Monday, August 18, 2008

Saint Mamas, across the centuries

Because my mother and daughter are going to Cyprus in the fall, and because I cannot imagine anything they would rather do on that journey than visit the shrines of Cypriot saints and also bring back for me tasteful tchotchkes of hagiographical interest, I was more than delighted to discover Saint Mamas, whose feast day (Roman calendar only) was yesterday. Admittedly, his connection to Cyprus is not entirely verifiable, but that has never stopped me before.
According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Mamas was a third century shepherd in Cappadocia who suffered martyrdom under Aurelian, best known - at least to me - as the Roman emperor who conquered Palmyra, took the great Queen Zenobia prisoner and paraded her through the streets of Rome.
Mamas was a friend to the animals, living off milk and honey in the countryside (The nutritional importance of HONEY in the Lives of the Saints deserves greater attention.), so much so that when his tormentors exposed him to wild beasts (a favored method of executing Christians), the beasts in questions merely lay at his feet as if Mamas were their shepherd. The lion that was supposed to cruelly tear him from limb to limb comforted Mamas instead, and licked his wounds; hence Mamas is frequently portrayed riding a friendly lion.

What has any of this to do with Cyprus? Thus far, nothing. But wait.
Following his death, the family placed the body of the martyred Mamas in a coffin and buried him at sea. That coffin was taken by the tide from Anatolia to the Gulf of Morphou in Cyprus (due south 80 miles).

On the other hand, Mamas was a twelfth century cave-dwelling hermit near Guzelyurt (formerly Morphou), Cyprus. When the Byzantine ruler demanded taxes from all the residents, Mamas declined to pay, citing his cave-dwelling as the reason. For this, Mamas was arrested. As the 2 soldiers were transporting him to the city for punishment, they met a lion about to devour a lamb. Mamas saved the lamb from the lion, and then rode into the city on the lion’s back. This feat so impressed the Byzantine authorities that Mamas was exempted from taxes for the rest of his life.
And henceforth, he is the Patron Saint of Tax Evaders. (You see, there really is a patron for everyone.)
Whichever version of his life you prefer, the icon of Saint Mamas astride a lion works.

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