July 17, 2004 Christ of the Abyss

Gonzatti’s fellow diver Duilio Marcante conceived an idea to honor his friend. A monument to the world beneath the waves and dedicated to those who had lost their lives at sea.

Man’s desire to enter the underwater world goes back to antiquity. Aristotle tells of Alexander the Great descending into the waters of the Mediterranean in something called a “diving bell”, as early as 332BC. The Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci designed a similar apparatus, adding a face mask and reinforced supply hoses, to withstand the pressure of the depths.

Diving bell, 1691

The first on-demand underwater breathing valve came about in 1860s France, thanks to the work of inventors Benoît Rouquayrol, and Auguste Denayrouze. British diving engineer Henry Albert Fleuss developed the first commercially viable “rebreather” in 1878, using an air bag and rope fiber soaked in potash to “scrub” carbon dioxide from exhaled air.

The 20th century brought with it new and improved methods of pumping, and storing, compressed gas. By the 1930s every major belligerent of the coming war, had developed its own underwater breathing apparatus.

Dario Gonzatti was the first Italian to use SCUBA gear and paid for it with his life in 1947, near the village of San Fruttuoso, on the Italian Riviera.

Gonzatti’s fellow diver Duilio Marcante conceived an idea to honor his friend. A monument to a world beneath the waves and dedicated to those who had lost their lives at sea. A 2½ meter tall bronze sculpture, Il Cristo degli Abissi. Christ of the Abyss.

There followed a period of collecting the metal. Cannon and other brass objects, retrieved from wrecks. Mothers and sweethearts sent coins and medals given to sailors, who never returned.

Sculptor Guido Galletti created the clay positive from which the mold was cast. A 2.5 meter (8.2 feet) likeness of Jesus Christ weighing in at 260 kg (573 pounds) without the foundation, eyes raised to the heavens and arms outstretched, in supplication. A benediction for untold numbers, lost at sea.

That first “Christ of the Abyss” was lowered in 57-feet of water on August 22, 1954, near the spot where Dario Gonzatti, lost his life.

The Cove of San Fruttuoso

Over the years, crustaceans and corrosion took their toll. A hand was broken off, by an anchor line. The statue was removed after a half-century and repaired, and re-lowered on July 17, 2004 to a newly-built foundation.

Since that first installation in 1954 two other Christ of the Abyss statues have descended into the depths, both cast from the same clay original. The first was a gift of gratitude given by the navy of Genoa, for assistance from the people of Granada in rescuing the crew of the Italian vessel MV Bianca, destroyed by fire in the port of St. George. That one was placed seven years after the original on October 22, 1961.

Italian dive equipment manufacturer Egidio Cressi donated a third to the Underwater Society of America, in 1962. This one was installed after much debate on August 25, 1965 in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park near Key Largo, Florida, the first underwater park in the United States.

Located in only 25-feet of water with hands but 8 to ten feet below the surface, the site remains a popular destination for underwater selfies, from that day to this.

June 24, 1535 Doctrinal Differences

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations.


A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. Subsequent events would harden Luther’s attitudes toward the Church but for now, this was but ninety-five propositions, framed and submitted for scholarly disputation.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such issues were matters of life and death. The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time, was dug up and burned, his ashes cast upon the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and from a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Alarmed at the preacher’s growing influence, church authorities banned Rothmann from the pulpit.  A mob of supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church in February 1532 and installed Rothmann, as its preacher. Conflict escalated and took the form of armed rebellion that December, between nine-hundred armed townspeople and the highest ranking Church official in town, prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck. This time, the conflict was settled peaceably. Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from the parish churches of Münster.

The next time would be very different.

Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20 percent of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, amid “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warned those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  That was a bit too much even for the crazies, so Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city.  About 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals, poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed, in a vain attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s: “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm and before long, a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534. Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy thus shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls, and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a spike, for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

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The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster on June 25, 1535, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square six months later, chained to posts and literally torn to pieces, with white-hot pliers.

Imagine the scene. The sentences encompassed precisely sixty minutes of such treatment. Two executioners and four sets of tongs lest the other two, be out of the coals for too long. Leiden endured an hour of such treatment as first his flesh and then sinew, was torn from his frame. He never made a sound.

Knipperdolling struggled frantically against the spiked collar which held him fast for he knew, he was next. Finally it was Krechting’s turn. Should a man pass out from the agony the clock would be stopped and the prisoner, revived. Then the process would begin, anew. Sixty minutes with those white-hot tongs and not a moment, less.

Finally a dagger was thrust into each man’s heart to end his appointed hour. Their hideously mutilated corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

Some fifty years later their bones were removed, but not those cages.  In 1880 the old steeple was torn down and a new one built in its place. The cages, were reinstalled.

On November 18, 1944, British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church, knocking the highest cage, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third hanging only, by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Three decades ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, to this day.

June 21, 1633 The Last Word

Revenge it is said, is a dish best served, cold.

From the time of antiquity, science took the “geocentric” view of the solar system. Earth exists at the center of celestial movement with the sun and planetary bodies revolving around our own little sphere.

The perspective was widely held but by no means unanimous.  In the third century BC the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos put the Sun in the center of the universe.  Later Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy agreed, refining Aristarchus’ methods to arrive at a fairly accurate estimate for the distance to the moon, but theirs remained the minority view.

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Earth is at the center of this model of the universe created by Bartolomeu Velho, a Portuguese cartographer, in 1568. H/T: NASA/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus parted ways with the orthodoxy of his time, describing a “heliocentric” model of the universe placing the sun at the center.  The Earth and other bodies, according to this model, revolved around the sun.

Copernicus wisely refrained from publishing such ideas until the end of his life, fearing to offend the religious sensibilities of the time. Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) on awakening on his death bed, from a stroke-induced coma. He took one look at his book, closed his eyes and never opened them again.

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Copernicus’ ‘heliocentric’ view of the universe.

The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei came along, about a hundred years later. The “Father of Modern Observational Astronomy”, Galileo’s improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supporting the Copernican heliocentric view.

Bad news for Galileo, they also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.

Biblical references such as, “The Lord set the Earth on its Foundations; it can Never be Moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the Sun Rises and Sets and Returns to its Place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) were taken at the time as literal and immutable fact and formed the basis for religious objection to the heliocentric model.

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Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition

Galileo was brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial. The astronomer backpedaled before the Inquisition, but only to a point, testifying in his fourth deposition on June 21, 1633: “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. Refusing to accept the validity of his own conviction, the astronomer muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

The Inquisition condemned the astronomer to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to house arrest at his villa in 1634, there to spend the rest of his life. Galileo Galilei, the Italian polymath who all but orchestrated the transition from late middle ages to  scientific Renaissance, died on January 8, 1642, desiring to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors. 

His final wishes were ignored at the time, though not forever. His final wishes would be honored some ninety-five years later, when Galileo was re-interred according to his wishes, in the basilica.

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Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence

Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes, they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.

Such a custom seems ghoulish to us today, but the practice was was quite old by the 18th century.  Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, quite the opposite.  The Inquisition had judged the man an enemy of the church, a heretic.

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“A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body”. H/T New York Times

Even so, the condition of Galileo’s body may have made him appear thus “incorruptible”.  Be that as it may, one Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737. The digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos. The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.

The other two fingers and a tooth disappeared in 1905, leaving the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy. 

Locked in a glass case, the finger points upward, toward the sky.

23galileo2-cnd-popup100 years later, two fingers and a tooth were purchased at auction, and since rejoined their fellow digit at the Museo Galileo. To this day these are the only human body parts, in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instrumentation.

379 years after his death, Galileo’s extremity points upward, toward the glory of the cosmos.  Either that or the most famous middle finger on earth, flipping the bird in eternal defiance to those lesser specimens who once condemned him, for ideas ahead of his time.

April 15, 1889 Damien of Moloka’i

“I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work I am perfectly resigned to my lot”. Saint Damien of Molokai

It’s one of the oldest diseases in recorded history, the first written reference coming down to us, from 600BC. Ancient Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Middle Eastern sources wrote about the condition as did the Roman naturalist Pliny the elder, in the first century.

Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. Left untreated the condition produces skin ulcers, damage to peripheral nerves & upper respiratory tract, and muscular weakness. Everyday injuries go unnoticed due to numbness and lead to infection. Advanced cases result in severe disfigurement, crippling and/or the physical loss of hands, feet & facial features, and, finally, blindness.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports a death rate among leprosy sufferers four times that of the general population.

First discovered by Norwegian physician G.H. Armauer Hansen in 1873, M. leprae is the first bacterium identified as the causative agent of disease, in humans. Today, Leprosy is curable with multidrug therapy (MDT). The world saw 208,619 new cases in 2018, 185 of which occurred, in the United States.

The horrors of the condition and resulting social stigmas, are plain for anyone to see. Today, sufferers fear loss of jobs, separation of familial and other connections and social isolation. Though not as widespread as commonly believed, victims of “Hansen’s disease” were historically sent off to quarantine in asylums and “leper colonies” from which few, ever returned.

In the 19th century, Mycobacterium leprae came to the Hawaiian islands.

According to research, long-distance explorers first came to the Hawaiian islands around the year 300. For the next 500 years, settlers arrived from French Polynesia, Tahiti, Tuamotus and the Samoan Islands. Other research indicates a shorter timeframe, settlement occurring between 1219 and 1266. Be that as it may the Hawaiian islands were first unified in 1810 to become the Kingdom of Hawai’i, under King Kamehameha the Great. Captain James Cook made the first known European contact in 1778 followed by waves of others both European, and American.

King Kamehameha statue, stands in front of Aliiolani Hale (the judiciary building), Honolulu, Oahu

According to archaeological evidence, indigenous peoples occupied the Kalaupapa peninsula on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, for more than 900 years. Before first contact with Europeans their numbers are estimated, between 1,000 and 2,700, . Following the arrival of Captain Cook and others, Eurasian diseases decimated native populations. By 1853 only were 140 natives were left on the Kalaupapa peninsula.

Overhead view of the Kalaupapa peninsula

Leprosy first arrived on the Hawaiian islands around 1830, believed to be carried by Chinese laborers. The disease was incurable at that time, the first effective treatment didn’t come around, until the1940s.

By 1865, sugar planters were concerned about the labor supply. The Kingdom passed a measure to remove the Kānaka Maoli, Native Hawaiian inhabitants occupying the peninsula, in preparation for a leper colony.

The first such isolation settlement was established at Kalawao on the windward side of the peninsula and then on Kalaupapa, itself.

Even after a year of family disruption brought about by government response to Covid-19 the catastrophe of such a policy, is hard to process. In native Hawaiian tradition, Aloha ʻĀina means not only “Love of the Land” but a deep sense of connection, to all living things. For the descendants of those forcibly removed from the ʻĀina as well as those “lost” to Kalaupapa the wounds remain open, to this day.

By 1890, 1,100 ‘lepers’ lived in this remote, inhospitable place, prisoners of their own deteriorating bodies and a greater culture who loathed, and feared them.

Over the years some 8,500 unfortunates would come to live in this place, the last one, in 1969.

Rudolph Wilhelm Meyer set out from his native Germany in search of the California gold rush. He made it as far as Molokaʻi. By 1866, Meyer was a father and husband to Kalama Waha, settled on the steep cliffs above Kalaupapa. As the peninsula became a leper colony, Meyer became supply agent to the colony and liaison to those few healthy individuals, willing to work there.

Mostly, those were Belgian missionary priests from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the first of whom was Father Damien, who served there from 1873 until his death, in 1889.

Fr. Damien in 1873 before sailing, for Hawai’i

Father Damien arrived at the isolated settlement at Kalaupapa on May 10, 1873. At that time there were 600 lepers. He spoke to the assembled unfortunates as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.”

After the Fr. Damien’s death of leprosy, commentators complained of contemporary accounts diminishing the work of native Hawaiians, some of whom served prominent roles on the island. While such are accounts are likely true enough there is no diminishing what the man did there.

For 16 years, father Damien lived and worked among the lepers of Molokaʻi. He ate with them, from the same bowls. He smoked with them, from the same pipe.

While the government had no desire to make this place a penal colony, outside support was slim to none. And this was no isolated population of yeoman farmers, these people were sickened and made weak by this most dreadful of medical conditions, many barely able to care for themselves.

Damien was not only a priest and teacher, he pitched in painting houses, organizing farms and building roads, hospitals and churches. He dressed the wounds of the stricken, built their coffins, dug graves and lived with the lepers, as equals. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao he wrote to his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: “…I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”

Father Damien and sister Marianne Cope have both received Roman Catholic Sainthood, for their actins on Molokaʻi

One day, it happened. In December 1884, he accidentally put his foot in scalding water. It was so hot that his skin blistered and peeled but he didn’t feel a thing. Father Damien was now himself, a leper.

Despite the illness destroying his body, Damien worked even harder in the last years of his life. He completed several building projects and improved orphanages, all while aiding his fellow lepers in their treatments and medical baths and spreading the Catholic faith. King David Kalākaua bestowed on the priest the honor of “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua.” When Crown Princess Lydia Liliʻuokalani arrived to present the medal she was said to be too distraught and heartbroken at the sight of those poor people, to even speak.

Princess Liliʻuokalani spoke of her experience bringing the plight of Father Damien and his flock, to the eyes of the world. European and American protestants sent money to help with the work. The Church of England sent food, medicine and supplies. It is believed that Fr. Damien never wore his medal but he went to his grave, with it by his side.

Japanese leprologist Masanao Goto arrived to treat the lepers of Molokaʻi with medical baths, moderate exercise and friction applied to parts, benumbed by disease. Goto’s treatments were popular with his patients but, in the end, there was little hope. Four volunteers arrived in the end to aid the ailing missionary including sister Marianne Cope, a woman who would one day join Father Damien, in Roman Catholic sainthood.

Father Damien on his deathbed, 1889

By February 1889, the end was near. With his foot in bandages and an arm in a sling, his other leg dragging uselessly behind, Damien went to his death bed on March 23. Father Damien died of leprosy at 8:00am on April 15, 1889. He was 49. The entire colony turned out the following day as the Belgian missionary was laid to rest beside the same pandamus tree under which he had slept those sixteen years earlier, on his first night in Molokaʻi.

In John 15:13, the King James Bible teaches that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Today, I wonder how many know the name of Father Damien, of Molokaʻi . Or the faith which would bring a person to willingly submit to the literal rot, of such a hideous condition.

Let Mahatma Ghandi, himself no stranger to the horrors of leprosy, have the last word on that subject: “The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, counts by the thousands those who, after the example of Fr. Damien, have devoted themselves to the victims of leprosy. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism“.

Feature image, top of page: Kalaupapa leper colony in 1905

January 26, 897 The Cadaver Synod

56-score and four years ago today it was January 26, 897. A live Pope put his dead predecessor…his predecessor’s deceased predecessor really…on trial. Seriously. They dug up the corpse and dressed it in papal vestments, put it on a throne and tried the guy in a kangaroo court spectacle, worthy of a San Francisco politician.

Sometime down the road, future historians will remember this month for things that none of us ever thought we’d see. Concertina wire surrounds our nation’s capitol. Soldiers fill the streets of Washington as we are left to wonder.

Did somebody put Idi Amin in charge?

With so many needs to be met by the people we put in office, we get the bizarre spectacle of an “impeachment” and removal of a private citizen, who already left. The whole procedure is so outlandish the constitutionally mandated presiding officer, declines to show up. You would think these people have nothing better to do.

Someone once said “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain. Whoever it was, knew what they were talking about.

56-score and four years ago today it was January 26, 897. A live Pope put his dead predecessor…the dead guy who came before his predecessor really…on trial. Seriously. They dug up the corpse and dressed it in papal vestments, put it on a throne and tried the guy in a kangaroo court spectacle, worthy of a San Francisco politician.

According to Catholic church doctrine, the Pontifex maximus sits at the head of the church from the time of Peter, to the present day. Today, the Cardinals meet in secret conclave to elect the bishop of Rome, but it wasn’t always that way. Before the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century the Papacy was often as political, as any public office.

The Popes of the early middle ages were heavily involved in secular affairs. They were chosen by predecessors, popular acclaim, family connection or simony (the purchase of ecclesiastical office). It was inevitable that some would be…umm…less than pious men.

Relations between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire were particularly incestuous. First appearing on the scene in 754 after Pope Stephen II anointed Pepin III “The Short” “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans), emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were known to select Popes and Popes, emperors.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once quipped: “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

Formosus became Cardinal of Porto in 864 and representative of the Pope in Bulgaria, two years later. Many considered the man to be a candidate for the papacy, as early as 872.

That was the year, political issues caused Formosus to beat a hasty retreat from Rome.

Anyone ascending the heights of such a system was bound to have powerful allies. And powerful adversaries. The Cardinal’s enemies, pounced. Pope John VIII ordered Formosus defrocked and excommunicated.

Excommunication might seem a real career killer in his line of work but the sanction was lifted, in 878. Formosus could never return to Rome or resume his priestly functions, but that too was restored, five years later. In 891, Formosus was unanimously elected Pontiff to succeed Pope Stephen V.

Formosus served in a time of great political upheaval. There were problems with Saracens. Power struggles within the eastern church, in Constantinople. The Frankish kingdoms were in a state of upheaval and, worst of all, Formosus supported the German king Arnulf for succession to Holy Roman Emperor, over emperor Guido III of the powerful clan of Spoleto.

Pope Formosus died of natural causes on April 4, 896. He was succeeded by Boniface VI, who lived for 15 days. Some say Boniface died of gout, others that he was poisoned by supporters of his successor, Steven VI.

Even by Medieval standards, Pope Stephen VI must have been some piece of work. In January 897, Stephen had Formosus dug out of the ground, dressed in papal vestments and put on trial.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not

With the corpse propped up on a throne, the outcome was never in doubt. A church deacon attempted to speak for the defendant while Stephen himself shrieked at the corpse, rehashing the old charges of John VIII.

Unsurprisingly, the dead man was convicted. Stripped of his robes, Formosus was clad in the garb of a layman. His papacy was annulled, ordinations cancelled and the three “blessing fingers” of his right hand, hacked off.

The body was buried in a pauper’s grave but even now the revenge of Stephen VI, was unsated. The Pope ordered Formosus dug up yet again and thrown into the Tiber River.

The episode led to widespread outrage, possibly at the behest of Stephen’s enemies. The Pope was incarcerated in the Summer of 897 and strangled, while still in prison.

The cadaver synod ushered in 100 years of corruption of the Holy See known by some as the “Saeculum obscurum” – the Dark Age/Century, and by others, the “Pornocracy”.

Fast forward 39-score and one and it’s January 26, 1661. Four days from now, January 30, the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, one-time “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland” would be dug up and “executed”, by decapitation. The body was hung up in chains while his head was mounted on a pike, outside Westminster hall. That thing stayed there, for 24 years. Sold and sold again, Cromwell’s head would at last go to its final rest some 299 years later. In 1960.

History rhymes, indeed.

March 17, 432 Saint Patrick

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

download - 2020-03-17T203213.007Today, 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.

Saint PatrickInterestingly, 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.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAnother 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-MedievalMonkChristian 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.l_irish-pub-signs-slainte-metal

February 3, 1943 Greater Love Hath No Man

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.druidartThose 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.

story11Dorchester 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.web-four-chaplains-painting-courtesy-of-the-chapel-of-the-four-chaplainsRushing 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.special-medalJohn 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.

January 20, 1788 I have a Dream

“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 james-oglethorpe-with-yamacraw-chief-tomochichi-mary-appears-between-themsouth 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 hadsunset-palms 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.

first_african_baptist_church_savannahOn 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 whichmlkjr-i-have-a-dream-speech-jpg 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

November 18, 1978 Drinking the Koolaid

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.

1536936987137.jpegIt 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.”

jim-jones-red-robe-ht-jef-180925_hpEmbed_21x16_992.jpg“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.

636150546188409893-1492665.jpgThe 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.

jim-jones-family-pic-01-ht-jef-180925_hpMain_4x3_992An 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.

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Jim Jones preaching, 1971

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.

Jim_Jones_shakes_hands_with_Cecil_Williams_-_January_1977
“Jones receives a Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian award from Pastor Cecil Williams, 1977” H/T Wikipedia

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.

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Jonestown compound, Guyana

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.

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Congressman Ryan arrives at Jonestown

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.

BobBrownKaituma
NBC photographer Bob Brown took this shot, of the shooters

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.

download - 2019-11-18T082734.667.jpgBack 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.

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“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

 

 

 

May 1, 62BC The Scandal of the Bona Dea

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.

the-bona-dea-_ara_pacis

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.

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Lo scandalo della bona dea, H/T studiarapido.it

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.

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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.

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Hat tip crayonmaniac.deviantart.com, for this image

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