Articles in this series:
Series: Preserving History
How to Lose Your History – Lives of Ethiopian Saints
Ethiopia posseses, as we have more than once urged in these pages, a vast historical heritage, which, we would insist, has up to now been insufficiently studied, and exploited.
This week we turn our attention to one particular Ethiopian historical source: the Gadl, or Saint’s Life.
Ethiopia, over the centuries, had numerous holy men (and also a few women!), who lived what were considered holy lives, founded monasteries, and were remembered with affection, devotion and/or admiration by their disciples and followers.
Such pious individuals in many cases became the subject of the Lives with which we are concerned today. These literary works must be recognised, together with the Aksumite inscriptions and the Ethiopian Royal Chronicles, as one of the three most important indigenous written sources of historical, or, if you like, semi-historical documentation.
What Are They?
Lives of Saints, such as we are discussing, were invariably written on parchment in the classical Ethiopian language, Ge‘ez. Some were composed immediately after the lifetime of the “saint” in question; others long afterwards, by one of his, or her, disciples, or perhaps by a group of such disciples.
Some of these Lives of Saints are briefly summarised in the Ethiopian Synaxarium, or Senksar, an English translation of which was published in 1928, by Sir Ernest Wallis Budge, with the title The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church.
Translations of individual Lives of Saints, from the original Ge‘ez, have been made in Amharic, as well as a number of European languages: Latin, Italian, French, Portuguese, German, English, Polish, Russian, etc.
A good listing of the principal known Ethiopian Saints, with valuable bibliographical detail was published by our old friend Dr Kinefe-Rigb Zelleke, in the Journal of Ethiopian Studies, in 1975.
Not to be Accepted in Totality
The Ethiopian Lives of Saints, like those of other countries, should not be considered as entirely historical documents, to be accepted uncritically, in their totality, and without reserve. They are, however, historical documents, which can contribute significantly to our knowledge of the past, and to ignore them (as so many people are doing these days!) is to render Ethiopian history far the poorer.
An Historical Framework – and a “Clue”
The Lives of Saints, as was noted by Dr G.W.B. Huntingford, a British writer on the subject twenty years ago, contain essentially two types of material: firstly, an historical framework; and, secondly, a “clue” to the way of life and religious interpretations of the Ethiopian people of the time in which these works were written.
;”As history”, Huntingford declared, “we may accept the names of people, the places mentioned, and the acts performed by the saints in their fight against paganism, together with the general picture presented by these Lives of a country where scattered churches with their communities of Christians were set among a population that was mainly pagan”.
Huntingford, you will note, dear reader, writes with his own bias against the “pagans”, who nowadays would be termed “animists”, or even “adherent of traditional religions”. The term used is not, however, so important, for the Lives of Saints, though themselves also biased against “pagans”, may be regarded as constituting an historical source about the latter, no less than about the “saints”, who sought to convert them to Christianity.
But to return to good old Huntingford, he continues:
“The religious aspect – the multitude of miracles, the visions, and other manifestations of extreme piety may be accepted to a point with allowance for exaggeration… There can be no doubt, however, that these saints did lead lives of piety, purity, and austerity. Equally there can be little doubt that their biographers did exaggerate in order to emphasize their piety. On the other hand, Alvares [the renowned early sixteenth century Portuguese traveller to Ethiopia] actually met holy men who lived the same sort of lives as the earlier saints”.
But enough of Huntingford! He has made his point!
The Lives of Saints, as he says above, are valuable in the following five ways.
Huntingford’s Five Points
(1) They provide, as he says, an historical framework: that is to say they usually place the story in its historical context, in many cases by indicating the Ethiopian reign, or reigns, during which the “saint” lived, and what were the principal events of his time, political, religious, or economic.
The works in question may thus throw light on such specific questions as appointments of governors and other officials, the outbreak of wars and other conflicts, theological disputations, famines, epidemics, etc.
(2) Lives of Saints, as he says, provide “a clue” (at least!) to the people’s lives, and religious aspirations: that is to say they reflect the attitudes of Ethiopians of the time, and those of the authors who wrote the works in question.
Such works thus throw light on many of the problems with which people in the past were confronted, and how they reacted towards them, as well as on more specific questions, such as agriculture, handicrafts and trade, not to mention attitudes to as gluttony, sloth, asceticism, self-torture, heroism, scholarship, water-divining, etc.
(3) Lives of Saints, as he says, provide biographical information on the saints with whose lives the works are concerned, and in many cases a number of other figures: that is to say these writings contribute to a widening knowledge of Ethiopian personalities of the past.
Such works often tell us something about people’s birth, marriage and death customs, attitudes to children and the aged, gender questions, education, patterns of work, religious and other beliefs, methods of giving names, attitudes to life, etc.
(4) Lives of Saints, as he says, provide data on historical place-names: that is to say they assist our understanding of Ethiopian historical geography.
Such works may thus explain the location of capitals and other towns, important churches, monasteries and other places of worship, markets and trade routes, battle sites, migratory directions of various ethnic groups, etc.
(5) Lives of Saints, as he says, have something to say about the conflict between Ethiopian Christianity and what he chooses to term “paganism”: that is to say they give us a graphic picture of the religious situation of the time.
Such works thus throw light on the religious situation of the past, the role of the Abun, or metropolitan, and other church functionaries, the role of priests, dabtaras, monks, nuns, hemits, etc., relations between Church and State, the character and topography of various cults, Christian or otherwise, pilgrimage sites, “devil worship”, methods and formulas of exorcism, etc.
The above analysis, based exclusively on Huntingford’s analysis, would seem sufficient to demonstrate the value of Lives of Saints in the overall picture of Ethiopian historical studies.
What Should Be Done, and What is Not Being Done
Given the evident importance of the works under discussion, it would appear evident that steps should urgently be taken:
(i) to publish all known Lives of Saints, in annotated editions, footnoting all references to names of individuals, places, institutions, etc.
(ii) to translate such works into one or more national, and international, language.
(iii) to search out, preserve, microfilm, and publish all works not yet identified.
The concerned government departments, scholarly, pseudo-scholarly, and church institutions, should commit themselves to such a programme, which, if carried out with a little determination and imagination, would undoubtedly open new vistas in many areas of Ethiopian studies.
Why not an Ethiopian National (or International?, or Church?, or Inter-Church?) Commission for the ImmediatePublication of Gadl?
Why not, oh Ambassadors, dispense a little bilateral aid for this important work? Why not, Institute Directors, take a little interest in this area of the country’s cultural dimension?
Old retired Ge‘ez teachers, what are you doing to advance Ethiopian learning, in your spare time?
What is the Theological College doing to make an increased body of historic-religious material available for students?
Why don’t rich religious communities at present pouring out their wealth in building new mega-churches ear-mark a fraction of the expenditure on gadl-publication?
To do virtually nothing on the matter, as at present, is a good recipe, for losing, and stultifying, one’s history.