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September 6, 2016

The Genesis and Migration of the Cult of the Archangel Michael

By Rich Johnson

And an angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pond; and the water was moved. And he that went down first into the pond after the motion of the water, was made whole, of whatsoever infirmity he lay under. - John 5:4

Although there is no indication that the angel who agitated the water of the pool of Bethesda was the Archangel Michael, the story does suggest an early recognition of angelic agency in healing waters. In the early Christian era, angels were widely venerated for their healing powers all across western Asia Minor. The size and influence of the Jewish community in the region suggests that the devotion to angels may have in some part developed out of Jewish angelology, itself a product of foreign influences. In several of his Epistles, St. Paul is particularly concerned with and preaches against the worship of angels. In his most polemical attack on the practice, the Apostle condemns the Colossians for worshipping angels (Colossians 2:18). In the fourth century, the Council of Laodicea (ca. 360) reiterated St. Paul's aversion to the worship of angels and expressly prohibited the practice. Writing some fifty years after the Council, however, Theodoret, in his commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians, stated that the "disease" against which St. Paul inveighed "long remained in Phrygia and Pisidia," adding that "even to the present time oratories of the holy Michael may be seen among them and their neighbors."

Ancient Near East

In Eastern Christendom, Michael was almost exclusively associated with the healing powers of fountains and springs. The most famous legend of Michael in the ancient Near East is that of his appearance at Chonae (Khonas, Turkey). The legend, which exists in three Greek versions, a Latin recension, and an Ethiopian version, is actually a conflated account of two legendary interventions, one associated with a miraculous spring at Chairotopa (present day Ceretapa, Turkey) and the other with the preservation of a shrine at Chonae.

In the Greek versions of the legend, the apostles John and Philip, passing through the village of Chairotopa, announce that Michael the Archangel will soon manifest his power in that place. Shortly after the departure of the apostles, a spring begins to flow in the vicinity of the village. The miraculous healing powers of the water become famous in the region, drawing throngs of visitors seeking cures for their ailments. One such visitor is a pagan man from Laodicea who brings his daughter, mute since birth, to the spring. The waters of the spring cure the girl of her illness, and the father builds a chapel dedicated to Michael near the spring.

The narrative of the legend continues some ninety years later with the establishment of a hermit named Archippos in the chapel sanctuary of St. Michael. Resentful of the healing power of the Archangel's spring and sanctuary, however, the local heathen population now threaten to destroy them. By digging a series of canals, the heathen divert two rivers toward the shrine to inundate it. The hermit Archippos prays to St. Michael for the preservation of the spring and shrine. With thunder and lightning, the Archangel causes a massive earthquake to open a deep chasm in the ground. The diverted waters of the two rivers funnel into the chasm, and the sanctuary and spring are preserved.

As Leuken has pointed out, the Greek text is a composite one which describes the origins of two distinct natural phenomena (the source of a spring and the funneling together of two rivers) as if they occurred at the same location. Leuken argues that the spring was in fact at Chairotopa as the various recensions of the legend suggest, but that the funneling of the rivers must have occured at Chonae, which derived its name from the Greek word for "funnel" (chone). Although Chonae is only mentioned in the title and the conclusion of the Greek recensions, Victor Saxer agrees with Leuken, and suggests that an analysis of the various recensions reflects the rise of Chonae, and its eventual supersedure of Chairotopa, as an important pilgrimage site. While several critics have argued that the composition of the legend most likely dates from the sixth or seventh century, Saxer has shown that the legend must have first begun to circulate sometime in the second half of the fifth century, a time when "Chonè était universellement connue et reconnue comme le sanctuaire par excellence de saint Michel."

St. Michael was also associated with miraculous water at the ancient sites of Germia (Yürme, Turkey), where fish inhabited the healing pool. Perhaps his most famous sanctuary in the ancient Near East, however, was the Michaelion built by the Emperor Constantine at Chalcedon on the site of an earlier temple known as Sosthenion. The site has a rich pagan history which is relevant to Constantine's appropriation of the site. According to the story told by John Malalas in the sixth century, the Argonauts were attacked at the Bosphorus by a force under the command of a local chieftain named Amycus while they were navigating their way to the Black Sea in search of the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts sought refuge in a secluded cove, where they had a vision of a man with wings like an eagle. The figure prophesied their victory over Amycus, and the grateful Argonauts built a temple in which they set up a statue of the apparition. They called the site "Sosthenion" because they had been saved there. The legend continues that when Constantine visited the temple he recognized the statue as "an angel in the habit of a monk." The identity of the angel was revealed to him in a dream (presumably by Michael), and Constantine built the Michaelion in honor of the archangel. The site became famous for miraculous healings and even apparitions of the archangel.

Several years after the foundation of the Michaelion, during his campaign against Licinius, Constantine allegedly had a series of visions in which his victory over his rival was declared. In the brief campaign, Constantine defeated his rival's forces at Byzantium, forcing Licinius to withdraw across the Bosphorus. In September 324, Constantine led his army into battle at Chrysopolis, not far from the Michaelion of Chalcedon. Constantine defeated Licinius and united under his control the eastern and western portions of the empire. Eusebius of Caesarea brings his Historia ecclesiastica to an end with the account of Constantine's defeat of Licinius. By ending his account of the development of the church in this way, Eusebius placed the unification of the empire in the larger context of the workings of Providence in the earthly sphere, suggesting that the empire and its emperor were the earthly parallel of the heavenly kingdom.

In his official account of the Emperor's life, the Vita Constantini, however, Eusebius further elaborates on the significance of Licinius's defeat. After his victory, Constantine commissioned a painting of himself and his sons standing on top of a serpent pierced by a weapon. The painting was displayed to the public in front of the Emperor's palace. The iconographic representation of Constantine's victory over Licinius is clearly a visual reworking of the mythic battle of Revelation 12:7-9. Thus, Constantine associated himself with St. Michael, the commander of the celestial host, as he had previously associated himself with other supernatural beings, such as Sol Invictus and Apollo.

By the fourteenth century, Constantine's appropriation of and identification with Michaeline iconography had become fully integrated in the legendary account of the founding of the Michaelion. In his Ecclesiastica Historia, Nicephorus Callistus conflates the accounts of Constantine's vision of the angel that resembled a monk and his defeat of Licinius. Nicephorus begins with the account of the Argonauts' fight against Amycus and the establishment of the Sosthenion, following the lines of John Malalas's narrative. When he recounts the episode of Constantine's vision, however, Nicephorus reports the apparition's words in direct speech: "I am, says he, Michael, the chief of the military power of the Lord Sabaoth, protector of the faith of Christians; who as to a faithful and dear minister gave you while you fought against the impious tyrants the armies which aided you." According to Nicephorus, then, there is no question that it was St. Michael who appeared to Constantine at the Sosthenion. Instead of revealing to him the identity of the angel-monk, however, Michael informed Constantine that his defeat of the "impious tyrants," the forces of Licinius, was a result of the aid with which the Archangel had provided him.

With the defeat of Licinius and the unification of the eastern and western portions of the empire under Constantine, Michael's cult began its westward migration in the fourth and fifth centuries. Following the path of many Greek heroes, popular devotion to Michael landed on the Greek-speaking soil of the ancient Garganic peninsula on the southwestern coast of Italy. Known in ancient times as Daunia, the promontory had provided safe haven for heroes such as Diomedes, who sought refuge there from the vengeance of Aphrodite after Troy. According to Strabo, the Greek historian and geographer, Diomedes founded two cities, Canusium and Argyrippa, on this ancient peninsula. The attribution is echoed by Virgil, who calls Diomedes "victor Gargani" for establishing the city of Argyrippa. Strabo also remarks that on this same promontory, on a "hill by the name of Drium, are to be seen two hero-temples: one, to Calchas, on the very summit, where those who consult the oracle sacrifice to his shade a black ram and sleep in the hide, and the other, to Podaleirius, down near the base of the hill ... and from it flows a stream which is a cure-all for diseases of animals." The burial places of Calchas, the soothsayer who foretold that the Greeks would fight unsuccessfully for nine years at Troy before taking the city in the tenth (Iliad, Book II, ll. 324-332), and Podaleirius, one of the sons of Aesculapius the healer, had a long association with healing. Although he does not name the healing god's son, the Greek tragedian Lycophron describes Podaleirius's burial place as the site of great portents:

and to men sleeping in sheepskins on his tomb he shall declare in dreams his unerring message for all. And healer of diseases shall he be called by the Daunians, when they wash the sick with the waters of Althaenus and invoke the son of Epius [Aesculapius] to their aid, that he may come gracious unto men and flocks.

Considering the long tradition of worship and healing at the site, it is not surprising that the earliest and greatest center of Michaeline devotion in the West from the fourth century was a remote cavern on the summit of a hill on the ancient Garganic promontory.

Source: From In Progress, Volume 1, Issue 1, November 2002.