MERCURIUS OF CAESAREA, SAINT
A Roman army officer who was martyred in the third century in Caesarea, Cappadocia, and is credited with many subsequent miraculous appearances. Known in Arabic as Abu Sayfayn, he is commemorated by the Coptic church on 25 Hatur. In addition, two other feast days are observed in memory of this saint: 9 Ba’unah, when parts of his sacred relics were brought to Egypt, by Patriarch JOHN XIII (1484-1524); and 25 Abib, when these relics were preserved in a church in Old Cairo dedicated to his name.
The Christian Tradition
Coptic material on Mercurius is plentiful. (1) Saint Mercurius’ Passion Under Decius, which is substantially in agreement with the principal Greek text (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca 1274), is preserved in five manuscripts. The oldest, from the ninth century, is in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (M 588). Others are in the British Museum, London, (Or. 6801); the National Library, Paris (fragment 129.15, 19); and the Morgan Library (M 589), a Fayyumic version from the tenth century. (2) There is a fragment of another Passion in the British Museum (Or. 6802) at the beginning of an anonymous text (Budge, 1915). (3) An abridgment of the Passion is within an incomplete version of a Panegyric of
Mercurius attributed to Acacius of Caesarea in the Morgan Library (M. 588, 589). (4) An account of seven miracles performed at the construction of Mercurius’ martyrium in Caesarea is in the Morgan Library (M. 588, 589) and in another version of the Panegyric by Acacius in the British Museum (Or. 6802). (5) Fragments of other miracle stories are in a manuscript from Dayr Anba Shinudah now in the National Library, Paris (129.15, 20), and fragments in the National Library, Vienna (K9456) and K7655 a-b). (6) The complete Panegyric by Acacius (the only one in existence) is in the British Museum (Or. 6802). (7) A panegyric attributed to Saint Basil the Great (Orlando, “Basilio . . . ,” 1976, pp. 56-58) seems to be part of a pseudo-Basilian CYCLE in which the presence of the Sarmates tribe in Lazica regularly occurs.
An account of Mercurius’ miraculous execution of the emperor Julian the Apostate is attached to the Passion under Decius in the British Museum (Or. 6801) and is also in the panegyric by Acacius in the Morgan Library (588) (Orlandi, “Passione . . . ,” 1976, pp. 54-61), where it states that the account is taken from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (chaps. 10 and 11).
The basic account of Mercurius’ life is as follows. Born to a pagan Macedonian family of hunters in the third century, he is named Philopater. Later, Gordianus, his father, is miraculously rescued from the jaws of death through the intervention of an angel, an event that prompts him to seek conversion to Christianity. The local bishop who baptized the family names the child Mercurius. As a twenty-year-old soldier, Mercurius distinguishes himself in the Roman war in Armenia, fighting in the cohort of Martenses under the command of Saturninus (Sardonicus or Bartonikos in Coptic). The vision of a dazzling man, an angel, helps him to victory. Consequently, the emperor Decius makes him a general.
But the angel tells him his victory came from the Lord, the God of the Christians, of whom he had heard in his childhood from this father, Gordianus, an officer in the same cohort. When Mercurius refuses to accompany those who sacrifice to Artemis, the moon goddess, Decius summons him. Mercurius throws down his arms at the emperor’s feet in order to take up the arms of Christ. Decius then subjects him to a series of tortures. He is nailed by his arms and legs over a fire, but his blood extinguishes the fire and he is healed in prison. Then he is hung upside down with a stone hung around his neck and beaten with four-ply cords and burnt with a red-hot iron. Finally the emperor orders him taken back to Cappadocia to be finished off with a sword. The journey is accomplished in long stages. At the moment of execution, the saint’s body turns white and emits heavenly fragrances. The execution is commemorated on 25 Hatur.
The miracles performed by Mercurius on the occasion of the construction of his martyrium in Caesarea are the chief subject of the panegyric attributed to Acacius. The scenes are very lively and much more Egyptian than Cappadocian in feeling. Through his innumerable appearances, Mercurius punishes the rich who wish to evade cooperation in the erection of the church. One appearance is to a rich pagan who is stealing the bricks brought by the faithful. The man is knocked down by his camel, while Mercurius appears to him with his lance, striking his foot. Then the camel seizes him by the foot, and the plan of the building, according to the word of Mercurius, is drawn on the ground with the wretched man’s back. Needless to say, he is converted and is instantly healed of his wounds.
Another appearance is in connection with a little love drama evoked for the making of the martyrium. A young man, broken-hearted to see his sweetheart promised in a more worldly match, interviews a wizard, who inflicts a fatal headache on the girl. Saint Mercurius disentangles the threads of the drama on his feast day, at the foot of the shrine containing his relics. The wizard is converted and goes off to be a monk; the girl is saved and marries the repentant young man. Caesarea, the place itself, is mentioned only once.
The most complicated and famous of the miracles of Saint Mercurius is the death of Julian the Apostate in 363. Julian’s contemporaries wondered about his sudden assassination [he died in battle in Persia], without being able to explain it other than as a result of divine reproach for the emperor’s attempt to bring the empire back to paganism. This idea is expressed popularly by showing Julian, in the middle of his Persian campaign, to be a direct victim of saints who died in previous persecutions.
According to two Syriac sources, The Romance of Julian the Apostate and The Life of Eusebius of Samosata (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Orientalis 294), the executioner was none other than Mar Qurus, one of the forty martyrs of Sebaste. And so St. Binon and P. Peeters have taken the view that this identification explains the name Mercurius itself and makes the saint’s history under Decius completely apocryphal. The martyrdom at Sebaste alone would suffice to produce the whole collection of the Mercurius material. In 1968 T. Orlandi completely upset this perspective (Orlandi, 1968, pp. 87-105). Indeed, two Coptic versions of the same story juxtapose the two interpretations—in one the executioner is one of the forty martyrs, and in the other Basil sees Saint Mercurius in a vision executing Julian and the next day finds that the saint’s lance in an icon is covered with blood.
This account is found in The Life of Basil by Amphilochius (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca 247-60), a text placed in the ninth century according to very old criteria. Orlandi shows that the text was already translated into Latin in the ninth century. A readaptation of two miracle stories can be found in a Sinai Georgian manuscript dated 864, and the miracle about Peter of Sebasteia (Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca 257) is found in an Arabic manuscript dated 855 (Shanidze, 1959, pp. 70-73; van Esbroeck, 1978, p. 384).
Orlandi therefore distinguishes two separate centers for the blossoming of the legend of Julian: Antioch, where the forty martyrs are the protagonists, and Caesarea, where Saint Mercurius is the executioner of Julian. The explanation in the Syriac tradition would be the result of compiling and harmonizing with word play on Mar Qurus, Cyrus being the actual name of one of the forty martyrs. This explains the lack of any Passion of Saint Mercurius in Syriac, while in Armenian and Georgian the martyrdom under Decius is well represented.
The Arabic Tradition
Abu Sayfayn means “the father with the two swords”; the weapons that always accompany his image doubtless originate from accounts of Mercurius’s execution by Julian the Apostate. Abu Sayfayn is treated in many sources. His martyrdom under Decius is described in a nineteenth-century manuscript in the National Library, Paris (Arabic 4781, fols. 108-117) and in a fourteenth-century manuscript from the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, in the National Library (Arabic 397, fols. 193-210). The Mount Sinai manuscript follows the Passion with Basil’s account of the story of Mercurius and Julian.
A collection of eleven miracles is in a manuscript in the National Library (Arabic 4781, fols. 118-51); fifteen miracles are recounted in a seventeenth-century manuscript there (Arabic 4793, fols. 49-122). A panegyric attributed to Acacius has been translated from Coptic into Arabic in an eighteenth-century manuscript in the Coptic Museum, Cairo (Graf 479, fols. 172-91).
Abu Sayfayn appears with his two swords in many icons. In the tenth century Abraham, patriarch of Alexandria, built a church in Cairo in his honor, dedicating it on 25 Abib. In the eleventh century, Patriarch Christodoulus made the church his residence. The saint’s relics were moved there in 1488.
According to Delehaye (1975), the cult of Abu Sayfayn is most widely spread in Egypt. ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN states that a monastery and a large number of the churches were dedicated to him in that country.
In Cairo alone, three churches are dedicated to the saint, one in QASR AL-SHAM‘ in Old Cairo (dating from the sixth century), another associated with a convent of women known as DAYR AL- BANAT, and a third at HARIT ZUWAYLAH.
- Binon, S. Essai sur le cycle de saint Mercure. Paris, 1937.
- Budge, E. A. W. Miscellaneous Coptic Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt. London, 1915.
- Delehaye, H. Les Légendes grecques des saints militaires, pp. 91-101. Paris, 1909; repr. New York, 1975.
- Esbroeck, M. van. “Un feuillet oublié du codex arabe or. 4226 à Strasbourg.” Analecta Bollandiana 96 (1978):384.
- Orlandi, T. Storia della chiesa di Allessandria, Vol. 1. Milan, 1967.
- . Studi copti. Milan, 1968.
- . Koptische Papyri theologischen Inhalts. Vienna, 1974.
- . “Basilio di Cesarea nella litteratura copta.” Rivista degli studi orientali 49 (1976):56-58.
- . Passione e miracoli di S. Mercurio. Testi e documenti per lo studio dell ’antichità, Serie copta 17, 22, and 54. Milan, 1976.
- Till, W. Koptische Heiligen- und Märtyrerlegenden. Rome, 1935.
MICHEL VAN ESBROECK