The elder daughter of the fourth-century emperor Zeno, who according to legend became a monk (feast day: 21 Tubah).
Zeno had two daughters. The legend is as follows. The elder, Hilaria, seeks the monastic life but Theopiste, the younger, does not entertain such desires. Hilaria secretly, in male attire, travels to Alexandria, where she prays in the churches of Saint Peter the Martyr and Saint Mark the Evangelist. The apostles answer her in the affirmative through the words of scripture. She then entrusts herself to Theodorus the deacon, who accompanies her to the monastery. She goes first to Saint MENAS, then to SCETIS to Saint PAMBO. The ascetic does not recognize her as a woman, for she is only eighteen, and he advises her to go to ENATON, where life is less strict. But she insists on staying, and earns the monastic habit. Together they discuss scripture with Anba Martyrius, the philosopher.
Three years later, Pambo learns through revelation that Hilaria is a woman and asks her not to reveal herself, in order to avoid any scandal. Nine years later, still being beardless, she becomes known as Hilarion, the eunuch.
A demon enters her young sister, who is at Constantinople. The emperor Zeno, not knowing what to do, leaves the matter to the monks of Scetis. As a consequence, Theopiste is brought before Saint Pambo. To everyone’s astonishment, the eunuch Hilarion’s reaction is extreme; she drenches the ground with a flood of tears. Touched by such compassion, Pambo entrusts the afflicted young woman to Hilarion. For a week the latter prays—consoling and finally curing her young sister, who does not recognize her. Once cured, Theopiste receives the sacraments and returns to her father in the palace. She tells the emperor that, to comfort her, Hilarion the monk kissed her on the mouth and slept in the same bed with her.
Shocked, the emperor Zeno summons the healing monk to come to him on the pretext that there is another cure to be done at Constantinople itself. Taking Hilarion aside, Zeno discloses that his mind is troubled. To avoid any scandal, Hilarion unveils herself to the emperor alone, provided he lets her go back in peace to her monastery. For an hour the emperor Zeno remains stupefied. Only the empress and the younger sister are informed. The recognition results in tender tears.
Hilaria again becomes the eunuch Hilarion in the monastery of Scetis, and twelve years later she dies. Pambo then writes the life of the saint, who is buried fully clothed.
This account raised questions, first of all, in O. von Lemm’s mind. On the basis of the Coptic fragments from Paris and Leiden, edited in 1888 by A. AMÉLINEAU, he recognized the story as a derivative of an Egyptian romance, the Story of Bent-Resh, the “daughter of joy,” of which “Hilaria” is an exact translation. Nevertheless the differences are numerous, for Bent-Resh is possessed of a demon and is the elder sister of Nefrure, wife of the pharoah; she is cured by Khonsu, the builder of Thebes. In 1913, A. J. Wensinck collected all the Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopic versions of the legend, before coming to know of the complete Coptic text. He produced the family-tree of the legend from the Egyptian to the Coptic.
In the penetrating study attached by J. Drescher to his complete edition of the Coptic text, the English scholar shows that, perhaps apart from the name Hilaria itself, dependence on the pharaonic legend is more than improbable. The literary genre to which this account belongs is very well represented in Greek hagiography, for example, Eugenia Pelagia, Euphrosyne, and above all Apolinaria, whose life reproduces the antithesis between the two sisters. At the same time, he notes that Apolinaria is not known anywhere in the Orient, while Hilaria is not known anywhere in Greece. The two subjects are thus apportioned to match the theological predilections of the churches concerned.
It is possible to take this analysis much further. Zeno reigned from 474 to 491 and published his HENOTICON in 482. Nine years were to pass before the Edict of Peace, which Saint Pambo warmly praises at the beginning of his account. No more than about ten years passed until the death of Zeno. Looking at a series of legends of holy women such as Irene, Barbara, Christine of Tyre, and many others, it is obvious that these princesses correspond exactly to the communities of which the monarchs concerned received the crown. Israel is likewise called the daughter of Zion in the Old Testament.
When Zeno assumes power, one of his daughters is ill, the one who continues to apply the COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON, after Leo and Marcian. The other has fled to the monastery. When Zeno finds his elder daughter again, he begs her, “Pray the Lord for me to keep me in the faith of my fathers.” What is more, the day of Hilaria’s death,
21 Tubah, is the Feast of the DORMITION OF THE VIRGIN, a symbol of the resistance at Jerusalem to the Council of Chalcedon. There is a legend about SOPHIA OF JERUSALEM, which is entirely parallel, and which explains the same political and religious development in a romanticized form, but this time as between Constantinople and Jerusalem. This legend has been preserved only in Arabic. The point of the story of Hilaria is no different. It not only takes from the Greek church the old theme of the woman who becomes a monk but integrates it in a symbolic account. The abbot Pambo is a fictional character, borrowed from the fourth century. In the prologue of the story itself, the author appears to be very much aware of the literary genre that he is tackling. God had provided believers not only with preachers but also with authors, intended for their guidance.
The legend of Hilaria, daughter of ZENO, was published by Drescher in 1947, based on the following sources: MS Pierpont- Morgan 583 dated A.D. 848 (Vol. 37 of the photographic edition); four parchments from the White Monastery (DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH) now in the John Rylands Library at Manchester; and three parchments of another manuscript now at Paris, Coptic MS 1321, fols. 19-21; a leaf of the same manuscript from the Museum of Antiquities at Leiden; an isolated leaf from Paris MS 78, fol. 39; and finally a papyrus fragment from the British Museum. Only the text for 848 is complete. A Greek original is not probable; moreover, the legend does not exist in Greek.
- Drescher, J. Three Coptic Legends: Hilaria, Archellites, the Seven Sleepers. Cairo, 1947.
- Esbroeck, M. van. “Le saint comme symbole.” In The Byzantine Saint, pp. 128-40. S. Hackel. Chester, 1981.
- Wensinck, A. J. “The Legend of Hilaria.” In Legends of Eastern Saints Chiefly from Syriac Sources, Vol. 2, Leiden, 1913.
MICHEL VAN ESBROECK