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Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)

Saint Agatha’s festival in Catania, Sicily. Patron Saint of Catania, her festival is one of the biggest in the world. Courtesy of Pietro Nicosia. Click to zoom in.

Italian translation

Patron Saints & Areas of Patronage

As we wrote at the end of part 1 Roman polytheism based on a “departmental idea of divinity” – ie on specific deities helping people in specific aspects of human life – seems to survive today in the veneration of saints.

Nothing provides a more vivid idea of such polytheistic survivals than the lists of patron saints and their respective areas of patronage.

Patron saints are special saints who intercede to God for us in certain life situations. They are such either by the will of the Pontiff or by tradition.

A couple of these lists (for almost-once-century-ago Spanish and Italian peasants) I had seen in Gordon J. Laing’s Survivals of Roman Religion book (1931), which is guiding us a bit in this journey.

So revealing such lists looked to me that I searched around the web for more up-to-date catalogues.

Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Today’s saints’ lists appear even richer and incredibly detailed!

(I wonder why)

San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples

Saints’ Help with Hangovers, Snakes and AIDS

Very comprehensive is the Saints.SQPN.com web site, with 7,140 saints and 3,346 areas of patronage covered (check also AmericanCatholic.org and Catholic Online.)

Here just a fraction of what you can find at SQPN.

Animals. Apart from saints protecting cities and countries [for ex. Agatha is patron saint of Catania - see the image at the posting header -; or Gennaro, of Naples, see above] there are saints protecting against dog bites (Walburga, Hubert of Liege), snakes (Paul the Apostle), bees (Ambrose of Milan, Bernard of Clairvaux); or protecting cattle (Brigid of Ireland, Nicostratus), dogs (Rocco, Vitus), poultry farmers (Brigid of Ireland), salmons (Kentigern) and even swans and whales (Hugh of Lincoln and Brendan the Navigator respectively).

Education. There are saints for teachers (Cassian of Imola, Catherine of Alexandria, Francis de Sales, Ursula, Gregory the Great) and there are saints for students (Albert the Great, Isidore of Seville, Jerome, Ursula, Thomas Aquinas).

There is even a saint for test takers (!), Joseph of Cupertino.

Health. Any health problem has its specific protectors: angina pectoris (Swithbert), arthritis (Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Colman, James the Greater, Killian, Totnan), autism (Ubaldus Baldassini), hangovers (Bibiana), headache (Acacius, Anastasius the Persian, Aurelius of Riditio, Bibiana, Hugh of Grenoble, Teresa of Avila), breast cancer (Agatha of Sicily, Aldegundis, Giles), diabetes (Paulina do Coração Agonizante de Jesus), depression (Amabilis, Bertha of Avenay, Bibiana, Dymphna, Moloc of Mortlach), epilepsy (Alban of Mainz, Balthasar, John Chrysostom, Valentine of Rome), lunacy (Alban of Mainz, Balthasar, John Chrysostom, Vitus, Willibrord of Echternach) and so on.

The flower crowned skull of St Valentine exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Click for credits and to zoom in

There are saints for AIDS care-givers (Aloysius Gonzaga) and saints for AIDS patients (Aloysius Gonzaga, Peregrine Laziosi, Therese of Lisieux).

Family. Difficult marriages are taken care of (so many protectors, I’ll just mention Catherine of Genoa, Dorothy of Montau, Edward the Confessor, Philip Howard, Thomas More, Radegunde) and so are divorced people (Fabiola, Guntramnus, Helena). We have  saints for childless couples (Anne Line, Catherine of Genoa, Henry II, Julian the Hospitaller), for unmarried men and unmarried women, plus those who protect against the death of children, the death of fathers, of mothers, of both parents; saints against spouse abuse, incest, abortion and so forth.

If This Was Polytheism, Why Was It Tolerated?

As Ernest Renan (1823 – 1892), French philosopher and writer, once observed:

A saint’s arm bone, from the Cloisters section of the MET, NYC. Photo by Lichanos. Click on the image to reach Lichanos’ writing.

Every person “who prays to a particular saint for a cure for his horse or ox or drops a coin into the box of a miraculous chapel is in that act pagan. He is responding to the prompting of a religious feeling that is older than Christianity …” [quote from Laing's book]

If this is even partly true why the leaders of Christianity, who certainly disliked polytheism, allowed such survivals of the older religions?

Polytheism (of any kind, not only ancient Roman) was probably too ingrained a religious attitude for Christianity to be able to root it out. So certain doses of syncretism (ie combinations, compromises) were the price the founders of Christianity had probably to pay in order to Christianize the unsophisticated pagi (ie rural districts of the former empire, thence the term paganus, pagan), together with the folks in the far outposts of the Roman world or right outside it.

[See a comment by Lichanos on this point. As for pagans as rural people, the word 'heathen' in English is probably a derivative of Goth haiþi 'dwelling on the heath': see the Etymology dictionary; and German Heide indicates both 'pagan' and 'heath']

“It may be that the founders of Christianity – argues Gordon J. Laing – found that the belief of the people especially the illiterate class in these specialized spirits of minor grade was one of their greatest problems. They recognized the people’s predilection for spirits that would help in specific situations, and they realized also that the masses felt more at home with beings who, while of divine nature or associations, were not too far removed from the human level.
They were keenly interested in winning the pagans to the faith and they succeeded. But undoubtedly one element in their success was the inclusion in their system of the doctrine of the veneration of Saints.”

The Holy Right, or the hand of St. Stephen. St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, Hungary. Click for attribution and for a bigger image

Veneration and Worship

Now veneration and worship are considered differently by the Church. Veneration is a lesser-degree adoration, while worship is due to God alone.

[Veneration of saints is accepted today, as far as I know, not only by the Catholic Church but also by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church and the Lutherans. Some of the saints mentioned above might belong to those churches too, hard for me to say]

Gordon J. Laing observed in 1931:

“The Church has never taught the worship of Saints [...] but whether the peasants of southern Italy and other parts of Europe distinguish with any degree of precision between veneration and worship is another question. It is not likely that they do, and for those who are looking for evidence of the continuance of the creative power of Roman religion, the beliefs of the illiterate are of as much importance as the formulated doctrines of the Church. Our subject is not survivals of paganism in the modern Church but survivals in modern times.”

Roman Pompa vs San Gennaro’s Procession

Procession of San Gennaro in Naples. Photo by Antonio Alfano

We will finish our posting with a fascinating passage by Gordon J. Laing:

“The similarity in attitude of mind of pagan and Christian devotees and the survival of the polytheistic idea in modern times may be seen in a comparison of the behavior of the people who watched the procession which preceded the circus games in ancient Rome [pompa circensis was a grand procession before the games: read a description at LacusCurtius, MoR] and that of the crowd which fills the streets of Naples today on the occasion of the festival held in May in honor of San Gennaro [Saint Januarius,] the patron saint of the city.

In the old Roman procession a conspicuous place was given to the images of the gods that were borne along in floats; and as they were carried past, pious Romans called upon the names of those whom they regarded as their special protectors.

So too at the Naples festival. In the procession referred to the images of many Saints, each of them with his own place in the affections of the Neapolitan proletariat, are carried from the Cathedral to the Church of Santa Chiara. Saints of all centuries are there, some of whom attained the dignity hundreds of years ago, while others are more recent creations. As the procession moves along, persons in the crowd call out the name of their patron Saint, and when the image of San Biagio, a sort of Christian Aesculapius with special powers in diseases of the throat, passes by, the Neapolitan mothers hold up their croupy bambini and implore a remedy.”

San Gennaro’s blood venerated by the Neapolitans

[Note. Patron saints remind also of the practice of patronage in ancient Rome (see our post on Ancient patronage and clientage,) since beyond a doubt between the believer and the saint – exactly like between patrons and clients - there is like a sort of exchange: prayers and offers in exchange of favour and protection in certain areas of life.]

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Related posts:

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (1)

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna
Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever
Ex Votos in Italian-American Devotions

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Praeneste

Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in modern Palestrina (ancient Praeneste)

Italian translation

We have been talking about survivals of the Roman religion.

Of the goddess Fortuna or goddess of Luck remain at least today 1) our recurrent personification of Fortune; 2) something of the oracular function of this deity, linked to future-telling; 3) one of her emblems, the wheel, a symbol of mutability in human life.

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1. Personification. When we use phrases like “they invoked their fortune” or “the tricks of fortune” we have here a personification of something capricious which is deeply impressed in our mind and that can be traced back to the ancient Roman goddess Fortuna.

A tetradrachm from Hardrian's (76 – 138 AD) time, with Fortuna holding rudder and cornucopia

A tetradrachm (a silver coin) from Hardrian’s (76 – 138 AD) times, with Fortuna holding rudder and cornucopia. Click for credits and for both sides of the coin

2. Future-telling. Not far from Rome, in Antium and in Praeneste, were two well-known shrines of the goddess Fortuna. The Romans went there to know about their future, among the rest. At the oracle in Praeneste connected to the impressive sanctuary (see remnants on top) of Fortuna Primigenia (the fortune of a firstborn child at the moment of birth), a small boy gave oak rods to temple-goers, called sortes (lots), with words on them that revealed their future.

Similarly, we go today to the ‘fortune teller’ to get predictions about our fortune, namely our future. If these two words, fortune and future, are synonyms in this context it is also because of the ancient oracular (future-telling) role of the Roman goddess Fortune.

Wheel of Fortune in Singapore. Fair use3. The Wheel of Fortune. I think very few spectators of the Wheel of Fortune, one of the most popular TV shows ever produced, suspect they are in front of a fossil from the ancient Romans. Fortuna was in fact often represented standing on a ball or close to a wheel indicating that our future is as uncertain as the random spinning of a wheel (or the random rolling of a sphere.) She also bore a cornucopia, which symbolized abundance, and a rudder as controller of man’s destiny (see Hardrian’s tetradrachm above.)

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Only the wheel though survived and this was probably due, among the rest, to the influence of a great book, Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, an author descendant of a noble Roman family which issued emperors and consuls.

The tomb of philosopher Severinus Boetius

The tomb of Roman philosopher Severinus Boetius (early 6th cent. AD) in the crypt of the church of San Pietro in Pavia, Italy (Wikipedia: click for source)

Cicero had already mentioned the wheel but it was Boethius’ philosophical work that made the goddess Fortune and her wheel so popular in the Middle Ages (read Boethius’ text here):

I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected … she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand … This is her sport: thus she proves her power; if in the selfsame hour one man is raised to happiness, and cast down in despair,’ tis thus she shews her might.

The Benediktbeuernm, a monastery founded in 739 AD. The Carmina Burana manuscript was there found, later set to music by Carl Orff. Written mainly in Medieval Latin; a few in Old French and Provençal; some vernacular, Latin, German & French mixed up. Click for credits and to enlarge

The Benediktbeuernm, a monastery founded in 739 AD. The Carmina Burana manuscript was there found, later set to music by Carl Orff. Written mainly in Medieval Latin; a few in Old French and Provençal; some vernacular, Latin, German & French mixed up. Click for credits and to enlarge

We’ll conclude by mentioning how in 1803 AD some mostly-in-Latin medieval poems ( 228 ) were found in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern.

This collection, written around 1230 and now known as Carmina Burana, satirized the Church and was created by university students at a time when Latin was the European lingua franca. Some poems are dedicated to Fortuna and her wheel.

In 1937 the German composer Carl Orff put into music some of these texts. The most famous composition is “O Fortuna“, incidentally, which opens and closes the work.

While listening you might want to read the Latin original, with an English translation (source.)

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O Fortuna / velut luna
(O Fortune like the moon)
statu variabilis
(you are changeable)
semper crescis / aut decrescis;
(ever waxing and waning;)

vita detestabilis / nunc obdurat
(hateful life first oppresses)
et tunc curat / ludo mentis aciem,
(and then soothes as the sharp mind takes it;)
egestatem, / potestatem
(poverty and power)
dissolvit ut glaciem.
(it melts them like ice.)

Sors immanis / et inanis,
(Fate monstrous and empty,)
rota tu volubilis, / status malus,
(you whirling wheel, you are malevolent,)
vana salus / semper dissolubilis,
(well-being is vain and always fades to nothing,)
obumbrata / et velata
(shadowed and veiled)
michi quoque niteris;
(you plague me too;)
nunc per ludum / dorsum nudum
(now through the game I bring my bare back)
fero tui sceleris.
(to your villainy.)

Sors salutis / et virtutis / michi nunc contraria,
(Fate is against me in health and virtue,)
est affectus / et defectus
(driven on and weighted down,)
semper in angaria.
(always enslaved.)
Hac in hora / sine mora
(So at this hour without delay)
corde pulsum tangite;
(pluck the vibrating strings;)
quod per sortem / sternit fortem,
(since Fate strikes down the strong man,)
mecum omnes plangite!
(everyone weep with me!)

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

An additional note on Roman Fortuna
Survivals of Roman religion

Pre-Christian Rome lives


Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

In I segreti di Roma, as we said, Corrado Augias notes that “Rome among all the greatest cities of the ancient world – Nineveh, Babylon, Alexandria, Tyre, Athens, Carthage, Antiochia – is the only one that has continued to exist without any interruption, never reduced to a semi-abandoned village…”.

This ancientness of Rome is revealed by many aspects that go back to pre-Christian (or so-called Pagan) times, in spite of the fact that the city is the centre of Catholicism.

What can happen here is that the columns of a Christian church come from a temple of Venus, or that the porch of a palace built in 1909 is sustained by a buttress from Nero’s circus (Augias).

The character of the true Romans (romani di 7 generazioni, namely seven-gererations Romans, as we say) is often crass, easy-going, cynic, wise & witty: all at the same time. Great Roman actor Aldo Fabrizi (see picture below) was a pretty good specimen. This mixture smells of centuries and of moral values going well beyond the civilization of Christ.

Aldo Fabrizi. Fair use

Roman actor Aldo Fabrizi, an icon character of the eternal city

This Christian/pre-Christian mix is palpable. Federico Fellini’s films depict it in ways grotesque though eloquent (Roma, above all, but not only).

Following is Roma’s poster and the famous Catholic Church Fashion Show movie sequence from that same movie. It may appear an excessively wild scene, but it is hard to deny how it is also much revealing.

Fellini’s Roma poster. Fair use

In his novel Rome (Augias p. 11) the French writer Emile Zola wondered if Raffaello’s ideal figures didn’t after all flash the divine and desirable flesh of Venus under the chaste veil of the Virgin; or those mighty Michelangelo’s frescos didn’t after all refer to the nature of the Olympian Gods rather than that of the Hebrews’ God.

“Was indeed Rome ever Christian – Zola asks – after the primitive age of the catacombs?”.

Also the pre-Christian role of government of peoples still survives. Imperial Rome is resurrected into Catholic Rome, governess not of the nations any more but of the minds and spirits of men.

Madonna and child by Raphael, Italian High renaissance. Public domain

Madonna and child by Raphael, Italian High renaissance

Italian version
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