Archive for the ‘Byzantine’ Category

Echoes of Shamanism in Medieval German Weather Lore

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Islamic Art

In Germany today it’s Siebenschläfertag or Seven Sleepers Day, ostensibly a celebration of medieval weather lore. The weather experienced on Siebenschläfertag is supposed to determine the average weather for the next seven weeks. It’s similar to St Swithen’s Day in the UK or Groundhog Day in the US.

Siebenschläfertag, or Seven Sleepers, however, has far more ancient origins than mere medieval lore.

The Seven Sleepers were a group of youths who lived in the Roman city of Ephesus (now in modern Turkey) around 250 AD. They were Christian and, at that date, this meant they had to keep their practices secret due to persecution from the state.

The Roman Emperor at that time was Decius, who was known for his building projects in Rome, his love of morality, and his ceaseless persecution of Christians. His reach eventually fell upon Ephesus and the seven youths found themselves at dire risk. To escape, they fled to a cave outside the city where they walled themselves in. They were not heard of again for many, many years.

In fact, according to legend, the seven youths slept for 180 years until they finally awoke during the reign of Theodosius II. Fortunately for them, Theodosius was a committed Christian who liked nothing better than to pontificate on theological disputes. The youths left the cave and walked about the city, reportedly speaking to many residents before eventually succumbing to extreme old age.

The earliest version of their legend comes from the writings of the Syrian bishop, Jacob of Sarug, who lived in the 5th century, although he probably copied earlier (and now lost) Greek sources.  The best known record of the legend is by Jacobus de Voragine, an Italian chronicler and archbishop of Genoa who lived in the 13th century. His Golden Legend chronicled the lives of several saints, including the Seven Sleepers, who, by this time, had been beatified.

The disappearance of seven youths into a cave, where they slept (presumably in some sort of trance) for 180 years before emerging again, has clear shamanic overtones and may reveal traces of earlier ascetic traditions. Somewhat fortuitously, there is a clue in the Islamic Koran that adds further detail.

In Surah 18, verse 9-26 of the Koran, the legend is retold, except this time the sleepers lie in the cave for 300 years. Most tellingly, they were accompanied by a dog, which lay at the entrance to the cave, seemingly guarding the inhabitants from harm. (The illustration above shows a folio page from the Book of Omens, dating to around 1550 from Qazvin in Iran, where the dog appears in the foreground). The importance of dogs as guardians of the otherworld in the ancient world cannot be overstated. A canine friend also finds its way into Christian mythology in the story of Tobias, where a dog accompanies the boy along with Raphael, his guardian angel. Perhaps in an effort to divorce itself from earlier beliefs, the Book of Tobit (where the story appears) was excluded from the authorised bible and is now only found in the Apocrypha.

The Seven Sleepers legend may reveal echoes of earlier traditions of accessing the otherworld through caves, with a dog either accompanying the practitioners or acting as a threshold guardian. It is possible that, in the original legend, the sleepers brought back knowledge and wisdom from their sojourn in the otherworld, just like modern shamans, but, if they did, this part of the myth is now lost.

An early Christian catacomb on the slopes of Mount Pion near Ephesus came to be associated with the site of the cave. These catacombs, along with the ruins of a later church covering them, were excavated in 1927–28. Archaeologists discovered several hundred graves, dating to around the 5th and 6th centuries. Inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers lined the walls of the church and also occurred in the graves. Clearly, the legend of the Seven Sleepers meant a lot to people even then.

Curiously, according to the Koran, Surah 18, verse 15, the myth even came to be attached to Glastonbury. The cave is associated with a cavern beneath Chalice Well and the sleepers were guided by Joseph of Arimathea. But even the Koran concedes that this may be no more than a picturesque addition to the legend.

Modern Siebenschläfertag recalls only the merest hint of the earlier tradition but, somewhat whimsically, Siebenschläfer in German also refers to the edible dormouse, a creature known to sleep for long periods.

So whether you celebrate seven saints, medieval weather lore, or even an edible dormouse, have a wonderful Siebenschläfertag and let’s hope it doesn’t rain.

Helena of Constantinople: Patron Saint of Archaeologists

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Tomorrow (August 18th) is the feast of Saint Helena of Constantinople who is the little-known patron saint of archaeologists. In fact, due to her spiritual motivation, she was probably one of the first people ever to have embarked upon archaeological fieldwork.

Helena was born around 250 AD in Drepanum, in the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor (now modern day Turkey). Her early life was probably quite ordinary for a girl growing up in the late Classical period (she was, apparently, a barmaid), until that is, she met Constantius, a soldier serving in her province under Emperor Aurelian. It is recorded that Helena and Constantius were wearing matching silver bracelets, a sign Constantius took that he had met his soul mate; he called her a gift sent from God.

Whether they married or not is a technicality that is now lost to time but Constantius star was rising (he eventually climbed to become Emperor) and a lowly barmaid from Drepanum did not suit his ambitions. So he cast Helena aside and took another wife, Theodora. This was a little after Helena had borne him a son, Constantine, probably the most significant mortal ever born. Helena and Constantine were sent to live out their days in the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia, their bond growing ever closer through their solitude.

Following Constantius’ death upon campaign against the Picts of Scotland, his troops looked for a likely successor and settled upon Constantine, who they rose to Emperor in 306 AD. Constantine immediately restored his beloved mother from obscurity and made her honorary Empress of the new empire he established in the east.

Having unfettered access to her son’s treasury, Helena undertook a trip to Palestine during 326 to 328 AD. This was with the express intention of recovering the relics of Christianity, a burgeoning religion she had adopted and, later, to which her son would convert, setting in motion the Christianisation of most of Europe and beyond. Helena’s trip was probably the first archaeological mission in history.

After distributing largesse to the poor and needy along her route – this was a time when such charity was a cornerstone of the new religion – she turned her attention to fieldwork. According to legendary accounts, Helena was moved by the Holy Spirit to dig in Jerusalem, whereupon she found wood from three crosses. Some sources say that she immediately knew which one was the cross upon which Jesus was crucified by the plaque affixed upon it, declaring him King of the Jews. Another source says that she took all tree crosses to a sick woman and, touching her with each in turn, identified the holy cross upon the woman’s miraculous recovery.

Helena also found part of Christ’s tunic, the rope with which he was lashed to the cross, and also the nails that went through Christ’s hands and feet (but not his body as, according to scripture, this ascended to heaven). She sent one of the nails to her son who made it into a horse bridle, so honouring the prophecy linking the nails to “the bells of horses”. Unwittingly, Helena also sparked the cult of relics and thousands of pieces of the true cross were to find their way across Europe, most with rather dubious pedigree. There is still a Reliquary of the True Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Helena died a little after her return from Palestine in 330 AD with her son at her side. She was buried in the Mausoleum of Helena, just outside Rome, and, what is claimed as her sarcophagus, now lies in the Vatican Museum. Despite some unsavoury elements to her life – she was implicated in the deaths of Constantine’s wife and son – beautification followed death and she is now Saint Helena of Constantinople, patron saint of archaeologists in recognition of her search for the relics of Christ. Not bad for a onetime barmaid.

Death and Rebirth in Byzantine Sicily

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Death and rebirth is a common theme of many religions, often with a God dying and being reborn at certain times of the year. In shamanic communities, death and rebirth also alludes to the shamanic journey and the physical state of the shaman as he or she enters and returns from the otherworld.

Death and rebirth is also central to the Christian faith, with Jesus dying on the cross on Good Friday to be resurrected two days later on Easter Sunday. Within Christianity, such a cycle of death and rebirth seems entirely limited to Jesus, however, with the only hope of rebirth for ordinary mortals being in the afterlife. In fact, having the ability to die and be reborn may even be viewed as heretical and against the natural order determined by God.

It is on this basis that recent discoveries at the Byzantine village of Kaukana, on Sicily, are so interesting. Between AD 580 to cAD 640, a house within Kaukana was built, occupied, and finally abandoned when wind-blown sand engulfed the interior. Within the confines of the house, and probably constructed after the occupants had moved out, is a tomb, built above ground in the style usually reserved for high-status individuals. Inside were a woman and her daughter. Finding such a tomb within a house, at this date, is highly unusual.

Evidence around the tomb – a hearth for cooking and copious food remains – suggests that people were returning to the tomb to feast with the dead spirits that lay within. This was frowned upon by religious authorities, and they would have been horrified to learn that there was also a small hole in the covering of the tomb to allow libations and other choice morsels to be passed to the dead woman inside.

We know that the occupants of the tomb were Christian since there are many symbols with alpha and omega signs; clearly those burying the woman thought that they were important to include. So, the question is: why did people – probably Christian themselves – defy their own tradition and bury a woman in a high-status tomb, in a house (possibly her own), and then continue to visit the site to cook and share food with the deceased? A strange mark on the woman’s cranium might provide the answer.

A small dimple at the back of the skull, as well as signs of water-on-the-brain, suggests meningocele, a condition leading to headaches and frequent fainting fits. It is the fits that are significant. A woman who regularly faints with seizures, only to rise again a few minutes later, may have been thought to be divinely touched, even replicating the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. In Renaissance times, St Catherine was venerated for precisely these qualities.

At Kaukana, was the posthumous treatment of the woman because people revered her power or did they fear her reach, even after death? Or did they think that she might possibly rise once again and kept her tended and fed for this possibility?

The dig, led by Professor Roger Wilson of the University of Columbia, returns to Sicily this year and will attempt to uncover more about this remarkable woman and her powers of resurrection.

More information on the University of British Columbia website.