The Great Martyr Anastasia of Sirmium was martyred sometime between 290 and 304, but after her relics were transferred to Constantinople in the fifth century, during the reign of Emperor Leo I, and to Rome in the sixth century, her popularity quickly rose throughout the Christian world. In Constantinople, they were installed in the fourth century Anastasis Church in the Portico of Domninus, near Constantine’s forum. In old Rome, they were installed in the fourth century titular basilica of Saint Anastasia, built perhaps by Constantine’s sister, Anastasia, to honor either the Resurrection of Christ or the original Roman martyr of the same name. In 824 Theodore Krithinos, oikonomos of the Great Church, travelled to Rome on an embassy to the Pope, and while there discovered an anonymous long Passion narrative of St. Anastasia written in Latin. After translating it to Greek, he brought it to Constantinople, which helped spark a revival in devotion to the Saint. Because of these events, churches throughout the Roman Empire were dedicated to her, and in each were iconographic portrayals of her holding a medicine bottle. Why?
When a saint takes on a particular epithet, there is usually a historical reason for it. With St. Anastasia, the reason she is called “pharmakolytria” (deliverer from potions or spells; the two were synonymous at the time) can first of all be attributed to certain miracles recorded in some versions of her Life. For example, in the Milan version, Anastasia, through her prayers, “freed those troubled by unclean spirits”. Even more telling is the Palermo version, in which Anastasia is said to have released those under the spell of sorcerers.
In the tenth century we have written testimonies of the lives of four saints, two Fools for Christ, Andrew and Basil, along with St. Nephon and St. Irene Chrysovalantou, that make reference to the Church of Saint Anastasia in Constantinople. In the Life of Saint Andrew the Fool, who we are told lived in the fifth century, we are informed that Andrew, who was a slave at the time, began to play the fool in order to imitate the saints whom he admired. His slave master thought that his favorite slave had gone insane, so he brought him to the Church of Saint Anastasia and chained him there along with others of similar condition. It was believed that St. Anastasia would appear in the dreams of the insane and deliver them from either their mental illness or their demonic possession. St. Anastasia appeared to Andrew, but instead of “curing” him, she supported him. Andrew spent four months chained in the Church of Saint Anastasia, and eventually he was released as incurable.
A similar tale is told about St. Nephon, in whose Life we are told that upon falling ill he also incubated in the Church of Saint Anastasia, and he was healed through the prayers of the Theotokos, who appeared in the church attended by St. Anastasia.
In the Life of Saint Basil the Younger we are told two stories. One is of a servant girl of “a certain nun from the Monastery of Mouzalon” who was possessed by an unclean spirit and brought to Basil for healing. She had run away from the Church of Saint Anastasia, and was pursued closely by “attendants of the sick” from the church. The second story is about a highly placed eunuch named John, who had lost his mind due to a spell or poison. When discussing the possibilities for his treatment, his servants conclude: “…let us take him to the revered temple of the all-praiseworthy martyr Anastasia who unbinds spells (tes ta pharmaka luouses), and she will overshadow him.” Neither patient is actually healed at the church, which is why they eventually resort to St. Basil.
A more dramatic tale is developed in the Life of Saint Irene Chrysovalantou, which further testifies to the power of St. Anastasia to unbind spells and confound sorcerers. One story details that of a possessed nun from Cappadocia, who had left her boyfriend to enter the monastic life. Upon entering the monastic life, her distressed boyfriend goes to a sorcerer who puts the young nun in a spell by which she becomes possessed and tries to leave the Monastery which was established and headed by St. Irene in Constantinople. She is brought to the Church of Saint Anastasia where an exorcism takes place and is delivered, through the aid of the Theotokos, St. Basil the Great and St. Anastasia. In the second story, a vine-dresser named Nicholas is sent for incubation in the Church of Saint Anastasia, bound with chains and fetters awaiting healing. So grievous is his demonic possession that he even attacks the priest at the end of the Divine Liturgy. In this case, St. Irene eventually drives the demon from the man.
The clear indication from all these tales is that the Church of Saint Anastasia was the place to go during Roman times in Constantinople for cases of demonic possession, mental illness, and deliverance from potions, spells, and poison. It was basically the most popular lunatic asylum of the day, along with a shrine and a hospital. Because of the success of cases involved, she became the patron deserving of the epithet “Pharmakolytria”.
by John Sanidopoulos