As the first Christian ascetic venturing into the desert, Antony eclipsed all his predecessors to such a degree that he is frequently presented as the first Christian ascetic ever. This is not the case. Already soundly established in cities and villages all over the Hellenistic Egypt, asceticism in the third century had only yet to encroach on the wilderness. But when it did, it would never be the same again. As Antony went into the desert, the connection with this landscape transformed asceticism into something close to an exclusive desert phenomenon effectively overshadowing all other spatial dimensions.
The combination of asceticism and the geography of the wilderness proved a potent combination in early Christianity. Not only would many ascetics follow in the footsteps of Antony, but the space of the desert would make a profound impact on Christianity. in general as the place where piety at its most perfect was possible.
Athanasius’s Vita Antonii, the first presentation of Antony, remains the key text on desert asceticism, not only proving itself to be something like an ancient best seller, but offering the pattern for all later literary presentations of this phenomenon. As such, this text also offers a number of clues to why Antony so completely would put all his ascetic predecessors in the shadow, simply by walking out in the wilderness.
Obviously the desert fathers gained prominence by reflecting such Biblical images as various prophets and Jesus in the wilderness. Just as important in this heavily Hellenized society was, however, the way desert asceticism connected to a number of traditional Greek ideas on space, body and humanity. Retreating to the wilderness, Antony as the first desert father went into a landscape that traditionally offered a more intimate connection with both divine powers and the dead. Not only did this make the claim that the ascetic was closer to God seem more convincing, but as a landscape where death and life never had been properly separated, the claim that asceticism really meant dying daily got a wholly other dimension than with the ascetics in the cultivated areas. The uncultivated geography, long connected with rites of passage, mighty ordeals, and, indirectly, also with athletics, accentuated the asceticism of the desert father. The essential primordiality Greeks traditionally attributed to the wilderness, made it possible also to present the ascetic desert as something close to paradise. Eventually the space itself would, again in complete accordance with ancient Greek beliefs, affect Antony’s body to the degree that he would appear physically incorruptible. As such, the Greek geography offered a possibility to present the desert father as foreshadowing the wonderful incorruptible body of flesh and blood we may all hope for after the resurrection promised us by Christianity.
Turning our attention to the role played by the wilderness in late antiquity, we find that how this landscape was still understood in such a traditional Greek way greatly contributed to its turning the Christian ascetics into Christian superstars. But this presentation of the desert makes it not in any way less Christian. When Christianity broke through, it did so to a large degree within a traditional Greek worldview. As the new religion gained a foundation in the minds of the Hellenized peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, it was often a question of a Christian appropriation of Greek beliefs which were not contrary to the new belief. Most Christians seem not to have denied even the Greek gods, but considered them, just like in Athanasius’s Vita Antonii, misanthropic demons within a more comprehensive worldview where God reigned supreme. Also the distinct role played by the Pagan deities was in fact continued within a Christian framework, although their activities now were generally seen as evil. Pagans and Christians alike held that the old gods wanted man to remain within the limits of the cultivated geography usually symbolically represented by the polis, something which equalled a mortal existence and death in the end. Christians differed by condemning the motivation of these ancient deities, hailing instead a God who wanted humans to reclaim what both Pagans and Christians considered their original state, that of physical immortality. By making his home in the wilderness, Antony defied the old gods turned demons, and thus challenged the very bounds of mortality. With his apparently incorruptible body in the geographical periphery, Antony in the Vita Antonii demonstrated the ultimate possibilities of this new human ideal also within a traditional Greek worldview.
About the book
Dag Øistein Endsjø’s ‘Primordial Landscapes, Incorruptible Bodies’ is a pioneering attempt to interpret the life of Saint Antony within its wider Greco-Roman context and not only in Christian terms. Endsjø’s innovative argument should provoke wide discussion and initiate a much-needed conversation about the relationship between Christian hagiography and traditional religion in antiquity. This book will interest students of ancient religion and not just specialists in Athanasius or asceticism.
David Brakke, Professor and Chair, Religious Studies Department, Indiana University
Dag Øistein Endsjø shows how Antony’s successful ascetic labors in the desert and the resulting incorruptibility of his body could have been understood from the perspective of a traditional Greek worldview in terms of the traditional hero and his amazing feats in peripheral lands. In a striking manner, Endsjø helps to overcome the Judaism/Hellenism divide that plagues scholarship’s attempts to understand early Christianity.
Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Professor of New Testament Studies, University of Copenhagen