Here is a Greek icon from the middle of the 19th century. The saint depicted is very popular in iconography, particularly in Greek iconography — Marina.
The title just above the image reads Η ΑΓΙΑ ΜΑΡΙΝΑ I AGIA MARINA (HE HAGIA MARINA in old form), “[the] HOLY MARINA.” As you can see, Marina is busily whacking away with a hammer at a devil. This is an incident in her hagiography, the story of her life as given out for popular consumption.
Marina is one of two prominent saints who are shown beating a devil. The other is St. Nikita, found commonly in Russian icons.
The story of Marina, put briefly, is this: Marina was said to have been born in Antioch in Asia minor to a pagan couple. Her father was a pagan priest who sent the girl to be raised by a nurse in the countryside. Marina, as a young girl, was converted to Christianity, which infuriated her father, and led to his disowning her. She was quite pretty, and when fifteen years old she met, in the countryside, the eparch Olimvriy (Olymbrios), the ruler of the region and an avid persecutor of Christians. He saw the beautiful maiden and was smitten. He proposed marriage on the spot. She, however, replied that she was a servant of Jesus and desired no other groom. Not giving up, the eparch ordered his soldiers to bring the girl along with them to the city, hoping to change her mind. Once there, he first offered sacrifices to his gods, then had Marina brought for questioning. He told her bluntly that if she gave up Christianity he would marry her, but if not, she would be tortured and would die.
Marina, as is customary in these stories, steadfastly refused, saying that she would not leave her bridegroom Jesus to marry a “stinking dog.” Needless to say, the eparch was not pleased. He ordered Marina to be beaten, which she was until the blood flowed, but still she would not relent. So he added further tortures, but again her refusal was steadfast. Severely wounded as she was, the eparch then had Marina locked in a deep, dark prison.
That night the devil came to her in dark fire and smoke, in a form like a dragon, and opening his huge mouth, he began to swallow Marina; but she made the sign of the cross, which split the dragon open, and he disappeared. Then the devil came again as a very dark man, and she grabbed his hair and beat him with a hammer; again he disappeared.
He came once more, threatening her with death, but this time she whipped him. Then a great light shone from Heaven into her cell, and Marina, seeing in it a bright cross and a dove, also heard a heavenly voice encouraging her. All of her wounds began to heal until she was once more beautiful and strong.
The next day the Eparch had her brought to him again, and was surprised to see her well. He told her it was the doing of his gods, to whom she should therefore sacrifice and become a priestess. She refused. Again she was tortured.
To make a long story short, onlookers were converted by her zeal, and Christ came from Heaven to take her to himself as she was beheaded. It seems a straightforward, if stereotypical account; but actually the traditional accounts of the life and martyrdom of Marina are very confused.
In the Golden Legend of Jacobus Voragine, which became a “best-seller” in the medieval West, Marina mysteriously becomes instead a St. Margareta (Margaret), but her story is essentially the same as that above, with slight variations. Here is the “devil” episode as recorded of St. Margaret in the Golden Legend:
“And there was seen a marvellous brightness in the prison by the keepers. And while she was in prison she prayed her Lord that he would visibly show unto her the fiend that had fought with her. And there appeared an horrible dragon and assailed her and would have devoured her. But she made the sign of the cross and anon he vanished away. In another place it is said that he swallowed her in his belly, she making the sign of the cross, and the belly broke asunder and so she came out all whole and sound. This swallowing and breaking of the belly of the dragon is said that it is apocryphal…
After this the devil appeared to her in likeness of a man to deceive her. And when she saw him she went to prayer. And after she arose and the fiend came to her and took her by the hand and said: ‘That which you have done suffices to you; but now cease as to my person.’ She caught him by the head and threw him to the ground, and set her right foot on his neck, saying: ‘Lie still, you fiend, under the foot of a woman.’
The devil then cried: ‘O blessed Margaret, I am overcome. If a young man had overcome me I had not recked, but alas I am overcome of a tender virgin, wherefore I make the more sorrow.’ Then she constrained that fiend to tell why he came to her. And he answered that he came to her to counsel her for to obey the desire and request of the provost. Then she constrained him to say wherefore he tempted so much and so oft Christian people. To whom he answered that naturally he hated virtuous men. ‘And though we be oft put aback from them, yet our desire is much to exclude them from the felicity that we have fell from. For we may never obtain nor recover our bliss that we have lost.’ And then she demanded what he was. And he answered:
‘I am named Veltis, one of them whom Solomon enclosed in a vessel of brass. And after his death it happened that they of Babylon found this vessel and thought to have found great treasure therein. And they broke the vessel and then a great multitude of us devils flew out and filled full the air, alway awaiting and espying where we may assail rightful men.’
And when he had said thus, she took off her foot and said to him: ‘Flee hence, you wretched fiend.’ And anon the earth opened and the fiend sank in.”
Does the last part remind you of anything? It should. Remember the story from the Arabian Nights (The Thousand and One Nights) of the fisherman who finds a bottle sealed with the seal of Solomon on the beach, and he then opens it and releases from it a terrible jinni (genie) who has been held captive in the bottle for centuries? You will recall that the fisherman pulls his net from the water and finds in it only a metal bottle:
“…a bottle of brass, filled with something, and having its mouth closed with a stopper of lead, bearing the impression of the seal of our lord Suleymán [King Solomon]. At the sight of this, the fisherman was rejoiced, and said, This I will sell in the copper-market; for it is worth ten pieces of gold. He then shook it, and found it to be heavy, and said, I must open it, and see what is in it, and store it in my bag; and then I will sell the bottle in the copper-market. So he took out a knife, and picked at the lead until he extracted it from the bottle. He then laid the bottle on the ground, and shook it, that its contents might pour out; but there came forth from it nothing but smoke, which ascended towards the sky, and spread over the face of the earth; at which he wondered excessively. And after a little while, the smoke collected together, and was condensed, and then became agitated, and was converted into an ‘Efreet [a kind of jinn/genie], whose head was in the clouds, while his feet rested upon the ground: his head was like a dome: his hands were like winnowing forks; and his legs, like masts: his mouth resembled a cavern: his teeth were like stones; his nostrils, like trumpets; and his eyes, like lamps; and he had dishevelled and dust-coloured hair.”
In contrast to this Margaret, The St. Marina described in The Golden Legend is a woman who disguises herself as a man so she can enter a monastery. Quite a different tale. And to confuse matters even more, some think our St. Marina is just an erroneous version of the life of a saint who likely did exist, a St. Pelagia of Antioch in Syria (not the same Antioch as in the “Marina” tale); Marina means “of the sea” in Latin, as does Pelagia in Greek.
In any case, as long-time readers here know, the lives of saints are often quite untrustworthy and garbled and partly or wholly fictionalized, even those of some of the most prominent and frequent in icons. I mentioned earlier that the other saint known as a devil-beater in icons is the Great Martyr Nikita, known also as St. Nicetas the Goth. One finds not only icons of him beating a devil with chains, but also icons simply showing him as a warrior saint in Roman armor, holding a spear.
Look at this icon of Nikita. Do you notice anything peculiar? Does he look like someone else you may have seen in icons?
Right. Take away the armour and spear, and he looks exactly like Jesus as depicted in Russian iconography. In fact the old podlinniki — the painter’s manuals — say that Nikita is to be painted брада н власы аки спасовы — brada i vlasui aki spasovui — meaning “beard and hair like the Savior’s.” You may recall that there is another saint whose face is also just like that of Jesus — the Old Testament Joshua (Joshua and Jesus are the same name in Hebrew and in Greek).