Christianized myths and imagery

The historicity of several saints has often been treated skeptically by most academics, either because there is a paucity of historical evidence for them, or due to striking resemblances that they have to pre-Christian deities. In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church officially decanonised some Christian Saints, demoted others, and pronounced the historicity of others to be dubious. Though highly popular in the Middle Ages, many of these such saints have since been largely forgotten since, and their names may now seem quite unfamiliar. The most prominent amongst these is Saint Eustace, who was extremely popular in earlier times, but scholars now see as a chimera composed from details of several other Saints.

Contents

Background

Perhaps the simplest examples are cases most scholars regard as having originated as misinterpretation, or deliberate recycling, of images and phrases, with backstories developing later; Saint Veronica as a corruption of vera icon - meaning true icon (in latin) - and simply a reference to the veronica veil itself not to an owner; Saint Christopher as a misinterpretation of Christopher, literally Christ bearer, a term used by early Christians to refer to themselves; Saint Faith as misinterpretation of the Latin phrase Sancta Fides, holy faith; Saint Expeditus as misinterpretation of a label marked Expedite (in French or Spanish depending on the account), on a delivery box containing relics of some other saint (or in one story, just a statue of a Roman soldier); and Saint Wilgefortis as corruption of hilge vartez, holy face in Old German, who derived from Byzantine images depicting a crucified Jesus with a beard and a long tunic (female dress to Early Medieval Germans), or perhaps souvenirs of the specific and famous large wood crucifix figure, the Holy Face of Lucca. It has been suggested that the last of these might have been deliberately created by Early Medieval dealers in images left with unsaleable stocks of figures of a crucified "woman" with a beard.

Another group of Saints whose existence is doubted by most scholars are those that appear to be remouldings of details surrounding historic non-Christian individuals, or individuals that the beatifying group would not have considered Christian. Prominent examples of this ilk are Saint Mungo being based on Maelgwn Hir ap Cadwallon, a legendary King of Gwynedd who had the same legend of the fish and the ring, and was prominently referred to as great hound - a similar title to hound lord which Kentigern, Mungo's other name, may be a corruption of; Saint Josaphat being based on Gautama Buddha via a series of Christian corruptions that derive from a Manichaean corruption of a Buddhist narrative, and his name being a complex series of linguistic corruptions of Bodhisattva; and Saint Catherine (who gave her name to Catherine Wheels) as deliberate Christianisation of the previously popular Hypatia of Alexandria, adding a martyrdom suitably similar to Hypatia's in its gruesomeness. Some Protestants also claim that John of Nepomuk is a conflation of the historical cleric of that name with the great pre-Protestant leader, Jan Hus.

On the other hand there are Saints that most scholars consider to be based on real historical figures, but have undergone partial syncretism with pre-Christian legends and beliefs. Saint Hubert for example is said by legend to have been confronted, while hunting, by a stag and threatened with being sent down to hell, which many scholars see as an iconic image deriving from Celtic mythology surrounding Arawn, the lord of the underworld, who was said to have been crowned with antlers. Saint Dunstan, who historically was at one point a blacksmith, is said to have shod the devil in a legend claiming to describe the origin of horseshoes being placed above doors for luck, even though historically horseshoes were placed above the door for luck well before Dunstan was ever born.

More complete syncretisms are considered plausible for a number of Saints, who many scholars see as nothing more than Christianizations of mythical figures. Among those thought to derive from pre-Christian figures outside the Mediterranean sphere are Saint Brigid, whose crosses are said to protect a house from fire, is thought to derive from Brigid, a Celtic goddess whom legends of Saint Brigid say the Saint was originally a devotee of, and whose main festival was Imbolc, which is the same date as the feast day of Saint Brigid, and whose main sanctuary was Kildare where the Saint supposedly founded a monastery; Saint Brendan, whose main characteristic is the legendary voyage to the land of delight that he undertook, and is thought to derive from the main character, named Bran, in the Celtic narrative of the Voyage of Bran; Saint Sarah, who is also known as Sarah-la-Kali, and prominently venerated by the Roma, supposedly meaning Sarah the black, but more likely derived from Kali, a deity from India, which is thought to be the country of origin for the Roma, and who has a very similar water immersion ceremony; Saint Maximón, an intimidating bully-like figure with expensive tastes, is considered to be derived from Mam, a Mayan deity; and the strikingly named Saint Death, death treated as a saint, who is never claimed to have had a human existence, thought to be derived from Mictlantecuhtli, the Mayan god of death.

Several prominent Roman and Greek mythological figures, often deified, appear, in the eyes of scholars, to have been converted into Christian saints as well, in some cases their legends having been somewhat censored to suit Christian sensibilities. These include:

  • Arethusa, the Nereid, a chaste deity who was chased by a minor deity, who wished to have sexual relations with her, and was forced to flee over the sea, eventually only escaping by being turned into a fountain, being Christianised into Saint Columba of Cornwall, a chaste princess being chased by a prince that wished to marry her, and was forced to flee over the sea, eventually being killed, though a fountain sprung forth where she died.
  • Sabazios, a horse-riding, demonic serpent-killing god, or Perseus, in the horse-riding, monster-killing role taken within the Andromeda myth, being changed into the horse-riding dragon-killing Saint George and the Dragon (the dragon was often portrayed as a serpent-like wyvern)
  • Oedipus, who was prophesied to be destined to kill his father, and to sexually sleep with his mother, and who did so despite trying desperately not to, becoming Saint Julian, who was cursed by witches to kill his father and mother, and who did so despite desperately trying not to.
  • Lugus, a tripartite celtic deity strongly associated with shoes, becoming Crispin and Crispinian, twin shoemakers who fled to Gaul.

Saint Michael the Archangel

Though not that prominent in modern times, in medieval times the Archangel Michael was a prominent figure in Christian practice, and a substantial cult existed around him. First gaining prominence in the Eastern Church, the cult of Michael eventually became so significant that his feast day, known as Michaelmas, was treated as a time of great celebration and feasting, with many popular traditions. This pre-eminence of the feast day survives in the fact that the entirety of the autumn period continues to take its name from Michaelmas, in the calendars of the old universities, Inns of Court, and parliaments, of the British Isles.

Michael is clearly based on biblical accounts referring to Michael as the chief warrior angel of Elohim; however, although Michael is one of the few angels named by the canonical scriptures, in Judaism there was no particular cult, or veneration, of Michael, and Michael was afforded no particular status in religious life. Consequently scholars have suggested that Michael's prominence in medieval Christianity derives from some alternative source, generally argued to have been Mithraism.[citation needed]. The central image found in all surviving Mithraeums is that of the tauroctony, Mithras powerfully standing over a bull, about to thrust his sword/dagger into its flesh; this image is remarkably similar to later depictions of Michael standing over the devil, about to thrust a spear into him.

Mithraism had spread beyond Rome throughout the Roman Empire due to its popularity within the Roman Army, and Mithraism became associated with militarism, its penultimate level of initiation being named soldier. Thus when the Theodosian Decree outlawed all non-Judeo-Christian religion, many Mithraeums were converted into chapels and churches dedicated to Michael (some now surviving as church crypts), since Michael, as a warrior, was a suitable choice for buildings that had previously been heavily connected to military use; the oldest shrine dedicated to Michael in Western Europe is the Sanctuary of Monte Sant'Angelo, which is architecturally identical to a Mithraeum internally, and it was said in early Christianity to have been founded after an apparition of Michael that is remarkably similar to the tauroctony of Mithras. According to many secular historians, as a result of the previous popularity of Mithraism, and some of its imagery, became transferred to Michael, leading to his popularity in the mediaeval era.

Demons

In most ancient cultures, the depiction of demons was usually as sinister chimera, or as creatures similar in appearance to more positive deities, or to humans. However, in Christian imagery, when not being portrayed as human, demons, and particularly the devil, are usually depicted as humanoid with goat-like limbs and head; even though Christian tradition, and the apocryphal Book of Enoch, identifies the devil as a former angel, it is only rarely that the devil is depicted as a winged angelic-like being. The goat-like depiction of the devil is sometimes considered by historians to have derived from the biblical story of Azazel, something, unidentified apart from name, to whom the annual scapegoat is sent, hence connecting the undescribed Azazel to goats; though Talmudic writers rationalised Azazel as merely being the name of a cliff, most secular scholars, and Christian tradition, now see Azazel as having been originally meant to be a demon of some sort. Other historians, however, have argued that the goat imagery originated as a deliberate ploy by early Christianity to demonise their main rival religions, particularly the prominent Dionysian Mysteries, whose central figure, Dionysus, was sometimes depicted with goat horns and was one of the main deities said to have been accompanied by the goat-like Satyrs, having originally simply been a nature god (before the mysteries surrounding him evolved).

See also

Notes


References

  • Kaplan, Steven 1984 Monastic Holy Man and the Christianization of Early Solomonic Ethiopia (in series Studien zur Kulturkunde) ISBN 3-515-03934-1
  • Kerenyi, Karl, Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 1976.
  • MacMullen, Ramsay, Christianizing the Roman Empire, AD 100 – 400 Yale University Press (paperback, 1986 ISBN 0-300-03642-6)
  • Trombley, Frank R., 1995. Hellenic Religion and Christianization c. 370-529 (in series Religions in the Graeco-Roman World) (Brill) ISBN 90-04-09691-4
  • Vesteinsson, Orri, 2000. The Christianization of Iceland: Priests, Power, and Social Change 1000-1300 (Oxford:Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-820799-9

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