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Talking Skulls: On Some Personal Accounts of Hell and Their Place in Apocalyptic Literature

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Established definitions of apocalypticism and apocalyptic literature in Late Antiquity often disregard a variety of apocalyptic visions and ideas that are included in a variety of genres of the Christian literature of Late Antiquity. The present
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   ZAC 2016; 20(1): 109–126 Emmanouela Grypeou Talking Skulls: On Some Personal Accounts of Hell and Their Place in Apocalyptic Literature DOI 10.1515/zac-2016-0006  Abstract: Established definitions of apocalypticism and apocalyptic literature in Late Antiquity often disregard a variety of apocalyptic visions and ideas that are included in a variety of genres of the Christian literature of Late Antiquity. The present paper discusses personal afterlife accounts and more specifically, personal hell visions, as found in various Christian texts and sources, such as monastic and hagiographical or martyrological literature. These visions and their special features are analysed in the context of related apocalyptic literature and traditions, as well as in their relationship with pagan local traditions and necro-mantic rituals. As will be argued, personal accounts of afterlife present a specific literary phenomenon in the history of ancient Christian apocalyptic literature and tradition, but they also demonstrate a significant diachronic popularity in other religious communities and their literatures. Keywords: hell visions, Egypt, necromancyTexts relating afterlife visions abounded in the Christian literature of Late Anti-quity. However, some of these writings present a methodological conundrum. In spite of their apocalyptic character and/or eschatological content, they may not wholly fit in the established categories and definitions of apocalyptic literature. The writings in question belong to a special category of revelatory discourses. They mainly deal with descriptions of the afterlife and most prominently with descriptions of hell. In these texts the agent of the revelation or the narrator of the secrets of hell is a figure with a direct experience of the torments of hell. The agent of revelation may be a skull, a mummy, or at times a resurrected person, i. e. a dead person fully bodily restored. The richness, variety and particular cha- Emmanouela Grypeou:  Berliner Antike Kolleg, Fabeckstr. 23−25, 14195 Berlin, e-mail: egrypeou@zedat.fu-berlin.de Bereitgestellt von | De Gruyter / TCSAngemeldetHeruntergeladen am | 18 02 16 14:14  110  Emmanouela Grypeou racteristic of this material stresses the need for a fresh investigation of this genre and for a re-thinking of established categories and definitions. 1 1 Apa Makarius and the Talking Skull One of the best known stories featuring a talking skull is the story of Apa Makarius and the skull, which is preserved in the  Apophthegmata Patrum . 2  The narrative is brief. As part of the apophthegmata  literature, it uses a concise narrative technique to tell the story of a chance meeting of the renowned hermit, Apa Macarius, with the skull of a pagan priest.According to this narrative, Apa Macarius was walking in the desert, when he found a skull on earth. Curious, he stirred it with his stock and the skull began conversing with Macarius. The skull explained that, when alive, he used to be a high-priest of the idols and of the remaining pagans (Greeks) at that place. He recognizes Macarius as a spirit-bearer and pleads with him to have mercy with the people in hell. He proceeds with a brief description of hell. He explains that the fire beneath the earth covers a distance as long as the distance between heaven and earth. The inhabitants of hell stand in the middle of the fire, covered from feet to head, and they do not face each other, but each face is stuck to the backside of the other person. Thus, the inhumanity and impersonality of the inhabitants of hell is stressed. Macarius weeps when he hears that and laments the day when man is born. Then Macarius asks who is there in hell, and the skull responds 1  As Matthias Henze notes: “The clearest definition remains that of John Collins as found in his much celebrated and often quoted Semeia volume. . . . Collins’ definition is based on apo-calypses which were composed . . . during the Second Temple period and in the first centuries of the Common Era” (Matthias Henze , The Syriac Daniel Apocalypse [STAC 11; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001], 6). Thus, as Matthias Henze also observes in the context of his analysis of a later Christian apocalyptic text, the above mentioned definition albeit illuminating and useful for the understanding and study of a specific era of apocalyptic literature, fails to address the phenomenon of Christian apocalypticism in its dynamic development. 2    Apophthegmata Patrum  (PG 38:257C−260D; PG   65:280A−C “Appendix ad Palladium”). The story of Macarius and the skull was well known in Christian late Antiquity, see  De his qui in fide dormierunt  , attributed to John of Damascus (PG 95:256). There exists also a Coptic translation of the srcinal Greek text, see Arnold van Lantschoot, “Révélation de Macaire et de Marc de Tamar-qa sur le sort de l’âme après la mort,”  Le Muséon  63 (1956): (159−189) 188−189. Van Lantschoot edited the Sahidic text preserved in Ms Copte I. B. 17 no. 484, Biblioteca Nazionale of Naples; the Bohairic recension was edited by Émile Amélineau,  Histoire des monastères de la Basse-Égypte  (Annales du Musée Guimet 25; Paris: Leroux, 1894), 225−227. Bereitgestellt von | De Gruyter / TCSAngemeldetHeruntergeladen am | 18 02 16 14:14   Talking Skulls 111 that those who have not known (or acknowledged) God, or have refuted God, are all underneath. After that explanation, Macarius takes the skull and digs it even deeper into the earth. 2 The Story of the King Arsanis A much more detailed version of this story is preserved in Syriac, as the Story of King Arsanis. The full title of the story is: “The Narrative of the Father Arsanis (Ar-sanius), King of Egypt, and how our Lord, to whom be Glory, raised him to Life.” 3 The text narrates the story of Arsanis, king of Egypt, who was raised to life by Jesus. The chronological point of the story is identified as taking place on a Sunday and even more precisely as a “new Sunday” ( ܬܕܚ   ܐܒ   ܕܚ ), 4  probably the Sunday after Easter. The story takes place during the lifetime of Jesus. It de-scribes how the Lord arose to go to “the land of Judaea that is to the land of Je-  3    De rege Arsanio  (ed. and trans. Isaac H. Hall, “The Story of Arsanis,”  Hebraica  6 [1890], [81−88] 82):  . ܠ   ܐܒܫ   ܢܡ      ܐܟܝ ܝܪܨܡ ܐܟܡ   ܣܪ ܐܒ ܫܬ  The text is from a late Syriac manuscript from Urmia; the same manuscript contains similar pseudepigraphical writings, such as the Colloquy of Moses with God , the  Letter from Heaven , the  Martyrdom of Mar George , and shorter compositions, prayers, and exorcisms. Probably, this is the only Syriac witness, although there is also a number of versions of the text preserved in Garshuni, see Georg Graf, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur 1:  Die Übersetzungen (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1944), 552; Eduard Sachau, Verzeichnis der syrischen Handschriften  (Die Handschriften-Verzeichnisse der königlichen Bibliothek zu Berlin 23; Berlin: Asher & Co., 1899), 201; cf. Rubens Duval,  La littérature syriaque  (Anciennes Littératures Chrétiennes 2; Paris: Lecoffre, 1907), 111. The Christian Arabic and Syriac versions are all preserved in prose, but there exist also poetical renditions in “neo-Aramaic,” see Fabrizio A. Pennacchietti, “La leggenda islamica del teschio redivivo in una versione neoaramaica,” in Semitic and Cushitic Studies  (ed. Gideon Goldenberg and Shlomo Raz; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1994), 103−132. Pennacchietti claims that the name is linked to the popular traditions about Arsenius the Great, one of the most renowned Egyptian Fathers of the Desert (354?−450?), see idem, “Gli antecedenti cristiani de  Il racconto di Giomgio-mé , un poemetto escatologico di Faridoddìn Attàr (1119−1230),”  Islam i Chrzescijanstwo: Al-Islam wa-al-Masîhîya: Materialy sympozjum Kraków   12−14 IV 1994  (ed. Andrzeij Zaborski; Papieska Akademia Teologiczna w Krakowie, Biblioteka Ekumenii i Dialogu Tom 1; Kraków, 1995), 261−286; cf. similarly, Sachau, Verzeichnis (see above), 201: “früher König von Ägypten lebt er nun als frommer Einsiedler Abba Arsenius noch 80 Jahre.” Isaac Hall remarks: “Though I know nothing of the srcin or transmission of the legend, it has Graeco-Egyptian odor, and I suspect an Arabic transmission, and consequently a superior age for the Karshuni documents” (Hall, “The Story of Arsanis,” [see above], 82). As there is no srcinal or established Latin title for this particular work, a Latin version of the srcinal title as suggested by the ZAC editorial team is quoted here. 4    De rege Arsanio  (82 H.). Bereitgestellt von | De Gruyter / TCSAngemeldetHeruntergeladen am | 18 02 16 14:14  112  Emmanouela Grypeou rusalem” ( ܫܪܘ ܐܥܪ  . ܗ   ܘܝ ܐܥܪ ), 5  where, on his way, he encountered a huge dry skull. The skull makes Jesus curious, who asks for the help of God in revealing its identity by talking with the skull. The reference to the supplication to and permission of God is telling for the intention of Jesus. God permits the dry skull to talk. Accordingly, there is no space for mistaking the interlocution between Jesus and the skull as some form of necromancy.The skull opens its mouth indeed and promptly addresses Jesus as “redeemer of the creatures” ( ܝ ̈ ܖܒ ܐܩܘܦ ) 6  and confirms that he received a commandment from heaven to talk with Jesus. Jesus asks about his identity, gender, and social status. The tribe of the skull is stated as the tribe of Judah of the house of Israel. The skull explains that he was a worshipper of idols made of gold and silver. The name of his god was the Bull. The skull further explains how this idol led men astray on account of Satan’s agency. Moreover, he describes how, as a king of Egypt, he was king over all the kings of the earth and possessed mythical wealth, being, however, merciful and generous with the needy. Upon hearing this, Jesus reassures him that the Father in Heaven will reward him.Following the description of the conduct of the skull, when alive, Jesus asks about the fate of the soul on the day of death. The skull relates in quite some detail what happens at the moment when the breath is taken away from the soul, using well-known mythological motifs about the king Death and his frightening-looking angels. After that a scene of intermediary judgment takes place, when two angels with iron rods and long teeth come, open the grave with their teeth and question the dead about his god. If he answers that his god is the God in Heaven, then he is deemed as righteous, otherwise he is smitten by the angels with their rods downwards, until he reaches the seven chambers of Gehenna. The skull describes the tortures of the soul in the Gehenna. The seven chambers in the Gehenna are organized hierarchically, corresponding to various categories of sinners. However, they mostly contain different sorts of idolaters, such as wor-shippers of the sun and the fire, et al. The ruler of the Gehenna is an old man called Michael. The various chambers also contain different torture equipment, such as scorpions and serpents, several kinds of fire punishment, hot spits of iron, darkness, blackness and weeping, and gnashing of the teeth. There is not a direct analogy of the sins to the tortures assigned to them. Moreover, the tortures are not described in much detail either. The skull briefly describes also the contrasting world of the beati  in heaven.  5    De rege Arsanio  (82 H.). 6    De rege Arsanio  (82 H.). Bereitgestellt von | De Gruyter / TCSAngemeldetHeruntergeladen am | 18 02 16 14:14   Talking Skulls 113 The skull of the king Arsanis remarks that it was because of his great phil-anthropy that his head was allowed to remain on earth or near it. Finally, the skull asks Jesus to save him from the tortures of the Gehenna. Jesus then prays to God and asks for permission to resurrect the skull and make it whole again. Indeed, the skull arises in body and in soul, in perfect physical completeness and praises Jesus, as the “raiser of the dead” ( ܡ ܡ ) 7  as the “only son” ( ܐܝܕܝ ) 8  who has come for the sake of the deliverance of men. Jesus blesses him with the sign of the Cross and orders him to spend the next eight years in the mountains, living a strictly ascetic life. What follows is a radical transformation and final salvation of the soul of the dead king in his reinstated body and in Christian faith. After this time period of fasting, praying, and partaking to no food or drink other than the Sunday Eucharist, his body and soul became perfect and he was ready to receive the delight of the kingdom. 3 Bishop Pisentius and the Mummy A similar story of Egyptian provenance names as its two protagonists Bishop Pisentius and a mummy. The story of Pisentius’ conversation with the mummy is preserved in the Bohairic version of his Vita . 9  Pisentius was Bishop of Coptos. During the time of the Persian invasion of Egypt (619−629 C. E.) Pisentius took refuge in Luxor praying and fasting. Pisentius would ask his disciple, John, to visit him every Sabbath and supply him with some food and a little water. In that 7    De rege Arsanio  (85 H.). 8    De rege Arsanio  (85 H.). 9   Vita Pisentii bohairica  (ed. Émile Amélineau, “Un évêque de Keft au VIIe siècle,”  Mémoires  présentes et lus à l’Institut égyptien  2 [1889]: [261−332; 333−423] 397−411). The Vita of Pisentius was traditionally attributed to his disciple John the Elder; other versions bear the name of Bishop Moses of Coptos, the successor of Pisentius in the same see. The Vita is preserved in Sahidic, Arabic, and Ethiopic. The Bohairic (Memphitic) version was edited by Émile Amélineau. Ernest A. W. Budge prepared an English translation of the episode with the mummy and included it as an appendix to his edition and English translation of the Sahidic version, see Ernest A. W. Budge, ed. and trans., Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London: British Museum, 1913), 75−127; 258−334. DeLacy E. O’Leary published the Arabic version on the basis of two manuscripts in the Bibliothèque nationale   de France (Arabe   4785   and   Arabe   4794  ). Both Arabic manuscripts contain the encounter and conversation of Pisentius with the mummy. DeLacy E. O’Leary, ed., The Arabic Life of S[aint] Pisentius: According to the Text of the 2 Ms. Paris Bib. Nat. Arabe 4785 and Arabe 4794  (PO 22,3; Turnhout: Brepols, 1930), introd., 317−321; text and trans., 322−488. The story is included as one (the thirty-second one) of the fifty-six wonders of Pisentius in this book. Bereitgestellt von | De Gruyter / TCSAngemeldetHeruntergeladen am | 18 02 16 14:14
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