Cult of Heroes vs. Cult of Saints

“The rise of the Christian cult of saints took place in the great cemeteries that lay outside the cities of the Roman world: and, as for the handling of dead bodies, the Christian cult of saints rapidly came to involve the digging up, the moving, the dismemberment–quite apart from much avid touching and kissing–of the bones of the dead, and, frequently, the placing of these in areas from which the dead had once been excluded. …Even when confined to their proper place, the areas of the dead, normative public worship and the tombs of the dead were made to coincide in a manner and with a frequency for which the pagan and Jewish imagination had made little provision.

“To idealize the dead seemed natural enough to men in Hellenistic and Roman times. Even to offer some form of worship to the deceased, whether as a family or as part of a public cult in the case of exceptional dead persons, such as heroes or emperors, was common, if kept within strictly defined limits. Thus, the practice of ‘heroization,’ especially of private cult offered by the family to the deceased as a ‘hero’ in a specially constructed grave house, has been invoked to explain some of the architectural and artistic problems of the early Christian memoria. But after that, even the analogy of the cult of the hero breaks down. For the position of the hero had been delimited by a very ancient map of the boundaries between those beings who had been touched by the taint of human death and those who had not: the forms of cult for heroes and for the immortal gods tended to be kept apart. Above all. what appears to be almost totally absent from pagan belief about the role of the heroes is the insistence of all Christian writers that the martyrs, precisely because they had died as human beings, enjoyed close intimacy with God. Their intimacy with god was the sine qua non of their ability to intercede for and, so, to protect their fellow mortals. The martyr was the ‘friend of God.’ He was an intercessor in a way which the hero could never have been. …

“We can chart the rise to prominence of the Christian church most faithfully by listening to pagan reactions to the cult of martyrs. For the progress of this cult spelled out for pagans a slow and horrid crumbling of ancient barriers… In attacking the cult of saints, Justinian the Apostate mentions the cult as a novelty for which there was no warrant in the gospels; but the full weight of his religious abhorrence comes to bear on the relation between the living and the corpses of the dead that was implied in the Christian practice: ‘You keep adding many corpses newly dead to the corpse of long ago. You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres.’ He turned against the cult practiced at the tombs of the saints all the repugnance expressed by the Old Testament prophets for those who haunted tombs and burial caves for sinister purposes of sorcery and divination.”

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints, pp. 5-7

 

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