"Apocryphal" Prayers in Medieval Slavia Orthodoxa: Problems of Definition and Classification

Yvonne Brandon, University of Virginia

At the turn of the twentieth century, several Russian scholars published collections of medieval heretical works, and included a number of what they termed "false" or "apocryphal" prayers. They are prayers to stop bleeding and cure illness, against snakebite or mad dogs, and a variety of others, primarily with a healing or apotropaic function. Most of the prayers in these published collections are not specifically named in the Index of Forbidden Books or in the other polemical literature of medieval church hierarchs. In the absence of direct evidence that representatives of the medieval church considered these prayers false or heretical, a scholarly distinction was nevertheless made. In many cases these scholars applied a modern standard to medieval prayers and retroactively excluded them from the Orthodox canon. The end result is that the label "false" or "apocryphal" was applied to texts in the absence of a standard definition and sometimes in a manner inconsistent with historical evidence. The intervening years have not seen a clarification of the terminology, and so far no alternative definition or system of classification has been suggested.

In part, the problem is caused by the fact that a definition of "apocryphal prayer" has traditionally been inextricable from the problem of "magic" versus "religion." It is often seen as the axis of the two and dependent on them for its conceptual understanding. Beginning with Malinowski's definitions of magic, science and religion, this paper attempts to show the inherent bias of this schematization and the difficulties it presents when applied to medieval Slavia Orthodoxa. It will explore the system of definition and classification found in the major collections of the early twentieth century and show the presence of a modern bias which informs the selection of the texts. It will also look at the terminology used in more recent scholarship, and attempt to show the applicability or non-applicability of such terms as "apocryphal" and "magical" in the context of the medieval prayer tradition. Lastly, I will suggest a descriptive approach to the identification and classification of prayers, and attempt to isolate and describe several prayer types found in medieval manuscripts.