Saints Cosmas and Damian

(in the Ancient Thracian Context)


Three pairs of saints bearing the names of Cosmas and Damian are known in the Christian Church. They lived in different places, approximately at the same time in the 3rd century: the unmercenary physicians Cosmas and Damian of Rome – celebrated on 1 July; Cosmas and Damian of Arabia – celebrated on 17 October, and Cosmas and Damian of Asia Minpr – celebrated on 1 November. They all have both similar characteristics and specificities.

The holy brothers Cosmas and Damian the Unmercenaries occupy an important place in the Christian Church. Their cult was strongly developed in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, and more specifically in the Balkan Peninsula as part of that empire, where in the Bulgarian tradition they were most often referred to as “the Holy Vrachove” or “Vrachi” [Holy Healers]. Their names are repeatedly mentioned in folk incantations and in medieval apocryphal prayers against various diseases. The present-day town of Sandanski was named after them: Sveti Vrach. There exists a legend that the brothers Cosmas and Damian stayed for a while in that region at the foothills of the Pirin Mountain on their way from Rome to Asia Minor, healing the local population with the help of the warm mineral spas, the climate and the herbs. Therefore, the highest number of monuments bearing their names can be seen in that region (Бабалеев –Симеонов 1999: 19). The saints were also invoked in a number of incantations in Romania as well (Попов, Р. 1997: 66; Попов, Р. 2008а: 243, 247).

There is evidence of the propagation of the cult of the Holy Unmercenaries in medieval Bulgaria as well: the basilica of the Holy Unmercenaries [Sveti Vrachi] dating back to the time of the First Bulgarian Kingdom (Мавродинова 1976: 75–76; Чанева-Дечевска 1984: 52–55).

The Kuklen Monastery of the Saints Cosmas and Damian the Unmercenaries, known earlier as the Sveti Vrach Monastery, is located 22 km southeast of Plovdiv, at the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains. The monastery was built near a healing spring, at the place of an old pagan sanctuary (Кисьов 1997: 43). Archaeological excavations there revealed fragments of marble statues and marble slabs with images of Heracles fighting the Lernean Hydra and a lion. Inside the temple, in the middle of the floor, there is a white marble slab on which a rooster and other signs are depicted (Баласчев 1906: 262–263). The rooster is a polyvalent symbol, it was a sacrificial animal of Asclepius as well during the Antiquity. It is highly possible that the image presupposed a cult of Asclepius, bearing in mind the similarity between his cult and that of the Holy Brothers Cosmas and Damian.

In addition to the canonical cult and image, endorsed by the Church, of the Holy Brothers Cosmas and Damian the Unmercenaries, they had their folk cult and image as well, preserving numerous pre-Christian relicts from ancient times, and more specifically from the Thracian antiquity. Their deep roots from ancient times can be seen above all in the links with the ancient god of healing and hero Asclepius whose cult was very widespread in the southern Danubian lands, above all in a local Thracian variant (see ultim. Иванов 2010 on the link between the cult of Asclepius and the cults of the saints-healers in the present-day Bulgarian lands).

On the territory of Bulgaria it is possible to find a number of Christian places of worship connected with the Saints Cosmas and Damian, located close to temples of Asclepius.

One example is the Church of the Saints Cosmas and Damian [Sveti Vrachi] in the town of Sandanski that bore earlier the name of Sveti Vrach. The region is rich in healing mineral spas. The cult of Asclepius and of the other healing deities Hygia, Telesphorus and Panacea, attested with a votive relief with inscriptions, was widespread there. It is assumed that the church dedicated to the Holy Unmercenaries was built at the place of an older church, which had inherited some ancient Asclepion (Иванова 1926: 549).

The rock churches-hermitages – of the Holy Unmercenaries, St. Marina and Gligora – are located near the Karlukovo Monastery, in the rocky gorge of the Iskar River, close to the village of Karlukovo (Пандурски 2002: 9). A marble relief of the Thracian Horseman with inscription dedicated to Asclepius with the epithet Παιάν, i.e., purifier and saviour from diseases and bodily harm, originates from the fortress above the monastery. In the churchyard of the nearby village of Kunino there is a sacrificial altar dedicated to the “holy hero” (Sancto Heroni), brought from the settlement to the northwest above the village (Добруски 1907а: 97–98; Gerov, B: 1989: 87, No 181).

These and other examples of Christian sites named after the Saints Cosmas and Damian, close to which monuments of Asclepius – the ancient god and hero-healer – focus attention on the possibility to perceive the two saints in the context of the ancient religiousness, and – accordingly – in the context of Thracian religiousness.

Asclepius is known from ancient mythology as hero and subsequently as god of medicine in Ancient Greece, son of Apollo and Coronis, father of Hygia, Panacea and Telesphorus. He was initiated into the secrets of the art of healing by the centaur Chiron. His cult in the Graeco-Roman world was popular until the Late Antiquity. It abounded in stories about miraculous healings, and according to some legends, Asclepius could even resurrect the dead (Paus. II, 27, 4). His sanctuaries were usually located near some sacred healing spring and consisted of a temple, a building comprising the spring and porticos for incubation (after Дончева 2001, with literature). The name of Asclepius was often accompanied by the epithet “Saviour.” With his miraculous healings he appears as a peculiar herald of Christ with whom he shared many features. In the eyes of the ordinary believers who – unlike the Church fathers – were not schooled in the Christian dogma connected with the immaculate conception of God’s Son, both Asclepius and Christ were sons of a god and a mortal woman. Both lived a blameless life, predominantly as healers helping those who needed physical or moral help. Asclepius acted in the name of his father, Apollo, and Christ – in the name of God the Father. Both Asclepius and Christ experienced death as mortals and were subsequently resurrected. Just like Christ, Asclepius was constantly present in his temple. Nevertheless, although Asclepius saved people from death by healing them and thus he “revived” them, he acted only on Earth and could not give to his patients the assurance of resurrection and immortality in the ages to come, which Christ promised to his followers.

In spite of the institutionalisation of Christianity as state religion in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the popularity of the pagan cult of Asclepius remained unaffected. That provoked indignation on the part of the Church Fathers who daemonised Asclepius. As Asclepius continued to attract followers, the Church changed its tactics.

C. Dauphin expressed that situation as follows: “It [the Church – author’s note, M.I.] physically absorbed the sanctity of Asclepius’ sanctuaries by building churches over them, it also appropriated and Christianised the healing rites of Christ’s principal rival. That made it possible for the Church to attract the followers of Asclepius to new (but actually very old) pastures, which were made even lusher with the help of new, richly decorated basilicas.”

Nevertheless, according to that author, as the dogma did not allow repeated epiphanies of Christ (as that occurred with Asclepius), the saints to whom Christ had delegated His power were endowed with His healing power (Dauphin 1999: 423–425).

Following the same line of thought, it can be said that Asclepius as Saviour with miraculous healings and as a highly moral being personified the aspirations towards monotheism during the late paganism, and in that capacity he was one of the most serious rivals of the emerging Christianity (Дончева 2001: 46; Holtzmann 1984: 865). After the cult of Asclepius died down in the 5th century, some reminiscences of it remained as evidence of its great importance during the Late Antiquity, notably Christ’s iconography and the practising of incubation – sleep in the temple that passed into the cult of the Holy Cosmas and Damian the Unmercenaries.

The cult of Asclepius spread in the present-day Bulgarian lands above all at the time of the Roman Empire (1st–5th century), since when many of his monuments have been preserved, in addition to the ones cited. These monuments include the big sanctuaries near Glava Panega, Batkun, Pautalia-Kyustendil and many other separate reliefs and inscriptions (see Добруски 1907, 1907а; Tsonchev 1941; Gočeva 1984, and others).

Incubation (from Lat. incubo – “lie, sleep”) during the Antiquity – staying overnight in the deity’s temple in the hope that the deity would appear during sleep and its advice would be received – was the most popular ritual practice in the Asclepius cult. During the Antiquity dreams were perceived as one way to enter into contact with the deity. The supplicants washed at the sacred spring, offered sacrifices and placed gifts on the altars (Paus. II, 27, 2; Дончева 2001: 46–55). Similarly, in the cult of the Holy Cosmas and Damian the Unmercenaries sick, blind and handicapped people went to spend the night in the church or chapel of the saints, and in the morning they washed their faces with the healing water of the springs. They often dedicated and offered sacrificial animals to the two healers. The same practices were followed by the mentally ill as well. They left a “sign” near the spring – a thread from their clothing and money (Попов, Р. 1997: 66; Попов, Р. 2008а: 244).

Here is an example of how sick people visited the church bearing the name of the saints in the village of Garvanovo near Haskovo, built in 1860. They bought votives – “hand, head or foot, wherever the pain was” – wrapped them in a towel and slept with them overnight on the floor of the temple. On the next day they returned the votives to the church and left gifts before the icon of the saints in the hope of rapid healing. Similarly, in Greece, too, there was a habit for sick people to sleep on the stone floor of the church, leaving on the next day a metal votive shaped like the diseased organ on the icon of the saints (Попов, Р. 2008а: 245, 247; Милчева – Гогова 2000: 72).

That practice was reminiscent of the rites performed in some Asclepia during the Antiquity: placing “medical” votive offerings made of fired clay and representing different organs or parts of the human body – heads, eyes, ears, hands, etc. (Дончева 2001: 91; see the exhaustive research on the issue of sleeping in temples by Hamilton 1906, in which the author makes a comparative analysis of the ritual practice of incubation and healing in pagan temples and in Christian churches).

Other points of intersection between the cult of Asclepius and Christianity were also known in the ancient and medieval worlds. The Early Christian basilica near the town of Dor in Palestine, in which treatment using incubation seems to have been practised, is an interesting example. The basilica was built over a pagan sanctuary of Apollo and of Asclepius (Dauphin 1999: 397–423). Another similar case of finding a monument of Asclepius at a Christian topos is the finding of a votive tablet of Asclepius in a monastery in Thyreatis, Greece (Holtzmann 1984: 883), or the finding of the head of a statue of Asclepius in an Old-Christian basilica in Jerash, Jordan (Ibidem: 888). In this connection it is appropriate to recall that the Church of St. Bartholomew was erected in 1548 at the place of the temple of Asclepius on the Tiber Island in Rome, re-using architectural elements from the ancient temple in its construction (Дончева 2001: 165–167).

There is an interesting case with the sanctuary of Asclepius near Glava Panega, where he was worshipped in syncretism with the Thracian Heros. In the early 20th century, its researcher V. Dobruski narrated about the customs practised in that region and about certain circumstances connected with the finding of votive tablets (Добруски 1907): “A kind of fair was organised at Panega on St. George’s Day and on the Ascension of Christ Day. On the eve of those days people came to Panega also to bathe “for health”... As a sign of gratitude people threw coins into the water..., left millet, a bagel or an egg... On the eve of St. George’s Day and of the Ascension of Christ Day, sacrificial offerings with animals were also made. Obviously, St. George was traditionally celebrated here since remotest Thracian times, replacing and continuing the cult of the Thracian Hero-Horseman to whom a considerable part of the “stone icons” found here were dedicated. When the news of the find spread, crowds of curious visitors came from the region to see the icons found, the women kissed the low reliefs of the horseman as “icons of St. George” and made the sign of the cross before them.”

Obviously, people here made a superficial analogy between the Thracian Heros and St. George, recognising the Christian saint in the image of the Horseman.

Asclepius is known to have been one of the most worshipped religious figures in the Thracian lands during the Roman Age (Тодоров 1928: 74–79; Gočeva 1984: 897–901). It seems that he had a suitable soil for his propagation in these lands, probably replacing a domestic healer deity. In this connection, it is necessary to point out the deep traditions of the art of healing in Thrace, which apparently contributed to the extremely great popularity of Asclepius in later times. According to Arrian, Thrakè – the nymph-eponym of Thrace – was a nymph who was “very knowledgeable about magic incantations and herbs, being capable of removing suffering with herbs, on the one hand, and on the other – of causing them, as the narrative about Medea goes” (Arrian. Bith. fr. 13). Orpheus, in addition to being a mythical king, priest, musician and prophet, was also a great healer. In his dialogue The Charmides Plato speaks about the Thracian healers of Zalmoxis, who were said to have been able to make a person immortal. According to them, the body needed to be healed together with the soul. The good and the evil for the human body originated from the soul, hence it was to be healed first and foremost. It was healed with a definite incantation that consisted in uttering the “reasonable principles.” This text demonstrates the Thracian understanding about the close link between body and soul, and about the human being as an overall entity. It becomes clear that Zalmoxis was presented as a god of health who was also charged with the functions of a healer (Plat., Charm. 156d–157b; Попов 1995: 13–14, 46–48; Гоев 1989: 123–124; Фол 2002: 63–65). In fact, the theological idea about the healing of the soul that had been damaged by sin featured very prominently in the Christian Church as well. It is achieved along the path of rising in Christian life, pointed out by God’s Son Jesus Christ.

Information about the incantations is also contained in the later author Hesychius (5th century). He indicates the three meanings of the name Zalmoxis, namely: first – Kronos, second – dance, and third – song (hymn) (Hesych. s.v. Zalmoxis, cited after Попов 1995: 163 and Гоев 1989: 124–125).

Therefore, both with Orpheus who conquered and healed with his music, and with Zalmoxis, it is clear that music and melodeclamation had the property of balancing and healing the soul. And as was mentioned (Гоев 1989), the ritual healing with incantations was widespread also during later periods in the development of folk medicine in the present-day Bulgarian lands.

The cited passage from Plato’s dialogue The Charmides is in harmony with the popularity of the Getic and Dacian healers in ancient times. In the 1st century BC, the Greek author Dioscurides gathered and registered in a treaty a large number of Getic-Dacian names of medicinal plants and herbs (Попов 1995: 48).

Some results of archaeological excavations also follow this line of thought as evidence of the medical practices, e.g., the finding or surgical instruments from a heroon dated to the Roman Age (2nd–3rd century) close to the village of Lyublen, Targovishte district (Овчаров 1974: 345–352; Попов 1995: 48–49).

The interdisciplinary analysis of the archaeological, epigraphic, ethnographic and literary sources on the art of healing in the present-day Bulgarian lands leads to the conclusion that the Church cult of the Holy Brothers Cosmas and Damian can be perceived not only in the context of canonical Christianity, but also in the context of the ancient religiousness, and accordingly – in ancient Thracian context as well, accordingly. This interrelation of the Christian religious worship of the saints and the ancient cult of Asclepius, and the preceding tradition, is complicated and ambivalent. On the one hand, the religious cult of the saints inherited some of the functions and rites connected with the image of Asclepius, whose cult was resting accordingly on the centuries-old tradition in the art of healing in the Thracian lands: above all, the practice of incubation, i.e., of sleeping in the temple. On the other hand, the Church has succeeded in integrating and in acquiring the topoi of the earlier faith by building its places of worship close to them or over them. As was noted, the Church actually absorbed the sanctity of the sanctuaries of Asclepius by building churches over them, appropriating and Christianising the healing rites of Christ’s principal rival (Dauphin 1999: 423–424). That was valid of the entire Graeco-Roman world during the transition from pagan religiousness to Christianity. The southern Danubian lands were also part of that cultural-historical process. In fact, Church-canonical and folklore Christianity remain intertwined in a peculiar manner to this day, which is the main specificity of the so-called syncretic Christianity.

Milen Ivanov


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