The Patron Saint of — Pants?

It’s time to resurrect the cult of St. Pantaleon, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

13th-century icon of St. Pantaleon at St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai
13th-century icon of St. Pantaleon at St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

One week ago Saturday the Church honored, among a number of other obscure saints, St. Pantaleon, a victim of Diocletian’s persecution who was martyred c. A.D. 305. Since St. Pantaleon’s cult, although greatly practiced in previous ages, has become a thing of the past, and since Saturday Masses are in any case frequently celebrated as votives to Our Lady, I would never have known his feast had passed but for an obscure etymological coincidence—and thereby hangs a tale.

The English language contains a great many words with the pan- root (panoply, pandemic, pandemonium, panacea …).  Derived from the Greek word for “all” (which is quite unrelated to a different old Greek word which degenerated into “pan” or “pot”), these pan- words are sprinkled in fields and subjects ranging from medicine to mythology (pancreas, pantheon, panopticon …).  The other night, in the midst of a poetic riff on pan- words (panegyric, panic, panorama …) I concluded anticlimactically with the word “pants.”  But does “pants” share the Greek root pan-, or is it derived from a completely different Indo-European source?

As it happens, “pants” is short for “pantaloons,” which originally described long, thin trousers, specifically, the trousers worn by a certain character in Italian commedia dell-arte (an art form which is the ancestor of English pantomime). The trouser-wearing character, a foolish old man, in fact gave his name, “Pantalone,” to his trousers; and the character himself was named after St. Pantaleon, to whom the Italians had at one time considerable devotion.

But who was this St. Pantaleon?

Born around A.D. 275, Pantaleon was raised a Christian but fell away after the death of his mother, who had instructed him.  He became a doctor, and eventually physician to Emperor Galerius (co-emperor along with Diocletian and Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine the Great). Reconverted by Saint Hermolaus, Pantaleon converted his father as well, freed his slaves, and distributed his wealth among the poor.  Such activities inevitably resulted in denouncement to the emperor; and following the equally inevitable failed attempt to convince Pantaleon to apostatize, the emperor condemned him to death.

After a variety of grisly but ineffective attempts were made to execute Pantaleon, he consented to dying, enabling his own beheading — but not before he begged forgiveness for his persecutors.  This final act, according to his legend, sealed his name: “Panteleimon,” meaning “all-compassionate.”

Thus it happens that our American word for “trousers,” i.e. pants (which means something else in English speaking countries across the water), in fact can be construed to mean “mercy for everyone,” or, since it has been shortened down almost to its ubiquitous root, possibly just “for everyone.” Food for thought the next time you find yourself engaged in an internet debate over the perennial Christian-women-in-pants question.

In all seriousness, however, though St. Pantaleon’s martyrology is of questionable historicity, his martyrdom seems to be a fact.  His veneration began early, and continued long in both the East and the West, where he was numbered among the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Originally a Germanic devotion which arose in response to the Black Death, the veneration of these fourteen mostly-martyr saints eventually spread across Europe. Perhaps the best-known today are St. Blaise (invoked against diseases of the throat), St. Christopher (patron of travelers and those in danger of the plague), and St. George (patron of soldiers and farmers).

Perhaps it’s time to resurrect St. Pantaleon too (or at any rate, his cult) and invoke him in the range of needs for which he was originally asked to provide: for physicians, midwives, and livestock, and against headaches, consumption, locusts, witchcraft, accidents and loneliness.  He is also sometimes listed as the “helper for crying children,” and if that’s not a ringing endorsement for devotion to a saint, I can’t imagine what would be!

As a final note, I can’t help thinking that St. Pantaleon’s story, that of a young man who left his mother’s faith, only to find it again as an adult (and one highly successful in the secular world) has particular resonance today.  As the world seems to grow increasingly hostile to Christianity—not just overtly, but still more insidiously through the cultural decline which makes worldly success too often appear to be the be-all and end-all of life—we all know someone who could use the prayers of a saint who, if the legend tells true, knows what it is to doubt, to fall away, and to come home again.

St. Pantaleon, pray for us!