You’ve just been hitched, and you’re returning from a holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem with your new spouse and in-laws. Only, your husband suddenly ditches you to live with his best bro Symeon as a hermit in the Jordanian desert for 29 years. Seriously?
For the bride of John, the circumstances were less than ideal. But for John and Symeon the Holy Fool — who later became the patron saint of the mentally ill — it was the start of a beautiful friendship that would see them take vows of brotherhood. The name of that holy rite, Adelphopoiesis (translated from Greek literally as “brother-making”), may seem obscure now but wasn’t so unusual for Byzantine Christians. The ceremony served two purposes: First, to solidify an intimate friendship between two brothers in Christ. Second, to serve as an aggressive form of networking that would rival even the most talented LinkedIn users.
The first iteration of the ritual was a way for two monks to “live as brothers in pairs” to advance their spiritual journey, says Claudia Rapp, professor of Byzantine studies at the University of Vienna. Beginning around the sixth century though, many laymen adopted the practice as a “strategy for social networking,” Rapp says. In that latter usage, the bonds weren’t always forever and could be made with multiple partners (though usually one at a time). That was the tactic used by Emperor Basil I, who started out as a commoner and, through some seriously strategic bromances, ended up founding the Macedonian Empire.
Picture the U.S. president’s swearing-in with a hand on the Bible, and you wouldn’t be too far off from what the Adelphopoiesis ritual looked like. Using the cunning Emperor Basil I as an example: He and the son of a wildly wealthy widow walked into a church, a priest waiting for them. They placed their right hands on the Book of Gospels, and the priest said a prayer to unite the two in brotherhood, according to materials obtained by the Euchologia project at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
During the Byzantine era, Adelphopoiesis came with serious perks, Rapp says. A commoner could find himself invited into his wealthier brother’s household, attending baptisms, weddings and, yes, the most righteous of parties. Such access included introductions to the aristocratic daughters of families who normally would keep them hidden behind lock and key. In the last phase of Adelphopoiesis, men were cautioned that their brotherhood required them to protect the women of their new family from rogues of ill intent.
Over the years, some scholars have wondered whether Adelphopoiesis was actually a quietly accepted form of same-sex marriage. That’s what John Boswell, a Yale historian, argued in his Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, writing in 1994 that many ancient descriptions of friendship “are, nonetheless, distinctly romantic.”
Boswell theorized that Adelphopoiesis united two men into a union resembling marriage, one tacitly approved by the church. However, critics contend the societal context was simply more open to male friendships that were less repressed than now, so they may seem romantic by modern standards. As such, most scholars believe the ritual was mostly used as a way to solidify friendships and form strategic alliances. Still, some gay Catholics today use the Adelphopoiesis framework to form same-sex unions that — so long as they remain celibate — don’t actually defy church doctrine.
Romantic or not, these were deep relationships. So much so that when the desert hermit Symeon decided to return to society and do charity work, his brother John felt as if “a knife separated him from his body,” according to Symeon the Holy Fool by Derek Krueger. While John returned to his desert isolation, Symeon went on to serve the poor in the city of Emesa in modern Lebanon — deliberately becoming “a fool for Christ” by acting insane so as not to receive praise for his good works. Still, shortly before his death in 588 A.D., Symeon recounted seeing his beloved John in a vision. The pair both were named saints in death, sharing the same holy day for many centuries.