A priest named Themel was said to have preached in Herakleos, a village which belonged to the emperors of Constantinople. His home town was in a precarious location, set within striking distance from the hostile lands of Tarsus and Aleppo. Themel lived in the 10th century, and his community was thrown into chaos by the constant warfare between Emperor Constantine VII (sole rule 945-959) and Emir Sayf al-Dawla of Aleppo (r. 945-967). Themel reportedly got a personal taste of the era’s prevalent bloodshed, and his experience would take him down a truly bizarre path.
According to the historian John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101), a band of scavengers and foragers from Aleppo or Tarsus arrived at Herakleos to commandeer food to feed their army during the ongoing border struggle between the Empire of Constantinople and its Muslim neighbors. At the time, the people of Herakleos were reportedly in the middle of Holy Mass, and the priest Themel was leading them in the celebration of the Eucharist. Messengers interrupted Themel’s liturgy, informing the congregation of the arrival of the hostile foragers. Upon hearing of this news, Themel apparently decided to not only lead his flock in prayer, but to also lead them in battle—as the story goes, Themel ended his church service prematurely, then stormed off to face the looters. For a weapon, the priest reportedly picked up a semantron, a large wooden or metal beam used as a percussion instrument in the church. As for armor, he simply wore his religious vestments. Thus equipped, the warrior-priest joined the fray and allegedly bludgeoned a few of the scavengers to death with his trusty semantron, helping the town of Herakleos to drive off the enemy.
One might expect that Themel would have been treated as a hero after the battle—after all, it was the Middle Ages, and militant religious figures were, at the time, condoned and often praised. Nevertheless, praise was not in Themel’s future. If he were a character in a literary work, you could say that his path underwent a sudden and bizarre plot twist. Instead of being applauded and praised, the priest would be vilified by his countrymen.
The bishop over Themel’s diocese reportedly took issue with the warrior-priest’s actions. Be it the blood-spattered vestments, the gore-stained semantron, or the neglected Eucharist, the bishop held a grudge against Themel that never healed. Due to their unreconciled differences, the bishop reportedly sabotaged Themel’s pastoral career and blocked the priest from continuing his ministry. Themel reacted poorly to the bishop’s interference, and the situation made him begin to reevaluate his life.
Themel, suppressed and criticized by the bishop, eventually chose to drastically change the direction of his life. He reportedly renounced the priesthood and fled to Tarsus or Aleppo, where he was said to have joined armies opposed to the emperors of Constantinople. According to Byzantine scholars, the former priest Themel apparently abandoned Christianity, itself, after his flight. On Themel’s career after his defection, John Skylitzes wrote, “So he went over to the Hagarenes and renounced Christianity. He joined forces with them, and not only ravaged Cappadocia and the adjacent themes but penetrated as far as what is called Asia Minor” (Synopsis of Byzantine History, chapter 11, section 8).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Conquest of Jerusalem painted by Émile Signol (1804–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- A Synopsis of Byzantine History by John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101), translated by John Wortley (Cambridge University Press, 2010).