Holy men and holy women in ancient West Asia

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Apollonius of Tyana (or some other holy man)

Apollonius of Tyana (or some other holy man)

There is a long tradition in West Asia (and in India and China) that some men and women, and some children, are closer to the gods than other people are. These holy men and women and children are thought to be able to talk to the gods, to know what the gods want, to be able to persuade the gods to do things.

Of course a lot of people claimed to have these powers, but (people thought) only some of these people really did have special powers. The trick was in being able to tell the fakes from the real holy men. It would be awful if you brought your sick child to a fake holy woman instead of a real one. So people spent a lot of time worrying about how you could tell.

There were a whole lot of generally accepted ways of knowing if you were dealing with a real holy man or a fake one. Not all holy men had to have or do all these things, but they had to have a bunch of these qualifications.

First. people thought that the birth of a holy man or woman should be announced ahead of time somehow, like with a message from the gods.

Also, a holy man should have some kind of special birth. Apollonius of Tyana, for instance, was born in a meadow during a thunderstorm. Holy men should come from rich families, not poor ones.

John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, in the Orthodox Baptistry at Ravenna, 451 AD

Then while he was growing up, a holy man should be unusually smart and athletic for his age. And he should be a natural leader. And he should speak very clearly, with a good accent. He should have a good education. He should travel and learn from people in different places. Or, sometimes there was something else special about him, like he might be blind or have epileptic fits.

John the Baptist's head on a platter (Cluny museum, Paris)

John the Baptist’s head on a platter (Cluny museum, Paris)

Once he was grown up, a holy man should choose to give away most of his money and live very simply. He should wear simple clothes and grow his hair long and go barefoot or wear sandals. He might go for years at a time without speaking.

Generally it showed that someone was a real holy man or woman if she was persecuted by the king or the government, the way John the Baptist had his head cut off by Herod. In any case, some kind of special death also helped to convince people that a person was holy. Apollonius, for instance, is said to have simply vanished instead of dying.

Life of Jesus
Christian Saints

Bibliography and further reading about West Asian holy men and women:

More West Asian religion
More about West Asia
Quatr.us home

By |2018-04-07T17:04:59+00:00September 15th, 2017|Religion, West Asia|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Holy men and holy women in ancient West Asia. Quatr.us Study Guides, September 15, 2017. Web. December 17, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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