Today we know him as “Patrick” but his birth name was Maewyn Succat in his native Brythonic.
“Celtic languages are traditionally thought to have originated in central Europe and spread across vast areas of Europe, being gradually replaced by Germanic, Romance, or Slavic languages in most areas. The Continental Celtic languages, such as Gaulish, Hispano-Celtic, and Lepontic, are all now long extinct.” – Oxfordbibliographies.com
Today, the “insular” Celtic languages are all that’s left, relegated to two sub-groups: the Goidelic (or Gaelic) spoken by Irish and Scots speakers and once on the Isle of Man, and the Brythonic or Brittonic once spoken in Wales, Brittany and Cornwall.
Today we know him as “Patrick” but his birth name was Maewyn Succat in his native Brythonic. His father was Calpornius, a Deacon of the Church and an officer in the Roman Army. As a boy, Maewyn Succat had little time for religion.
He was a late fifth-century Roman teenager living in Great Britain when he was kidnapped by pirates at the age of 16, and brought to Ireland. There he found religion during six years as a slave, tending sheep and hogs in county Antrim. He would escape in time to rejoin his family before traveling to France, to join a Monastery. In twelve years he returned to the shores of Ireland, this time as a Bishop, with the blessing of the Pope.
There he came to be known as Patricius in the Latin (“nobleman”) or Pádraig (Gaelic), a simple priest ministering to Irish Christians and converting the pagan, to Christianity. In time, “Patrick” would go on to become Bishop of all Ireland, and one of its primary Patron Saints.
Interestingly, Patrick is listed among the 10,000 or so Roman Catholic Saints though it seems he never was actually canonized, by a pope.
Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date generally agreed to be the date of his enslavement in 432 and his death in 460.
The date is celebrated in Ireland as both a liturgical and non-liturgical holiday, where in some diocese it is both a solemnity and a holy day of obligation. Outside of Ireland, the day has become a general celebration of all things Irish.
The legend that St. Patrick banished the snakes likely springs from his work converting the pagans of his day, many of whom wore snake tattoos on their arms. This idea is supported by a Gallic coin of the time, which carries on its face the Druidic snake.
Be that as it may, Ireland has no snakes today, a trait it has in common with Antarctica, New Zealand, Iceland, and Greenland.Another legend involves a walking stick of ash, which Patrick carried with him wherever he went. He would thrust this stick into the ground wherever he would preach. At a place now known as Aspatria, (ash of Patrick), the message took so long to get through to the people that the stick took root.
The shamrock which came to symbolize the day was seen as sacred by many in pre-Christian Ireland, with its green color evoking rebirth and eternal life.
The three leaves symbolize the “triple goddess” of ancient Ireland. Patrick is said to have taught the Irish about the Holy Trinity, using the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Christian teaching of three persons in one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Most of the rest of Europe would suffer barbarian invasion from the fifth century onward, plunging into what are known today as “The Dark Ages”. Almost alone, cloistered monks in the monasteries of Ireland, spiritual descendants of St. Patrick, acted as repository for Christian civilization, at a time when such advancement was almost extinguished elsewhere.
It’s been said of this period that the Irish saved civilization. Who knows. They may have done just that. On this day it’s said that everyone’s Irish. Here in the US some some 33 million really are according to census data, nearly seven times the population of Ireland itself.
So here we are. A parade dating back to 1737 here in Boston is canceled, as we all hide from the Wu Flu. So lift a glass to Saint Patrick, though the streets be empty and the bars be closed. “May your glass be ever full. May the roof over your head be always strong. And may you be in heaven, half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead” Sláinte.
Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew when he gave away his only hope for survival, Father Washington did not ask for a Catholic. Neither minister Fox nor Poling asked for a Protestant. Each gave his life jacket to the nearest man.
The Troop Transport USAT Dorchester sailed out of New York Harbor on January 23, 1943, carrying 904 service members, merchant seamen and civilian workers. They were headed for the the Army Command Base at Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland, part of a six-ship convoy designated SG-19 together with two merchant ships and escorted by the Coast Guard Cutters Comanche, Escanaba and Tampa.
Built as a coastal liner in 1926, Dorchester was anything but graceful, bouncing and shuddering her way through the rough seas of the North Atlantic.German submarine wolf packs had already sunk several ships in these waters. Late on the night of February 2, one of the Cutters flashed flashed the light signal “we’re being followed”.
Dorchester Captain Hans Danielson ordered his ship on high alert that night. Men were ordered to sleep in their clothes with their life jackets on, but many disregarded the order. It was too hot down there in the holds, and those life jackets were anything but comfortable.
Some of those off-duty tried to sleep that night, while others played cards or threw dice, well into the night. Nerves were understandably on edge, especially among new recruits, as four Army chaplains passed among them with words of encouragement.
They were the Jewish rabbi Alexander David Goode, the Catholic priest John Patrick Washington, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) minister Clark Vandersail Poling, and the Methodist minister George Lansing Fox.
At 12:55am on February 3rd, the German submarine U-223 fired a spread of three torpedoes. One struck Dorchester amidships, deep below the water line. A hundred or more were killed in the blast, or in the clouds of steam and ammonia vapor billowing from ruptured boilers. Suddenly pitched into darkness, untold numbers were trapped below decks. With boiler power lost, there was no longer enough steam to blow the full 6 whistle signal to abandon ship, while loss of power prevented a radio distress signal. For reasons which remain unclear, there never were any signal flares.Those who could escape scrambled onto the deck, injured, disoriented, many still in their underwear as they emerged into the cold and darkness.
The four chaplains must have been a welcome sight, guiding the disoriented and the wounded, offering prayers and words of courage. They opened a storage locker and handed out life preservers, until there were no more. “Padre,” said one young soldier, “I’ve lost my life jacket and I can’t swim!” Witnesses differ as to which of the four it was who gave this man his life jacket, but they all followed suit. One survivor, John Ladd, said “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Rabbi Goode gave his gloves to Petty Officer John Mahoney, saying “Never mind. I have two pairs”. It was only later that Mahoney realized. Rabbi Goode intended to stay with the ship.
Dorchester was listing hard to starboard and taking on water fast, with only 20 minutes to live. Port side lifeboats were inoperable due to the ship’s angle. Men jumped across the void into those on the starboard side, overcrowding some to the point of capsize. Only two of fourteen lifeboats launched successfully.
Private William Bednar found himself floating in 34° water, surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” he recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
As the ship upended and went down by the bow, survivors floating nearby could see the four chaplains. With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die.Rushing back to the scene, coast guard cutters found themselves in a sea of bobbing red lights, the water-activated emergency strobe lights of individual life jackets. Most marked the location of corpses. Of the 904 on board, the Coast Guard plucked 230 from the water, alive.
The United States Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on the four chaplains for their selfless courage, but strict requirements for “heroism under fire” prevented it from doing so. Congress authorized a one time, posthumous “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism”, awarded to the next of kin on January 18, 1961 by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Fort Myer, Virginia.John 15:13 teaches us, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew when he gave away his only hope for survival, Father Washington did not ask for a Catholic. Neither minister Fox nor Poling asked for a Protestant. Each gave his life jacket to the nearest man.
Carl Sandburg once said that “Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.” If I were ever to be so tested, I hope I would prove myself half the man as any of those four chaplains.
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.
If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are”.
The “Anne” sailed from England in November 1732. On board were 114 colonists including General James Oglethorpe, intending to found the Colony of Georgia. The group headed south after a brief stay in Charleston, South Carolina. Landing at Yamacraw bluff, Oglethorpe’s party was greeted by Chief Tomochichi of the Yamacraws, along with two Indian traders, John and Mary Musgrove.
The Province of Georgia and its Colonial Capital of Savannah were founded on that date, February 12, 1733. The friendship which developed between Oglethorpe and Tomochichi kept the fledgling colony out of the Indian conflicts, marking the founding of most of the other colonies.
Oglethorpe was something of a Utopian, founding his capital around four wards, each containing eight blocks situated around its own central square. This was a place of religious freedom. 40 Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal arrived in July, the largest such group to-date to enter any of the colonies. It was a place of religious freedom for all but Catholics, that is. It was feared that Catholics would be sympathetic with Spanish authorities in control of Florida at that time, so they were prohibited.
There were four such prohibitions, the others being that there would be no spirituous liquors (that wouldn’t last long), no lawyers (do I need to explain?), and no slaves.
The experiment came to an end in 1754, when Georgia became a Royal Colony.
The low marshes of Savannah’s coastline are ideally suited as wild rice fields. Rice had originally come from its native Southeast Asia to West Africa, where the same strains were grown by European colonists. The rice industry failed in Africa, but the combination of English agricultural technology and African labor made the crop a mainstay of the early colonial economy.
In 1773, a slave named George Leile became the first black man to become a licensed Baptist preacher in Georgia. Leile’s master, himself a Baptist deacon, freed him before the Revolution and Leile preached to slaves on plantations along the Savannah River, from Georgia north into South Carolina.
Hundreds of blacks fled to occupied Savannah after the Revolution broke out, seeking safety behind British lines. Scores of them were transported to Nova Scotia or other colonies, and some to London. Leile and his family sailed with the British for freedom in Jamaica.
Andrew Bryan was the only one of the first three black Baptist preachers to stay, making his home in Savannah along with his wife, Hannah.
On January 20, 1788, Bryan brought official recognition to the First African Baptist Church and its 67 members, five years before the first “white” Baptist Church in Savannah. In 1802, Bryan founded the “Second Colored Baptist Church”, renamed the “Second African Baptist Church” in 1823.
General William Tecumseh Sherman read the Emancipation Proclamation to the citizens of Savannah from the steps of this church, promising “40 acres and a mule” to newly freed slaves.
The original church on Greene Square burned down in 1925. The church was completely rebuilt, and still contains its original pulpit, prayer benches and choir chairs.
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are”. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1961, a guest preacher delivered a sermon at the Second African Baptist Church which he called “I have a Dream”. Two years later, the same speaker delivered his speech from the steps of the Lincoln memorial in Washington.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr’s 91st birthday came and went last week, a date now remembered with its own national holiday. This August, the country will mark the 59th anniversary of his speech on the Mall.
While a sorry collection of racial arsonists attempt to divide Americans against one another for their own political advantage, permit me this reminder of other words, spoken by Reverend King at a time when it took real courage to be a “civil rights” leader.
“In a real sense we must all live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools”.
Feature Image, top of page: Wright Square Savannah, final resting place of Tomochichi, leader of the Yamacraw
The Jonestown murder/suicide of November 18, 1978 produced the largest loss of civilian life in American history, until the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Those who knew him as a child remembered a “really weird kid“, obsessed with religion and death. He’d hold elaborate, pseudo-religious ceremonies at the house, mostly funerals for small animals. How Jim Jones got all those dead animals, was a matter for dark speculation.
It was depression-era rural Indiana, in the age of racial segregation. Father and son often clashed over issues of race. The two didn’t talk to each other for years one time, after the time the elder Jones refused to let one of his son’s black friends, into the house.
Jim Jones was a bright boy, graduating High School with honors, in 1949. He was a voracious reader, studying the works of Stalin, Marx, Mao, Gandhi and Hitler and carefully noting the strengths and weaknesses, of each.
Jones married Marceline Baldwin in 1949 and moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he attended Indiana University and later Butler University night school, earning a degree in secondary education.
Along-standing interest in Leftist politics heightened during this period, when Jones was a regular at Communist Party-USA meetings. There he’d rail against the McCarthy hearings, and the trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Jones recalled he later asked himself, “How can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.”
“Reverend” Jim Jones got his start as a student pastor at the Sommerset Southside Methodist Church but soon left, over issues of segregation. He was a Social Justice Warrior in the age of Jim Crow.
The New York Times reported in 1953, “declaring that he was outraged at what he perceived as racial discrimination in his white congregation, Mr. Jones established his own church and pointedly opened it to all ethnic groups. To raise money, he imported monkeys and sold them door to door as pets.”
Jones witnessed a faith-healing service and came to understand the influence to be had, from such an event. He arranged a massive convention in 1956, inviting the Oral Roberts of his day, as keynote speaker. Reverend William Branham did not disappoint. Soon, Reverend Jones opened his own mission with an explicit focus on racial integration.
Thus began the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ.
Jones’ integrationist politics did little to ingratiate himself in 1950s rural Indiana. Mayor and commissioners alike asked him to tone it down, while he received wild applause at NAACP and Urban League conventions with speeches rising to a thundering crescendo: “Let My People GO!!!”
Jones spoke in favor of Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea, branding the conflict a “war of liberation” and calling South Korea “a living example of all that socialism in the north has overcome.”
Jim and Marcelline adopted three Korean orphans, beginning what would become a family of nine including their only biological child, Stephan Ghandi. The couple adopted a black boy in 1961 and called him Jim Jr., the Jones’ “rainbow family” a reflection of the pastor’s congregation.
An apocalyptic streak began to show, as Jones preached of nuclear annihilation. He traveled to Brazil for a time, in search of a safe place for the coming holocaust. He even gave it a date: July 15, 1967. On returning from Brazil, the “Father” spoke to the flock. The “children” would have to move. To northern California, to a new and perfect, socialist, Eden.
For Jim Jones, religion was never more than a means to an end. ”Off the record” he once said in a recorded conversation, “I don’t believe in any loving God. Our people, I would say, are ninety percent atheist. Uh, we— we think Jesus Christ was a swinger…I must say, I felt somewhat hypocritical for the last years as I became uh, an atheist, uh, I have become uh, you— you feel uh, tainted, uh, by being in the church situation. But of course, everyone knows where I’m at. My bishop knows that I’m an atheist.”
Faith healing. The California days
Jones referred to himself as the reincarnation of Gandhi. Father Divine. Jesus, Gautama Buddha and Lenin. “What you need to believe in is what you can see…. If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father, for those of you that don’t have a father…. If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.”
The years in California were a time of rapid expansion from Temple Headquarters in San Francisco to locations up and down the “Golden State”. Jones hobnobbed with the who’s who of Democratic politics, from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone to Presidential candidate Walter Mondale. Even First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
“If you’re born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin.”
California Assemblyman Willie Brown called Jones a combination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Albert Einstein and Mao Tse Tung. Harvey Milk wrote to Jones after one visit: “Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave.”
Meanwhile, Jones was building the perfect socialist utopia in the South American jungles of Guyana, formally known as the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project”. Most simply called the place, “Jonestown”.
San Francisco Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff wrote in the summer of 1977, telling a grotesque tale of physical and sexual abuse, of brainwashing and emotional domination. Chronicle editors balked and Kilduff published the piece in the New West Magazine.
That was when Jones and his congregation left town and fled. To Guyana.
A long standing drug addiction became more pronounced in Jonestown where the preacher spoke of the gospel of “Translation”, a weird crossing over from this life to some other, finer plane.
Some 68% of Jonestown faithful were black at this time, congregants who somehow got something from this place, they couldn’t get at home. Inclusion. Fulfillment. Acceptance. Whatever it was, the cult of Jonestown was mostly, a world of willing participants.
Mostly, but not entirely. Those who entered Jonestown were not allowed to leave. Those who escaped told outlandish tales of abuse: mental, physical and sexual.
Former members of the Temple formed a “Concerned Relatives” group in the Fall of 1977, to publicize conditions afflicting family members, still in the cult.
Concerned Relatives produced a packet of affidavits in April 1978, entitled “Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones“. Jones’ political support began to weaken as members of the press and Congress, took increasing interest.
California Congressman Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission that November, to see things for himself. The Congressional Delegation (CoDel) arrived at the Guyanese capital on November 15, with NBC camera crew and newspaper reporters, in tow.
The delegation traveled by air and drove the last few miles by limo, to Jonestown. The visit of the 17th was cordial at first, with Jones himself hosting a reception in the central pavilion. Underlying menace soon came to the surface as a few Temple members expressed the desire, to leave with the delegation. Things went from bad to worse when temple member Don Sly attacked Congressman Ryan with a knife, the following day.
Ryan’s hurried exit with fifteen members of the Temple met no resistance, at first. The CoDel was boarding at the small strip in Port Kaituma, when Jones’ “Red Brigade” pulled up in a farm tractor, towing a trailer. The new arrivals opened fire, killing Congressman Ryan and four others. One of the supposed “defectors” produced a weapon, and wounded several more.
Back at the compound, Jones lost an already tenuous grasp on reality.
Fearing assault by parachute, lethal doses of cyanide were distributed along with grape “Flavor Aid” for 900+ members of the People’s Temple, including 304 children.
This wasn’t the first time the Jonestown flock believed they were ingesting poison, for The Cause. It was about to be the last.
Jones spoke with an odd lisp which seemed to grow more pronounced, at times of excitement. You can hear it in the 45 minute “death tape“ below, his words sometimes forming a perfect “S“ and at other times, lapsing into a soft “TH” or some combination, of the two.
You can hear it clearly, in the recording. Heads up dear reader. If you care to listen, it’s 45-minutes of tough sledding.
Jonestown “Death Tape”. November 18, 1978
The murder/suicide of November 18, 1978 produced the largest loss of civilian life in American history, until the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Jones: How very much I’ve loved you. How very much I’ve tried, to give you the good life…We are sitting on a powder keg…I don’t think that’s what we wanted to do with our babies…No man takes my life from me, I lay my life down…If we can’t live in peace, then let us die in peace. Christine [Miller]: Is it too late for Russia?
Jones: Here’s why it’s too late for Russia. They killed. They started to kill. That’s why it makes it too late for Russia. Otherwise I’d said, “Russia, you bet your life.” But it’s too late.
Unidentified Man: Is there any way if I go, that it’ll help? Jones: No, you’re not going. You’re not going. Crowd: No! No! Jones: I haven’t seen anybody yet that didn’t die. And I’d like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I’m tired of being tormented to hell, that’s what I’m tired of. Crowd: Right, right. Jones: Tired of it. Unidentified Man: It’s over, sister, it’s over … we’ve made that day … we made a beautiful day and let’s make it a beautiful day … that’s what I say.
“A lot of people are tired around here, but I’m not sure they’re ready to lie down, stretch out and fall asleep”. Jim Jones
The word “Pulchritude” has fallen out of everyday usage. Possibly, the term comes down to us from an individual, who may have been the greatest maniac if not the dumbest man, in Roman antiquity. Either that, or a man so bull-headedly determined to get what he wanted, as to be remembered as one of the great Meatheads, in all of history.
The etymology website etymonline.com defines “pulchritude” as (n.) – “beauty,” c. 1400, from Latin pulchritudo for “beauty, excellence, attractiveness”.
The word has fallen out of everyday usage. The website indicates, origin unknown. Possibly, the term comes down to us from an individual, who may have been the greatest maniac if not the dumbest man, in Roman antiquity. Either that, or a man so bull-headedly determined to get what he wanted, as to be remembered as one of the great Meatheads, in all of history.
In ancient Rome, women partook of a festival, strictly forbidden to Roman men. So stringent was this line of demarcation that only women were permitted even to know the name of the deity, to whom the festival was dedicated. For everyone else she was simply the “Good Goddess”. The Bona Dea.
The first of two annual festivals of the Bona Dea was held during the winter, at the Aventine Temple. The second rite took place every May, hosted by the wife of the current Pontifex Maximus and attended by an elite group of Roman matrons, female attendants and vestal virgins.
Eighteen years before the end of the Republic, the Pontifex Maximus was Julius Caesar. Scandal broke out on this day in 62BC, when the aforementioned meathead, the politician Publius Clodius Pulcher, dressed as a woman and sneaked into the Bona Dea festival bent on seducing Pompeia, the wife of Caesar himself.
I’m not even sure how that was supposed to work but, of all the women in Rome, this guy set his sights on the wife of Julius Caesar.
Apparently, ol’ Pulcher was insufficiently pulchritudinous. He was found out and thrown out and, thus vitiated, the rites of the Bona Dea were rendered null and void, necessitating repetition by the Vestal Virgins. Meanwhile, to have desecrated the sanctity of such rites as the Bona Dea was to have offended the city and the Gods, under pain of death. A trial ensued and the legal wrangling went on, for two years.
In the end, Clodius was acquitted, a fact Cicero put down to fixed juries and back-room deals. The Greek biographer and essayist Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus better known as Plutarch, writes that jurors handed in deliberately illegible verdicts, “in order that they might neither risk their lives with the populace by condemning him, nor get a bad name among the nobility by acquitting him“. Talk about Profiles in Courage.
Pulcher’s populist brand of politics would transform the politician into “One of the most innovative urban politicians in Western history” and, one day, get him killed at the hands of a political opponent. The man’s transvestite dalliance with the Bona Dea provided arch-rival Marcus Tullius Cicero with verbal ammunition, for years to come.
Interestingly, Cicero’s problem with Pulcher may have been more than just, political. Clodius Pulcher had once prosecuted one Fabia, a Vestal Virgin, on charges of incest. Fabia’s half-sister Terentia was mightily offended at the proceedings, and her husband just happened to be Cicero himself. I wonder how it sounded to come home to That, every night.
The verdict of the ages was quite unfair to Pompeia. Nothing more substantial than gossip and rumor ever implicated her in the Bona Dea scandal yet her husband divorced her, immediately.
Plutarch writes, in The Life of Caesar:
“Caesar divorced Pompeia at once, but when he was summoned to testify at the trial, he said he knew nothing about the matters with which Clodius was charged. His statement appeared strange, and the prosecutor therefore asked, “Why, then, didst thou divorce thy wife?” “Because,” said Caesar, “I thought my wife ought not even to be under suspicion.””
A Trivial Matter
To search on “average age in ancient Rome” is to be rewarded with the number, 35. While mathematically correct (maybe), the fact is misleading. Fully half of Roman children died before age ten. Roman men joined the military at age 17 and a distressingly high number of Roman women, died in childbirth. Karen Cokayne writes in Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome, that “From around the first century B.C. onwards, the age of 60 or 65 was commonly mentioned as the threshold of old age.” Should a person make sixty, (s)he had at least an average chance of living to seventy, and beyond. H/T revealedrome.com
Many of the secular symbols associated with Easter trace back to the pagan goddess of spring and the dawn, Ēostre or Ostara, from the Old English Ēastre. History fades into mythology in the pre-Christian usage and accounts differ, but this Teutonic deity was frequently depicted with eggs symbolizing the rebirth of Spring. And rabbits.
In Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on Good Friday, arising from the dead two days later to reveal himself to his disciples, before finally ascending to heaven.
So where did the Easter Bunny come from?
Many of the secular symbols associated with Easter trace back to the pagan goddess of spring and the dawn, Ēostre or Ostara, from the Old English Ēastre. History fades into mythology in the pre-Christian usage and accounts differ, but this Teutonic deity was frequently depicted with eggs symbolizing the rebirth of Spring. And rabbits.
It’s small wonder that the latter symbolized fertility. A female Hare, called a “Jill” has a 42-day gestation period, and is capable of conceiving while still pregnant. Kriss Kringle and an egg laying Easter Hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws” came to America in the 1700s, with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. Children would make nests of clothing and blankets, in which the creature could lay its colored eggs. This is the origin of the Easter basket.
Hares and rabbits are different species of the same family, like sheep and goats. Until the 18th century, rabbits were called Coneys, after the Latin “cuniculus”. The word has all but disappeared from American English vernacular, its only use today relates to Coney Island, in New York. It was around that time that the diminutive, fuzzier “bunny” came to replace the Easter Hare.
More recently, the discovery of a Medieval “Three Hares” motif in a minor cathedral in Devon England led archaeologist and historian Tom Greeves, art history researcher Sue Andrew and documentary photographer Chris Chapman on a trans-continental odyssey, from Great Britain across the Eurasian landmass, to discover the origins of the enigmatic symbol.
The design depicts three hares in a triangle, each possessed of one ear and making in all, six. The image appears in tapestry, architecture and/or precious objects emanating from at least four of the world’s great faith traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, cropping up from English cathedrals to Italian monasteries, German synagogues, Iranian metalwork and Russian reliquary caskets to Buddhist cave temples in North West China.
The three hares image may have spread across the 4,000-mile “Spice Road” during the “Pax Mongolica” period of the 13th and 14th centuries, in which it was said “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”
For Greeves, Andrew and Chapman, three decades of work has culminated in The Three Hares, a Curiosity Worth Regarding, a volume I have personally added to my must read list.
Medieval roof bosses, St Mary the Virgin, Throwleigh, Devon. Hat Tip, chrischapmanphotography.co.uk
History gives us one tale concerning rabbits having nothing whatever to do with Easter, but it’s too good not to tell here.
The story involves no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte. In July 1807, Napoleon had just signed the Treaty of Tilsit, ending the war between the French Empire and Imperial Russia. As a means of celebration, Napoleon suggested a rabbit hunt, and ordered Chief of Staff Alexandre Berthier, to make it happen.
Berthier put together an outdoor luncheon, inviting the highest brass from the French military. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s men ranged far and wide, collecting rabbits for the hunt. As many as 3,000 of them.
Napoleon arrived at one side of a grassy field with his beaters and gun bearers, with all those caged rabbits lined up on the other side. Rabbits and Hares are predictably shy and retiring creatures, but Berthier’s soldiers had found it easier to pilfer domesticated rabbits instead of flushing out the wild variety, and these things were hungry.
The hunt was supposed to begin when all those cages opened but, instead of scattering, a swarm of rabbits thought it was dinner time and pelted straight across the field.
The most powerful man in the world thought it was funny at first, until all those rabbits started coming up his legs. Coachmen cracked bullwhips and men grabbed sticks. There was shooting and shouting and pandemonium, everywhere. Still, the bunny horde came on.
French General and diarist Baron Paul Thiébault was there, let him tell the story:
“The intrepid rabbits turned to the Emperor’s flank, attacked him frantically in the rear, refused to quit their hold, piled themselves up between his legs till they made him stagger, and forced the conqueror of conquerors, fairly exhausted, to retreat and leave them in possession of the field”.
Napoleon retreated to his carriage, but the onslaught, continued. Historian David Chandler picks up the story:
“With a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach.”
The tide of bunnies continued the advance, some even got into the carriage. The bunny blitz finally ebbed away, only as the Royal Conveyance drove out of sight.
So it is that Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a General who fought and won more battles than Hannibal Barca, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Frederick the Great, combined, was defeated and driven out of town…
Featured image, top of page: The Dreihasenfenster (Window of Three Hares), Paderborn Cathedral, Germany. Photo source: Public Domain. H/T ancient-origins.net
A Trivial Matter
According to WomansDay.com, Americans are expected to spend over $2 Billion on Cadbury eggs, jelly beans and other Easter candies, this year. Peeps, the number one seller (sorry Cadbury), came out in 1953 when each one was extruded, from a pastry tube. In those days, Peeps took twenty-seven hours to set. These days’ they’re ready to eat in about six minutes.
The siege of the mountaintop fortress of Masada ended this day in 73. Two women and five children who had taken shelter in a water pipe, alone remained to tell the tale.
Built under the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century BC, Solomon’s Temple was the first holy temple in ancient Jerusalem. According to Rabbinic sources the temple stood on part of the Temple Mount, also known as Mount Zion for 410 years, before being sacked and burned to the ground by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, in 587 BC.
So important is this event to the Jewish people that it is commemorated still as the bitterest day of the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and mourning known as Tisha B’Av.
A second temple was built on the site in 516BC, and expanded during the reign of Herod the Great. This second temple stood until the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70AD, according to Jewish tradition falling on the same day as the first temple.
The first Roman involvement with the Kingdom of Judea came in 67BC. The client Kingdom of the Herodian Dynasty became a Roman Province in the year 6AD.
Long standing religious disputes erupted into a full scale Jewish revolt in 66. Thousands of Jews were executed in Jerusalem and the second temple plundered, resulting in the Battle of Beth Horon in which a Syrian Legion was destroyed by Jewish rebels. The future emperor Vespasian appointed his son Titus as second in command, entering Judea in 67 at the head of four legions of Roman troops.
A three year off and on siege followed, with Vespasian being recalled to Rome in 69 to become Emperor. The Great Jewish Revolt was now Titus’ war.
The Jewish historian Josephus acted as intermediary throughout much of the siege, though his impartiality has been questioned since he was both friend and adviser to Titus. Josephus entered the city at one point to negotiate but later fled, wounded by an arrow in a surprise attack which very nearly caught Titus himself.
A brutal siege of Jerusalem followed through most of the year 70, in which Jewish Zealots burned their own food supply, forcing defenders to “Fight to the End”. During the final stages, Zealots following John of Giscala still held the Temple, while a splinter group called the Sicarii (literally, “Dagger Men”), led by Simon Bar Giora held the upper part of the city.
The Second Temple, one of the last fortified bastions of the rebellion, was destroyed on Tisha B’Av, July 29 or 30, 70AD. By September 7 the Roman army under Titus had fully occupied and plundered all of Jerusalem.
The first Jewish-Roman war would last for three more years, culminating in the Roman siege of the mountaintop fortress of Masada.
Masada rises nearly fifteen-hundred feet above the dead sea, occupying the 18-acre plateau of a mountain described by modern Arabs as al-Sabba. “The Accursed”.
The rhomboid-shaped mesa was briefly settled around the time of the first temple (ca. 900BC), and fortified during the Hasmonean Dynasty of ancient Judaea. The plateau ends in steep cliffs falling some 1,300 feet to the east and about 300-feet on the western side. Already a natural fortress, Herod the Great equipped the place with a 13-foot wall some 1,300-feet in length, a barracks, armory and a cistern holding 200,000 gallons of water.
Masada remained the last remnant of Jewish rule in Palestine in 70, following the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the second temple. A defending force of fewer than 1,000 (including women and children) held out for nearly two years as the 15,000-strong legions of General Flavius Silva placed stone upon stone, building the sloping ramp of earth and stone seen above.
In the end, Zealot defenders led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir, never had a chance. Preferring death to enslavement, Josephus tells us of their drawing lots, each man bearing his throat to his comrade until there remained only one.
Mountaintop excavations in 1955-’56 and resumed in 1963-’66 support this version of the end, pottery shards bearing inscribed names, in Hebrew.
It was all over on this day in 73. Two women and five children who had taken shelter in a water pipe, alone remained to tell the tale.
There would be two more Jewish-Roman wars: Kitos War (115–117), sometimes called the “Rebellion of the Exile”, and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 through 135. The wars had a cataclysmic impact on the Jewish people, the resulting diaspora transforming a major Eastern Mediterranean population to a scattered and persecuted minority.
The Jewish people would not reestablish a major presence in the Levant until the State of Israel was constituted, in 1948.