By John Sanidopoulos
Once in a while we come upon a detailed biography of a saint and we wonder where all this information came from. The details are such that only an eye-witness can testify to them, yet when we come to the end of the story we see that all the eye-witnesses are no longer alive to tell the story. In such cases, we need to understand that there is something else being conveyed in the narrative beside telling us a detailed historical biography.
Such is the case with St. Markella of Chios, a beloved saint in the Orthodox Church celebrated annually on July 22nd throughout the Orthodox world. Yet before St. Markella became widely known in the past century or so, she was locally venerated in the island of Chios. Historically, there are no manuscripts or other written documents that refer to her life. For this reason, those ecclesiastical writers who sought to compile her life to be included in the official reading of the Church came out empty handed, and hence her name was commemorated without any details. Today, however, when we research the life of St. Markella, we get a detailed biography of around thirty pages (read here). How did this come about?
Metropolitan Sophronios Eustratiades of Leontopolis (1878-1947), in his book Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, explains as follows under the section titled "Venerable Markella":
It is unknown when the Saint lived. In the surviving record about her it says that 'there is no account of her, no canon and no legend, and therefore seems unknown,' but has become known through the inhabitants of the island of Chios, and from many years past have a temple in honor of the Saint, by whom is performed many miracles. Her biographical record in the "Leimonarion" is a construct of modern times, making her to be a citizen of Chios, although we have no ancient sources for this. The poetic service dedicated to her was composed by Hieromonk Nikephoros of Chios, based on the modern legend of the same Nikephoros. Also, there is no evidence of a more ancient service to her. The residents of Chios, among other miracles of the Saint, affirm also the following: At the beach where her temple is located there are stones full of coagulated blood which they scrape off and put into vessels and this is able to cure every disease. The following important iambic verses are written of Markella: 'Though unknown to us all Markella, Christ saw the way you contested.' But while this verse is ignorant of the way of her contest, her recent biographer Nikephoros says that she was killed by her father for refusing to succumb to his lewd desires.
St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite (1749–1809), in his Synaxarion for the Twelve Months of the Year, also explains the strange iambic verses as follows:
Though unknown to us all Markella,Christ saw the way you contested.
It appears that it is not known who this Saint Markella is, or where she was martyred, because no record has been preserved and her story has not been handed down. But the inhabitants of the island of Chios from olden times built a revered church in her name, and they have a great relationship and reverence towards her. Hence there followed many miracles performed in Chios through this Saint on a daily basis.
One miracle among many takes place even today. Where the church of the Saint was built, one can find gravel and rocks near the shore, which appear to be full of coagulated blood. Christians take these bloodied rocks and scrape them, and they put the scrapings in a pot which they keep for the healing of every illness.
From this the Saint has became familiar to everyone as a Venerable One and Martyr. A Martyr from the coagulated blood found on the rocks there. A Venerable One from her appearances, which she does through sleep. To many who flee to her church for the grace of healing, the Saint appears in their sleep wearing the clothing of a nun, and it is thought she comes from the sea and enters the church there.
From these two authoritative sources, we learn that the modern legend of St. Markella was compiled by St. Nikephoros of Chios (1750-1821) based on the traditions of the local inhabitants with additional didactic elements based on these stories. Before these stories were compiled, nothing was known, as is testified by the iambic verses in her honor.
Metropolitan Dionysios of Chios further adds in his biography published in 1990:
There are several theories given regarding when St. Markella may have lived. Some suggest she lived during the persecution of Isidoros in Chios. Others maintain that her Roman name, her father’s idolatrous persuasion, and her father’s use of a bow and arrow may place the account during the persecution of the third and fourth centuries. On the other hand, many contend she lived after Sts. Isidore and Matrona, the latter having reposed in 1462. Saint Nikephoros of Chios, who composed her divine service, together with chroniclers, place the martyrdom c. 1500. Most theologians and scholars prefer the date after 1500, especially since no records or shrine to her memory exist before that time.
Based on all this information, St. Nikolai Velimirovich (1880-1956) in his Prologue offers the best summary of the life of St. Markella:
Saint Markella is greatly venerated on the island of Chios. In the church dedicated to her there, miracles occur every year. However, her life is not known. According to tradition Markella was an unusually pious girl who was left motherless at an early age. Her bestial, pagan father wanted to live with his daughter as with a wife. Markella fled from her father, but he, enraged like a wild beast, caught up with her and cut her into pieces. In the proximity of her church, there are certain stones that, from time to time, become as if covered with blood. People take these stones, bring them to church, and pray to St. Markella. They then touch the sick with them, who are thereby healed.