Under the Feet of a Woman

07 20 saint margaretToday, I have not one, but two female saints to tell you about. There is absolutely no evidence that either of them existed, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good story.

Firstly, I want to tell you about Saint Margaret of Antioch, who was supposedly martyred in the year 304. Margaret was an extremely popular saint in medieval England. This was because, before she died, she promised that she would forgive any sin, and assist anyone in times of trouble, but particularly women in childbirth. This was providing that they read, or had read to them, the details of her life. So there are quite a lot of copies of her legend. Some are written on long strips of parchment, which were fastened around the bellies of women in labour.

She is often pictured, as above, in the act of hitting a devil on the head with a hammer. But she is also the only female dragon slaying saint that I have come across. Margaret was the beautiful daughter of a pagan priest in Antioch. When she became a Christian, she was denounced by her father and adopted by a nurse. Whilst tending sheep for her stepmother, she was spotted by a Roman governor called Olybrius. He wanted her for his wife, if she was a free woman, or his concubine if she was a slave. He also wanted her to renounce her faith. Obviously, she refused, and he had her arrested and thrown in prison. Then, he had her body beaten with rods and her flesh torn with metal combs. When she still refused, she was returned to prison.

There, she was visited by two devils. The first, in the form of a dragon, swallowed Margaret whole. But the cross she was carrying irritated its insides so much that it exploded, and the saint was free. The second devil appeared in the form of a man. Margaret grabbed him by the head, threw him to the ground and then stood on his neck saying:

“Lie still, thou fiend, under the feet of a woman”

The devil was pretty embarrassed about it and, eventually, the earth swallowed him up. I can’t tell you about Margaret, without showing you this fantastic image of her riding the dragon. The picture below belongs to the Wellcome Collection, who have been extremely useful to me it the last year as they have generously uploaded some fantastic images to Wikimedia Commons. It’s a brilliant dragon, covered in flowers and with at least three pendulous breasts. Honestly, Wellcome aren’t paying me, but I wanted to return the favour by telling you that they have a brilliant cafe, an amazing shop and some really fascinating exhibitions. Check them out if you’re visiting London, they’re just near Euston Square tube station.

V0032585 Saint Margaret. Engraving by P. Galle after J. Stradanus.
image credit: wellcome images licensed under creative commons

But, back to Margaret. The next day, she was tortured again. She was burned, and then thrown into a pot of water. But God intervened and lifted her out of the water. The man whose job it was to finally chop off her head refused to do it. Margaret told her he must and also that she forgave all her torturers, giving the speech that I mentioned at the top of this article. He beheaded her and then fell down dead. As is often the case with early martyrdom tales, many witnesses were instantly converted. Five thousand people became Christian and were immediately beheaded as well. Even by the tenth century, there were people who were quite sceptical about her existence, particularly the dragon part.

If you look at the picture at the top, with Margaret and the devil, you might notice that she has a bit of a five o’clock shadow around the chin. But that’s nothing compared with our second saint. Today is also the feast day of Saint Wilgefortis, who is known in Britain as Saint Uncumber. Her saint’s day, along with Margaret’s, was dropped from the calendar in 1969 on the grounds that she never existed. Their stories start in a remarkably similar way. Saint Uncumber was born in Portugal and was the daughter of a nobleman. She was promised in marriage to a pagan king. As she was a Christian who had taken a vow of chastity, she prayed to God for help. She prayed that she could be made repulsive so that her prospective husband wouldn’t want to marry her. Her prayers were answered when she sprouted an enormous beard. Her father was so angry that he had her crucified.

saint_wilgefortis_graz_20121006
image credit: gugganij licensed under creative commons

She is often pictured with one shoe off and a fiddler at her feet. This is also rather odd. It illustrates a story connected with one of her statues. It seems that a poor fiddler came to play a tune to her image. The Statue was so pleased by this that she let one of her golden shoes fall to the ground as a gift to the musician. The fiddler was immediately accused of theft and was sentenced to death. He begged to be asked to play in front of the statue again. This time, in front of an audience, the statue kicked off her other shoe.

It is thought that her totally fictitious life story came about because of a mistake. In the east, representations of the crucifixion tend to show Jesus in a full length tunic. In the west, people looked at the long dress and immediately saw a woman. They just made up a story that fitted with what they thought they were looking at.

Saint Uncumber is the patron saint of women who want to be freed (disencumbered) from abusive husbands. Both are wonderful stories about independently minded women, so I think, even if they are made up, they’re worth hanging on to.

Wheels on Fire

06 23 john the baptistToday it is Saint John’s Eve, the day before the feast of Saint John the Baptist. John was cousin to Jesus and the Bible tells us that he was six months older. So, we have his feast day now, around midsummer, because we have Christmas around midwinter. But most of the traditions associated with the celebration seem to have little to do with a desert-dwelling saint. Like some of our Christmas traditions, its pagan roots are definitely showing.

Saint John’s Eve was quite a significant celebration in Europe up until the nineteenth century. As Christmas replaced the Winter Solstice, the feast of Saint John was placed around the time of the Summer Solstice. We know that these days were significant in ancient times because many of our stone circles and burial chambers are aligned with the sunrise on those days.

06 23 saint john's eve fireCentral to the Saint John’s Eve festivities was the bonfire, which was often built at the top of a hill. It was thought to offer protection from evil spirits who were generally on the loose at this time of year. In Sweden, for example, it was thought that, on this night, the mountains cracked open and trolls were set free. According to a thirteenth century monk from Winchcomb Abbey in Gloucestershire, the fires were built from bones instead of wood. Indeed the word bonfire is most likely a corruption of bone fire. The idea of building a fire of bones was to create as much foul-smelling smoke as possible. This, he says, was necessary to drive away dragons which it seems were a particular problem at this time of year. The whole difficulty with dragons at midsummer, was that this was the time that they gathered in the air to mate. This caused them to drop their ‘seed’ into rivers and wells which poisoned the water which was clearly awful. Though I would have thought that a dragon, of all things, would have been used to the smell of burning bones. Maybe they weren’t the fire-breathing kind.

A second tradition mentioned by the monk was rolling a wheel down a hill. The wheel, he tells us, “is rolled to signify that the sun then rises to the highest point of its circle and at once turns back; thence it comes that the wheel is rolled.” These kind of events feature in the Saint Johns Eve celebrations all over Northern Europe and sometimes the two were combined. If we skip to the sixteenth century, in the village of Konz, in the Moselle Valley, we find people rolling their bonfire down a hill. A wheel would be covered in brushwood or straw and set on fire at the top of the hill. It would then be guided down the slope by a couple of brave souls. The aim was to roll it into the river. It wasn’t easy as there were plenty of vineyards to negotiate on the way. If they succeeded, they were entitled to a wagon load of wine. If they failed, their cattle would be attacked by fits of giddiness and convulsions and would “dance in their stalls”.

Like other ceremonial fires, the smoke from a Saint John’s Eve bonfire was thought to protect livestock and the ashes were supposed to have protective qualities too. They could be taken away and buried it the fields to protect crops or placed in the eaves of a house to protect it from lightening or from fire in the following year.

06 23 larkspurFlower garlands were often an important part of the celebrations too. In some places they were cast onto the bonfire, in others they had to be rescued from the flames. I found that, in several areas of Germany, people believed that looking at the fire through a garland of flowers, particularly larkspur or mugwort, was supposed to protect one from eye diseases in the following year. I really can’t explain why protection against eye diseases in particular, should be a feature of this festival. The problems with dancing cattle and poisonous dragon sperm are equally opaque, but they don’t seem to have much to do with the story of John the Baptist.

Dragons and Dungeons

04 23 gustave moreau st george and the dragonToday I should probably tell you about our national patron saint, as it’s Saint George’s Day. Probably everyone who knows anything about Saint George knows about how he killed a dragon and rescued a princess. Even if you don’t know it about Saint George, you’ve probably heard some version of the story involving someone else, because there are loads of them. As well as dragon slaying saints, you will find them in Greek myths, in Norse legend, pretty much everywhere.

The story of Saint George and the Dragon was brought back from the Middle East by twelfth century crusaders. According to the Golden Legend, which is a sort of encyclopaedia of saints that was a medieval bestseller, George killed his dragon in Libya. The dragon, or possibly crocodile, was a plague-bearing creature that had made its nest at a spring that provided water for the city of Silene (possibly Cyrene). The people of the city were trying to placate the dragon by feeding it sheep, but when they ran out of livestock, they began to send it their children. The victims were chosen by lottery, and this seems to have become a problem only when the King’s daughter’s name was picked out. In this version, George only wounded the dragon and then asked the princess for her girdle. He put it around the neck of the dragon, it was immediately tamed and they led it back to the city. Everyone was terrified, but George said he would only kill the beast if they all became Christians. Which, of course, they did. To me, this sounds a bit like George forcing people to change their religion by threatening them with a plague-ridden dragon.

In a later version of the story, George is able to shelter, at intervals, during his battle with the dragon, beneath the branches of an enchanted orange tree. It seems enchanted orange trees are very effective against dragon poison. I’d love to have found a picture to show you of Saint George hiding under an orange tree, but it seems there isn’t one.

What I did find though, was the story of his martyrdom. Christians were horribly persecuted in the early days and many died for their beliefs. This was all supposed to be fine though, as it meant they would go straight to heaven. So they loved a good martyrdom story. What happened to George is a particularly spectacular example.

04 23 matyrdom of saint georgeHe was challenged in his Christian beliefs by a king of Persia named Dacian who thought that Apollo was a better god. I haven’t been able to find any king of Persia named Dacian, probably they mean the Emperor Diocletian, who looms large in a lot of tales of early Christian martyrdoms. First, George was stretched on a rack and torn with flesh hooks, harnessed to machines that pulled him apart, beaten and had salt rubbed into his wounds with a hair cloth. Then they pressed him into a box that they had hammered nails into, stuck stakes into him, plunged him into boiling water and crushed his head with a hammer. None of that was enough to kill him though. After that he was thrown in a dungeon where God comforted him and told him that he would die three deaths before entering Paradise. Though quite how this was supposed to be comforting, I’m not sure. Next, Dacian had his magician prepare a poison. George drank two cups of it and was fine. The magician was so impressed that he instantly converted to Christianity and was executed for it.

The next day George was lacerated on a wheel of swords, cut into ten pieces and thrown into a well, that then had a stone rolled over the top. But that was still not the end for poor Saint George. God turned up with the Archangel Michael and resurrected him. This caused the officer in charge of the situation to convert to Christianity along with around 1,100 soldiers and one woman. They were all immediately executed.

Now Dacian was really mad. George was tied up and had molten lead poured in his eyes and mouth, sixty nails driven into his skull, hung upside down over a fire with a stone tied around his neck, and then shut into the revolving belly of a metal ox which was filled with swords and nails. Then he was sawn in two and boiled to bits. But God resurrected him a second time.

After having red hot helmet put on his head, and a bit more tearing and burning, George pretended to give up. The king was so pleased that he invited George to stay in the palace. But sneaky old George used the opportunity to convert Dacian’s wife. So, of course, he had to kill her too. During this diversion, he visited the temple of Apollo, whose statue then walked out admitting its fraudulence. George stamped his foot and the ground opened to swallow the false god. At last, after a martyrdom that, we are told, lasted for seven years, the saint was beheaded for the last time and ascended to Heaven.

Poor George. Luckily, he’s been rewarded with more than just the title of Patron Saint of England. He’s the saint of loads of things. Everything form saddle makers to syphilis. He is also Patron Saint of Syria. There are too many others for me to list here, but you can find out about them from this man.

Changes

09 21 hobbitIt was on this day in 1939 that The Hobbit was published. If you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to go into much detail about the story.

Bilbo’s story is that of a quest and in some ways it is also a coming of age story. He is a down to earth sort of fellow who is persuaded to leave his home and go on an adventure. Whilst the dwarves remain essentially the same all through the book.,they want to get back their lost treasure and are not interested in the trouble that might cause for anyone else, Bilbo changes and grows. At the beginning he is comfortable in his little world and not interested in other peoples’ problems. But by the end he has discovered a different side to his nature. He has become a brave, clever and thoughtful hobbit.

Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford. He knew a great deal about languages and the way they developed over time. In 1917 he began apply that knowledge to develop his own language. Elvish. It is really the depth of his knowledge of languages and myths that allowed him to create the massive and believable world of Middle Earth. He had a lifelong passion for Norse Mythology and the names of the dwarves and Gandalf himself are all derived from old Norse names.

The Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf was an important source for The Hobbit. In the 1920s Tolkien began to work on a translation of Beowulf and although he finished it in 1926 it was not published until 2014. He did deliver a very well received lecture on the poem though. He may have been the first critic to see it as a work of literature rather that a historical source. Previously people had ignored all the magical elements of the story and looked at it only as a source of information about the way the Anglo-Saxons lived. Tolkien realised that the magic was important because it tells us a lot about the way people understood the world around them. Many of the elements in The Hobbit are lifted straight from Beowulf. A named sword with magical powers that is covered with runes is a very Anglo-Saxon thing. Tolkien’s dragon, Smaug, is an intelligent animal, not at all like the one we find in legends like St George and the Dragon where the creature is little more that an allegory. Like the unnamed dragon in the Beowulf legend, Smaug in robbed of a precious cup, and when he finds out about it goes on a furiously destructive rampage and is killed.

During the First World War, Tolkien was a Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He served in France for a time and was present at the Somme. It is possible to see The Hobbit also as a reflection of his war experiences. A hero torn from his rural home and forced to take part in a war far away. Tolkien’s descriptions of a desolate world burned by a dragon or destroyed by war would have been something that he had no difficulty in calling to mind.

Tolkien also illustrated his story and designed the book jacket for the first edition. He was very particular about the design of the book, particularly the maps in the back and front. The first print run of only 1,500 copies was sold out by December. It was so popular that his publishers immediately asked for a sequel. He showed them a draft of another book he had been working on, The Silmarillion, but they didn’t really get what it was about and weren’t interested. They wanted more Hobbits. That is when he began to work on The Lord of the Rings.

As he began to think about extending the story he found that he needed to make changes to the original book to make it fit with his new ideas. In the first edition Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum is very different. He willingly bets his ring on the outcome of their riddle contest and when Bilbo wins the two part on good terms. Gollum’s curse: “Thief! Thief, Thief, Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” does not appear until the 1951 revised edition. He explains away this change by saying that in the original version Bilbo, while under the influence of the Ring had told him a lie, but now he had the truth of it.