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Lions of the Judaean desert

The lions of the Judaean ;desert.

It would appear that in the sixth century, the Judaean desert was peopled not only with monks but with a large number of lions. Many of them appear in the work of Cyril of Scythopolis who was writing in the first half of the century. The chief characteristic of these lions was that they were tame, or at least not agreessive to monks, and often helpful and obliging.

One of the stories about St. Sabas, who met several lions during his lifetime, tells of how, due to troubles in his monastery, he had left it and gone wandering in the desert. He found a nice cave to sleep in, Unfortunately, this cave was already home to a lion who, returning one night, found Sabas sleeping there, and took hold of his patchwork quilt in its mouth, and, tugging at it, tried to remove Sabas from its bed.

When Sabas got up to pray ( as he did at night), the lion went outside, but when he lay down to sleep again, it repreated its tactics to try and remove him. Eventually Sabas sat up nd told the lion: 'This cave is big enough for two, and it's up to you as to whether you want to stay or leave'. The lion was apparently embarrassed, and withdrew.

Sabas met another lion with a thorn in its pow. He removed the thorn and the lion then followed him about everywhere. Eventualy he gave the lion to one of his disciples who had a donkey. When the donkey was put out to graze, the lion was set to watch over it.

John the Hesychast was a monk whom Cyril knew well, and told him this story: he had left his monastery and gone to live alone in the desert of Rouba. The monks were anxious about him because there were rumours of a barbarian invasion, but he refused to return, saying that God would protect him from the barbaria;ns. And sure enough, God did: he sent a huge lion to look after him. Although John told Cyril that he was a little afraid on the first night, when he saw the animal lying down beside him, he soon got used to it and it followed him around as his companion and protector, day and night.

Stories about lions, whether told by Cyril or other people (and most of them are Cyril's stories), have as a feature lions whom are subservient to man, either protecting him or acting as his servant. Some lions, met by chance, are non agressive, such as the one who, meeting a monk on a narrow path bordered by a thorny hedge on each side, courteously gave way to him by flattening itself against the hedge so that he could pass.

One might dismiss these stories as fantasy but there are too many of them for one to be convinced that they did not have some basis in fact. A second, and more serious problem is that Cyril, himself,claims to have met one of these obliging and helpful lions during a visit to Cyriacos, a recluse who lived in a cave far from the beaten track, Cyril was taken there by Cyriacos' disciple, John, and on the way, they met an enormous lion. Cyril was terrified, but John told him not to be afraid, and the lion, when it realised they were going to see Cyriacos, let them pass. On arrival, John told Cyriacos that they had met the lion and it had terified Cyril. Cyriacos told Cyril that the lion was his companion and looked after his herbs, protecting them from the wild goats. Cyriacos invited Cyril to eat with him, and while they were eating, the lion appeared and stood in front of the old man. who stood up, gave it a piece of bread and told it to go and guard the herbs. He explained to Cyril that the lion not only guarded the herbs but also protected him from robbers and barbarians. When Cyril an John left, the found the lion on the road eating a wild goat. It left its food and moved away, so that they could pass.

What can we make of this? Cyril was a rather dull, conscious biographer of the famous monks of the Judean desert; he made it clear that he was anxious to record all their details with accuracy and it is clear that he was essentially a truthful person. Is it likely that he would make up a tale like this? The description of his visit is relatively long, and small details, such as the mention of Cyriacos standing up to feed the lion, lend it veracity.

Perhaps, in the end, there were lions in the Judaean desert in the sixth century, and the monks manaaged to tame them, and make them useful. Who knows?


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