When Angels Are Saints and Saints Are Angels

Seraphin Station

I very frequently see folks online say things like this: “Though technically speaking Archangel Michael is not a Saint [sic], sometimes this entity is venerated as one.”

I’m not linking to the source for that because my goal is not to single anyone out for being wrong. Thing is, this is not an uncommon misperception. It’s pretty easy to find multiple websites and blogs that say something to this effect – even those of folks who are otherwise pretty well-versed in folk religion and/or folk magic. If this were just a couple of blogs and not a pretty widespread point of confusion and error, I wouldn’t be going to the trouble to write about it.

I get that not everybody comes from a Catholic background. But if you’re going to write about saints in the context of hoodoo and folk religion, you should do your research before you make assertions…

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Pilgrimage, Shrine, Saint, Sacred Object (and contest)

For T.S. Eliot, April is the cruelest month (as it is for many teachers, professors, and tax professionals). But for the medieval English poet Chaucer, and for many of the faithful in medieval Europe, April was when pilgrimage season started. In spring,

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

— (Canterbury Tales, Gen Prologue, I.12-18)
Chaucer_ellesmere

Page from the Ellesmere ms of The Canterbury Tales. Public Domain.

Some pilgrims sought foreign lands, but many went to the relatively local Canterbury, site of the twelfth-century martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. Chaucer’s lines imply that some pilgrims journey to give thanks to this “hooly blissful martir” for acts of miraculous healing accomplished at a distance. Many such long-distance miracles were attributed to him, such as that of William of Kellett, to whom St. Thomas appeared in a dream. William, whose story is told in one of the surviving early thirteenth-century stained glass windows at Trinity Chapel, afterwards woke to find his wounded leg whole again. [1]  St. Thomas also appeared in a dream to a man whose family who had been spared from the plague, this time in order to warn him that he must make the overdue “pilgrimage of gratitude” to Canterbury. [2] In these cases, while the miraculous intervention of the saint was accomplished at a distance, physicality — stuff in the realm of the tangible and corporeal —  was crucially important to the spiritual economy of relics and saintly intercession. This applies to relics as well as physical sites like shrines; recipients of healing were expected to travel to the saint’s “home” if possible rather than convey their gratitude from a distance, at least for “big favors.”  Quite often, the saints’ benevolent intervention in the lives of the living faithful was accomplished by means of, or at least in the presence of, the relics of the saint. For instance, in another miracle portrayed in the windows of Trinity Chapel, “Mad Henry of Fordwich” is cured after spending the night at Becket’s tomb. [3]

1757762314_fdfb6af9fa_oA reliquary in the Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art at Schloss Hellbrunn in Austria.Some Rights Reserved: photo CC  BY-NC-SA 2.0, by Curious Expeditions at flickr

Even though these objects and sites are part of a spiritual economy, one keenly concerned with the immortal soul, the flesh matters too – matter matters, as it were. As the Canterbury examples illustrate, relics were important to this belief system, but so were sites sacred to departed saints that were not, strictly speaking, relics themselves. And these two elements – the relic and the shrine – are intimately associated, in many cases intertwined. But physical relics are not always easy to come by, and pilgrimage is not always possible. Even though possession of a saint’s relic was at one point a requirement for the dedication of a church, [4] the faithful sometimes had to be creative or even aggressive in their efforts to obtain the necessary relics, and theft of relics was not uncommon in medieval Europe.  One way that a relic shortage could be handled was through a principle of transference, by which we get what are today, in English-speaking countries, often called “third class relics.” Many relics needed for the consecration of churches in the sixth century were obtained by this osmosis or contagion principle. Church authorities would place a “box containing portions of silk or cloth, known as brandea,” into the tombs of the Apostles, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. The brandea, “after lying for a time in contact with the remains of the holy Apostles, were henceforth treated as relics.” [5] This type of relic is very easy to come by today, and new ones can be “made” as needed.

So the Church, or at least members of it, categorize relics according to how far removed from the physical body and life of the saint, in a sense (in the U.S. you often hear of “first class relics” and “third class relics” and the like, while in Italy you will sometimes hear of “major” and “minor” relics — reliquia minima, reliquia notabile, etc); while these particular categories are not universal and are not, as far as I have been able to discover, published anywhere in any official Church source as an explicit teaching or guideline, the habit of categorizing them in some way according to their “distance” from the saint him- or herself is pretty common. These categories, like various modes of “official use,” have always been somewhat of a shifting and sometimes grey area. The Church allows for these grey areas, not just in terms of vocabulary but also in terms of spiritual practice about and faith in these relics and other sites or media through and by which the spiritual and temporal worlds interact; according to The Catholic Encyclopedia, despite the fact that many popular and long-venerated relics (like the Veil of Veronica or even the “True Cross”) are of dubious authenticity, the Church frequently “allows the cult of certain doubtful relics to continue” [5]. The Church recognized long ago that many long-venerated relics could never be proven authentic beyond a shadow of a doubt, and it furthermore realized that many “devotions of ancient date” were “deeply rooted in the heart of the peasantry” and could not be “swept away without some scandal and popular disturbance,” in one writer’s (rather dated) words [6]. In short, we can’t prove this bit of wood is part of the True Cross (for instance), but if its veneration harms no-one and does not conflict with Church teaching or principle, and if it fosters the faith of the people, then it is just fine.

memling veronicaVeronica’s Veil. Diptychon mit Johannes dem Täufer und der Hl. Veronika, by Hans Memling. Public Domain.

In fact, the Church stays out of the business of pronouncing any particular relic, miracle, or apparition as authentic or not;  Church officials to this day are called on to sanction the veneration of relics and apparitions, but their role is actually confined to stating that, after examination, they have determined that its veneration is or is not heretical. That’s why it’s not really accurate to say, like this article’s headline does, that the Church has “certified” or “approved” a given apparition, miracle, etc. (though this article redeems itself if you read the whole thing, explaining a lot more clearly how it actually works). The Church doesn’t say “Yes, this vision or miracle or relic is verified or authentic.” Church officials tend rather to express opinions in terms like “reliable” or “worthy of belief,” as in the case of Cardinal Ratzinger’s judgment on the 20th century apparition of the Virgin Mary in Akita, Japan. [7] In short, the Church only gets involved in cases where it needs to determine whether a popular tradition of veneration is or is not in danger of leading to heresy, apostasy, or idolatry. [8] It often makes no pronouncement at all on popular sites of devotion and pilgrimage.

This grey area is home to an incredible array of folk and personal spiritual practice in Judeo-Christian tradition (and traditions growing out from Judeo-Christian traditions), from personal pilgrimage to home-made shrines, in addition to being the fertile ground for more formal sites and acts of devotion like pilgrimages to Canterbury. By this sort of positive contagion principle, by which a cloth can be touched to a relic and thus become a relic itself, and by which a relic can be built into the founation of an altar by which to consecrate a church, it is not an exaggeration to say that no physical item associated with a saint is without spiritual value, [9] and that includes even the homespun altars and shrines that people assemble in their own homes or on roadsides. Sometimes, if you can’t go to the saint, you can bring part of the saint to you. People without the means or access to sites like Canterbury or objects like the Shroud of Turin can still work to create personal sacred sites, where the spiritual and temporal intersect even in everyday life. And this brings us to the wide variations in personal and popular practice and “folk Catholicism,” and thus to the real point of this post: the long, living, and vibrant tradition of “unofficial,” folk shrines, altars, sites of devotion, and physical objects of faith.

expedite shrine An altar to St. Expedite on Reunion Island. Some rights reserved: CC BY-SA 2005 David Monniaux

Today’s folk practitioners build shrines on roadsides; make them out of candy tins; create them on their mantelpieces or in their bedrooms; carry or wear them around their necks; build transient ones to serve as sites of sacred intersection for the short span of a single ceremony; build living ones that last years or decades but are fluid as they reflect the coming and going of offerings, candles, ex votos, milagros, prayer papers, flowers, and statues of the faithful as they interact with and add to the site; build permanent structures as chapels in the forests or the deserts of their regions; build tiny chapels in the middle of nowhere as a gesture of thanks or faith or as a home for their saints and their devotions.

As a celebration of these sacred art objects and structures in Judeo-Christian traditions [10], this April’s contest at Karma Zain is focused on these personal shrines, altars, sacred spots, assemblages, and objects where the spiritual and temporal meet according to the principles I’m describing in this article. As you can gather, I hope, from the preceding, I am interpreting “shrine” and “relic” quite broadly; but simply to put some parameters or limits in here somewhere, I am confining this contest to shrines, memorials, relics, reliquaries, nichos, altars etc that are in, or peripheral to, or aesthetically inspired by, or philosophically derived from, the Judeo-Christian tradition. [11] To enter, just send photos of a shrine, nicho, reliquary, ex voto, altar, etc that you have created, made, assembled, or are otherwise primarily responsible for. You can submit up to three photos of your subject, and each subject will equal one entry. If you want to submit more than one entry, you can. (So if you have three photos of the same altar, that’s one entry. If you have three photos, one each of three different altars, that’s three entries.) If this gets a number of entries that makes it impossible to put them all in single blog post for judging, then Karma Zain and associates will select a manageable number of finalists. If all entries, total, end up being a manageable number for a single blog post, then they will all go to the finalist stage. To help spread the word towards the ideal of creating a curated collection of images of your awesome spiritual art and folk practice, you guys — my readership — will be the judges of the finalists.

freda Our Lady of Sorrows shrine, (c) Karma Zain

First Place gets – big surprise – a custom shrine, designed in conjunction with the winner, for the saint, spirit, figure, or patron of the winner’s choice. You win, you tell me what saint, angel, spirit, figure, etc you’d like a shrine for (as well as any preferences like “small enough to fit in my car glove compartment” or “suitable for hanging on a wall,” and I make it for you, one of a kind and custom, incorporating your prayers, petitions, devotions, etc. My shrines are *all* one of a kind (and usually retail between $80 and $300), so this is a great chance to win some spiritual folk art made just for you!

gedecabinet Ghuede shrine, (c) Karma Zain

Second Place gets a custom spiritual jewelry item, designed in conjunction with the winner, for the saint, spirit, figure, or patron of the winner’s choice. You win, you tell me what saint, angel, spirit, etc you’d like an item of devotional jewelry made for, and I make it for you. This could be a hoodoo medium’s necklace, a traditional Marian rosary, a bracelet, a chaplet, an incognito necklace that doesn’t give away its true meaning, a “collar” for an altar bottle, even a decorated sash or scarf if you use those in your practice. My jewelry and prayer bead pieces are all one of a kind (and usually retail between $20 and $100), so this is a great chance to grab a custom-made wearable piece.

004 (4)Mary Magdalene Rosary, (c) Karma Zain

Contest Rules and Details Summary:

1. Email the photo to me, as an attachment, to karmazain at gmail dot com. Please make the subject line refer to the contest somehow. The image must be your intellectual property and you must have the right to publish it, share it, etc. You are welcome to send a short caption if you’d like to explain the object or the context, in which case I may incorporate your written info, verbatim or paraphrased, as part of my posting of your photo.

2. You are agreeing to have your photograph, or links to your photograph, published in my blog and any connected social networking sites (Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, etc). You retain ownership of your own intellectual or creative property, but your entering the contest constitutes your agreement to have your photo published, blogged, linked to, reblogged, etc. If you’d like me to publish your name (and/or website) along with it, I will, or you can submit anonymously and I will use initials and location (like JS from CA).

3. You are agreeing to have your photographs entered into a contest, the finalists for which will have their stuff judged *by my readership,* probably via a poll that I put up in a blog post after the deadline. Please don’t be a jerk and try to game the system by voting for your own photo a bunch of times (the poll won’t allow it anyway), though you are free to campaign for your own photo and ask your friends to vote; I’m just asking that folks please stick to “one vote per person”).

4. The contest will be open until April 29, the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena (for no other reason than because she was my Confirmation saint). I will put up the poll and open the voting shortly after that, and voting will be open until May 8 (an old feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, the anniversary of his apparition at Monte Gargano). [11]

5. No whining. (You would not believe the grief I get when I try to give shit away for free. People complain about the rules, complain about how the contest is set up, complain about the prizes, complain about how I notify winners, complain because they cut themselves opening the box containing their free shit – I am telling you, it is land-o-overdeveloped-sense-of-entitlement, aka greedy grabby shit, in some quarters. If you don’t like the rules, feel free to not enter the contest, for God’s sake; I’m just over here trying to give some cool stuff to people who are interested in the same type of spiritual expression and practice that I’m interested in.)

6. This list should be a quick ref, but reading this summary isn’t a substitute for reading the whole article, without which you might not understand what the whole ethic and aesthetic at work here are.

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Two necklaces, (c) Karma Zain

Sources

[1] Harris, Anne. “Pilgrimage, Performance, and Stained Glass at Canterbury Cathedral.” Art and Architecture Of Late Medieval Pilgrimage In Northern Europe And The British Isles: Texts. Sarah Blick and Rita Tekippe, eds. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005: 263-264.
[2] Harris, 263.
[3] Canterbury Cathedral: Becket Miracle Window 4.
[4] The second Nicean council decreed in 787 that churches had to be in possession of relics in order to be dedicated. I haven’t extended my research on this into contemporary times so I’m not sure if this is still a requirement today. See Kamowski, William. “’Coillons,’ Relics, Skepticism and Faith on Chaucer’s Road to Canterbury: An Observation on the Pardoner’s and the Host’s Confrontation.” ELN 28 (1991): 4.
[5] Thurston, Herbert. “Relics.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia‘s entry on relics, “Neither has the Church ever pronounced that any particular relic, not even that commonly venerated as the wood of the Cross, as authentic.”
[6] Thurston, “Relics.”
[7] “Messages of our Lady in Akita, Japan.” Michael 337 (2005): 17. Michael Journal.
[8] Pope Innocent was asked to make a ruling on the authenticity of the Holy Foreskin at the abbey of Charroux in the twelfth century; the Pope declined. See Farley, David, “Fore Shame,Slate 19 Dec. 2006. Calcata and Charroux both claimed to have the Holy Foreskin in the early twentieth century; the Vatican, rather than ruling definitively on the status of either claim, simply threatened to excommunicate anybody who perpetuated the controversy. See Silverman, Eric, From Abraham to America: A History of Jewish Circumcision, Devon, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002: 158.
[9] Sumption, Jonathan, The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God, Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003: 112.
[10] Broadly interpreted, so ATRs using Catholic iconography are included in this category, as are nichos made in traditionally-inspired style for people or personalities who are not, strictly speaking, recognized as saints or angels, as would a homemade reliquary made to house a physical object tied to a non-canonically-approved figure like Black Hawk. In other words, it’s possible to work within the folk traditions ultimately springing from or inspired by these Judeo-Christian traditions and principles of shrine and relic without considering yourself a monotheist, a Catholic, or a “person of the Book.”
[11] So, as much as I love sand mandalas, Kali, homemade shrines to Hecate, hand-carved drinking horns for blot, etc, those would not fit the parameters here in their “pure” form; those are different traditions with different aesthetics and philosophies underlying the construction of sacred art and sites. This is nothing against paganism or Eastern philosophy or practice at all, but there are lots of forums for those types of traditions and practices already, and they are not what this blog is devoted to.
[12] Some saints or angels have more than one feast day, and for visitations and apparitions, the feasts often have to do with the anniversary of a given visitation or apparition. That’s why you see so many different “faces” of the Virgin Mary, for instance. There’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, OL of Sorrows, OL of Mount Carmel, etc. So you will see people say the feast day of St. Michael is Sep. 29, and they’re not wrong, but that’s not really the whole story, either. In southern Italy and much of Europe in the Middle Ages, one of St. Michael’s feast days was commonly observed on May 8. See, for instance, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 6082, a twelfth-century Benedictine manuscript from southern Italy. For more on St. Michael’s feast days and their histories in various parts of the world, here’s an excerpt/summary of a chapter written by Father Francis Xavier Weiser in The Holy Day Book, Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., New York, 1956.

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St. Expedite shrine; Memento Mori chaplet, (c) Karma Zain

Angry Angels and Saints Who Smite

I’m posting this as a blog entry 1. because I can’t seem to comment on Mama Cat’s blog (maybe she turned off comments or my browser is jacked up), and 2. I don’t want to take over her blog with my rambling anyway. Anyway, this is in response to her blog post here. I just want to chime in on the “saints punishing you” thing (if you read this whole thing, you’ll see that I am not disagreeing with her – I’m just elaborating).

People tend to think of saints as benevolent entities, close to God, involved in helping the devoted. Actually, there is an extremely long tradition of punitive miracles even in quite orthodox Catholic practice. I go into this a bit in this blog post. If you read the Old Testament, it’s full of them; God smote the hell out of all kinds of people, and he’s God. Saints and angels smite too. That isn’t the part people usually think of, though. As Tony Burke points out in his academic blog here, the study of punitive miracles is pretty much neglected by scholars as well. But such power to harm is part and parcel of the workings of saints, deities, and spirits in many different cultures and religions – absolutely including Christianity. Burke notes,

“Though not as plentiful in the sources as beneficent miracles, punitive miracles are nevertheless found in literature throughout Mediterranean antiquity. Holy men wield power, and sometimes that power is not used with mercy. Thus, to the ancient mind, it is reasonable for Elisha to call upon bears to maul annoying children, for Apollonios to threaten repressive corn merchants, for r. Eliezer to kill r. Gamaliel, for Paul to blind a false prophet, for Jesus to whither a fig tree, and so on. Of course, the power behind these curses comes from the gods, and sometimes the gods even curse directly—the Hebrew Bible, for example, contains numerous punitive acts perpetrated by Yahweh himself.”

My PhD work focused on this stuff in medieval England (and to a lesser extent, elsewhere), so this is obviously a favorite topic of mine. I don’t claim to be an authority on all world religions or even every Christian saint, but I think my training and research makes me pretty much qualified to call myself an expert on these “economies” and systems of circulation of relics, saints, angels, human beings, and how they all tend to interact and have interacted historically. I have published peer-reviewed academic articles on angels, saints, religious literature, and angelology. So I cannot in good conscience say that the popular image of angels as smiling feathered beautiful beings in gowns helping children over bridges is terribly accurate, nor can I say that punishment, smiting, punitive measures, retribution, etc are not a very important component of what sainthood is and has been understood to be for a very, very long time. If you think saints and angels are all benign and smiling and all about dropping everything to tend to whatever your little human issue is, you are a fool.

george
Creative Commons License, Some Rights Reserved: Jim Forest

However, I do agree with Cat: for today’s typical practitioner of folk spirituality, such things are not very common. And even when they happen, saying a saint has “attacked” you is not very accurate; that’s not really how it works. And anyway, the saints are more likely to smite you or screw you up if you have a deep, genuine relationship with one in particular — an obligation — and really drop the ball in terms of keeping up your end of things. They are NOT likely to starting raining hell down on somebody who is new to working with them and is making a legit attempt, and frankly I’ve found that they have better things to do than go around smiting people for making an honest mistake or being oh-so-humanly a bit of an ass. (The saints are human too – well, most of them.)

Many punitive miracles in medieval hagiographies and lore are due to somebody being a dumbass and not getting the original message, not doing something they were already told in less punitive or frightening terms to do, failing to do something they were being warned they were obligated to do. For instance, in the lore of St. Michael, there’s this idiot named Garganus who made one of his men shoot a bull that St. Michael was trying to send as a sign of where he wanted a chapel built. Thick-headed Garganus didn’t get the message; the bull wandered off near this cave and Garganus threw a little fit and ordered the bull shot. The arrow meant for the bull blew back and hit the servant (who was just following orders, after all). Garganus went to the bishop, being troubled by these strange events, and apparently softened his heart a little. Then later St. Michael appeared to him and said, basically, “This guy is dead because it is my will. Now pay attention; build my church at that cave the bull was sent to show you.” (Here’s a photo of the grotto chapel of St. Michael at Mt. Gargano.)

Gerald of Wales, telling of Ireland, wrote of a priest that encountered two wolves on his way Ulster. One spoke to him. The shocked priest reported that the wolf said, “There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of one Natalis, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form, and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves.” The priest gave the sick wolf-wife the last rites. Before leaving them, he asked the wolf-man if the island’s inhabitants would continue to suffer under invaders. The wolf answered, “For the sins of our nation, and their enormous vice, the anger of the Lord, falling on an evil generation, hath given them into the hands of their enemies. Therefore, as long as this foreign race shall keep the commandments of the Lord, and walk in his ways, it will be secure and invincible; but if, as the downward path to illicit pleasures is easy, and nature is prone to follow vicious examples, this people shall chance, from living among us, to adopt our depraved habits, doubtless they will provoke the divine vengeance on themselves also.” [*] Moral of the story for Gerald anyway: while saints and abbots may curse sinners, when we talk about great misfortune, we usually bring this stuff on ourselves somehow through wrong action or neglect of right action. He then goes on to tell of ravens falling dead for feasting on the carcass of St. Vincent, and of an archer who died miserably after innocently trying to shoot one of St. Colman’s ducks for his evening supper.

That is NOT to say that traditions of saints raining down hell on somebody do not exist in conjure lore, in contemporary folk Catholic practice, or even in people’s living rooms today. They do, just as they exist in the holy books of many religions. (Though as scholars like Stanko Andric have noted, these shouldn’t be understood as God or a saint throwing a fit, being unjust, or being cruel – these punitive miracles and intercessions have a larger role within the whole dynamic or system, are part of God’s will which is not always discernible to us in its entirety from our limited perspectives, serve a legitimate role in a community, and also serve as lessons to the faithful. See for instance Andric’s The Miracles of St. John Capistan, in which he notes, while discussing ultiones, that sometimes saints know that you are about to screw up, might try to warn you even, but you may be punished or mess things up *not due to the saint’s failure but due to your — the sinner’s — actions or lack thereof.* As I note in my earlier blog post that I linked to above, intercession of saints does not technically, traditionally involve any saint granting your wish or prayer – it involves the saint interceding with God for you; you thank a saint, technically, not for direct action but for going to bat for you in approaching God on your behalf, since God is the source of all this activity, power, etc.)

And while it is actually not super-common, there are some people who will warn you that St. Expedite (pronounced “espedee” or “expedeet” in the Southeastern US, by the way – think of how a French person would say the word, not an American person), among other saints, has a “call” behind them; that means that if you ask their intercession and mess up, or sometimes if you ask their intercession at all depending on what you’re trying to do, they will take somebody with them (meaning somebody around your home or family will die). Again, these are not typical views, but neither are they unique to just one person. I personally do not caution people that if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain, you should expect death to strike your family — the reality of working with saints in folk traditions these days is usually a lot less dramatic than that of late antiquity and the Middle Ages — but I absolutely do caution folks to learn about what they are doing, to form relationships, and not to treat their doings with saints lightly. If you piss off St. Michael by asking him to smite one of his devotees, and your desire is unjustified according to St. Michael, will he strike you down instead? Probably not. But this is no long-tressed, smiling, harp-playing cherub you’re talking about, so don’t be a fool. At best he might ignore you. At worst he might teach you a lesson. God, after all, taught Job some very colorful lessons, and he liked Job. St. Expedite was a Roman soldier. St. Michael struck down Satan. St. George and St. Martha took out dragons. So I urge you to think carefully before you ask petty things of saints or angels, or presume that your bull is more important than their chapel, so to speak!

If you don’t like what I’m saying here, feel free to not work with saints. And you don’t have to be a Christian or Catholic to work with (most) saints, in my experience – but what you had better do if you have any sense is know what you’re getting into and doing. You cannot just strip away all the history, traditions, and roles of saints, pick out just the nice parts that you want and that make it “easy,” and pretend that things like sin, punitive miracles, obligation, traditional roles and temperaments, etc. do not exist. You cannot treat saints like they aren’t part of this economy and aren’t part of Christian lore and tradition. Doing that – rejecting the fabric and culture and religion of the very saint you are trying to work with — is what will get you a punitive miracle. (That goes for spirits, saints, and deities of any religion; if you strip away the culture and religion from which they came and give them makeovers in your own image, according to your own preferences, or act like you can pick and choose which aspects and components you want to incorporate and ignore the rest  — well, don’t go complaining that so-and-so saint didn’t work for you when your buffet-style approach gets you some divine smackdown. That was not on the saint – that was all on you.)

[*] Translation is by Thomas Forester, of Giraldus Cambrensis’ The Tophography of Ireland, In parentheses Publications, Cambridge 2000.

Conjure in pop culture – Supernatural S1 E9, “Home”

Supernatural is among my daughter’s favorite shows and she has forbidden me to carp about any liberties taken with magic, mythology, symbols, angelology, or religion. But that’s why I have a blog.

So in season 1, episode 9, “Home,” the main characters hook up with a palmist/psychic character of presumably African-American descent who instructs them on how to purify a house that’s infested with a poltergeist. “Angelica root, van van oil, crossroad dirt, [and] a few other odds and ends” are tied up into bags to be put into the north, south, east, and west walls of the home, one on each floor.

Poltergeists aren’t a precise fit in conjure, and I would personally take a different route for exorcism and even for house-cleansing, but the bags-inside-the-walls method isn’t a bad one for protection purposes. (It would obviously be easier to do this as you were building or remodeling the house; if you were doing it after the fact, in real life and not on TV, simply hanging or concealing the bags would be traditionally fine, and while the N-S-E-W thing is alright, I’d not neglect the center of the home, nor the entrances.) As for ingredients, the angelica root and the Van Van oil are easy to find info on, so I want to confine my remarks to the crossroads dirt for this post.

I can easily piece together a few different lines of thinking on how and why one might use crossroads dirt, but I personally never heard of any such thing being used as a standalone ingredient in any older traditional sources or from any older traditional practitioners. That doesn’t mean it was never used back in the day – I certainly haven’t met everybody from every region – but the reason why I suspect it’s an invention or interpolation from another tradition (or simply a writer’s imagination) is because the important thing about crossroads is that they’re places, not curios or objects. Now, I know that graveyards are places too and graveyard dirt is old-school, but graveyard dirt when taken and used as a standalone ingredient is usually used either for its attachment to/association with a particular spirit in that graveyard, or for the purposes of symbolically recreating a graveyard in another place (to bury someone or something in on your altar, for instance). Graveyard dirt “works” most often because of a particular grave in that graveyard – other uses are rarer. That means it “works” because of the spirits associated with the graveyard, not simply because it’s a graveyard, if the distinction I’m trying to make is making sense (and please note I’m leaving aside things like vodoun right now and deities or non-formerly-human spirits from other religions that are associated with graveyards). There’s a theory/philosophy of the relationship between the living and the dead at work here that underlies the whole usage of graveyard dirt as a standalone ingredient in conjure.

The crossroads, on the other hand, are important because they’re crossroads, not because of a particular spirit associated with particular crossroads (and again, I’m leaving aside the related matter of the “devil/black man at the crossroads” lore for the time being, as that is a rite that has to be done at the crossroads, and that particular rite is less common than other crossroads rites that have nothing to do with the “devil/black man at the crossroads.”)

Even if the intent behind using crossroads dirt was to somehow tap into the traditions associated with the devil or black man at the crossroads, that would be done in order to gain some kind of skill or knowledge, not for purposes of protection or driving away spirits. You don’t move the crossroads rite to a non-crossroads place like you might move graveyard dirt to a non-graveyard place. When we’re talking about driving away things we don’t want around, the crossroads would come in as a place to perform all or part of a rite focused on getting rid of something or somebody, most commonly as a place to dispose of ritual remains, personal concerns, water, etc (though they can also be used as more “neutral” disposal locations for other types or rites or workings, of course – I don’t mean to imply that they’re all about hotfoot or something because they aren’t, but they are very often about dispersal in some sense, even if it’s just a neutral “disposal” or dispersal of “energy” or materials to conclude a benevolent rite). Crossroads are important in those cases because they are a place where two paths meet and then diverge, where they cross; they are a place where things travel and where paths, well, cross, where direction can be changed, where choices can be made, and where things can be met, etc. So even if you were to use crossroads stuff as part of a rite or working to get rid of an entity, you wouldn’t try to bring the crossroads to the house – you would be more likely to take something from the house to the crossroads. And you wouldn’t “tie up” the crossroads by tying the dirt up into a mojo bag – it goes against the entire reason for using crossroads in the first place, the way I see it. When crossroads are used to get rid of things, they are used because of dispersal, to get something to go and stay gone, to move in the other direction from you. You don’t really use crossroads for binding or tying down, and even if you tried to stretch it that way and think of bringing some kind of dispersal energy to the site, using crossroads dirt for that purpose doesn’t make any sense to me. And crossroads aren’t really used as a way to confuse or keep away spirits in the same way that, say, crossing running water would be in some traditions or regions.

Like I said, if I had to use crossroads dirt as an ingredient, I can think of a few ways to use it I guess. I can reconstruct some of the thinking if indeed there’s any more to it than it being something that might have popped up if you googled hoodoo and needed something to make your dialogue sound reasonably interesting. I think it’s a later creation or interpolation or invention that came into conjure — if it can even be said to have a place in conjure, which I’m not convinced of — through not-traditional-conjure sources. (For instance, if you see it in New Orleans, I will bet you cash money that it came in via vodoun or another religion.) I suppose I can imagine using it in, say, a paket for Legba. But as a standalone ingredient in a mojo bag to get rid of spirits or keep them out? Nope, it doesn’t fit — for the same reasons you don’t see hot-foot mojo bags and that you can’t bottle running water and still call it running water. The crossroads are important because they are a place of meeting and movement in a way that makes the site itself important; you can’t capture it. If you could, it would no longer be about movement and meeting and divergence. That’s not to say you can’t create a spiritual crossroads in a ritual setting – you can, and you do every time you draw a veve, for instance, or make offerings on your ancestor altar — but that is a different animal, working in a different way, and that would be for another post.

spn211_94
For the record, I consider the quincunx or five spot (pictured above from S2E11) to be related but distinct; even if you consider it a ritually created, manmade crossroads of some sort, it’s used for completely different purposes than the crossroads as a location. The quincunx or five  spot is used to fix things, to set things in place – it’s declarative where the crossroads are more like ellipses, if you will. I don’t consider the five spot to be a crossroads, and I think it quite likely that anything you read about setting down crossroad dirt to perform a ritual, whether in a quincunx or in some other pattern, was written by somebody who comes from a tradition other than conjure. That’s fine – I know traditional southeastern conjure is not the only way to work, but I believe in separating the fact from the fiction is all. If they tell you it’s used in conjure to increase the power of your rituals, I would be very skeptical. If they then tell you to bury the crossroads dirt near your home to draw something to you, I would not hit a hog in the behind with anything they sell or say. So tying crossroads dirt into a mojo to get rid of a negative entity or person? It just doesn’t make sense.

Now, if you wanted a mojo or paket in your house to keep away evil spirits and/or unwelcome guests, you have all kinds of options. I like St. Michael for this type of stuff – a paket at the front door and one at the back. Here is a paket I have at one of my doors currently, made by my colleague Rev. Tixerand at Isle Brevelle Botanica, along with a partial view of some other odds and ends I keep at this particular spot.

paket
You can make a good St. Michael paket for your home with Grains of Paradise, angelica root, boldo leaf, blackberry leaf, broom straws, caraway seeds, and pennyroyal. If you want something smaller than holy-card-sized, then just put a St. Michael medal into the paket or mojo instead of having the image on the outside. You can also use a hoodoo nail or a sword charm dressed with St. Michael oil.

If you live on family land, or are doing work to protect a family, you might want to get a friendly family spirit or ancestor involved. In that case, you can use graveyard dirt from a relative who would be invested in the protection of the home and/or family, properly collected with proper payment. A nice three-ingredient mojo in that case could contain graveyard dirt, althea, and blessed thistle. Or whichever particular herbs suit your situation — if you live in the woods and need protection from animals, or have awful in-laws and need protection from them, or need to keep the cops away, or need to keep your teenager’s bad influences away, you can modify accordingly. Dress with Fiery Wall of Protection, Home Protection, St. Michael, or some other appropriate oil.

But leave out the crossroads dirt, y’all – that’s just television.

ETA: Read the comments at the mirror site on livejournal for commentary by ConjureMan Ali, who says he knows a trick from the VA/SC area involving crossroads dirt as a standalone ingredient — but note that the lore involves the practitioner setting out to travel, not binding the dirt up into a fixed mojo for protection or for anything else. That made sense to me, but tying the dirt up still didn’t. I called my cousin who was born in Louisiana but now lives in Texas, and she says she doesn’t know any uses for crossroads dirt as a standalone ingredient from any region she’s lived in. But my neighbor, who lives in the Atlanta area now but grew up in Florida, says she has heard of dirt from the “fork in the road” taken as a standalone ingredient in a bag for luck. So between these two, I guess I stand corrected and my train of thought on crossroads dirt being a new interpolation as a standalone ingredient misses the track somewhere. She doesn’t know where her people are from before her mother. But she and her mother call hoecakes “johnny cakes,” so that makes me suspect that her mother or grandmother spent some time on the East coast of the U.S. That could be just me wanting the East coast connection to be there to explain some differences I see in regional variations with how certain liminal places and states are treated (a bit on that is in the comments too), ’cause Lord knows regional dialect stuff can work on a pretty “micro” scale and lore can get into families all kinds of ways, especially when a family moves a lot. But my neighbor is 50 and her mother is over 80 and neither of them are practitioners of any particular spiritual path, religion, or folk practice (they ask me for stuff in a pinch), so they sure didn’t invent this stuff or read it to import it from somewhere else.

It also tells me that my asking people about “crossroads dirt” might be the wrong phrase. I should probably ask about “dirt from the fork in the road.”

Recommended Reading – St Cyprian and St Michael

Conjureman Ali on St. Cyprian’s Feast Day and Miss Bri on St. Michael the Archangel’s Feast Day.  I have recently seen some well-meaning devotee refer to Sep 29 as St. Michael’s birthday, which made me spew my tea all over the monitor. Sep. 29 is the anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica of St. Michael. As an angel, St. Michael doesn’t have a birthday (and birthdays are rarely saints’ feasts days anyway – it’s more often the death day, though of course as an angel, St. Michael wouldn’t have one of those either). So the feast day has to come from somewhere else; in this case, its origins are tied to landmarks of terrestrial devotion.

Also, in honor of St. Mike (as my daughter calls him), an 11th century prayer to St. Michael, an Old Irish prayer to the archangels, a 15th century prayer to St. Michael, St. Michael and St. George from Hyatt’s material, a snippet from a pre-Vatican-2 St. Michael service, and hopefully tomorrow if I have time after doing several readings, i will get around to finishing and posting a translation of a nice little apocryphal legend about St. Michael’s role as a psychopomp (bearer of souls). Or maybe the Mt. Garganus story – that would be cool too. Sigh… we’ll see.

St Michael

Anyway, St. Michael is a powerful and beloved patron of many, so light a little candle for him (or have Miss Bri light one for you! click the link above for details!)  Here’s a snippet from an article I wrote a good while ago; since it got rejected (again) in some pretty blunt terms, I will probably not do anything else with it, so I can cannibalize a bit on how angels got to be so mixed up with martial imagery in the medieval European imagination:

Angels in medieval France were portrayed as terrible, albeit beautiful, beings as often as they were portrayed as smiling, benevolent messengers; they were not pictured as the cute little infant-like cherubs familiar to us from Christmas cards until the Italian Renaissance.[1] In medieval French manuscript illuminations during the Crusades, angels were often portrayed in military uniforms or in shining golden armor. [2]  David Keck explains, “connections between angels and war have scriptural origins, in particular, in the great war between Michael and his angels and the dragon and his followers” in the book of Revelation.[3] Military leaders invoked Michael’s and other angels’ aid in terrestrial warfare as well; Count Robert of Mortain’s standard depicted Michael in the Battle of Hastings, and Joan of Arc’s depicted Michael and Gabriel.[4] Angels were intimately tied to the Christianization of warfare in medieval Europe, and the French were particularly enamored of their warrior angels, as the history of Mont-Saint-Michel and Michael’s patronage of Normandy attest.[5] In the Oxford manuscript of the Chanson de Roland, even the usually peaceful Gabriel appears in a dream to urge a reluctant Charlemagne to battle in the land of Bire.[6] In the rich folkloric and popular traditions emerging from scriptural reference to warrior angels, Keck argues, angels became a “powerful image and paradigm for the holiest of warfare” in the medieval imagination;[7]  figures such as St. Michael in Normandy were an “iconographic representation of angelic warriors [which] helped to legitimize revolutionary and military activities.”[8] These associations “made it possible for some to locate the origins of chivalry itself in the angelic realms.”[9]  Warrior angels made it possible to be both a Christian and a knight, both an earthly warrior and a servant of God; in Keck’s words, the warrior angel “allowed military men to have both their Christianity and their swordplay.”[10] This was particularly the case at the beginning of the twelfth century; as John Edward Damon remarks of the era that followed the first Crusade, the concept of “[s]oldier sainthood would move to the center of theology and culture” as the Christian knight rode East, to holy war.[11] This convergence of terrestrial and celestial also made it easy for knights to demonize their political opponents, casting them as the satanic enemy upon whom St. Michael tramples in his most familiar iconography.


[1] Patricia Gathercole, The Depiction of Angels and Devils in Medieval French Manuscript Illumination (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), 5.

[2] Gathercole 21.

[3] David Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 201.

[4] Ibid., 202.

[5] Ibid., 201-203.  For Michael’s warrior role, see Richard Johnson, Saint Michael the Archangel in Medieval English Legend (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, Inc., 2005).  For a discussion of angelic appearances in the context of marvels, dream-visions, and other “specular encounters,” see Donald Maddox, Fictions of Identity in Medieval France (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), esp. 201-215.

[6]  La Chanson de Roland, ed. Gerald J. Braut (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1984), ll. 3990-4000.

[7]  Keck 201.

[8] Ibid., 202.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 203.

[11] John Edward Damon, Soldier Saints and Holy Warriors: Warfare and Sanctity in the Literature of Early England (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003), 277.

old-school juju – St Michael packets

Y'all.  I am always talking about "people who grew up with this stuff" and "people who take conjure seriously and live it and not treat it as just as another tool in their eclectic toolbox" etc etc.  (there is nothing wrong with eclectic and nothing wrong with you following your traditions of your origins rather than somebody else's, and nothing wrong with picking up conjure later or anything like that, in and of itself, in case you are just stumbling across this).

Well, one way you can know you have got an old-school, "been around a while" worker on your hands is when they make stuff like this: A serious old-school St. Michael mojo packet, made my Miss Bri at Milagro Roots.  I hardly EVER see these from folks who didn't grow up around the Mississippi river or train with somebody who did.  I first saw it New Orleans, and I actually rarely see it outside of southern Louisiana.  It tickles me pink to see this kind of work.

If you have been reading for a while, you might remember that I used to offer something similar – but i started with embellished and embroidered scapular-type holy cards because I could NOT make my sewn packets look good enough to offer to the public.  My flannel always puckered, or the card looked bent up, or the stitches were crooked, and I didn't want to glue them (even though the one I have that I got in New Orleans was glued) and I eventually gave up.  But these are *great* and they are totally hand-done and hand-sewn, and customized with the personal concerns of you and/or your family members.  It does not get any better than this for home protection work, y'all, for real.  And since I sort of specialize in protection work and consider St. Michael one of my very special personal saints, you can bet it's impressive if I'm impressed.  Go have a look at some serious old-school personalized protection mojo!

[below is a St. Michael mojo packet, but not Miss Bri's – I haven't asked her permission to post a pic of hers yet, so this is just for the sake of having a St. Mike pic for the moment]

An Old Irish Prayer to the Archangels by the days of the week

I regret that I have not been writing as many informative or instructional posts lately as I’d like.  If you’ve worked with me fairly closely over the years and/or been reading my blog for a while, you may know that I’m feverishly trying to finish my PhD dissertation and *get the heck out of graduate school* where I have been for far, far too long.  So instructional/informative posts are not likely to be copious over the next few months.

But as part of my research I am working with a lovely Old Irish poem that I thought I’d share for you readers who work with, think about, and enjoy angels – it should be especially interesting for readers into esoteric prayer, working with the Seven Rays of the Archangels or any of the Rosaries of the Seven Rays, or those with a Roman Catholic or folk Catholic background – or, I daresay, an Irish background!  (If you aren’t familiar with the Seven Rays material, see the tags on this post – they’ll take you to other posts for more info.)

This is a prayer to the archangels giving one for each day of the week. 

A Prayer to Seven Archangels

Gabriel lim i nDomhnaighibh | is cumhachta ríg neime.
Gabriél lim hi comnaidi, | nachamthí bét na bini.

Michél dia Luain labraimsea; | focheird mo menma airi.
ni re nech nosamlaimsea | acht ré hIosu mac Maire.

Mad Mairtt, Raphiél radimsea, co tí in crich, dom chobuir;
in sechtmadh fer alimsea, | céin uér ar tuár in domhuin.

Uriél lim i cCétáinib, | int abb co n-uaisli ardi,
ar guin ocus ar gábudh, ar threthan gaithi gairgi.

Sáriel Dardain labraimsea | ar thonnuibh mera in mara,
ar cech nolc thic re duine, | ar cech ngalar nodgobha.

Dia na haíne didíni | Rumiél–rath reill–rocharus.
ní abbair acht fírinne, | maith in cara rogabus.

Panchel i sSatharnaib lim, | céin beó arin mbith mbuide
. . . . . . . . .  [*]

In Trinoid dom anacul. | in Trinoid dom shnádud.
in Trinoitt dom shæradh. | ar chach nguin, ar gach ngabud.

————————————————————————————————-

* [second half of verse missing in manuscript]

Modern English:

May Gabriel be with me on Sundays, and the power of the King of Heaven.
May Gabriel be with me always that evil may not come to me nor injury.

Michael on Monday I speak of, my mind is set on him,
Not with anyone do I compare him but with Jesus, the son of Mary.

If it be Tuesday, Raphael I mention, until the end comes, for my help.
One of the seven whom I beseech, as long as I am on the field of the world.

May Uriel be with me on Wednesdays, the abbot with high nobility,
Against wound and against danger, against the sea of rough wind.

Sariel on Thursday I speak of, against the swift waves of the sea,
Against every evil that comes to a man, against every disease that seizes him.

On the day of the second fast, Rumiel–a clear blessing–I have loved,
I say only the truth, good the friend I have taken.

May Panchel be with me on Saturdays, as long as I am on the yellow world
. . . . . . . .

May the Trinity protect me! may the Trinity defend me!
May the Trinity save me from every hurt, from every danger!

———————————————————————————————–

[translation is by Thomas O’Nowlan / Tomas Ua Nuallain, “A Prayer to the Archangels for Each Day of the Week,” in Ériu vol. 2, pp 92-94, which you can also consult for manuscript info if you have an academic interest in this piece]

As you may notice, this is one of many extant traditions about the names of the “seven archangels” – the number varies too, of course!  But this is one Celtic tradition for the seven archangels to which we have early attestation (this poem dates from the 800s).  A different batch of archangels is listed in the Saltair na Rann lines 793-804:

Gabriel, Michél, maith an-greim, Raphiel, Panachel oebind, Babichél, Raguel roclos, Mirachel, Rumel rigdos. / Fafigial, Sumsagial slán, Sarmichiel, Sarachel saergd, Uriel, Hermichel maith mass, Sarachel, Barachel bladbras. / Lihigiel, Darachél cenchol, Segiel, laSariel sairdron, Lonachel, Arachél tan, Stichiel, Gallichiel gleglan.

I don’t read Irish, never mind Old or Middle Irish, [**] and don’t have time to learn it any time soon, and if these lines have been translated into modern English, I haven’t run across the translation yet.  But if anybody knows where I can find one so I can learn what the context of this list is, I’d appreciate the tip!

** [The manuscript of the Saltair na Rann is in Bodleian MS Rawl. B 502; its handwriting dates to the 12th century, so this is Middle Irish, I suppose, or maybe “early Middle Irish” more properly?] 

ETA: A reader dropped a link to a different prayer to the archangels by days of the week, to the website of a London chruch. That page is now long defunct, but here’s the prayer, and all the citation they gave was “9th century Irish,” so who knows where they got it or who translated it:

A Prayer to the archangels
for every day of the week

May Gabriel be with me on Sundays, and the power  of the King of Heaven
May Gabriel be with me always that evil may not come to me, nor injury.
Michael on Monday I speak of, my mind is set on him,
Not with anyone do I compare him but with Jesus, Mary’s son.
If it be Tuesday, Raphael I mention, until the end comes, for my help.
One of the seven whom I beseech, as long as I am on the field of the world.
May Uriel be with me on Wednesdays, the abbot with high nobility,
Against wound and against danger, against the sea of rough wind.
Sariel on Thursday I speak of, against the swift waves of the sea,
Against every evil that comes to a man, against every disease that seizes him.
On the day of the second fast, Rumiel – a clear blessing – I have loved,
I say only the truth, good the friend I have taken.
May Panchel be with me on Saturdays, as long as I am in the yellow-coloured world,
May sweet Mary, together with her friend, deliver me from strangers.
May the Trinity protect me! May the Trinity defend me!
May the Trinity save me from every hurt, from every danger.

C9th Irish

medieval prayer to St. Michael; on petitioning saints; books of hours

I’ve translated a prayer to St. Michael from a mid-15th century Book of Hours, and I thought I’d share it in between typing light setting reports.

Books of Hours were very popular in medieval Europe.  While few laypeople would be able to own, never mind read, a Bible for much of the Middle Ages in much of Europe, a lot of people owned Books of Hours (comparatively speaking).  They are so named because they are built around the hours of the day – not the 24 hour setup we know, but the monastic and ecclesiastical hours that the day of a monk or nun or priest was divided into.  These “hours” (sometimes called “offices” today) are Matins (basically the first chunk of prayers, at rising or dawn or however you have your day sorted), Lauds or Prime (about 6 am), Terce (about 9 am), Sext (noon), Nones (about 3 pm), Vespers (evening, about 6 pm or at sunset, depending), and Compline (night, about 9 pm or before retiring).  Some monasteries had a midnight office (if it has a name, it is escaping me right now), and there were variations depending on where you were and where in the liturgical calendar you were in terms of season/time of year.  The prayers would vary, as well, depending on the larger church calendar, the day of the week, etc.

When laypeople began performing these monastic prayers themselves around the 13th century, Books of Hours were introduced as an abbreviated form of the prayer collection called a breviary that was used in monasteries.  So this is less a system by which one tells time, basically, or expects everyone else to be in sync with; rather, it’s a way of ordering your day around prayer-times according to the liturgical hours of the day.

calendar pages from Hours of Catherine of Cleve

 

This kind of prayer I have reproduced below is technically called a “suffrage,” and can be seen in its original context here.  A suffrage is a short intercessory prayer  – ie, a prayer said to seek the intercession of a saint.  In case you’re not familiar with the concept, orthodox Catholics do not actually worship saints or petition them directly for favors, exactly; you don’t actually pray for St. Expedite to do something like bring you enough rent money by Friday (not if you’re an orthodox Catholic).  Technically, what you do when you petition a saint is ask for that saint’s intercession, i.e. ask that the saint to intercede with God for you, to communicate on your behalf to God.  It is God who answers prayers, not saints, and God in and through whom all things are possible.

So you might honor a saint, but when you are thanking a saint, you’re thanking them for their intercession, not for their direct action.  For example, if you get the rent money by Friday, God has granted your prayer through the intercession of St. Expedite, who also prayed for you, and who by his superior grace and holiness and proximity to God made your own prayers more effective.  Thus it does not mean that without the saint, God would not know about your prayers, nor does it mean technically that the saint carries your prayers to God. It’s more like the saint sort of adds some oomph to your own prayers by virtue of his or her own personal holy qualities and residence in heaven.

 

The Council of Trent in the mid 16th century articulated the parameters of this practice and the belief system it implies: saints in heaven pray for us, the living, just as we the living pray for the souls of those in purgatory.  We, too, can be intercessors, in other words, and there are active, continuing relationships between and among saints, angels, living, dead in purgatory, God, the Virgin Mary, and Christ.  (The practice and the belief system that supports this predated Trent by ages, though – Thomas Aquinas had discussed it in the 13th century, and Jerome had written about it in the 4th-5th centuries.)

So when we invoke or petition a saint, we are (supposed to be) asking that saint to pray to God on our behalf, to throw in their lot with us and help us make our prayers more effective by lending us some of the power of their sanctity. Basically, not to put too fine a point on it, God loves everybody, but he likes some people more than others.  And some people, living or dead, have more prayer mojo than others, in essence.

Now, in the regular day to day scheme of things, even clerics and monks and such would probably not always observe this sort of fine distinction in the Middle Ages, especially not when it came to the wording of ex tempore prayers, or to the acquisition of and desire for relics of saints. The common hoodoo practice of doing something to a statue or image of a saint in order to elicit a response from the saint is very, very old.  People today will sometimes take the baby Jesus out of  St. Anthony’s arms until he grants their petition, usually involving the return of a lost item — if they have a statue with a detachable baby figure, that is. (You can get those and that is what they are for. In fact, you might even be able to find one with a drawer in the base to hold the baby Jesus statue when it’s out of Anthony’s arms. And that’s exactly what it’s for.)

Some people who do not come from this kind of background are shocked about all this and express their certainty that such practices are debased, degraded superstition that dishonors the saint by trying to coerce him and stuff like that.  But this is a very old practice with very deep roots.  These medieval monks who ordered their days around the liturgical hours? They lived with the saints, like neighbors or even roommates, and today’s folk Catholics do the same. A saint with whom you have a relationship is like a member of the family; they have an altar in your home, you talk to them all the time, you give them flowers.  You ask St. Christopher’s blessings on your way out the door, and St. Anthony responds to your prayers when you can’t find your car keys.  These are not distant, dusty figures whom one approaches groveling; they were fallible, living human beings and even in sanctified death, they are still human and have personalities.

It was even more the case in medieval Europe – belief in the intercession of the saints was very real, and belief that the beloved departed were in purgatory and could be helped by prayers and masses was also.  You asked St. Foy’s help like you might ask for your neighbor’s, and the saints had responsibilities to the living, in the community – if the monastery’s patron saint fell down on the job and the monks had no harvest to get through winter, that was bad news and the saint was slacking.  Monks might take a statue off its niche or shelf and set it on the floor in displeasure, telling the saint that he was staying there until the rain came and the fennel grew again. Nuns might bury a medal of St. Joseph on land they needed help in obtaining.

And the saints responded in visible, sometimes tangible, ways.  A knight might petition St. James for healing of his arm, and promise to make a pilgrimage to the saint’s “home,” the property at which his relics resided, as thanks when the arm was mended.  When the knight failed to keep his word, St. James intervened to see to it that his other arm was broken. [*]  These so-called “punitive miracles” were frequent occurrences – saints got involved in all kinds of matters, from mundane farm troubles to rivalries between monasteries to inheritance of property and succession of kings.

So it’s important to understand the worldview in which saints are a part of everyday life, more like members of the family than distant, cold oracles or spirits.  This is a world in which flogging a saint’s statue, or turning a saint’s photo upside down, is not some horrible, sacrilegious thing that clergy would be appalled at – clergy often participated.  It is a worldview which someone from a Protestant Christian background is unlikely to really “get” at first, so that is why I go to the lengths I go to in order to explain some of this stuff.

Was there a council declaring that a saint could be flogged if the monastery suffered bad weather? Of course not.  Strictly speaking, if scholastics and theologians had weighed in on such a thing, it’s easy to imagine them disapproving.  But your average local parish priest was no Thomas Aquinas, and while Aquinas was concerned with the nature of the Trinity and the relationship of soul to matter and body, a local priest had more mundane and pressing matters to consider, and frankly just a different mission in life and vocation.  Same with an abbot or abbess in charge of the religious community and order.  They worried about God and their souls and purgatory, but they also worried about carrots and milking cows and firewood, and they shared their lay neighbors’ concerns about local politics and land disputes.

So these finer points of theology and doctrine regarding the precise nature of the intercession of the saints, among other things, have not always been of the utmost concern to the faithful, a thousand years ago or today.  And the potential for abuse or idolatry in the day to day practices of Catholics and in the system outlined by the Council of Trent is one of the major bugs that Protestant reformers got up their bums; they didn’t like the whole praying to saints thing much more than they liked the idea and system of indulgences (which is another hugely misunderstood system which I will also have to write about one day).

And a great many people who are Christian are of the Protestant stripe informed by such thinking (and this category includes the majority of rootworkers, by the way), so there is often misunderstanding and even mistrust of the whole “working with saints” thing.  A lot of my clients don’t really “get” the saints or are very unsure about how to proceed in working with them.

In itself, there is nothing wrong with not knowing and with starting somewhere – I have found that the saints don’t really care whether or not you are strictly in conformance to every decree from Vatican City, and in fact don’t always care if you’re Christian (it depends on the saint).  You are probably not going to piss them off unless you’re an ass with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.

But what happens not infrequently, a lot of newcomers to saints’ work, their very first approach to a saint, their very first saint, is buying a bottle of oil and imperiously demanding something from the saint. This is akin to barging up to a total stranger and demanding a favor.  When they don’t get it, they quit working with that saint or with saints altogether (or the really idiotic ones write me emails saying “your saints oil had no energy in it”).

So that’s why I keep beating the “relationships are important” horse so that folks can understand how all of this works.  Work with the saints is *fabulous.*  But it’s work, in the sense that maintaining a relationship is work.  Saints are not vending machines.

 

Anyway.  Back to Books of Hours and the intercessory prayers they contain.  (One of these days, I am going to make my own Book of Hours.  I have to learn to write properly with a quill on vellum, first, though – so maybe I”ll cheat in the meantime and make an improper and informal Book of Hours that I’ve cherrypicked my favorite prayers for.  I wish I could earn a living making custom Books of Hours for people; I think I would really enjoy doing that work.  For a while, anyway – I might change my tune after I did a few!)

Here is the St. Michael prayer transcribed. I’ve expanded abbreviations in the manuscript, or tried to, and I may have made some errors, so if you have medieval Latin feel free to correct me:

Laudemus dominum quem laudant angeli quem cherubim et seraphim sanctus sanctus sanctus proclamant.

V.  In conspectu* angelorum psallam tibi deus meus.

R. Adorabo ad templum sanctum tuum et confitebor nomini tuo.

[I don’t know/can’t read the word in red, but it has to mean that everybody prays as a group now.]

Deus qui miro ordine angelorum ministeria hominumque dispensas, concede propicius ut a quibus tibi ministrantibus in caelo semper
adsistitur ab his in terra uita nostra muniatur.  Per Christum [?].

Let us praise the Lord whom the angels praise, to whom the Cherubim and Seraphim cry holy, holy, holy.

V: In the sight of the angels I will sing to you, my God.
R: I will worship in your holy temple and confess your name.

God, who in miraculous order arranged the ministry of angels and men, grant, merciful, that by those ministering eternally to you in heaven,
our life may be attended and defended by these on earth.  Through Christ [etc].

The above is fairly literal and so a bit clunky, as I need to make sure I’m reflecting the grammar in the initial translation even where it doesn’t make for pretty English (so if you read medieval Latin and you see where I’ve made an error, let me know? I mangled the ut clause, I think.)

[*This doesn’t look like conspectu to me, but maybe the smudge is hiding a symbol for abbreviation that accounts for the p I can’t see to save the life of me. No other word makes sense here.]

Now all that was a big windup for a teeny little prayer!  I have a stack of reports to type still, and I don’t even want to think about my inbox (I”m not kidding about getting in 70 or more emails every single freakin’ day) so I need to get back to them, but I have a ton more prayers to Michael and some other angels I will post eventually.  In the meantime, here’s a picture I took last summer of a tapestry-stitch and needlepoint piece of St. Michael.  It was stitched in 1955 and is on display in the tower portion of St. Michael’s church in Oxford, England, which has lots of lovely images and statues.

 


NB: unless noted as mine, like the photograph above, all images are public domain.

[*] Sumption, Jonathan. Pilgrimage: An Image of Mediaeval Religion. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1975. 240.


questions from readers

A reader asks: How can there be such a thing as a relic of St. Michael the Archangel? 

A: Ooh, this is a great question.  The Catholic Church currently recognizes different kinds of relics, and you’ll most often see a "class" system in operation, in English-speaking countries.  First class relics are bones or other bits of the body of the saint; Second class relics are things the saint used in life, like a book or article of clothing; Third class relics are bits of cloth that were touched to a first or second class relic.  According to this scheme, there really can’t be any relics of St. Michael.  But you’ll see them, and what you’re usually seeing are bits of cloth that were touched to a rock or other bit of geography associated with an appearance or apparition of St. Michael.

Now, that’s not to say that there haven’t been people who claimed to have a feather from the wing of St. Michael, or some such.  People have claimed to have all kinds of things.  In fact, competing claims to possession of Jesus’ foreskin have so incensed Rome that the Vatican threatened to excommunicate anybody who kept arguing about it. [1] If each parish priest in medieval Europe were to be believed, there were dozens of holy foreskins floating about.  The Church has maintained a hands-off practice when it comes to relics and apparitions, generally only stepping forward to recognize or condemn them when popular pressure became such that the Church simply had to take a stand.  Generally, though, the Church leaves such matters in the hands of local authorities, and allows devotional practices associated with them as long as they’re not heretical.

Often you’ll see a relic labeled "ex indumentis," and these are usually relic cases with a bit of cloth attached or inside. These are most often "brandea," which are  "third class" relics, bits of cloth touched to 1st or 2nd class relics.  This is a little misleading, as "ex indumentis" actually means "from the cloth," and would imply a second class relic.  These "ex indumentis" relics are usually third class relics, and if you have a relic of St. Michael, it’s technically none of the above, as Michael was never a living human being.  (FWIW, if you find a relic "ex praecordia" of St. Michael, please let me know, because I would like very much to have one, despite the fact that it cannot possibly be legitimate.)

But these lines are not hard and fast, despite what some folks would insist.  Popular practice and faith have always blurred the neat lines that some authorities would like to have arranged around such categories.   And it appears that in some cases, God is just fine with that. For instance, as Caesar of Heisterbach recounts, a 12th century knight unwittingly purchased a fake relic (a bridle of St. Thomas a Becket’s horse), but God stepped in to reward his faith nonetheless. Caesar writes,

  • God truly, to whom nothing is impossible, wishing to reward the faith of the knight and for the honor of his martyr, deigned to work many miracles through the same bridle.  The knight seeing this founded a church in honor of the martyr and in it he placed as a relic the bridle of that most wicked priest [ie, the priest that sold the fake relic]. [2]

The moral of the Caesar of Heisterbach’s story seems to be that God is a little more concerned with faith, devotion, and an attempt at honest piety than he is with relic categorization or even provenance.  If a relic of St. Michael helps you in your devotion to St. Michael, then more power to you.

[1] Silverman, Eric.  From Abraham to America: A History of Jewish Circumcision.  Devon, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.
[2] "Dist. VIII."  Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History.  Philadelphia, University of Penn. Press, 1897.

***

Q: For a mojo bag, do you put the herbs in the bag all together, or do you put them in in separate packets?  Where do you store your mojo bag when not carrying it?
**

A: I have never in all my years seen a mojo bag called such when it contained separate little bundles of herbs wrapped in plastic.  Put your herbs in there and let them mingle.  An exception to this would be something like my Rattlesnake mojo bags, in which the whole rattle is put inside a small plastic or metal container so that it doesn’t get crushed from regular handling.  I imagine that separate combination-amulets could be added as a single ingredient, even if they themselves contain multiple "things."  For instance, if you put a fixed nutmeg in a mojo bag, it would probably count as a single ingredient even if the nut itself contained several ingredients in its hollowed-out center.  And if you added a small paket wanga to a mojo bag, then you would have some ingredients "contained" separately from the others.  But if you’re adding an herb or powder to a mojo bag, you’d generally just add it. 

Where to keep it depends on what it is.  For love/lust work, I recommend the bedroom area – under your pillow could be a good choice, if you don’t have a love altar going (in which case I would probably keep mine on my love altar).  For my own protection mojo, I keep it in my purse.  People who don’t carry purses will doubtless be nonplussed at this tidbit; in that case, you might consider keeping it with your keys, so you always remember to take it with you when you go out.  For money/business success type stuff, I would keep it in my office or shop if I ran my own business.  I might keep it in my car if I were a traveling salesperson.  I have about a billionty altars, and am often building new, short-term ones for very specific client work, so I usually keep mine on or under the applicable altar when I’m not carrying it.  But one of my protection mojos has some very unique items, and it would be irreplaceable if something happened to it; I keep that one under my pillow when I’m not carrying it.  I wouldn’t risk leaving it lying anywhere where some visitor or a friend of my daughter’s might casually pick it up and go, "What’s This?"

** See, S.?  I love ya.  Sorry if I snapped at you, and sorry if it took me so long to answer this.  I have a very bad habit of going "Where the fuck did you hear that shit?!" sometimes, when people bring up questions that strike me as being odd, and I should be better about walking a mile in somebody’s shoes than I am, and realize that when somebody is first getting into this stuff, it can be hard to sort the wheat from the chaff.  Mea culpa.

new stuff

I have just upgraded to a paid account, so expect more pictures, as they’ll be easier for me to post now.

School is about to slam me hard, so don’t feel shy if I promised you something and you’re wondering where it is.  If I don’t get to it soon, it may be months before I can finish it (and keep in mind I have prior commitments to reading clients, the few client cases I have taken on altar work for, and custom pieces I have in the queue).  Similarly, keep in mind that some stuff just takes longer to make than other stuff, and sometimes it takes longer to *start* just because I have to "get the picture" before I know what to do, if that makes any sense.  Sometimes I have to hunt down just the right piece or component, and that  has meant that some more complicated pieces have taken me *months.*  In one case I can think of, I started a custom cosmetic box probably about two years ago, now, have pulled it out and done one or two things to it every few months, but have not found the "thing" to tie the whole thing together yet.  I feel bad, but I can’t rush myself on this stuff or else nobody is happy with it, and this is why I don’t take deposits on custom work – I won’t work according to anybody else’s timeline if it means I have to ship something I am not happy with.

Tau Thomas, I finished a Lazarus medal, and you have first dibs if you like it.  If not, no worries, you won’t hurt my feelings.  Whee, why don’t I use my new paid account to post some pictures *right now*?! 

Here’s Lazarus (these medals are notoriously difficult to photograph, sorry for the quality):
Continue reading “new stuff”