Sunday, 7 February 2016

Lesson From Toulouse - How Christians Lie To Us

St Saturnin being dragegd by a bull
source: Wikipedia
This is a blog I intended to write last Autumn when we got back from Dordogne in France but it got put on the back burner for a while as other things intervened. It is the ludicrously silly tale of Saint Saturnin (or Sarin) of Toulouse, legendary first bishop of Toulouse in southwest France.

We had some time to kill before our flight home from Toulouse, so spent it in the town, mostly browsing the wonderful vegetable market, but this church down a side street caught our eye so we went to investigate. The church of St Sarin is a wonderful building in mock Romanesque style, slightly reminiscent of Eastern Christian churches. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and houses what are alleged to be St Saturnin's mortal remains and is supposedly built on the site where his body was hidden after his curious method of execution. Saint Saturnin is known by several names depending on language and local dialect; Sernin in French, Sarnin in Occitan, Sadurní in Catalan, etc.

Saturnin was probably one of the seven "Apostles to Gaul" sent out from Rome to try to rejuvenate the small, moribund Christian communities which had almost disappeared following their persecution under the Roman Emperor Decius. This would have been in about 250 CE when Roman power in the Western Empire was starting to wane as Germanic tribes were coming down from the north.

Basilica of St. Sernin, Toulouse
Source: Wikipedia
All we know of Saturnin comes from the now lost Acts of Saturninus, a highly imaginative hagiography which was relied on by Gregory of Tours as a historical document. This document has Saturnin alive in the early 1st-Century CE, one of 72 disciples of Jesus and present at the last supper - and yet available to go to Toulouse in 250 CE. It also claims he was the son of Aegeus, King of Achaea, that his mother was Cassandra, the daughter of Ptolemy, King of the Ninevites and that he was consecrated a bishop by Saint Peter himself. No point in pretending to be humble.

It's not surprising then that these Acts also make extraordinary claims about his death. In line with so many early senior Christians, it seems, Saturnin contrived to be martyred in circumstances that provided future generations with lots of body parts to pray to in the hope of a personal miracle. The story goes that to reach the Christian community in Toulouse, Saturnin had to pass the government building known as the capitol (apparently on the site of the present-day Capitole de Toulouse) where there was an altar to a local oracle which had fallen silent of late.

The priests ascribed this silence to the presence of a devout Christian. Apparently it had been working perfectly well earlier so it couldn't have been because of the lack of a local god. So, rather than being impressed by Saturnin's casual power to frighten their little local god into silence, they demanded he make a sacrifice to it by way of apology for having frightened it. Of course, being a devout Christian who just 215 or so years earlier had been breaking bread and drinking wine with Jesus, Saturnin refused. Apparently still unimpressed by Saturnin's awesome powers the priest decided to kill him by tying him by his ankles to the back legs of a bull to be dragged around the town until dead.

Strangely, and no doubt entirely coincidentally, exactly the same method of martyrdom was used to kill Saint Fermin in Pamplona where there was and, like Toulouse still is, a bull cult going back into pre-Roman history and which had become incorporated into the then popular rival religion to Christianity - Mithraism. This death is almost an exact reversal of the Mithraic story of Mithra being assigned the same fate, only for Mithra to kill the bull (the tauroctony)

So, none of the townsfolk, not even the Christians, coming forward to untie Saturnin, and unable or unwilling to use his influence with Jesus to call on his help, he was dragged around Toulouse for a few days until dying on a site known as Matabiau (killing bull). At that point his body seems to have detached itself from the bull and was found by two Christian women, les Puelles, who buried his body in a handy deep ditch to prevent it being profaned by the 'pagans'. The site where the bull allegedly stopped is still known as rue du Taur (Street of the Bull), as it might well have been called had a Mithraic temple been there.

Tomb of St. Saturnin, Toulouse
Source: Wikipedia
In 402 CE, the alleged remains of Saturnin were transferred to a small church which now forms the crypt of the present Romanesque basilica. The body parts remained there until 1284 when they were dug up again and placed in the grotesquely ornate tomb which now houses them, bearing the inscription, OSSA SANCTI SATURNINI (Bones of Saint Saturnin) in case there is any doubt. No doubt this was paid for with the money that pious pilgrims gave to the Church in the hope that it would induce Saturnin's body parts to transmit their wishes up to Heaven, where Jesus' old mate and dining partner would have a word on their behalf.

So, the Toulouse Christians had their saint complete with holy relics created in an inverted parody of a Mithraic myth to distinguish one from the other, and a story has been woven around landmarks and streets which bore obviously Mithraic names in an attempt to if not exactly expunge the remnants of an earlier religion at least to incorporate it into the local Christian mythology. It must have been difficult trying to think up original tales and martyrdoms, so it is hardly surprising that we find they often recycled them in other places like they did with this one in Pamplona.

When researching this article I came across this excellent site about miracles, relics, etc. I couldn't resist copying this small section by way of a taster:

In the twelfth century the canons of Coutances were surprised at the discovery of a lock of the Virgin's hair because, as they noted, no relic of the Virgin was known to exist on Earth. Within the next few hundred years pious Christians discovered that she had left a vast quantity of hair. Her other relics included not just one but a number of wedding rings, fine medieval dresses, footwear and purses. Vast quantities of her nail parings had been miraculously preserved along with copious amounts of her breast milk. In Germany, the Virgin's milk was known as liebfraumilch, and the quantity of it that Mary produced can scarcely have been less than the quantity of modern white wine that commemorates it. (Calvin observed that had Mary been a cow or a wet nurse she would have been hard put to produce such a great quantity of milk.

Sometimes a hint of suspicion is invited by contradictory claims. Some of Mary's hair was blonde, some gold, some red, some brown, and some black. Perhaps she dyed it, for little of it is grey. Again, the one true cross was evidently rather a complex structure. Splinters from it are composed of many different types of wood. Furthermore, Jesus must have been comprehensively pinned to this cross, since there are dozens of nails from the crucifixion still surviving. Although the Bible does not mention it, John the Baptist apparently had more than one head. Several of them are preserved in European churches. There are dozens more in eastern churches, and another one in the Umayyid Mosque in Damascus. Jesus' foreskin must have required regular pruning, for there are at least sixteen separate snippings miraculously preserved in European churches. Agatha, the saint whose veil could stop flows of lava, had numerous breasts cut off, for at least six of them have been preserved into modern times.

In the church of Santa Maria d'Aracoeli in Rome may be found the Santo Bambino (Holy Child). It was once claimed to be the miraculously preserved body of the infant Jesus. Sceptics spotted that, since Jesus did not die as an infant, it is unlikely to be a genuine body. The story had to be amended. The current version is that the bambino was carved from olive wood by angels. Some shrines boasted Jesus' navel, though it is not clear why he needed more than one, or indeed why he needed one at all — traditional teaching is that Mary produced no afterbirth (i.e. no placenta), so there would be nowhere for a conventional umbilical cord to plug into.

Many shrines boasted bones from the body of the Virgin Mary, who seems to have suffered other anatomical peculiarities. Spanish churches had at least seven of her thigh bones. Elsewhere churches had kept complete skeletons. This all became something of an embarrassment to the Roman Church when Pope Pius XII declared in 1950 that Mary had ascended bodily into Heaven, presumably without leaving so much as a single thigh bone here on Earth.


Enjoy.


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3 comments :

  1. "Saturnin contrived to be martyred in circumstances that provided future generations with lots of body parts to pray to in the hope of a personal miracle".

    Priceless!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just a tiny edit, if I may: "This is a blog I intended to write last Autumn..."

    Wait. "Rosa Rubicondior" is the name of this blog and this "Lesson from Toulouse" is a blog POST (or just "post"). Yes?

    Anyway, keep up the great work. I've been reading you for a while now, and I also enjoyed your first book.

    ReplyDelete

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