It is tragic that the mass murderer Putin with his announced “mobilization” is sending even more Russian men to die, deceiving them with lies and propaganda and trying to turn them into murderers as well.  I feel so sorry for the young Russians caught in this nightmare, and sorry too for the Ukrainian people who continue to suffer greatly because of the demented whims of one man.  Let us all hope that soon common sense will prevail and this great evil will end both for Russians and Ukrainians.

Putin’s arrogance reminds me to the old tale in Genesis of the tower that was to be built to heaven so that men could “make a name” for themselves.

There are not many images of the so-called “Tower of Babel” in Eastern Orthodox iconography.  It is seen here and there in frescoes and occasionally as a border image of a larger icon, or as a book illustration, but it is not common.

In the following manuscript image from a 15th century Russian version of the Christian Topography of the 6th century writer Kosmas Indicopleustes, we see the Tower:

(Russian State Library, Moscow)

It is under construction.  At the base a ruler on a throne gives instructions.  Workers at left bring materials, while at right two men turn a winch to raise them up the tower.  The tower is so high that the sun and moon are seen at left and right.  But Yahweh — the Old Testament God — has come down to see what was happening, and has stopped the building of the tower, from which four men fall to the ground.

The tale itself, found at the beginning of Genesis 11, is brief.  Here it is in Brenton’s Septuagint translation:

And all the earth was one lip, and there was one language to all. And it came to pass as they moved from the east, they found a plain in the land of Senaar, and they dwelt there. And a man said to his neighbour, Come, let us make bricks and bake them with fire. And the brick was to them for stone, and their mortar was bitumen. And they said, Come, let us build to ourselves a city and tower, whose top shall be to heaven, and let us make to ourselves a name, before we are scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men built. And the Lord said, Behold, there is one race, and one lip of all, and they have begun to do this, and now nothing shall fail from them of all that they may have undertaken to do. Come, and having gone down let us there confound their tongue, that they may not understand each the voice of his neighbour. And the Lord scattered them thence over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city and the tower. On this account its name was called Confusion [Babel], because there the Lord confounded the languages of all the earth, and thence the Lord scattered them upon the face of all the earth.

So according to the Biblical story, the people on the Plain of Shinar in Babylonia (Mesopotamia) decided to build a famous city and with it a tower to Heaven, which of course irritated the Old Testament God, Yahweh (he was a very irritable fellow)

This old tale is an etiological myth, a story to explain why people speak different languages, and why the ancient city was called Babel.  Its name was really Bab-ilu  — “Gate of God” in Babylonian, but Hebrews thought that its Hebrew form sounded like balal — meaning “to confuse.”  That gave rise to the notion that there human language became confused and divided into many mutually unintelligible languages.

Note that the people intended to build a tower that would reach to Heaven.  In ancient belief Heaven was the sky — the place above the earth — but not too far above — where God had his dwelling.  In Isaiah we find this:

It is he (God) that sits upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretches out the heavens as a curtain, and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in.” 

So from Heaven, people on earth were about the size of grasshoppers in the sight of God.  That is why they thought it possible to build a tower to heaven.  They had not a clue as to the real size of the universe, or even the height of the atmosphere.  Thus the Old Testament gives us a very pre-scientific view of things.  Remember that even in the New Testament, all Jesus had to do to get to Heaven after his resurrection was to rise into the sky.

In our times, such simple “origin” stories are replaced by research and evidence.  We now know (and have for a very long time) that languages evolve, and that it is common for people separated by distance and time and isolation  — even if they began speaking the same language — to change their speech gradually, both vocabulary and grammar.  Eventually such changes result in mutually unintelligible languages.  We can see, for example, how greatly English has changed just since the days of Shakespeare.  So difference of language is simply the natural result of that.  But of course in earlier times this was not known, and such stories as the “Tower of Babel” were used in the absence of actual facts.

Even legends may sometimes have elements of truth in them.   Some think that when the Babylonians were rebuilding the great ziggurat (stepped temple) called Etemenanki (“Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth”), Judeans in Babylon may have seen the great ziggurat there, and that sight, combined with the similarity of the Hebrew word for “confusion” and the Akkadian words for “Gate of God” may have been the origin of the tale.

Here is a modern reconstruction of the likely appearance of the completed Etemenanki:



A reader in Romania asked about icons of this fellow:

There are several things we can learn from him. First, his image is imaginary, like a great many other icon images of saints before the age of accurate portraiture and photography. Second, and equally significant, his biography is completely fictional.

Nonetheless, he is a saint associated with Taormina in Sicily. His Greek name is Ἁγιος Παγκρατιος / Hagios Pangkratios, and his Slavic name is Pankratiy Tavromenskiy / Панкратий Тавроменийский — Pancratius of Taormina. It is said that there is a St. Pangkratios mentioned in early martyrologies, but the story of his life was written in the early 8th century. So though there may have been a martyr named Pangkratios, virtually nothing is known about him.

The made-up life of Pangkratios of Taormina tells us that as a first-century boy, he lived in Antioch. When his parents heard of a teacher named Jesus, they took the boy to Jerusalem to see him and the miracles he was said to perform. So Pangkratios saw Jesus and became acquainted with his disciples, particularly with Peter. The tale goes on to say that after Jesus ascended to Heaven, an apostle came to Antioch and baptized the family.

When his parents died, Pangkratios went to live in a cave in the Pontic Mountains, in what now would be Northern Anatolia, Turkey. There he practiced prayer and religious meditation. St Peter supposedly met Pankratios in Pontus and took him to Cilicia, where he was ordained by both Peter and Paul as bishop of Taormina in Sicily. Supposedly after his arrival to take up the bishopric in Taormina, he was so successful at converting the populace that he was martyred by jealous pagans. But again, it is all a pious fiction.

It happens that in the West, Pangkratios / Pancratius is also known as Pancras. Those who have been to or have read much about London will recall the name St. Pancras Station, a railway terminus in central London. It is now called St. Pancras International. One might suppose then, that it is named for St. Pancras / Pankratios of Taormina, but that too would be wrong. It is named for a second Pancras more famous in the West than Pangkratios of Taormina — and that would be the boy St. Pancras of Rome.

(Bodemuseum, Berlin)

There again we have no reliable historical information.  His traditional hagiography says he was born around the end of the 200s, and was then raised by an uncle in Rome.  Both became Christians, and the boy Pancras is said to have been beheaded for his belief at the age of 14 during the persecution of Christians by Diocletian.   The tale of St. Pancras is found in the 13th century Golden Legend of Jacobus Voragine.

In 597 St. Augustine (of Canterbury) was sent by Pope Gregory I from Rome to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons.  Augustine was a devotee of the boy St. Pancras, and is said to have named the first church he founded in England after him.  That is how veneration of the boy saint began to spread in England.  Now oddly enough, tradition says that to have your prayers answered successfully by St. Pancras, one needed to have been either voluntarily given an image of him or to have stolen his image.  If one wanted money and prosperity in business, his image was to be placed in an obvious place, along with an offering of parsley.

Inevitably, St. Pangkratios/Pancras of Taormina and St. Pancras of Rome are often confused.


A reader asked me to explain this very Westernized icon, which appears to be from the late 19th-early 20th century:


Such icons originated in the tale of bizarre events said to have occurred in the 1560s, but the story was recorded in the 18th century.

It relates that two parents in the Novgorod region named Isidor and Barbara had two little sons:  Ioann, who was five years old, and Iakov, who was three.

Now it happened in the autumn of the year that their father decided to kill a ram by striking it on the head.  The impressionable children watched the act.  Later, when the parents were out in the field, Ioann said to Iakov, “Let us do just as our father did,” and gave Iakov a big whack on the head with a stick.  Iakov fell down dead.

Ioann was terrified by what had happened, according to one account, and went and hid behind the firewood laid ready inside the big stove in the house.  When the parents came home, they found Iakov dead and Ioann missing.  After a fruitless search, the mother lit the firewood in the stove, and Ioann was killed by the smoke.  The mother then found the supposedly unburnt body of Ioann in the stove.

The two children were buried in the churchyard of the St. Nicholas Church.

Later, some hunters became lost in the forest some distance away.  When they looked out on Kamenskoye Lake, they saw two coffins floating there, which happened to be those of the two children buried in the churchyard.  They prayed to the two children for help, and suddenly a path appeared that led the lost hunters back home, where they told of their encounter at the lake.  The coffins with the bodies were retrieved by clergy and local people, and taken back to the St. Nicholas Church.  The hunters, however, said the two children had appeared to them in a dream, saying they wished to be buried in a deserted place near Menyush, where formerly there had supposedly been a monastery.  So the two coffins were buried in the new location, and a chapel was built on the site. As these tales go, miracles of healing were associated with the two children.

Here is another State Church icon of the two brothers, shown with St. Darya at left, the priest Zakharias/Zechariah at right, and Jesus (with his name abbreviated in the State Church manner) blessing from the clouds above.


Now according to an alternate account, the death of the older brother was a voluntary martyrdom for killing his younger brother.  That accounts for why both the slayer and the slain in this account were reckoned as saints, strange as it seems with such slim support for such status evident in the story.  Even the writers of the tale thought that odd, because some did not like to talk about the details of their deaths, and some instead changed the story to read that the children were killed by villains.  In any case, the two children are venerated as saints and known as Праведные отроки Иаков и Иоанн Менюжские / Pravednuie otroki Iakov i Ioann Meniuzhskie — “Righteous Youths Jacob and John Meniuzhskiy”

As you can see, the whole matter is highly dubious, but that is often the case with tales of the saints in Eastern Orthodoxy.