previous chapter
Holy Fools and Secret Saints
next sub-section

The Word Salos and Holy Folly

The evidence just presented suggests that a tradition of tales of folly existed as an identifiable genre by Leontius’s time. Nevertheless, the themes expressed in these tales were not fixed, nor was the vocabulary used to describe the principal characters. For example, the Greek version of the Life of Daniel contains a story of a nun who feigned drunkenness (μεθύστρια); in the Syriac version, however, the word is translated as “madness” (shanitha).[13] Thus, the concept of pretended madness as such was quite fluid.

Extreme caution is also warranted with regard to the term salos (σαλός), usually used to describe holy folly in both the modern scholarly literature and the Orthodox churches. The word salos, translated usually as “fool,” is of uncertain origin. It is not to be confused with the Greek word σάλος, “tossed” or “agitated.”[14] As Grosdidier de Matons has observed, salos appears to have had a principally colloquial usage at first.[15] It first appears in written sources in the early fifth century CE in Palladius’s Lausiac History 34, the well-known story of the nun in a monastery in Tabennisi who feigned madness (μώρια) and demonic possession. The nuns in the monastery tell the narrator that the woman is σαλή, a term which Palladius glosses after its first usage, presumably because the word was unfamiliar to his audience, explaining that this is the word they use “to describe those women who are afflicted.” Although we do find the theme of sanctity concealed by madness in this story, nothing suggests that the term salos has been connected with her practice as a technical term.

In four anecdotes in the alphabetical collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum, redacted in the sixth century, the word is either used sincerely to describe someone who appears crazy (and may well be) or as an insult. The term has a slang quality to it, and a recent English translator of the Apophthegmata has rendered it variously “mad,” “distraught,” “silly,” and “fool.”[16] Here too the word clearly has no technical meaning suggesting the pretense of insanity as a form of ascetic practice. The word occurs with a notably abusive sense in a recently published letter from Oxyrhynchus dated to the late fifth century. While discussing business matters connected with a mill at Orthoniu the author of the letter refers to a third party as “that imbecile [σαλός] Horus.”[17]

In John Moschus’s Spiritual Meadow, which dates from the early seventh century, the word salos is used to describe a mendicant whom John says he and his companion Sophronius encountered on the steps of the Church of Theodosius in Alexandria. The beggar “appears as if he is crazy [ὡς σαλός]”; however, nothing in the anecdote suggests that the man is a holy man or that he is merely pretending to be crazy.[18]

It is puzzling that Evagrius Scholasticus, at the end of the sixth century, never uses the term salos in his description of Symeon. Grosdidier de Matons, who interprets this omission to indicate the word’s status as a colloquialism, argues that Evagrius avoided the word since it was inappropriate to his “bon style.”[19] However, we cannot rule out the possibility that Evagrius was unfamiliar with the word. Further confusion is introduced by the tale of Mark the Fool, one of the stories included in the Life of Daniel of Skete, a text roughly contemporary with Evagrius Scholasticus’s Ecclesiastical History. Here the author describes Mark as a salos; however, he also uses the term to describe the truly insane people with whom Mark associates.[20]

As we have seen, stories of feigned madness were widespread in the period from the early fifth through mid-seventh century; however, the term σαλός was not always used in these stories. Moreover, none of these stories demonstrates a developed sense of the salos as a technical category, nor for that matter of feigned madness as a well-defined form of spiritual expression. The term salos, therefore, should not be understood as the equivalent of “holy fool” in Late Antiquity.

In the Life of Symeon the Fool, we find a more extensive treatment of this term. Leontius works out for the first time a definition of holy folly through his attempt to establish a theological justification as well as a cultural precedent for holy folly. Leontius uses the term σαλός often. He writes that Symeon “played all sorts of roles foolish and indecent [σαλῶν καὶ ἀσχήμων]” (p. 155). Salos is used as an epithet: “Go away, Fool!” (p. 166); the girls of Emesa use the word in the vocative Σαλέ, calling him “Fool” as if it were his name. And Symeon is not the only one to be called a salos; Symeon refers to his friend the monk John with this term (p. 153).[21] Leontius also twice uses the verb σαλίζω, previously unattested, apparently to mean “playing the fool.”[22] But while Leontius makes frequent use of the word salos, it does not, in itself, have a technical sense. What is crucial for Leontius is the fact that Symeon is a σαλός διà Χριστὸν, “a Fool for Christ’s sake.” The first time he is seen by the residents of Emesa, school children run after him and call him not a salos, but a mōros (μωρός) (p. 145). Later Leontius describes Symeon as one who “simulates μωρία for Christ’s sake” (pp. 155–56), recalling Paul’s wording in 1 Corinthians 4:10. For Leontius salos and mōros are largely interchangeable. His innovation is not to give salos a technical usage, but to define his folly as διà Χριστὸν, “for Christ’s sake.”

Despite the Pauline overtones, Leontius’s conception of the Fool for Christ’s Sake is not particularly Pauline.[23] In Palladius’s remarks introducing the story of the nun who feigned madness, Palladius claims that in behaving as she does the nun was fulfilling the passage from 1 Corinthians (3:18): “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.” Rydén has seen that Palladius willfully misinterprets this passage from Paul.[24] Paul contrasts the term with wisdom in a significantly different context. Paul was surely not advocating a pretense to insanity, and there is no indication that Palladius’s nun achieved wisdom. The same prooftext is also used by Leontius in his introduction to the Life of Symeon (p. 122) where it similarly stands in an awkward relationship with the story about to be narrated. Perhaps more significant for Leontius is a second passage from 1 Corinthians, “We are fools [μωροί] for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ” (1 Cor 4:10), where Paul seems to concede that his first-century Christian communities are breaking social conventions. Leontius uses 1 Corinthians 4:10 as a prooftext as well (p. 122), and he modifies the phrase in his title for the work, “The Life and Conduct of Abba Symeon Called the Fool [σαλός] for the Sake of Christ.”[25] Here he replaces mōros with salos. While Leontius does not attempt to recover Paul’s sense of the phrase, he does use Paul’s language to establish biblical authority for Symeon’s extraordinary behavior.


previous chapter
Holy Fools and Secret Saints
next sub-section