Tuesday, January 22, 2013

St. Menas

In 1905, C.M. Kaufman of Frankfort led an expedition into Egypt and made excavations that unearthed the legacy of St. Menas. He found the ruins of a monastery, a well, a basilica, many inscriptions asking the saint's aid, and thousands of miniature water pitchers and oil lamps.

Based on the inscription on the vessels found by Kaufman (Eulogia tou agiou Mena = Remembrance of St. Menas), the vessels were intended as souvenirs of the saint. The location excavated was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the 5th and 6th centuries, and flasks like those found by Kaufman had been found for years in Africa, Spain, Italy, France and Russia. It was assumed that they contained oil, but now it is thought that they probably held water from the local well, and likely were supposed to have curative powers.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Menas was martyred under Emperor Diocletian in 295 (other sources say 309—there was more than one Menas in the first few centuries of the Common Era, and it is difficult to reconcile all the records). An Egyptian by birth, Menas had actually served in the Roman army, but left the army when he learned of the poor treatment of Christians by the empire. He went into retreat, engaging in fasting and prayer. He came out of retreat to proclaim the Christian faith in the middle of a Roman religious festival. He was dragged before the authorities, scourged and beheaded. Here is where the legend truly begins: supposedly, his body was to be burned, but the flames worked on it for three days without destroying it.

"Menas flask" in the Louvre
The martyr's body was brought to Egypt and placed in a church, and his name began to be invoked by Christians in need. Then an angel appeared to Pope Athanasius, telling him to have the body transported into the western desert outside Alexandria. While being transported, the camel carrying it stopped at one point and would not move. The followers buried the body in that spot.

Later, the location was forgotten, but a shepherd noticed that a sick sheep fell on a certain spot and rose up cured. The story spread that this spot cured illnesses. When the leprous daughter of the Emperor Zeno (c.425-491) traveled there for a cure, she received a vision at night from St. Menas, telling her that it was his burial place. Her father had the body exhumed, a cathedral built, and a proper tomb prepared for St. Menas. A city and industry sprang up, since so many people came to be cured. Water from the well dug in that location began to be bottled for pilgrims and supplicants. These flasks were found in several countries, but it wasn't until Kaufman's 1905 expedition that their true origin was uncovered.

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