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Sympathy For the Monster: The Redemption of Reprobus

Sympathy For the Monster: The Redemption of Reprobus 1

“Many people genuinely do not want to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings” – George Orwell

Not all Christian saints were born beatific.  In fact some had a rather late awakening after a lifetime of misbehavior.  While recidivism is relatively low among the anointed, some have rather unsavory biographies prior to their conversion.  From St. Pelagia (a former high-class courtesan), to the ascetic St. Moses (dismissed from his civil service job for theft, roamed Egypt leading a violent gang of bandits), to Saint Olga (buried and burned alive cartloads of people alive during her rule of Kievan Rus), and even the apostle Paul (dedicated to persecuting early disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem), demonstrated that a sordid or murderous backstory did not seriously diminish their karmic standing once they saw the light.  I guess nobody knows sin like a sinner, thus they could speak authoritatively on the subject and help the rest of us avoid the error of their ways.  In the grand scheme of things, it’s a pretty savvy theologian who leaves room in his philosophy for the redemption of the seemingly irredeemable.  Plus it’s just plain good public relations. One would assume that despite this strange bit of open-mindedness there was at least a basic set of admission standards for sainthood that would exclude certain classes of critters from the celestial honor roll, such as those motes in the eyes of God that we refer to as monsters.  You have been misinformed.  Not only should you not go to Morocco for the waters, but apparently monstrosity does not exclude you from your very own hagiography.  The much revered Saint Christopher, reportedly martyred sometime between the 3rd and 4th Centuries A.D. has long been depicted as a saint of decidedly monstrous origins.

That Saint Christopher was something other than human seems pretty clear, but pinning down his specific mode of monstrosity is a little more difficult.  By some accounts he was a fearsome giant, the kind that are always getting knocked in the head with stones for siding with the Philistines or drowned in an epic retributional flood (in particular, a race of monsters called Anakim, closely related to the more famous Nephilim).  Eastern Orthodoxy disputes such a characterization, instead insisting that Saint Christopher was actually a classic Cynocephalus (a race of men with dogs’ heads that routinely pop in mythologies from India to North Africa).  Either way, Saint Christopher seems to have risen above his monstrosity to join the ranks of the holy, which is an achievement few monsters can claim.  Or frankly, would want to.   By the late Middle Ages (14-15th Century A.D.), Saint Christopher had gone platinum and to this day you can see St. Christopher medallions (he is the patron saint of travelers) hanging from rear view mirrors in the cars of the devout like divine fuzzy dice.

Saint Christopher started out life in Canaan, going by the name Reprobus, which alone should tell you a little about the quality of his character.  Now medieval monks liked themselves a good monster story, but a monster saint stretched their credulity, so by the 13th Century A.D., in the retelling of Christopher’s legend they had managed to reduce his height to a mere 5 cubits (7.5 feet), which while quite respectable for a professional basketball center, still places him firmly in a human scale.  This diminution is of course a late addition, as he was originally said to be an Anakim.  The Anakim were regarded as descendants of the Nephilim.  The Nephilim were the wicked offspring of randy fallen angels and human women, and according to the extra-canonical Book of Jubilees, the main purpose of that whole biblical deluge thing was to wipe the world clean of them.  At any rate, the forefather of the Anakim was a notable figure named Anak, who is described as a 13 foot tall Rephaite, a northwest Semitic term that appears repeatedly in the Middle East as a description of an unusually tall race of people living in pre-Moses Canaan.  We could write this all off to biblical propaganda if it weren’t for the fact that Egyptian Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom period (2055-1650 B.C.) were into keeping detailed lists of the people they hated.  These “execration texts” were meant as a sort of sympathetic magic – names of undesirables were written on clay and then broken into little pieces.  Very unfriendly.  One of these texts lists political enemies in Canaan by the name “people of Anaq”.  Biblical sources suggest the Anakim were a nasty bunch and deserved to be driven from Canaan.  Basically, nobody liked the Anakim.  Although they were never actually heard uttering “Fe-fi-fo-fum”, one does get the sense that they gave folks the impression that they might grind their bones into flour and bake some tasty bread.  The point is, Reprobus, who would one day be Saint Christopher, was said to have been an Anakim.  As it turns out Reprobus was a bit of a bruiser, serving the King of the Canaanites, and found his way to the Christian faith because he wanted to serve the toughest God.

Christopher was of the lineage of the Canaanites, and he was of a right great stature, and had a terrible and fearful cheer and countenance, and he was twelve cubits of length. And as it is read in some histories that, when he served and dwelled with the king of Canaan, it came in his mind that he would seek the greatest prince that was in the world, and him would he serve and obey. And so far he went that he came to a right great king, of whom the renomee generally was that he was the greatest of the world. And when the king saw him, he received him into his service, and made him to dwell in his court. Upon a time a minstrel sang tofore him a song in which he named oft the devil; and the king, which was a Christian man, when he heard him name the devil, made anon the sign of the cross in his visage. And when Christopher saw that, he had great marvel what sign it was, and wherefore: ‘the king made it, and he demanded of him. And because the king would not say, he said: ‘If thou tell me not, I shall no longer dwell with thee’; and then the king told to him, saying: ‘Always when I hear the devil named, I fear that he should have power over me, and I garnish me with this sign that he grieve ne annoy me.’ Then Christopher said to him: ‘Doubtest thou the devil that he hurt thee not? Then is the devil more mighty and greater than thou art. I am then deceived of my hope and purpose for I had supposed I had found the most mighty and the most greatest lord of the world; but I commend thee to God, for I will go seek him for to be my lord, and I his servant.’ And then departed from this king, and hasted him for to seek the devil. And as he went by a great desert, he saw a great company of knights, of which a knight cruel and horrible came to him and demanded whither he went; and Christopher answered to him and said: ‘I go seek the devil for to be my master.’ And he said: ‘I am he that thou seekest.’ And then Christopher was glad, and bound him to be his servant perpetual, and took him for his master and lord. And as they went together by a common way, they found there a cross, erect and standing. And anon as the devil saw the cross he was afeard and fled, and left the right way, and brought Christopher about by a sharp desert. And after, when_they were past the cross, he brought him to the highway that they had left. And when Christopher saw that, he marvelled, and demanded whereof he doubted, and had left the high and fair way, and had gone so far about by so aspre a desert. And the devil would not tell him in no wise. Then Christopher said to him: ‘If thou wilt not tell me, I shall anon depart from thee, and shall serve thee no more.’ Wherefore the devil was constrained to tell him, and said: ‘There was a man called Christ which was hanged on the cross, and when I see his sign I am sore afraid, and flee from it wheresoever I see it’ (de Voragine, 1914, p48-49).

After consulting an ascetic Christian hermit about how to serve Jesus, Reprobus decides to help folks ford a swollen river to show his worthiness.  He just so happens to carry across a child at great risk to himself that turns out to be none other than the reputed savior.  Score one for Reprobus, who then goes on an orgy of missionizing, takes on the name “Christopher” (Greek for “Christ-bearer”), and was eventually executed for his troubles during the reign of either Roman Emperor Decius (249-251 A.D.) or Maximinus II Dacian (308-313 A.D.) somewhere near Antioch.  Martyrdom gets you saint points, monstrous genealogy notwithstanding.  Obviously, just being a big dude is not enough to merit the monster label, but it’s pretty clear that Reprobus wasn’t just tall, rather he was one of those crossbred nightmares like the Nephilim that everyone seemed to think rated a summary drowning.

Eastern Orthodox iconology takes a slightly different view of Saint Christopher, including a vastly different biography, except for that whole being a monster thing, popping up as a fearsome “dog-man” during the rule of Emperor Diocletian (245-311 A.D.).  The Romans had been scuffling with local Libyan tribes to the west of Egypt, and managed to capture a gentleman named Reprobus the Marmaritae.  The Marmaritae were widely regarded as a tribe of gigantic men with dog’s heads, generally referred to as cynocephali.  Add to that some Latin mistranslations of Cananeus (Canaanite) as canineus (canine) and presto, you’ve got your first dog-headed saint.  Well, it seems after a lifetime of barking and cannibalism, Reprobus realized these were not especially civilized behaviors, converted to Christianity, and got his theological props for coming so far from where he started.  St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) took up the cause of the Cynocephali, pointing out that no matter how weird they looked to us, they must be descended from Adam, and therefore could indeed benefit from being Christianized.

What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men? But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities. But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar and therefore wonderful (Augustine of Hippo, City of God, Book XVI, Chapter 8).

This is no doubt fantastic news for monsters that want to come in from the cold.  Not only is there potential for your acceptance in society, but we can point to a number of instances where humbly monstrous origins do not preclude your sanctification, not to mention a whole lot of churches being named after you.  Heck, plenty of dubiously redeemable humans find the faith (usually right before an execution).  It seems only fair to give monsters a chance at redemption.  Nobody’s perfect and there’s no harm in aspiring to be less diabolical, for as philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself”.  Next time you ‘re in a dark alley and bump into something freshly arrived from the pits of hell, overcome the tendency to run screaming and try hugging yourself a monster.  You never know which way it will go.

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Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. St. Augustine’s Treatise on the City of God. London: Society for promoting Christian knowledge, 1915.
Jacobus, de Voragine, ca. 1229-1298. The Golden Legend: Lives of the Saints. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1914.



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