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Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas, by Alexander Boguslawski, Professor of Russian Studies, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. Professor Boguslawski's dissertation (1982), "The Vitae of St. Nicholas and His Hagiographical Icons in Russia," provided the background for the painting

Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas (Alexander Boguslawski, 1982, “The Vitae of St. Nicholas and His Hagiographical Icons in Russia,” provided the background for the painting)

Yesterday’s post concerning Saint Nicholas ended on a somber note as the saint, well…he died and was buried in a spooky sarcophagus within a basilica in Asia Minor.  Ordinarily such an ending represents a comprehensive conclusion to a biography. Yet in the centuries that followed the death of Nicholas, stories began to spread that he was up and about, busily performing miracles.  The miraculous tales of Saint Nicholas are from the Byzantine era and they possess that era’s powerful (and unnerving) combination of classical Roman mythography and medieval hagiography.  Some of these tales were post-dated to involve the living Nicholas—like the stories where he healed a woman’s withered hand when he was a child, fought with pirates as a young man (yeah!), or cast a group of demons out of a funereal cypress tree.  However other miracles performed by Saint Nicholas seem to take place in a timeless setting where the Saint acquired the ability to teleport, control the weather, and possessed full powers over human affairs, including life and death.

St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s)

St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s)

Saint Nicholas so often ended up fighting pirates, storms, and the capricious ocean that some scholars think that his hagiographers might have borrowed their stories from Neptune myths. In one story he teleported a Greek sailor out of the middle of a storm raging in the Black Sea.  In a different tale he rescued a mariner by means of a helpful whale.  Sometimes he manumitted slaves by whisking them across oceans away from the hands of cruel emirs.  Indeed, even today Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors.  Yet an even more important aspect of his nature was coming to the fore: in more and more stories he gave away gifts to those in need (frequently under cover of anonymity) or looked after children in peril.

Patron Saint of Sailors, Travelers, and Seafarers

Patron Saint of Sailors, Travelers, and Seafarers

The two myths which have the most impact on his future career—as a gift-giver and benefactor to children are intensely harrowing and awful. They both have the surreal panic of dark fairytales or vivid nightmares (or Byzantine history!).  So if you are a child (in which case, what are you doing here?) or easily impressionable you might want to relax with some fluffy creatures and skip the rest of this post.

St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, From the predella of the Quaratesi triptych from San Niccolo (Gentile da Fabriano, AD 1425, tempera on panel)

St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, From the predella of the Quaratesi triptych from San Niccolo (Gentile da Fabriano, AD 1425, tempera on panel)

Three girls of an impoverished noble family were left orphaned when their father died.  Since the father expired in the middle of uncertain business affairs, they were left destitute and without dowries.  The only way for the distraught maidens to make ends meet was to find recourse in the oldest profession.  As they wept and prepared to enter a life of prostitution, a glowing hand appeared in the window and cast three balls of gold into the house.  It was Saint Nicholas giving away princely sums of gold in order to prevent the little girls from being turned out.

St. Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca.  1430s, tempera)

St. Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s, tempera)

The most intense miracle performed by Saint Nicholas has curious parallels with the story of the three girls.  Three wealthy little boys were traveling through the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor.  They came to an inn with a treacherous and avaricious owner.  In the middle of the night the innkeeper stabbed the children to death and stole their money and clothes.  Then he butchered the bodies and put the severed pieces in salt so he could sell the children as hams (thus simultaneously turning a profit and disposing of the corpses).  For several nights it seemed he had gotten away with his horrifying act, but then with a crack of thunder, Saint Nicholas appeared in the inn.  The Saint summarily dispensed with the innkeeper who was heard from no more.  Hastening to the curing house, Nicholas opened up the salt casks and tenderly reassembled the pickled pieces of the unlucky boys into whole bodies.  Lifting his arms he summoned divine power to reanimate the murdered children and send them on their way (unscathed, I guess, although one would imagine that being dismembered and brined would leave some post-traumatic stress).

Patron Saint of travelers and Seafarers

Patron Saint of travelers and Seafarers

These intense miracle-stories traveled through the near east and beyond. Nicholas became one of the most famous saints—one of the very special dead who serve as divine intermediaries to the numinous in medieval Christianity (and up to this very day in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity).  As proselytizing clerics made their way into pagan Germany, Scandinavia, and Slavic lands, they spread tales of the wonder-working bishop who gave gifts and healed children.  After hundreds of years of performing miracles in the middle east it would not seem like things could get stranger for Saint Nicholas, but in the German forests and Alpine mountains he was due to transform again.  You can read all about it in tomorrow’s post!

Swan of Tuonela (Gabriel de Jongh)

It will probably not surprise you to know that much of the mythology of Finland and Lapland is concerned with impossible quests which ineluctably lead to destruction. Louhi was queen of the bleak realm of Pohjola as well as being a sorceress, a shapeshifter, and possibly a demigoddess.  She possessed several daughters of ineffable loveliness. In order to win the hand of one of these beauties, a hero had to pass a test stipulated by Louhi.  These tasks were always impossible or very nearly so. Additionally if a hero somehow seemed to be on the brink of accomplishing his quest, Louhi would use her sorcery to ensure that he failed.

My favorite of these myths concerns the hero Lemminkäinen, a warrior and shaman who fell in love with one of Louhi’s daughters. Louhi promised the maiden’s hand to Lemminkäinen only if the hero could bring back the lifeless body of the swan of Tuonela.  Tuonela was the Finnish underworld, a magic haunted island ruled over by the dark god Tuoni.  Getting there was no easy task and returning was much harder (several other stories about suitors seeking the daughters of Louhi involve Tuonela and its dreadful snares).  The swan was a transcendent being which swam around the island of the dead singing.

The Swan of Tuonela (Ben Garrison, 2011)

After great travails Lemminkäinen made it to the underworld and he found the magic swan, but as he drew his arms to kill the bird, Louhi’s cruel guile became apparent.  The swan began to sing a haunting song of divine beauty. The golden notes described life’s splendor and its heartache—the wordless music summarizing everything that people long for and care about in their journey from the cradle to the grave. The impossible sadness and magnificence of the song moved Lemminkäinen’s heart and he realized he could not kill the great bird. As Lemminkäinen faltered, he was spotted by the gods of the underworld.  Infuriated that anyone should threaten the great swan, Tuoni’s blind son sent a poisonous watersnake to bite the suitor.  Lemminkäinen tried to sing away the venom with a shaman spell but he knew no words of magic against watersnakes.  The whirlpool of the river of death caught him and his body was ripped into pieces which sank among the underwater boulders.

Lemminkäinen did not return home and his aged mother began to worry about him.  She went through the world seeking him in the dark forests of the south and in the lichen-shrouded wastes of the north.  She spoke to bird and bear and deer and fish looking for her son. She questioned the yellow moon and the silver stars but they were indifferent.  Finally she prostrated herself before the red sun as it set in the west and the sun god gave her the terrible answer that Lemminkäinen was lifeless, cut to bits in the black river of Tuonela. Broken with grief she went to the smith god Ilmarinen and begged him to make a huge dragging rake for her with a copper handle and steel tines. Then she went to the river and laboriously found the many waterlogged fragments of Lemminkäinen’s corpse.   She pieced the shattered bones and torn sinews together and sang the most powerful songs of healing magic to reassemble the body, but still her son remained lifeless.  All of her prayers and supplications and lamentations went unheeded by all gods and creatures save for one.  A little bee landed in front of her and promised to help.

Lemminkäinen’s Mother (Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897, tempera on canvas)

Furiously buzzing her wings, the tiny insect flew away up into the sky and then farther up to the vault of heaven.  She crossed Orion’s shoulder and flew across the great bear’s tail.  Finally she reached the heavenly abode of of Jumala, the Creator God, where he had crafted the universe.  The bee flew through the immense palace until she found a golden vessel filled with healing honey.  Then the little bee took a drop of the honey and flew down through the stars back to Lemminkäinen’s mother.  Together they placed the honey on his tongue and color came back to his lifeless form.  He struggled and shuddered and then gasped for air, waking from the world of death with its whirlpools and dark waters. But the swan’s haunting song was with him all of his days as was knowledge of what waits in the death’s dream isle at the end of the world.

And that’s how Lemminkäinen learned that Louhi’s daughter was an unsuitable bride.

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