Cyril and Methodius – some myths live on

WHEN travelling through Slovakia, one is bound to notice streets, churches, chapels, schools, as well as a university and a hospital, bearing the names of two brothers, Catholic saints Cyril and Methodius. They are also two of the few saints whose day in the Catholic calendar is marked as a national holiday. This year the celebrations will be more extensive than usual.

This sculpture was to be unveiled in Bratislava on July 5 but fine arts experts rejected it as not being
responsive to the artistic feelings of the 21st century.This sculpture was to be unveiled in Bratislava on July 5 but fine arts experts rejected it as not being responsive to the artistic feelings of the 21st century. (Source: Sme- Gabriel Kuchta)

WHEN travelling through Slovakia, one is bound to notice streets, churches, chapels, schools, as well as a university and a hospital, bearing the names of two brothers, Catholic saints Cyril and Methodius. They are also two of the few saints whose day in the Catholic calendar is marked as a national holiday. This year the celebrations will be more extensive than usual.

2013 is the year of Ss Cyril and Methodius for the Roman Catholic Church, dominant in Slovakia, as the country marks the 1150th anniversary of the arrival of the two brothers from Thessaloniki, Greece, to the territory of today’s Slovakia, then part of the Great Moravian Empire.

In addition to the church, state authorities are not passing up the opportunity to be seen participating in the memorial celebration. Specific events have been organised in Nitra, one of the centres of the Great Moravian Empire, which came to represent the mythical Golden Age in the collective memory of Slovaks in the time of the national awakening.

So who were the two brothers, Cyril and Methodius? And why are they so important to this country?

Waking the nation

Ss Cyril and Methodius are considered to be among the most remarkable personalities in the early medieval history of the territory of today’s Slovakia. As such, they played an important role in the process of the national awakening of Slovaks during the mid-19th century spring of nations.

“They played a positive role in the search for the identity and the historical roots of the nation,” said Vladimír Turčan, a curator from the Archaeological Museum of the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava.

“The potential that the figures of Ss Cyril and Methodius held, simply had to be used by 18th and 19th century nationalism,” said Daniela Kodajová from the Historical Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences to The Slovak Spectator.

For those in the 19th-century nationalist movement who sought to prove the rightful place of Slovaks in Europe, they had to find a historical narrative for the Slovak nation, and Cyril and Methodius provided exactly that: they were presented as the creators of Slavic writing and their activities were connected with the Moravian Empire, the Golden Age of “Slovak” history.

“The nationalist movement in the 18th and 19th century viewed the Great-Moravian era as the time when our ancestors had their own statehood and rulers,” Kodajová explained.

The myth of Ss Cyril and Methodius is alive in the collective memory of Slovaks, especially thanks to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which has celebrated them as saints and even as patrons of Europe since 1980.

The story of the saints has been forgotten and revived in the collective memory of the nation several times, thanks to the fact that their story fills the criteria for a ‘successful’ myth: it is easy to understand, remember and reproduce, and it has a certain internal logic.

“Such a clear part of the myth connected with Cyril and Methodius is the fact that our ancestors didn’t have writing and they [Cyril and Methodius] brought it; they didn’t understand foreign priests but they understood [the two brothers],” Kodajová said, adding that this is the reason why the point of all versions of the story is based on their introducing the Slavic alphabet.

Kodajová continued: “That’s what everybody remembers. All the rest is much more complicated: the political circumstances of their arrival and their complicated stay, their sanctity, their Christianisation activities. These are the issues for which the versions differ.”

The history

The presence of Cyril and Methodius in Great Moravia was a relatively short episode in the history of that state: they arrived in the autumn of 863 and their mission was practically over by 886.

They came after Rastislav, the ruler of the Great Moravian Empire, requested the Byzantine Emperor Michael III to send teachers to his country in an attempt to secure a more sovereign position for his state, which was at that time rather dependent on Francia and Frankish missionaries, through establishing religious independence. The desired result of the mission was the emergence of local priests, and a local bishop, which would make it possible for the state to become a sovereign Christian province.

“Considering the fulfilment of Rastislav’s main request, the two brothers were an ideal selection,” Kodajová said.

Both brothers had spent some time in monasteries. At the Byzantine Emperor’s court they had the renown of reputable diplomats, with outstanding linguistic and legal expertise, plus the ability to serve as missionaries in a non-Christian or mixed environment, according to Kodajová.

Besides, they spoke a Slavic dialect that was used in their hometown of Thessaloniki, and in the 9th century the Slavs were linguistically still very close to each other, so communicating with the Great Moravian Slavs was not a problem, Turčan noted in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.

Thus, in 863 the two brothers arrived in Great Moravia, which for them was a rough, cold and uncivilised territory where they had no contacts or ties and where the inhabitants had learned about Christianity but pagan habits still lingered, especially outside the homes of the nobility, Kodajová recounts.

“In an incredibly short time - about five years - they not only found a way to express the language of the locals in the form of a scripture, but they also translated the basic liturgical texts, and they taught their disciples in the spirit of the need for further spreading of Christianity,” she said.

But the political circumstances in Europe at that time complicated the Byzantine brothers’ activities in Great Moravia. Their host, Rastislav, eventually lost his position to his nephew, Svätopluk, and his efforts to gain more independence from Francia were in vain. Cyril and Methodius travelled to Rome to defend their teachings, but with only partial success. Cyril joined a monastic order, took the name Cyril (he was previously known as Constantine), and died shortly thereafter.

Methodius, meanwhile, was made a bishop, but after Rastislav’s fall, he was imprisoned for some time and his activities were restricted after he was freed. After his death, his disciples were expelled from the country, and their liturgical texts were destroyed and replaced by Latin ones, Kodajová said.

Apostles of faith?

Cyril and Methodius and their disciples were engaged in a conflict with Frankish priests over the language used in liturgy. They defended the use of the local language and that was one of the pillars of the myth about their being ‘Slavic saints’ as they were depicted by the 19th century nationalist movement.

They are often referred to as apostles of faith, both in churches and in society, and the simplified version of their story says that they brought Christianity to the ancestors of today’s Slovaks. Some historians, however, refute this.

“Cyril and Methodius came to a country where Christianisation had been going on for a half-century from the Latin cultural sphere,” Turčan said, adding that the presence of Cyril and Methodius did not interrupt that western influence.

The people of Great Moravia learned about Christianity from Frankish priests, whose work was not interrupted by the activities of Cyril and Methodius, and after Methodius’ disciples had to leave the country, the people simply joined the church structures formed under the Frankish influence. Additionally, the old Slavic script created by the two brothers had not been used in the country for a long time, Kodajová noted.

“The disciples of the Byzantines had been expelled from Great Moravia, so there was nobody to continue the work of the two brothers,” Turčan said.

Script without users

Great Moravian society was not ready to use the alphabet that the two brothers brought and it was only used by a close circle of members of the Byzantine mission, according to Turčan. Literacy, just like the Christian religion, was facilitated through Latin among the ancestors of Slovaks. Despite that, historians agree that the script they designed and the liturgical texts which they translated into the local language are the most remarkable aspects of Cyril’s and Methodius’ work in this part of Europe.

Thanks to the alphabet, they and their disciples were able to create a written testimony through which they left important historical data for central-European Slavs, which are not documented in other resources, Turčan noted.

“They were undoubtedly visionaries,” Turčan said, adding that their disciples left an irreplaceable literary testimony. “Thanks to that we can learn about events that would otherwise be definitely covered by the mist of history.”

In the hands of politicians

The story of Ss Cyril and Methodius is not only important for the local Roman Catholic Church, which views them as “our Slavic saints” but the state also acknowledges their importance. The preamble to the Slovak Constitution written in 1992 mentions “the spiritual heritage of Cyril and Methodius and the historical legacy of the Great Moravian Empire” as being among the founding principles of the Slovak state.

But when asked what the heritage of Cyril and Methodius is supposed to mean, historians admit that these words might easily become just empty proclamations in the hands of politicians.

“Such formulations are bound to be nothing but a simplification of often complicated historical phenomena,” Turčan said, adding that so far nothing from the Byzantine mission has been found that could be considered a specific benefit to Slovak identity other than general cultural values.

Kodajová argues that the fact that there is such mention in the Slovak Constitution demonstrates that the nation and its leaders are still relying on 19th-century nationalist rhetoric.

“It disturbs me when politicians serve us the picture of ourselves, whether they call us citizens or a nation, painted as if it wasn’t possible without the crutches of the 19th century,” Kodajová stated, adding that today the spiritual heritage should be handled in a much more sophisticated way.

But Cyril and Methodius are historical characters over 1,100 years old, and as such they can be politically abused to prove that the ancestors of Slovaks had already been living here at that time, and thus, Slovaks now have a right to this land and for respect from others, according to Kodajová.

As a part of Slovakia’s national story, Cyril and Methodius are celebrated with a lot of emotion. “Their message doesn’t need to be understood, it’s enough if we protect it,” Kodajová explained. This is common for all national myths, but with Cyril and Methodius the need to protect them grows ever stronger because their story suggests it is not just the “Slovak” part of their story that needs protection but also the Slavic and even the entire Christian aspect. “That raises our own importance even more.”

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