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Princeton Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian Miracles of Mary (PEMM) project

Focus on a Miracle of Mary Story: Part 1: The Cannibal of Qemer

By Wendy Laura Belcher

January 1, 2020

Perhaps the most famous Miracle of Mary story in Ethiopia is the story of the Cannibal of Qemer, a man who eats seventy-eight people, including his own wife and children. The story is analyzed and translated here.

This story is very old, dating back to at least the 1300s. It is not clear whether it was composed in Ethiopia or elsewhere. Some of the language is unusual, not traceable to Ge'ez or Arabic. The scholar of Gəˁəz literature, Getatchew Haile, suggests that the tale was created by the clergy at the court, as it so clearly favors wealthy powerful men (Getatchew Haile and Zärˀa Yaˁəqob 3).  

Belcher published the first research article devoted to this story, “Mary Saves the Man-Eater: Value in the Medieval Ethiopian Marian Miracle Tale of the Cannibal of Qəmər,” Global Medievalism issue, Digital Philology. Spring 2019.

She and Michael Kleiner also published a translation of the story, in that same issue (see below).

Meanwhile, Jeremy Brown, Stephen Delamarter, and Wendy Laura Belcher are working on A Textual History of the Ethiopic Story of “The Cannibal of Qəmər” in the Täˀammərä Maryam (Miracles of the Virgin Mary), which will have translations of four scientifically established recensions.

You may also consult the Spanish translation and the French translation.

English translation of Cannibal of Qemer story

Translation by Michael Kleiner and Wendy Laura Belcher

From “Appendix: The Cannibal of Qəmər,” Digital Philology 8.1 (Spring): 138–144.

In the town of Qəmər, there was a man from an illustrious family, who was, in name, Christian. His sins were greater, however, than the sins of all [other] people: he ate neither bread nor beef, but humans. The number of people he had eaten totaled seventy-eight. [Thus] did his friends and companions come to an end and die, as well as his head servants. But some of his servants fled so that he wouldn’t eat them. The man-eater was left behind alone with his wife and his two children, but then he ate them too. Now this madman was left all alone.

At that point, the man-eater left his home, taking along nothing from all his riches except for a leather bottle, from which he could drink water, and his gold-embellished bow. While the man-eater was walking along, he came across a plowman plowing [his fields]. The man-eater decided to lie in ambush, tracking him in order to kill him. But when he realized that the plowman was stronger than he was, he decided to leave him alone and came out [of his hiding place].

Now the man-eater greeted the plowman, and then greeted him again, saying, “Peace to you, sir.”

But the plowman did not reply to him.

So the man-eater added, “Sell me your ox.”

The plowman asked, “What will you give me [in exchange]?”

The man-eater responded, “Please, take my gold-embellished bow.”

The plowman replied, “I prefer bread to anything else: I reject your offer.”

So the man-eater said, “I will add two arrows, as an incentive.”

But the plowman [still] replied, “I will not give the ox to you.”

[Acquiescing,] the man-eater said to him, “Please show me a cave where I can spend the night.”

The [puzzled] plowman said to him, “Why don’t you spend the night in a house? After all, they are close by.”

The man-eater replied, “I will not spend the night in a house. Just show me a cave.”

The plowman said to him, “I will show you [a cave] because you come across as well-born and from an illustrious family. However, [I can see that] your heart is wicked and treacherous; you act like a certain rich man who lives in the city of Qəmər.”

The man-eater replied, “My friend, why do you compare me to him?”

The plowman then pointed out a cave to him, and the man-eater went toward it, taking with him the water in [his] leather bottle.

While he was walking [toward the cave], the man-eater came across a man whose whole body was [covered with] sores and scabs. The man-eater knew that the beggar was powerless before him and wanted to eat him, but found him too revolting [to eat] due to his lesions.

The beggar pleaded, “Give me some water to drink, for the sake of God[’s favor]!”19 But the man-eater reacted arrogantly and indignantly[, refusing].

So the sick beggar pleaded, “For the sake of heaven and earth, give me something to drink!”

And once again, the beggar pleaded, “For the sake of the righteous and the martyrs!”

[Both times] the man-eater reacted arrogantly and indignantly[, refusing].

Then the beggar beseeched three times, “For the sake of Mary’s favor, give me something to drink, lest I die!”

Now the man-eater said, “Please repeat your words.”

So the beggar replied, “All right, I will say it [again], ‘Give me something to drink, for the sake of Mary’s favor!’”

Now the man-eater said [to himself], “Yes, even I have heard since  childhood that Mary is good, saving [people] with her prayers and delivering [them] from hell. So, as of now, I place myself under her protection too.”

Therefore the man-eater said to the beggar, “Take and drink, for the sake of Mary’s favor.”

Only a little [water] entered the beggar’s mouth, yet it burned his [thirst-damaged] throat. So the man-eater refused to give him more, saying, “Don’t finish it off to my detriment!”

Then the beggar went on his way.

After that, the man-eater [left and] entered the cave, saying [to himself], “I would rather die than eat bread!” And so he died of hunger and thirst.

The angels of darkness then swept in, spreading fear and terror in their wake. They surrounded the man-eater and, toiling hard, forced his soul to leave his body.

But then our holy Lady Mary came, the bearer of the Lord, to find out whether the man-eater had [ever] done any good deed.

The angels [of darkness] scoffed, saying to our Lady, the holy virgin Mary, the bearer of the Lord, “Is there anything on earth worse than this man’s sin?”

But our holy Lady, the two-fold virgin Mary, the bearer of the Lord, saw a handful of water beside the man-eater, that water he had given to the beggar to drink as an act of charity for the sake of her favor, and immediately she was delighted.

My brothers, understand [this]: to every Christian soul that passes away, our holy Lady, the two-fold virgin Mary, bearer of the Lord, comes!

So, in fear and trembling, the angels [of darkness] brought the maneater’s soul before the most-high God.

And the pronouncement came, “Go, take this soul into hell, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

However, our holy Lady, the two-fold virgin Mary, bearer of the Lord, prostrated herself [before the Lord], saying these words, “For my sake, have mercy on him, my child!”

The Lord replied, “What did he do for your sake? For what act should I show him mercy? Did he not eat seventy-seven [sic] human beings?”

Our holy Lady, the two-fold virgin Mary, bearer of the Lord, replied, “As a charitable act, he gave [someone water] to drink for the sake of my favor. [Remember,] you pledged to me, ‘Whoever does [something] in commemoration of you and calls out your name shall be saved.’”

The Lord replied, “I will not break my word. Bring the scales and weigh his act.”

And when they weighed it, the handful of water prevailed over the [murder of] seventy-eight human beings.

The angels of light then exulted, and that soul received [eternal] life through the prayers of our holy Lady, the two-fold virgin Mary, the bearer of the Lord.

My brothers, due to such a [little] thing the man-eater was saved. Because of [just] a handful of water! How, then, will everyone who holds Mary’s commemoration, builds a church dedicated to her, or trusts in her prayer not also find sure salvation?

English Translation of Hymn Poem

Your love[, Mary,] saved the sinful man-eater,
together with the handful of water
that lay at the beggar’s side.
Futile, futile [is everything] under the sky!
What benefits the Children of Eve
except for your love, Mary the pearl!

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