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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 501-535

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Ethiopian Demons:
Male Sexuality, the Black-Skinned Other, and the Monastic Self

David Brakke
Indiana University

ACCORDING TO ATHANASIUS of Alexandria, when the devil had failed to tempt the young monk Antony with thoughts of home and family or by coming to him as a woman, he desperately tried to seduce the ascetic by appearing as a black boy. Unimpressed, Antony told the devil, "You are black in your mind and as weak as a boy." 1 It was not the last time the devil or one of his demons would appear with black skin to an Egyptian monk, according to tales preserved in the monastic literature from the fourth and fifth centuries. A young monk beset by thoughts of sex encountered an Ethiopian woman with a foul smell. An older monk found an Ethiopian girl he remembered seeing in his youth sitting on his knees; driven mad, he struck her, and a foul odor adhered to his hand. Afflicted by pride, another monk was divinely instructed to reach for his neck, where [End Page 501] he found a small Ethiopian, which he cast into the sand. A monk who disobeyed his elder discovered an Ethiopian lying on a sleeping mat and gnashing his teeth. Ethiopian or black demons continued to tempt or frighten Christian ascetics into the medieval period. 2

Demons were not the only Ethiopians in the desert. The famous Abba Moses, once a robber, became a monk renowned for his humility. Moses demonstrated his great humility by remaining silent when other monks at a meeting complained, "Why does this Ethiopian come among us?" Another time, prompted by the archbishop, priests drove Moses out of a church, crying, "Go outside, Ethiopian!" Moses said to himself, "They have acted rightly concerning you, you ash-skinned one, you black one. You are not a human being, so why do you go among human beings?" For the spiritually inclined modern reader, stories such as these come as a shock: their frankly apparent racism interrupts the Zen-like tranquillity that makes the sayings of the desert fathers so appealing. There are no Ethiopian demons in Thomas Merton's Wisdom of the Desert. 3

Critical scholars have likewise found these accounts grimly fascinating. They have used them primarily as sources for the sentiments of early Christians and/or ancient people in general: were they racist or at least color-prejudiced? 4 Investigation of this question culminated in Lloyd Thompson's comprehensive study, Romans and Blacks, which argued that the ancients did not have concepts exactly like the modern notion of "race" and thus [End Page 502] that the question of whether they were racist is anachronistic. He profitably contextualized Roman images of Ethiopians within the Romans' more general ethnocentric reactions to foreignness in bodies and cultures. 5 In this line of inquiry few scholars were interested in what the stories about Ethiopians may reveal about early Christian asceticism or monastic discourse in particular rather than about Christian or Roman attitudes in general. 6 Lately, scholars of early Christianity have turned away from analyzing the monastic stories as sources of ancient feelings about blacks to examining them as rhetorical strategies within ascetic discourse. For example, Vincent Wimbush tentatively studied accounts of Moses as a rhetoric in which talk about color "functions as part of the discursive strategies for the valuation and commendation of" ascetic piety. 7 Gay Byron has called the tales of Ethiopian demons, especially female ones, a rhetoric of "vituperation" that polices ethnic as well as ascetic boundaries: they "represent a type of political invective which effectively marginalizes Ethiopians." 8

While there can be no doubt that one effect of these stories is to demonize Ethiopians, it seems equally if not more accurate to say that they Ethiopianize demons. In the monastic literature emanating from fourth- and fifth-century Egypt, appearances of black or Ethiopian demons are generically widespread but numerically few. On the one hand, such stories are found in nearly every...


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