The differences between Menologion, Menaion, and Synaxarion

There are various medieval lives of St Nicholas of Myra.  The Greek texts were collected by G. Anrich in Hagios Nikolaos, which is still useful today.  One of the sections of this book (section VIII) is devoted to “Synaxarientexte” – texts from various types of synaxarion.  I placed online a translation of this material a few days ago.

But I found myself in difficulty.  Like most people, the word “synaxarion” does not mean anything to me.  I also ran across terms for similar-sounding material, all equally baffling – “menologion”, and “menaion”.  This was rather confusing.  In fact there is a short article on these three terms in the Analecta Bollandiana, by Jacques Noret, although I have no access to it (if you do, I’d be glad of a copy),[1] in which he frankly admits that the Byzantines themselves used the words interchangeably!

What I am interested in are the Lives (=Vitae) of the Saints, and specifically those of St Nicholas of Myra.

Fortunately I have access to the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, which gives a definition for all three terms.  Here is the opening for one, which gives a fairly clear distinction:

Menologion (μηνολόγιον, from μήν, “month”, and λόγος, “catalog”), a collection of VITAE arranged according to the date of each saint’s celebration in the church calendar. Although the terminology is by no means consistent in the sources (J. Noret, AB 86 1968) 21-23), a menologion should be distinguished both from a synaxarion, a collection of simple notices or very short biographies of the saints, and a menaion, which contains liturgical poems and prayers for the saint’s annual celebration. In addition to the vitae, many of considerable length, the menologion often contains a few homilies as well, to be read at the same commemorative service. A. Ehrhard (infra, 1:21) claims that the mention by Theodore of Stoudios of a collection of martyria in 12 deltoi (PG 99:912B) is the first real evidence for a menologion, though it is unclear whether the texts were arranged in any chronological sequence. The earliest surviving menologia manuscripts date from the 9th C. Though various equivalent projects may have been afoot in both the 10th and 11th C. (N.P. Sevcenko, infra 3, 216. 11.16), the late 10th C. collection of nearly 150 texts in ten volumes compiled by Symeon Metaphrastes was to become the standard edition of the menologion; its regular use in monasteries (the texts were read aloud at Orthros) is attested by the 12th C. …

That’s quite clear.  But does it survive contact with the definitions for the other two?

Menaion (μηναῖον, from μήν, “month”), a set of 12 liturgical books, one for each month, containing the variable hymns and other texts (lections, synaxarion notices, kanones) proper to vespers and orthros of each feast of the fixed cycle, that is, those feasts that fall on a fixed date in the church calendar. Although the cycle of feasts itself had been established since the 10th C., …, the first systematic menaia with hymnography for each day of the year appear only in MSS of the 11th-12th C. ..

That’s OK.  Finally:

Synaxarion (συναχάριον), a church calendar of fixed feasts with the appropriate lections indicated for each one, but no further text. The synaxarion is often appended to a Praxapostolos or Evangelion. It is rarely illustrated, but one MS., Vat. gr. 1156 of the 11th C, has an image of a saint for each day from Sept. through Jan. as well as scattered ones thereafter (Lazarev, Storia, fig.205). There also exist “calendar” icons, with portraits of saints and feasts for each day of the year (Soteriou, Eikones, figs. 126-35), that must be based on this type of synaxarion.

The term synaxarion is also used in Byz. Greek for a specific collection of brief notices, mostly hagiographical: the Synaxarion of Constantinople. The Synaxarion of Constantinople was probably formed in the 10th C. (the earliest MSS already include notices on Joseph the Hymnographer and on Patr. Anthony II Kauleas (895-901), and there are Arabic, Georgian, Syriac, and Ethiopic versions. These daily commemorations, which average only about a paragraph in length, stress the martyrdom of the saints and inform us where in the city the commemoration took place. The Menologion of Basil II is, despite its name, an illustrated version of this type of text, as are those icons and frescoes that have images of the martyrdoms of the saints, rather than just their portraits (see Hagiographical Illustration). Some of the frescoes use verses from the metrical calendar of Christopher of Mytilene as captions; these verses had been incorporated into certain recensions of the Synaxarion of Constantinople from the 12th C.

These texts were incorporated into the menaion and the triodion and usually read after the sixth ode of the kanon at orthros. They are not to be confused with the much longer notices, similarly ordered, found in a menologion. …

So there we have it.

  • Synaxarion = a calendar of saints’ feast days, in calendar order, with the bible readings for the day.  The Synaxarion of Constantinople is a collection of one-paragraph saints’ lives in the same order.
  •  Menologion = a collection of long saints’ lives in the same order.
  •  Menaion = a 12-book collection, one per month, of the bible readings, hymns, synaxarion entries, etc, for the feast day of each saint, in calendar order.

Nice to have that clear!

So the St Nicholas stuff in Anrich section VIII is from the synaxarion, and its brevity makes that plain.  The long life of St Nicholas by Symeon Metaphrastes is from the Menologion compiled by Metaphrastes.

All this stuff is unfamiliar to me, but if we must work with hagiographical texts, at least we can get clear on this bit.

  1. [1]Jacques Noret, “Ménologes, synaxaires, ménées. Essai de clarification d’une terminologie”, Analecta Bollandiana 86 (1968) p.21-24.  Brepols Online has first page here.

3 thoughts on “The differences between Menologion, Menaion, and Synaxarion

  1. Mind a couple of typos!
    In fact the ODB seems to merge 2 different things: 1. Synaxarion only has short mentions of the saints for each day, whereas 2. Calendars appended to lectionaries have just the indication of the biblical readings (usually of one saint) and where to look for them within the same ms.
    Later, you may have a mix of both as Calendars-Synaxaria (i.e. short mention + reference to readings, usually for the “first” saint of the day).
    Missing is the mention of the Typikon, that systematically supplies both the readings (or the mention thereof) + some hymnography (troparion, Psalm verses, etc.) + (for important days) the stational system, in the calendar order. This system is essentially the same that was implemented in Jerusalem already at the beginning of the 5th cent. (Armenian Lectionary).

  2. I’m Eastern Orthodox. We throw around these terms all the time, every Sunday, heck, every day of the week. I didn’t have a clue what they meant. Thanks for the clarifications!

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