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THE BOTCHED AND HORRIBLE BEHEADING OF ST. VICTOR OF ANTIOCH OF BISIDIA

September 2, 2017

A16

Detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Paul by the Italian painter Tintoretto (1518 – 1594), dated c. 1556

Note. Some readers may find parts of the article graphic and disturbing

In 1914, E. A. Wallis Budge published the manuscript kept in the British Museum the, but now in the British Library, and given the designation Oriental No. 7022, in his Coptic Martyrs, etc., in the Dialect of Upper Egypt. He gave the Coptic text and an English translation. The manuscript contained four books:

  1. The martyrdom of Saint Victor the General, who suffered martyrdom under the Emperor Diocletian, on the twenty-seventh day of the month of Pharmouthi (April 22).
  2. The Second Martyrdom of Saint Victor.
  3. The Third Martyrdom of Saint Victor.
  4. The Fourth Martyrdom of Saint Victor.
  5. The Ecomium which the Patriarch Celestinus, Archbishop of Rome,[1] pronounced on Saint victor in the Martyrium in Rome which had been built in honour of the saint by the ‘God-loving Emperor’[2].[3]

The manuscript was taken by Budge from a find in Edfu; and its copying was finished in AD 951, obviously from an earlier copy.[4]

The four martyrdoms of Saint Victor are not four stories of the saint’s life and death, but four parts of his passion:

  • The first martyrdom starts from the issuing of the Diocletian Edict and ends with the order to banish Saint Victor to Alexandria from Antioch, Bisidia.[5]
  • The Second Martyrdom starts from the arrival in Alexandria, his passion in the city under the Governor Armenius, and ends with his banishment to the Thebaid under its count, Eutychianus.[6]
  • The Third Martyrdom starts with the passion of Saint Victor in the Thebais and his banishment to Hierakonpolis, between Luxor and Aswan, in the deeper parts of Upper Egypt.[7]
  • The Fourth Martyrdom tells us about the stay of Saint Victor in the Fort of Hierakonpolis until his beheading on the orders of Sebastianus, the governor.[8]

The whole martyrdom is very interesting. Saint Victor of Bisidia, often called Saint Victor Son of Romanus, and in the Coptic martyrdom called Saint Victor the General, is a great saint. His martyrdom at the age of twenty years old tells of extraordinary courage and perseverance in his faith despite all the odds. I guess his attraction to the Copts is, inter alia, that he was beheaded in Egypt. The martyrdom contains some exaggeration, but I have no doubt that it was based on a genuine story.

The Fourth Martyrdom contains towards its end a description of the beheading of the saint, and the last moments of his life. It was a horrible death due to an intentional botched beheading by an enemy of St. Victor – a “wicked man of Sioot [Asyut in Upper Egypt]” as the Martyrdom describes him. In response to Sebastianus’ order to the soldiers to cut off the head of Saint Victor:

“[…] straightway they tied a gag in his mouth. And Apa Victor said unto the executioner, ‘Dismiss me speedily, for the sake of the angels who have hold upon me.’ Now the executioner was not pleased to do so, for he only struck his neck with the sword, and his head hung by the skin of the neck. And Apa Victor was in torture, and his spirit was sorely distressed in him. And he looked up and saw Horion the Kourson,[9] and he said unto him, ‘Take the sword out of the hand of this lawless man, and do thou make an end of me, for this wicked man of Sioout hath already done very many evil things to me during my lifetime, and now also at my death he does grievously afflict my spirit. May the Lord reward him according to what he hath done unto me.’ And Horion the Kourson said unto Apa Victor, ‘My lord, do not think in thy heart concerning me that I would lift up my hand against my brother soldier. I swear by thy health,[10] O my brother Apa Victor, and by the dire need which is on thee, that I have never stretched out my hand even against a bird, to shed its blood, and it is impossible for me to lay my hand upon thee [with violence]. But I pray thee to remember me in the place whereunto thou departest.’ And Apa Victor answered and said, ‘The Lord Jesus the Christ shall shew mercy upon thee, for in this very same year thou shalt die, and the Lord shall forgive thee thy sins. The enemy and the martyr shall come forth to thee, [and] I shall follow after them and shall sing hymns with them.’

And Horion placed his napkin before his face. And [Apa Victor] said unto him, ‘O my beloved brother, I entreat thee most earnestly’; and [Horion] girded on the sword. And the camp was shaken three times. Then he cut off his head, he consummated his martyrdom.”[11]

_________

There is no doubt as to the savagery of Saint Victor’s beheading which was intended by the wicked man of Asyut to cause maximum horror and pain, and a slow death. But, can we believe it? Despite the obvious exaggerations in other parts of the martyrdom, this beheading story seems too gory but also so undignified for the saint that I think it is a genuine piece. However, there is some hesitation to accept it as it shows Saint Victor being conscious and able to talk for some time after the partial beheading by the Asyuti man and before his head was finally completely cut off by Horion the Kourson, the soldier who was a friend of the saint. Can that be possible?

After a clear decapitation, such as by a guillotine or a sharp sword or axe strike by a skilled headsman, consciousness is said to be retained for up to a thirty seconds or so. The 1905[12] story of the French doctor, Gabriel Beaurieux, who attended the guillotine execution of a murderer by the name of Henri Languille is often quoted. He writes what he notes immediately after the decapitation:

“[T]he eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds … I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: ‘Languille!’ I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions … Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves … After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out. It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.”[13]

The completely decapitated head retains its consciousness, awareness of identity and surroundings, and feelings for at least some seconds. During that time, the cut off head may even try to speak.  It is reported that Queen Anne Boleyn, who was executed in 1536[14], and King Charles I, who was executed in 1649[15], were both decapitated by a clean single sword stroke, and both showed signs of trying to speak following their beheading.

The retention of consciousness, and even intention to talk, by the head, for some seconds that may extend to thirty, after a clean and complete decapitation, is not in doubt from various observations. The final death – the loss of consciousness – of the decapitated head occurs because blood gets drained off the brain after the severing of the carotid arteries and jugular veins that supply blood to it and then drain it from it. The loss of blood, and drop of it in the brain, starves the brain of oxygen, which is the direct cause for the death of the brain cells and the loss of consciousness.

So, how was Saint Victor able to talk and continued conscious for a longer time after the botched attempt by the headman from Asyut? It is exactly because of the intentional clumsy attempt that Saint Victor was not dead for a lengthy time; and did not depart from the world until his head was eventually cut off by the word of Horion the Kourson. That was exactly the intention of the wicked executioner: to hurt Saint Victor too much by severing part of his neck and keeping him alive to experience the pain and the horror. This I think has happened because most probably the blotched attempt severed the muscles at the back of the neck and the spine (with the vertebra that surrounded the spine at the site of the blow) but not the structures that lie a bit to the front of the neck, including the carotid arteries and jugular veins. When the Martyrdom of the saint says “his head hung by the skin of the neck”, this must not be thought as the head being attached simply by the skin at the front of the neck. Having severed the bony vertebral column which keeps the head firmly connected to the body, the rest of the neck structures that are soft will not hold the neck resolutely. But, to speak, one must have retain the functions of two important nerves: the vagus nerve, which is the tenth cranial nerve and the phrenic nerve. The vagus nerve, which is essential for the voice box,  runs emerges from the head and runs in the neck along the carotid arteries; and if the cartotids are saved, then it would be expected to be spared too. The phrenic nerve, that innervates the diaphragm which is essential for breathing, arises from the 3rd, 4th and 5th cervical sections of the spinal cord. These are based above the 6rg and 7rg neck vertebrae that are located at the bottom of the neck in its connection with the chest. A sword or axe strike that hits at the 6rd and 7th vertebra will then preserve the the phrenic nerve, if the strike does not involve the structures at the front of the vertebral column in the neck. This will allow the partially decapitated head to be able to speak. I guess that, then, that the botched partial decapitation attempt of Saint Victor struck at his lower neck.

The two sentences that Saint Victor spoke, “Take the sword out of the hand of this lawless man, and do thou make an end of me, for this wicked man of Sioout hath already done very many evil things to me during my lifetime, and now also at my death he does grievously afflict my spirit. May the Lord reward him according to what he hath done unto me,” and “The Lord Jesus the Christ shall shew mercy upon thee, for in this very same year thou shalt die, and the Lord shall forgive thee thy sins. The enemy and the martyr shall come forth to thee, [and] I shall follow after them and shall sing hymns with them,” and Horion’s reply to the saint’s request, “My lord, do not think in thy heart concerning me that I would lift up my hand against my brother soldier. I swear by thy heath, O my brother Apa Victor, and by the dire need which is on thee, that I have never stretched out my hand even against a bird, to shed its blood, and it is impossible for me to lay my hand upon thee [with violence]. But I pray thee to remember me in the place whereunto thou departest,” would have taken less than one and a half minutes, as you can also test. This duration is not beyond reasonable.

May the brave and manly Saint Victor rest in the peace of the Lord. Amen.

_____________________________

[1] Pope Celestine I (422 – 432).

[2] The Martyrium was built by Constantine the Great (Caesar in the West [[306 – 312]; Undisputed Augustus in the West and Senior Augustus in the Empire [312 – 324]; Emperor of the whole Empire [324 – 337].); but the Ecomium was delivered in the presence of Valentinian III (Caesar in the West [423 – 525]; Emperor in the West [425 – 455].

[3] Coptic Martyrs, etc., in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, p. xviii.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, pp. 253-271.

[6] Ibid, pp. 272-278.

[7] Ibid, pp. 279-286.

[8] Ibid, pp. 287-298.

[9] Budge does not explain the word “The Kourson”, which is in Coptic given as pkourcwn [you will need to have the Coptic font ‘antonios’ installed to be able to read the Coptic text]. I think the word refers to cursus honorum, the succession of offices of increasing importance required for a Roman of senatorial rank seeking advancement [See, Merriam Webster Dictionary]. The aspirant to be a senator starts at an early age in a military post and then after a few years he moves on to successive administration posts. Horion the Kourson must have been in his thirties and posted in Upper Egypt as a military man.

[10] Budge uses ‘salvation’ instead of ‘health’. I believe the right translation is “By thy health,” a frequent oath taken by Copts in Coptic literature. The word “oujai (ougai)” does mean health and salvation, but the meaning of salvation here is wrong. I have left the rest of Budge’s translation as it is.

[11] Coptic Martyrs, etc., in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, , pp. 297-8.

[12] The execution took place at 5:30am on 28 June 1905.

[13] The experiment is told in Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle. The passage is quoted in A History of the Guillotine by Alister Kershaw (London, John Calder, 1958).

[14] In the morning of 19 May 1536.

[15] At 2 pm on 30 January 1649.

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