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Posts Tagged ‘antiquity’

This post is about penance. Well, sort of, though that would imply that this is somehow punishment rather than something awesome. Last week at the local pub quiz, there was FINALLY a question about a saint–who is the patron saint of firefighters and chimney sweeps? Well, dear reader, I had absolutely no idea. Naturally this led to a bit of existential crisis (if I can’t even get a pub quiz question about a saint right WHAT AM I DOING?), but I got over it and looked up good old Saint Florian.

Unfortunately, it’s also appropriate because Los Angeles is on fire (again) right now*, and we could probably use all the help we can get.

Florian von Lorch lived around 300 CE, and all it seems like we really know about him is that he was fairly high-ranking in the Roman Army stationed in Noricum, which is now more or less where Austria is. I did find a source that went on and on about how he was part of the valiant firefighting unit in Noricum, but nothing else I can find backs that up much, though it’s some interesting stuff about how firefighting worked in Rome, which is that people had to pay firefighters to put out fires, and it turns out you can get a LOT of money out of people whose houses are burning down. It’s a libertarian’s wet hot dream.

Firefighter or no, Florian lived during the big Diocletianic Persecution, along with some other obscure saints, and was thus (wait for it) persecuted for being a Christian. What followed was pretty standard: first they were just going to set him on fire and be done with it, but he got excited about that idea (telling them he’d fly to heaven on the smoke), so they opted for the more labor-intensive flogging and spiking and ripping out his shoulder blades with hooks instead. Finally they tied a heavy stone around his neck and threw him into the river Enns.

Miraculously in one piece, his body floated up onto a rock downstream, and an eagle watched over it until a peasant woman named Valeria could have a vision and come get the body. Afraid of being persecuted herself, she covered it with twigs, leaves and braches and pretended that she was building a fence for her garden. While taking him to where her vision said he should be buried, her animals tired so God made them a spring, and they carried on. Finally he was buried where he’d asked, though he was moved into the abbey at the town nearby, and later still they sent some of his relics to Poland, because when it’s the middle ages and you want a king to be your friend, you send him some bits of your dead saint.

A whole bunch of healing miracles are attributed to him (including one case of crushed genitals), but the thing he’s known for isn’t really clear. He’s supposed to have extinguished an entire burning village by pouring a single pitcher of water on it, but I can’t find whether that happened before or after he died. How about I just go with my gut instinct, which is, “Story invented a few hundred years later and posthumously ascribed to the living Florian.” There, done. In fact that sentence will do anyone lots of good in the area of Obscure Saint Studies.

Florian is the saint of firefighters, chimney sweepers, Poland, and beer brewers, so you should buy a Polish firefighter a drink on May 4 and then use him to sweep the chimney.

Translations!

*Thanks for asking, but no, the Illegiterati are not in any danger. Lots of other people are, though.

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I owe this episode of Obscure Saint Blogging to Twelve Byzantine Rulers, a podcast I’ve been listening to on my runs lately and enjoying the crap out of. As a half-assed classicist, my understanding of Roman history goes something like: lots of detail, names and dates up through about 69 CE; something about Trajan and Hadrian; organized Christian persecutions; Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, Diocletian splits the empire into four; Constantine loves Jesus and moves the capital to Constantinople; lots of stuff; Rome gets sacked in 410CE and then it happens about every ten years until the last Western emperor just gives up in 476CE; more stuff, Constantinople falls in 1453CE. Nuanced, yes? Suffice it to say, there are some gaps in my knowledge.

Irene of Athens, born in 752CE, was the only woman emperor the Byzantine Empire had. She was chosen for the future emperor Leo IV, possibly in a bride show as apparently she was a total hottie, and had a son, Constantine VI.

Irene’s story is partly the story of the iconoclastic movement, which is a big hairy, complicated deal but this is a blog so I’ll keep it simple. Christianity has a really weird relationship with pictures of people they consider holy, coming mostly out of Judaism like it did, and of course the second commandment says no making pictures of God. Now, Christians generally pick and choose which parts of the Old Testament they feel like following–no other gods? Got it. No bacon cheeseburgers? Yeah, about that…

Additionally, the neighboring Arabs had just gotten religion in the form of Islam, which has similar views to Judaism about when you make pictures of God (never), and they started knocking on the door in the mid-seventh century, taking Egypt and the Levant from the Byzantines, and probably having an influence on the Christian theological discussions of the day.

As a result of these two things, the Byzantines got into a big fight over whether it was okay to make and venerate icons, which, to be fair, are always pictures of Jesus or a saint, and one asks for the saint’s intercession with God on one’s behalf, not directly to the saint. This useful Orthodox Information page likens icon veneration to how Americans treat our flag (with important differences, but if praying to an American flag ever cures anyone of leprosy, I would really like to know about it). Shades of gray. Those against the icons were the iconoclasts; those in favor were the iconodules.

Leo IV’s father, Constantine V, was a fervent iconoclast who was reported to have crapped in the baptismal font at the Hagia Sophia during his coronation. Since history’s written by the winners, and the iconoclasts didn’t win (spoiler!) I am guessing that didn’t really happen, but it’s a good story. He convened a council of bishops to declare icon veneration heretical, then forced monks and nuns to marry since monasteries were notorious locations of icon veneration. Bishops got lynched in the streets, and by the time he died he was against all relics and prayers to saints. Two hundred years after he died, he was dug up again and thrown into the sea, just to make he didn’t forget he wasn’t welcome.

Leo IV, who became emperor when Constantine V died in 775 CE, didn’t care so much about who people did with icons at first. According to legend, the iconoclast Leo found two icons in Irene’s possession, and afterwards cut off all sexual relations with her, which really must have been a huge loss because he sounds like a fun dude. Possibly in reaction to this, he slowly got more intense about the iconoclasm, but then died before long, leaving his four-year-old son Constantine VI (Byzantium suffered from a severe shortage of first names) nominal emperor.

When you’re four and the emperor, mama really rules the empire, and that’s just what Irene did. She reinstated icon veneration, much to the delight of most people, and then fucked the empire seven ways from Sunday. The Arabs attacked. The Franks attacked. Everyone hated her for one reason or another, including her kid who was nearly an adult. He tried to overthrow her twice, nearly succeeded the second time and she had him thrown in jail. Then, in an act shocking even to the Byzantine empire, she had him blinded so brutally that he died from his wounds several days later.

After this slight whoopsie, she went ahead and declared herself Emperor (not Empress), and everyone freaked the hell out. No one really liked her to begin with, and since there was no man on the throne the Pope in the west decided the Byzantine empire didn’t have a ruler and just crowned one himself, so Charlemagne became the first Holy Roman Emperor. Yeah, I didn’t know an empire that ruled for a thousand years was based on sexism, either. Shockingly this deepened the rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, although it was rumored that Irene accepted a marriage offer from Charlemagne in order to fix all her problems. Before that could happen, though, one final big conspiracy unseated her and she was exiled to the island of Lesbos and someone else put on the throne. She died a year later, after ruling as sole Emperor for five years.

Much to my dismay, the podcast was wrong and Irene’s not actually a saint in the Orthodox church, but lots of Western sources think she was. She did reinstate icon veneration, which the Eastern Orthodox church is really into. On the other hand, she was a terrible emperor and had her only child blinded in a particularly gruesome manner. You win some, you lose some. Since she doesn’t actually have a saint day, you can ask a picture for a favor and then do something truly awful any time you damn well please.

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This week we’ve got our first Armenian saint, St. Blaise. He’s probably the least obscure saint I’ve covered yet–at least one former Catholic I asked had a vague idea of who he was.

Blaise was also hugely popular in the Middle Ages, because he was one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers/ Martyrs, a group of saints who specialized in healing and were called upon largely because of the Bubonic Plague.

Getting to the bottom of his history is a little shaky; the first mention of him happens in late versions of the Martyrology of St. Jerome, dated to the late 700’s; the Acts of St. Blaise are dated to the mid-700’s. Since he is reported to have died in 316 CE, that’s plenty of room for error.

According to the legend, he was born to a noble family as a Christian, became a physician, and later the Bishop of Sabastea. Under the governor Agricolaus and the Emperor of the East Licinius, Christians were being persecuted again, and Blaise received a message from God telling him to go hide in the wilderness.

Later, some hunters out looking for beasts to kill Christians in the amphitheatre came upon Blaise in his cave, surrounded by sick wild animals he was healing. He was captured and taken to the jail to be starved, and on the way, he saw a wolf with a pig belonging to a poor woman in its jaws, and convinced the wolf to release the pig. The pig’s owner was so grateful that she secretly brought him food and water in jail. Possibly she was feeding him the pig.

While in jail, he miraculously healed a child who was choking nearly to death on a fish bone, making him the patron saint of not choking on things. He was first tortured with iron carding combs–what they use to make wool–and then beheaded.

St. Blaise’s feast day is February 3 for Roman Catholics and February 11 for Eastern Orthodox; that’s also the day you can get your throat blessed by having candles pressed against it by a priest.

St. Blaise at New Advent

St. Blaise at Catholic Online

St. Blaise at American Catholic

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There’s a certain kind of person who, when they find out about my borderline insane interest in other peoples’ religion, always wants to know what my personal beliefs are. And that question actually stumps me, because the question of whether whatever Sky Fairy actually exists just doesn’t cross my mind. To me, the answer is an obvious “no,” and then I go back to thinking about glossolalia.

One of Twisty’s latest posts has been knocking around in my brain for the last few days. In sum, she thinks it would make more sense if the nothingness of atheism were the default state of the world, and religion were considered an anomaly. Maybe it would, but we’re never going to know, because religion is the default state of human society. Sorry everybody.

The cause of religion is a moderately warm topic these days, and to anyone looking for answers I recommend Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy. Actually, I don’t recommend you read it so much as you read the Clif Notes or get someone to tell you about it, because while he may be an excellent sociological theorist, Berger’s a terrible writer. It’s one of the more obtuse books I’ve read in my life. What he says, though, is that people are social creatures, and religion is essentially human social structures imposed upon the unknown. It’s not at all outlandish to assume that, the way that a social grouping has control over certain things, another social grouping has control over you. Religion is making sense out of the cosmos–the things we don’t understand otherwise–in a way we can relate to. This New York Times Magazine article about evolution, neurology and religion is also pretty rad.

There aren’t any religion-less cultures that we know of. The official state religion of Russia was atheism for a while, but Russian Orthodoxy was still heavily practiced in secret. There are atheists today, for sure, but they’re isolated in a heavily religious society (and tend to be among the more privileged elements of society, but that’s another post). In the US, we take the separation of church and state for granted, as something that’s obviously how the government is supposed to be, but if you look at the whole of human history it’s a fucking radical idea. In fact, talking about “religion” in history (especially ancient history, which is my strong point) is almost impossible because it was so intertwined with everyday life; before you can start thinking about Greek or Roman religion, you have to define what’s religion and what’s something else, which is hard because the ancient people themselves didn’t do that. It’s anachronistic.

I’m straying from my point, which is that religion is the default of human society. My other favorite piece of evidence is this: a 70,000 year old carving of a python that seems to have been used in religious rituals. That’s pretty old, given that we learned about agriculture and domesticating animals about 10,000 years ago, and now I’m using a laptop and the magic of wireless internet to tell you about it. People have been organizing the world according to their social structures* since before they figured out how to cut the balls off of sheep.

That story got covered in a whole lot of religious contexts, most of which were something like, “See! Religion is THE WAY IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE,” but apparently they didn’t read page two of the article. Behind the giant snake was a chamber, with an exit to the outside, from which someone could presumably speak as the snake god. That’s right: we have been both believing in crazy shit and faking that selfsame crazy shit, so that someone else will believe in it, for 70,000 years. How anyone could be anything but fascinated by it all is what I don’t understand.

The snake god, by the way, gets five stars.
★★★★★

*You may be thinking, “A big snake is not reflective of human order in the cosmos.” To which I say, what the hell does an actual snake want with arrowheads?**

**I also have a vague theory about the supernatural becoming more human as we get better at exerting control over our surroundings. Perhaps I will tell you about it sometime.

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