Here is a fresco from Mount Athos:
Because it is common for icons to give the saints rather dark complexions, we might not realize at first glance that there is something different about this fellow. But as the Svodnuiy Ikonopisnuiy Podlinnik says, Moses is to be painted “with a black face.” That, however, was not always followed by painters, as we see from the light skin of the saint in this late Russian icon:
In Russian iconography he is called Моисей Мурин / Moisey Murin. Murin is the Slavic equivalent of “Moor” and in English to call someone a “moor” originally meant they were dark-skinned, like Othello, the moor of Venice in Shakespeare’s play. So right away we know this saint is identified, oddly enough, by his skin color.
In the Greek fresco depicted, he has a different name. Let’s look at his title inscription:
Ὁ ἉΓΙΟC ΜѠΥCΗC Ὁ ΑΙΘΙѠΨ
ΗΟ HAGIOS MOYSIS HO AITHIOPS
Now Aithiops — “Ethiopian” in old Greek, did not necessarily mean someone was literally from Ethiopia. The word comes from αἴθω/aitho, to burn, and ὤψ/ops, meaning face. So in Greek an Ethiops was someone with a “burnt face,” that is, a dark or blackish complexion (seen, of course, from the perspective of light-skinned people of the time). So we are right back to the meaning of the Slavic word Murin for Moses.
Here is a fresco of Moses shared by a reader. It is from the early 18th century, in the church of Agios Panteleimon, Tsaritsani, Larissa, Greece:
In it, Moses is very clearly dark skinned. The title inscription, which you should now be able to read, has interesting ligatures. Note how the α in ἉΓΙΟC/Hagios is very small and connected to the following Γ, and how the -OC at the end is written as an ο with a long and very squiggly ς attached to the bottom; and the same squiggly ς — only sideways — is found at the end of ΜΟΥCΙC/MOYSIS — which in this image is written with o (omicron) as the second letter, instead of the omega Ѡ in the Athos example. And note also that ΑΙΘΙѠΨ in the Athos example is written as ΕΘΗOΨ in the Tsaritsani fresco. I hope you remember that the reason for this is that painters often wrote phonetically, and in late Greek the pronunciation of AI became the same as E, I the same as H, and Ѡ the same as O.
So where was this Moses born? It is rather confusing to read the various modern accounts of his life, because almost always they identify him as “Ethiopian,” but as we have seen, in old Greek that did not necessarily mean literally from Ethiopia. He lived in Egypt, and according to his story, he was born a slave in the family of an Egyptian noble. Given the location of Egypt, it is more likely that Moses would have been a Nubian in ancestry, Nubia being just to the south of Egypt — but his precise ancestry remains uncertain, beyond his very dark complexion. In modern iconography he is often known simply as St. Moses the Black.
Now as you already know, if you are a regular reader here, the lives of the saints cannot be trusted for historical accuracy, and it is well to keep that in mind. So when I talk about the “life” of a saint here, I am speaking of the traditional tale associated with that saint. And here, in brief, is that of Moses:
In youth the slave of a nobleman, he committed a murder, and his master expelled him. He joined a gang of robbers. Because of his great strength and fierceness he became their leader, and as such, he became widely feared for the murders and crimes he committed. Eventually he came to a desert monastery and repented of his evil deeds. At first the monks did not believe he was sincere, but over time his actions made them believe him, and he was accepted into the monastery. Supposedly, later four members of the robbers gang attacked the monastery, and Moses was so strong that he subdued all four, tying them up and carrying them on his shoulders to the elders for a decision as to their fate. The Elders released them, but having witnessed their former leader as a monk, they too decided to become monks. Later all the rest of the gang of robbers also repented and joined the monastery.
The tale relates that Moses had a very strong sex drive, and did not know how to deal with it, so he went for advice to Abba Isidore, the head of the monastery. Isidore told him to never eat to the point of being satisfied, but to always remain hungry. And as for the repeated sex dreams Moses had at night, Isidore told him to stay awake in nightly prayer vigils, so Moses did that, standing up so he would not fall asleep. It took a very long time, but gradually Moses is said to have overcome his great attraction to sex. The local demons, however, were not happy about this. Moses had a habit of bringing water from a distant well to the cells of his fellow monks at night, and one night while he was at the well, the demons knocked him down, and he lay there as though dead.
The monks found him unconscious and took him back to the monastery, where he spent a year in convalescence to recover. But persisting in his ascetic monastic life, and as a result of his experiences, Moses was said to have gained power over demons.
Eventually he was consecrated as a deacon, and when he was clothed in the white garment of a deacon, the bishop declared (rather disturbingly to modern ears), “Abba Moses is now all white.” Then comes an event also very troubling in how the account presents it:
“Wanting to test him, the archbishop told the priests, “When Abba Moses comes into the sanctuary, drive him out and go with him to hear what he says.” So the old man came in and they abused him and drove him out, saying, “Get out, black man (Aethiops)!” Going out, he said to himself, ‘They have acted correctly about you, because your skin is as black as ashes. You are not a man, so why should you be allowed to meet men?'”
So not complaining, and remaining very humble, he passed the test and was then ordained as a presbyter. As such, he gathered 75 disciples around him.
When he was 75 years old, Moses told the monks that they would be attacked by robbers, and that they should leave to avoid being killed. They asked him to leave with them, but he would not go. So seven of the monks remained with him. When the robbers came, one of the monks hid away, but the other six were killed, along with Moses. Thus he is said to have been martyred about the year 400.
Now in spite of his eventually becoming a saint, there is some obvious racism associated with the story, as though the color of one’s skin has anything to do with one’s value as a person. It brings to mind the poem “The Little Black Boy,” by William Blake: