Category Archives: Translations

St. Ephrem’s Dragons

St. Ephrem, Epiphany Hymn 8, verse 16:

“In the beginning, the Spirit of fruitfulness
brooded on the waters,
and they conceived and gave birth
to dragons, fish, and birds.
The Holy Spirit brooded on the waters of Baptism,
which gave birth to mystical eagles —
pure virgins and guides of the Church;
and mystical fish —
celibates and mediators, of course;
and mystical dragons —
those clever ones, of course,
who are made as simple as doves.”

This Syriac hymn takes advantage of both the Genesis translation of sea creatures as “dragons,” and the Greek notion that giant serpents are dragons.

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Heavenly Warrior Dragons

More good Christian dragons! This one is sort of a punishing one, however. It sounds like the Irish kenning of “dragon” for “great warrior” has crept into the story, and they’re talking about a warrior angel.

However, this is from the Vita S. Kannechi, the Life of St. Cainneach of Aghaboe. He was a busy guy — hung out with St. Columba, became famous in Scotland as St. Kenneth or St. Canice, and bopped around the continent a bit before coming home. This was pretty typical for a roaming pilgrim Irish monk back in the day. However, this life was written in the 8th century, so the dragon story is not necessarily anything contemporary to the guy. (The Life of Columba that mentions Cainneach is very contemporary, however.)

Vita S. Kannechi, c. 9:

“Therefore St. Cainneach promised to spend the future, his sepulture, and his resurrection in this offered city with the above-mentioned king. But having frequently visited the saint, the angel of God who had predicted his resurrection in Ireland, rebuked him for the incautious promise. So then St. Cainnech was in anguish, between his promise and the angel’s word.

“But the Lord, the True Judge, helped him. For a fiery dragon descended from Heaven and cut off the outside toe of St. Cainneach’s right foot. St. Cainneach left his toe there, fulfilling his promise; and obeying the angel’s word, he went back to Ireland. Indeed, this above-mentioned king was afterwards a wonderful man and a bishop.”

Only the Irish would link dragons and pinkie toes.

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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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St. Simon Stylites: Dragon Veterinarian

Well, now that I know that the Greek “drakon” was seen as being a sort of big python snake, this kind of story makes a lot more sense! So as part of my continuing research into Good Christian Dragons, I present this story that shows both a saint healing a dragon, and that snakes trust saints as Adam-like stewards of Creation.

St. Simon Stylites is a pretty well-documented guy; he was a Byzantine celebrity, even. He lived alone in the ruins of an old Greco-Roman city, on a little railed platform he built on top of an 80-foot-high pillar. (There isn’t much left of it.) So mostly he stayed on top of the pillar, although occasionally he would come down his ladder and stand on the base of the pillar to do things or speak to someone. Technically he was a hermit, but the place was always getting swarmed by visitors, so he ended up becoming a sort of hermit/preacher/advice guy. He let men come inside the little wall around his pillar and come up the ladder to his platform, so he even had disciples come up there to learn from him.

From Chapter 10 of the Latin translation of the Vita S. Simeon Stylites (PL 73, 330, 7-24):

“In this time an exceedingly large dragon dwelt near [St. Simon Stylites] in northern parts, where no grass grew; and a stick got stuck in its right eye. And behold, that blind dragon came and drew near to the little dwelling where the man of God was staying, dragging itself along; it lay there with its head abased and its body all curled around itself in a ring, as if asking for a favor. On seeing this, Blessed Simeon immediately removed a cubit-long stick from its eye. And on seeing this, everyone glorified God, yet fled from it in awe. But the beast coiled up around itself and remained immobile in one place until all the people had passed. Then getting up, it adored the monastery doorway* for almost two hours and then went back to its den; and it hurt no one.”

* The door in the little wall around the pillar.

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Translation: Ecce Fulget Clarissima (Medieval Hymn to St. Patrick)

I was going to do some more Aurelius stuff, but my Canty CD of a medieval office for St. Patrick came yesterday. So suddenly, it’s March 17th in July! (It’s also been recorded on Schola Gregoriana Maynooth’s album Saints and Scholars.)

“Ecce fulget clarissima” is a fairly widespread hymn in medieval lit books, but I had never heard the melody before. It’s an interesting one. Push it one way and it sounds like a medieval dance tune; push it the other way and it’s an Irish ballad tune or slow air. A lot of medieval chant hymns are like this — a bit catchier than other sorts of chant, and probably composed more for popular use rather than as a strictly monastery product.

Canty’s literal translation seems to be based on the Wright and Stokes one in The Writings of St. Patrick, which is fine. But I had a few different ideas about it, most notably that “baptismate” is not to be translated in this case as Baptism, but as Flood. The water motif in the poem seems strongly tied to St. Patrick’s famous kidnapping and enslavement by Irish raiders; whereas his Baptism is not famous at all. I also saw some Biblical references, so I wasn’t shy about pointing them out. You’ll also notice a couple places where I merged two verses into one, in the translation. There’s no point spinning out a song that’s this long already.

Ecce fulget clarissima
Patricii solemnitas,
in qua carne deposita
felix transcendit sidera.

Behold, the brightest solemnity:
St. Patrick’s Day shines brilliantly.
Happy, he left his flesh today,
And past the stars he slipped away.

Hic felici prosapia
ortus est in Britannia
perceptoque baptismate
studet ad alta tendere.

Born to a happy family,
Risen from Britain by the sea,
Swept off by slavers on the flood,
He strove to reach the heights in snow and mud.

Qui mox a pueritia
divina plenus gratia
vitam cepit diligere
dignitatis angelice.

Soon as he passed from boyhood’s days,
He was full of divine grace,
Taking a life up that he came to love —
Worthy of angels up above.

Sed futurorum prescius,
clemens et rectus Dominus
hunc direxit apostolum
Hybernie ad populum.

But the Lord, knowing what would be,
The Ruler who guides mercif’lly,
Brought this apostle by His Hand
Back to the people of Ireland.

Erat namque hec insula
bonis terre fructifera,
sed cultore ydolatra
mergebatur ad infima.

Oh, for that island was full of good ground,
Ready to bear fruit when seed had been found.
But it was drowned deep in idolatry;
That turned it to the worst ground that could be.

Ad hanc doctor egregius
adveniens Patricius
predicabat gentilibus,
quod tenebat operibus.

Confluebat gentilitas
ad ejus sacra monita
et respuens diabolum
colebat regem omnium.

Patrick came out to the peoples to teach
And practice all of the good works he would preach.
To hear holy prophecy, clans came flowing,
To spit out the Devil and take God as King.

Gaudebatque se liberam
remeare ad patriam,
qua serpentis astutia
olim expulsa fuerat.

And he rejoiced to see Ireland free,
As he went home to the Father’s country.
The old serpent’s cunning and subtlety
He’d driven out of Ireland already.

Qua propter, dilectissimi,
huius in laude presulis
psallamus Christo cordibus
alternantes et vocibus.

Ut illius suffragio
liberati a vitio
perfruamur in gloria
uisione angelica.

So, most beloved, in this prelate’s praise,
Let’s sing to Christ — heart and voice in turn raise.
So, when from vice by his prayers we’re set free,
The angelic vision we’ll know in glory.

Laus sit patri in filio
cum spiritu paraclito,
qui suo dono gratie
misertus est hybernie.

Praise to the Father and to the Son
And to the Spirit, the Three in One.
His gift of grace from His Own Hand
Has shown His mercy to Ireland.

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Translation: Te Deum Laudamus

I wrote this up a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t post it. One of the guys over at The New Liturgical Movement blog was complaining that the tune “Thaxted” (that Holst thing, aka the tune for “Land of Hope and Glory”) was way too popular in his neck of the US woods. Since it’s very far from that popular around here, I had to think of something annoying to do with it. :) I don’t know why the “Te Deum” came to mind. I also didn’t realize that the 7-verse version of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” is actually a translation of the “Te Deum” too. So this is a pretty redundant project, but that’s nothing new in hymnody.

The scansion and rhyme stinks and there’s several unresolved problems with the lyrics (especially the end, which only a choir director with an elaborate arrangement could love), but it’s pretty singable. (If I do say so myself.) So here you go. It’s as literal a translation as I could manage.

Lyrics: Maureen S. O’Brien, 9/24/08
translating “Te Deum Laudamus”
Music: “Thaxted”, Holst

You, O God, we praise, we praise You, confessing You are Lord.
You, Eternal Father, whom all worlds do worship and adore!
To You, all heaven’s angels, all the host of Powers rejoice,
And Cherubim and Seraphim cry out with ceaseless voice:
“Hooooly, Holy, Holy,
Lord Go-o-od of Hosts,
Heaven and earth are full of
Your glory’s majesty!”

The Apostles’ glorious chorus and the lauded Prophets sing,
And the Martyrs’ whiterobed army their praises to You bring.
To You, around the wide world, testifies your Bride holy:
To the Father of unmeasured and unending majesty,
To Your true and worshipped, worthy
and sole-begotten Son,
And the Holy Spirit, Paraclete:
One in Three and Three in One.

You, King of Glory, Christ, forever are the Father’s Son.
When You chose to set men free, a virgin’s womb You did not shun.
And when You had beaten death’s sting, Heaven’s Kingdom You flung wide
To all believers; glorious, You sit at the Father’s right.
To-o be Judge, You will come again.
We beg You now indeed,
Help Your servants whom You have redeemed
With Your Precious Blood, in need.

Count them with your saints in glo-ory. O save your people, Lord.
Bless Your legacy; reign over them, exalt them evermore.
Each and every day we bless You, and at all times praise Your Name.
Lord, kindly grant, this day, to keep us free from sin and shame.
Have mercy on us, Lo-o-ord,
Have mercy on us.
Have mercy on us, Lo-o-ord,
Have mercy on us.

May Your mercy on us be, O Lord, for we have hoped in You.
May Your mercy on us be, O Lord, for we have hoped in You.
In You, Lord, I’ve put my hope; I will not be dismayed.
In You, Lord, I’ve put my hope; I will not be dismayed.
Amen, Amen,
Amen, Amen,
Amen, Amen,
Amen, Amen.


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Translation: “Il Cantico del Bene” by St. Joseph of Cupertino

St. Joseph of Cupertino, a Franciscan poet? Yes, there’s more to our favorite flying saint than levitation, bilocation, and miscellaneous wonderworking! He also wrote poetry, according to his hometown’s website. In fact, his hometown — which prefers the spelling “Copertino” — apparently sells some kind of CD of musical settings or music-backed recitations of his poetry.

Here’s one of his most famous works, the “Canticle of the Good” (“Il Cantico del Bene”), along with my attempt at a translation. I don’t speak Italian and have relied on Google Translate, so ‘attempt’ is the word.


Chi fa ben sol per paura
non fa niente e poco dura.

Whoever does good ’cause he’s too scared not to
Does nothing hard, though he really ought to.

Chi fa ben sol per usanza
se non perde, poco avanza.

Whoever does good ’cause good habits stayed,
Won’t get lost, but no progress made.

Chi fa ben come per forza
lascia il frutto e tien la scorza.

Whoever does good only when forced to it
Eats rind, leaves fruit to rot where he threw it.

Chi fa ben qual sciocco a caso
va per l’acqua senza vaso.

Whoever does good with a random flail
Goes to fetch water without a pail.

Chi fa ben per parer buono
non acquista altro che suono.

Whoever does good to look good to friends
Buys himself nothing but noise in the end.

Chi fa ben per vanagloria
non avrà già mai vittoria.

Whoever does good just for empty pride
Has made himself play on the losing side.

Chi fa ben per avarizia
cresce sempre più in malizia.

Whoever does good only out of greed
Makes his malice grow and lets it feed.

Chi fa ben con negligenza
perde il frutto e la semenza.

Whoever does good in a careless way
Will lose both fruit and the seed, I’d say.

Chi fa bene all’indiscreta
senza frutto mai s’acquieta.

Whoever does good to the indiscreet
Gets no peace and no fruit that’s sweet.

Chi fa ben per solo gusto
mai sarà santo né giusto.

Whoever does good just for his own pleasure
Will become just and a saint — When? Never.

Chi fa ben sol per salvarsi
troppo s’ama e non sa amarsi.

Whoever does good just for his salvation
Loves none but himself in God’s whole Creation.

Chi fa ben per puro amore
dona a Dio l’anima e il cuore
e qual figlio servitore
sarà unito al suo Signore.
Gesù dolce Salvatore
sia lodato a tutte l’ore
il supremo e gran Motore
d’ogni grazia donatore.

Whoever does good purely out of love
Gives heart and soul to his God above.
And what’s the servant son’s reward?
To be united with his Lord.
O Jesus, sweet Savior,
Each hour may we praise your favor,
O great, supreme Mover,
Of every grace the Giver.

St. Giuseppe Desa of Copertino, pray for us!


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