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The Legend of Hilaria (1913). Preface to the online edition

As Christianity took hold in the Roman empire, it affected every area of life.  In particular, folklore also began to take on a Christianised form, being remade into a new version acceptable to a culture in which Christianity was very fashionable. Everyone knew the gospel narratives, and looked to see God at work actively in their current lives, and hungered for accounts of Him doing so.  Such expectations were not likely to be disappointed.  Stories of miraculous activity promptly came into being.

It would be harsh and anachronistic to regard such stories as forgeries or fakes.  Rather, these were the urban legends of their day, reflecting the hopes and aspirations (and fears!) of the society in which they arose.  Small events became larger, and more decorated.

Finally, as the distance between history and hagiography became larger, under pressure from these expectations, the gap from hagiography to folkstory narrowed to vanishing point.  Much older folk-stories were reworked as amusing or inspirational fiction.  The legend of Hilaria is one of these.  The basic story is ancient Egyptian -- the Story of Bent-Resh -- but has long since gone into the melting-pot of popular culture.  What emerges may legitimately be called 'pious fiction' -- a much abused term, most properly applied to fictional literature for those who wish they saw more miracles than they do.

A series of versions of the story exist, and are translated here.  None have any claim to historical reality, any more than the ballads of Robin Hood.  But they have great value in helping us to understand the dreams and aspirations of the society that produced them and treasured them.

Note that according to G.P.Badger, The Nestorians and their rituals (1852), vol. 1, p.83, Karshuni is Arabic written with Syriac letters.  This form of writing was characteristic of the monophysite Christians around Mosul.

26th January 2004

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