St. Ammon’s Dragon Guards

St. Ammon or Amun was an early Christian monk who lived in Nitria, Egypt. He and his wife were forced into an arranged marriage while young. On their wedding night, they agreed to remain celibate together, and kept the vow for eighteen years. After that, they mutually consented to get away from their families’ plans: his wife keeping the house and inviting other vowed virgins to stay there, and him heading out to the desert to be a hermit. Other people heard of his holiness, and tons of other hermits camped out in his area, just as with the popular St. Anthony of Egypt. This caused St. Anthony to invent monasteries for men, and he passed the idea along to St. Ammon for keeping a dull roar among his several thousand hermits. It all went well, and his feast day is October 4.

In this story, we see a bit of the Greek “dragon = big python snake” and a bit of a more Western approach. We also learn that Egyptian desert dragons are scary, but not always bad, and that snakes listen better than people do (as St. Martin of Tours also complained).

Anyway, this story is from St. Rufinus of Aquileia’s Historia Monachorum, chapter 8. (PL 21: 420, 14 – 422, 4.):

I don’t believe that what we heard about Ammon, from a certain holy man we saw in the wilderness in the place in which he had lived, should be omitted. And so when, having parted from the blessed Apollonius, we proceeded to the part of the wilderness opposite Meridianum, we saw a dragon’s huge dragging tracks across the sand; his size had appeared so great that it looked like some treetrunk had been drawn through the sand. So that as we looked, we were struck with huge terror.

But the brothers who had escorted us encouraged us to dread nothing at all, but to rather to take hold of faith and follow the dragon’s track. ‘For you will see,’ they said, ‘how much faith may prevail, when you would have quenched it out of us. For we kill many dragons and snakes and vipers* with our hands; for as we read it written that the Savior allows those believing in Him “to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy.”‘ (Lk. 10:19) But with them saying this, we dreaded more and more because of the fragility of our faithlessness, and we asked them not to want to follow the dragon’s tracks, but rather that we might proceed straight on the road. Yet one of them, impatient, had followed the dragon with alacrity. And when he had found its cave not far off, he called us so that we might have gone to him and seen the end of the business.

Yet another of the brothers who dwelt nearby in the desert hurried to meet us, and forbade us to follow the dragon, saying we could not endure his appearance, especially because we were not used to seeing anything such as that. Truly, he said that he himself frequently saw that same beast of incredible devastation, and that it was fifteen cubits long. And when he had advised us against approaching the place, he hurried himself to pull away, recall, and turn back the brother who had awaited us, prepared for the beast’s killing and unwilling to depart unless he had killed it.

When he would have come to us, he refuted our faintheartedness and faithlessness. So arriving at his little cell, we rested, received by him with much love. Truly, he told us that in this place where he always stayed had been a certain holy man named Ammon, whose disciple he had been; through Ammon, the Lord had done many things of power. And so he told us this one, among others.

“Frequently,” he said, “thieves came to him, carrying off the bread from him which was the only thing he ate, and was what he stored for his most continent way of living. And when he had suffered this annoyance frequently, on a certain day he proceeded into the desert; and coming back from there, he ordered two huge dragons to accompany him; and then he ordered them to stay at his monastery door, and they went in and guarded him. The thieves came according to custom, and saw what the guards on the threshold were, so that the dragons saw them; and [the sight] made them unable to move or think; they lost the power to speak and they collapsed immediately. When the old man realized this, he went out and found the thieves half-dead, and coming near and rousing them, he rebuked them, saying, ‘You see how much stubborner you are than these beasts; for they obey us according to God, but you neither fear God nor go blush to disturb the life of God’s servants.’

“Nevertheless, bringing them into the cell, he set the table and asked that they take food. Truly, with pricked hearts and their whole minds, they turned away from brutality; in short, they did better than many who began to serve the Lord earlier. For they did such great penance that after a few seasons, they also could do the same signs and the same works of power [as Ammon].

“Afterwards, at a different time, with a certain most immense dragon having laid waste to the neighboring regions and killed many, the inhabitants of that place came to the above-mentioned Father, asking him that he might kill the beast for their region; and at the same time, that they might persuade the old man to mercy, they brought a shepherd’s young son with them who had been terrified out of his mind by only a sight of the dragon, and had felled and been carried off, unable to move and swollen, from only the dragon’s breath. Then he restored health to this boy, indeed by anointing him with oil.**

“Meanwhile, he would promise nothing to those urging him to kill the dragon himself, as if one who could not help them with anything. But rising early, he went off to the beast’s sleeping place, and fixed his knees to the earth, begging the Lord. Then the beast began to come against him with a huge attack, sending out foul snorting and hisses and rattles. But fearing nothing of this, he said, turning toward the dragon, ‘May Christ, the Son of God, Who shall destroy the great whale, destroy you.’*** And when that old man spoke, immediately that direst dragon also vomiting poison with every breath, blew up, bursting down the middle.

“But when the neighboring inhabitants would have gathered and wondered at it, unable to bear the violence of the stink, they got together an immense mass of sand over it — with Father Ammon still standing by, because not even when the beast was dead did they dare approach it without him.”

* Vipers: literally, “horned serpents,” a translation of the Greek “cerastes”. It all means “vipers.” There’s a specific species in Egypt that has little scales standing up above its eyes and looking like horns.

** Anointing him with oil: Presumably, oil of the sick. The Anointing of the Sick is plenty ancient.

*** “Who destroyed the great whale” — Isaiah 27:1. “In that day the Lord, with his hard and great and strong sword, shall visit Leviathan the bar serpent, and Leviathan the crooked serpent, and shall slay the whale that is in the sea.” Also, since Christ compared Himself to Jonah, and since He was in the belly of Sheol for three days and nights when He was dead, Hell is the “great whale,” and Hellmouth has often been portrayed looking like a stylized whale mouth, in pictures of Jesus leading out the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

There is such a thing as a Nubian Spitting Cobra and a Red Spitting Cobra, both of which are found in Egypt. Maybe that’s what’s meant by the poison breath?

Here’s a translation of all of The History of the Egyptian Monks. Unfortunately I didn’t find it until after I did mine!

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Filed under Bad Christian Dragons, Good Christian Dragons, Patristics, Saint Stories, Translations

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