Saturday, February 16, 2013

Saintly Saturday: St. Maruthas Bishop of Martyropolis

Today is the feast of St. Maruthas, Bishop of Martyropolis (modern day Silvan in southeast Turkey) which sat between the Persian and Byzantine Empires. He is a Confessor because he suffered under the Persian Emperor Sapor, but was instrumental in negotiating peace between the two Empires during the reigns of Theodosius the Younger and the Shah Izdegerd. It was during one of these negotiations that he convinced Izdegerd to provide religious freedom to Christians and he was able to obtain the relics of several Persian martyrs which he relocated to Martyropolis (and the reason the city bore that name). He participated in the Second Ecumenical Council in A.D. 381 and has left behind several writings including: Commentary on the Gospel, Verses of Maruthas, Liturgy of Maruthas and The 73 Canons of the Ecumenical Council at Nicea.

Of interest to me is that he wrote in Syriac, which those outside of the world of biblical scholarship might not realize is a really important language. The reason for this is that we have no original text of the OT. Yes, we have Hebrew texts, but those are the ones translated by the Mesorites after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. I say translated because the original Hebrew text had no vowels and Mesorites added them. Thus, the Hebrew we have is merely one of many textual witnesses to that original text and, when compared to other languages and translations, isn’t even the oldest. While not considered definitive, there are a bunch of textual witnesses written in Syriac. When there is a discrepancy between other translations (Greek and Hebrew being the most authoritative), the Syriac is consulted to see how others understood the passages in question.

Beedo of Dreams in the Lich House has recently been meditating about True Names as they can be found in a lot of popular fantasy fiction (notably the excellent Earth Sea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin).  He mentions briefly the power of names in the Scriptural tradition and I’d like to take a moment to expand on that idea in context of the evocative title The Verses of Marutha and the Syriac language.

Names are terrifically important in Scripture. As they do in fantasy literature, they hold power, particularly creative power. Note that God allows Adam to co-create with him in Genesis 2 by allowing Adam to name the animals. Note also that this exercise was to try and find a help-mate for Adam — he sought to find power over a particular animal by naming it.

This effort continues to this day as we try to scientifically categorize creation and is seen manifested when we name the disease that afflicts us when we are sick. If we know what the disease is, we know how to fight it. Theologically, we do the same with sin. When we confess our sins, we name them and have power over them.

Moses sought power over God by asking His name, so God responded with a sentence that begs for a predicate: I AM — we can never have power over God because His name is infinite and cannot be contained by language. Indeed, the number of Scriptural titles and names for Christ are manifold.

God names or re-names important people within Scripture. Here are a few examples:

  • Abram becomes Abraham
  • Jacob becomes Israel
  • Moses means “son of” and has the same root as Ramesses (meaning the son of Ra), so his name was shortened in order to get rid of the Egyptian deity part of his name.
  • Zechariah is told by an angel to break tradition and call his son John (who became the Baptist)
  • Saul becomes Paul.

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church, when a celibate is ordained, they are given a new name. This also happens with the Popes of Rome.

Now to pull all of this together into an evocative feature of an FRPG campaign world:

  • There is a language akin to Syriac — an obscure and ancient language, but terrifically important.
  • This import comes from the fact that it is one of the few witnesses left for True Names.
  • The most well known of these texts is the Verses of (insert name of famous scholar here).
  • These verses can only be found in bits and pieces.

Thus, when the PCs know they are going up against a truly powerful opponent (like the Lich in Beedo’s example), one of the prefatory quests can be a search for the fantasy analog of the Verses of Marutha wherein is found the creature's True Name.


Spawn of Endra said...

Very interesting meditation on the power of naming, FrDave. I happen to be rereading "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said" this evening, and came across the same idea, where the world-famous Jason Taverner awakes to a world where he is no one:

I can't live two hours without my ID, he said to himself. I don't even dare walk out of the lobby of this rundown hotel and onto the public sidewalk. They'll assume I'm a student or teacher escaped from one of the campuses. I'll spend the rest of my life as a slave doing heavy manual labor. I am what they call an unperson.

Of course since Dick is talking about his own more or less Gnostic cosmology allegorically it's not surprising he puts it this way, but the idea of the unnamed (unidentified) being a non-entity is the main ontological crisis. As you say, since God named/names himself as a definition of his existence, he is not subject to that crisis.

Thanks for your reflection on this.

Jive Professor said...

I have always loved the fantasy genre's focus on names and their importance and have tried to incorporate that into my games. It may just be a quirk of mine, but I really only consider a name "successful" if the players actually use the name, and don't just say "that one guy" or "the green sword". Otherwise I feel like it has no real worth. So I tend to get the most mileage out of names that are simple, funny, or both (especially puns - nothing like a group groan to help everyone remember an npc).

Another fun bit in my experience is to have a critter that the party encounters that no one has ever seen before (or has ever lived to tell the tale, at any rate). Then let the party be the ones that name it, and be the ones who first start telling stories about it. It can flop, sure, but when it works it is a lot of fun. It really gives the players a feeling of ownership in the game world (much like Adam naming the animals), and helps underscore the weird and mysterious aspects of fantasy worlds. Not every monster is in a bestiary or can be deduced from an errant nature check.