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Hagiography and the Reconstruction of Local Religion in Late Antique Egypt: Memories, Inventions, and Landscapes

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Scholars interested in the continuing vitality or decline of traditional religion in the late antique Mediterranean world often find themselves dependent on hagiographical texts, which inevitably depict traditional heathenism as a foil to their Christian heroes and thus cannot be used as simple documentation for historical realia. This paper proposes ways of drawing historical evidence for real, continuing local religion from hagiographical texts from late antique Egypt. After a discussion of the specific ways in which hagiography imposes literary and biblical themes on its representation of traditional religious practices, two points of authentic memory are presented: topographical traditions and traditions about expressive gesture. In contrast, the hagiographical image of the Egyptian priest, for example, carries little historical authenticity. A concluding section of the paper defends and outlines the use of anthropological models for the historical interpretation of hagiography.


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