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The Museum of Book and Publishing of Ukraine held an exhibition dedicated to The Paterik of the Kievan Caves Monastery, the most popular and significant religious book written and published in Kiev.

It showed the real level of interest in this book:

The exhibition

I was the only visitor; no other nerd came to embrace our heritage. There were several different 19th century editions in ten glass cases. All of them were identical to the 3rd edition published in 1759; it had been revised in order to be compliant with Orthodox doctrine.

The Paterik, Kievan Caves Monastery printing house, 1895

The text, which is believed to be one of the most ancient religious and historical sources in Eastern Europe, was finally formed in the 18th century. In 18 and 19 centuries Kievan Caves Lavra (monastery) issued about 30 editions of the Paterik – a large format book which had to be read aloud. According to Typikon (Church regulations), hagiographies and paterikons should be read aloud in refectory during the meal. That’s why this type of literature became so popular – a few people could read, but many knew stories about saints because they heard these stories when they visited monasteries and took part in meals there.

Refectory of Kievan Caves Monastery

Researchers usually ignore this obvious purpose of such literature – to entertain and impress pilgrims. Everyone believes that the core of the Paterik is the epistle of Bishop Simon of Vladimir-Suzdal, a former Caves monk, to another Caves monk Polikarp. Simon attached some stories about Caves monks to his letter; later other authors joined other stories, the collection went through several editions.

Dormition Cathedral of the Kyivan Cave Monastery

Generally this version looks credible (except for the strange necessity to tell stories about Caves monks to a Caves monk who must know them already). A typical hagiography should be formed like this: believers take notes about life of local hermits, collect stories, hand these collections to one another, join them to a single book. Then a pious editor puts some moral into the text to the greater glory of God, another editor decorates scant information on saints with details from other sources or invents them and that may happen many times. As a result the final text is ideologized and full of fanciful tales. It is more preachy fiction than a document.

Hagiography illustrations should be understandable and show story in few acts with inscriptions, like comics

I didn’t read much about the Paterik; the only case when later (fictional) insertion was discussed I found in the introduction to English translation of the Paterik. Researcher Muriel Heppell points that one of passages – Feodosij’s dying speech to Prince Svjatoslav – fits much later ecclesiastical situation in Kiev then Feodosij’s epoch/ The researcher assumes that it was written by one of later editors (Cassian).

In fact, there are a lot of such insertions. I guess that the very idea of the Kievan Caves Monastery superiority over other monasteries in Eastern Europe, which was expressed to varying degrees in different versions of the Paterik and became a commonplace among believers, is just such “moral” put in the text “to the greater glory of God” i.e. religious organization. It has to be proved, however, and this would require a separate article.

Dormition Cathedral of the Kyivan Cave Monastery

Now I just want to say that if we read a religious text we somehow have to separate truth from fiction and later passages that were inserted with a certain purpose. Oddities may help in it. If we read about a “regular” miracle, for example, it was probably made up by one of the authors. If this miracle is strange we may stop and think. Earlier I mentioned an episode about a monk who was attacked by a “terrible and fierce serpent breathing fire”. This tale is too weird to be pure fiction, I guess.

Rather it was based on a vision and reflects someone’s real spiritual experience. I guess that if we spot such strange details it may point to something real. Such detail may have parallels in the sources which are not directly related to the tradition the text belongs to. 

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I'm a freelancer based in Ukraine, l write mostly about details of life in a country during war. There won't be any military stuff, propaganda, war horrors hype or any violation of actual legislation in this blog. If you want to support my work send a donation as a friend at PayPal address unreporterua@gmail.com

4 thoughts on “The Paterik of the Kievan Caves Monastery: fiction and truth in hagiography

  1. “Preachy fiction” 😀 that’s a good analogy. I can’t believe you were the only person there! I live in the “new world”, a colonialized place with no no culture of its own (while it forgets about the ancient culture of the Indigenous people). If something has been around for 90 years, they think it’s old & tear it down. Anyway, these pictures are stunning. Thank you!

    1. The city renewed cultural activities, but it seems that there are much less people visit them than before the war.

    1. The Kievan Caves Monastery, when the museum and this exhibition are located, was almost deserted. Dormition Cathedral and Refectory church were empty, so I had an opportunity to make photos with no people in sight.

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