Friday, September 26, 2008

Anargyroi (a mini-excursion in medical history/legend)

Happy Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian.

Factual details about their lives are largely lost to us, but according to legend Cosmas and Damian were twin physicians born in Arabia and brutally martyred in Syria (c. 287) under the persecutions of Diocletian.

One "miracle story" associated with them tells of transplant surgery: they grafted a leg from a recently-deceased Ethiopian onto a fair-skinned deacon named Justinian who had an ulcerated leg. This part of the legend is interesting to me for a couple of reasons - the idea of this kind of surgery even being contemplated in the third century, and the striking (and, to me, unexpected) juxtaposition of races in the story.

It was said that they were nicknamed Anargyroi, "The Silverless," because they didn't charge a fee for their services. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the term Hagioi Anargyroi, or Holy Unmercernaries, describes a special category of saints who perform labors solely out of love for God and humanity.

Cosmas and Damian are regarded as patron saints of physicians and surgeons as well as chemical manufacturers, pharmacists, hair dressers, hernia patients, and people desiring relief from pestilence. In Brazil they are also regarded as protectors of children and their feast is celebrated on its original date of September 27. They have been popular subjects in medieval and Renaissance art.

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