Salos and Holy Folly.

I just had occasion to correct the Wikipedia article on Simeon the Holy Fool, which had said “for ancient Greek Σάλος, stir wikt:σάλος).” I changed it to “Greek: Συμεών (ο δια τον Χριστόν) Σαλός,” and in my explanation of the change wrote “note that σαλός ‘(holy) fool’ is a different word, with a different accent, from σάλος ‘rolling motion’.” I thought I’d bring this interesting word to a wider audience by quoting the passage on it from Derek Krueger’s Symeon the Holy Fool (University of California Press, 1996):

Extreme caution is also warranted with regard to the term salos (σαλός), usually used to describe holy folly in both the modern scholarly literature and the Orthodox churches. The word salos, translated usually as “fool,” is of uncertain origin. It is not to be confused with the Greek word σάλος, “tossed” or “agitated.” As Grosdidier de Matons has observed, salos appears to have had a principally colloquial usage at first. It first appears in written sources in the early fifth century CE in Palladius’s Lausiac History 34, the well-known story of the nun in a monastery in Tabennisi who feigned madness (μώρια) and demonic possession. The nuns in the monastery tell the narrator that the woman is σαλή, a term which Palladius glosses after its first usage, presumably because the word was unfamiliar to his audience, explaining that this is the word they use “to describe those women who are afflicted.” Although we do find the theme of sanctity concealed by madness in this story, nothing suggests that the term salos has been connected with her practice as a technical term.

In four anecdotes in the alphabetical collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum, redacted in the sixth century, the word is either used sincerely to describe someone who appears crazy (and may well be) or as an insult. The term has a slang quality to it, and a recent English translator of the Apophthegmata has rendered it variously “mad,” “distraught,” “silly,” and “fool.” Here too the word clearly has no technical meaning suggesting the pretense of insanity as a form of ascetic practice. The word occurs with a notably abusive sense in a recently published letter from Oxyrhynchus dated to the late fifth century. While discussing business matters connected with a mill at Orthoniu the author of the letter refers to a third party as “that imbecile [σαλός] Horus.”

In John Moschus’s Spiritual Meadow, which dates from the early seventh century, the word salos is used to describe a mendicant whom John says he and his companion Sophronius encountered on the steps of the Church of Theodosius in Alexandria. The beggar “appears as if he is crazy [ὡς σαλός]”; however, nothing in the anecdote suggests that the man is a holy man or that he is merely pretending to be crazy.

It is puzzling that Evagrius Scholasticus, at the end of the sixth century, never uses the term salos in his description of Symeon. Grosdidier de Matons, who interprets this omission to indicate the word’s status as a colloquialism, argues that Evagrius avoided the word since it was inappropriate to his “bon style.” However, we cannot rule out the possibility that Evagrius was unfamiliar with the word. Further confusion is introduced by the tale of Mark the Fool, one of the stories included in the Life of Daniel of Skete, a text roughly contemporary with Evagrius Scholasticus’s Ecclesiastical History. Here the author describes Mark as a salos; however, he also uses the term to describe the truly insane people with whom Mark associates.

As we have seen, stories of feigned madness were widespread in the period from the early fifth through mid-seventh century; however, the term σαλός was not always used in these stories. Moreover, none of these stories demonstrates a developed sense of the salos as a technical category, nor for that matter of feigned madness as a well-defined form of spiritual expression. The term salos, therefore, should not be understood as the equivalent of “holy fool” in Late Antiquity.

In the Life of Symeon the Fool, we find a more extensive treatment of this term. Leontius works out for the first time a definition of holy folly through his attempt to establish a theological justification as well as a cultural precedent for holy folly. Leontius uses the term σαλός often. He writes that Symeon “played all sorts of roles foolish and indecent [σαλῶν καὶ ἀσχήμων]” (p. 155). Salos is used as an epithet: “Go away, Fool!” (p. 166); the girls of Emesa use the word in the vocative Σαλέ, calling him “Fool” as if it were his name. And Symeon is not the only one to be called a salos; Symeon refers to his friend the monk John with this term (p. 153). Leontius also twice uses the verb σαλίζω, previously unattested, apparently to mean “playing the fool.” But while Leontius makes frequent use of the word salos, it does not, in itself, have a technical sense. What is crucial for Leontius is the fact that Symeon is a σαλός διà Χριστὸν, “a Fool for Christ’s sake.” The first time he is seen by the residents of Emesa, school children run after him and call him not a salos, but a mōros (μωρός) (p. 145). Later Leontius describes Symeon as one who “simulates μωρία for Christ’s sake” (pp. 155–56), recalling Paul’s wording in 1 Corinthians 4:10. For Leontius salos and mōros are largely interchangeable. His innovation is not to give salos a technical usage, but to define his folly as διà Χριστὸν, “for Christ’s sake.”

The Russians inherited the concept from the Byzantines, and used the word юродивый.


  1. Christopher Culver says:

    “The Russians inherited the concept from the Byzantines, and used the word юродивый.”

    I use the word юродивый all the time when speaking Russian, a habit I picked up from the in-laws, who are from an emigre family of the intelligentsia. I was surprised, however, that when I was recently speaking with a group of Muscovites and I used the word, the youngest (university-age) did not understand it. Instead, one of the older members of the group had to explain to the youngsters, “Юродивый is an old-fashioned word and it means…” Is юродивый really dying out in Russians outside academic contexts?

  2. It wouldn’t surprise me, since the phenomenon is presumably extinct or virtually so, and the nineteenth-century texts in which the word is common currency are probably not most people’s choice of reading matter these days.

  3. Looks like the OED needs to update their etymology for salad then:
    1. From the Old French salade: A cold dish of herbs or vegetables (e.g. lettuce, endive), usually uncooked and chopped up or sliced, to which is often added sliced hard-boiled egg, cold meat, fish, etc., the whole being seasoned with salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar.
    2. From the Greek σάλος: Any combination of leafy greens mixed with an oil based dressing.
    3. From the Greek σαλός: Jell-O salad

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Holy Rollers?

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    If σάλος appeared in a book I am reading (Keith Laidler: To Light such a Candle) it would be be written as σαλοζ or σαλωζ (final ς is consistently given as ζ, and the book is vague about the difference between ο and ω, as also between ε and η, with no breathings and very few accents). I suppose I can give the author some of the blame for this, as he must have known people informed about Greek who could have checked his etymologies for him, but much more I blame the publisher (Oxford University Press — publisher of Liddell and Scott, with surely plenty of competent editors) for not getting the proofs checked by someone who could recognize wrong spellings and would know, for example, that few (if any) words end in ζ, even in Modern Greek.

    Keith Laidler was not a classical scholar (!) but a very distinguished chemist at the University of Ottawa. In 1958 he wrote what was for many years by far the best book on enzyme kinetics, and I met him a few times: he stayed in our house in Birmingham and I in his in Ottawa.

    Anyway, getting back to the main point, I have the impression that modern publishers (even very famous ones like Oxford University Press) don’t bother much any more with editing, fact checking and proofreading. I had an excellent editor at Wiley-VCH a few years ago, but other experiences with publishers have been less satisfactory. If you want proper proofreading you need to do it yourself.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    I once published in a journal that doesn’t let you proofread because it doesn’t make proofs. Once the manuscript is accepted, it’s sent to the copyeditors who introduce silly mistakes, and then you’re informed it’s published.

  7. I’m very sorry I read that, and will do my best to forget it. One can only take so much.

  8. John Cowan says:

    Wasn’t it you whose penultimate draft got published instead of the final one, and then the publisher refused to update even the online version?

  9. Me? No.

  10. Fortunately for me, the publishing model for physics and mathematics still involves the use of proofreaders. Even if all submissions are received in LaTeX format, it is a nontrivial task to ensure that all the mathematical content appears correctly formatted, especially when equations have to be transferred into the journal’s preferred fonts. If you have to pore over every equation, it is not too much more effort to proofread the running text as well. It also helps that so many of the best journals are run, not for profit, by academic societies. Twenty years ago, I had a paper published in a journal that did not do author proofs at all, but they actually had a full proofreading staff, and my article, at least, made it to print with no errors (except a minus sign, but that was our fault as authors).

    That is not the only publishing model for fields that need to write a lot of math, however. In computer science, publication is mostly done through conference proceedings. This has several downsides, such as placing a hard cap on peer review times. Another one is that authors are given LaTeX style files and expected to produce their own camera-ready copy. (Although it is still called “camera-ready,” I don’t actually know whether any optics are still involved in the printing process. The technology exists to produce offset printing plates directly from digital files, with no light boxes involved. However, I have not kept up with the practicalities of the printing industry, and I don’t know how things are actually done nowadays.)

  11. John Cowan says:

    Wasn’t it you whose penultimate draft got published

    I meant David M.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    No, two colleagues of mine got the first instead of the second revision published by accident in, as it happens, the same online-only megajournal.

    I don’t know if they’ve even contacted the journal; there’s probably no point.

  13. I just came across this in Far Outliers (Impressions of Tripoli, 1804, a passage from Dawn Like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker): “He reported too that the saints were venerated, but, ‘any extraordinary qualification—a remarkable crime, sometimes pure idiotism raised them to the rank of saint.’” Tripoli too had its holy fools, apparently.

  14. That passage made me think of the Gods in Lankhmar.

  15. John Cowan says:

    he must have known people informed about Greek who could have checked his etymologies for him

    I once read at least a chunk of a letter that Thomas Trollope, the classical scholar, wrote to his younger brother Anthony when the latter took a break from his novels to publish a life of Cicero, telling Anthony that he should have let Thomas correct his proofs. The line that sticks in my head is “By Oeschilus I know — what others could only guess — that you mean Aeschylus.”

    But now I wonder, because the Life (conveniently online though the letter is not) refers to Oeschilus of Cnidos, whereas Aeschylus was born in Eleusis. Alas, there are no other online references to the former, so is this a true obscurum per obscurius, or is it just confusion worse compounded?

  16. Aeschylus of Cnidus, contemporary of Cicero, and one of the most celebrated rhetoricians in Asia Minor.

  17. See references here (scroll down to Aeschylus 4 of Cnidus).

  18. John Cowan says:

    Ahhh, should have thought of that. Thanks.

  19. January First-of-May says:

    I’m reminded of when I accidentally wrote about Phales instead of Thales because I misinterpreted the Russian transliteration.

    At least I found out how to spell “Methuselah” early enough to have never embarrassed myself by accidentally writing “Maphusael”…

  20. I swear that “Cnidus” sounds like the pit where invasive jellyfish breed out of control.

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