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March 26, 2013


Figure 1: A detail of the wall at the private tomb of Menna on the West Bank of Luxor. Menna was a royal scribe in the 18th Dynasty. The detail shows harvesting and gathering of wheat. Heavy loads are often depicted in Pharonic art being suspended from a stick and supported by two on their shoulders. The heavy load could be wheat, fish, gazelle, hyena, etc.[1]

The Apophthegmata Patrum (The sayings of the Fathers) is a collection of the words and anecdotes, mainly, of the Egyptian desert fathers and mothers in the 4th and 5th centuries, and represents their spiritual practices and wisdom.[2] One of the celebrated Coptic saints who figure in this seminal book is Pambo, or Panbo,[3] or Bambou. In Arabo-Coptic texts he is called بموا or بيموا (Bemwa/Bemwah). Saint Pambo, who lived in the 4th century and died in AD 393, was contemporaneous with Saint Antony the Great (c. 251 – 356) and Saint Athanasius the Great (296 – 373), and was known for his holiness all over the Scetis.[4]

One of the cute stories told about him, which I find very funny, is his encounter with equally funny demons, if I may say. Now, Coptic asceticism was full of joy; and Coptic desert fathers were gentle and kind and, like St. Antony, always seen smiling, but they warned against laughter. Some, however, took the business of their salvation too seriously, and, though mild and nice, were never seen smiling. Saint Pambo was one of these ascetics. We have the story in a Coptic book, published in 1999 in Arabic, and titled تاريخ بلاديوس اللوساسى (اللوزاكى) (The Lausiac History of Palladius). The book was published by the late Anba Samuel, Bishop of Shebeen El-Kanater, and although he gives it this title, it seems to me that it is rather a version of the Apophthegmata Patrum; and we don’t know the original manuscript or document from which Bishop Samuel took his book. Anyway, the exciting and unique story, which is given in a very vivid, Egyptian language, runs as follows:

من المتواتر عن الأنبا بيموا أن أحدا لم يره قط باسما، أو يسمعه ضاحكا، فحدث أن أرادت الشياطين أن تجعله يضحك، فعلقوا ريشة طائر صغيرة على قطعة من الخشب، ثم راحوا يحملونها فى تثاقل شديد، كما لو كانوا يزحزحون جبلا، وهم يصيحون قائلين: “هيلاهوب، هيلاهوب!” فلما رآهم الأنبا بيموا على هذه الصورة ضحك، فراحت الشياطين تقفز وترقص وتتصايح قائلة: “وى! وى! لقد ضحك الأنبا بيموا!” فزجرهم القديس وهو يقول: “لم أضحك بدافع من المسرة بل سخرية من ضعفكم وما تعملون، فطغمة منكم هذا عددها تحتشد لرفع ريشة بغية إضحاكى لدليل على تفاهتكم وتفاهة ما تفعلون!”[5]

Since I can’t find a translation to this particular version of the story, I hope to carry it myself:[6]

It is told of Anba Bemwa that no one has ever seen him smiling or heard him laughing. And demons wanted to make him laugh; so, they suspended a feather of a tiny bird from a plank of timber, and went lifting it in agony as if they were moving a mountain, shouting: “Haila houb, haila houb!” When Anba Bemwa saw them in such an act, he laughed, and the demons went berserk jumping up and down and dancing, shouting: “Wa’ii! Wa’ii! Anba Bemwa has laughed!” The saint rebuffed them, saying, “I have not laughed out of joy but of sarcasm because of your feebleness and what you are doing; for so a large multitude of you gathers to lift up a feather to make me laugh is a prove of your triviality and the frivolousness of what you do!”

All over Egypt one can see the Fellaheen (peasants) and labourers shouting, as they work in groups, to lift or push or pull or move heavy objects: “Haila houb! Haila houb!” Many do not know the exact meaning of these words but know it invokes hard work; something like “heave-ho” in English. The truth is that these words are Coptic and stayed in the Egyptians tongue even after Arabisation; hob or houb being work in Coptic, and ella, hella being cries invoking hard work.[7]Wa’ii! Wa’ii!”, on the other hand, are Arabic words, meaning marvel, marvel! Here we have a multitude of demons trying to make Saint Pambo laugh, to make him break his sombre composure,  and choosing in the process a funny trick: they carry a light feather suspended from a plank of timber, not very differently from what Egyptians were familiar to do where heavy objects are carried on the shoulders of two men with ease, but this time instead of two, several demons participated in the effort, and as they did, they pretended to be working hard at carrying the feather as if it were extremely heavy, panting and heaving all the time. This made the holy saint laugh but not exactly because he thought the demons were funny but because he saw their silliness and detected their weakness; or as he told them: “A large multitude of you gathers to lift up a feather to make me laugh is [but] a prove of your triviality and the frivolousness of what you do!” It is a story of a Coptic saint making fun of funny demons!

[1] See, e.g., Pierre Montet, Everyday Life in Egypt In The Days Of Ramesses the Great (London, Edward Arnold, 1958); p. 132 and J. Gardner Wilkinson, The Ancient Egyptians, Their Life and Customs; Volume One (London, Senate, 1996); p. 213.

[2] For more, read: Lucien Regnault, Apophthegmata Patrum in The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 1 (New York, Macmillan, 1991);

[3] See, e.g., The Paradise, or Garden of the Holy Fathers: being histories of the anchorites, recluses, monks, coenobites, and ascetic fathers of the deserts of Egypt between A.D. CCL and A.D. CCCC circiter; translated by E. A. Wallis Budge (London, Chatto & Windus, 1907); pp. 103-104.

[4] For more on St. Pambo, read: The Life of Pambo, translated from the Coptic by Tim Vivian in Coptic Church Review, V. 20, N. 3, Fall 1999. Also: The Lausiac History of Palladius, translated by W. K. Lowther Clarke (1918); pp. 62-64.

[5] (تاريخ بلاديوس اللوساسى (اللوزاكى; pp. 132-133.

[6] I cannot find this story mentioned in any version of The Lausiac History of Palladius. Furthermore, it is rarely mentioned in other versions of the other Arabic Apophthegmata Patrum. I find it told in أقوال الآباء الشيوخ which was published in Lebanon by Manshourat al-Nour in 1983 (p. 250) but in a different and mild form. The story appears in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; translated from the Greek, with a forward by Benedicta Ward (1975); pp. 197-198; running thus:

They said of Abba Pambo that his face never smiled. So oneday, wishing to make him laugh, the demons stuck wing featherson to a lump of wood and brought it in making an uproar andsaying, ‘Go, go.’ When he saw them Abba Pambo began to laughand the demons started to say in chorus, ‘Ha! ha! Pambo haslaughed!’ But in reply he said to them, ‘I have not laughed, but I made fun of your powerlessness, because it takes so many of youto carry a wing.’

[7] See: Emile Maher Ishak, The phonetics and phonology of the Bohairic dialect of Coptic and the survival of Coptic words in the Colloquial and Classical Arabic of Egypt and of Coptic grammatical constructions in Colloquial Arabic. Volumes 1 – 4. (A D.Phil Thesis submitted to the University of Oxford, September 1975); Volume IV; p. 1736. Also: Egyptian Arabic Vocabulary, Coptic Influence On by Emile Maher Ishaq in The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 8 (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

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