Saracens: Pseudo-Nilus on barbarian bandits in the Sinai desert (early fifth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Maia Kotrosits, 'Saracens: Pseudo-Nilus on barbarian bandits in the Sinai desert (early fifth century CE),' Last modified October 22, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=10169.

Author: Pseudo-Nilus, Narrations 3.1-3.8 (link to Greek text).

Comments (by Maia Kotrosits): Narrations (early 400s CE) is a fictional tale chronicling the risks and virtues of the monastic life in the Sinai desert in late antiquity. It is told from the perspective of Nilus (or: Nilos), a monk whose devotion to his god and to the monastic life is tested by an attack by barbarian bandits who take his son and murder other monks. The bandit barbarians are stereotypically described by Nilus in this passage as a brutally violent and wanton nomadic group whose customs and practises, including human sacrifice and cannibalism, reveal them as essentially uncivilized. There were native, nomadic inhabitants of the Sinai peninsula, often called the Saracens (Sarakenoi in Greek; Saraceni in Latin), that Christians encountered in their travels to this region. The Saracens were among what might also be referred to as Arabian tribes or peoples.

But of course the account in Narrations, like other ethnographic forms, is not meant to describe the Saracens’ actual behaviour. It is rather meant to underline the stalwart dedication of monks going out into a fancifully imagined borderlands, confronting enemies both cosmic and mortal, potentially becoming martyrs for the cause of the monastic life. In reality, the Saracens likely haunted the Christian imagination because by this time Christians were actively colonizing the Sinai desert. Wild descriptions such as these of native inhabitants worked then to rationalize that colonization. The passage below likewise shows how descriptions of the Saracens were meant to provide contrast to the virtuous restraint and beautiful goodness of the monastic way of life.

Sources consulted: D.F. Caner, ed., History and Hagiography from the Late Antique Sinai, with contributions by S. Brock, R.M. Price, and K. van Bladel (Cambridge, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2010). Walter D. Ward, The Mirage of the Saracen: Christians and Nomads in the Sinai Peninsula in Late Antiquity (Oakland, CA: UCP, 2014).

Source of the translation: Translation copyright Daniel F. Caner, 2010, with very slight adaptations. Used with permission.

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[Ethnographic excursus on the barbarians’ / Saracens’ way of life, as narrated by the Nilus character to travellers]

The previously mentioned people (ethnos) [of barbarians] inhabits the desert extending from Arabia to Egypt’s Red Sea and the River Jordan. They practise no craft, trade, or agriculture at all, but use the dagger alone as their means of subsistence. They live by hunting desert animals and devouring their flesh, or else get what they need by robbing people on roads that they watch in ambush. If neither is possible and their provisions run out, then they consume pack animals – they use camels called dromedaries – for food. Theirs is a bestial and bloodthirsty way of life. Killing one camel per clan or cluster of tents, they soften its flesh with heat from a fire only insofar as it makes it yield to their teeth without having to be too forcefully torn. In a word, they eat like dogs.

They know no god abstractly conceived or materially hand-crafted, but bow down instead to the Morning Star. When it appears on the horizon they offer to it the best of their spoils, if anything suitable for sacrifice falls into their hands from their bandit raids.

They especially like to offer children distinguished by beauty and the bloom of youth. These they sacrifice on piles of stones at dawn. What troubles and worries me so, my friends, is that my body’s comeliness might be appetizing to the lawless ones for their accustomed impieties, seeming serviceable for their purpose. I fear in case his pure soul’s body be offered up as a sacrificial victim to abominable demons on behalf of unclean people, to be, as they believe, their atonement and cleansing. Habituated as they are to performing human sacrifice without reservation, they feel no pity for the children whom they slaughter, even if the suppliants sing their laments as seductively as Sirens.

But if no children are available, they make a camel that is white and free from blemishes bend down on its knees. Then they circle around it three times in a procession that is drawn out by the multitude of participants involved. The person who leads in the procession and in singing a hymn they compose for the [Morning] star is either one of their kings or one of their priests distinguished by old age. After the third circuit, but before the throng has finished its hymn, while the last refrain is still carrying on in their tongues, this man draws a sword and vigorously strikes at the victim’s sinews. Eagerly, he is the first to have a taste of the blood. Then the rest run up with daggers drawn. Some cut off just a small patch of hide and hair, others seize whatever flesh they see and hack away, while others go straight for the innards and entrails. No part of the sacrifice is left unconsumed, so that nothing remains to be seen when the sun appears. They do not even refrain from eating bone and marrow, gradually overcoming its hardness and toughness through perseverance.

Such is the traditional way of life and cult among the barbarians. In this way they subsist in the desert, moving from place to place, making encampments wherever they find easy pasturage for their flocks and plenty of water.

[Contrasting the monks’ way of life]

But those who pursue the solitary way of life select a few places in the desert for themselves where water suffices to meet the needs of their bodies. Some build huts, while others inhabit caves or grottoes for their entire existence. Few have bread in their diet, only those whose diligence forces the barren desert to yield up grain. With a small trowel they work a wretchedly small and solid piece of earth, only as much as needed to just barely survive. Most observe a diet of raw fruits and vegetables. They prefer their meals plain and simple, having bid farewell long ago to chores of cooking and baking, in case by spending too much time on needs of their bodies they neglect the more important object of their care. And so they attend the cult of the divine with pure and sober minds, because they neither load down their thoughts by gorging on meats, nor do they stimulate their stomachs with rich aromas of fatty sauces.

For such is the insatiable force of gluttony today that people feel compelled to minister to their desire with sights, aromas, and tastes, inflaming their sense of pleasure with a blend of juices that is embellished by an ever-changing variety of scents, colours, and textures. . . [section omitted on the pleasures of food enjoyed by non-ascetics].  . . . All this they do so that their mistress, their stomach, might receive an exact consistency of dressings and give her assent to things already tested in advance by the senses mentioned above, as if persuaded by discerning experts.

The dietary regimen of the these [monks] tends not towards such delicacies. Not only have they renounced those pleasures of quality, deriding a superfluous sense of need as foolish and irrational, but they also strive, as a matter of competitive honour, to abstain from excess with respect to quantity. They eat only as much as they must, so as not to die against the will of their creator, and lose thereby all recompense for the good works they did in life. Some touch food only on the Lord’s Day [i.e., Sunday] after seven days without it. Others cut that time in half by having meals twice a week, while others eat every other day. The latter demonstrate that they cherish austerity and abstemiousness, but still obey nature’s laws and yield reluctantly to the body’s necessity, stopping to this need only when they perceive that their physical capacity has utterly expired and can no longer sustain their labours virtuously. Each of them is suffused with such fervour for angelic conduct that he rises to mimic the austerities [of other monks] by being content with little, striving to transcend his innate deficiencies with an abundance of zeal.

Caesar’s coinage has no currency among them, since they know neither buying or selling. Each freely offers the other what he needs and take back whatever remains. Vegetables, fruits, an occasional loaf of bread – such is the generosity among them, using anything at hand to represent tokens of charity. Such love is demonstrated, not by the cost of the materials involved, but by the magnanimity of the outlay; in this way a wealth of intention becomes conspicuously clear even in gifts that are small.

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