VegHist Ep 5: Flesh and Spirit. On Egyptian monasticism, Early Christianity, Plutarch, Neoplatonism, and Manicheansim; with David Grummet, Nicholas Baker-Brian, Michael Beer, and Fr. Abouna Yostas St. Athanasius

In the eastern Roman Empire, several faiths and philosophies agree on one thing; that you need to eschew flesh to live a life of the spirit.

Episode 5: Flesh & Spirit

Not all Romans celebrated pagan sacrifices or the bloodthirsty arena. Some Romans followed the semi-mythical vegetarian Pythagoras, or neoplatonist philosophers who preached a vegetarian contemplative life.

In the melting pot of Jewish mythology, Greek philosophy, and the worship of Jesus many forms of Christianity emerge. Some of them advocate vegetarianism. The lost world religion of Manichaeanism took ideas from India and was led by a plant based priesthood that would last a thousand years.

Alexandria in Egypt is the epicentre of many of these contemplative movements. Ian visits a valley in Yorkshire that still echoes with the traditions of the ancient Egyptian desert – the Coptic Christian monastery of St. Athanasius. He discovers why the monks pursue that life, what it means to them, and how they maintain some of the original vegetarian traditions of the Egyptian desert fathers.

Play or download (43MB MP3) (via iTunes) or read transcript.



Production Diary

Now the story has reached characters whose writing survives to the present in volumes, I’m spending less time talking about historical sources and more time quoting people. And it’s hard to leave things out. There are so many things that Plutarch said in the first century that people like Vegan Sidekick have had to repeat in the twenty-first.

This was also the hardest episode for which to arrange a location visit; the story unfolded a long way from where I live, there’s not enough reason to travel, and precious few ethical vegetarians. It took me a while to find the monastery of St. Athanasius.

The tattoo of a Coptic cross on Fr. Yostas’ wrist is what modern Copts (Egypt’s Christian minority) show on entry into a church.


Music by Robb Masters, and Michael Levy. The actors were Jeremy Hancock and Yasser Sha’aban.

The music was:

  • Theme by Robb Masters
  • Sacred Flame of Vesta, by Michael Levy
  • Avinu Malcheinu, Jewish traditional, arranged and performed by Michael Levy
  • Hurrian Hymn, anonymous ancient Mesopotamian, arranged by Michael Levy based on translation of Ugarit tablet by Richard Dumbrill

The show also included part of a service at the monastery of St. Athanasius, and (at the end) an Ethiopian Orthodox Service at St. Mary of Tserha Sion in Hackney, East London.

The icon of St. Nofer the hermit is taken with permission from this Russian-language tourist website.

Special thanks to the Coptic Monastery of St. Athanasius, and Marian and Kevin McDonald (my parents) for driving me there.


Geek recommendation: some of the Christian theologians in this episode also appear in the excellent (and uncharacteristically monster-free) Doctor Who audio drama Council of Nicea.

Brock, Sebastian P. 1999. From Ephrem to Romanos: Interactions between Syriac and Greek in Late Antiquity. Aldershot; Brookfield, USA: Ashgate.
Strousma, G. 1986. “The Manichaean Challenge to Egyptian Christianity.” In The Roots of Egyptian Christianity, by Birger A Pearson and James E Goehring. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Magness, Jodi. 2002. The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.
Kelhoffer, James A. 2005. The Diet of John the Baptist: “Locusts and Wild Honey” in Synoptic and Patristic Interpretation. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
Beckwith, Roger T. 1988. “The Vegetarianism of the Therapeutae, and the Motives for Vegetarianism in Early Jewish and Christian Circles.” Revuequmran Revue de Qumrân 13 (1-4 (49-52)): 407–10.
Schott, Jeremy M. 2008. Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Grimm, Veronika E. 1996. From Feasting to Fasting, the Evolution of a Sin: Attitudes to Food in Late Antiquity. London; New York: Routledge.
Muers, Rachel, and David Grumett. 2010. Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet. London, New York: Routledge.
Wilkins, John, and Shaun Hill. 2006. “Meat and Fish.” In Food in the Ancient World, 133,147. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Pub.
Shaw, Teresa M., Michael Beer, and John Wilkins. 2008. “Perspectives from Antiquity.” In Eating and Believing Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology, by David Grumett and Rachel Muers. London; New York: T & T Clark.

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About Ian

London. Formerly known as New Media. Vegan since 1992.

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