The Golden Age of Syriac Hagiography

The Golden Age of Syriac hagiography was late antiquity, so this period will be emphasized in this survey. Some vitae of that period, which are of Syrian origin, won international popularity for their heroes: for example, the story of St Alexis of Edessa (Mar Resha), the 'Man of God' (the core of the Life from the fifth century); and the vita of St Pelagia, a converted courtesan (pseudonym of the fifth-century 'deacon Jacob'). The last-mentioned life became even the model for a particular type of Byzantine vita, praising 'transvestite' saints, usually women living a disguised life as a monk. Besides these, the legend of the two famous physician saints, Cosmas and Damian, is first testified by Syriac manuscripts of the fifth or sixth century.

On the other hand, the hagiographic production of other churches was added to the genuine Syriac heritage. Such a mutual process has to be taken into consideration whenever we try to single out particular features of 'Syrian' sainthood. The translation of original Greek versions of vitae, such as the Life of St Antony the Great, as well as early collections of sayings (apophthegmata) from the Egyptian monastic milieu, and collections of short lives, such as Palladius' Lausiac History, were major contributions to the hagiographic sources transmitted to the Syriac-speaking world. One of the most famous examples for Syriac sources of this kind is Anan Isho's seventh-century collection The Paradise of the Holy Fathers. At the same time, style and motifs from 'foreign' hagiography influenced the native Syriac literary tradition and the shaping of indigenous vitae. It became a common practice, for example, to claim that a Syrian saint had links with Egyptian monasticism.

The development of hagiography in the multicultural world of late antique Syria has been described as 'a fluid interchange of cultures and experiences'. From the very beginning, Syriac hagiography borrowed a great deal from Greek hagiography, particularly the hagiography of the anti-Chalcedonian faction, and interacted intensively with Coptic hagiography. However, Syriac hagiography did not only take from others, there was 'an even exchange of goods', as the Syriac tradition was 'trading with ample wealth of its own'.

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