October 15, 2007


Biography or hagiography?

hagiographym nounm [hag-i-og'-ru-fi]

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary recounts two meanings of hagiography, one religious, the other secular:
hagiography • noun

1. the writing of the lives of saints.

2. a biography idealizing its subject

Adjectival forms:
  • hagiographic [hag-e-o-gra'-fic]
  • hagiographical [hag-e-o'-gra'-fi-cal]

The combining forms hagi- and hagio- derive from the Greek hagi, which means saint.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the earliest citation of hagiography at 1821 and defines the term as
The writing of the lives of saints; saints' lives as a branch of literature or legend.—OED, 2nd. Ed 1989


From the New York Times, Week in Review, The Nation, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2007, 2.
Mr. Kennedy's style was witty, and critics note that Mr. Schlesinger tended to render his administration in hagiographic terms.
—Michael Powell, "Managing Up, Down, and Sideways."


Arthur M. Schlesinger's critics
use the word hagiography pejoratively, of course, criticizing Schlesinger
for ignoring in A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965) the strict factualism of biography and presenting, instead, an idealized image Mr. Kennedy, his colleague and friend.

The book earned Schlesinger the Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 1966.



Although hagiography was born of the literature of Christianity, the word is used in other religious traditions as well, including Buddhism and Islam.

Following is a story from the BBC about the dramatic change in the market for
Baathist hagiographies on the streets of Baghdad following the fall of the Hussein regime:

In Pictures: Baghdad book market

Mutanabbi Street
One of Baghdad's great traditions is the Friday book market in Mutanabbi Street.

Thousands come to browse for books, from well-thumbed paperback novels to imported academic textbooks.

Things have changed since the fall of Saddam Hussein – gone are Baathist hagiographies and the bestsellers are books about Shia Muslim figures.


The Encyclopedia Britannica provides a refined definition of the traditional hagiography and a detailed job description of the religious hagiographer:
The literature of hagiography embraces acts of the martyrs (i.e., accounts of their trials and deaths); biographies of saintly monks, bishops, princes, or virgins; and accounts of miracles connected with saints' tombs, relics, icons, or statues. Hagiographies have been written from the 2nd century AD to instruct and edify readers and glorify the saints.

The hagiographer has a threefold task: to collect all the material relevant to each particular saint, to edit the documents according to the best methods of textual criticism, and to interpret the evidence by using literary, historical, and any other pertinent criteria.
— Encyclop√¶dia Britannica Online. 13 Oct. 2007.

  • Picture of a saint or holy person — icon
  • Roman Catholic Official arguing the case against sainting a deceased person — Devil's Advocate, Promoter of the Faith, Promotor Fidei
  • Roman Catholic Official arguing the case for sainting a deceased person — Postulator
  • A revered object associated with a saint or martyr — relic
  • The ring of light around a saint's head in a painting — halo, mandorla, aureole
  • To declare a person to be a saint — canonize
  • The list or calendar of the saints that are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church — canon
Source: Walter D.Glanze. The Reader's Digest Illustrated Reverse Dictionary. New York: Reader's Digest. 1990, 468.



memorable images and succinct narratives of sinnerssouls that this posting has shamelessly neglected read (or reread) The Inferno by Dante Alighieri (1308-21).



The final words of Niccolo Machiavelli — the Carl Rove of 15th century Florentine politics — might help the reader to discern just what kind of life is worth living — one that could be rewarded with one's life story canonized in a respected hagiography, or one notarized by your name being marked in block letters with a Sharpie pen by that-guy-you-don't-get-long-with-at-work on the appropriate page of your local library's copy Dante's Inferno. It's up to you.

Said Niccolo,

I desire to go to hell and not to heaven. In the former I shall enjoy the company of popes, kings and princes, while in the latter are only beggars, monks and apostles.
—From Last Words: Final Thoughts of Catholic Saints & Sinners by Paul Thigpen — Catholic ONLINE



1 comment:

  1. Just checking your blog site and found "stultiloquence" (sp?). I have been trying to convey this concept to a close friend for some time to no avail. Perhaps these definitions will help with some balance when he monologues (is that a verb?)
    Missed you this month and notice no new postings for some time. Hope you are OK.
    Cindy Shaw