Strange saints.

Everything I know about Saint Ijanel comes from Frances Weller’s 1978 book, Saint Ijanel: A Forgotten Holy Woman of Early Christianity. I think she’s kind of fascinating, so I want to share her with you.

 

The first mention of Saint Ijanel comes from a late sixth century ostracon from Edessa, shortly before the Muslim conquest. Her name in the Greek alphabet is rendered   Ιδζανηλη, and we find here didomai tei osioei Idzanelei, “I give to holy Ijanel” – but what’s given isn’t specified.

 

Ijanel’s name obviously derives from Armenian. It’s form of the Armenian verb to arise, and it seems possible that Ijanel the saint is a composite figure, around whom several stories — some plausible, some occurring in the lives of other saints — accreted over the course of time. While there are occasional mentions of Ijanel — in Greek as Aghia Idzanela or Izanele or Idzaneleia — as asides in other manuscripts, or once as a church in Armenian records, she is far from well known.

 

The earliest literary mention of Ijanel comes from a 9th century collection of sayings, the Apophthegmata of Armenian Saints. (Where we’re also informed in an aside that fragments from the spear of her martyrdom are miraculous relics, whose efficacy the author has seen with his own eyes.) By the 10th century it is clear her popularity is increasing, with an anonymous Greek hagiography, the Life of Saint Ijanel, in Byzantine circulation. This survives in substantial fragments, including an epitome translated into Arabic, and includes an invocation similar to the Irish litany of Saint Patrick:

 

“Holy Saint Ijanel, let me arise and go forth by day without hindrance. Holy Saint Ijanel, let me arise and go forth by night without fear. Let me rise up into battle with good courage. In peace, let me arise into wisdom and understanding. Let me rise up against tyranny with justice in my heart. Let me rise up in the morning. Let me rise up at noon. Let me rise up at the going-down of the sun. Holy Saint Ijanel, guard me and guide me until the last day, when all shall arise into glory.”

 

The author of this Life of Saint Ijanel mentions an “Emperor Constans” contemporary with Ijanel, but otherwise has — as far as can be told from the fragmentary text — very little concern with chronology. (And even this mention of Constans is not much help, since there were at least three emperors by that name.) In some ways, this hagiographical life is extremely subversive. Ijanel is – unusually for holy women – not a holy virgin, but a married woman who follows her husband to war, where she has a miraculous encounter with the angel Gabriel and receives a call to spread the gospel among the women “of the land of the unbelievers.”

 

The surviving text does not preserve what happened to her husband, but several stories — an encounter with an amorous nobleman in which Ijanel is miraculously saved when she calls on God and he “caused the land to rise up against him;” a village that Ijanel convinces to convert by miraculously causing a church to be raised overnight; another village where Ijanel is preserved from being burned alive because she calls on God to cause the waters of the nearby river to rise up, and they do; an encounter with a king who oppresses his people with heavy taxation in which Ijanel’s prayers cause “the stones of his chamber to rise up around him” — are preserved in entertaining detail. So too is a story of Ijanel healing a woman with broken legs, who got up and walked.

 

Confusingly, the Arabic manuscript epitome of the Life preserves a different account of her martyrdom to the Greek text. In the Greek text, Ijanel is faced with an unbelieving king who commands her death by impalement; in the Arabic epitome, she is — bizarrely — suspended by hooks from the walls of a city, but rescued by the apparition of an angel, who causes her to be bodily translated into heaven.

 

There also exists a short 12th-century Armenian Life, which includes elements of the Greek one, but returns to the spear mentioned in the Apophthegmata for Ijanel’s martyrdom. Or rather, spears: pierced clean through by one, she rises up and continues to engage in theological debate with the king who means to murder her. Pierced by a second, she gets up again and keeps talking. Only when she’s run through with a third spear does the king finally succeed in making her stop. The writer adds, in what may be a humorous aside playing on the Armenian derivation of Ijanel’s name, that those who wish to rise up (arise, get up, raise things up) should pray to Ijanel to aid them.

 

After the Turkish conquest of Byzantium, evidence for the continuing veneration of Ijanel disappears. Apart from one intriguing snippet, a footnote to her story: in 1773, a French traveller in Turkey, a doctor and naturalist by the name of Alexandre De La Boutière, recorded that he stayed in a small Christian village in Ottoman Armenia, where he was shown the relics of a saint in a gold-chased lead casket: the fingerbones of Saint Ijanel, which were said to have miraculous healing powers and also to move on the anniversary of her martyrdom, which De La Boutière said his hosts told him was the same as the Feast of the Dormition of Mary.

 

There you go.