The Thessalonian Saints Cyril and Methodios, Teachers of the Slavs – Part IΙ

12 May 2014

Saints-Cyril-and-Methodius in 3

The World of the Slavs 

The Slavs first appeared in history at the end of the first century A.D. They then lived to the east of the Germans, in the region of the Vistula. In the sixth century, there were three tribes: the Slavs, the Venedi and the Antes. These were divided further into small groups but foreigners gave them all the same name: Sclaveni or Slavs. After continual movements which began in the third century and lasted until the ninth, they had spread over the greater part of Europe, from the Don to the Alps and from the Baltic to the Balkans. Their movements, at least in the earliest years, were, by and large, peaceful. The increase in their numbers and the extension of their lands can be explained precisely by the fact that they did not make war and therefore had no losses in battle. When they settled permanently in the areas they had taken over, they then became organized militarily.

In the ninth century, their positions had stabilized in more or less their present regions, with only a few later fluctuations. The Russians, as we have seen, occupied the country between the Dnieper and the Don, while around them lived other Slav tribes who were later absorbed by them. The Poles lived around the River Vistula. On the Elbe lived the Obotrites, Veleti and the Lusitanian Sorbs, who later merged with their neighbouring tribes. The Moravians, Czechs and Slovaks also occupied their present territories, and a part of Pannonia. The rest of the Pannonia region had been settled by Slovenes. Northern Illyria was shared between the Croats and Serbs, while Northern Thrace was occupied by the Bulgars. Various tribes that lived in Greek regions were either ejected later or absorbed.

The Slavs lived a nomadic life in roughly-made shelters, though they gradually formed settlements of farmers and herdsmen. For safety they built wooden fortifications, *gordъ, (> gorod, grad, hrad) which later became towns, though this development is not observable before the ninth century. Justice was determined by the tribal chiefs and custom and they had no literature or education. It had not been possible for them to have temples before then; instead of priests, they had magicians from whom they sought assistance in the trials of life. Their religious ceremonies were conducted by heads of families and clans, who also guarded the sacred symbols. It appears that the original deity of the Slavs was the goddess of fertility, which goes some way to explaining their immoral personal lives. Next came the god of the sun or fire, who had different names in the various Slav tribes. Apart from these there were hosts of nymphs and spirits, whose homes were considered to be fire, water, trees and houses.

They worshipped their ancestors, but had no representation of hell. They believed that the soul was material and wandered the earth after death. Widows often committed suicide to be buried with their dead husbands, while children and the elderly were killed in times of starvation. Compared to other peoples, they were slow in coming to Christianity. This was due to the fact that for centuries, as nomads, they had forced the natives of the areas they occupied either to leave or to be assimilated. Wherever they encountered Christianity, as in Thrace, Illyria and Pannonia, they destroyed it.

The first elements of Christianity were taken by the Slavs from those inhabitants of the above areas who remained there. Although they lost their religious organization,  they did, at least, manage to retain the basic features of religious faith, which they unwittingly passed on to the invaders.

This is also the reason why the South Slavs were the first to approach the idea of the One God. But the Christian faith was also spread by prisoners of war, merchants and missionaries. Greek missionaries worked among all the Slav nations, while the Italians and Germans restricted themselves to the West Slavs. Christianity assisted the Slav nations to reinforce their state authority, to organize their society and to enter the world of civilized peoples.

Awaiting the great mission 

On the return of the two missionaries to Constantinople from Khazaria, both the emperor, Michael III, and Patriarch Fotios were more than satisfied. They took the opportunity to persuade Methodios not to go back to Olympus, because they considered it essential that he serve the Church. They suggested he accept the office of bishop, probably marking him out for Russia, but he refused and so they were forced to send someone else. He agreed not to go to Olympus, however, and stayed to become abbot of the monastery of Polychroniou, in Propontis, to the west of Cyzicus. So he was closer to the capital.

Konstantinos was given the post of professor at the Patriarchal theological school which was housed in a specific building at the Holy Apostles. He taught, studied and prepared himself for something magnificent which he felt was awaiting him. In 862, the ruler of Moravia, Rastislav, sent an embassy to Constantinople asking for someone to teach Christianity to his subjects. Byzantium and the Ecumenical Patriarchate had arranged matters in such a way that the leaders of the uncivilized peoples themselves were the ones to seek a mission.

The letter brought by the envoys read: “Although our people has rejected idolatry and observes the Christian law, nevertheless we do not have a teacher such as is able to explain the correct faith in our own language, so that seeing this, other peoples will imitate us. Therefore send us, Lord, a bishop and such a teacher. Because from you the good law emanates to all lands”. A meeting was called immediately with the emperor presiding, the prime minister Bardas, Patriarch Fotios and other notables among those present. They all wanted Konstantinos, whom the emperor summoned and addressed thus: “I am aware, Philosopher, that you feel tired, but you have to go there, because no-one else can bring this mission to a successful conclusion”.

The philosopher replied that although he was tired and ill, he would still go with pleasure, as long as they had an alphabet there appropriate to their language. He himself, of course, had already translated texts into Slavonic using Greek letters and had noticed that this did not render all the sounds accurately. The emperor replied: “My grandfather, my father and many others sought them but did not find any, how then can I find them?”. The Philosopher replied: “How can anyone write a word in water or [who will want] to acquire the name of heretic?”. The emperor again answered him, together with Bardas, his uncle on his mother’s side: “If you want, God will give it to you Who gives to all whatever they desire without doubting and opens to those who knock”.

The philosopher left the meeting and. according to his wont, began to pray, together with some of his colleagues. God’s help was not long in making itself manifest. When Konstantinos had been enlightened by God, he created the first Slavonic alphabet and thereafter began work on the translation of the Gospel text of Saint John: “In the beginning was the Word”. The script invented by Cyril, as he later became, is called glagolitic[1]. Based initially on Greek minuscules, it rounded, complicated and changed the characters. For the sounds absent from Greek, he adapted Hebrew characters or invented his own. Through this difficult script, Cyril wanted to emphasize the linguistic and national separateness of the Slavs. The script later changed, based on Greek uncials and was simplified. In this way the so-called “Cyrillic script” was formed.

The language into which the two brothers translated the Biblical and liturgical texts was that spoken at the time by the South Slavs, who had infiltrated into the lands of the Greek empire. Many Drougovites and Sagoudatoi came to Thessaloniki for commercial reasons and even more worked as servants in the houses of the nobility in the city. The members of these families, and the merchants, of necessity learned many words of this unpolished dialect because these culturally under-developed immigrants were in no position to learn Greek, which was refined and complex, so communication would otherwise have been impossible.

Naturally, people of the abilities of Konstantinos and Methodios understood with ease the whole mechanism of this language. Since the Slav tribes had split from each other a mere four hundred or so years earlier, there were still no great dialectal differences between them, so the language of the South Slavs was intelligible to those in the west and north. But the linguistic form employed by the two brothers did not entirely conform to that spoken dialect, since it altered under the influence of their pens. It acquired composite words, new linguistic types and a character suited to holiness.

Even though it was, to some extent, an artificial language and was never used as such in normal speech, it formed the basis for the development of all the national Slavonic languages and became a means of unification for the Slav peoples from that day to this. Before setting out on the great journey, Konstantinos translated the four Gospels, the epistles of the New Testament and a collection of Patristic works. He also wrote a grammar and homilies. As a prologue to the translation of the Gospels, he attached a poem of his, which reveals the ambitions of the missionaries:

A mouth not most sweet

transforms a man to stone;

much more, a soul devoid of letters

sleeps in hibernation in human existence.

Bearing this in mind, brethren,

we have brought you an appropriate gift,

which liberates the whole world

from the life of beasts and the passions.[2]

Mission to Moravia 

In the ninth century, the Moravians had a monarchy and a largely agricultural population. Settled in the area once inhabited by the Lombards, they were at the time subject to the German state, but were forever rebelling and occasionally enjoyed full independence. Under the power of their leaders- apart from Moravians- there were Czechs, Slovaks, groups of Poles and the Slav tribes on the Elbe. They were in a period of development, which was to come to an end a few decades later with their conquest by the Hungarians.

Christianity began to be spread among the Moravians by Italian, German and Greek missionaries. The ruler and a good number of the nobles had been baptized, but the ordinary people were still steeped in idolatry. When Rastislav stated that his people would accept the Christian faith, he was anticipating a development which he hoped would not be long in coming. He turned to Byzantium to obtain a bishop, with the aim of completing the spread of Christianity and the organization of the Church in his country.

He had two reasons for turning to Byzantium: in the first place he knew that preparatory work was under way for the translation of ecclesiastical literature into Slavonic; and secondly he did not fear political intervention from that source, as he did from the German state. Byzantium did not send a bishop, because, in the Orthodox view, a bishop is there to administer a particular area and is not free to make missionary journeys. This is why, instead of a bishop, they sent a group of missionaries.

This group, headed by Konstantinos and Methodios, started out for Moravia in the spring of 863. Also in the group were Clement, Naoum, Angelarios, Savvas and some other colleagues who were later to distinguish themselves in mission work. Emperor Michael III also furnished the leader of the expedition with a letter, in which he said: “God, […] seeing your faith and effort, […] has been pleased to reveal letters in your language, so that you, too, may be reckoned among the great nations which glorify God in their own language. We are therefore sending you him to whom God revealed them, an honest man and devout, well-educated and a philosopher. Take, then, the best gift, more valuable than any gold or silver…”.

In all likelihood, they followed a route which took them through Traïanoupolis, Philippi, Thessaloniki, Skopje, Niš, Singidunum (Belgrade), Sirmium and then on to the border of Moravia, where representatives of the prince awaited them. The inhabitants of Moravia gave the Greek missionaries a warm welcome. Besides, it was no small honour for a proud but ignorant people to receive and provide hospitality to  so many educated Byzantine monks, who brought as a gift an alphabet and books translated into the local language[3].

The first stop for the missionaries was Rastislav’s palace in the neighbourhood of today’s Mikulčice and they then went on to a location in the region of Velehrad[4], where the first Byzantine missionaries had settled, as had many Greek merchants. The Moravians lived in agrarian settlements, by family. In each area there was one or more wooden fortification (hrad), where the tribal chiefs and their army lived. These fortifications later developed into towns. Velehrad was at that time perhaps the only fortified site in Moravia what had already grown into a town.

Konstantinos and Methodios set about their task systematically and efficiently. First they founded a school, in which the sons of nobles studied, learning the alphabet, grammar, the Scriptures and the services. At the same time, the missionaries extended  their teaching to the ordinary people and baptized those who espoused Christianity. They sent their colleagues to spread the Word in the scattered settlements of the country.

So Christianity, which until then had been taken to a few fortified sites which had acquired wooden churches, now spread from one end of the country to the other, among not only the Moravians, but also the Czechs, Slovaks and Poles. The missionaries translated the services so that they could gradually be integrated into the calendar of worship. They were also at pains to erect stone churches, many of which have been revealed today through archaeological efforts. The work of these Greek missionaries was far more successful, compared to that of the Italian and German ones. But the Greeks tolerated them, even though they saw that they not only allowed certain irregularities but had also imported some superstitions from the pagan Moravians. But the others attacked the Greeks. They seized the opportunity of Rastislav’s submission to Louis (Ludwig) the German in 864, shortly after the arrival of the Greek mission, to discourage and condemn them. They claimed that God could be worshipped only in three languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin (i.e. the languages of the inscription that Pilate put on the Lord’s Cross) and therefore not in Slavonic. Konstantinos easily rebuffed their arguments and called them Trinlingualists or Pilatians. Of course, the real reason for the attacks lay elsewhere. The Germans had been angered by the official invitation to the Greek missionaries because they disliked Byzantium. For their part, the Greeks disdained the Germans as barbarians and claimants to the imperial throne.

The Slavs too, called them “nemtsi” i.e. barbarian[5]. The leader of the German clergy in Moravia was one Wiching and the Italians were headed by Ioannes. Under pressure from political developments, Rastislav wished to find a compromise. He invited all the groups to set out their views, but in the end they could not agree. The missionaries remained in Moravia for three years and four months in this first period, that is from autumn 863 till the beginning of 867. They had already trained many disciples, among them some 100 theologians.

They did not have enough priests, however, to conduct worship. We know that Konstantinos was the only priest among them, though it is clear that some of his colleagues must also have been ordained, as well as some of the older Greek missionaries who had been added to their number. Be that as it may, there were not enough to meet the needs of the flock which was growing all the time. They needed one or two bishops to be consecrated, who could then pass on the priesthood to others.

In Rome

The two brothers departed Moravia, having left some of their colleagues there. Initially, they went to Vlatinski Kocel, the capital of Pannonia[6]. This country, which had once belonged to the Roman empire, had already been conquered by the Slovenes. Christianity had been destroyed and was now returning to the region. Kocel was a Christian and envied the good fortune of the Moravians in having found two such teachers. He had already been in touch with the missionaries earlier. Now they had arrived in his country and could carry out his request that they instruct the Slovenes. The prince gave them a justifiably enthusiastic welcome, learned Slavonic script himself and read their books. They stayed in Pannonia for six months and trained 50 disciples.

The missionaries then went on their way. Where to? Certainly Constantinople[7]. They had undertaken a great mission for Emperor Michael III and Patriarch Fotios. They had followed orders and, seeing that the Churches of Moravia and Slovenia could now be organized into metropoles, they were going to the capital of the empire to be ordained. But when they were still in Pannonia (Slovenia), they received distressing news. Boris of Bulgaria had taken the Bulgarian Church away from the influence of the Patriarchate and had turned towards the West. It would therefore not have been wise to pass through Bulgarian territory to get to Constantinople and so they would have to go by sea. Thus they went down to Venice. They were given an unhealthy reception in the city by Western bishops, priests and monks who accused them of using Slavonic in their services. Konstantinos replied that every people had the right to read the Gospel and praise God in their own language.

The Venetians placed the missionaries under restrictions, while Pope Nicholas I, who was very much at odds with Fotios, invited them to Rome for discussions. They arrived in December 867, but the situation had already changed. Nicholas had died and the new Pope, Adrian II, the clergy and the people of Rome accorded the missionaries an enthusiastic welcome, given that they had brought with them a precious gift- part of the relics of Saint Clement. For this reason, and because of the Pope’s desire to restore the troubled relations with Constantinople, no obstacles were placed in the way of the initiatives of the two brothers. The Pope accepted books in Slavonic and had them placed in a central church[8] in the city. Afterwards, on the orders of the Pope, Bishops Formosus[9]- later to become Pope himself- and Gauderich ordained Methodios and three disciples to the priesthood and two others as readers. The liturgy after the ordination was celebrated in Slavonic.

The two brothers and their disciples stayed in Greek monasteries in Rome and awaited the moment of their consecration as bishops. Time went by, however, and the consecrations were delayed. The Pope was hesitant because he was afraid of any extension of Greek influence in an area he considered his own. In the meantime, Konstantinos, who had always been of a sickly nature, fell ill. When he realized that his end was nigh, he put on vestments and remained dressed thus the whole day, saying joyfully: “From now on I am no longer a servant either of the emperor, or of anyone else on earth, but only of God Almighty and I was and will be unto the ages, amen”.

The next day, he put on the monastic habit and was re-named Cyril. He lasted 50 days in this habit, but when he realized that the hour of his death had arrived, he prayed: “Lord, my God, Who created all the angelic ranks and the bodiless powers, Who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth and brought all things out of non-existence into existence, and Who, everywhere and at all times, hearken to those who carry out Your will, those who fear You and observe Your commandments, hear my prayer and keep Your faithful flock, those whom You entrusted to me, me, Your insignificant and unworthy servant. You, Who deliver all from every atheistic and pagan evil, and from every loquacious and blasphemous tongue, which says blasphemies against You, destroy the heresy of trilingualism…”.

He died at the age of 42 in 869. The Pope ordered a magnificent funeral, but Methodios disagreed. He wanted to take the body to Constantinople, but the Romans prevented him, and so Cyril was buried in the church of Saint Clement, to the right of the altar.

[1] Derived from the Old Slavonic glagolъ “utterance” (trans. note)

[2] He also had this to say, which reveals his competence as a translator: “Words were not rendered blindly with the corresponding same ones, for it was not the words and expressions we needed but their meaning. For this reason, where it happened that the meaning agreed in the Greek and Slavonic, we rendered the expression by the same word; where the expression was longer, however, or made to lose its meaning, then, without abandoning it, we rendered it by another word. Greek translated into another language cannot always be rendered in the same way and this is true of all languages which are translated. A word that is elegant in one language is often not so in the other and one which is imposing in one language is not in another and what is cardinal in one language is not in another… It is not, therefore, possible always to follow the Greek expression, but what must be preserved is the meaning”. Vaillant, Textes vieux-slaves, I 63-64, II, 52-54. (trans. note).

[3] “cum eos ferre audierant, et evvangelium in eorum linguam a Philosopho predicto translatum”, Legenda Italica (trans. note).

[4] Still the most important place of pilgrimage in the Czech Republic, it boasts a large basilica dedicated to Ss. Cyril and Methodius (trans. note)

[5] Actually: “a man who cannot speak [Slavonic]”. “Slav” is connected with the root “slov-”, so Slavs were “people who knew words” (trans. note).

[6] Christou makes a mistake here in thinking “князъ блатеньскы” refers to a place, the capital of Pannonia. It actually means “Kocel, Prince of Balaton” (trans. note).

[7] It is not at all certain. The Slavonic Life of Saint Cyril makes no mention of their destination and it is at least as likely, for a variety of reasons, that they were headed for Venice and/or Rome (trans. note).

[8] The church concerned was that of Santa Maria ad Praesepe, today’s Santa Maria Maggiore. The church, which had been built by Pope Liberius (352-366) and renovated by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) was the oldest in Rome, dedicated to the Virgin Mary (trans. note).

[9] Bishop of Porto. Christou mentions above the efforts of Boris to turn towards Rome. Formosus was the Bishop sent to negotiate with Boris. The choice of him to ordain the disciples of Cyril and Methodios was no doubt a deliberate part of Rome’s policy towards the Slavs (trans. note).