen to tell Midas his fortune though. After being plagued about it for quite some time he said: “… why do you compel me to tell you those things of which it is better you should remain ignorant? For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune…” he went on to say he thought it was better for humans not to be born at all. Actually, we all know what was going to happen to Midas. When Dionysus caught up with his friend, he was so grateful to the king for looking after Silenus, that he offered Midas any gift he would like. Midas chose the gold thing. It did not go well.

Euripides, a playwright from the fifth century BC, wrote a play called ‘Cyclops’ which is a sort of burlesque on Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus arrives on the island of the Cyclops, Silenus and his satyrs are already there, captives of the giant. The story is basically the same but a lot more chaotic. There is a bit where the Cyclops is so drunk that he takes Silenus off to his cave because he thinks he is a beautiful young boy. Silenus also claimed that he helped out at a battle between the gods and a race of giants who lived on the earth long ago. He slew the giant Enceladus and frightened the rest of the giants away with his braying donkey. Cyclops is the only surviving Greek play that is neither a comedy or a tragedy, but a satyr. As far as I can tell it’s almost exactly like a tragedy, except with a bunch of hairy satyrs in the chorus making it silly and rude.