Mountaineering history and environmental thinking in the early Christian saints’ lives

Jason discusses some examples of early Christian representations of mountain peoples, and their relationship with their ancient and modern equivalents.

I have spent quite a lot of time recently looking at the early Christian saints’ lives of the fourth century CE and after, and thinking about how they fit in with the history of mountains in both ancient and modern culture. Many of the saints’ lives depict holy men and women practising extremes of ascetic self-denial in the mountains, for example in the mountainous deserts of Egypt, and in Syria.

In some respects these figures could hardly be more distant from the figure of the modern mountaineer: they are weak and wasted by years of fasting. And yet in some ways they do have intriguing overlaps. They are perhaps the closest parallel we have from ancient Mediterranean culture for the image of solitary, heroic conquest of mountain wilderness. The authors of these texts often use athletic metaphors to describe the saints’ feats of holiness – although their athleticism is spiritual rather than literal.

They also often represent the saints almost merging with the landscapes they inhabit, in a way which dissolves the boundaries between human and animal, and between human and environment. That is quite a widespread theme in ancient Greek and Latin literature, but it’s usually viewed as a reason for pessimism. The saints lives are unusual in viewing it as something to be celebrated, and in that sense they often seem to anticipate modern environmental thinking, which is similarly interested in challenging anthropocentric hierarchies between human and animal.


One of the texts I have been looking at (in English translation) is the Syriac text Lives of the Eastern Saints by John of Ephesus, set in Syria and written in the sixth century. It includes a series of biographical narratives, many of them with mountain settings.

In John’s ‘Life of Addai’ we find both of these motifs – human occupation of rugged wilderness, and the comparison between saint and animal. Addai retreats from human society to very remote mountain territory, in what is now eastern Turkey around the upper Euphrates river:

And so he departed and went up to the rugged, towering mountains in the east of that district, in which nothing except great beasts is to be found on account of their inaccessibility.

Addai avoids human contact as far as he can, but the author describes going to look for him with a companion and hiding behind a tree:

When he had approached to about half a furrow’s-length from us … as if he scented the smell of us, he checked himself and halted, waiting a long time, while we on our side did not stand up and were not seen by him; and, as if he had become aware of us in his spirit, he thereupon like a wild beast turned aside, and set his face to go down the mountain-side at a run.

Addai here has become immersed in his surroundings after 25 years in the mountains, so much so that he comes close to throwing off his human identity.


The saints are praised for their conquest of this inaccessible terrain, and for their closeness to the environment, but it is a very different story for the local populations they encounter. The denigration of mountain peoples in these texts is widely paralleled in ancient historiography, and also in some modern writing about mountains, especially in colonial contexts.

That becomes particularly clear in John’s ‘Life of Simeon the Mountaineer’. Like Addai, Simeon retreats to the high mountains, but a chance encounter changes his mind:

Once, while going round from mountain to mountain, he chanced to be on rough mountains near the river Euphrates … and he saw that, though these mountains were rugged and towering, houses and domestic brood-animals(?) were scattered over them all … The blessed Simeon was amazed to see in what a rugged mountainous district human beings were living.

These people turn out to represent a challenge which the saint deals with decisively. Simeon interrogates them and they confess that they pay no attention to Christian observance, admitting that with a few exceptions ‘none of us has entered a church since he was born; but we live on these mountains like animals’. The holy man is shaken: ‘his bones shook with fright and his tears gushed out’. The rest of the text recounts his missionary work there: he converts this from a place which has superficial marks of civilisation – the houses and the farms – to a real Christian community in the mountains.

His tactics are so extravagant that they might be almost comic if it were not for the fact that echo countless abuses and suppressions of local populations in modern colonial contexts. Simeon locks some of the children in the church, having enticed them with the promise of presents, and tonsures them en masse, in a scene which must have been meant to remind its readers of sheep-shearing, given the pastoral nature of this mountain population. When the parents of two of the children complain and try to take them away, he predicts that the children will be struck dead, and when his prediction is fulfilled the whole population comes under his power.

It is clear that the mountains are no longer wilderness places by the end of the text: ‘thenceforward loud choirs were to be heard at the Service, and all these mountains also had been brought into subjection, and they trembled to commit any breach of order, lest the old man should hear it and separate them from the fellowship of men, or that he should curse them’.


One of the most shocking features of the text is its use of animal imagery. It is sometimes tempting to see positive aspects in the way in which the saints’ lives embrace animal imagery for their ascetic heroes. But that phenomenon exists side by side with a much more upsetting version of the blurring between human and animal, where marginal peoples are associated with animals in order to justify conquest or in this case conversion.

This text anticipates not just some of the more inspiring, idealising facets of modern mountaineering discourse, but also more troubling aspects of the way in which mountain populations over many centuries have been denigrated and ‘civilised’ by outsiders.

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