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Saint Pelagia is an Antiochene saint, a virgin of fifteen years, who chose death by a leap from the housetop rather than dishonour. She is mentioned by Ambrose (De virg. iii. 7, 33; Ep. xxxvii. ad Simplic.), and is the subject of two sermons by Chrysostom. Her festival was celebrated on 8 October (Wrights Syriac Martyrology).
The legend of the Saint Pelagia (sometimes called Margarito) who was a courtesan is famous. She was a celebrated dancer and courtesan, who, in the full flower of her beauty and guilty sovereignty over the youth of Antioch, was suddenly converted by the influence of the holy bishop Saint Nonnus, whom she had heard preaching in front of a church which she was passing with her attendants and admirers. Seeking out Nonnus, she overcame his canonical scruples by her tears of genuine penitence, was baptized, and, disguising herself in the garb of a male penitent, retired to a grotto on the Mount of Olives, where she died after three years of strict penance. This story seems to combine with the name of the older Pelagia some traits from an actual history referred to by Chrysostom (Horn. in Matth. lxvii. 3).
In associating St Pelagia with Saint Marina, St Margaret and others, of whom either the name or the legend recalls Pelagia, Hermann Usener has endeavoured to show by a series of subtle deductions that this saint is only a Christian travesty of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. But there is no doubt of the existence of the first Pelagia of Antioch, the Pelagia of Ambrose and Chrysostom. The legends which have subsequently become connected with her name are the result of a very common development in literary history.
Sources and references
- Acta sanctorum, October, iv. 248 seq.
- Hermann Usener, Legenden der heiligen Pelagia (Bonn, 1879)
- Hippolyte Delehaye, The Legends of the Saints (London, 1907), pp. 197-205
- "Pelagia". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Pelagia.