What is Hagiography?

St. Luke the Evangelist

What makes a good story? Is it a compelling plot? Or do you need an emotional tie to a main character? Are you disappointed with unexpected endings? Are you a fact-checker with sci-fi or historical novels and give up if the author gets the details wrong? We all approach stories with assumptions about what makes them good or dissatisfying. Hagiography, or the recording of the lives of Orthodox saints, has these unspoken assumptions, or in modern terminology, ‘tropes’ for a specific goal. Over the course of several posts, I will explore what hagiography teaches us and the fruits we can gather from the lives of every kind of saint.

I am a trained archivist; my work was to take a jumble of papers from a person or event and impart physical order so as to make a coherent system for finding information. When working with personal papers, there were several ways to go about this, but the overarching picture was to keep in mind the whole of this person’s life trajectory. As I began creating lessons centered around the lives of women saints, I delved into dozens, if not hundreds of stories, sorting out representatives to help my students understand a particular theme. I naturally picked up on patterns in the language used to describe our Orthodox saints.

Were these patterns made by unspoken little ‘t’ tradition or were there rules? Like within the tradition of iconography, are there understood symbols and depictions transmuted in language? I quickly learned there has been no academic or lengthy analysis on what hagiography is or rubrics delineating how we remember the saints. This is surprising considering how much of our liturgical life is guided through well-honed patterns.

To start with a basic definition, hagiography is writing about holiness. The goal of writing about a saint is to record what is profitable from their life story for our salvation -or- how their lives are joined with God in the world. This act of recording takes a great deal of wisdom and is much more complex than a social historian like myself would encounter when writing a biographical essay in my discipline. My emerging thesis is that hagiography is mythos meets ethos using logos or a recurrent structured story that builds towards a defining shared character for a group of people which shows the Divine life in the world.

In the next post of this series, I will explain what hagiography is not (if in doubt, go apophatic) and what are the hallmarks of good hagiography. This will be a fun rabbit trail, I promise!

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