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A look at the ancient practice that turned friends into family


A friend can sometimes feel more like family than an actual sibling. As part of NPR's series on the Science of Siblings, reporters Rhaina Cohen and Pien Huang look at an ancient practice that turned friends into family.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: It's been decades since Susan Harvey and Robin Darling Young took a trip to Turkey, Syria and Jerusalem, but there are some parts of the journey that they just can't forget.

ROBIN DARLING YOUNG: We realized we didn't know how to get to the place we were going to. So - and, Susan, you have to admit this is true - we hitchhiked.


HUANG: So this was in 1985, and the two researchers didn't know each other that well. Sure, they both studied Orthodox Christianity in ancient Syria. Both of them were women in their mid-30s at the time in a male-dominated field. But they'd really only cross paths at conferences.

RHAINA COHEN, BYLINE: So when they decided to take a three-week trip together to see with their own eyes the places they'd only read about on a page, it was a leap of faith.

SUSAN HARVEY: It was kind of risky to do this kind of trip together because there was no escape.

COHEN: Not even at the end of the day. They shared simple pilgrims quarters and monasteries where monks would sing hymns at night.

HUANG: And that intense experience of travel and research - it both tested them and bonded them. In just a few weeks, they had become such close friends that even someone who was meeting them for the first time noticed.

COHEN: That person was the Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. He welcomed Susan and Robin as pilgrims and guests, and he gave them a personal tour of the city's Syrian churches. Then they came to the place Christians consider the holiest of all, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Archbishop asked them a question.

DARLING YOUNG: Would you like to come to the liturgy, after which we will perform an ancient ritual?

HARVEY: And this was a ritual to bless our friendship. He said we had a friendship that was based on something much deeper than blood, something bigger and deeper, greater than ourselves.

HUANG: Up until then, Susan and Robin had been chasing history, and now they had a chance to live it. The Archbishop would use an ancient ceremony to turn these friends into sisters. This practice has its own Greek name.

CLAUDIA RAPP: Adelphopoiesis.

COHEN: Adelphopoiesis - wow. Say it again.

RAPP: Brother-making.

COHEN: Brother-making.

RAPP: Adelphopoiesis.

COHEN: Thank you.

Claudia Rapp wrote a whole book on adelphopoiesis. She's a professor of Byzantine studies at the University of Vienna. And she's found that in the Byzantine Empire, brother-making started between monks at least as far back as the fourth century.

RAPP: The earliest inklings we find are for these kinds of prayers to be performed between two people who are on the same spiritual journey.

COHEN: They'd be expected to pray for each other and would sometimes be buried in the same tomb.

RAPP: They would then be considering themselves as brothers but in a bond that is created through the Holy Spirit so that it is actually considered to be stronger than the bond of blood.

COHEN: Rapp says the ritual eventually spread, and it could serve different purposes.

RAPP: Laypeople who adopt the practice for themselves in order to either cement friendships or to neutralize enemies.

COHEN: It was also done in other places in the Balkans. Muslims and Christians would swear brotherhood so they wouldn't have to fight each other in religious conflicts.

HUANG: Yeah, and in China, sworn siblinghood shows up in stories and records that date all the way back to 350 BCE. The practice there was steeped in Confucian philosophy, and it highlighted loyalty between friends. Wendy Chen is a professor at Texas Tech University, and she studied the practice in ancient China. She says that sworn brotherhood got popular when society was violent and messy.

WENDY CHEN: Sworn siblinghood often took place towards the end of each dynasty. People had to rely on each other to achieve their goals and sometimes even for survival.

COHEN: Robin Darling Young and Susan Harvey relied on each other during their trip in 1985. They think the archbishop noticed this, and that's why he led them away from the crowd in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and into an alcove.

HARVEY: It's carved straight into the living rock, just slabs of stone.

DARLING YOUNG: And inside the alcove was the tomb reputed to be the tomb of Jesus.

HUANG: The space was lit with candles, and it smelled of incense. The archbishop wore full embroidered vestments and a long, satiny stole that he draped around his neck. And then, Robin says...

DARLING YOUNG: He took our two hands, two right hands, and put them together. And then he wrapped the stole around our hands...

HARVEY: That's right.

DARLING YOUNG: ...For the blessing.

COHEN: The archbishop said prayers over them.

DARLING YOUNG: At this point, of course, it's so serious and awe-inspiring, I'm blanking out (laughter). And...

HARVEY: Yeah, I don't think we actually knew quite what was going on. I mean, it was...


HARVEY: ...All being done in Syriac, which is another language.

DARLING YOUNG: And all I remember is Barekmor, you know...

HARVEY: Right.

DARLING YOUNG: ...Which means bless, Lord.

HARVEY: Bless me.

COHEN: Barekmor. Bless me, oh, Lord, they repeated.

DARLING YOUNG: And he announced to us that we were now sisters forever.

HARVEY: And so it was.

HUANG: Robin says that the ceremony was hard to process in the moment, but it clearly marked a shift in their friendship.

DARLING YOUNG: It had the effect of gathering together the other experiences that we'd had prior to it...


DARLING YOUNG: ...And kind of sealing and condensing them, if you like.

HARVEY: It's like a little treasure we carry around in our pockets. And, you know, we do. We look at each other, and we'll say, beloved sister, you know (laughter).

HUANG: Susan and Robin see value in restoring this lost art of brother-making or sister-making.

HARVEY: I was thinking about what relationships have ceremonies. In my case, our daughter is adopted, so I remember our adoption ceremony like I remember my wedding.

COHEN: But today, there aren't really rituals to honor friendship.

DARLING YOUNG: The thing about a ceremony like this is it works.

HARVEY: It almost forces you to value this relationship, saying this is something truly special, and you need to honor it as such. And that, I think, is a real gift.

COHEN: Robin points out that the scripts do exist in religious texts. If anyone wants to dust them off and celebrate their friendships, they could. This is Rhaina Cohen.

HUANG: And Pien Huang for NPR News.


MARTÍNEZ: Tune in tomorrow, which is National Siblings Day, for the next installment in our series on the Science of Siblings. So, Leila, I feel like you would be the type of person with an official - unofficial sibling, someone you would make a sworn sibling.


Yeah, I mean, I've got my bio siblings, four of them. Love them. But I've got a few friends that are my family, like my best friend - met her as an intern, covered the Middle East together, helped each other through heartbreak, the traumas of covering war and adulting. She's my person. Hey, Anna (ph). A, you've got to get yourself a chosen sibling. It's - it helps life.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Leila, you know me. My friend circle is very tight. It's just me.

FADEL: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.

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