St. Nikolaos in eastern hagiography   1 comment

Today many Christian traditions are celebrating the commemoration of Nikolaos/Nicolaus/Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Lycia in what is now part of southern Turkey. I had hoped today to offer complete translations of some hagiographic material on him in Greek, Syriac, Gǝʿǝz, and Arabic (I had already omitted Armenian, the language among these that I’m slowest at reading), but alas, other necessities won out and prevented me from finishing it all. All is not given up, however: I can at least here make a few remarks about the sources and offer some snippets in English translation.

On a general bibliographic note, we may point to the long article in Bibliotheca Sanctorum 9: 923-948. BHG 1347-1364 lists a great plethora of Greek forms of hagiographic material for him. BHO 808-810 includes only an Armenian (in two parts) and a Syriac version; nothing is given for Arabic, Coptic, Gǝʿǝz, or Georgian, and I can here only supplement that list partly. Of course, I welcome any additions to that which I mention here.

Arabic. The saint will be found in the so-called Synaxaire arabe jacobite (rédaction copte) as published in PO 3.3: 420-423; this text is very close to the longer Ethiopic version mentioned below. In addition, I know of a short text (not the same as the previous) from the synaxarion manuscript CFMM 251 (see here), pp. 142-143. From the former, here is an interesting anecdote (also in the longer Gǝʿǝz text):

This saint banished many demons (šayāṭīn) from people and from a large tree in which Satan (šayṭān) lived and frightened people.

Armenian. BHO gives Վարք եւ վկայաբանութիւնք սրբոց հատընտիր քաղեալք ի ճառընտրաց, vol. 2 (Venice, 1874), 165-188 (see here; nondum legi!). The section for Nicolaus, who performed miracles “on sea and on land, in cities and in provinces” (ի ծովու եւ ի ցամաքի, ի քաղաքս եւ ի գաւառս) in the Armenian synaxarion will be found in PO 16.1:168-173; it is close to the Syriac text published by Bedjan (see below).

Gǝʿǝz. The saint’s story is given in the synaxarion for the 10th of Taḥśaś; text in PO 15.5: 704-706, and in the longer version, 708-713. There is an English translation of the longer version by Budge, without the sälam hymn (on which see D. Nosnitsin in Enc. Aethiopica, vol. 4, 484) at its end in The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church, vol. 2, 356-359. (As with all of Budge’s work on Gǝʿǝz, caveat lector.) I give here a translation of the short version, one notable miracle episode (my translation, not Budge’s) from the longer version (§ 7 acc. to PO), and the sälam.

The shorter version is as follows:

On this day, too, the father, the just saint Nicolaus (which means “the people’s victor”), bishop, died. This just father and saint was from the people of the city of Myra. The name of his father was Epiphanius, and the name of his mother Yona ["Tuna" in Syn. arab. jac.], and they were rich people in the city of Myra, and they were serious God-fearers. They had no child and for that reason they were very sad and they would continually pray and entreat God to give them a child, in whom they might rejoice and who might inherit their wealth. They were thus without a child until they had grown old and the time of childbirth had passed them by, and they despaired of desiring a child.

Nicolaus was thrown into prison, but God spared him, that he might be a great branch in the tree of the faith. He remained in prison until God destroyed Diocletian and installed Constantine, the just emperor. He released all the believers from the prisons, and this saint went out from their number and returned to his homeland and he stayed there teaching the people, so that they were strengthened in the orthodox faith, until the assembly of the gathering of the 318 bishops came together in the city of Nicaea, and this father was one of them, and he rebuked Arius, excommunicated him, cursed him, and banished him.

When this saint had completed his combat (gädlo) and had tended his flock, he departed to God, after having sat on the seat of the episcopate more than forty years. All the days of his life were eighty years.

From the longer version (cf. PG 116: 321-328 for this episode in Greek):

There was a certain rich man in his city. After a long time all of his wealth was spent, and he became so poor that he found for himself no daily nourishment. He had four daughters: they were grown and their time of marriage had passed, and he could not give them in marriage to anyone due to their poverty. Satan suggested to him an abominable thought: that he should build a whorehouse and put his four daughters in it for them to practice whoredom for payment, and he might find nourishment for himself and his children from whoredom. But God revealed to St. Nicolaus what that man was up to and he set out at night and took 100 gold dinars from his father’s wealth and tied it in a rag. Before it was morning, he threw it into the man’s house, and when the man woke up from his slumber, he found the gold, rejoiced greatly, and gave away his oldest daughter in marriage. Thus, too, a second time the saint threw him 100 gold dinars, and the man gave away his second daughter in marriage. A third time the saint threw him 100 gold dinars, but when he threw it, the man was already awake, and he didn’t take the gold, but instead went out of his house to see who it was that had thrown the gold. When he had gone out, he found St. Nicolaus and knew that he had thrown the gold to him three times. Immediately the man bowed down to him at his feet, thanked him greatly, and said to him, “Your reward in heaven is great, for you have saved me from the poverty of my wealth and from a fall into sin, which I thought I would do!” (And he gave away in marriage his fourth and his third daughters.)

The sälam (a poem, very frequent in the synaxarion, with each of its five lines ending in rhyme, in this case -u), refers to the saint’s distinction from his birth:

Greetings to Nicolaus, whose mention was praised
In Myra, his city!
The people were astonished and his fellow citizens amazed
On the day he was born, when they watched him
Stand for two hours on his feet.

Greek. The longer version of the saint’s life in the menologion of Symeon Metaphrastes will be found in PG 116: 317-356, and the short entry in that of Basil Porphyrogenitos in PG 117: 193 (these online scans are unfortunately not very easy to read). Several, but by no means all, of the texts indicated in BHG are in G. Anrich, Hagios Nikolaos: Der heilige Nikolaos in der griechischen Kirche, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1913), which I do not have and which I cannot find online; if it is online, I will be glad to know of it! Here is a translation of the short menologion entry:

Commemoration of our holy father Nikolaos, archbishop of Myra in Lycia.

This great high priest and wonder-working bishop lived in Myra in Lycia during the reign of Constantine the Great. Having earlier become a monk and having struggled much for virtue, when he was ordained bishop, he performed many wonders. He freed three men from death, for they had been slandered and bound and were about to be beheaded, but the saint ran, grabbed the blade and took it from the executioner, and freed the men. At yet another time three different men were slandered before Constantine by Ablabios the prefect as treacherous and they were shut up in the Praetorium. When they were about to be beheaded, they appealed to St. Nikolaos, and he came to Constantinople in a dream and gave an announcement to the emperor and to the prefect, and they freed the men. Having performed many other wonders, he died peacefully.

Syriac. A Syriac version is found in the voluminous collection of the acts of saints and martyrs edited by the indefatigable Paul Bedjan (it should be obligatory to use that adjective at every mention of his name!): AMS IV, 290-302. Most of the story in the Syriac text and also that of the Armenian synaxarion centers on three officials sent to quell the Phrygian rebellion, who are then slandered before Constantine (see the translation of the short Greek text above; for the longer Greek version, see PG 116: 337-352), eventually to be released thanks to the dreamy intervention of the saint. Constantine sends them to Nicolaus with, inter alia, “a golden Gospel-book infixed with precious stones” (Syr., 299). They become the saint’s students and stay with him henceforth. The remainder of the Syriac text deals with the saint’s alleviating a famine and his foiling the plans of the goddess Artemis (“that deceiver, whom the pagans call their goddess”) — in the Greek of PG 116: 353-356, it is said to be a demon of Artemis’ temple: Πονηρὸν δὲ δαιμόνιον, ὃ τῷ βωμῷ πάλαι τῆς Ἀρτέμιδος ἐνοικοῦν — who wished to unleash a jar of magical oil (šṭiptā d-mešḥā d-ḥarāšutā, Syr., p. 301; when cast into the sea, it spread a fire on the water’s surface for 15 miles!) to destroy the inhabitants and churches of Myra. Like some of the other versions, the Syriac concludes with a general list of his miraculous deeds post mortem:

These wonders God performed by the hands of the saint while he was with us in life. Here are the wonders and signs that he did after his death: persecuting demons, healing the sick and weak, assisting and encouraging those falling in temptations and dangers, and also those who travel by sea, to whom he appears in clear sight. All these things there is no tongue sufficient to tell, and to the end he shall not cease to make supplication for God’s church.

I do plan before long (hopefully this month) to finish what I had first set out to do, and, if successful, I’ll post the translations here. In the meantime, ad fontes!

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One response to “St. Nikolaos in eastern hagiography

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  1. Pingback: San Nicola di Myra, santo ecumenico, santo natalizio ← TRALCI - NIKLIMA

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