The nudity of hermits in monastic literature and its symbolic value

Publication type Article
Status Published
Occupation: Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Affiliation: Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Journal nameVostok. Afro-Aziatskie obshchestva: istoriia i sovremennost
EditionIssue 6

The article is dedicated to a frequent motive in monastic literature: hermits in the desert are often depicted as naked or sparsely dressed. For example, in the Coptic version of the “Life of Saint Onuphrios”, which describes a “monastic utopia” or “monastic paradise”, the word perisōma is, apparently, the distorted Greek perizōma “belt, loincloth”, associated with the word for the loincloths of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis 3:7. In the monastic literature the nudity of the hermits is explained either by purely practical reasons (their original clothes were worn out), as a form of asceticism (conscious suffering through the impact of heat, cold and wind), or as an extreme renunciation of any earthly property. However, when compared with the pre-Christian and early Christian interpretations of the Book of Genesis 3, it can be concluded that the nakedness of the hermits symbolizes a return to the original sinless condition of Adam and Eve. In the apocryphal legend of Rechabites, based on an interpretation of the Old Testament, the nakedness of the blessed people is directly compared to Adam and Eve’s initial nakedness. In early Jewish exegesis the initial innocent nakedness of the first people dressed in “light clothes” is opposed to their shameless nakedness after the fall. In Manichaean cosmogony, based on early Christian legends of Gnostic character, the doctrine of “light clothes” of the Primal Man is developed in original and detailed forms. In Hellenistic sources about the blessed people (e.g. Brahmans or Hymnosophists in the legends of Alexander), this topic corresponds to the motive of unity with nature, the return to the original harmony.

Keywordshermits, earthly Paradise, monastic literature, Bible, Adam and Eve
Publication date27.12.2018
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