Friday, 17 May 2019
David Brakke: Cursing Monks: The Forms and Functions of Early Monastic Execrations
Early monasticism includes persons who lived and practiced asceticism in settings outside the traditional household, whether they did so alone, in loose confederation with others, or in highly organized communities, and whether they did so in cities, in villages and their outskirts, or in desert locations. Monasticism was characterized by the maximal ritualization of as many aspects of life as possible. While ordinary Christians engaged in ritualized activities at certain times or for certain particular ends, in monastic communities even such activities as dress, food consumption, sleep, and labor were ritualized, so that they would embody communal values, set boundaries between the monastic environment and what was called “the world,” and establish internal hierarchies of authority and spiritual achievement.Cursing is ritualized engagement in conflict: people invoke supramundane beings or spiritual power to subdue or control another person or group. Conflict characterizes all human activities, including monasticism, and can be found in early monasticism as a ritualized means of conflict at every level—from the individual to the institutional. This paper examines the evidence for and ambivalence about monastic cursing from late ancient Egypt, ranging from “magical spells” to anecdotes in monastic literature to the discourses of Shenoute. Cursing chastised deviant behaviors, enforced communal norms, and resonated with biblical tradition. Yet cursing expressed an aggression and operated from a position of spiritual authority that conflicted with monastic values of humility and non-violence. As ritualized aggression, cursing both suited monasticism’s maximal ritualization and seemed to violate some of its core values.