Blessing a Baby Against Every Illness

Ágnes Mihálykó

Christians of Egypt received blessing from the church in many forms: as prayers of inclination at the end of the Eucharist, when the celebrant blessed the congregation before their departure, as private blessings issued by holy monks, or as material blessings (eulogiai), such as oil from a pilgrimage centre. There were blessings for the congregation, but also for the house, for animals, or for children.

A papyrus today in Vienna, P.Vindob. K 70, can be recognized an example of the last of these: a blessing for children. It was written in the Fayumic dialect of Coptic, which ensures its provenance from the semi-oasis, and it can be dated to the ninth century. Its editor, Victor Stegemann described it as a “prayer for the healing of a sick person”, in particular for a sick child, as it requests healing from a number of sicknesses:

…in your presence, increase him and care for him in good, fill him with wisdom and the understanding of wisdom. Open the faculties of his heart so that he may know all things… May his parents rejoice over his growth! Count him among the flock of Christ, for you are the Lord since the beginning, you made man according to your form and your image! Take all sickness and breath from this little child, whether it is … or a fever, or an evil eye, or an evil sickness, take them from him, bless him with health, for you are the Lord, from whom the healing of all sickness come and it is you who heals souls and bodies and spirits through the grace of the love of mankind of your only-begotten son Jesus Christ, our Lord, He through whom glory to you with him and the Holy Spirit, now and in all times, for all ages of ages, amen.

Translation by Edward O.D. Love for the Coptic Magical Papyrus Project’s database Kyprianos with edits.
P.Vindob.K 70 (c) Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Certain phrases of the prayer sit awkwardly with Stegemann’s interpretation as a prayer for healing. Why does a prayer for healing ask God to “fill [the child] with wisdom,” to “open the faculties of his heart so that he may know all things”, to allow “his parents rejoice over his growth”, or to “count him among the flock of Christ”? The answer to this question comes from parallel prayers in other languages, which help us understand this Coptic papyrus. In a canonical-liturgical collection that stems from late fifth or sixth-century Alexandria, but which is preserved in a thirteenth century Ethiopic codex unicus, there is a “prayer of the infant” which requests similar things (growth and health) for a new-born baby. It also specifies the occasion on which the prayer is recited: the reference to “this one whom they have brought to you” earmarks the prayer as the one recited at the presentation of the baby in the church. This rite, known as ekklesiasmos or churching, happened on the fortieth day after birth. 

For the churching of the child, the printed prayer books of the Byzantine rite present three different prayers, which focus on the imminent baptism of the child. The Byzantines also developed a complex set of other prayers for the first weeks after birth: besides a prayer for name-giving on the eighth day, already attested in the eighth century, later prayer books add a prayer for the purification of the mother on the fortieth day and prayers for the day of birth recited in the home. In the late antique and early medieval Egyptian sources, no corresponding prayers have been identified, but in the contemporary Coptic rite there is an absolution of the mother and a naming ceremony for the baby called the ‘prayer of the basin’.

The prayer on P.Vindob. K 70, though it is probably intended to mark the integration of the child in the Christian community, concerns not so much baptism as the well-being and health of the child. In particular, it asks God to “take away all sickness and all breath from this little child, whether it is […] or a fever, or an evil eye, or an evil sickness.” The expression ‘breath’ is difficult to interpret in this context. The Coptic word also means ‘blow’, ‘wind’; could it refer to the colicky condition that so often plagues new-borns and their parents, and that manifests itself in baby farts? 

The apotropaic and therapeutic character of the text prompted Stegemann to include this prayer in his collection of magical texts, though he duly noted the liturgical character of the text and suggested that it was a liturgical blessing, which the parallels confirm. The inclusion of this prayer among magical texts reminds us of the complicated relationship between liturgical and magical prayers. Whereas the two types of texts present clearly distinguishable textual features, they can relate to similar concerns: healing, exorcism, childbirth, fertility, harvest, ritual purity. In the Byzantine rite, a large number of such so-called ‘occasional prayers’ evolved for a wide variety of concerns, including the first step of the child and the launching of a ship. These rites are currently being studied by the Vienna Euchologia Project, which you can read more about here. The Coptic rite has considerably less such prayers, leaving a larger area exclusively to the ‘magical’ idiom, though as P.Vindob. K 70 shows, there were liturgical solutions as well to the eternal concern of the well-being of a baby. 

Technical Details
Provenance: Fayum
Date: 9th century CE
Language: Coptic (Fayumic)
Collection: Vienna, Austrian National Library, Papyrus Collection (P.Vindob. K 70)
Designation: P.Vindob. K 70
Bibliography: Viktor Stegemann (1934), Die koptischen Zaubertexte der Sammlung Papyrus Erzherzog Rainer in Wien. Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 1933-34 n°1(Heidelberg), pp. 26 & 63–67, pl. 3, no. XLIII (106); Viktor Stegemann and Walter Till (1935), “Zu den Wiener koptischen Zaubertexten,” Orientalia 4: 195–221 [pp. 214–215, no. XLII].

Further bibliography:
On the Ethiopic liturgical collection, see Alessandro Bausi (2006), “La collezione aksumita canonico-liturgica,” Adamantius12: 43–70. The text is currently being edited by Alessandro Bausi, to whom I owe the information on the prayer.
On the current Coptic rite of the absolution of the woman and the name-giving ceremony, see KHS O. H. E. Burmester (1967), The Egyptian or Coptic Church: A Detailed Description of Her Liturgical Services and the Rites and Ceremonies Observed in the Administration of Her Sacraments(Cairo), pp. 112–114.
On Byzantine childbed prayers, see Eirini Afentoulidou, Claudia Rapp, Daniel Galadza, Ilias Nesseris, Giulia Rossetto and Elisabeth Schiffer (2017), “Byzantine Prayer Books as Sources for Social History and Daily Life,” Jahrbuch der österreichischen Byzantinistik 67: 200–203.

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

3 thoughts on “Blessing a Baby Against Every Illness

  1. Excellent post, thanks for sharing this ancient knowledge with us. About the word ‘breath’ and its context in the papyrus, I’ve been thinking and it looks logical to me that it might to refers to hiccups or chokes as well – only some ideias.

    Liked by 1 person

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