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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity


from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world


Coptic Encomium on Apa *Mena/Menas (soldier and martyr of Abu Mena, S00073) attributed to John, archbishop of Alexandria, most likely John IV (775-789), who had been an oikonomos at the saint’s shrine, presenting a history of the saint’s life as a man from Nikiu (in the Nile Delta), his martyrdom and afterlife, with a detailed account of the development of his shrine at Abu Mina.

Evidence ID

E01223

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint

Late antique original manuscripts - Parchment codex

Encomium on Apa Mena, attributed to John, archbishop of Alexandria, most likely John IV (775–789)

The encomium starts by claiming that contrary to numerous earlier attempts by various 'foolish people' (
ϩⲛⲁⲑⲏⲧ
ⲛⲣⲱⲙⲉ
) to write about the saint, this one is the only successful one. This assertion is based on the claim that the author uses eyewitness reports written in Greek, which he found preserved in the library at Alexandria.

ed. Drescher, p. 37, col. II, line 4–p. 38, col. I, line 5:
ⲉⲛⲛⲁⲡⲗⲁⲥⲥⲉ ⲁ(ⲛ) ⲛϩⲉⲛϣⲁϫⲉ · ⲉⲁⲩⲧⲃⲧⲱⲃⲟⲩ ⲛⲧⲉⲛϫⲟⲟⲩ ⲉⲣⲱⲧⲛ · ⲁⲗⲗⲁ ⲛⲉⲛⲧⲁ ⲛⲉⲛⲉⲓⲟⲧⲉ ⲉⲧⲟⲩⲁⲁⲃ ⲕⲁⲁⲩ ⲛⲁⲛ ⲉϩⲣⲁⲓ ⲛϫⲓⲛ
ⲛϣⲟⲣⲡ ⲁⲛ[ϭⲉⲛ]ⲧⲟⲩ ⲉⲩⲕⲏ ⲉϩⲣⲁⲓ ϩⲛ ⲧⲃⲓⲃⲗⲓⲟⲑⲩⲕⲏ ⲛⲧⲉⲕⲕⲗⲏⲥⲓⲁ ⲙⲡⲡⲁⲧⲣⲓⲁⲣⲭⲓⲟⲛ ⲛⲣⲁⲕⲟⲧⲉ · ⲉⲩⲥⲏϩ ϩⲛ ϩⲉⲛⲥϩⲁⲓ ⲙⲙⲛⲧⲟⲩⲉⲓⲉⲛⲓⲛ ·
ⲉⲁⲛϩⲓⲥⲧⲱⲗⲓⲟⲅⲣⲁⲫⲟⲥ ⲛⲁⲣⲭⲁⲓⲟⲛ · ⲛⲧⲁⲩϣⲱⲡⲉ ⲙⲡⲉⲩⲟⲉⲓϣ ⲉⲧⲙⲙⲁⲩ ⲥϩⲁⲓⲥⲟⲩ · ⲛⲁⲓ ⲛⲧⲁⲩⲛⲁⲩ ϩⲛ ⲛⲉⲩⲃⲁⲗ ⲛϫⲓⲛ ⲛⲉϣⲟⲣⲡ ·
ⲁⲩϣⲱⲡⲉ ⲛϩⲩⲡⲉⲣⲉⲧⲏⲥ ⲙⲡϣⲁϫⲉ · ⲉⲩⲧⲁⲙⲟ ⲙⲙⲟⲛ ⲉⲧⲃⲉ ⲧⲉϥⲥⲩⲅⲅⲉⲛⲓⲁ · ⲙⲛ ⲧⲉϥⲙⲁⲣⲧⲩⲣⲓⲁ ·
'We shall not forge stories which we have invented and present them to you, rather (we shall present to you) the things which our holy fathers laid out for us from the beginning. We have found them lying in the library of the church of the patriarchate of Alexandria written in Greek, which the old historiographers who lived at that time wrote, these men who have seen the beginning with their own eyes. They were servants to the history (record keepers of the word), telling us about his family and his martyrdom.'

Three major festivities are mentioned, when a large congregation would gather at the healing shrine each year: the day of his martyrdom (15th day of Hathor/11 November), the day of the discovery of his holy remains which is likewise the day of the Holy Cross (15th of the month Pauni/9 June), and the day of the consecration of his holy shrine (1st of the month Epiph/25 June). Apa Mena is claimed to be of Egyptian origin, his parents, inhabitants of the famous Egyptian metropolis Nikiu.

ed. Drescher, p. 39, col. I, line 29–col. II, line 13:
ⲡϩⲁⲅⲓⲟⲥ ϭⲉ ⲁⲡⲁ ⲙⲏⲛⲁ · ⲟⲩⲉⲩⲅⲉⲛⲏⲥ ⲡⲉ ⲉⲃⲟⲗ ϩⲙ ⲡⲕⲁϩ ⲛⲕⲏⲙⲉ · ⲛⲉϥⲉⲓⲟⲧⲉ ⲇⲉ ⲛⲉϩⲛ ⲉⲃⲟⲗ ⲛⲉ · ϩⲛ ⲧⲙⲉⲧⲣⲟⲡⲟⲗⲓⲥ ⲉⲧⲧⲁⲓⲏⲩ ⲛⲧⲉ ⲕⲏⲙⲉ ⲧⲁⲓ ⲛϣⲁⲩⲙⲟⲩⲧⲉ ⲉⲣⲟⲥ ⲕⲁⲧⲁ ⲡⲟⲩⲉⲛⲓⲛ ϫⲉ ⲛⲓⲕⲉⲩⲥ ⲧⲁⲓ ⲉⲧⲉⲥϩⲉⲣⲙⲏⲛⲓⲁ ⲕⲁⲧⲁ ⲛⲉⲣⲉⲙⲛⲕⲏⲉ · ⲛⲉ ⲛⲣⲉϥϫⲣⲟ ·
'Saint Apa Mena then was an Egyptian of noble birth. His parents were from the famous Egyptian metropolis called in Greek "Nikeus", which in Egyptian means "the victors".'

The family history starts with the father of Apa Mena and his uncle, two brothers of high rank, sons of a governor, and governors themselves, who were in conflict with each other, much in the way of Cain and Abel, or Herod and Philip. As a result of this power struggle, the father of Apa Mena was sent with his wife and household to become the governor of Phrygia, to be out of the way of his evil brother. The people of Phrygia were not unhappy about this, but Euphemia, the wife of the new governor was barren. She was a pious woman, fasting daily until evening and giving alms to the poor. At the feast of *Mary, the mother of God, on the 21st of Tybi (16 January), when men and women put on their festive clothes and women wear all their jewellery, the pious Euphemia stood by the image of Virgin and Child praying and crying with envy as she saw all the other women carrying around their children. As she dipped her finger in the oil of the lamp burning before the image of Mary and Christ, she looked up and heard a voice coming from the infant Christ saying ‘Amen’. That night she became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a male child. She insisted on naming the boy Mena, since he was granted by the word ‘Amen’, explaining to her husband that, if one puts the letter A last, ‘Amen’ becomes ‘Mena’.

The pious parents celebrated the birth of their only son by opening prisons and distributing great alms to the poor. Apa Mena grew up a pious child, reading the Scriptures, going to church and praying excessively. When his parents died, he was still very young. He inherited all their wealth, but kept on living a pious life. When he was fifteen, he was drafted into the army, and Firmianus, the chief general (
archistrategos) of the soldiers and tribune (tribunos), who had been a friend of his father, took him into his regiment to keep him safe. He made him his vice general and the soldiers loved him.

When the order to sacrifice idols reached his regiment, he gave away all his wealth and possessions to the poor and withdrew into the desert. After spending five years in the desert, he looked up into the light and saw the saints who had finished their course and were crowned by the angels, and he longed to become a martyr too. A voice from heaven informed him that he would receive three crowns: one for his virginity, one for ascetic life, and one for martyrdom. His future cult is laid out before him, his exceeding fame and the powers among the saints which will draw in people of every tribe and tongue to his shrine.

Apa Mena thus made his way to the
hegemon Pyrrhus and proclaimed himself to be a Christian. He was thrown into prison. The next day he is brought before the hegemon on the tribunal and the court hearing begins. Due to Apa Mena’s rank, Pyrrhus tries to persuade him to act prudently, and offers him ranks and titles, but to no effect. He is stretched, flogged, and pierced, but the saint just quotes from the Bible and feels no pain at all. Many more tortures follow, and eventually the saint is put on a ship to be brought to the comes who throws him into prison with many other martyrs. Tortures on the tribunal of the comes follow, the last one being an attempt to saw him open, when the iron of the saw just melts as if wax. After this, sentence is passed to be beheaded and his body burnt in a fire. When is head was cut off, a fire was lit and his body thrown into it. But by the will of God some faithful brothers and monks came forward, rescued his body from the fire, and gave him a proper burial.

When his former regiment was ordered to be relocated to Egypt, to go to Alexandria and guard the area of Mareotes because Libyan hordes were ravaging the area, the new tribune of the regiment, Athanasius, and some Christian soldiers, decided to take the body of the saint along as protection. When they opened his grave, the place shone like the sun. The soldiers took his holy remains (
lipsanon) and, because of the people, hid them in their garments.

ed. Drescher, p. 60, col. I, lines 22–29:
ⲁⲩϫⲓ ⲛⲛⲉϥⲗⲓⲯⲁⲛⲟⲛ ⲉⲧⲟⲩⲁⲁⲃ · ⲛϭⲓ ⲙⲙⲁⲧⲟⲓ · ⲁⲩϩⲟⲡⲟⲩ ϩⲛ ⲛⲉⲩⲥⲧⲟⲗⲏ ⲉⲧⲃⲉ ⲡⲗⲁⲟⲥ · ⲁⲩⲧⲁⲗⲟⲟⲩ ⲉⲡϫⲟⲓ · ⲁⲩⲥϭⲏⲣ ϩⲛ ⲟⲩϫⲁⲙⲏ·
'The soldiers took his holy remains and hid them in their garments because of the people. They put them onto a ship and sailed calmly.'

They took the remains with them on the ship and had a calm voyage to Alexandria which took five days. In the midst of the sea fearsome beasts rose with heads like camels raising their necks and stretching into the ship wishing to grab the saint and the soldiers alike. But fire shot at their faces from the remains of the saint and they sank back into the sea. The beasts then worshiped the remains of the saint, and the soldiers marvelled at his great power.

Leaving Alexandria, the soldiers put the saint first on a boat crossing lake Marea, and then onto a camel and took him with them into the Mariotes. When they had defeated the barbarians, they brought the remains of the saint to the village of Este. But when the regiment wanted to return to Alexandria, the camel refused to get up. The next camel onto which the holy remains were placed also did not move. Once they had tried all the camels with the same result, the tribune Athanasios was upset, since he wanted to take the saint’s remains with him as an invincible weapon
(ed. Drescher, p. 62, col. II, lines 1–5: ⲉⲡⲓⲇⲏ ⲛⲉϥⲟⲩⲱϣ ⲉϫⲓⲧϥ ⲛⲙⲙⲁϥ ϩⲱⲥ ϩⲟⲡⲗⲟⲛ ⲛⲁⲧϫⲣⲟ ⲉⲣⲟϥ '… since he wished to take him with him as an unconquerable weapon for himself'), but he understood that it was the will of God that the saint should stay where the camels remained. Athanasios then made a wooden tablet depicting the image of the saint with the sea monsters that looked like camels beneath his feet. This is why uninformed people think that these animals are camels and that Apa Mena was once a camel herdsman. The stratelates then placed the image he had made on the saint’s remains so that his blessings and powers would go into the image and remain in it, so that he could take it along as a help and an unconquerable weapon for himself whether at sea or anywhere else.

ed. Drescher, p. 63, col. I, line 28–col. II, line 14:
ⲁⲩⲱ ⲛⲧⲉⲓϩⲉ ⲁⲡⲉⲥⲧⲣⲁⲧⲏⲗⲁⲧⲏⲥ · ⲕⲱ ⲛⲑⲓⲕⲱⲛ ⲉϫⲛ ⲛⲉⲗⲓⲯⲁⲛⲟⲛ ⲙⲡⲡⲉⲧⲟⲩⲁⲁⲃ · ⲉⲧⲣⲉ ⲛⲉϥϩⲙⲟⲧ ⲙⲛ ⲛⲉϥϭⲟⲙ ϣⲱⲡⲉ ϩⲛ ⲑⲓⲕⲱⲛ · ⲛⲧⲁⲣⲉϥϫⲓⲧⲥ ⲛⲙⲙⲁϥ ⲉⲧⲣⲉⲥϣⲱⲡⲉ ⲛⲁϥ ⲛⲃⲟⲏⲑⲓⲁ · ⲟⲩ ⲙⲟⲛⲟⲛ ϩⲛ ⲑⲁⲗⲁⲥⲥⲁ ⲁⲗⲗⲁ ϩⲙ ⲙⲁ ⲛⲓⲙ ⲉⲧⲉϥⲛⲁⲃⲱⲕ ⲉⲣⲟϥ · ϩⲱⲥ ϩⲟⲡⲗⲟⲛ ⲛⲁⲧϫⲣⲟ ⲉⲣⲟϥ ·
'In this way, the stratelates placed the icon on the remains of the saint, so that his favours and his powers would be in the icon, in order for him to take it with him, to have it function for him as a help, not only at sea, but at any place he would go, just as an unconquerable weapon for himself.'

He then placed the saint’s remains in a wooden coffin, put the image he had made onto the remains, and then buried the remains in a proper fashion. He built a small place over it making a vaulted tomb. He made a copy of the image he had made before and then took the original one with him returning home with his men.

First healing miracle and discovery of the tomb:
A crippled boy in the village of Este found the tomb of Apa Mena due to the lamp burning in it. He fell asleep at the spot, and when his parents found him there, he jumped up and ran back to his village. All the injured, sick, and inflicted were brought to the spot and received healing at the tomb. A small oratory was built over his tomb and a lamp hung inside which remained burning at all times. Whoever took from the oil of the lamp and brought it to distant lands received healing.

ed. Drescher, p. 65, col. II, lines 5–25:
ⲁⲩⲕⲱⲧ ⲛⲟⲩⲕⲟⲩⲓ ⲛⲉⲩⲕⲧⲏⲣⲓⲟⲛ ⲉϫⲙ ⲡⲧⲁⲫⲟⲥ ⲛⲑⲉ ⲛⲟⲩⲧⲣⲁⲡⲩⲗⲱⲛ · ⲁⲩⲉⲓϣⲉ ⲛⲟⲩⲫⲁⲛⲟⲥ ⲉϩⲣⲁⲓ ϩⲛ ⲧⲉϥⲙⲏⲧⲉ · ⲕⲁⲧⲁ ⲡⲧⲩⲡⲟⲥ ⲛϣⲟⲣⲡ · ⲁⲡⲉⲫⲁⲛⲟⲥ ⲙⲟⲩⲛ ⲉⲃⲟⲗ · ⲉϥⲙⲟⲩϩ ⲁϫⲛ ϫⲉⲛⲁ · ⲉⲡⲧⲏⲣϥ · ⲙⲡⲉϩⲟⲟⲩ ⲙⲛ ⲧⲉⲩϣⲏ · ⲟⲩⲟⲛ ⲇⲉ ⲛⲓⲙ ⲉⲧⲛⲁϫⲓ ⲉⲃⲟⲗ ϩⲙ ⲡⲛⲉϩ ⲙⲡⲉⲫⲁⲛⲟⲥ · ⲉϩⲉⲛⲭⲱⲣⲁ ⲉⲩⲟⲩⲏⲩ ϣⲁⲣⲉ ⲡⲧⲁⲗϭⲟ ϣⲱⲡⲉ ⲛⲁⲩ ·
'A small oratory was built over the grave in the manner of a (te)trapylon. A lamp was hung in its midst similar to the earlier kind. The lamp remained burning without stopping at all, day and night. Anyone who was to take some from the oil of the lamp to distant lands, healing would happen to them.'

This in turn increased the number of visitors and pilgrims who suffered distress, because of the lack of water in the desert. Athanasios ,the archbishop of Alexandria, was asked to make orders for the building of a large memorial church which eventually was accomplished. The remains of the saint were transferred into the crypt and the feast of the consecration of this church was celebrated on the 1st of the month Epiph (25 June).

More miracles generated yet more pilgrims, and they suffered distress because on the feast day of the saint, the church was now too small to fit everybody inside, leaving part of the congregation standing outside in the desert. Thus, an even bigger church was ordered at the time of the emperor Theodosius the Great and under the archbishop Apa Theophilus, and building took place to enlarge the older church.

At the time of the Alexandrian archbishop Timotheos, under the emperor Zeno, barbarians were raiding the area of the Mariotes with the shrine of Apa Mena and the churches in the neighbourhood, thus the emperor ordered all of senatorial rank to build large houses for themselves in this area (to make it a less deserted place and therefore easier to defend) until it was a city, which they called Martyroupolis. A garrison of 1,200 soldiers was established there by Zeno to guard the city and shrine against the barbarians. All this was paid for by taxpayer’s money, other taxes were extracted from various regions of Egypt to be used for the expenses at the shrine and the guest houses which were put up.

Under the reign of Anastasios, the praetorian prefect in the area installed guest houses, small porticoes as resting areas, and water supply stations on the desert route leading from the lake to the shrine, in order to facilitate pilgrims’ travels. Water jar stations were spaced at regular ten-mile intervals along the route. Near the pilgrim centre a market place was introduced for fresh supplies, and a large secure storage area, where pilgrims could leave their valuables and whatever else they had brought along with them. And pilgrims kept on coming and bringing gifts to the shrine because of the miracles wrought there and the healing cures which many obtained. This went on from the time of the emperor Heraclius until the Saracens took the land.

ed. Drescher, p. 71, col. II, lines 7–12:
ⲡⲁⲓ ⲉⲛⲉϥϣⲟⲟⲡ ⲛϫⲓⲛ ⲛⲉⲩⲟⲉⲓϣ ⲛϩⲏⲣⲁⲕⲗⲏⲟⲥ ⲡⲣⲣⲟ ϣⲁⲛⲧⲉ ⲛⲥⲁⲣⲁⲕⲏⲛⲟⲥ ϫⲓ ⲙⲡⲕⲁϩ ·
'This was happening from the time of Heraklius, the emperor, until the Saracens took the land.'

At the end of the encomium, the bishop addresses his audience to beseech the saint in the hope that he would intercede for them before Christ.

Text: Drescher 1946. Translation and summary: Gesa Schenke.

Liturgical Activities

Service for the saint
Eucharist associated with cult
Sermon/homily
Ceremony of dedication

Festivals

Saint’s feast
Anniversary of relic invention/translation
Anniversary of church/altar dedication

Cult Places

Burial site of a saint - crypt/ crypt with relics
Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave
Cult building - secondary installation (fountain, pilgrims’ hostel)
Descriptions of cult places
Cult building - independent (church)
Martyr shrine (martyrion, bet sāhedwātā, etc.)

Activities accompanying Cult

Feasting (eating, drinking, dancing, singing, bathing)

Places Named after Saint

Towns, villages, districts and fortresses

Use of Images

Commissioning/producing an image
Private ownership of an image
Descriptions of images of saints

Non Liturgical Activity

Bequests, donations, gifts and offerings
Pilgrimage
Visiting graves and shrines
Construction of cult buildings
Composing and translating saint-related texts
Renovation and embellishment of cult buildings
Transmission, copying and reading saint-related texts
Awarding privileges to cult centres

Miracles

Miracle after death
Healing diseases and disabilities
Miracle with animals and plants
Fertility- and family-related miracles (infertility, marriages)
Saint aiding or preventing the translation of relics
Miraculous behaviour of relics/images
Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather)

Relics

Bodily relic - entire body

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women
Children
Ecclesiastics - bishops
Pagans
Relatives of the saint
Aristocrats
Soldiers
Officials
Other lay individuals/ people
Crowds
Foreigners (including Barbarians)

Cult Related Objects

Oil lamps/candles
Water basins

Source

The Encomium on Apa Mena follows the account of his miracles (E01222) in Pierpont Morgan Codex 590, fol. 50r–68v. The colophon of the parchment codex gives the year 892/893 AD. This manuscript, as well as the other Pierpont Morgan codices were found at the site of the monastery of Saint Michael at Hamouli in the Fayum.


Discussion

The detailed information given here concerning the history of the burial and healing shrine of Apa Mena from the 4th century to the early Arab period is not preserved anywhere else. The author claims to base his account on written records which were produced by eyewitnesses of the relevant period in history, and therefore fully intends this encomium to be absolutely truthful and believable. He makes many side comments on facts that his audience would know, which in turn would inspire trust in other statements he makes concerning the saint.

For the archaeological evidence and ongoing excavations at Abu Mina under Peter Grossmann see the information given at the German Archaeological Institute at Cairo:
https://www.dainst.org/projekt/-/project-display/63521

Peter Grossmann
(Grossmann 2015, 1): 'Abu Mina is a late antique pilgrimage centre (not a monastery) situated in the Libyan desert, ca. 60 km to the southwest of Alexandria. It developed around the burial place of St. Menas, who, according to the legend, received martyrdom under the Roman emperor Diocletian (284‒305) during the early 4th century. The site contains several large churches, bath buildings, rest houses for pilgrims etc. which are forming the main buildings of an ecclesiastical centre surrounded by a girdle of mostly private villas. The excavations were interrupted for several years. Only in April 2013 permission for field work activities was again granted.'

In a recent publication of more than 1000 Greek ostraca found at the site of Abu Mina (
O.Abu Mina) and illustrating the involvement of a monastic community attached to the pilgrimage centre, the editor has summarised the history of the site as follows (Litinas 2008, p. ix): 'The first church to be built at Abu Mina was reportedly in the late fourth century. The main building phases of the town were during the reigns of the Emperors Zeno, when the Great Basilica was constructed, and Justinian, during which the Martyr Church and Baptistery were rebuilt. This renowned pilgrimage centre, consisting of the hostels for the visiting pilgrims and the three interconnected churches, the Great Basilica, the Martyr Church and the Baptistery, was situated at this time in the southern part of the town centered around a large colonnaded square. As residential area of small clay brick houses and workshops, and two bath complexes surrounded the central area on all sides. A fortification wall protected the town. The administration of the pilgrimage centre after the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) remained in the hands of the Melkites.'


Bibliography

Edition and translation:
Drescher, J., Apa Mena: A Selection of Coptic Texts Relating to St. Menas (Cairo 1946), 7–34 (text); 104–125 (introduction and translation).

Further reading:
Grossmann, P., "The Pilgrimage Center of Abu Mina," in: D. Frankfurter (eds.), Pilgrimage and Holy Space in Late Antique Egypt (Leiden, 2015), 281–302.

Grossmann, P., "Abu Mina, Ägypten: Das Pilgerzentrum,"
e-Forschungsberichte des deutschen archäologischen Instituts 2015-1, pp. 1-3: www.dainst.org/publikationen/e-publikationen/e-forschungsberichte

Litinas, N.,
Greek Ostraca from Abu Mina (O.Abu Mina) (Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, Beiheft 25; Berlin, 2008).

Ward-Perkins, J.B., "The Shrine of St. Menas in the Maryût,"
Papers of the British School at Rome 17 (1949), 26–71.


Record Created By

Gesa Schenke

Date Last Modified

30/10/2017

Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristCertain
S00073Menas, soldier and martyr buried at Abu Menaⲁⲡⲁ ⲙⲏⲛⲁCertain


Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
Gesa Schenke, Cult of Saints, E01223 - http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E01223