Friday, October 19, 2018

A Witch Trial in Eighth-Century Constantinople

By John Sanidopoulos

Though we know the belief in witches was an issue in the Eastern Roman Empire of the eighth century from the short treatise of Saint John of Damascus titled On Witches, little known is that there was an actual witchcraft trial in Constantinople at around the same time the Damascene wrote his treatise. Iconoclasm provides the context for this episode, and it is recorded by Ignatios the Deacon (c. 770-c. 845) in the Life of Patriarch Tarasios, who had ordained him to the diaconate. The chief protagonist is not Tarasios, but his father George, who was an iconophile that served the iconoclast emperors Leo (717-741) and Constantine V (741-775). George had been promoted to the highest judicial seat and had an irreproachable reputation as a just judge who treated all equally and fairly before the law. On account of George's moral integrity, he himself was once made to stand trial on account of his correct observance of the laws. George's straight judgment and procedure had been disputed by the rulers who chose not to exercise justice. The case, briefly, was this.

The defendants were several women who lived in terrible poverty, and they were accused of being gelloudes. According to Saint John of Damascus, striges (strigoi) and gelloudes (gelo) were interchangeable, and are the modern equivalent of what we know as witches. Specifically, these women were accused of killing children in the guise of spirits, who traveled through the air at night and entered the homes of the plaintiffs through locked doors. Upon hearing the case, the wise and pious George rightly discerned that it was the plaintiffs who were deceived by the evil spirits known as gelo and not the accused women. George referred the plaintiffs to the Gospel, saying: "A body, possessing length, depth and width, cannot be dissolved and contained in a spirit, and then go about freely committing crimes. Christ Himself said to His disciples, 'A spirit has no flesh and bones' (Lk. 24:39)." The judge, therefore, acquitted the women of all charges. However, many in authority gave credence to these ancient myths and superstitions, so when they learned the judgment pronounced by George, they complained. George was ordered to appear before the emperor Constantine V, who Ignatios says "actually gave credence to these fantasies," and was ill-treated for his decision in the case. The emperor gave him an opportunity to explain his reasoning, and as a consequence, the emperor came to agree with him - though reluctantly.

Ignatios the Deacon had a specific reason for including this story of Patriarch Tarasios's father George in the Life of Patriarch Tarasios. He wanted to drive home a point about iconoclasm through the reasoning of why George acquitted the women based on the Gospel text mentioned. George arrived at his decision after considering the relationship between Christ's divine and human natures. Even Christ, when he rose from the dead, was not purely spirit; his human nature continued to exist with his divine one. The Apostle Thomas could touch him and place his hands into his wounds. Mere humans therefore could not possibly change between being a wholly corporeal nature and a wholly spiritual nature. George's iconophile reasoning was thus implicit in his judgment. Iconophiles and iconoclasts disagreed about the nature of Christ after his resurrection. Iconoclasts believed that Christ's body had "dissolved" into spirit alone. This, George implied, meant that the iconoclasts must believe in such creatures as the gelo, or witches, who transformed themselves into spiritual bodies, while the reasoning of iconophiles did not allow such superstitious beliefs.

This story associates the iconoclast position with the popular superstition of the gelo, which theologians on both sides would reject. Ignatios is thus ridiculing the iconoclast position by putting it on the level of popular myths and superstitions, showing that they admit such absurdities as transformation between corporeal and spiritual natures. It is significant that the passage in Luke 24:39, which occurs in Ignatios' account of the gelo, was used in the Tome of Pope Leo I (440-461) to demonstrate the continuing humanity of Christ after the resurrection. Earlier Church Fathers such as John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa characterized such beliefs as the preserve of "foolish old women", suggesting that only the most simple-minded would believe such nonsense. The gelo were not rejected by the Church, but were considered to be demonic entities that could indeed possess people, and in a later exorcism prayer recorded by Leo Allatios, Saint Tarasios is one of many saints invoked to rid a person of a gelo demon. Therefore, as far as there being a witchcraft trial by Orthodox Christians in Byzantium that ended with the accused being burned at the stake or hung by a noose, no such evidence exists. Such superstition however was accepted by the witchfinders in later centuries in the West, that caused wide hysteria and ended in extreme tragedy.