Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Wolves of St. Patrick

Today (March 17th) is St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick (died c. 460 C.E.) is the patron saint of Ireland and one of Christianity’s best known and most revered figures. The holiday of St. Patrick’s Day marks the day on which tradition says Patrick died and has been celebrated by Irish Catholics since the 7th-Century. Because the holiday falls during the time of Lent – when Christians are suppose to abandon their vices in imitation of Christ – St. Patrick’s Day with its drinking, feasting, partying and more drinking was seen as a welcomed reprieve.

Today St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated not only in Ireland but throughout the United States as well – the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was actually held in New York City in 1762 – and while many people, not all Irish themselves, associate a wide variety of things with the holiday – such as the color green, shamrocks, leprechauns, and, of course, alcohol – one thing which most people probably don’t think of when it comes to St. Patrick’s Day is werewolves. And yet St. Patrick has very much to do with werewolves indeed.

According to an autobiographical letter called the Declaration (Latin: Confessio) written by the saint himself sometime before the 5th-Century, Patrick was born in Britain to wealthy parents. His father, Calpornius, was a deacon, and his grandfather, Potitus, a priest in the Catholic Church. At the age of sixteen Patrick was abducted by Irish marauders who sold him into slavery in Ireland where he was forced to work as a herdsman for six years. During his time as a slave Patrick’s faith did not weaver but grew stronger. One day Patrick received a vision from God in which he was instructed to escape from his master and head for a port two hundred miles away where a ship was waiting to take him back home. Patrick, making good on his vision, escaped and headed towards the northern coast where he did indeed find a ship that ferried him back to Britain.

After being returned home Patrick followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and became a bishop. Nearly fifteen-years had passed since Patrick escaped from Ireland when he had a second vision. This time Patrick was visited by an angel carrying a letter from Ireland that cried out; “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” After this vision, Patrick knew that he was to return to Ireland and spread the Christian faith.

But St. Patrick’s connection with werewolves doesn’t come from history but rather legend. While it is generally accepted that Patrick converted, baptized and ordained “thousands of people” from Celtic paganism to Catholicism with little more than a helpful demonstration on how the Holy Trinity is like a three-leaf clover, this is not to say that he didn’t encounter some opposition from many of the indigenous pagans. One of these individuals was the Welsh King Vereticus who, no matter what St. Patrick preached, refused to humble himself and accept Christ. Finally, St. Patrick grew so annoyed with the king’s boastfulness that he chose to humble him himself by placing a curse upon him which caused him to assume the form of a wolf every seven years – thus giving us what maybe Ireland’s oldest werewolf story.

Other tales that connect St. Patrick with werewolves tell of how the saint’s message of Christianity was met with scorn and mockery. One account describes how St. Patrick was walking along a road one night enjoying the light of the full moon. As he went along he encountered three men who began heckling the saint, mocking his missionary efforts and profaning the name of Christ. With each insult the men’s howling laughter grew loader and St. Patrick’s patience shorter. Finally, irritated by these heathen’s taunting and disrespect St. Patrick spun around and cursed them by the light of the full moon; “If you want to howl and laugh like wolves,” he told them, “then from now on you shall howl every time the moon is full!” After that the three men quickly found that every time the moon was full their bodies were transformed into those of savage wolves. This particular folktale has been cited by some scholars as the first myth ever to draw a connection between the full moon and lycanthrope, something modern day werewolf books and movies have made us accustom to.

One final legend comes from an ancient text called the Giraldus Cambrensis or Geral of Wales; a tome which recounts the confessions made by Irish priests. One confession contained within gives an account by a priest who claims that while on the way to Meath he was approached by a wolf that spoke with a human tongue. The wolf assured the priest that he would come to no harm and that he simply wished for the priest to follow him into the woods where his wife, also a wolf, lay dying in need of the sacrament of last rites. The priest agreed and on the way the wolf explained that he and his wife had once been human and lived in the town of Ossory. One day a traveling bishop had come to their town preaching the gospel. The people of the town, however, only mocked the bishop and his faith. Angry and insulted by the people’s insolence the traveling bishop cursed the entire town, condemning them to assume the form of a wolf every seven years. Eventually the priest reached the wolf’s dying wife and performed the sacraments of last rites thus saving her soul from eternal damnation. In some versions of this tale the traveling bishop who curses the people of Ossory is St. Patrick, in others it is a St. Natalis.

Naturally, these tales about St. Patrick are not ones that are widely known, most likely because they cast the saint in a rather bad light. In fact, some scholars believe that such tales may in reality have actually been invented by the pagan Irish as part of an ancient smear campaign attempting to tarnish not only St. Patrick’s image but also Christianity in general. Of course, it’s also just as likely that they could have originated amongst the early Christians of Ireland who were inspired by other tales of prophets and saints who occasionally loose their tempters with their potential converts and lash out with deadly curses. Some such stories can even be found in the Bible itself.

So in conclusion I just want to say Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Go eat, drink (safely), and be merry. And if you happen to be out late and the moon in full perhaps you can stop and have a pint with these guys….


At Top: Statue of St. Patrick at Hill of Tara, Ireland.

At Bottom: A 19th-Century print shows werewolves gathering at Normandy, France.

Sources: The History of St. Patrick's Day at History.com, Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & Coca-Cola: Modern Holidays (2006) by Gabriella Kalapos, and The Book Of Were-Wolves (1865) by Sabine Baring-Gould.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday the 13th

Its Friday the 13th, March 2009. This is the second straight month in a row that the 13th has landed on a Friday. But don’t worry we’ll be Friday the 13th free from here till just about the end of the year when the 13th will again land on a Friday in November.

Friday the 13th has had the reputation of being an unlucky day since the mid 19th-Century. However, the notion of lucky and unlucky days is ancient. Calendars from Egypt dating back as far back as 2040-1750 BCE have been found marked with such propitious and ill-fated days.

Friday (which takes its name from the Norse goddess Frigg) has long been consider an inauspicious day in Western culture. Sailors were known not to ship out on a Friday, travellers to stay home, and businessmen not to conduct business. Friday was also thought to be the day on which witch’s held their Sabbaths. Christian tradition also ascribed Friday as the day on which the worse events in their mythology took place; Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden on a Friday, Cain killed Able on a Friday, God flooded the world on a Friday, and Jesus Christ was crucified on a Friday.

Even older than the fear of Friday, however, is the fear of the number thirteen, the technical term for which is Triskaidekaphobia. Triskaidekaphobia is so prevalent amongst people even today that we are often told about how businesses and hotels will purposefully “omit” a thirteenth floor, jumping from 12 to 14. The oldest known example of this practice can be found in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1800 BCE) – the earliest known set of written laws – which omits law thirteen.

Other examples of thirteen being an ill-omen come from Norse mythology where the trickster Loki’s presence at a banquet makes thirteen guests and signals the beginning of the events that will lead to the death of Baldr, the much loved god of light, and eventually doomsday called Ragnarok. Likewise in Christian tradition Jesus’ last supper hosts thirteen guests (twelve apostles and Jesus) one of whom, Judas, will betray Christ.

Considering the mythical history both Friday and the number thirteen have its not at all surprising that the presence of the two together should signal certain doom for the superstitious.

However, it should be noted that not all cultures fear Friday or the number thirteen. In both Muslim and Jewish tradition Friday either is or marks the beginning of the Sabbath while in the religion of Sikhism thirteen is seen as holy and thus very lucky.

Source: Friday the 13th (2009) by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer at Fortean Times.com and Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & Coca-Cola: Modern Holidays (2006) by Gabriella Kalapos.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Steampunk; Myths and Legends

According to the Oxford English Dictionary’s online Science Fiction Citations site the term “Steampunk” (coined 1987) refers to “a subgenre of science fiction which has a historical setting (esp. based on industrialized, nineteenth-century society) and characteristically features steam-powered, mechanized machinery rather than electronic technology.”

As a genre of science-fiction Steampunk has been very close to my heart for some time now, stemming, it seems, from my on going love of turn of the century science-fiction and fantasy writers such as Mary Shelly, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. In essence Steampunk fantasies imagine a hypothetical past where steam powered technology advanced far more than it ever really did resulting in the creation of automobiles, planes, automatic weapons, and even robots long before their times.

It is interesting to note that one of the main functions of myth often seems to be the reimagining of historical events as larger-than-life narratives full of heroes, villains, gods and monsters. In this sense writers of Steampunk science fiction (in fact writers of science fiction and fantasy in general) are very much modern myth makers, retelling the tales of the (not too distant) past but furnishing them with fantastic elements which capture our hearts and minds, even as our modern rationalistic sensibilities are telling us that such things can’t be.

Apparently feeling a similar sentiment CGSociety recently hosted a three month long competition for graphic artists which challenged them “to render traditional myths and legends in the steampunk style using elements of gears, springs, brass and steam power. Re-imagine legendary characters from some of the world’s most ancient stories, such as a steam-powered minotaur, or a Zeppelin-mounted Thor, hurling lightning bolts from the sky.” Very cool.

The contest was sponsored by over a dozen different graphic art companies and offered winners a chance to snatch up “$220,000 in prizes!” Below are some of my favorite pieces from the contest; not all are winners, but all are of epic proportions.

Charles Dickens meets the Bible as a Victorian era David takes on a mechanized Goliath. By Roger Nobs.

One of the contest winners, Fabricio Moraes' robotic Pinocchio, or as he calls it "Steamocchio."

The Fall of Icraus, by Nigel Quarless.

Another contest winner, Guillaume Dubois' very appropriate clockwork Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

In my humble opinion this piece by Jack Zhang should have won simply based on how cool the concept is; The Monkey King Sun-Wu-Kong vs. King Kong!

Winner Marek Madej's take on Don Quixote, the world's first LARPer.

A final peice and another contest winner, "The Fall of Hyperion" by Marcin Jakubowski. Apparently based partly on a science fiction novel by author Dan Simmons and partly on the tale of Zeus throwing the titans (here a giant robot) out of heaven.