25 November 2009

Ag. Nikon of Sparta

November 26 Thanksgiving in the US, but it is the Feastday of Ag. Nikon of Sparta. I do not like Ag. Nikon, but I am going to try to be fair.

He is called the "Metanoiete," the "Repent-Ye," because he tramped the length and breadth of Crete for seven years after Nikeforos Phokas took it back from the Arabs in 961, calling for repentence. Once he had them all quailing in terror of Hellfire, he went on to Negroponte and did the same there.

He stood on the city wall, over where the water of Evripos keeps changing its direction though not as many as the seven claimed, and preached "Metanoiete!" all day and all night. The crowds scrambled up on the walls, too, and a child was pushed off by "the malignant enemy, Beliar." The crowd assumed a person as cranky as Nikon would naturally have shoved a child off the wall, assumed the child was smashed to pieces, and were ready to tear Nikon to pieces himself, but the child stood up and and said that Nikon had caught him in the air and did not allow him to be hurt. Whereupon the crowd repented and converted quite efficiently. There are a lot of this kind of miracle cited in his Vita.

He went on to Thebes, a short trip from Negroponte, and then over the mountains to Corinth, and worked his way down through the Morea shedding doom and miracles across the countryside, while at the same time traveling from Corinth to Sparta in an instant. A farmer saw him aloft and in the air, illuminated by torchlight.

He stopped off in Argos and Nauplion -- this was before Ag. Petros had arrived; he's the one who has my allegiance -- and visited a John Blabenterios. Because of a sorcerer, this John Blabenterios and his daughter had a disease which had left them as corpses, except that they were still breathing. Nikon healed them and miraculously located the sorcerer's spell buried in the roots of a tree in their courtyard.

Ag. Nikon, like every other earnest Byzantine, was under attack by black demons. His appeared in the form of rock wasps. This is a harsh thing to say about demons, considering the nature of the Greek rock wasp which attack with the force and noise of Stukas.
Nikon healed those who had been stung and drove the black demons groaning back into the bottomless depths.

This icon detail shows black demons afflicting various individuals who are trying to get to Heaven. Demons also appear as black crows and there was one in a well he had to handle at Euripos that had flown up and terrified a girl who only wanted to draw water.

The rock wasps were impeding the building of a church in Sparta -- you can visit this very lovely site on a hill out beside the Roman ruins. Nikon had marked out the shape of the church on the ground with a rope. Believers in Sparta brought out food and wine to feed the workmen on the church. One gift, from the poorest of the poor, was of wine so acrid it was undrinkable, and the less said about the smell the better. Nikon changed this into unlimited amounts of splendid wine.

The volunteer construction workers got quite tired before the end, and tried to fudge the column work for the altar by piecing together one column instead of cutting it from a single piece of stone. Another miracle solved this problem. The church, when finished,
is reported to have had gleaming and colorful columns, bright stones, and paintings. Also, a golden dove flew about in the sanctuary and the lamps swung of their own accord without any wind.

These vitae give invaluable glimpses of the worlds in which their saints moved, and this one tells us that below the church was a field given over to ball players and horse racing. This is precisely the site of the Sparta soccer field today. The strategos of Sparta, Gregorios, was wrapped up in a ball game and did not pay attention to Nikon who was reproaching the players for making so much noise it was disrupting the service. Gregorios ordered Nikon out of town, and as soon as he turned to strike the ball with his hand, first the hand was paralyzed and then his whole body. He was in awful pain and was carried into the church begging for help. Nikon -- you already figured out how this story would end -- healed Gregorios, Gregorios repented of his arrogance, and forever dedicated himself to the service of the saint. I don't think much of this sort of saint-trick, but I would mention that we have only one other medieval reference to athletics in the Morea, and that is when Cyriaco of Ancona reported going with Constantine Palaiologos to see the young men of Sparta in foot races.

When Nikon died, his body gave off a miraculous oil that cured.
There were a lot of miracles from this oil, a grab-bag of sensational effects, including a terminal female cancer and two individuals, one vomiting (a man from Helos) and one defecating (a man from Kalamata) gigantic worms. In fact, the writer of this Vita personally testified to the miraculous effect of this oil, because he had a massive abscess in the bone on the left side of his face, which caused excruciating pain. He would have starved to death -- being unable to move his jaws -- had he not prayed to Nikon, rubbed on some oil, and been instantly relieved of his pain. He wrote that he had the sense of a cooling breeze passing over his face. An icon of Nikon grasped by humble peasants kept their daughter from being raped when she was seized by bandits. The bandits were blinded and had to release her.

There are many more miracles, which I will not go into, though I am glad he was concerned with rape. I am surprised that he also takes an interest in sailing and has been reported standing watch, steering, and even lifting galleys in a crisis.

This is what I especially don't like about Nikon and why I don't grant him his Agios: He diagnosed a problem in Sparta as having been caused by the Jews there, and called on the citizens to drive them out. Which they did. One nobleman, John Aratos, "pricked by the goad of envy, and moved by demonic evil," was so rash as to assert that this action was neither just nor reasonable. Remember the name of this 10th-century person: John Aratos who would not join the mob.

For more about the icon, go
Denis Sullivan has edited and translated the Vita of Ag. Nikon.


  1. A grossly anti-Semitic comment was placed here which I have removed, under the strong conviction -- as a Christian -- that such is intolerable. As was Ag. Nikon's behavior.

  2. I was wrong about Cyriaco of Ancona going with Constantine to watch footraces. My correction is here:


I will not publish Anonymous comments.