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Holy and Unholy Miracle Workers
By Alexander Kazhdan
Byzantine Magic, edited by Henry Maguire (Dumbarton Oaks, 1995)
Introduction: Once upon a time therelived on the island of Crete a saintly man, Cyril, bishop of Gortyna. The persecutors of Christians arrested him, put him on a cart driven by oxen, and sent him to be executed. All of a sudden, in the middle of the way, the oxen stopped, and there was no means to make them continue; the executioners had no choice but to murder the saint at this spot, divinely chosen, where later the center of Cyril’s veneration was established.
So far, so good. In another saint’s vita we read a similar story: a man ordered the felling of an enormous tree that he wanted brought to his mansion; a magnificent train of seventy teams of oxen was formed to drag this gigantic tree, but all of a sudden, in the middle of the way, the oxen stopped, and there was no means to make them continue. But unlike the miracle with Cyril of Gortyna, it was not divine force that stopped the oxen. It was the evil, devilish, insidious spirit that hampered the movement of the train, and the intervention of the saint, Eustratios of Agauros by name, overcame the evil power and destroyed the devilish spell.
In these particular cases we are assisted by the hagiographers who make it crystal clear that these two analogous events were a far cry from being identical: the devil was able to perform miracles that, on their surface, were indistinguishable from those worked by or with the help of divine force. How could an ordinary Byzantine have distinguished good and beneficial miracles from the pseudo-miracles launched by the devil and his companions in order to cheat and confuse the faithful? Did he possess—do we Byzantinists possess—a litmus test to separate the sheep from the goats, the holy miracles from the unholy tricks?
A miracle is a change or alteration of the “natural” order of the material world due to the intervention of a power from outside. The agent of the holy miracle could be God himself, whose major function was to warn and to chastise sinners by sending disasters (earthquake, famine, locusts, enemies, and so on); the Virgin and angels who interceded before God on behalf of suffering mankind; holy objects, especially the icons and the cross; and the host of saintly men and women who stood in close and personal relations with the population of the empire and for whom miracle working was the indicator of sanctity. The vita of Mary the Younger is especially demonstrative in this respect since the hagiographer states that many people refused to acknowledge her sanctity just because Mary, though a pious woman, had not justified her holiness by performing miracles.
It would be a very important (and a very difficult) task to collect from manifold Byzantine sources complete information about miracles and to categorize them. To the best of my knowledge, this work has not yet been planned. What I am suggesting now is a very schematic and, by necessity, incomplete and preliminary classification.