The Mad Martyr – The Passion of St.Sabas the Goth – and a Story of Solidarity and Compassion Among the 4th Century Goths.

St. Sabas (Sava, Sabbas, Savva, Saba) the Goth (334-372AD) was born in the Buzau river valley and lived in  what is now the Wallachian region in Romania, which was Gothic territory at the time. The Arian bishop Wulfilas (Arian means a branch of Christianity which was later condemned as heretic by the Catholic Church) had preached Christianity among the Goths, and Sabas converted to the Arian Christian faith as a very young man. He was to become a martyr among the Goths – after a great deal of struggle to reach that status…

In the year 370, the Gothic king Athanaric set about to persecute the Christian parts of the Gothic population. They ordered religious ceremonies that the Christians would find unacceptable. In refusing to participate, the Christians would reveal themselves and, by spurning communal ritual state that they were neither part of the community nor interested in its well-being. This would bring down their Heathen neighbors enmity upon them, Athanaric thought.

One Gothic tribe decided to cheat their king at the ritual feast by giving their Christians meat that had NOT been sacrificed to the gods, and thus would not upset the Christians. In this way they protected and shielded their Christian kinsmen and tribal members.

But among them was Sabas, who refused to go along with the tribal deception and made at the feast a public statement of his belief, adding that anyone who did participate in the feast was not a proper Christian. The elders (one of the references to a council of elders in many Germanic communities) then threw him out of the village.

But Sabas soon returned to pester his village and set his fellow Christians at risk, for such was his great zeal for his faith. Another test feast was to be held and a persecutor was sent by king Athanaric to oversee the feast and detect Christians. Then the tribe communally swore and oath that there were no Christians in their midst (even if that was a lie). But Sabas, who could not suffer his kind to live and practice their faith in secret, strode into the meeting and openly revealed that the tribe had sworn falsely by declaring himself a Christian.

The persecutor asked the villagers whether Sabas was a rich man, and the tribe, still willing to protect their kinsman Sabas and declared that he was a poor fellow who owned nothing except the clothes he wore. The persecutor declared that Sabas was no threat to anyone and, rather than actually persecuting Sabas (although he is called “persecutor” throughout the story), he just had him expelled from the tribe once more.

Sabas was by now exasperated. All his dreams of becoming a martyr seemed to be thwarted. He waited eagerly for a new chance.

One of the king´s relatives, the “lawless bandit” Atharid, swooped on a village that had received Sabas among them after his expulsion with all his men (also called “lawless bandits”) during Easter, when Sabas and the local Christian priest were celebrating openly, putting the village that had taken him in at risk once more. Both were captured, and Sabas was beaten up and tied to the wheel of a wagon. Finally he was going to become a martyr after all.

But what do you know? One of the tribeswomen came to him during the night and untied him! But Sabas was determined to meet his glorious martyr end and refused to run away.

Atharid´s men captured him again the next morning without further ado, and tried to make him eat sacrificed meat. Sabas refused the food and claimed to be immune to pain. Athanarid did not follow Sabas hopeful little hint and did not torture him. He just told his men to go and drown him in the river Mousaios (The Buzau in Wallachia).

But not even Atharid´s “lawless bandits” seemed to wish for Sabas to die. As soon as they were out of sight of Atharid, they released Sabas and told him to get lost. But Sabas had had enough of all the kindness showed him by the sinful Heathens and insisted that the men carry out their orders. Reluctantly, the “lawless bandits” did what he said, and Sabas got his martyrdom after all.

Sabas was a very zealous Christian who dreamed of nothing more than becoming a martyr. This was quite common in early Christianity – most of the saints that were established back then were martyrs, and their stories often belong to a category that I personally call “The Mad Martyrs” – because rather than being innocently persecuted as such, they sought persecution actively and went to great lengths to become martyrs – even by openly and publicly insult heathen chiefs and lords or commit sacrileges (destroying heathen “idols” and temples and rituals) – to the point where they would inevitably be put to death – and then become martyrs. If they lived in already Christian countries, they would volunteer to travel into Heathen territories only to commit acts of sacrilege against their Heathen customs, and at the same time demanding the right to preach and convert the people – which they usually got.


All the “Mad Martyr” stories are related in so-called “Passions”, and are told from the point of view of the martyr or those who sympathized with him. This Passion was meant to show how pious Sabas was, so that he had earned his title of Saint after his death (hence St.Sabas the Goth). This may seem utterly insane to us, and after a fashion it is.

However, the mentality showed in these passions gives me at least a clue as to how those Heathens who volunteered to become sacrificed may have thought. To the Mad Martyrs, becoming a martyr was a choice of career – it did not end in death but in eternal, glorious life as Saints! There was no doubt in their minds that life did not end with death.

In the same way we see how the slave concubine who volunteered to be sacrificed and follow her master into his grave firmly believed that she had hit the jackpot – by choosing this end, she would be released from slavery and enter the afterlife with glory, honor and a very high status, meet her family and friends etc. To these people, life after death was a given, and could offer promising new options if one only chose a glorious exit to the present one.

And yet, by contemplating the way they were met and treated by others, and how much they had to struggle to become martyrs due to the kindness of those horrible Heathens – and yet continue to perceive the Heathens as horrible persecutors –  it becomes clear to me that:

  1. 1.    They were actually quite insane (hence “The Mad Martyr”)
  2. 2.    The Heathens who were insulted also deemed them insane
  3. 3.    The Heathens were generally very reluctant to punish an insane person for committing acts that were insane, even if they involved sacrilege (hence the great difficulties encountered by the men who eagerly wished to become martyrs).

To me, the Passion of St.Sabas is in many ways a story that tells us of the kindness and compassion and solidarity that even the most dissident of tribal members were met with. Sabas keeps getting helped and protected, even when he is making it very difficult to help him.

Also, the insanity of his actions – clear to all who are not into the medieval martyr mindset – and the way people are reluctant to punish him for these – shows me a degree of sophistication and psychological depth understanding combined with kindness and loyalty to ones tribal members – even when they have been adopted into the tribe – the willingness to disobey the King, the persecutor and the royal bandit – all to protect a most ungrateful benefactor.

And it is not just because Sabas was a kinsman, I think – for we see the same reluctance and kindness shown to other martyr-wannabes in pagan territories, such as Brother Willibrord from Northumbria (658-739 AD) who traveled to Frisia and Denmark in an attempt to convert the populations. Failing to become a martyr among the Frisians, on account of them being surprisingly kind to him all the time, Willibrord sought his fortune (that is, his glorious death) among the even more vicious Danes. And yet the Danes keep failing to even try and persecute him, so Willibrord travels on to a sacred island called Fosetiland (The Land of Forseti – a heathen Norse god of peace and justice mentioned also by Snorri), where he, after having his life saved by the Heathen priests there and accepted their kind hospitality, commits terrible sacrilege against the Heathen sanctuaries, knowing this to be punishable by death.

And yet, the Heathen king of the Frisians still refuse to have Willibrord punished, and instead punishes one of his companions who had come with him from Denmark. It is not written, but reading between the lines again, I am pretty much convinced that Willibrord was left off the hook because he was deemed insane, and that one who ought to have known better, the companion Dane, was punished in his stead.

To round it all up – the Passions of the Mad Martyrs are highly interesting indirect reads about ancient Heathen cultures. It shows a degree of kindness, loyalty, and their deep acceptance of and compassion towards insane people and diversity that I think makes their world more tangible to us, more human, and less stereotypical.

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