Today is the feast day of two saints, Saint Lucia of Syracuse and Saint Odile of Alsace. When I look at early Christian saints, it is quite often the way they are represented in art that makes me want to learn more. Some times they are shown with objects relating to their lives, sometimes they are carrying something that represents the nature of their martyrdom. Interestingly, both Lucia and Odile are often pictured holding their own eyes. Although they look quite similar, their stories are very different.
Saint Lucia was martyred in the year 304 for refusing to offer a sacrifice to a statue of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The governor of Syracuse at first ordered her to be taken away and put in a brothel. When his guards tried to take her away, they found that she could not be moved. Not even when they tied a team of oxen to her and tried to drag her away. So next they just piled up some wood around her and tried to set fire to her. But she wouldn’t burn either. So she was finally put to death by the sword. Then, in the fifteenth century, a new element of the story emerged. Before she died, she foretold the death of the Emperor and the governor was so angry that he had her eyes put out before she was killed. In yet another version, Lucia is relentlessly pursued by a persistent and unwanted admirer, who constantly tells her what beautiful eyes she has. Eventually, she gouges out her own eyes, sends them to him and says if he likes them so much, he can have them.
Saint Odile, on the other hand, is not a martyr. She lived in France between 660 and 720 and was born blind. Because of this, her father didn’t want anything to do with her. To him, and everyone else, bearing a child with a disability was a punishment for sin and that reflected badly on him. So she wound up in a monastery. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Regensburg had a dream that he should seek out the child and baptise her. At her baptism, her sight was restored and he gave her the name Odilia, Sol Dei which means Sun of God.
Lucia’s name comes from the Latin ‘Lux’, which means light. This set me thinking about what eyes and light have to do with December 13th. Saint Lucia (also Lucy) in much celebrated in Nordic countries with a procession of girls in white robes, one of whom will be wearing a crown of candles, whilst the others carry a single candle. What you need to know is, that for a long time in Europe, we had our calendar terribly wrong. Well in truth is was only a little bit wrong, but the effect was cumulative. Over a period of four hundred years, the old Julian Calendar would add an extra three days to the year. This meant that, at the time Christianity became popular in the far north of Europe, December 13th was fixed as the shortest day of the year. It was only when the Gregorian Calendar was introduced that the Winter Solstice was moved back to around December 21st. In the far north, people suffer particularly from lack of light during the winter months and in the extreme north, the sun will not rise at all. So it’s not surprising that they needed a festival to celebrate the point at which the days would begin to grow longer again.
Then I had a look at what out ancestors believed about eyes. Obviously without eyes, we cannot perceive light; but in the distant past people had a rather different concept of how eyes worked. They did not understand that we see an object because the light reflected from it enters our eyes. Rather they thought we could see because rays of light came from our eyes, illuminating the object. Of course, if this were true, we would all be able to see perfectly well in the dark. But they pushed on with their theory, saying that it was a reaction between the light from the eye and another light source, such as the sun, really until Newton suggested otherwise in the eighteenth century. The idea of rays which travel from the eyes to the object allows for the fact that things can be changed by looking at them and it is from this that we get the concept of ‘the evil eye’ – that a spell can be cast on someone with a glance. So maybe that is why the governor of Syracuse is said to have removed Lucia’s eyes. In case she was casting a spell on the statue of the Emperor that would make her prophecy come true. Of course, things do change when you look at them, but that belongs to the realm of quantum physics and things I don’t really understand.
Most likely, the eyes of Saint Lucia and Saint Odile are representing the sense of which we are robbed in the darkest days of winter, and the sun’s imminent return. Saint Odile’s sight is restored and miraculously, after the death of Saint Lucia, it was found that her eyes had been restored to her. In England on the feast day of Saint Lucia, the only work allowed was tillage, which basically means getting the soil ready for next year’s crops. So, when we strip everything away, what we probably have is a celebration of the return of light to the world and an anticipation of the return of the growing season.
Lucia does have a darker side though and, forgive me for mentioning scary Christmas visitors again, in Italy, children who leave out a cup of coffee for Saint Lucia and a carrot for her donkey will receive a gift from her. But if you catch sight of her, she will throw ashes into your eyes. In Norway there is, in legend, a character called Lussi. She is a kind of witch who rides through the skies heralding the arrival of all sorts of demons and trolls, so it’s best to stay indoors. Unfortunately, if you’re a naughty child, even that might not save you. She might come down your chimney and carry you away. If you haven’t finished your preparations for Yule, she might also punish you. The best course of action is to keep the lights on and party all night. Then she’ll have to stay away.