An Ethiopian Orthodox bishop chants from the narrative “Miracles of Mary.” (photo: Asrat Habte Mariam)
The apparition of the Virgin Mary in the monastery church of Dabra Metmaq, a feast celebrated in the Ethiopian Church on 29 May, was incorporated in the “Miracles of Mary.” (photo: Malcolm Varon)
Surrounded by the company of heaven, Mary is enthroned with her son in this late 17th-century manuscript of the “Miracles of Mary.” (photo: Malcolm Varon)
A scene from the “Miracles of Mary” depicts a bishop who, overcome with a sinful thought after a woman kissed his hand, severed his hand. Mary, feeling compassion for the bishop, healed him. (photo: Malcolm Varon)
In their liturgical practices, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians preserve as many as 14 of the ancient anaphoras (Eucharistic liturgies) that date from the early church. They also use other spiritual texts, commonly read before, during or after the Divine Liturgy. One of the most popular of these is the Taamere Maryam, or the Miracles of Mary, a legendary narrative about the miracles of the Virgin Mary. That these miracles inspired the iconographic scheme in many churches attests to their importance in Ethiopian Christianity. Often, a whole wall of the sanctuary is dedicated to them.
The original home of the Miracles of Mary was Jerusalem and its immediate neighborhood. Tales of these miracles circulated in Syria and Egypt long before the end of the fourth century. Soon afterward, they reached Europe; however it appears that they were condemned, together with other apocryphal literature, at a local council in Rome in 494 A.D.
This turn of events did not by any means prevent the widespread dissemination of the miracle stories. From the fifth to the 11th centuries the Miracles of Mary enjoyed extensive popularity in Europe. By the end of the 11th century it was fashionable to form collections of these stories, which monks accepted and copied in monasteries as authentic works. Whenever a church was built in honor of the Virgin Mary, the pious provided the clergy with a manuscript of her miracles. Through the process of collecting and editing, the stories assumed new forms and gained many additions.
Eventually, manuscript copies of the Miracles of Mary arrived in the East and were translated into Arabic. In the early 15th century they were joyfully received in Ethiopia and soon translations in Geez (classical Ethiopian) appeared.
The use of the Taamere Maryam seems to have coincided with the religious reforms of one of the greatest Ethiopian emperors, Zara-Jacob (1434-68), whose reign also saw the culmination of the golden age of Geez literature.
Zara-Jacob sought to unite the people of his empire spiritually as well as politically. The dissemination of the Taamere Maryam was probably part of a plan to combat paganism and the teaching of heretics such as the Stephanites, a group who refused to honor the Virgin. Certainly, the Miracles of Mary contributed toward establishing Marian piety as a central feature of church life in late medieval Ethiopia.
There is little doubt that the present collections of the Taamere Maryam are based on European collections. The narratives show Western influence and treatment; however there is also a significant amount of native Ethiopian material.
According to the Taamere Maryam, monks were highly favored by the Virgin Mary. In one story, she miraculously gives a monk who has neither food nor clothing marvelous apparel (Chapter 4). Another describes how she helps a drunken monk named Timothy lead a righteous life (Chapter 37). A third tells how a wrongly persecuted monk who trusts in her is vindicated.
In another tale, a handsome, noble, Roman youth, Zacharias by name, journeys through a terrible wilderness inhabited by thieves. At dusk, as is his custom, Zacharias prays Gabriels words of salutation to the Virgin Mary. She appears to him in great glory, accompanied by beautiful virgins. Zachariass salutations are like a garland of flowers, which he presents to her.
Later, the thieves and their captain accost Zacharias and demand to know where he has concealed the beautiful women.
The story ends happily, however. The thieves repent and all become monks, serving Our Lady all the days of their lives.
In the story of the Virgin Mary and the Monastery of Ankona, the Virgin miraculously transfers the monastery to the border of Jericho and rebuilds it there to the great astonishment of both the monks and the people of the city:
Thy power was mighty, and thou didst make manifest thy wonderful act.
Another story relates the saga of the abbess Sophia, who is beautiful but God-fearing, devoted to Our Lady and very strict. Some of the nuns seek an opportunity to provoke a scandal and have her dismissed. Their opportunity comes when the abbess, succumbing to the temptations of Satan, conceives a child by a young manservant.
Just before the local bishop, Abba Severus, comes to investigate, the terrified abbess bows in prayer before the image of Mary and falls asleep exhausted. Accompanied by two angels, Mary appears to the sleeping abbess and says, Be thou not sorrowful, for behold I have made supplication to my son to forgive thy sin, only thou must never repeat this sin.
Then the Virgin Mary tells the angels to remove the child from the abbess Sophias womb and give him to a man named Felix.
When the abbess is examined, no child is found. Abba Severus grows angry, and fearful lest the virgins who lodged the complaint he dismissed, the abbess confesses to him. Marveling, the bishop sends to Felix for the child and brings him up in his own house. After the death of Abba Severus the young man is appointed bishop and proves to be a good shepherd to his people all the days of his life.
The sanctuary of the law is Mary; and she is the evangelist
Perhaps the most remarkable and most often illustrated narrative is that of the cannibal of Kemer. This story may reflect the barbarous state of affairs in medieval Ethiopia, especially in areas such as the Ethiopian-Sudanese border.
A man from the town of Kemer devours 78 people, including his family and friends, before setting out in search of more. Shortly before he dies, the cannibal gives a leprous beggar a drink when the thirsty man asks for it in the name of the Virgin Mary. When the cannibals soul is weighed in the balance, the little drops of water outweigh the souls he has devoured and the cannibal is saved to the amazement of the angels of light.
The stories are followed by a number of salutations to the Virgin Mary:
Salutation unto the memorial of thy name of thou who dost resemble a star that is seen by thy people, even when dark clouds have enveloped the light thereof
Salutation unto thy face, 0 lowly and glorious face, the splendor of which a sweeter than the splendor of the sun and moon
Salutation unto thy cheeks, which are like unto roses and pomegranates, the languor thereof is fire and the tears thereof are mingled with flame, by thy covenant O Mary lift thou me up into the field of delight
Salutation unto thy mouth, the mouth of abundant blessing and the holy gate, the book. I have taken refuge 0 Mary in thy covenant, which hath been accepted, therefore let me not be put to shame.
Salutation unto thy voice, which returned speech unto the word of the angel of mystery, Gabriel, whose apparel shone with splendor. O Mary thou holy woman of God, the place of his power! Hail! Hail!
Salutation unto the departure of thy body into the house of life, and the making thereof anew I entreat thee to redeem my soul by thy covenant, and let my wounds be anointed.
Salutation unto thee, O thou covenant of mercy, thou gold which comprehendeth all riches; thou art the storehouse of him that is poor and needy. 0 Mary bestow a portion of thy blessings and make supplication unto thy good son [on our behalf].
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a special relationship to the Old Testament and zealously guards ancient traditions, many of which have been abandoned elsewhere. Anybody who visits an Ethiopian church at a festival cannot help but notice the Old Testament ethos, reminiscent of worship in the Jewish Temple. Churches are often circular, built on a raised area and surrounded by an outer courtyard. At festivals, throngs of white-clad worshippers bring offerings of incense, tapers, raisins for communion wine, money or sometimes even live oxen. Debtera, lay persons with expertise in liturgy or spirituality, sing and dance, according to the ancient traditions of St. Yared, as the worshippers prostrate and offer prayers outside the sanctuary.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the Virgin Mary is often referred to in terms associated with themes from the Old Testament. She is the hope of salvation in the mind of Adam, the ark of the covenant, whose two thighs are the pillars of the roof of the sanctuary. She is also the pillar of cloud who feeds with heavenly manna.
However, the God we encounter in Ethiopian spirituality is not the vengeful deity of Joshua, but the God of loving kindness and tender mercies described by King David in the psalms.
Traditionally in the Ethiopian Church the Taamere Maryam is read early in the morning, before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. Like most apocryphal books it is meant only for a few.
Under the late Patriarch Abuna Tekla Heymanot, the Holy Synod attempted to abolish the so-called Meqdema Maryam (introduction or preface), because of its anathemas against those who do not observe strictly all the 33 feast days of the Virgin (which even priests are rarely able to do).
Many interpreted this ban, however, as an attack on the Taamere Maryam. Consequently, there was a strong counter-reaction, particularly among the preaching hermits. The Miracles of Mary is now read after the main liturgy in many monasteries and churches.
Let us hope that the Taamere Maryam will continue to remind us that the East owes much to the West, just as the West owes much to the East, and that even the rich liturgical heritage of the isolated Christian community of Ethiopia is part of a common Christian heritage.
Joachim Persoon is a postgraduate researcher at the University of London’s Department of the Study of Religions, School of Oriental and African Studies.