• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Attritional War: Paganism's Slow Demise

“If any unholy and defiled pagan does not make himself manifest… and run to the churches with his household… let him submit to the aforesaid penalties: let the fisc confiscate their property and let him be given over to exile.”

(CJ I. 11.10.3)

Just as an earlier generation of historians drew a thick red line under Constantine the Great and invented the “Byzantine” identity, so they assumed the period between the great legal corpora of Theodosius and Justinian bookended the beginning and end of paganism. In reality, however, nothing was so clear cut. Instead, this article examines paganism’s shelf-life from Justinian’s reign into the tenth century.

Prokopios (d. 570) mentions the conversion of temples dedicated to Artemis and Iphigenia at Komana in his life time.[1] The sixth-century text of Abraham the Solitary also refers to its protagonist having to go and convert a small town known as Taenia.[2] But the real trailblazer of the period was John the Syrian Monophysite bishop of Ephesus (d. 588) who not for nothing was nicknamed the “idol-smasher.” This was no idle wrestling moniker, however, but an accurate description of a man who had baptised 80,000 souls and had 98 churches and 12 monasteries built in the 30 years (AD 536-66) since he’d departed Constantinople.[3]

Some he even had the temerity to refuse to close down and hand over to the imperial fisc (as legislation demanded). Instead preferring to have them demolished (his friends in high places included Theodore, the praepositus sacri cubiculi, so he could get away with such high-handed behaviour). Such was the fate of the great temple of the Isodromian Mother near Tralles (mentioned in Strabo’s Geography) for instance, which was razed and replaced with a monastery dedicated to St Tryphon.[4]

Paganism, however, could survive without monumental architecture. Countless saints’ lives reveal a land on which pagan magicians, sorcerers and shamans flourished. This isn’t surprising given the central plateau of Anatolia was marginal agricultural country at best. Rainfall varied from year to year. Droughts were common. In such an atmosphere the most common magicians were known as nephodioktai (cloud-drivers).

Others such as Theodotos Kourappos were less harmless. He is reported in the vita of Theodore of Sykeon (c.550-623) as a man who had the power to dispatch spirits and bring down clouds of locusts on the heads of his enemies. These dark arts he learned from the pagan library he’d accrued in a Galatian village. And books of this genre were no isolated artefacts as the imperial judge Amantius of Antioch (c. 554-58) found in trials that revealed great quantities of them.[5]

More interestingly, Nicholas encountered accommodationism on his travels:

“Clerics from Plenios that came in a procession with the Christ beloved people with crosses and met Nicholas at the chapel of St George. He followed them from there with seven calves. After they went into the chapel… he slaughtered/sacrificed the seven calves… All ate are were filled, and gave thanks to God… Left over were sixty measures of wine.”[6]

Behaviour that was justified by citing the ebullient rites of the Old Testament’s David. In fact, such rituals went in to the late sixteenth century (and even into the nineteenth depending on which sources can be deemed reliable) and were called “kurban” by the Ottomans. Indeed, this hybrid society is an extension of what occurred at Philae in Egypt where Christian and pagan communities lived parallel lives between 380-537 (when the Temple of Isis was converted into the Martyrion of St Stephen). This assimilation was facilitated by the fact the barriers of each system were rarely clear cut. Hence the condemnation of rather mundane magic tricks at the Quinisext Council (691-92) where the sixty-first canon condemned “animal leaders.” These were men such as

“Andrew who appeared from Italy… with a yellow dog which was blind and performed wonders. While he stood in crowded agora Andrew would hide rings of gold, silver and iron in the ground before the dog retrieved each type on command. The dog similarly delivered by name the coins of different emperors which had been mixed together. When crowds stood by, the dog indicated (upon being asked) which women were pregnant, which men were fornicators, which were miserly and generous. And it told the truth, wherefore they said ‘it has the spirit of Python.’”[7]

It wasn’t all fun and games, however. In fact, some of the pagan rituals were truly diabolical. If Theophanes can be believed, the Arab sack of Pergamum in AD 717 had a rather nasty prelude:

“By the admonitions of a certain magos, the citizens brought a pregnant woman and killed her. After taking the fetus and boiling it in a cauldron in a sacrifice abominable to God, all who wished to wage war dipped in the cuffs of the right hand. Because of this they were all delivered to the enemy.”[8]

And the sorcerers didn’t disappear with the Arabs. The ninth-century Life of Ioannikos mentions a rural seer named Gourias who touted his magic in the Thrakesion theme.[9] And as late as the tenth century accommodationism reared its head in Caria where Paul the Younger wrote of a

“Drought which gripped Miletus. Men assembled from all the villages around to form a procession and go up to the peak [of a local mountain] to sing hymns… An extremely large stone stood on its peak. This stone was sacred of old [and had an iron cross next to it]…”[10]

Complementary rituals such as these are probably how most communities worked out their Christian-pagan tensions. It would not be surprising if such behaviours persisted during the troubled period of Slavic landnahme. After all, as late as the ninth century the Peloponnese inhabitants of Maina (Hellenes, not Slavs) required conversion to Christianity. Indeed, in the same century Joseph Genesios mentioned the existence of a pagan cult on the Spartan plain while describing the voyage of a naval unit commanded by Adrian (which was en route to raise the Arab Siege of Syracuse [877-78]):

“In the district of Helos… shepherds approached and said Syracuse had been taken based on an account of visiting demons [gods]… such knowledge… persisted among the people of this district until the reign of the most pious emperor Leo VI.”[11]

As late as the tenth century, Nikon the Metanoite travelled through Arcadia and “led limitless multitudes to conversion.”[12] And, finally, in the eleventh the vita of George the Hagiorite reveals that the saint found paganism in what would become that beacon of Christian monasticism: Mt Athos.

“There is among the villages of the Holy Mount [of Athos] a certain village called Livadia… where in my opinion none of the Athonites have lived. The Bulgars called Slavs settled there long ago – brutes they are… In this village, from the earliest times until our own age, then survived an effigy made of marble – the figure of a woman. This the stupid men worshipped saying ‘rain and all good things come from it’… George drew the sign of the cross in front of it and said ‘in the beginning was the Word’ and the rest. Those men said to him ‘woe to you! You contemplate your own death.” The old man smiled and like a strong warrior he rushed at the effigy and smashed it to pieces with his hammer.”[13]

[1] Wars I. 17.11-12.

[2] Vita S. Abramii, PG 115, 44B-77A.

[3] Patrologia Orientalis 18.681.

[4] Geography 9.5.19.

[5] Vie de Symeon I. 143.

[6] Hagios Nikolaos, 55-6.

[7] Theophanes the Confessor, Chronographia, ed. C. de Boor [1883], I. 224.

[8] Chronographia 390-910.

[9] Vita S. Ioannicci, Acta SS, Nov. IV, 395a-397c.

[10] Vita S. Pauli Iunioris, 55.

[11] Iosephi Genesii Regum Libri Quattuor [1972] 82-83.

[12] Vita Niconis [1906] 161.

[13] AnBoll 36/37 [1917-1919] 104-5.