Saint Agatha’s festival in Catania, Sicily. Patron Saint of Catania, her festival is one of the biggest in the world. Courtesy of Pietro Nicosia. Click to zoom in.
Italian translation

Patron Saints & Areas of Patronage

As we wrote at the end of part 1 Roman polytheism based on a “departmental idea of divinity” – ie on specific deities helping people in specific aspects of human life – seems to survive today in the veneration of saints.

Nothing provides a more vivid idea of such polytheistic survivals than the lists of patron saints and their respective areas of patronage.

Patron saints are special saints who intercede to God for us in certain life situations. They are such either by the will of the Pontiff or by tradition.

A couple of these lists (for almost-once-century-ago Spanish and Italian peasants) I had seen in Gordon J. Laing’s Survivals of Roman Religion book (1931), which is guiding us a bit in this journey.

So revealing such lists looked to me that I searched around the web for more up-to-date catalogues.

Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Today’s saints’ lists appear even richer and incredibly detailed!

(I wonder why)

San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples

Saints’ Help with Hangovers, Snakes and AIDS

Very comprehensive is the web site, with 7,140 saints and 3,346 areas of patronage covered (check also and Catholic Online.)

Here just a fraction of what you can find at SQPN.

Animals. Apart from saints protecting cities and countries [for ex. Agatha is patron saint of Catania – see the image at the posting header -; or Gennaro, of Naples, see above] there are saints protecting against dog bites (Walburga, Hubert of Liege), snakes (Paul the Apostle), bees (Ambrose of Milan, Bernard of Clairvaux); or protecting cattle (Brigid of Ireland, Nicostratus), dogs (Rocco, Vitus), poultry farmers (Brigid of Ireland), salmons (Kentigern) and even swans and whales (Hugh of Lincoln and Brendan the Navigator respectively).

Education. There are saints for teachers (Cassian of Imola, Catherine of Alexandria, Francis de Sales, Ursula, Gregory the Great) and there are saints for students (Albert the Great, Isidore of Seville, Jerome, Ursula, Thomas Aquinas).

There is even a saint for test takers (!), Joseph of Cupertino.

Health. Any health problem has its specific protectors: angina pectoris (Swithbert), arthritis (Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Colman, James the Greater, Killian, Totnan), autism (Ubaldus Baldassini), hangovers (Bibiana), headache (Acacius, Anastasius the Persian, Aurelius of Riditio, Bibiana, Hugh of Grenoble, Teresa of Avila), breast cancer (Agatha of Sicily, Aldegundis, Giles), diabetes (Paulina do Coração Agonizante de Jesus), depression (Amabilis, Bertha of Avenay, Bibiana, Dymphna, Moloc of Mortlach), epilepsy (Alban of Mainz, Balthasar, John Chrysostom, Valentine of Rome), lunacy (Alban of Mainz, Balthasar, John Chrysostom, Vitus, Willibrord of Echternach) and so on.

The flower crowned skull of St Valentine exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Click for credits and to zoom in

There are saints for AIDS care-givers (Aloysius Gonzaga) and saints for AIDS patients (Aloysius Gonzaga, Peregrine Laziosi, Therese of Lisieux).

Family. Difficult marriages are taken care of (so many protectors, I’ll just mention Catherine of Genoa, Dorothy of Montau, Edward the Confessor, Philip Howard, Thomas More, Radegunde) and so are divorced people (Fabiola, Guntramnus, Helena). We have  saints for childless couples (Anne Line, Catherine of Genoa, Henry II, Julian the Hospitaller), for unmarried men and unmarried women, plus those who protect against the death of children, the death of fathers, of mothers, of both parents; saints against spouse abuse, incest, abortion and so forth.

If This Was Polytheism, Why Was It Tolerated?

As Ernest Renan (1823 – 1892), French philosopher and writer, once observed:

A saint’s arm bone, from the Cloisters section of the MET, NYC. Photo by Lichanos. Click on the image to reach Lichanos’ writing.

Every person “who prays to a particular saint for a cure for his horse or ox or drops a coin into the box of a miraculous chapel is in that act pagan. He is responding to the prompting of a religious feeling that is older than Christianity …” [quote from Laing’s book]

If this is even partly true why the leaders of Christianity, who certainly disliked polytheism, allowed such survivals of the older religions?

Polytheism (of any kind, not only ancient Roman) was probably too ingrained a religious attitude for Christianity to be able to root it out. So certain doses of syncretism (ie combinations, compromises) were the price the founders of Christianity had probably to pay in order to Christianize the unsophisticated pagi (ie rural districts of the former empire, thence the term paganus, pagan), together with the folks in the far outposts of the Roman world or right outside it.

[See a comment by Lichanos on this point. As for pagans as rural people, the word ‘heathen’ in English is probably a derivative of Goth haiþi ‘dwelling on the heath’: see the Etymology dictionary; and German Heide indicates both ‘pagan’ and ‘heath’]

“It may be that the founders of Christianity – argues Gordon J. Laing – found that the belief of the people especially the illiterate class in these specialized spirits of minor grade was one of their greatest problems. They recognized the people’s predilection for spirits that would help in specific situations, and they realized also that the masses felt more at home with beings who, while of divine nature or associations, were not too far removed from the human level.
They were keenly interested in winning the pagans to the faith and they succeeded. But undoubtedly one element in their success was the inclusion in their system of the doctrine of the veneration of Saints.”

The Holy Right, or the hand of St. Stephen. St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, Hungary. Click for attribution and for a bigger image

Veneration and Worship

Now veneration and worship are considered differently by the Church. Veneration is a lesser-degree adoration, while worship is due to God alone.

[Veneration of saints is accepted today, as far as I know, not only by the Catholic Church but also by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church and the Lutherans. Some of the saints mentioned above might belong to those churches too, hard for me to say]

Gordon J. Laing observed in 1931:

“The Church has never taught the worship of Saints […] but whether the peasants of southern Italy and other parts of Europe distinguish with any degree of precision between veneration and worship is another question. It is not likely that they do, and for those who are looking for evidence of the continuance of the creative power of Roman religion, the beliefs of the illiterate are of as much importance as the formulated doctrines of the Church. Our subject is not survivals of paganism in the modern Church but survivals in modern times.”

Roman Pompa vs San Gennaro’s Procession

Procession of San Gennaro in Naples. Photo by Antonio Alfano

We will finish our posting with a fascinating passage by Gordon J. Laing:

“The similarity in attitude of mind of pagan and Christian devotees and the survival of the polytheistic idea in modern times may be seen in a comparison of the behavior of the people who watched the procession which preceded the circus games in ancient Rome [pompa circensis was a grand procession before the games: read a description at LacusCurtius, MoR] and that of the crowd which fills the streets of Naples today on the occasion of the festival held in May in honor of San Gennaro [Saint Januarius,] the patron saint of the city.

In the old Roman procession a conspicuous place was given to the images of the gods that were borne along in floats; and as they were carried past, pious Romans called upon the names of those whom they regarded as their special protectors.

So too at the Naples festival. In the procession referred to the images of many Saints, each of them with his own place in the affections of the Neapolitan proletariat, are carried from the Cathedral to the Church of Santa Chiara. Saints of all centuries are there, some of whom attained the dignity hundreds of years ago, while others are more recent creations. As the procession moves along, persons in the crowd call out the name of their patron Saint, and when the image of San Biagio, a sort of Christian Aesculapius with special powers in diseases of the throat, passes by, the Neapolitan mothers hold up their croupy bambini and implore a remedy.”

San Gennaro’s blood venerated by the Neapolitans

[Note. Patron saints remind also of the practice of patronage in ancient Rome (see our post on Ancient patronage and clientage,) since beyond a doubt between the believer and the saint – exactly like between patrons and clients – there is like a sort of exchange: prayers and offers in exchange of favour and protection in certain areas of life.]


Related posts:

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (1)

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna
Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever
Ex Votos in Italian-American Devotions

33 thoughts on “Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)

  1. This post is highly interesting, Man of Roma, especially your question about why those who are monotheistic still hold on to their polytheistic saints.

    The list of saints for everything amazes me. If my neurotic high school students studying for the SAT could get their hands on Joseph of Cupertino, they would be so happy.

    Come to think of it, the city of Cupertino has more test preparatory academies per capita than any other city in the Bay Area.


    1. Ah ah ah, you made me laugh quite a lot. Better keep any relic of Joseph of Cupertino (in case it exists) away from those students!

      It amazes me that you have a place called Cupertino in California, and that probably so many test preparatory academies are there for this reason.

      Thank for the ‘I like’. Hope your birthday was fantastic, Cheri.


  2. In the North End of Boston, which was almost wholly Italian during my younger travels (and probably still is), Saint Anthony’s Day is the big festival of the year and occasions the kind of religious procession that the US doesn’t see very often. The saint’s statue goes through streets with stodgy Bostonian names, as in your picture above of San Gennaro, and arrives at a place of public exhibition where a brief Mass is said before festivities commence. I saw it once. By the time Anthony’s sedan-chair had reached its destination he was covered in gold offerings, including a lot of watches. I have to wonder how the Church dealt with all the damn watches.

    Then a couple of bands played “Immaculate Mary” in two distinctly different keys at more or less the same time before everyone started dancing, drinking and eating calamari from street carts. It was about as pagan as anything gets in this country; I’ve been at a Wiccan observance and it was desperately tepid by comparison. I’m trying to imagine what it’s like in the home country of the Roman Church.


    1. Slepdress is likely never going to read this seeing it’s one week later, but yes, Boston’s North End still has a large Italian population – I was there eight years ago. My aunt goes every year to the feast of St. Anthony. Our feasts – if you can call them that – pale in terms of size and magnitude.

      The interesting about Boston is how it seems to retain its ethnic burroughs – notably Irish on the South side and Italian on the North. In Montreal, while there’s still a line, it’s been blurred with many other nationalities. Even Little Italy has an encroaching Latino Quarter and more and more Arab based shops. In fact, my father’s building in the heart of the Jean-Talon market nestled within Little Italy now has a Muslim grocery store.

      It also seems to be the case in New York.

      Just my impression. Maybe someone can shed more light on this?


      1. I did so read it. I just couldn’t think of any way to account for Boston.

        Having dated a guy from there (more than one, actually), I just think there is no way of explaining Boston.


  3. In Montreal’s Little Italy, the statue of Saint Anthony is paraded through the streets. Dangling from it are strings ending with a needle, as the float winds it’s way through the crowd people put the needle through dollar bills, 5$ and over, 1$ and 2$ are coins over here. When the float gets to the church the strings are full of dollars, many thousands of those.
    After that its off to the bars and trattorias.


  4. San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples

    The Saint Gennaro Day Fair is a very big event in NYC’s Little Italy, although now it is exceedingly touristy, as is the neighborhood in general.


  5. @Sledpress
    @Paul Costopoulos

    This interests me quite a lot. All that money etc. may appear blasphemous to some.

    I’d like to study a bit the religious customs of the Italians who migrated to different parts of the world. One reason is that, as far as I know, and as it also emerged in *discussions* on this blog, when people migrate they may ‘hibernate’ some cultural traits that are alive at the time of their migration (while such traits may later disappear in the fatherland).

    The Amish are a well-known (and extreme) example.

    I found a wonderful book on the ‘Lady of Mount Carmel’ in New York city (115th street: Italian Harlem 1880-1950) and on the amazing Italian festas that grew around this cult.

    As in your examples the procession though serious included a lot of merry-making with drinking, eating, even flirting etc., that was also typical of ancient Roman processions, called pompae.

    “The most characteristic sensuous facts of the Mount Carmel festa were the smell and taste of food. In the homes, in the streets and in the restaurants, the festa of our Lady of Mount Carmel had a taste …Big meals, pranzi, were cooked in the homes … But it was in the street that the real eating took place. …. tempting pies filled with tomato, red pepper and garlic, bowls of pasta, dried nuts, nougat candy, raisins, tinted cakes, and pastry rings glistening in the light…. Beer and wine were drunk, to the horror of those who came from New York’s better neighbourhoods to watch the lower classes at play.”


    1. I went out at lunch time to find lower Broadway blocked off for a street fair, and I realized that we had neglected the most important Italian saint of all here in America – Christopher Columbus! Today, is Columbus Day, public sector workers have a holiday, but not me.

      I ate six zeppoli and expect to feel sick later.

      You can read how all this Italian-American stuff plays out in the political circus of NY here:


  6. @Sledpress

    I’ve been at a Wiccan observance and it was desperately tepid by comparison.

    Neo-paganism may be artificial compared to survivals of the real thing. Add to it the festive mood of the Italians.

    I’m trying to imagine what it’s like in the home country of the Roman Church.

    Processions with saints and Madonnas (as something deeply felt by the people) are not frequent any longer in Rome, as strange as it may seem. Maybe in the banlieu, but I’m not sure. I though have vivid memories of them in the city when I was a kid, soon after the end of the war.

    In small towns and especially in the South (small and big towns alike) they can still be much alive though, because the patron saint’s celebration is a celebration of the entire community – (Agathe ‘represents’ Catania, Gennaro Naples, Lucy Syracuse, Santa Rosa Viterbo etc.).

    Let us not forget that also in classical antiquity each city state had a patron god or goddess (Hera, Athena etc.) that provided the same type of identification.

    Foreign believers (also non Italian Catholics) don’t find in these Italian celebrations any deep meditation on the ‘principles’ of Christianity. They rather see them as carnivals (which in fact they also are) and they are surprised that Italians often prefer outdoor devotions to entering a church.

    My theory– I am repetitive – is that Greco-Roman polytheism left deeper traces on Italians (and other romanized folks) – because of its higher complexity – than Germanic or Celtic polytheism ever did on the unromanized people of North Europe, who hence became more zealously Christian: in fact Protestantism started in the North also as a reaction to Southern ‘paganism’.

    This makes Italians (and other folks) different a bit, and, from a strictly Christian point of view, superficial.


    1. I have often pondered the way that formal festivals take the shape of the observances on which they’re overlaid, and the same with cultures. For instance, to me Russian Soviet Communism was like a blanket covering Tsarist and the institutions of serfdom, and took its shape as things settled.

      I suppose as cultures industrialize and become more mobile all these locally treasured festivals fade a bit. But I get the sense the survivals in Northern Europe were simply more subversive, less obvious, for a long time until deteriorating into various superstitions without an evident system. On my mother’s side especially — they were officially Southern Baptists — there were all kinds of peculiar beliefs about the unseen world, healing folk magic and so on that co existed with hellfire preaching.


  7. Hi Man of Roma,
    I appreciate your post.

    I hope I don’t sound flippant when I say that climate has something to do with the difference in the ways of worshipping. Some peoples of North Europe (moreso in the past) were often wet and miserable wearing smelly damp wool under forboding clouds that sat on their heads. There was no Italian food to help them brave this. Think cod. Entering a church for devotion also provided comfort.

    Look how much joie de vivre the Italians have had all this time and still enjoy. They haven’t missed out. 🙂

    PS. This is just another facet of all the complexities you mention.


  8. @Sledpress

    I get the sense the survivals in Northern Europe were simply more subversive, less obvious … On my mother’s side especially … there were all kinds of peculiar beliefs about the unseen world, healing folk magic and so on that co existed with hellfire preaching.

    More subversive and less obvious… I think I understand what you mean. Quite intriguing. One factor may be that Greek-Roman polytheism is classical, over studied – tons of texts, archaeology etc.

    I do not know much of Nordic ancient beliefs and would like to learn more. There were common things though. Witches, for example – who definitely had something subversive – were common to both South and North folks in Europe. As for ancient Rome the Equiline hill, before emperor Augustus redeemed it, was a ghostly place of witches, assassins, slaves’ executions. Apuleius narrates of witches quite a lot. I shifted to witchcraft and magic though, which possibly came from the deep Palaeolithic, hence common to many folks on earth. In India lynchings for witchcraft are reported in the papers. In black Africa too.


    1. I’m thinking of the Celts especially. A lot of folk beliefs of the British Isles found a respectable lodging in the Christian context and hitched a ride to America. Farmers’ wives leaving out a saucer of milk for the Good Folk and the like (I think we know who got the milk, meow), as well as festivals like May Day.


        1. Well, Tolkien was so Catholic he squeaked. But the hobbits especially are rather like rural Britons of his younger day.

          Robert Graves alludes throughout The White Goddess to local rural customs that survived into his day which he connected with matriarchal, Welsh and Irish beliefs. I’d go look some up if I weren’t about to fix supper.

          May Day came to me because it’s still so well recognized as a “spring” festival, but baldly connected to May Eve and the Beltane festival that the parlor pagans have revived. And of course there’s good old Halloween, commercially debased all over the US, but still… the church up the road from me sells pumpkins by the hundreds every year, for people to take home and carve up into lanterns for the Samhain festival/annual orgy of juvenile sugar consumption.


          1. May Day, Beltane, you have given me a few clues from where to start.

            And, I never knew that a Catholic could squeak. Good to know 🙂


  9. @Geraldine

    Your writing is so evocative Geraldine. You made us ‘see’ those Nordic people oppressed by their clouds! I wonder why you don’t keep a blog. From your surname you might be Irish. I love Ireland. It was my first encounter with the ‘far North’ when I was a teenager.

    I am not saying that going to Church was wrong lol. As you say, it was a question of climate but also of cultural diversity I believe.

    The texts I am reading on American Catholics mention like an initial strong contrast – between 1800 and 1900 – among the Polish and the Irish, on one hand, and the Italians on the other hand who were seen as pagans. Italians’ popular spirituality and their festas in the open air – with the features described also by some commentators here: the dollars, the food etc. – were not understood and considered kind of blasphemous.

    The American Catholic hierarchy was basically Irish when the Italians landed in the US at the end of 1800. All this ‘nativism’ created resentment initially. Nothing strange about it. Italy and Ireland belong to the opposite ends of Europe.

    Dear Geraldine, being different is one of the kicks of life.

    At 17 I was stunned watching the Irish girls dancing in the Dublin discos. Their looks and the way they moved their bodies to the rhythm of music were so darn different from our girls’ that it almost knocked me out.

    Ah youth, marvellous days they were!


  10. Hi Man of Roma,

    I was only responding to your comment that others wondered why Italians preferred outdoor devotion to entering a church, and, also, that the pinned money and food seemed blasphemous to them. This made me see the northern people outdoors looking for a cup of tea and everything sea-blown. Of course, this image is too flippant for your thorough discussion. I apologize to you and Sledpress.

    I don’t have the same sweep of knowledge that you both do – just insights. Also, I have trouble with deconstruction as my brain prefers to work with the whole from images. For instance, I see these festivities as an affirmation of life, a celebration of joy, be it secular or non-secular. I can only speak for myself and say I love the ‘openness’ of the pinned dollars and all that good food. If we only had a little portion of the Sistine chapel we would have the same feeling as for the whole of it and this is how I see the veneration of all those different Saints, i.e. equal to direct veneration of God. I love the naturalness and earthiness of these ways, although, I have never been to one. It seems the other commentators have enjoyed them.

    The Celts do not have this in this way; perhaps the Poles do not either. My guess is the difference is in how the religion was taught (or handed down and protected) in different countries, also climate and the proximity of people. Or lack of representation. My education comes from the Dominican Order where I learned to contemplate the suffering of Christ. This is good too. Other places may emphasize the teachings more. Praying, for me, meant wrapping white bandages around His wounds. So it is and was always more painful. In my view, the Italians celebrate like the marriage of Cana. The pagan in me tells me to come back as an Italian.

    As for music and dance…well! Yes, yes, and yes again. Nothing, nothing has changed.


    1. Of course, this image is too flippant for your thorough discussion.

      Flippant? Nothing is too flippant in this blog. I am much flippant myself, don’t get fooled by some of my posts 🙂

      [unfortunately I’m sometimes obliged to serious writing since I cannot play with language as you mother-tongue people out there can do: I learned English painfully on books. And I write with pain, as I confess *here*]

      I have trouble with deconstruction as my brain prefers to work with the whole from images.

      You probably have what was once called in popular psychology ‘a right hemisphere’ brain. Your prose is so poetic and expressing images so beautifully. Of your granddad’s *description* over at Cheri’s, his long and elegant bony finger, his ghost-like dark suit and his posture in his deathbed stuck in my imagination.

      And, worshipping Christ through His pain seems terribly intense.

      You can come back in your next lives as an Italian if you like, but I suggest that you stay Irish: you are a wonderful folk with such a special artistic vein!


  11. Grazie di cuore, Man of Roma.

    ps. I love the post you referred me to here: Experience of a Non-Mother Tongue Blogger. Interesting. I will apply this to my love of French and German.

    pss: Your words bubble and leap with enthusiasm, excitement and delight.

    psss: OH, I left a puzzle over at Richard’s pub.


    1. And it fact they were called ‘feste’. Did you find your wife like that? 🙂

      I know she is from Lebanon, but she is half Italian it seems.


  12. I am learning a little bit about Catholics. The saints is an interesting unique trait for them. I think one prays to saints, asking them to pray to God for his or her behaf. I think it is a bit like henotheism. It reminds me of Hinduism. In that religion there is a main divinity, Braman. There is also a multitude of minor gods and goddesses. The minor deities are considered to be facets of Braman.


    1. Welcome here Chanel!

      A saint is certainly considered as an intermediary between the faithful and God, and God is seen as unique by Catholics, of course. But it is hard to say if saints in some parts of the Catholic world (the deep Mediterranean for example) are seen as simple facets of God. There might be some polytheistic remnants from the Greco-Roman world (1 thousand years before Christianity arrived is a long time).

      People from Catania or Syracuse, two Sicilian towns for example, are so devoted to saint Agatha (Catania) and to saint Lucy (or Lucia, in Syracuse) that polytheistic feelings older than Christianity might here persist.

      Incidentally, also some Protestants accept a few saints, though not as many as the Catholics. Yes, I think henotheism may apply to many Catholics.


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