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The legend(s) of Saint Mamas
The wild and competing backstories of a Byzantine icon
Icons occupy an important element within the traditions of the Orthodox church. These sacred images used in religious devotion typically depict portraits of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Apostles, as well as countless minor or local saints.
Some of these sacred images are dramatic—Saint George spearing a dragon comes to mind—while others, like that of Saint Nikolas or Lazarus—more solemn. Not only do they figure into worship, but in practice icons formed useful narrative devices for symbolizing stories and sacred traditions.
But then I came across the icon of a curious figure—Saint Mamas, a grinning boy who is always depicted riding a lion. When I first saw an icon of Saint Mamas, I was like, what’s going on here? What’s this guy’s story? With such a whimsical and yet provocative image, I was quite curious.
Then I looked into it. There are two main competing narratives about Saint Mamas. The original is not for the faint of heart, while the Cypriot version is significantly more of a crowd-pleaser.
Saint Mamas of Caesarea
The mainline Mamas tradition states that Mamas was the child of a Christian couple who were imprisoned and executed by the Roman authorities in Caesarea, modern-day Kaysari in central Anatolia, Turkey. Following the death of his parents, he was raised and educated by a rich Roman widow named Ammia, who passed when he was 15. This Dickens novel gets rough, however. Mamas had no great expectations.
Soon enough, Mamas was captured by the Roman governor of Caesarea, who, reluctant to torture a boy who had been raised by Ammia, sent him before Emperor Aurelian, who tried to get Mamas to renounce his faith. Mamas refused and was subjected to torture.
However, an angel freed him and he ran away to hide on a mountain near Caesarea, where he became attuned with nature and started producing his own line of cheese, which he gave to the poor.
The Romans sent a detachment to capture him, and Mamas was thrown to the lions in the gladiator circus. However, Mamas was able to tame the lions by preaching to them, and one of the lions became his trusty companion.
After that brush with death, Mamas (somehow, the legend gets a bit murky here) went to the current Emperor, Severus Alexander, with his lion.
Severus ordered him to be executed, and Mamas was stabbed with a trident, and he died as he dragged himself to the center of a theater before expiring. Intense!
Saint Mamas of Morphou
The Cypriot version of the Saint Mamas narrative is very different. In this variant of the multiverse, Saint Mamas was a hermit who lived in poverty in a cave near Morphou (also known as Güzelyurt). As Mamas was not consistently paying his taxes, soldiers were sent to arrest him.
Mamas escaped, but in his flight, he noticed a lion attacking a lamb. In a development that seems evocative of a Superman comic strip, he saved the lamb and then managed to mount the lion and ride it into town. Mamas handed the sheep to the judge as as gift. The judge was so impressed, Mamas was deemed tax-exempt.
Such is the legacy of Saint Mamas—a lion-tamer, a tax-evader—his myth is an important piece in the mosaic of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
This is the eighteenth post in The Cyprus Files, a limited-run newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. You can read all the posts in The Cyprus Files here. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a (free) dispatch from the island of Aphrodite!