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

The African Library of Stories about the Virgin Mary

By Wendy Laura Belcher, Jeremy R. Brown, Mehari Worku, Dawit Muluneh, and Evgeniia Lambrinaki

October 6, 2023

What is the Täʾammərä Maryam (Miracles of Mary) that serves as the base of the PEMM project?

The Virgin Mary has long been revered in Africa, starting in Egypt in the second century and spreading south through Nubian kingdoms to the Aksumite empire in highland Ethiopia by the sixth century.

Many believers in her composed stories about miracles she performed for the faithful and many others created illuminated parchment manuscripts that recorded and depicted these stories. As a result, hundreds of these stories have been preserved in Arabic and Gəʿəz (classical Ethiopic). 

These stories appear in a text called መጽሐፈ፡ ተአምሪሃ፡ ለእግዝእትነ፡ ቅድስት፡ ድንግል፡ በክልኤ፡ ማርያም (Mäṣḥafä Täʾamməriha lä-Ǝgzəʾtənä Qəddəst Dəngəl bä-kəlʾe Maryam, The Book of the Miracles of Our Lady, the Holy Two-Fold Virgin, Mary), which many shorten as Täʾammərä Maryam (The Miracles of Mary). Due to its popularity, the Täʾammərä Maryam is one of the most frequently copied works in the Ethiopian Christian tradition, with tens of thousands of copies in use at any given time. They are also perhaps the most illustrated manuscripts in the highland Ethiopian tradition.

Although often called a book or a text, Täʾammərä Maryam is best understood as a library, one that holds hundreds of stories and thousands of manuscripts. That is, no Täʾammərä Maryam contains all the stories, and few have the same stories in the same order. Some Täʾammərä Maryam manuscripts have just 3 stories, while others have over 390. Two manuscripts with the same number of stories may have different stories, or the same stories in a slightly different order.

Although it is often said that the Täʾammərä Maryam is just a translation of French stories, PEMM has conclusively demonstrated that is not the case. Out of 1,000+ stories, only 64 were composed in Europe, and only 7 of those in France. Over 800 were composed on the African continent. Further, the European stories came in very early, in 1400. Less than five came in over the succeeding seven centuries. In total, the European-origin stories make up less than 10 percent of all Täʾammərä Maryam stories and Egyptian ones less than 15 percent.

Lady Mary first became known in Ethiopia during the Aksumite period and the genre of Marian miracles not long after. Early apocryphal literature about her, such as a fourth-century Egyptian composition about Mary’s final days, was translated into Gəʿəz during the Aksumite period. Indeed, the Täʾammərä Maryam contains many pre-medieval Marian miracle stories, including over 90 stories composed in the ancient Christian world (which included Egypt).

A surge of interest in such stories began in the 1300s. In the mid- to late 1300s, a small collection of eight Marian miracle stories arrived in highland Ethiopia from Egypt and was translated from Arabic into Gəʿəz. Then, King Dawit II (r. ca. 1380‒1413) commissioned a gorgeous Täʾammərä Maryam manuscript, with twelve gold-embellished portraits of Mary. It contained 75 stories and was completed in December 1400. To see some of these, consult its PEMM Paintings by Manuscript page.

Although some have argued that this manuscript, known as EMML 9002, was the first Täʾammərä Maryam, PEMM has conclusively demonstrated that is not the case. Rather, a Gayant manuscript and a manuscript currently in Berlin were first.

At least fifty-eight of the EMML 9002 stories were themselves translations, translated from Latin into Arabic sometime between 1244 and 1289. Of the remaining seventeen stories, at least three were composed in Africa; the rest are of unknown origin, but some of them must have been composed in Egypt, Ethiopia, and perhaps even Christian Nubia.

As part of the general flourishing of Ethiopian literature beginning in the 1300s,  the highland Ethiopian tradition of the Täʾammərä Maryam grew and grew. Within 150 years, the original 75 had expanded to over 350, all originating in Ethiopia or Egypt. 

Kings Zärʾa Yaʿəqob (r. 1434–68), Naʿod (r. 1494–1508), and Ləbnä Dəngəl (r. 1508‒40) spurred this growth. After their reigns the Täʾammərä Maryam tradition grew exponentially, with more highland Ethiopian stories being added every century, all the way into the twenty-first. The whole Marian miracle tradition, including miracles performed by Mary as described in Ethiopian saints’ hagiographies and oral folklore, probably includes thousands of stories.

pricenton ethiopian eritrean & egyptian miracles of marry project

The Princeton Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian Miracles of Mary (PEMM) project is a comprehensive resource for the 1,000+ miracle stories written about and the 2,500+ images painted of the Virgin Mary in these African countries, and preserved in Geʿez between 1300 and the present.

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