Roger Pearse pointed to an interesting text in Old Nubian about Jesus on the Mount of Olives before the Ascension, telling Peter and company some interesting facts about the Cross, and including a beautiful hymn. (It’s in Griffith’s Nubian Texts, and starts on p. 41 for the Nubian, and p. 47 for the English translation.)
But of course I found and fixed on another text and translation which starts off the same book: “The Legend of St. Menas,” from British Museum Or. MS 6805. It’s a good fairy tale/legend sort of story, so I’ll retell it.
Once upon a time, there was a pagan woman who lived in the suburbs of Alexandria. She was rich and happily married, but she was barren. All her maids, who were married women, were also barren. All the people in her house were barren. Even every cow, goat, and chicken she had was barren. She couldn’t so much as get an egg for breakfast in the morning. Needless to say, she was very sad and felt shamed. Was it something she had done? Was there anything she could do? She tried everything, but nothing worked.
Then one eggless morning, she heard a bunch of Christian monks going by, telling about the great miracles of St. Mena, the soldier-hermit-martyr, going on at the church at Lake Mareotis, both at the monastery founded at his old hermitage out in the desert, and in the church in Philoxenite where his martyr bones were buried. So she said, “God of St. Mena, if you will command even one of my hens to lay, I will go to that Christian church in Philoxenite on Lake Mareotis, and give you the first egg.”
And lo! one of the hens did lay — but only one egg.
But the pagan woman was true to her word, and grateful. She immediately took the egg to the riverside and went to take passage on a boat going to Philoxenite, taking one of her maids with her to give her countenance. But when she found a boat going to Philoxenite, the boatman asked her why she wanted to go.
“I’m going to the church of St. Mena,” she said.
“But why are you going to a Christian shrine? I can tell you’re a pagan.”
“I’m going to dedicate this egg to the God of St. Mena, so that He will let me conceive too.”
“Well, it takes eight days to get from here to Philoxenite, and eight days back. We make a lot of stops getting there, and then we make a lot of stops around the lake before we even start coming back here. You look like a frail sort of lady to put in my rough boat, and your husband would worry if you were gone so long, and I might get in trouble. So why don’t you just give me the egg, and I’ll take it to the church for you.”
So the woman thought about it and agreed. She gave the boatman her egg (carefully packaged to keep cool, possibly preserved in oil or vinegar or salty water) and went home with her maid. The boatman took the egg down into the hold of the boat, put the package in a little bin in the cool food area, and then his son pushed off and went to Philoxenite.
But he had a lot of cargo, and plenty of things to do and people to see, and a lot was on his mind. So what with one thing and another, the boatman totally forgot about the egg. They left Philoxenite and headed off to the other side of the lake. And when they got there, the boatman noticed the package.
He opened it up, saw the egg, and asked his son, “Where did this egg come from?”
“Don’t you remember that, Dad? A pagan lady gave you that egg to put in the church of St. Mena.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, cook it for me to eat.”
Well, three days went by, and they came to a village where they pulled the boat out of the water on Saturday night, and then the boatman went to Mass there on Sunday morning, planning to receive Communion like normal at the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary.
But when he went into church, and the Trisagion hymn had been sung, and the people went up to the baptismal font to cross themselves with holy water, the boatman looked down into the font and saw St. Mena’s reflection in the water! He was dressed in his officer armor, mounted on a white horse — and about to spit the boatman on his spear of flame!
The boatman didn’t stop to see what would happen. He scrambled over to the icon of the Virgin Mary and begged the Theotokos, “Save me with your power, for I have sinned!”
St. Mena rode over, scowled at him, and said, “What am I going to do with you? Is it by Our Lady’s power that you think you can go around stealing and receiving Communion, just like nothing had happened?” Then he grabbed the boatman and gave him a boot to the head.
Immediately, the boatman felt a rooster fly down out of his butt.* The rooster flew up onto the horse, and crowed.
St. Mena rode off with the rooster, telling the boatman to go and sin no more.
St. Mena, and his horse, and his rooster, came to the house of the pagan woman and knocked at the door, calling the woman’s name. She ran and opened the door, rather dumbfounded to find a flame-weaponed Imperial officer with a rooster under his arm. He handed her the rooster and said, “Lady, take this rooster and let it out among your chickens to make them fruitful. You shall bear a son too, lady, and you shall call him Mena. All your married servants will also have children, and all your livestock will bear. And lady, go receive baptism for the remission of your sins.” And immediately after saying this, the saint vanished, horse and spear and all.
So it all happened as the saint had said, and the house was suddenly full of pregnant women and expectant fathers, and the farmyard was full of pregnant cows and goats, and the chickens were laying non-stop. And when the days of her pregnancy and rest were over, and the days of the pregnancies and maternity leaves of her servants were too, the ex-pagan woman traveled all the way to Lake Mareotis, to Philoxenite, to the church of St. Mena, with her husband and the whole household (except the hired substitutes who were home watching the farm). And when they all asked, the priests there baptized the lady and her husband and her son Mena and the servants of her household, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And they lived as Christians ever after, sending all their first fruits all the way to the church in Philoxenite, as a thank you to the good saint.
And as for the boatman, I assume he never again ate a customer’s cargo, because nobody wants chickens flying out of his butt!*
*Or mouth. The translation isn’t clear on where the digested-egg/rooster “descended” from, because the manuscript is pretty munched up. The mss picture, published in color facsimile in Budge’s Texts Relating to Saint Mena, shows the boatman naked except for a loincloth concession to Mass (as sailors frequently went naked back then, including St. Peter out fishing). The loincloth has fallen off in his panic and he’s holding it in his hands to protect his modesty, and the rooster is under his butt. So yeah, I’m thinking the saint kicked it out the latter end of his digestive tract.
St. Menas/Mina/Minas/Mena is a saint in the calendars of both East and West, and was very well-known throughout Asia and Europe at one time. His feast day used to be November 10 (and I assume it still is). If you have a local Coptic church dedicated to St. Mina, this is the guy. He really lived, and his career as Christian soldier and hermit wasn’t all that uncommon among early Christians. (Especially if you were a soldier’s son, after the law was passed that forced Legionaries’ sons to serve their twenty years in the Legions.) His shrine church and monastery were both very famous for miracles, and the monastery for holy monks and scholars. The Copts have a new monastery, dedicated in the Sixties to him, that’s near the old site.