«Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.» Oil Massages and early Christian ascetics and monks

Dr Despina Iosif

In Achilleas Tatius’ Leucippe and Kleitophon 4.9-17, written in the third quarter of the second century AD, a story that allows us a wonderful glimpse of how illness could be approached in the Graeco-Roman world is preserved. The beautiful protagonist Leucippe faces at some point something we would today most probably identify as neurological disorder. Her neighbours are casually/unproblematically presented having a saying on the matter and most of them claim that she suffers from mania while a friend of the family expresses the Galenic idea (in circulation at the time and based on Hippocratic theories) that such occurrences are only temporal and frequent in puberty and should not cause alarm. A physician is called from a nearby soldier camp and prescribes rest and an oil ointment and applies a substance inside her vagina, but proves unsuccessful. The slave of an Egyptian soldier appears and reveals that his master called Gorgias who in his spare time dealt with magic potions was responsible for the girl’s ordeal since in his endeavour to induce her love and attention he somehow mixed up the proportions with catastrophic results for the girl’s health. The soldier was no longer alive; he had lost his life in a recent battle, but his slave was willing to help out in exchange of four golden coins. The girl’s family accepts the deal and the slave prepares the antidote in front of the community. One observation we could make while reading this story, (which we also gather from Christian desert literature), is that illness/an illness in the Graeco-Roman world was usually perceived as a matter that concerned not just the individual and his/her family, but also the community which, curiously enough (again for our standards), felt it had to witness it and get somehow involved; something not surprising if we come to think that life was still very public in the Mediterranean during the second century AD. Manifestations of emotions[1] like crying and kissing, were open and not defined by or restricted due to gender. It is evident that Graeco-Roman men had no reservations to cry openly, even if they were held forth as model heroes.[2] There was a lot of kissing in public as an expression of appreciation and not as an expression of sexual intimacy.[3] Another thing we could note, (which is also evident from medical treatises of the same period), is the use of oil ointments in medicine. In what follows I will concentrate on oil ointments in early Christian ascetic and monastic circles.

Apa Macarius was admittedly a very successful healer; he, for example, cured an upper class paralytic girl from Thessaloniki by giving her a massage with holy oil, and the girl expressed her gratitude to the ascetic by sending him many animals and food as a present. Macarius expelled many demons from humans, but only one of his exorcisms is recorded in Historia Lausiaca of a demon-possessed child who is massaged with oil and is told to abstain from meat and wine for forty days.[4] Macarius was so successful[5]  that he was contemplating of going to Rome to provide his healing services, but this thought is attributed by his biographer Palladius and reportedly by the ascetic himself to the devil. In order to take his mind off Rome, Macarius started carrying for hours a heavy bag of sand in the desert. Macarius was such an overachiever that Pachomius had to send him away politely, for he was making the other brothers feel rather uncomfortable in their hopeless efforts to catch up with him. On another occasion Macarius cured a little girl, whose flesh had been eaten away and the inside parts of her body were laid bare and she had innumerable worms, by arranging for prayers to be said for seven days and by anointing her limbs with oil. The monk provided another service he was not asked for; he made the girl, on purpose, lose her femininity, so as not to attract men and get them and herself into trouble.[6] According to the History of the Egyptian Monks 28 an evildoer had by magic arts transformed or seemingly transformed a girl into a mare. Her parents brought her to Macarius and begged him to change her back into a human by his prayers. Macarius obliged and shut her in a cell on her own for seven days while he occupied himself with prayer in another cell. On the seventh day, he went in the cell with the girl’s parents and he rubbed her all over with oil. He then prayed for a last time and as soon as he finished his prayer the girl regained her human appearance. Another version of the story can be found in Historia Lausiaca; this time a woman is brought to Macarius by her husband and the spell of the sorcerer had affected all those who saw her and thought she had been transformed into a mare while she retained her human form. Macarius did not touch her body but poured holy water over her, and reprimanded the couple for not having attended Eucharist for five weeks, something that had made them particularly vulnerable to witchcraft.[7]

It was also because of witchcraft that an upper class woman had a womanizer for a husband who despised her and kept a concubine. The wife went to ascetic Afraates, a marriage councilor (among other useful for the community skills) who outside his cell (not to be tempted by her or give food for gossip) uttered a spell and gave her an oil ointment to use by herself.[8] Someone brought his daughter to Pachomius, the alleged founder of coenobitic monasticism, thinking she was possessed by a demon. (One wonders what sort of behaviour made him reach such a conclusion). Pachomius was not in the habit of consorting with women (he believed it was preferable to be safe than sorry) so he asked to see a piece of cloth that belonged to the girl. When he touched the cloth Pachomius said that the cloth did not belong to her and this is perhaps the only incident when the saint is reported to be wrong. When he was reassured that it did belong to her, Pachomius told those present that the girl did not keep her virginity, but no one thought that Pachomius might be wrong for a second time. Pachomius full of anger and sorrow interrogated the girl until she confessed her mistake and promised never to fail again. Pachomius gave her an oil ointment with which she rubbed herself (there was no touching involved by Pachomius) and she was instantly cured.[9]

John of Lycopolis preferred not to allow petitioners to be brought to him at all. If they had a health issue he chose to send them blessed oil instead, and when he happened to meet them he did not touch them. Once a senator’s wife who was blinded by cataract begged her husband to take her to see John for she was confident he would cure her. When she was told John was not in the habit of receiving women (he only reluctantly allowed men at certain times and never inside his cell) she asked her husband to make sure the celebrated ascetic is informed of her disability. Her husband complied, John prayed for her and sent her some oil which she used for three consecutive days and as a result she regained her sight.[10] At another time John gave blessed oil to a male visitor troubled by a horrible infection with which he anointed himself and he then vomited a great deal of poison, which restored him to good health.[11]


It seems that in the History of the Egyptian Monks we frequently find Macarius unproblematically giving massages to sick female bodies in his search for a cure, contrary to the Lausiac History where Macarius only occasionally appears to touch them. In Rufinus’ reworking of the History of the Egyptian Monks and in Theodoret of Cyrus’ Ecclesiastical History we detect the same unease with the handling of female bodies, even when afflicted, and it is stressed that ascetics and monks were very unwilling to touch a body, even for a noble cause. The practice of massages with holy oil by an ascetic or monk must have made some Christians rather uncomfortable. As we saw in the desert literature it is often made perfectly clear that the healing process entailed absolutely no touching of the afflicted female body by their heroes and role models.

Dispensing oil for healing demon-possessions and all kinds of diseases was extremely common in the world of the early Christian desert fathers and it was particularly common in medical circles. The holy men had many weapons to use at their own discretion in order to provide the desired cure. They resorted to prayers, tears, blessings, relics, the sign of the cross and blessed oil for massages they themselves or someone else performed. Conversion to Christianity of the victim and his/her immediate family was probably the most excellent demon and illness repellent Jesus had prescribed in Mark 8.23–24, even better than a massage with oil by a charismatic ascetic or monk.[12]

[1] In the Graeco-Roman novels we find the heroes incredibly often presented as tormented at the same time by a variety of emotions which they made no effort to suppress or hide; as for example in Chariton, Chareas and Callirhoe 1.9, 4.5, 5.8 and 6.6, Xenophon of Ephesus, An Ephesian Tale 2.5, 3.7 and 5.13, Achilleas Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 1.4, 2.29, 3.23, 5.24 and 7.1, Longus, Daphnis and Chloe 1.31, Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 4.9, 4.11, 6.1, 7.7, 7.12, 7.29, 10.13, 10.15, 10.16 and 10.38 and Lucian, True Story 1.33.

[2] Chariton, Chareas and Callirhoe 8.5, Achilleas Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 3.14, 7.9, 7.14, 8.5, Longus, Daphnis and Chloe 4.20, Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story 2.23, 3.17, 5.11, 5.22, 5.29, 5.33, Pseudo-Callisthenes, Alexander Romance 2.12, 2.16, 2.18, 2.20, 2.21, 3.30, The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre 14, 25, 37, 38, 45, 48. On explanations of crying see Achilleas Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 6.7 and 7.4.

[3] Achilleas Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 5.8, Longus, Daphnis and Chloe 3.30, 3.31, 4.6, The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre 15, 16, 25, 45 and 51. ‘The mouth has three exciting features: breath, voice and kiss’ in Achilleas Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 4.8, In Longus, Daphnis and Chloe kisses come easy and natural as for example in 1.15, 3.21 and 4.6. Appreciation of kissing: ‘their feelings passed through their lips from one soul to the other’ in Xenophon of Ephesus, An Ephesian Tale 1.

[4] Children consumed wine in antiquity and drank their water diluted in wine, as adults did, for protection against germs.

[5] Macarius cured a priest with cancer in the head and said the disease was the result of porneia. Illness in antiquity, it was believed, could easily come as a result of debauchery. When the priest acknowledged his sin and promised to be more careful in the future and resigned his post, he immediately received his cure. Macarius also cured a lion cub that was blind and its mother brought him a sheepskin as a token of gratitude. It seems as if giving a present for receiving a cure was not that uncommon. Macarius talked to the animal, that could perfectly understand him, and made it promise that it would not eat the sheep of the poor, but select only the ones of the rich. The Christian ascetics and monks were greatly admired not only for mastering demons but also for mastering wild animals, another serious threat for late antique people. When Paul the hermit died, two lions approached Antony who was standing next to the corpse was terrified at first, but, then, focused his mind on God and was able to behave as if he saw two doves. The lions lamented the death of Paul and then began to dig the ground to bury the saint and when they finished they asked for Antony’s blessing (Jerome, Life of Paul 16). Macarius was a friend with a hyena who brought him as a token of their friendship the fleece of a ram and laid it at his feet (HMA 21.15). Theon kept company with wild animals (HMA 6.4). Bes ordered a hippopotamus and a crocodile not to disturb the villagers (HMA 4.3). Helle killed a crocodile (HMA 12.6–7). Didymus killed wild animals with his bare feet (HMA 20.12). For the role of animals within the monastic communities of Egypt and Palestine from the fourth through the sixth century see Blake Leyerle, ‘Monks and Other Animals’ in Dale B. Martin and Patricia Cox Miller, ed., The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography, Duke University Press, Durham, 2005, p. 150–171.

[6] Despina Iosif, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Illness as Demon Possession in the World of the First Christian Ascetics and Monks’, Mental Health, Religion and Culture, Routledge Journals 14.4, April 2011, p. 323-340. See also my note ‘No one has disgraced my virgin body. Virginity tests and early Christian ascetics and monks’ on Postaugustum.

[7] W. Harmless, Desert Christians. An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 297.

[8] Theodoret of Cyrus, Religious History 1376D.

[9] David Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk. Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, 2006, p. 83.

[10] History of the Egyptian Monks, Rufinus 1.12.

[11] History of the Egyptian Monks, Additions of Rufinus 1.12.

[12] A pagan military officer, called Martianos, had a daughter who was being horribly molested by a demon. Martianos knocked on Antony’s door persistently and Antony told him to convert to Christianity; he complied and his daughter was freed, in Athanasius, Life of Antony 48.

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