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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity


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


The Greek Life of *Nikolaos of Sion (abbot and bishop in Lycia, ob. 564, S00559) recounts the foundation of the monastery of Holy Sion in the village of Pharroa in Lycia (south-west Asia Minor) and the miracles of Nikolaos, its first abbot. A number of shrines of different saints are mentioned in the narrative. Written in the late 6th c., probably at the monastery of Holy Sion. Overview entry

Evidence ID

E04953

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives

Life of Nikolaos, Abbot of Holy Sion and Bishop of Pinara (BHG 1347)

Summary (references to shrines, festivals, visions and relics of other saints are in bold):

The origins of Nikolaos and the foundation of Holy Sion (first narrative)

1. A holy man called Nikolaos [from here on 'Nikolaos of Akalissos'] from the village of Pharroa, in the district of Traglassos, lives with his spiritual father, the archimandrite [abbot] Sabbatios, at the monastery of Akalissos. There, they decide to establish the monastery of Holy Sion.

2. Near the site of Holy Sion, Epiphanios and Nonna, relatives of Nikolaos of Akalissos, have a child, whom they call Nikolaos [the saint]. On the day of his birth, the infant stands upright for two hours, surprising his parents who take him to his uncle, Nikolaos of Akalissos. The latter prophesies that the boy will be a famous man of God.

3. Education and first miracle of Nikolaos at the age of seven.

4. Nikolaos of Akalissos requests leave from the archbishop of Myra to build a shrine at Pharroa. The foundations are blessed and the shrine is named Holy Sion.

5. Nikolaos grows up and is ordained a reader.

6. Returning from his ordination, Nikolaos visits Nikolaos of Akalissos at
the shrine of *John (ἐν τῷ μαρτυρίῳ τοῦ ἁγίου Ἰωάννου, i.e. the monastery of Akalissos) and receives his blessing.

7. At the age of 19, Nikolaos is ordained priest, and shortly after Holy Sion is dedicated. He is appointed as its abbot, and takes with him his brothers, Artemas and Hermaios, as helpers. Artemas becomes priest and
deuterarios [assistant].

The foundation of Holy Sion (second narrative)

8-9. Nikolaos travels to the Holy Land.

10. After the journey, Nikolaos urges his disciples to pray, and he continues the building of the church of Holy Sion. An angel reveals to him that the monastery will be an image of Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

11. He recounts that, before his own birth, Sabbatios of Akalissos had had visions of a light denoting the place of Holy Sion, but no-one believed him.

12. When Sabbatios died, his
deuterarios Nikolaos (of Akalissos) prayed that the site of Sabbatios' visions be revealed to him.

13. *Michael the Archangel appears to Nikolaos of Akalissos and reveals to him the mountain of the future church. He also tells him of the birth of Nikolaos, son of Epiphanios and Nonna, at the same place. Nikolaos is chosen by God to excel in holiness at that shrine. This was recounted by Nikolaos of Akalissos himself, who died and was buried in the Monastery of John in Akalissos.

Miracles of Nikolaos in the villages of the region

14. As the boy Nikolaos grows up, he is granted the grace of miracles.

15-19. Invited by the inhabitants of the village of Plakoma, Nikolaos exorcises and cuts down a large haunted tree. The enormous tree is sawn by woodcutters from the village of Karkaba and transferred to the church of Holy Sion.

20-24. The inhabitants of Arnabanda invite Nikolaos to their village, because their spring of water is haunted and causes people and animals to die. A villager confesses his incredulity to the saint and is forgiven. Together with the local clerics, Nikolaos visits the mount of Kaisar nearby, where he miraculously helps them to spot the site of a water spring.

25. Nikolaos offers a banquet to the local clergy, during which he causes a miraculous multiplication of wine.

26. Nikolaos exorcises a possessed man called Nikolaos from the locality of Presbaios in the district of Andronikos. He uses oil from a lamp.

Journey to the Holy Land. Miracles on the ship and in Egypt

27-31. Nikolaos sets off for a second pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the way, the ship is struck by a storm, which is calmed by the saint's prayers. He also raises a young sailor who has died from falling off the mast of the ship.

32-34. They arrive in Egypt and, invited by the sailors, Nikolaos visits their village, which is called Diolkos. He stays at the
church of *Theodoros (ἐκκλησία τοῦ ἁγίου Θεοδώρου) for four days. He heals a blind man, using oil from the lamp of *Theodoros. He also heals a man who had suffered from severe constipation, and had not eaten for four months.

35. Nikolaos arrives in the Holy Land and venerates the Cross, Jerusalem, the holy sites, and the holy fathers as far as the Jordan. An angel instructs him to return to Lycia.

36-38. Nikolaos embarks on a boat sailing to Constantinople, and returns to Lycia.

39. While stone was quarried for the building of Holy Sion, Nikolaos decided to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (the same pilgrimage as recounted above?). During his absence no stone could be quarried, because only he had the grace to direct the work.

Miracles of Nikolaos at Holy Sion

40. Nikolaos helps a couple from Zenonopolis have a child.

41-42. He heals a paralyzed virgin woman, who was brought by two couples from the village of Damasei, in the territory of Sabandos.

43-44. Nikolaos and his brother, Artemas, are tempted by a demon. The holy man drives him away.

45. Nikolaos multiplies bread in order to feed the workmen who were building the church.

46. A temptation by a demon during the night.

The plague and Nikolaos' conflict with authorities of Myra

47-51. Nikolaos has visions predicting the outbreak of the great plague. The archangel Michael reveals that he has been assigned to pray for the souls of those who will die in Lycia.

52. The plague arrives first at Myra, causing people to die within one day. The city and its environs are abandoned by the farmers, causing a lack of food in Myra.

53. A rumour has it that Nikolaos, as Abbot of Holy Sion, prevents farmers from visiting Myra. Archbishop Philippos and the governor of Myra send people to arrest him, but the villagers of Traglassos advise him not to go to Myra, because of the great calamity.

The generosity of Nikolaos after the plague: feasts at rural shrines and the restoration of a church (for the full text, see E04957)

54-55. When Nikolaos' reputation was restored, he visited several shrines and offered feasts for the locals, slaughtering oxen. At the
oratory of the Archangel Michael at Traglassos (εὐκτήριον τοῦ ἀρχαγγέλου εὐφήμου ἐν τῷ Τραγαλασσῷ) he slaughtered/sacrificed (ἔθυσεν) two oxen. At the monastery of *John and the holy archmandrites *Sabbatios, Nikolaos, and Leon at Akalissos (the mother house of Holy Sion) (μοναστήριον τοῦ ἁγίου Ἰωάννου καὶ τῶν ἁγίων πατέρων Σαββατίου, Νικολάου καὶ Λέοντος τῶν γεναμένων ἀρχιμανδριτῶν ἐν τῷ Ἀκαλισσῷ), he slaughtered five oxen. At various churches in the area, he slaughtered 16 oxen.

55. The villagers and clergy of Plenios meet Nikolaos at the oratory of the Archangel and they travel to the
oratory of *Georgios at Plenios (εὐκτήριον τοῦ ἁγίου Γεωργίου ἐν τῷ Πληνίῳ). Seven oxen slaughtered; 200 dining couches (stibadia) set up; 100 measures of wine; 40 modii of bread.

56. Two years later, Nikolaos is instructed by the Holy Spirit 'to visit the neighbouring oratories and offer sacrifices of one pair of oxen at each one of the sanctuaries, and glorify God.' (ἐπὶ τὸ παραγενέσθαι εἰς τοὺς παρακειμένους εὐκτηρίους οἴκους καὶ ποιῆσαι καθ'ἕκαστον ἁγίασμα θυσίας ἀπὸ ζυγῆς βοϊδίων καὶ δοξάσαι τὸν θεόν). Nikolaos visits the
oratory of *Gabriel at Karkabo (εὐκτήριον τοῦ ἁγίου Γαβριὴλ ἐν τῷ Καρκάβω), and sacrifices three oxen. From there, he visits the oratory of Theodoros at Kausas (εὐκτήριος οἶκος τοῦ ἁγίου Θεοδώρου είς Καύσας) and slaughters a pair of oxen. Plenty of food goes spare. The same happens at the oratory of the Archangel at Nea Kome (εὐκτήριος οἶκος τοῦ ἁγίου ἀρχαγγέλου είς Νέαν Κώμην).

57. Pairs of oxen are slaughtered at: the
oratory of *Apphianos at Partaesssos (εὐκτήριον τοῦ ἁγίου Ἀπφιανοῦ ἐν Παρταησσῷ); the oratory of the *Archangel and *Demetrios at Symbolon (τὸ εὐκτήριον τοῦ ἀρχαγγέλου καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου Δημητρίου ἐν τῷ Συμβόλῳ); the oratory of the Theotokos at Nautes (τὸ εὐκτήριον τῆς Θεοτόκου εἰς τὸ Ναυτήν); the oratory of *Eirene at Serine (τὸ εὐκτήριον τῆς ἁγίας Εἰρήνης εἰς Σερινῆ); the oratory of the *Archangel at Trebendai (ὁ εὐκτήριος οἶκος τοῦ ἀρχαγγέλου είς Τρεβένδας);the oratory of *Nikolaos at Kastellon (ὁ εὐκτήριος οἶκος τοῦ ἁγίου Νικολάου εἰς τὸ Κάστελλον); the oratory of *Melissa at Hemalissa (ὁ εὐκτήριος οἶκος τῆς Μελίσσης ἐν Ἡμαλίσσοις). After 25 days of feasting, Nikolaos returns to Holy Sion.

58. Nikolaos offers 80.5
nomismata from the revenue of his monastery for the restoration of the shrine of *Daniel the Prophet at Sabandos (ἁγίασμα τοῦ ἁγίου Δανιὴλ ἐν τῷ Σαβάνδῳ/εὐκτήριον τοῦ ἁγίου Δανιὴλ τοῦ προφήτου). He found the church in a derelict state when he visited it for prayer, during one of his journeys to Myra.

Miracles at Holy Sion

59-60. The prayers of Nikolaos help a couple from Arneai to have a bountiful harvest and be delivered from poverty and famine.

61. Healing of reader called Kosmas from Eneandai, who suffered from a demon.

62. The shepherd Paulos from the same region is cleansed from a demon.

63. A certain Zenon from Arnabanda is cleansed from a demon.

64. The reader Paulos from the village of Seroiatea is cleansed from a demon.

65. A certain Kyriakos from the same village is cleansed from a demon.

Nikolaos becomes bishop of Pinara. The building of a church

67. Nikolaos has a dream of a spirit showing him a glorious throne and altar.

68. Three months later, the archbishop of Myra Philippos invites him to the city and ordains him as bishop of Pinara.

69. Three years later, Nikolaos has a
vision of the Virgin *Mary, indicating to him the site of a shrine, in order that a church may be built for her there. The local notables and clergy react to Nikolaos' plans to build, and he is compelled to purchase the land. After dedicating the church, he comes to his monastery and gives thanks. The construction of the church cost 400 nomismata (for full text, see E04954).

Miracles at Holy Sion

70. Nikolaos visits the
shrine of the Archangel at Krova (ἅγιος οἶκος τοῦ ἀρχαγγέλλου εἰς Κροβᾶ) where he cleanses a young man possessed by a demon.

71. Healing of a woman from Nikapo, who was paralysed by a demon.

72. Healing of a paralysed man called Nikolaos, from the village of Sibinou.

73. Healing of a possessed man called Timotheos, from the village of Kendema.

74. Healing of a possessed man called Leon, from the village of Arnabanda.

75. A couple from the village of Edrassai come to request to have a child, which is granted.

Nikolaos falls ill and dies

76. Nikolaos goes to Myra for the
feast (Ῥοσσάλια, rosalia) of *Nikolaos (bishop of Myra). He participates in the festival, greets all his fellow clerics, and returns to his monastery, where he falls ill (for full text and discussion, see E04955).

77. While ill, he heals a possessed woman from the village of Sokla.

78. Nikolaos has a vision of angels coming to him, says his final prayers and dies. Present at his death were his blood brothers Hermaios and Artemas, and his
deuterarios, the archdeacon Nikolaos. The latter closed the saint's eyes and wrapped his body for burial.

79. Lamentation breaks out. The deacon of Paulos Hermaiou from Oumbe consoles the monks and goes to Myra, in order to invite Philippos, bishop of Phellos, for the funeral.

80. Nikolaos died on Wednesday, 10 December, in the 38th year of the reign of Justinian (564). His relics rest in the church of Holy Sion, together with
relics of *John the Baptist, *Stephen the First Martyr, *Theodoros, *Sergios and *Bakchos, and the *Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (for full text, see E04956).

Text: Ševčenko and Patterson-Ševčenko 1984.
Summary: E. Rizos.

Liturgical Activities

Service for the saint
Ceremony of dedication
Sacrifice/libation

Festivals

Saint’s feast

Cult Places

Cult building - independent (church)
Cult building - monastic
Burial site of a saint - unspecified
Martyr shrine (martyrion, bet sāhedwātā, etc.)

Non Liturgical Activity

Prayer/supplication/invocation
Saint as patron - of a community
Renovation and embellishment of cult buildings
Prayer/supplication/invocation
Visiting/veneration of living saint
Composing and translating saint-related texts

Miracles

Miracle during lifetime
Healing diseases and disabilities
Exorcism
Material support (supply of food, water, drink, money)
Power over life and death
Fertility- and family-related miracles (infertility, marriages)
Apparition, vision, dream, revelation
Miracle with animals and plants

Relics

Unspecified relic
Bodily relic - entire body

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women
Children
Ecclesiastics - bishops
Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy
Ecclesiastics - abbots
Relatives of the saint
Peasants
Officials
Merchants and artisans
Crowds
Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits

Source

The text is preserved in four manuscripts, on which see:
http://pinakes.irht.cnrs.fr/notices/oeuvre/17349/

The editions of the text are based on the Codices Vaticanus Graecus 821 and Sinaiticus Graecus 525.


Discussion

The Life of Nikolaos is one of the most important and best known hagiographical products of 6th century Anatolia. Essentially, it is a narrative of origins for a major monastic house and regional centre of cult, which was associated with the communities of the mountains surrounding Myra in Lycia, the monastery of Holy Sion at the village of Pharroa, which has been tentatively identified as the site of Alacahisar on Mount Alacadağ near Demre. It is a first class source for the social history and geography in mid-sixth century Lycia, containing a wealth of information about the cult of saints in the rural communities of the region. Written in a simple style, it is also a work of major linguistic interest, reflecting aspects of the vernacular Greek of the time. The text was probably written by a monk of Holy Sion in the decades following the death of Nikolaos in 564. The narrative revolves around two objects of special veneration, inextricably linked to one another: Holy Sion as a place of special divine grace (Nikolaos keeps recommending to the people to ‘believe in the Holy Sion’), and its first abbot, Nikolaos, as a miracle working figure. The special grace of Holy Sion and the personal grace of Nikolaos are inseparable. Both were chosen by God; when Holy Sion was founded, Nikolaos was born; he grew up, while the church was under construction; his relics were buried there.

The text opens with two partly divergent narratives about the foundation of Holy Sion at Pharoa (par. 1-7 and 8-13), which associate the origins of the house with the neighbouring monastery of *John (the Baptist?) at Akalissos, and its abbots Sabbatios and Nikolaos. According to the first narrative, Holy Sion was founded and named by Nikolaos of Akalissos, an uncle of Nikolaos of Sion, when the latter was born. By the time Nikolaos was an adult, the building was complete and, at the age of 19, he was appointed as its abbot, assisted by his two brothers. The second narrative (8-13) seems to suggest that the monastery was still under construction after Nikolaos became abbot, and that the traditions about the role of the abbots of Akalissos were recounted by him personally. Besides the connection with Akalissos, the foundation of Holy Sion is linked to Nikolaos’ pilgrimages to the Holy Land. It is unknown whether the monastery had a special connection to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the monastic communities of Palestine.

Nikolaos’ activity as a miracle worker is outlined by five sets of miracle stories. In the first (14-26), Nikolaos goes off to the villages of the area and helps the local communities with their problems (felling a haunted cypress tree; finding a spring of water; delivering people from demons). These miracles recall episodes in the hagiographies of other wonder-workers, like *Gregory the Miracle Worker (S00687) and *Athenogenes of Pedachthoe (S00065). The second set of miracles is placed in the context of the journey to the Holy Land (27-38). These are associated with the perils of the sea (storm; the accidental death of a sailor; the need for a fair wind for the journey), and some of them take place at the sailors’ village in Egypt, where they invite the saint to visit. The last three sets of miracles take place almost exclusively at the monastery of Holy Sion (39-46; 59-65; 70-75). Now it is the people of neighbouring towns and villages that visit the holy abbot at his monastery. The author records carefully the provenance of the people involved. None is said to have been a person of high office or titles.

These miracle accounts are interrupted by what appears to be two important chapters in the life of Nikolaos, which probably left shadows on his memory. The first was the plague of the 540s, and Nikolaos’ conflict with the authorities of Myra (47-58), while the second was his election as bishop of Pinara, which was followed by a conflict with the notables and clergy of that town (67-69). In both cases, the wealth of Nikolaos’ monastic house emerges as a prominent factor.

It appears that the upland villages of the Alacadağ, isolated from the ports in their salubrious landscape, were less accessible to the plague than the city with its busy port and marshy surroundings. While Myra was scourged by the disease, the peasants kept away from the city, and soon the pandemic was compounded by food shortages. The bishop and governor of Myra held the Abbot of Holy Sion responsible, suggesting that the monastery had influence over the villages. The end of the plague is followed by Nikolaos’ tour of the villages, organising feasts and paying for the repair of a church. The carefully recorded bill of the tour amounted to 49 oxen, 170 measures of wine, 70 modii of bread/wheat, and an indefinite amount of gold. 80.5
nomismata were provided for the rebuilding of the church of Sabandos. It is probable that Holy Sion had lands at these villages and Nikolaos’ tour may be delineating the monastery’s area of influence and interests. If this was the case, the monastic house must have been a dominant landowner in the uplands between the civic and ecclesiastical territories of Myra and Arneai. Conflicts of interest with the authorities of these cities would not be unexpected.

After their conflict during the plague, Nikolaos’ reputation is said to have been restored and he was apparently reconciled with the archbishop of Myra, Philippos. We are not told how that came to pass, but, at some point, the latter ordained the powerful abbot to the bishopric of Pinara. To a suspicious reader, this could appear like an attempt by Philippos to remove the troublesome abbot from his jurisdiction. Canonically, Nikolaos would have to step down as abbot, because Holy Sion was outside the episcopal jurisdiction of Pinara. Nevertheless, he appears to have remained connected with Holy Sion, not only spiritually, but also financially. The only thing we hear about his episcopate at Pinara is his project to build a church for the Virgin Mary, which led to his conflict with the locals. The text tells us that Nikolaos clashed with his clergy and the local notables, and was compelled to buy the land for the church, which indicates that the locals did not participate in financing the project. The 400 pieces of gold which the project is said to have cost were apparently provided by Holy Sion. After the church was finished, Nikolaos went to the monastery and it seems that he issued a statement of account and final report for the building project, probably because Holy Sion was his sponsor.

The meticulous recording of the saint’s expenses for his various acts of generosity suggests that Holy Sion kept books and archives, to which the author had access. The eagerness of the text to provide concrete evidence for Nikolaos’ largess towards the villages and Pinara may suggest that this was an issue in the reputation of the saint and the monastery. It is possible that Holy Sion and its abbot were not remembered for their solidarity towards their region during the plague, and that bishop Nikolaos’ building project in Pinara left no fond memories to his flock. Our author explicitly talks about a protracted conflict between the bishop and the local clergy and city council. By recording the expenses Holy Sion had undergone for the sake of the villages and the shrine of Pinara, our text very probably aims to rectify some of these memories. In both cases, Nikolaos is said to have been inspired by a/the holy spirit and the Virgin Mary.

It is probable that Nikolaos’ building project at Pinara had lasting consequences for his relationship with his flock. At some point, he appears to have returned to Holy Sion, since the last set of his miracles (70-75) takes place there, and it is there that he dies and is buried. When and why he left his bishopric is left unexplained. Such an event, however, might raise questions with regard to Nikolaos’ standing in the Church, about which our author is eager to leave no doubt: shortly before his death, Nikolaos joins the bishops of Lycia at the central festival of the Church of Myra, the
rosalia and synodos of the local patron saint, Nikolaos (76). This synodos appears to have been the yearly meeting of the clergy of Lycia under their metropolitan, celebrating the feast of the main saint of the provincial capital. The message here is that, despite some difficult moments, Nikolaos finished his days in full communion and perfect peace with the bishops of Lycia and the Church.

Nikolaos’ last act was to attend the main festival of the Church of Myra, which is described as the
rosalia of ‘our forefather (προπάτωρ) Saint Nikolaos’. The shadow of this Nikolaos, about whose identity we are told nothing, is somehow felt through the entire narrative, by the presence of seven figures called by his name. Beyond any reasonable doubt, this saint must be the figure of *Nikolaos, bishop of Myra (S00520), whose cult was apparently in full development well before the time of Nikolaos of Sion. Yet this saint appears to have had a rather underdeveloped legend. The earliest text of his hagiographical dossier, the Actum de Stratelatis (E05107), was in circulation before the 580s. It portrays Nikolaos as a bishop of Myra living under Constantine the Great. In the centuries to come, the hagiography of Nikolaos of Myra would absorb much of the legend and miracle accounts of Nikolaos of Sion, whose popularity does not seem to have survived into the Middle Byzantine period.


Bibliography

Text and translations:
Anrich, G., Hagios Nikolaos, der heilige Nikolaos in der griechischen Kirche, texte und Untersuchungen (Leipzig, Berlin, vol. 1: 1913; vol. 2: 1917).

Blum, H.,
Vita Nicolai Sionitae (Bonn, 1997).

Ruggieri, V.,
La Vita di San Nicola di Sion. Traduzione, note e commentario (Roma: Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 2013). Italian transaltion with commentary.

Ševčenko, I., and Patterson-Ševčenko, N.,
The Life of St. Nicholas of Sion (Brookline, Mass.: Hellenic College Press, 1984), with English translation.

Further reading:
Foss, C., "Cities and villages in Lycia in the Life of Saint Nicholas of Holy Sion," Greek Orthodox Theological Review 36 (1991), 303-339.

Hellenkemper, H., and Hild, F.,
Lykien und Pamphylien (Tabula Imperii Byzantini 8) (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2004).


Record Created By

Efthymios Rizos

Date Last Modified

16/04/2021

Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00020John the BaptistἸωάννης
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristΜαρία, ΘεοτόκοςCertain
S00181Michael, the Archangelἀρχάγγελος, Μιχαήλ, εὔφημος
S00480Theodore, soldier and martyr of Amaseia and EuchaitaΘεόδωροςUncertain
S00520Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Lycia, under ConstantineΝικόλαος προπάτωρUncertain
S00559Nicholas, abbot of Holy Sion, Lycia, ob. 564ΝικόλαοςCertain
S01871Sabbatios, Nikolaos, Leon, abbots of Akalissos in Lycia, ob. 6th c.Σαββάτιος, Νικόλαος, Λέων


Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
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