The Genre of the Spiritually Beneficial Tale
Tales ‘beneficial to the soul’ are found throughout eastern and (if we include the exempla of medieval preachers) western Christendom. They constitute a remarkable but largely unexplored corpus of folklore: the lore of a particular segment within a segment of society. The larger segment is the Christian church, the smaller one the company of those men and some women who chose to exchange "the world" for a monastic existence "in the desert". It was in Egypt, at the beginning of the fourth century that Christian monasticism made its first appearance. By the end of that century it was enjoying a spectacular florescence that was only just beginning to decline when, in the early seventh century, the eruption of Islam somewhat suppressed it. By then Christian monasticism had created a significant literary heritage, ranging from the highly erudite writings of Evagrius Ponticus, "the philosopher of the desert" (346-399), to the simple tales and sayings "of the Desert Fathers", the Apophthegmata Patrum and it is these that constitute what might be called the "folklore of the desert". It is a characteristic of any folklore to have originated as an oral tradition; this one is no exception. It was originally transmitted entirely by word of mouth, at first in the rustic language of the land (Coptic). But it was in Greek that it eventually began to be recorded and from which it was subsequently translated into other languages.