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THE MIRACLE OF SAINT MENAS IN THE BRITISH MUSEUM OR.MS.6805 – PART 1

December 10, 2013

The manuscript in the British Museum, Or.MS.6805, contains a lovely and humorous story related to the Egyptian equestrian saint Mena (Menas) who was martyred in the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305 AD) and was buried in Mareotis to the south west of Alexandria. This story is not found in any Coptic or Arabic manuscripts but it’s important to remember many of these perished under the heavy yoke of the Muslim rulers of Egypt. The manuscript, which dates to the late Ikhshidid Period (935 – 969) or early Fatimid Period (969 – 1171), is written in Old Nubian dialect and had most probably been translated from a Greek origin.[1] There should, however, be no doubt that the story originated in Egypt.

MS.6805[2] contains two distinctly separate texts: the first relates a miracle of St. Mena while the second deals with some canons of Nicaea. It also contains in Fol.10a a representation of the saint on horseback and the boatman who forms one of the characters of the story.

We know that the MS.  was purchased by the Trustees of the British Museum in 1908. It appears that it was found in 1904 or 1905 by nomad Arabs in “a rough stone coffer which was buried in the mountains near Edfu in Upper Egypt.”[3] It seems that Robert De Rustafjaell[4] had obtained the manuscript from a local seller and offered it to the British Museum in 1907.[5]

The manuscript was first published by E.A.W. Budge[6] in 1909 in his Texts Relating to Saint Mena of Egypt and Canons of Nicaea in a Nubian Dialect, with Facsimile (London). Budge, however, did not translate the manuscript; he merely printed its pages in plates (Fol.1a-18a) . He included a valuable introduction on the history of Christianity in the Sudan, a description of the MS. and its contents, history of the churches dedicated to St. Mena in Mareotis, and Martyrdom of St. Mena as relayed in two Ethiopic texts, which he translated. The first text MS. 6805, Budge realised was about St. Mena, “relate to Saint Mena”[7], “work dealing with the Life of Saint Mena,”[8] but he could not know the story relayed in the text.

It was F. Ll. Griffith[9] who first published[10] in 1913 a translation into English of the Miracle of St. Mena in his The Nubian Texts of the Christian Period (Abhandlungen der Koniglich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Jahrgang) under the title, Miracle of St. Menas, in pages 6-15 of the book. Griffith says in his Prefatory, “There is necessarily much guess-work involved in the translations and vocabulary […], but it is hoped that in many cases if not correct they may be suggestive to later investigators.”[11]

In 1983, Gerald M. Browne was able to publish a revised translation into English in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, Volume 20, Issue 1-2, pp. 23-37, under the title Griffith’s Miracle of St. Menas, saying: “My revision is based upon the complete set of photographs in Budge as well as upon an autoptic collation which I carried out in the British Museum in September 1980. It appears that Griffith relied solely on the plates in Budge and did not consult the original.”[12]

In 2012, M. S. O’Brien, finding it “good fairy tale/legend sort of story”, retold the story under the title: The Legend of St. Mena. Boot to the Head! I like the humorous, light way the story has been told by O’Brien, and think it can be enjoyed by adults and children alike.


[1] Griffith, The Nubian Texts of the Christian Period (Abhandlungen der Koniglich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Jahrgang, 1913); p. 15. See also: E.A.W. Budge, Texts Relating to Saint Mena of Egypt and Canons of Nicaea in a Nubian Dialect, with Facsimile, (London, 1909); p. 18.

[2] For the physical description of the manuscript, see: Budge’s Texts Relating to Saint Mena; pp. 13-16.

[3] Ibid; p. 13. Also: Griffith’s; p. 6.

[4] Robert de Rustafjaell (c. 1876 – 1976), an American archaeologist and collector, mainly of Coptological and Egyptological material. He is also known as Col. Prince Roman Orbeliani.

[5] Griffith’s; p. 4.

[6] Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge, or simply E. A. Wallis Budge, (1857 – 1934), British Orientalist, Egyptologist and Coptologist.

[7] Budge’s, Preface.

[8] Budge’s, Introduction, p. 1.

[9] Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862 – 1934), prominent British Egyptologist.

[10] Griffith (p. 6) says that a first attempt at translation by him was printed in the Journal of Theological Studies for July 1909.

[11] The Nubian Texts of the Christian Period; p. 1.

[12] Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, Volume 20, Issue 1-2; p. 27.

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