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COPTIC DEATH AND AFTERLIFE 9: EARLY EVIDENCE OF AMENTE FROM THE THIRD CENTURY

August 28, 2017

A10

Drawing by an unknown artist, showing Christ, The Virgin, saints and angels overlooking the souls in Amente: the angels cool the thirst of some while souls that have been purified by fire are being pulled out

In previous articles, “Coptic Death and Afterlife”, I brought evidence from Coptic literature of the belief of Copts in Amente, the equivalent of the Pharaonic Duat (underworld, also called Amente), Greek Hades and the Latin Purgatorium (Purgatory) – the intermediate place the souls of the dead will go to and stay there before the Final Judgement. In this Amente, some souls who did good in the world but were tainted with some sins may obtain purification through some torments which would allow them to be absolved of their sins, and eventually be accepted to the Paradise of Delights at the Final Judgement. This belief is not commonly held by the Copts these days, but there can be no doubt that Copts of olden days believed in it.

Today, I would like to give a one more evidence from the Martyrdom of SS. Paese and his Sister Thecla – two of the martyrs during the Great Persecution launched by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305) in AD 303. They were executed shortly after time St. Victor the Great,[1] a saint who is much venerated in the Coptic Church, was martyred. The Coptic Church celebrates the martyrdom of SS. Paese and Thecla in its Synaxarium on 8 Kiahk. The martyrology, published in Coptic with English translation, by E. A. E. Reymond and J. W. B. Barns in their Four Martyrdoms from the Pierpont Morgan Coptic Codices (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1973).[2]

Paese was inspired by the bravery of St. Victor and endurance of his tortures that he went to the Roman governor and confessed his faith in Christ, top which he was exposed to much torture and eventual death. Shortly after one of the punishments he underwent, and while in prison, “it befell that at midnight the angel of the Lord came to him, and set the holy Paese upon his shining wings, and took him to heaven, and showed him the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem; and all the saints came out to meet him, and they greeted him, and showed him the city of Christ, with the streets encrusted with precious stones, it being brighter than the sun.”[3]

The angel of the Lord then shows Paese round the holy city. He shows him the splendid houses of the saints, including a house “exceedingly spacious … encrusted with stones of divers hues, emitting rays of light, the pillars being firmly set; … and built colonnade upon colonnade.” That house, the angel tells Paese, is the house of Apa Victor, the son of Romanus the general, “who renounced his dignity  and all his possession, and having taken up his cross followed his Lord; wherefore so great an honour has been given to him.”[4]

The angel then shows Paese many marvelous thrones, “with great trees forming crowns about them, laden with fruit, and their fragrance was diffused exceedingly.”[5] Paese asks the angel about these, and the angel answers: “Thou seest all these thrones and these trees which are spread out over them; these are the resting-places of every man who shall glorify a saint upon earth.”[6] Paesa wanted more, so, he asks: “My lord, how is this? Tell me about this fashion.”[7] The angel then answers and tells Paesa that they are reserved for anyone who would glorify a saint or martyr upon earth; and goes to explain this further:

“If a man build a martyr-shrine in the name of a saint, or one clothe the body of one in graveclothes, or one give an offering on the day of a saint, or give an alm to the poor and the strangers on the day of his commemoration, or give a gift to the house of a saint, or produce a book for the house of God in his name, or buy a Gospel and place it in his martyr-shrine for a memorial to him – in short, as much as a single piece of bread which a man shall give, he will find it (repaid), when he comes out of the body, through the bodies of the saints. For indeed the martyr is wont to go to the Almighty, and cast himself down and worship, saying, ‘My Lord, grant me this soul, because it comforted me in this world.”[8]

Paese does not say anything, but I would imagine him thinking, how come sinners could be saved and enter the Paradise of Delights just by glorifying saints upon earth. Perhaps the angel knew of Paese’s thoughts, and therefore continued in the following passage that talks about the purification of the souls of some sinners in Amente:

“Now if it [the soul] is defiled by many sins, the utterance is wont to come from the mouth of Michael [the archangel], saying, ‘The Lord Almighty has said, “Give it a few severe punishments, and afterwards I will grant it to thee”.’ And straightway it is delivered to the tormentors, and they plunge it in severe punishments; and afterwards they bring it up as white as snow, and it is given to the saint who had obtained grace for it, and he takes it into his house and clothes it in a splendid garment, and seats it upon the throne, and sets upon it the imperishable crown, and it eats of the good things of the trees and enjoys everlasting rest.”[9]

There, then, you are: further evidence that early Copts believed in Amente and a process of purification with punishments for some souls who were basically good but were polluted by some sins while upon earth. The punishments are often described graphically with fire and corporeal torture; but there is no evidence that the Copts believed in this literally – it is more likely that the soul, now exposed in front of God, realises its defects and shortcomings, and weep for its lot. This is a process that is attended with extreme mental pain; but the soul realises all the time that there is hope for it – salvation will be finally achieved.

Despite the images of torment and torture that one sometimes read about Amente, this is not a scary place as much as joyous one despite it not being a place of comfort – there is hope even beyond death; perhaps not to all, but to some indeed.

Now, the martyrdom of Paesa and Thecla is one of the oldest; written by Julius of Aqfahs,[10] biographer of the martyrs and himself a martyr, shortly after the death of the saints. It was most probably written first in Greek and then got translated into Coptic. It is clear that the Christians of Egypt believed in purification of some sinful souls after death.

________________________

[1] St. Victor of Antioch (a town in Bisidia, which is now in Turkey), the son of Romanus. His father was an army general, and a minister in Diocletian’s court; and is thought to have supported Diocletian in his plan to eradicate Christianity from the empire. The Coptic Church celebrates his martyrdom on 27 Barmouda. He is not to be confused with another martyr Victor, from Asyut, whose martyrdom is celebrated on 5 Kiahk.

[2] See pages 31-79 for the Coptic text, and pages 151-184 for the English translation (1998 special edition). The book also includes the martyrologies of St. Coluthus, SS. Shenoufe and his Brethren, and SS. Apaioule and Pteleme.

[3] Four Martyrdoms, pp. 174-5 (1998).

[4] Ibid, p. 176.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Aqfahs, village to the southwest of the markaz (district) of al-Fashn on the left bank of the Nile about 40 km south of Bani Suef. (See Coptic Encyclopedia here for more.)

 

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