• βοσκοί (Greek) Boskoi (E) = grazers or browsers; from bovskw, to graze, to feed.
  • Boskoi = name of an augmented_foraging app we're creating for mobile phone.

On one of my explorations through hagiographic literature in the Central Library of Amsterdam, I came across a text which just mentioned a piece of very very odd behaviour, where early Christians literally joined the flock.

Historical back-ground:

When Christianity was legalized by Roman Emperor Constantine, the Christian Saints were no longer prosecuted. To prove their dedication to faith they found a new way to suffer, Asceticism. Soon this practice got really out off hand and people would come up with ever less comfortable ways of existence. Starving and suffering, they could go for hours, or even days without the normal signs of life. Dead to the world they lived in God. Saints became like athletes of Christ and in this passage I read the most stunning account yet, that there were even hermits who grazed like sheep. The golden age of grazers was the 6th century, when people ate grass all their lives at the coasts of the Red Sea.

In 'Tales of Early Ages' by Horace Smith, this passage appears on page 171, claiming the grazing hermits where known by the name of Bosci and were located it the Thebaid, the Southern most part of Egypt.

…..Of the same class but labouring under a less desperate hallucination were the Bosci, or grazing hermits, hirsute, bearded, satyr-like savages, clad in the skin of wild beasts; who having neither cells nor habitation of any sort, but living like the cattle in the fields, spent their whole time in praying and singing psalms, and when hungry, tore up with their nails the grass and wild herbs, which they devoured without cooking.

In 'An introduction to the history of the Western tradition' by Edgar Nathaniel Johnson on page 359 notes:

The Anchorage is to be met in such extravagant types as grazing hermits, those living on grass or herbs, and pillar saints such as Saint Simeon Stylites, who spent some thirty years atop of a sixty foot pillar.

W.H.C. Frend claims 178 Boskoi existed in a book entitled 'The Rise of Christianity' page 578.

There were Boskoi monks,178 those who grazed grass like animals, or burdened themselves with iron collars and heavy chains. On the fringes of orthodoxy,…

Edward Gibbon writes in his work 'The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire', in Chapter XXXVII:

….some savage saints of both sexes have been admired, whose naked bodies were only covered by their long hair. They aspired to reduce themselves to the rude and miserable state in which the human brute is scarcely distinguishable above his kindred animals; and the numerous sect of Anachorets derived their name from their humble practice of grazing in the fields of Mesopotamia with the common herd. They often usurped the den of some wild beast whom they affected to resemble; they buried themselves in some gloomy cavern, which art or nature had scooped out of the rock; and the marble quarries of Thebais are still inscribed with the monuments of their penance.
note: Sozomen, l. vi. c. 33. The great St. Ephrem composed a panegyric on these or grazing monks, (Tillemont, Mem. Eccles. tom. viii. p. 292.)

On page 317 in a Chapter called 'The Mental Condition of Hermits', John William Draper offers a glimpse of grazing hermits in his book titled; 'A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe.'

If they were not recorded by many truthful authors, the extravagancies of some of these enthusiasts would pass belief. Men and women ran naked upon all fours, associating themselves with the beasts of the field. In the spring season, when the grass is tender, the grazing hermits of Mesopotamia went forth to the plains, sharing with the cattle their filth and their food.

Derek Krueger writes in his work entitled; 'Symeon the Holy Fool, Leontius’ Life and the Late Antique City':

…Leontius provides a chronology of Symeon’s career before his arrival in Emesa in Syria. He narrates how Symeon left his native Edessa to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, how he and his friend John first entered a monastery in the Jordan and later lived as hermits, grazing in the desert like sheep. …..in the first half of the Life, Leontius presents Symeon and his friend John as living as grazers (βοσκοί) in the Syrian desert. An account of such grazers, unrelated to the account Ắ of Symeon of Emesa, can be found in the first book of Evagrius’s History. [47] As Rydén has observed, Leontius seems to combine Evagrius’s account of the boskoi with the account of Symeon of Emesa when he composes his full-length vita.[48] Leontius uses the time Symeon “spent” as a boskos to account for how he achieved the state of apatheia, so important to Leontius’s understanding—indeed his construction—of Symeon.

In 'Crimes of Christianity' by G W Foote & J M Wheeler in Chapter III:

In Mesopotamia and Palestine the Boskoi wandered on all fours, grazing like cattle. St. Mark, of Athens, lived in this way till his body was covered with hair like a wild beast's. St. Mary, of Egypt, also, during her penance, lived on grass, after the manner of Nebuchadnezzar. The great St. Ephrem, according to Tillemont, composed a panegyric on these pious cattle.

On page 41 in 'A New History of Chrisianity' Vivian Green writes:

Near Nisibis there lived a group of Boskoi or grazing monks. When meal time came they took sickles and sallied forth to cut grass and on this they made their repast as if they were cattle. Others the so-called Dendrites lived in trees.

Much like Kevin Butcher in 'Roman Syria and the Near East' p392:

Some ascetics became boskoi, 'grazers', living in the open without proper clothing, eating grass, nuts, berries and roots, like animals. Others loaded themselves with heavy chains. The Mesopotamian 'dendrite' David perched like a bird in a tree at Thessalonica in Greece. The unusual behaviour could lead to iconic, superstar status.“

The sickle also appears in this picture: http://www.mondimedievali.net/medicina/images/altomed76.jpg

There is a longer section on Boskoi in 'Wandering, Begging Monks; Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity' by Daniel Caner starting on page 50.

Writing in Constantinople in the middle of the fifth century, the church historian Sozomen believed the first monks of Syria were those who had 'emulated the monks of Egypt in the practice of philosophy' by scraping a raw existence off the mountains near the Persian frontier…. Wrapped in goatskins or straw mats, boskoi monks pursued a decidedly counter-cultural anachoresis. Hunters were believed to sometimes mistake them for strange animals…. As celebrated in Syrian chant: Those who graze on grass and roots instead of delicacies,
and in place of lofty dwellings, live in caves.
Like birds they go up to live on rocky ledges,
Where ever one of them goes,
he enjoys the herbs he picked in faith,
he leaves the rest behind and moves on from there,
because he has heard the saying;
Do not be anxious about tomorrow.
Such zealots for 'freedom from care' not only avoided artificial shelter and clothing, but rejected all ordinary labors by which human beings obtained their food. According to Sozomen this 'strict philosophy off the beaten track of mankind' had been introduced to Syria by a monk named Aones 'just as Anthony introduced it to Egypt.'Aones is otherwise unknown, but the ascetic lifestyle associated with him is familiar to what we have already seen of Bessarion and other wanderers in Egypt. In fact, testimony from the Western Mediterranean to Northern Mesopotamia shows that the lifestyle attributed to only a few Egyptian monks was one that many adopted wherever there was enough vegetation to survive. It especially came into vogue in Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine. Here monks could easily follow the footsteps of their Old Testament forebears (the patriarchs and the prophets) and imitate their nomadic patterns. Near Eastern hinterlands offered more possibilities for healthy sustenance than the Egypt desert did, nuts, asphodel roots and a juicy thistle (mannouthia) that grew on the desert fringe may even account for the reported longevity of many who took up the diet. In cultivated regions they could live by scavenging garden fruits and vegetables. They may have also picked tares off the ground or used their sickles to reap uncut corners of fields set aside for the poor to glean in accordance ancient charitable custom. Although one admirer in the fifth century expressed concern that some Boskoi were settling down and taking up agriculture, their ascetic lifestyle (as distinct from other forms of anachoresis) would long persist among Christian monks, both male and female. Late into the sixth century they could still be glimpsed roaming along the Dead Sea coast or forging in the Palestine desert naked 'like animals… nolonger human in the way they thought.'

In Latin Boskoi is occasionally translated as 'Pabulatores'. From 'The Classic Journal' an essay on the regiments of Julius Ceasar:

This [foraging] work was done sometimes by legionaries, sometimes by cavalrymen and the term pabulatores could be applied to both of them. … Pompey's cavalry had the duty of foraging.

Bishop Kallistos Ware on his site mentions a few Boskoi near the Great Lavra monastery in Greece in the 60-ties:

There are even solitaries on Athos today who follow the same way of life as the boskoi [browsers] in primitive monasticism—dwelling with the animals like Adam in Paradise, not building cells but remaining in caves or in the open air, wearing no clothing and eating no cooked food. Although I have not myself seen any such, I have spoken with monks who know about them. They are to be found chiefly near the tip of the peninsula, on the wooded slopes above the Great Lavra and Kerasia. For a description of one such monk, see J. Valentin, The Monks of Mount Athos (London 1960), pp.36-38.

from 'Living off the Land' by Norman A. Rubin on http://www.anistor.gr

According to Cyril and other writers, the monks of the Judean Desert were almost entirely dependent on their surroundings for food. They cultivated extensive vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Irrigation of farming plots in the desert was provided by spring water when available, or by rainwater which they collected in immense rock-cut cisterns and reservoirs. However, they also utilized edible wild plants. In fact, one of the main sources of livelihood for the monks of the Judean Desert was the gathering of edible wild plants. The written sources mention four types of plants which were gathered systematically by the monks: salt bush, wild onion, caper and a plant termed manouthion - thumbling thistle. There are many accounts of the use of thumbling thistle as food. The plant is cut in mid-spring; its stalks are cut from the plants, peeled and their juicy inner section is eaten raw. The leaves of the plant are trimmed and used in the veins as vine leaves. Blossom globes are picked, trimmed and fried in spices with a delicacy of flavor resembling artichoke hearts. Surplus manouthia (plural of mamaouthion) were pickled and stored and the remainder of the plant dried and used as kindling. The plant most commonly eaten by the hermits in isolated caves was melagria, identified as asphodel, a plant common in the Judean Desert, with edible tubers. When the asphodel plants were not available, the hermits ate wild onion, which were bitter and could be eaten if boiled. The Bedouin labeled the hermits, who subsisted on wild plants, as “Grazers”. A delicacy for the hermits was hearts of cane harvested during the winter months. The monk's ability to identify edible plants was apparently gained over their long years or residence in the desert. They are also likely to have received information from their neighbors, the villagers and shepherds who lived on the margins of the desert. To this day, wild plants are an important component of the diet of villagers in the Judean Hills.

  • grazing_hermits.txt
  • Last modified: 2012-03-05 18:50
  • by theunkarelse