COPTIC DEATH AND AFTERLIFE 4: REST TO THE SOUL OF THE GLASSBLOWER FROM ASYUT: CHRIST’S MERCY TO THE TORMENTED SOULS IN HADES
Figure 1: The Gebelein Man (a naturally preserved mummy from the Predynastic period, around 3500 BC, in the British Museum).
The Life of Shenoute by Besa is a book that tells us a few of the miracles and marvels which God effected through the charismatic and most intriguing Coptic saint, Apa Shenoute (348 – 466 AD) the Archimandrite and abbot of the White Monastery in Akhmim (Athripe).
One of the loveliest stories in the book is that related to the corpse of a glassblower from the city of Asyut (Sioot), in Upper Egypt, who lived around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. From what Besa, who was the disciple and successor of Shenoute, has written, we gather that the Asyutan glassblower went south to the city of Akhmim (Šmin), some sixty miles to the south, looking for work with his co-workers. But shortly after that he died, and his co-workers cast his corpse upon the mountain in the area of the White Monastery. It seems that the glassblower’s corpse, being exposed to the dry and hot weather conditions of Upper Egypt, mummified, and remained where it was cast until the fifth century when Apa Shenoute used to see it around and for years wondered why it was destined to be cast there.
The identity of the corpse and the circumstances that brought it to the mountain of Akhmim is revealed when Christ once appeared to Apa Shenoute and they passed by the corpse while walking together on the mountain. There Shenoute asked Christ about the corpse, and Christ, touching the corpse with his foot, ordered it to rise up and tell Shenoute who he was and why he was cast out like this. The corpse, which was revived, told Shenoute his story. We learn from the story that when the glassblower was in Asyut or Akhmim, he heard that the Saviour had come into the world; that a woman with a little boy in her arms entered the city of El-Asmunein (Coptic Šmoun; Greek Hermopolis), which is some forty-seven miles north of Asyut. This is, of course, the Holy Family’s coming to Egypt as it fled in the face of Herod’s threat to kill little Jesus. Coptic tradition tells us that in El-Ashunein, the child Jesus healed crowds of sick people and performed other miracles. The glassblower heard of these things, and “I resolved in my heart to go north to worship him [the Saviour] but worldly cares did not permit it”.
When the glassblower is resurrected by Christ, he prostrates himself and worships the Saviour, and asks Him: “Let your mercy come upon me, and do not let me be cast into the torments again. Woe is me, that the womb of my mother was not my tomb before I descended to these sufferings!” And Christ, indeed, gives him relief as he orders him to lie down “so that mercy may come upon you, and rest until the day of the true judgement”. But let the reader enjoy the intriguing story himself as told by Besa:
Once, when our father apa Shenoute went into the desert, behold! The Lord Jesus appeared to him and spoke with him. As they were walking together, they came upon a corpse cast out upon the mountain. Our father apa Shenoute threw himself down and worshipped the Lord, and said to him: ‘My Lord and my God, behold, for many years I have passed by this corpse without knowing why it was destined to be cast out here’. Our Lord Jesus Christ touched the corpse with his foot and said to it: ‘Corpse, I say to you, recover yourself and rise up so that you can tell my servant Shenoute who you are, [cast out] like this’. The corpse immediately arose, just as someone would arise from sleep, and when it saw the Lord, it recognised him and worshipped him, and said to him: ‘My Lord, let your mercy come upon me!’ The saviour said to him: ‘Speak, and let my chosen one, Shenoute, know what you have done’. The corpse said: ‘What shall I say, my Lord? You know what is hidden and what is revealed, and you know what was my fate’. The Saviour said to it: ‘Nevertheless, speak, so that my servant Shenoute may hear you himself’. The corpse replied: ‘I am a glassblower from Sioout who was working with some other men. We arose and went south near Šmin so that we could work there, but after a few days had passed, I became ill and died. So because none of them was related to me by blood, they brought me here and cast me forth’. My father apa Shenoute said to him: ‘Had the Saviour come into the world at that time?’ He said: ‘Yes, he had. The news had been spread abroad and came south to us by those passing through [the area] that a woman had entered the city of Šmoun with a little boy in her arms. Everything he said came to pass: he would raise the dead, he would cast out demons, he would make the lame walk, he would make the deaf hear, he would make the dumb speak, he would cleanse lepers; in a word, he was performing every [possible] sign. When I heard these things, I resolved in my heart to go north to worship him, but [worldly] cares did not permit it.’ When the corpse had said these things, it prostrated itself and worshipped the Saviour and asked him: ‘Let your mercy come upon me, and do not let me be cast into the torments again. Woe is me, that the womb of my mother was not my tomb before I descended to these sufferings!’ The Lord said to him: ‘Inasmuch as you have been worthy to see me on earth, together with my servant apa Shenoute, I will give you a little relief. Lie down now so that mercy may come upon you, and rest until the day of the true judgement’. Straightaway the corpse lay down just as it was at first. The Saviour took the hand of our father apa Shenoute and walked with him to the cell in the desert, and they spoke of great mysteries between them. After this, [the Lord] ascended into the heavens with angels singing before him.
Here we have a most beautiful story from the fifth century that tells us of one first century Asyutan glassblower’s soul that had been in torment in Hades but came face to face with Christ when Christ revived its corpse that had been cast out upon the mountain of Akhmim. The soul begged Christ for mercy, and Christ, indeed, gave it rest and relief from its torments until the Last Day.
 The Coptic text Coptic has been translated by David N. Bell under the title “The Life of Shenoute by Besa” (Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1983).
 This is what is known as natural mummification.
 And 159 miles or so from Cairo.
 Matthew 2: 1-23.
 David N. Bell, The Life of Shenoute by Besa; n. 92; p. 111.
 Ibid; p. 86.
 Ibid; pp. 85-86.