Rediscovering the Story of Egeria, a Remarkable 4th Century Female Pilgrim

Rediscovering the Story of Egeria, a Remarkable 4th Century Female Pilgrim


Egeria was a young woman who decided to make the trip of a lifetime and go to the Holy Land. But what inspired her to make that journey and walk half of the world all alone?

She was born in beautiful green Galicia and grew up surrounded by pagan stories and sacred sites related to pagan traditions. The people in this area have always known about magic and pagan rituals. Thus, Christianizing Galicia was a very slow process. In fact, even now many people of this North-West part of Spain believe in witchcraft and supernatural creatures.

It is likely that Egeria was still a young woman when she decided to change her life. Her incredible story was forgotten for seven centuries. Much of the information about her has been lost, but there is still a part of the text written by her hand which allows one to have some insight into her thoughts.

Image thought to be Egeria.

Image thought to be Egeria. (earlyworldhistory.blogspot.com)

Who was Egeria?

One day, Egeria woke up and left her home in Galicia to travel across Europe, visit Constantinople, and finally enter the gates of Jerusalem. The official Christian story explains that Egeria was one of Jesus’ followers who wanted to visit his homeland. However, when analyzing her life and the geopolitical situation during those times the background starts to become more visible.

A 1759 map entitled The Holy Land.

A 1759 map entitled The Holy Land. (Public Domain)

In her letters, Egeria wrote about Istanbul:

''On the next day, crossing the sea, I arrived at Constantinople, giving thanks to Christ our God who deigned to give me such grace, unworthy and undeserving as I am, for He had deigned to give me not only the will to go, but also the power of walking through the places that I desired, and of returning at last to Constantinople. When I had arrived there, I went through all the churches--that of the Apostles and all the martyr-memorials, of which there are very many--and I ceased not to give thanks to Jesus our God, who had thus deigned to bestow His mercy upon me. From which place, ladies, light of my eyes, while I send these (letters) to your affection, I have already purposed, in the Name of Christ our God, to go to Ephesus in Asia, for the sake of prayer, because of the memorial of the holy and blessed Apostle John. And if after this I am yet in the body, and am able to see any other places, I will either tell it to your affection in person, if God deigns to permit me this, or in anywise, if I have another project in mind, I will send you news of it in a letter. But do you, ladies, light of my eyes, deign to remember me, whether I am in the body or out of the body.''

She wrote the above letter to her female relatives from Galicia. According to this text, her pilgrimage took place around the 380s AD, and the letter itself is the oldest known text of this kind written by a woman. The Galician monk Valerio of Bierzo, who lived in the 7th century, claimed that Egeria traveled between 381 and 384. Valerio’s letter calls her Aetheria, not Egeria, and describes her as a nun. He suggested that she made this long and expensive journey in the fashion of so-called religious tourism.

Her impressive journey was very well-known until the 11th century, when her book was compiled in the Codex Aretinus. Only the middle part of her writing survived, but the work of a medieval monk ensured its continued existence. However, it is unknown how many parts of her writings are original, as some of the sections concerning Christianity appear to have been created years after she died.

Cover of a translation into English of The Journey of Egeria.

Cover of a translation into English of The Journey of Egeria. (Public Domain)

Her story was later picked up by the Italian Gian Francesco Gamurrini, who found it at the monastery library in Arezzo. Egeria’s writings have been rewritten several times and analyzed by generations of researchers, however, it seems that her real story is lost between the lines of her memoirs.

More Mysteries About Her Life

If Egeria's name is real, it comes from ancient Roman mythology. In the early history of Rome, Egeria was thought to be a nymph and divine consort of Numa Pompilius. She inspired him to practice rituals and accept laws which later became a part of the Roman religion.

Numa Pompilius

Numa Pompilius (Public Domain)

When people were baptized in ancient times they usually changed their names. However, in the case of Egeria, it seems that she kept on using her pagan name for her writing.

Apart from visiting the Holy Land, she also went to Alexandria, Thebes, and even near the river Euphrates in Mesopotamia. But what was she searching for?

Did Egeria return to Galicia? It seems she did, and probably she lived as a local heroine. Some people believe that her remains are buried under the cathedral of Santiago the Compostela, where her life was connected to the famous and controversial bishop Priscillian. His roots were with a pagan family in Galicia, and his beliefs were not fully linked to the Christian doctrine.

Cathedral, Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Cathedral, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Writers like Oscar Wilde and Julio Cortazar mention Egeria as an ancient nymph, but to the Catholics she was a holy woman, a pilgrim, or a saint. Egeria didn't explain many parts of her travels. She obviously met thousands of people and had hundreds of adventures. Yet, this part of her story is not described.

Nonetheless, it is still possible to imagine what she saw, experienced, and how full of curiosity and determination she was to make her solo journey.

Top image: Image thought to be Egeria. (earlyworldhistory.blogspot.com). A 1759 map entitled The Holy Land. (Public Domain)

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Egeria: la primera peregrina, available at:
http://www.viajeros.com/articulos/563-egeria-la-primera-peregrina

Egeria's Pilgrimage Blessed the Ages by Diane Severance, Ph.D., available at:
http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/301-600/egerias-pilgrimage-blessed-the-ages-11629681.html

About Egeria, available at:
http://www.egeriaproject.net/about_egeria.aspx

Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem: Translation, available at:
http://users.ox.ac.uk/~mikef/durham/egetra.html

Comments

She was ptetty. But why was she so well known before the 11th cent.? Was she viewed as a hero for her trip? 

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