Save

The Life of Thaïs and The Life of Abraham and his Niece Mary: An Intertextual Connection

In: Vigiliae Christianae
Author: Julie Van Pelt1
View More View Less
Full Access

This article brings to light an intertextual connection between two hagiographical texts that has not been acknowledged in scholarship: the Life of Thaïs (bhg 1695) and the Greek Life of Abraham and his Niece Mary (bhg 5). The first part of the article presents an overview of the different possibilities of interdependence. Next, the textual correspondences and the contextual divergences between the two passages are discussed. In the final part, the intertextual connection between the two stories is understood as the result of a shared narrative purpose, and the divergences are interpreted within the specific narrative context of each text. This discussion considers the two texts against the background of other Lives of so-called ‘holy harlots’.

Abstract

This article brings to light an intertextual connection between two hagiographical texts that has not been acknowledged in scholarship: the Life of Thaïs (bhg 1695) and the Greek Life of Abraham and his Niece Mary (bhg 5). The first part of the article presents an overview of the different possibilities of interdependence. Next, the textual correspondences and the contextual divergences between the two passages are discussed. In the final part, the intertextual connection between the two stories is understood as the result of a shared narrative purpose, and the divergences are interpreted within the specific narrative context of each text. This discussion considers the two texts against the background of other Lives of so-called ‘holy harlots’.

I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer of Vigiliae Christianae for his/her valuable comments and suggestions for changes, which have resulted in the present article. I am grateful to Prof. Koen De Temmerman and Prof. Kristoffel Demoen for proof-reading this article and for their valuable feedback. This article was made possible by the support of the erc Starting Grant, “Novel Saints. Ancient novelistic heroism in the hagiography of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages”, Grant Agreement 337344, at Ghent University.

The scene where an innocent young virgin is put in a brothel, usually by a cruel pagan ruler, is a motif that can be found in several hagiographical texts (e.g. the Passion of Agnes (bhg 45-46), the Passion of Lucia of Syracuse (bhg 995-995d), the Legend of the Virgin of Antioch,1 etc.).2 However, as this article intends to show, nowhere do these brothel-scenes resemble each other so closely as the ones we read in the Life of Thaïs and in the Life of Abraham and his Niece Mary.

The Life of Thaïs (bhg 1695) relates the story of a so-called ‘holy harlot’, a sinful woman and prostitute who converts, repents and becomes an example of piety for the Christian community. Thaïs is an extremely beautiful girl whose wicked mother puts her in a brothel at a very young age. Her beauty attracts many men who are all captivated by her enchanting looks. One day, father Serapion hears of this girl and of her impious way of life and takes pity on her soul. Disguised as a layman, he sets out to rescue her from the devil’s lair. Once inside the brothel, he presents himself as a client and manages to be alone with her. After a long conversation, in which Serapion tells Thaïs about the Christian God and the final judgment, she decides to follow him in order to acquire God’s forgiveness. Thaïs burns all her riches and is brought to a female convent by Serapion where he locks her up in a small cell. After three years, he consults with the great Antony, who orders his disciples to pray all night on behalf of Thaïs. The next morning his disciple Paul tells of a divine vision he had of a radiantly adorned bed. Serapion, convinced by this sign that Thaïs’ sins have been forgiven, returns to the convent and lets her out of her cell. A little while later, Thaïs dies.

According to F. Nau, the editor of the original Greek Life of Thaïs, this story was written in the 5th or 6th century by an anonymous author.3 The Greek Life was later translated into Latin and Syriac, and the Syriac, in its turn, into Arabic. Its popularity did not stop there: in the 10th century, Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim chose the story of Thaïs as the subject of one of her moralistic plays, and two old French poems of the 12th and 13th century respectively are part of the ancient Life’s Nachleben.4 Finally, there is the famous 19th century novel by Anatole France.

In light of its long-lasting popularity,5 it is fairly surprising that modern scholarship has largely neglected the Life of Thaïs. Apart from Kuehne’s study,6 which mainly focuses on Hrotsvitha’s play, and Nau’s introduction to his critical edition, where he argues that the conversion of Thaïs should not be attributed to a monk called Paphnutius, as was thought thus-far, but to Serapion the Sinondite,7 few scholars have dealt with Thaïs.8 Discussions of her Life usually appear in relation to those of other holy harlots. Benedicta Ward’s study, for example, presents introductions to and translations of five stories of repentant saints, among which that of Thaïs.9 However, it seems that she did not take into consideration Nau’s edition of the original Greek Life of Thaïs, since her translation is based on a Latin version of a Greek text that appears to be a shorter summary of the original Life and has Paphnutius, not Serapion, as its hero. Ruth Mazo Karras, on the other hand, does refer to Nau’s text in her article,10 in which she reads the Lives of the harlots against a social background, and finally, Stavroula Constantinou presents a literary discussion of the original Life of Thaïs as well as of the Lives of Eudokia, Pelagia and Mary of Egypt, in the second chapter of her book.11 It is striking that Constantinou, unlike Ward and Karras, does not include the story of Mary the niece of Abraham in her discussion.12 Although she does not explain why, we can guess at the reasons for leaving her aside.

Mary is indeed not a typical repentant prostitute. Firstly, she is not the subject of her own independent Life, but her narrative is embedded in that of Saint Abraham, her uncle. The final two chapters of his Life (bhg 5) relate how Mary is seduced by a vicious monk, runs away to a brothel out of shame, and is rescued by her uncle in disguise, who presents himself as a client. Her story differs from the other harlots since, unlike them, she is not leading a life of lust and luxury before being converted. Her already pious and ascetic lifestyle is interrupted when she makes a single, but serious mistake. This brings her to run away not from a brothel, as is the case with the other harlots, but to a brothel. The Life of Abraham and his Niece Mary (hereafter the vam) was originally written in Syriac in the 5th century and has wrongly been attributed to Ephrem the Syrian.13 The Greek translation is edited by K.G. Phrantzoles.14

The obvious similarities in plotline between the story of Mary and that of Thaïs have been noticed by A.G. Elliot, who briefly mentions the resemblance, calling Thaïs and Mary ‘doublets’.15 Nevertheless, she does not compare the two stories any further, nor was I able to find a significant comparison between the Life of Thaïs and the vam elsewhere. We do find that the vam has been connected to the Coptic Legend of Salome16 by W. Lüdtke.17 The Salome legend indeed presents us with a third text that follows the same plotline of a female saint who is rescued from a brothel. Although the stories of Salome and Mary have been connected, it seems that the resemblances between those of Salome and Thaïs have not been noticed. Thus, scholarship of the early 20th century has studied Mary and Salome together, and later scholarship has superficially connected Mary and Thaïs, but a study of these three texts in relation to each other is lacking. However, such a study is beyond the scope of this article, which aims to bring to light an intertextual connection between the Life of Thaïs and the Greek vam that, to my knowledge, has remained hitherto undetected. This connection appears to be restricted to the Lives of Thaïs and Mary only, since, although the overall plot of the three stories is alike (with slightly greater affinities between Salome and Mary than Salome and Thaïs18), the texts of the vam and the Life of Thaïs are much closer to each other than to the Legend of Salome. More specifically, the first part of the story of the Life of Thaïs, from the moment where Serapion decides to rescue Thaïs from the brothel until her enclosure in the cell, is constructed in a similar fashion to the Greek story of Mary (i.e. chapters four and five of the vam as it is contained in the Acta Sanctorum). Not only do the two texts share an analogous development of scenes and an identical succession of events, they also present a common use of specific words and phrases. Before mapping the textual evidence for these correspondences, I would like to discuss different hypotheses of interdependence of these two texts.

1 Hypotheses of Interdependence

In the case of intertextual borrowing, the first question that comes to mind is which text came first; did the author of the Life of Thaïs know and copy the vam, or did the latter use the former? In this particular case, matters are severely complicated by the fact that, for the vam, we are dealing with a translation from a Syriac original. Thus, we have to take into account not two, but three players: the original Syriac vam,19 the Greek translation of the vam and the (Greek) Life of Thaïs. In addition, exact dates of composition are lacking for all of these texts. While the Syriac vam and the Life of Thaïs have been roughly dated to the 5th and 5th-6th centuries respectively, as mentioned above, there seems to be little evidence for the date of the Greek translation of the vam. All we find is that, according to S. Brock and S. Harvey, the 5th century Syriac vam was translated into Greek and Latin ‘at an early date’.20 Moreover, from a comparison of the Syriac and Greek texts, it appears that the translation follows its original very closely. In light of this evidence, the following options present themselves:

  1. VThaïsVAMsVAMg

    1. VAMsVAMgVThaïs

    2. VAMsVThaïsVAMg

(i) In the first possible scenario, it is the vam that borrows from the Life of Thaïs, which then would have been composed first. This would mean that the Life of Thaïs was written in the course of the 5th century (and not in the 6th), prior to the Syriac vam, which is dated to the late 5th century.21 In order to explain the verbatim correspondences between the Life of Thaïs and the Greek vam, one would have to assume that the author of the Syriac vam used the Life of Thaïs as a model for his own narrative and copied certain phrases which he rendered in Syriac, which is not unlikely, given the high level of bilingualism in the region of Edessa, where the story of Abraham and Mary originates.22 Afterwards, when translating those phrases back into Greek, the translator of the vam arrived at the same Greek phrasing as the original Life of Thaïs either independently from that text (due to the literal nature of the translation), or by using it in his translation process (in case he knew that the Life of Thaïs was a model for the Syriac vam). Although this scenario is not impossible, it is at least less straightforward, and therefore perhaps less likely than the second scenario.

(ii) A. If it was the author of the Life of Thaïs who used the story of Mary when composing his own, then option A is that he read the Greek vam and borrowed from it. This would mean that the Syriac vam was composed first out of the three texts, and was then soon translated into Greek. Since the Syriac vam was most likely composed ‘well on in the fifth century’,23 the translation would probably date to the early 6th century, in which case the Life of Thaïs has to be dated to the 6th century as well (and not the 5th). This option seems to be the most likely out of the three options presented here, since it does not involve any of the complications that accompany the other scenarios, as it assumes a direct transmittance from Greek to Greek without a detour via Syriac. Moreover, this scenario resonates with historical evidence concerning translation practices of Syriac hagiography from the region of Edessa into Greek. Such translations24 were a common practice during the 5th and 6th centuries,25 suggesting that it is not unlikely that the vam was translated into Greek in the early 6th century. We can thus understand Brock and Harvey’s reference to ‘an early date’ for the translation of the vam as a reference to this period.

(ii) B. For the sake of comprehensiveness, we have to consider a final option, which presents, however, similar complications to the first one. In this scenario, the Syriac vam served directly as a model for the author of the Life of Thaïs, who took over certain phrases which he rendered in Greek. In this case, the textual correspondences between the Life of Thaïs and the later Greek translation of the vam would again have to be due to the literal nature of the translation or to the fact that the translator used the Life of Thaïs in his translation process.

Although a survey of the different options of interdependence indicates that the priority of the vam to the Life of Thaïs is the most straightforward and therefore the most likely possibility,26 we still lack hard evidence that allows us to securely rule out the other options. Unfortunately, an examination of the Greek texts themselves does not help us to advance in this matter: while we note that the narratives enfold in a similar fashion, the vam is more elaborate than the Life of Thaïs (in the latter, most of the action takes place over the course of some sentences, whereas in the vam it takes up several paragraphs). Therefore, one could argue that the author of the Life of Thaïs compressed the story of Mary into a shorter narrative and picked up certain key phrases from the vam that he chained together. On the other hand, nothing prevents us from assuming the opposite, namely that the author of the vam used the Life of Thaïs as a model and elaborated on it with descriptive passages and direct speech. Based on the Greek texts alone, there is no way of deciding which option is more likely, and I could not find any other convincing evidence that points at a certain direction of influence.

2 Literary Interpretation

If we cannot securely assess the direction of influence, we should at least consider the possible reasons for an intertextual connection between the vam and the Life of Thaïs: whereas this could also contribute to gain insight into the historical circumstances of this connection—which is not my intention here—, it certainly highlights the literary context of the interrelationship of the two texts. In what follows, then, I will provide a literary interpretation of the texts in light of their connection, asking whether their common features result from a common narrative purpose, and what their differences reveal about each text in itself. First, we will take a closer look at the texts in order to outline their correspondences and differences (if relevant), after which we will try to answer the two questions proposed here.

a Textual Evidence

In the Life of Thaïs, the correspondences with the vam begin early in the text. After the author’s prologue, we read about a beautiful girl who is brought to a brothel by her mother at a young age. Then follows a description of how she attracts many men (p. 88 in Nau’s edition). Her fame also reaches the ears of father Serapion, who is introduced rather abruptly and who does not seem to be connected to Thaïs in any way besides the fact that he takes pity on her soul. It is at this point in the narrative (p. 90 in Nau’s edition) that the concurrence begins. In the vam, the correspondences start well on in the text, since the first three chapters of the Life concern Abraham only. The final two chapters (chapter 4 and 5, i.e. from §25 onwards27) tell the story of Mary, and it is from §30 onwards that the parallels with Thaïs occur:28 After Mary committed a grave sin and ran away from home, her uncle Abraham now finds out that she is missing and has fallen in the hands of the devil. The two stories continue in the same way, with the male hero deciding to set out on a rescue mission to retrieve the girl. Moreover, both narrators use a similar imagery to describe this scene: that of a predator and a prey. In vam §30, Abraham laments over his lost niece, whom he repeatedly refers to as his ‘lamb’ (ἀµνάδα, §30.7 and 10) who has been snatched away by a terrible beast (τὴν ἀµνάδα µου ὁ δεινὸς λύκος ἥρπασεν, §30.7-8). He asks God to send him help,

ἵνα ἐκσπάσῃ αὐτὴν ἐκ τοῦ στόµατος τοῦ δράκοντος (vam §30.13-14).

Turning to the Life of Thaïs, we read:

Καὶ νῦν δὲ ὡς σοφὸς ἁλιευτὴς δέλεαρ περιθέµενος ἀπάτης, ἀγρεύει τὴν ἀµνάδα, ἐκσπάσαι τὴν αὐτης ψυχὴν ἐκ τοῦ στόµατος τοῦ διαβόλου (VThaïs 90.11-14).

Not only do both authors insert a hunting metaphor at the same point in the story, but we also notice a striking intertextual borrowing in the second part of this sentence. We should remark, however, that the particular use of a certain shared element or phrase is often different in each text, depending on the specific narrative context in which it appears. In this case, the hunting metaphor is used by the two texts in an opposite way. The repentant saint, the young woman who needs to be rescued, is referred to in both cases as the lamb (ἀµνάδα), but whereas in the vam the lamb is snatched away by a satanic predator (δεινὸς λύκος),29 in the Life of Thaïs, the male figure becomes the hunter, the ‘ἁλιευτὴς’ (90.11). Thus, two very similar scenes are described using the same image, but in the first case, this image functions negatively to describe the loss of the girl, while in the second case it functions positively to refer to her return.

In what follows in the stories, both heroes prepare for their mission. In the Life of Thaïs we read:

Ἐνδυσάµενος οὖν κοσµικὸν σχῆµα, ἔλαβε µεθ’ ἑαυτοῦ νόµισµα ἕν (VThaïs 90.14-15),

a line resembled closely in the more elaborate vam, where, as soon as Abraham finds out about Mary’s whereabouts, we read:

ἐνδυσάµενος δὲ τὸ στρατιωτικὸν σχῆµα, καὶ καµαλαύκιον βαθὺ ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ, κατακαλύπτων τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ, ἔλαβεν δὲ καὶ νόµισµα ἓν µεθ’ ἑαυτοῦ, καὶ καθίσας ἐπὶ τοῦ ἵππου, ἀπῄει (vam §31.12-15).

Serapion and Abraham are headed to the same destination, a brothel, and they have the same plan: to infiltrate the working environment of the girl by presenting themselves as clients. For this plan to work, both of them are forced to adopt a disguise. Apart from changing their attire, both also take with them a piece of money, the text says. We should note that, while the reader will immediately recognize the first action as a method of disguise, namely putting on a costume, the piece of money is also part of that disguise, since it functions as a kind of stage prop, which both Serapion and Abraham will use effectively later on to convince the girl that they are real clients. Apart from these correspondences, the situation of Serapion and Abraham also differs, leading to different degrees of disguise. Since Thaïs has never met her rescuer before, it suffices for Serapion to simply hide his profession and change to layman’s clothes (as he would be unconvincing when presenting himself as a client otherwise). Mary, on the other hand, is obviously familiar with her uncle, and what is more, she purposefully ran away from him, which makes Abraham’s task more challenging. This is why he wants to conceal his identity altogether. The text of the vam insists on the fact that Abraham, with the help of God, makes sure at all cost that he is not recognized by his niece so that she would not be scared and flee again (e.g. §32.18 and §34.8-9). To this end, his disguise is more dramatic: he dresses up as a soldier, which allows him to cover his head and face with a helmet.

The story continues, and Serapion and Abraham each go to the brothel where the young girl works. When meeting her, both are confronted with her sinful outward appearance and grieved upon seeing the way she is dressed, completely puffed up in a prostitute’s fashion (vam §32.14: ‘καλλωπισµόν’, VThaïs 90.17: ‘κεκαλλωπισµένην’). Nevertheless, the show must go on and both pretend to be a customer by presenting the piece of money they brought:

ἐκβαλὼν τὸ νόµισµα (vam §34.10),

ἐξέβαλε τὸ νόµισµα (VThaïs 92.2).

In this scene, the vam is considerably more elaborate than the Life of Thaïs. Before presenting the money to Mary, Abraham starts a conversation with her ‘ὡσανεὶ ἐραστὴς ἀκαύστῳ πυρὶ φλογιζόµενος’ (§33.2-3). Here, not just Abraham’s disguise but also his performance is much more dramatized compared to Serapion’s, who simply gives the money to the girl, after which she proposes to go to the bedroom.

Then, after both men have given the money, the correspondence between the two texts is resumed. When Thaïs proposes to go to the bedroom, bringing the holy man dangerously close to a sinful situation, the Life reads:

Ἡ δὲ εἶπε πρὸς αὐτὸν· Εἰσέλθωµεν εἰς τὸ ταµιεῖον. Καὶ φησὶν αὐτός· Εἰσέλθωµεν. Εἰσελθόντων δὲ αὐτῶν, ὁρᾷ κλίνην ἐστρωµµένην ὑψηλὴν, εἰς ἣν ἀνελθοῦσα ἐκείνη πρῶτον προσεκαλεῖτο τὸν τοῦ Χριστοῦ δοῦλον. (VThaïs 92.3-8)

In §36 of the vam, after Abraham has tried to stall this moment in every way possible, the same situation is described in very similar wording:

εἶπεν ἡ κόρη· Ἀνάστα, Κῦρι, εἰσέλθοντες καθευδήσωµεν. Ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, Εἰσέλθωµεν. Εἰσελθόντων δὲ αὐτῶν, ὁρᾷ κλίνην ὑψηλὴν ἐστρωµένην, καὶ ἀνελθὼν προθύµως ἐκάθισεν ἐπ’ αὐτῆς. (vam §36.1-4)

At this point in the story, the men are both forced to reveal the true purpose of their visits. Abraham takes off his hat and makes himself known, while Serapion engages in a conversation on the Christian teachings. From this point onwards, the Life of Thaïs diverges from the vam and the intertextual connection is temporarily interrupted with a passage that presents the conversation between Thaïs and Serapion. The parallelism is again picked up, however, at page 96, when Serapion convinces the girl to leave the brothel. This is exactly what happens in the vam after Abraham reveals his identity to his niece (§38). In both texts, the male figure states:

ἀκολούθει µοι (vam §38.20 and VThaïs 96.14).

Once again, however, these words are embedded quite differently in each text. While in the vam they mark the end of Abraham’s rhetorically charged plea in which he begs his niece to come home with him, the same phrase is uttered by Serapion in the Life of Thaïs as a simple reply to her request to lead her away from the brothel towards salvation. The conditions are thus drastically different: this time it is the repenting prostitute who begs her rescuer for help.

The two stories then continue once more in a parallel fashion: both women bring up the issue of their wealth and get rid of their possessions. Nevertheless, Thaïs again proves herself to be slightly more proactive than Mary in this particular situation. While the latter asks her uncle what she should do about her wealth, the former tells Serapion to wait for her while she burns all her possessions.

The intertextual passage is brought to an end after a final correspondence, when both women are locked up in a small cell to repent:

αὐτὴν µέν ἐνέκλεισεν εἰς τὸ ἐσώτερον κελλίον (vam §40.1-2),

ἐνέκλεισεν αὐτὴν ἐν αὐτῷ (VThaïs 100.1).

This moment comes almost at the end of the vam and brings closure to Mary’s story. In the Life of Thaïs, however, we are only halfway into the narrative at this point. The second part of the story tells of her actual repentance and of her death.

b Interpretative Remarks

The textual connections laid out above can be interpreted in light of more general similarities between the two narratives.

As literary heroines, Mary and Thaïs resemble each other in more than one way. Firstly, it is worth noting that Thaïs, like Mary, is not a typical repentant saint. While other holy harlots such as Pelagia and Mary of Egypt are portrayed as strong women who are devoted to a life of sin and pleasure but then find the strength to change their ways completely, Thaïs did not choose to become a prostitute out of her own will, nor did she take the initiative to leave the brothel and repent: she is dependent on her evil mother when it comes to her time in the brothel and on father Serapion when it comes to her conversion. Even though Stavroula Constantinou rightly notes that it is common to Lives of holy harlots that a male figure is introduced ‘who plays a vital role in the heroines’ lives and afterlives’,30 I believe we should nonetheless distinguish between the role of the male figure in the Life of Thaïs and in other Lives of holy harlots. In the Lives of Pelagia and Eudokia, for instance, the male figure merely assists to the conversion of the heroine: Germanos, the monk in the Life of Eudokia, almost accidentally causes Eudokia to convert when she overhears him reading from the Bible.31 Eudokia herself then sends for Germanos in order to ask his help in her conversion. A similar situation is described in the Life of Pelagia, where Pelagia decides to convert after hearing one of the sermons of bishop Nonnos and is gravely afflicted by that.32 Finally, Mary of Egypt is a self-made ascetic, since she is not guided by any male figure in her conversion. Only later in the story the male figure is introduced. This is in stark contrast with the Life of Thaïs, where Serapion is wholly responsible for the conversion of Thaïs, who has little agency throughout the narrative and follows his lead unquestioningly. Overall then, her character does not correspond very well with the character type of other holy harlots, even though, as we have seen, she sometimes shows initiative and displays active participation in father Serapion’s plan. Similarly, Mary the niece of Abraham is dependent on her uncle, not just for her salvation, but even for her literary existence, since her story is embedded in the account of his holy life. Thus, unlike the other harlots, both Mary and Thaïs occupy a subordinate position in the shadow of a male figure who takes up the role of the hero of the story. Moreover, both are characterized from the beginning, not as impious women, but as innocent girls whose only fault is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This characterization of the heroine serves to support a specific moral message, which, I argue, is shared by the two texts under discussion. According to Benedicta Ward, the message conveyed by the story of Mary is that any sin can be forgiven, but that the worst sin is to believe that there is no forgiveness from God.33 I believe that Thaïs’ hagiographer wanted to convey this message as well. Like Mary, Thaïs does not believe she can acquire God’s forgiveness (VThaïs 96.8-10), but still she is forgiven after spending only three years in a cell, a fairly short amount of time compared to the 47 years during which Mary of Egypt wanders the desert. When Serapion lets her out, Thaïs protests at first, asking him to let her stay in her cell until her death ‘since her sins were many’ (VThaïs 106.9-11). Serapion assures her, however, that her penitence is completed. While the other stories of holy harlots want to show a remarkable conversion, this story wants to show that conversion is in fact not so remarkable, but can be obtained by anyone who wants it enough. This interpretation is in line with the author’s prologue, in which he assures the reader that his text will be of practical use to those ‘who have fallen into sin and want to repent’ (τοῖς πεσοῦσι τῷ τῆς ἁµαρτίας ῥύπῳ καὶ θέλουσι µετανοῆσαι, VThaïs 86.9-10). It appears then, that the textual interrelationship between the two narratives, which deals precisely with the episode in which the option of forgiveness and repentance is offered by an authoritative male rescuer, serves to portray similar characters supporting a specific message of forgiveness, different from all other stories of repentant harlots.

Finally, let’s turn to the differences between the two stories and their meaning. We saw that each text uses the shared scenes and phrases in its own specific narrative context, which gives a particular meaning to them. In this way, these borrowed elements do not just highlight the moral message which the texts have in common, but also serve their individual narrative goals. In the vam, Abraham’s dramatic disguise and his rhetorical plea at the end of the brothel-scene place the emphasis on human relations, family bonds and loyalty. In the Life of Thaïs, on the contrary, the emphasis is placed on the element of conversion by turning the male rescuer into an anonymous huntsman, a soldier of Christ. In fact, nowhere in the text does Serapion make his name or identity known to Thaïs. She simply accepts his authority as a trigger for the conversion she did not deem possible before. The emphasis on conversion is further highlighted when she begs Serapion to guide her, or when she takes the initiative to get rid of her possessions. We have seen that, compared to other holy harlots such as Pelagia and Mary of Egypt, Thaïs has very little agency. However, when we compare these instances with parallel scenes in the vam, the differences between Thaïs and Mary come into focus and allow us to see that, although both Lives present similar narratives of forgiveness, the thematic focus of the Life of Thaïs is closer to other conversion stories of holy harlots than the vam.

Conclusions

Considering the intertextual connection between the two texts under discussion sheds new light on the interpretation of each text individually and allows to reassess their position within the narrative category of Lives of holy harlots. On the one hand, the connection between the Life of Thaïs and the vam shows that, contrary to what recent scholarship suggests, the latter should indeed be regarded in close connection to the collection of Lives of penitent saints, to which the Life of Thaïs belongs. This is also supported by connections that can be found between the vam and other Lives of holy harlots. For example, an element from the vam not present in the Life of Thaïs, namely the dream of Abraham in which he sees a dove, can also be found in the Life of Pelagia, where Nonnos has a dream of a dove that is dirty, which he washes in holy water.34

On the other hand, because of this same interrelationship with the Life of Thaïs, the vam is also marked as being outside of the corpus of Lives of penitent saints, since, in being like Mary, Thaïs is precisely not like any of the other harlots. More than anything else, it seems that the intertextual link between the Life of Thaïs and the vam breaks open the character type of the ‘holy harlot’: as it turns out, one does not have to be a sinful creature to become a harlot, and one does not have to be a vigorous ascetic to become an example of penitence.

1 This story of the anonymous girl who is rescued from a brothel by changing clothes with her male rescuer is told by Ambrose in his De Virginibus (2,3,22-33) and by Jacobus de Voragine in his Golden Legend (ch. 60).

2 This motif is not proper to the genre of hagiography, but stems from pagan genres such as the ancient novel and ancient historiography. For a discussion of its evolution throughout these genres, see F. Rizzo Nervo, “La Vergine e il Lupanare. Storiografia, Romanzo, Agiografia,” La narrativa cristiana antica. Codici narrativi, strutture formali, schemi retorici. XXIII° Incontro di studiosi dell’ antichità cristiana. Roma, 5-7 maggio 1994 (Roma 1995) 91-99.

3 F. Nau (ed.), “Histoire de Thaïs : publication des textes grecs inédits et de divers autres textes et versions,” Annales du Musée Guimet 30 (1902) 51-113 at 73.

4 Nau, “Histoire de Thaïs,” 66-70.

5 In addition to the French tradition, Thaïs has also influenced the English and Spanish literatures. An edition of the middle English version of her Life can be found in E. Gordon Whatley, Anne B. Thompson and Robert K. Upchurch (eds.), Saints’ Lives in Middle English Collections (Kalamazoo, 2004). For the Spanish tradition, see Andrew M. Beresford, The Legends of the Holy Harlots: Thaïs and Pelagia in Medieval Spanish Literature (Woodbridge and Rochester, 2007).

6 O.R. Kuehne, A Study of the Thais Legend. With Special Reference to Hrothsvitha’s Paphnutius (Montana, 1922).

7 Nau, “Histoire de Thaïs,” 55. Nau compared all the inedited Greek redactions of the Life and observed that the monk who is responsible for Thaïs’ conversion in all these texts is called Serapion, or Serapion the Sinondite. He argues that a Latin translator replaced the name Serapion with Paphnutius. In the Syriac translation, the name Serapion was rendered as Besarion.

8 Lynda L. Coon (Sacred Fictions. Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity [Philadelphia, 1997]) devotes one chapter to ‘God’s Holy Harlots’, but does not include Thaïs in the discussion. Virginia Burrus equally excludes her from her fourth chapter on ‘The Lives of Holy Harlots’ in her book, The Sex Lives of Saints. An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography (Philadelphia, 2004).

9 B. Ward, Harlots of the Desert. A study of repentance in early monastic sources (London and Oxford, 1987). The other harlots she discusses are Mary Magdalene, Mary of Egypt, Pelagia and Mary the niece of Abraham.

10 R.M. Karras, “Holy Harlots: Prostitute Saints in Medieval Legend,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1.1 (1990) 3-32.

11 S. Constantinou, Female Corporeal Performances. Reading the Body in Byzantine Passions and Lives of Holy Women (Uppsala, 2005).

12 Other discussions about Mary, Abraham’s niece can be found in A.G. Elliot (Roads to Paradise. Reading the Lives of the Early Saints [London, 1987] 127-30) and in V. Burrus (The Sex Lives of Saints, 132-37).

13 S.P. Brock and S.A. Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1987) 27.

14 K.G. Phrantzoles (ed.), “In Vitam Beati Abrahamii et Eius Neptis Mariae,” Ὁσίου Ἐφραίµ τοῦ Σύρου ἔργα vol. 7 (Thessaloniki, 1998) 356-394. His text is based on the text published in the Acta Sanctorum (Mart. ii [1668], 741-748; 3rd ed. 932-937), and is accompanied by a modern Greek translation.

15 Elliot, Roads to Paradise, 127.

16 This text, which is fragmentarily transmitted, was published by M.E. Revillout, “La sage-femme Salomé, d’après un apocryphe copte comparé aux fresques de Baouit, et la princesse Salomé, fille du tétrarque Philippe, d’après le même document,” Journal asiatique 10.5 (1905) 409-461. The Coptic text was probably translated from Greek.

17 W. Lüdtke, “Die koptische Salome-Legende und das Leben des Einsiedlers Abraham,” Zeitschrift für Wissenschaftliche Theologie 49 (1906) 61-65.

18 Both Salome and Mary are rescued from the brothel by a relative they know but fail to recognize, whereas Thaïs is rescued by a cleric she did not know before. Nevertheless, two smaller details that are not contained in the vam are shared by the Life of Thaïs and the Legend of Salome: (i) the male figure asks for a different room in the brothel, seemingly afraid of being seen by others (VThaïs 92.9-10 & Revillout 436), a request that is then followed by the idea that God sees everything (VThaïs 92.16-17 & Revillout 437), and (ii) the woman tells her male guide that she will ‘do anything he tells her to do’ (VThaïs 96.12 & Revillout 439).

19 The Syriac text is edited by T.J. Lamy, Sancti Ephraem Syri Hymni et Sermones. Vol. 4, cols. 1-84. A partial translation of this text, namely of the second part which concerns Mary, can be found in Brock & Harvey (Women of the Syrian Orient, 29-39). I am indebted to Flavia Ruani for her valuable help in assessing the role of the Syriac text.

20 Brock and Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 28.

21 Brock and Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 27.

22 See H.W. Drijvers, “Syrian Christianity and Judaism,” in J. Lieu, J. North and T. Rajak (eds.), The Jews Among Pagans and Christians (London, 1992) 124-146 at 124-7.

23 Brock and Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 27.

24 A comparable case is the first Greek version of the Syriac Life of Alexis (bhg 51-56) which, according to M. Rösler, cannot predate the 6th century, but might easily have been produced in the course of that century: see M. Rösler, “Alexiusprobleme,” Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie 53 (1933) 508-528 at 517.

25 S.P. Brock, “Greek into Syriac and Syriac into Greek,” Journal of the Syriac Academy 3 (1977) 406-422 at 14.

26 It is also not entirely clear how the Coptic Legend of Salome fits into the picture. According to Lüdtke (“Die koptische Salome-Legende,” 64), the author of the vam was inspired by the Greek apocryphal text that is reflected in the Coptic fragments, which implies an earlier date for the Legend. However, according to P. Peeters, there is no hard evidence to support that theory: see P. Peeters, “W. Lüdtke, Die koptische Salome-Legende und das Leben des Einsiedlers Abraham,” Analecta Bollandiana 26 (1907) 468-69.

27 I am referring here to the text as it is contained in the Acta Sanctorum. I will continue to refer to the Acta Sanctorum given that Phrantzoles’ text does not number paragraphs or lines.

28 This corresponds to page 381 in Phrantzoles’ edition.

29 The same image is also used in the very beginning of the story of Mary: ‘βλέπων ὁ ἐν δολίοτητι κακοῦργος ὄφις (. . .) τὸν τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἀµνάδα’ (vam §26.10-12).

30 Constantinou, Female Corporeal Performances, 75.

31 The Life and Passion of Eudokia (Acta Sanctorum Mart. i [1668] 875-883), §3.

32 The Life of Pelagia (B. Flusin [ed.], “Les textes grecs. Édition du récit π,” in P. Petitmengin et al. [eds.], Pélagie la pénitente. Métamorphoses d’une légende. Tome I [Paris 1981] 77-93), §18.

33 Ward, Harlots of the Desert, 87.

34 vam §29 and The Life of Pelagia §14-15.

  • 3

    F. Nau (ed.), “Histoire de Thaïs : publication des textes grecs inédits et de divers autres textes et versions,” Annales du Musée Guimet 30 (1902) 51-113 at 73.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4

    Nau, “Histoire de Thaïs,” 66-70.

  • 7

    Nau, “Histoire de Thaïs,” 55. Nau compared all the inedited Greek redactions of the Life and observed that the monk who is responsible for Thaïs’ conversion in all these texts is called Serapion, or Serapion the Sinondite. He argues that a Latin translator replaced the name Serapion with Paphnutius. In the Syriac translation, the name Serapion was rendered as Besarion.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 10

    R.M. Karras, “Holy Harlots: Prostitute Saints in Medieval Legend,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1.1 (1990) 3-32.

  • 14

    K.G. Phrantzoles (ed.), “In Vitam Beati Abrahamii et Eius Neptis Mariae,” Ὁσίου Ἐφραίµ τοῦ Σύρου ἔργα vol. 7 (Thessaloniki, 1998) 356-394. His text is based on the text published in the Acta Sanctorum (Mart. ii [1668], 741-748; 3rd ed. 932-937), and is accompanied by a modern Greek translation.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 15

    Elliot, Roads to Paradise, 127.

  • 17

    W. Lüdtke, “Die koptische Salome-Legende und das Leben des Einsiedlers Abraham,” Zeitschrift für Wissenschaftliche Theologie 49 (1906) 61-65.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 20

    Brock and Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 28.

  • 21

    Brock and Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 27.

  • 23

    Brock and Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 27.

  • 25

    S.P. Brock, “Greek into Syriac and Syriac into Greek,” Journal of the Syriac Academy 3 (1977) 406-422 at 14.

  • 30

    Constantinou, Female Corporeal Performances, 75.

  • 33

    Ward, Harlots of the Desert, 87.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 158 24 3
Full Text Views 180 3 0
PDF Views & Downloads 30 10 0