October 1, 2010

The "Thekara": An Old Monastic Prayer Book of Mount Athos

“Divine and beautiful,” “the rarest treasure,” “a horn of mystical sound” – these are some of the ways in which 14th-century Greek monks described the book of the Thekara. What they were describing was an Orthodox spiritual text with a tradition that was vital in the period from the 14th through the 19th centuries.

The text in question is the Greek Horologion of Thekara, which I. Mansvetov describes in detail in his book on Church rules. In order to provide a better idea of the nature and the use of the Thekara in the monastic community of Mount Athos, I will quote a passage from Mansvetov:

"The Athonite monk Thekara is known for his commentaries (толкования) of Church hymns, a narrative about their origin, and a daily cycle Office for monastic use. The "Horologion" of Thekara follows in general the order of the Jerusalem Horologia, but differs from them in introducing particular hymns, prayers and troparia, some of which are his original work, while others belong to other writers. "Thekara" also discusses the way to conduct the Office during communal gatherings of the monks and in private, in monk's cells.

Thekara's "Horologion" was very popular on Mount Athos within the monastic community. In the "Introduction to the Horologion", we find instructions to keep the book in the monastic library. The book could [only] be taken out if there were monks who wanted to copy the Office of the daily cycle with the prayers, since these particular parts were the most needed; the commentaries of the hymns and the narrative about their origin could be omitted."

The Greek text of the monk Thekara’s "Triadic Hymn with Midnight Prayer From the Dogmatics of the Holy Dionysius the Areopagite. Compilation and Composition of the Monk Thekara" consists of original prayers and triadic hymns by Thekara himself, as well as prayers attributed to Symeon the New Theologian, Basil the Great, Nicephoros Blemidos, and others, which were added in a later period. All of these components are organized in a daily cycle, which starts with the Midnight Office and ends with Compline.

The text exhibits the typical features of its liturgical genre: lack of narrative, repetitions on the level of syntagmas, common rhetorical devices such as antithesis, syntactic parallelism, pleonasms, etc. The function of the text was to be read both in private (in the monastic cells) and communally, as a part of the liturgy. Furthermore, the monastic function of the text is also observable on the level of its language, which exhibits clear references or allusions frequently to the Psalter, and to a lesser degree, to the texts of the Gospels and the Apostle. Certain prayers in the text are written in the penitential style; that is, they are oriented towards self-derogatory discourse as a means of repenting one’s sins. Naturally, the sins appear in long lists in different prayers, similarly to the listings of sins in the Slavonic Kormčaia kniga (Nomokanon or Canon Law Code). In addition, the monastic orientation of the Thekara makes it functionally and, to a certain extent, linguistically parallel to other solely monastic genres such as the genre of the monastic Pandects (the monastic code of laws)....

Without going into any great detail, I will outline scholarly opinions regarding the idendity of the author of the Thekara compilation. In the opinion of the majority of researchers, the monk Thekara lived and worked in the 14th century. Some researchers such as J. P. Migne (1844), Archimandrite Philaretos (1864: 112), Karl Krumbacher (1897: 548-550), and H. Beck (1959: 704-5), among others, identify him as the 14th-century writer Thomas Magister or the monk Theodul. However, these suppositions are debatable since there are 11th-century copies of Thekara’s texts, including the daily cycle, and the monk Dionysius from the 14th century states that Theodul was a student of Thekara. These data is uncovered in the most recent publication on this problem, the dissertation of the Greek scholar S. Skalistes (1984) that rejects equating Thekara with Thomas Magister and Theodul (274-5). An additional difficulty for the attribution of the text stems from the fact that there is not a single source with a reference to the lay name of “Thekara.” This situation is peculiar but not uncommon for the Middle Ages; it is discussed in Theodul’s Diegesis: “I swore not to reveal his [Thekara’s] name in order not to make it known in this town; also because of education and virtues for glorification.” The only two biographical references relate that Thekara was “a monk from Constantinople” and that he was “a master of making swords,” which is, in fact, the etymology of his name. It is quite possible that this etymology is a secondary one, a result of the “philological” work of 14th-century monks who wrote about Thekara. In any case, there is not enough evidence to answer the question about Thekara’s identity, and I will not attempt to resolve this question in the present study.

The distribution of the Greek text of the Thekara is quite large. About 252 Greek copies of works attributed to the monk Thekara are preserved on Mount Athos, in the Jerusalem Library, on Mount Sinai, and in Italy, Moscow and other European repositories. The oldest Greek copy of the Midnight Office, accesible to me, dates to the 14th century; it is a parchment copy of 1341 from the Moscow State Historical Museum (GIM). In this study I examine sixteen Greek manuscripts of Thekaras Midnight Office as well as the Venetian printed edition of 1783.

For more on the Thekara, I highly recommend this doctoral dissertation by Tania D. Ivanova-Sullivan titled LEXICAL VARIATION IN THE SLAVONIC THEKARA TEXTS: SEMANTIC AND PRAGMATIC FACTORS IN MEDIEVAL TRANSLATION PRAXIS out of Ohio State University, which can be read here.

here on a recent published Greek text, which shows this was a prayer book used by monastics to prepare them for Holy Communion.

here for a section on the interpretation of hymns.