On the 29 August 766 CE, a woman named Tachel daughter of Sophia from Luxor (ancient Apê) donated her son Athanasius to a local monastery, the monastery of Apa Phoibammon at Deir el-Bahri.
“In this current 5thindiction year, an infant boy was born to me, the woman and free person Tachel, in his seventh month. I promised him as a servant to the holy monastery of Apa Phoibammon of the mount of Djeme, that if God saves him from death, I will give him to the holy place.”
In an echo of the Old Testament I Samuel 1:10–11, and the dedication of the prophet Samuel to the temple by his mother Hannah, Tachel swears to dedicate her child to the monastery should he survive infancy.* The text can be interpreted as above, that the child was born prematurely in his seventh month, or that Tachel promised to dedicate him when he was seven months old (the Coptic syntax works either way). In the Greek and Roman world, it was believed that premature children born at seven months were more likely to survive than those born at eight months, as recorded in the writings of the ancient medical writers Hippocrates (5th/4thcentury BCE) and Soranus (1st/2ndcentury CE).
On the Eight Month Foetus10: “The eight months’ children never survive.”
On Regimen1.25: “And likewise they are born viable both those fully formed more quickly in seven months and those fully formed more slowly in nine months.”
On Fleshes19: “The child born at seven months comes into being according to logic and lives … but one born at eight months never lives.”
Gynaecology2.11: “[Birth] is best, then, in the ninth month and later if it should happen; but, in the seventh month as well.”
These months also occur in the documentary record. For example, in a letter from 64 CE, P.Fouad I 75 (from the Fayum), a woman Thaubas writers to her father informing him that his other daughter, Herennia, has died soon after childbirth, having given birth to a stillborn child a month prematurely, at eight months. In our later Theban document, it may therefore be significant that Tachel mentions the age of her child: at seven months, it was possible that he would survive, but it would be a dangerous time.
Tachel’s promise was heard and Athanasios not only survived, but thrived. In the face of his health and vigour, Tachel decided to break her promise to God and the monastery and keep the child. But the boy was punished for her decision, succumbing to a severe illness.
“Afterwards, God caused the little boy, whom I named in the holy baptism Athanasios, to grow and get bigger, and my lost reason threw me into great sin. Concerning this little boy, I plotted that I would not give him to the holy place. After God saw the lawless act that I had committed, he cast the little boy into a great illness, in which he remained for a long time, such that I and everybody who saw him reckoned that he had died. When I considered the reckless act that I had committed, I turned back and begged the saint in his monastery: ‘If you ask God to grant this infant boy healing, I will place him in the monastery forever, in accordance with my initial agreement.’ Then, the mercy of the merciful God had pity on the little boy and he granted him healing. I lifted him in my arms and took him to the holy monastery, because he had fallen into a demoniacal-illness. Everybody saw him and was amazed by him.”
After receiving healing, Tachel upheld her promise and donated the boy, having the legal document P.KRU 86 drawn up as a security for the monastery and confirming it as the new owner of the child. The legal clauses are exactly the same as those occurring in other contracts, e.g., sales of property.
“As the surety, then, the holy place asked me for this donation deed in respect of my beloved son Athanasios, which I concede to, as I live, my mind being my own, my reason firm, and there being no bodily illness upon me, but through my desire and my own decision, without any cunning, fear, violence, deceit, and ruse I declare that I assign my son Athanasios to the abovementioned monastery, from now to forever and for all time following me, forever. Furthermore, the person who will dare sue this infant boy, thusly, he will be subject to the judgement of my offering and the judgement seat of God, and I will receive judgement with him. As a surety, then, for the holy place, I have drawn up this donation deed. It is secure and valid everywhere in which it may be produced.”
The Corpus of Child Donation Documents
This document is one of a group of 25 texts that record donations of boys to the monastery of Apa Phoibammon, dating primarily from 750–781 CE (P.KRU 78–103). Our document above is one of a small number in which women alone donate their child. Tachel doesn’t mention the child’s father, nor does she mention her own, providing only her own mother’s name, and she acts together with her sister: “I, Tachel the daughter of Sophia from Apê of the Hermonthite nome, with my sister Elisabeth acting with me in this.” Can we read anything into this? Was Tachel a single mother with no male family in her support network, for whom donating a child – especially a sick child – to the monastery was the best decision? However, in other documents, fathers donate their son without any mention of a mother (did the mother die in childbirth or soon afterwards?), while in the majority of documents both parents donate their child together. In most cases, the child was ill – sometimes near death – and the parents pray for their recovery. Child mortality rates were very high in the ancient world, with a 30% chance that a child would die before its first birthday. Parents praying for the well-being of their child is no surprise, nor is their willingness to do anything for their protection, including giving them away to a monastery. But was this the only motive? The documents say no more, but the mid-8thcentury was a time of increasing difficulty for villagers throughout the Nile, and our documents are the latest evidence of daily-life in western Thebes with the settlements in this area seemingly abandoned by the end of the eighth century. Can we read economic motives in the donations?
And what of the children themselves? What were they to do in the monastery? While P.KRU86 provides no information in this respect, other documents in the corpus record more information. It is clear that the boys were not to become monks. Their tasks in the monastery were entirely of a servile nature: manual labour dedicated to the upkeep of the monastery. As P.KRU80 (776 CE) states:
“… and he will serve the holy monastery for the sweeping, the sprinkling, the water for the tanks, the care of the lamp of the altar, and every duty of the holy place and everything that the steward will order him (to do). If it happens that the steward wants to release him and he works, the product of his hands will belong to the steward annually, forever, and he spends it on oil for the lamp of the altar.”
Even if the child eventually leaves the monastery, all the profits of his work will belong to the monastery. According to another donation, P.KRU95 (ca. 750 CE), any children that the boys would have of their own in the future would also belong to the monastery. Their status was hereditary.
Were these children then slaves? A couple of documents state this explicitly: “he will serve the monastery for all his remaining days, like an old slave” (P.KRU90; ca. 750–760 CE); he will be “like a slave bought for money” (P.KRU82; 771 CE). The monastery will care for them, provide food, shelter, and clothing, and in return the monastery receives a source of free labour, allowing the monks to turn their attention to other concerns.
When Tachel donated her child Athanasios, what was she thinking about and feeling? Was she sad at losing her child? Was she relieved at no longer having the burden of a sick child with limited family support? Did she know what future lay in store for Athanasios? Or, was she mainly happy knowing that he would have a safe home in a turbulent time?
*A direct reference to I Samuel I:10–11 occurs in three of the documents (P.KRU89, 96, 100), showing that the parallel was well-known (if not obvious) to some of those involved in producing these contracts.
Provenance: Written Luxor (ancient Apé), found Deir el-Bahri (Monastery of Apa Phoibammon)
Date: 29 August 766
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect)
Collection: British Library, London (Papyrus LXXXV)
Designation: P.KRU86; P.Lond.Copt. I 384; Greek beginning = SB I 5597 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: W. C. Till (1964), Die koptischen Rechtsurkunden aus Theben(Vienna) pp. 162–164; T. G. Wilfong (2002), Women of Jeme: Lives in a Coptic Town in Late Antique Egypt(Ann Arbor), pp. 100–102.
Other bibliography on the Coptic child donation texts:
Papaconstantinou, A. (2002) “Notes sur les actes de donation d’enfant au monastère thébain de Saint-Phoibammon,” Journal of Juristic Papyrology32: 83–105.
Papaconstantinou, A. (2002) “ΘΕΙΑΟΙΚΟΝΟΜΙΑ: Les actes thébains de donation d’enfants ou la gestion monastique de la pénurie,” Travaux et mémoires 14: 511–526.
Richter, T. S. (2005) “What’s in a Story? Cultural Narratology and Coptic Child Donation Documents,” Journal of Juristic Papyrology 35: 237–264.
Schenke, G. (2016b) “The Healing Shrines of St. Phoibammon: Evidence of Cult Activity in Coptic Legal Documents,” Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum / Journal of Ancient Christianity 20: 496–523.
On children in late antique Egypt, see also the following Stories: