Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)

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 Saints.SQPN.com web site, with 7,140 saints and 3,346 areas of patronage covered (check also AmericanCatholic.org 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.]

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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

The Mafia and the Italian Mind. Was Julius Caesar a Godfather? (3)

Julius Caesar’s bronze statue on the via dei Fori Imperiali, Rome. Click for credits and to enlarge

At the Core of Roman & Greek Society

As we said in our previous installment this exchange of favours is important to establish a network based on reciprocal dependence.

Now in the last 3 decades scholars have focused their attention on ancient gift societies and on client-patron relations in ancient Rome and Greece. Based on the mutual exchange of benefits such relations were at the core of the social fabric in Greece and Rome, although we will here speak of Rome only.

Brazil and Livy

As I said to Paul I got excited that some scholars of ancient Rome seek to better interpret passages by Livy, Plautus or Cicero via the analysis of the social networks of Latin America or of Mediterranean villages.

[An inspiring study by Molly Ann Rosser Dauster, Sine Legem Fide: Clientage In Ancient Rome, Texas Tech University 2001, provides a brilliant overview of scholarly debate on the matter]

Brazil is interesting because the native cultures were not much developed hence some archaic Portuguese traits were preserved.

Surveys of clientage in 19th century Brazil are thought to shed light on Livy’s use of clientes. Also amigos (friends) in Brazilian, and amici in Latin, seem to be used in exactly the same way, different from our modern way but still present in Malta and southern Italy.

[see R. Graham, Patronage and Politics in 19th Century Brazil, Stanford, Ca., 1990]

The Roman Senate House (Curia) as it was rebuit by Julius Caesar. A ‘Rome reborn’ 3d image. (IATH) University of Virginia. The real-life Curia stands within the Forum

Clientes Preferred to be Called Amici

Almost everyone was a client in ancient Rome. A person could be client and patron at the same time. Entire provinces and nations could be clients.

But clients didn’t like to be called clientes. They preferred to be called amici (friends) since cliens implied subordination.

Now the term amicus is ambiguous. It could mean a disinterested relation (see Cicero’s ideal friendship in Laelius de amicitia) but also a relation of ‘mutual serviceability’ where benefits of any kind, called beneficia, were exchanged. Seneca analyses beneficia with all its implications in his De Beneficiis.

Through amicitiae (friendships) anything could be attained in the Roman society: land, safety, magistracies, jobs, money etc. Personalised relationships ruled and merit counted little.

[For example the nobility clique hated and ousted talented non-nobles. A super general but newcomer like Gaius Marius had chance to be elected consul on very special occasions only, for example when inept noble generals had made Rome vulnerable to the Cimbri and Teutons]

The real-life Curia Julia, the Senate House of Rome, standing within the ruins of the Forum Romanum. Click for credits and to enlarge

No Contacts, no Future

The common person with no contacts in Rome (or in Athens) basically starved. On another social level, if the politician didn’t build a solid network by ‘treating’ his voters with banquets favours gifts money etc., ie if he didn’t ‘corrupt them’ (practised but frowned upon today; part of an ‘ethical’ system in ancient times instead: grasping such cultural differences is crucial) he had no political future.

It’d be interesting to well analyse how Julius Caesar reached power.

Most of Cicero’s letters relate to favour exchanges. They also reveal how Caesar’s attitude towards Cicero was mafioso in the sense that he tried to entice him into a mutual exchange of favours in order to manipulate him.

The Mos Maiorum ‘Was’ The Clientage

The client-patron networks had their origin in the ‘customs of the ancestors’ (mos majorum.) According to Theodore Mommsen (summarized; see original text):

Originally we had a number of strictly closed unities – the household under the control of a master and the clan originated out of the breaking-up of such households. To these unities there further belonged the dependents or “listeners” (-clientes-, from -cluere-), not guests or slaves but those individuals who lived in one of such unity in a condition of protected, dependant freedom: refugees, freedmen, poor people. These were the clients.

To most scholars the clients made up the ‘plebeians’, while the original clans or gentes (the Aemilii, Valerii, Claudii, Fabii, Cornelii, Manlii etc. ) corresponded to the ‘patricians’ (both patronus and patricius come from pater, father.)

The relation between the two orders was a client-patron relationship and it was originally sacred.

The Case of the Fabii’s Private Army

Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator fought against Hannibal and was a member of the gens Flavia

The gentes were important especially during the Republic. The Fabii for example were so powerful as to conduct a personal, family war with Veii (velut familiare bellum, notes Livy in II, 48-49.) Trapped though by the Etruscans they were all cut down to a man in 479 BCE.

How many were the Fabii?

According to Livy “sex et trecenti milites [306 soldiers,] omnes patricii [all patricians,] omnes unius gentis [all from the same gens]…sequebantur turba propria alia cognatorum sodaliumque [followed by a crowd made up partly of their own relatives and friends]…. alia publica sollicitudine excitata, favore et admiratione stupens [… partly of those who shared the public anxiety, and could not find words to express their affection and admiration].”

Not very clear but I guess ‘friends’ (sodales is close to amici) were clientes and the rest sympathisers ie clientes too possibly. An army, it has been calculated, of 4000-5000 people wholly, with the clients clearly outnumbering the patricians.

Were Caesar and Pompey Godfathers?

Clans will undergo big changes in the course of time and it seems very likely to me that late-Republic big patrons such as Caesar and Pompey, apart from the great number of clients, were also capable of controlling a certain amount of organized thugs by indirectly controlling numerous collegia (criminal and non criminal organizations) in Rome. Caesar, through Clodius perhaps, controlled many collegia probably. Incidentally, Clodius was killed on the via Appia by Milo‘s mob.

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Which doesn’t mean Caesar or Pompey were like the modern godfathers, but only that there are similarities in the respective cultural backgrounds.

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Related posts:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)
The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)
A Cultural Battle

See also:

Is The Human Mind Like a Museum?
“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Traces of Paganism in Italians

On Roman, Italian and Latin Roots. Italy and the New World

Festa de Noantri. Trastevere. Madonna Fiumarola. From EternallyCool

The discussion over the third from last post had focused a) on a different vision of Italy by Italians from Italy and by North Americans of Italian origin; b) on Italian and Roman roots and the survival of ways which the Roman actress Anna Magnani epitomizes.

This post is mainly reporting the discussion over the second topic. I hence apologize to those readers whose comments have been omitted. I also apologize since all published comments have been edited out for the sake of brevity. Here you can read the original discussion.

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MoR. When I wrote this post I had some headache and I later realised a few words were not just right. For example, Anna Magnani “weird mixture of nobility and abjection …” was overstated. I changed ‘abjection’ with ‘crudity’. Such crudity, not deprived of nobleness, is present almost only in Rome in my view. I’m sure the great and unusual past of the eternal city has something to do with it.

Market at Testaccio. From EternallyCool. Click for credits

Joe@italyville. In my opinion, you must be critical of your country. What would have happened if there was no criticism of Mussolini or Bush. If we didn’t criticize the handling of New Orleans or the trash in the streets of Napoli. [Joe’s blog]

The Commentator. These videos and songs remind me of my close friend Flavio who is, like me, Canadian born and my age. In the 1990s, I devoured Italian and French films ad nauseam. In the case of Italian films two defining characteristics stood out for me: humor, as in using humor to deal with the hard side of Italian life. The other was realism. Italians faced their decadence through film. My close friend Flavio made the exact same remarks about Romans as you said in your post. He found them to be crude. [The Commentator’s blog]

MoR. Well, Rome is so beautiful that those who have produced such beauty cannot be defined as just ‘crude’. There must be something else.

Pantheon by night

Joanne at Frutto della Passione. As a Canadian of Italian descent, living in Italy I know without a doubt that my view of Italy is very different from my father’s (Italian born, immigrated to Canada) who views it as the motherland and has romanticized it and all of his memories. My view? It changes almost daily. Somedays I love it beyond words other days it frustrates me to the point of tears. [Joanne’s blog]

MoR. I understand your difficulties, despite your roots. Well, here in Italy habits survive that puzzle many foreigners, historical remnants whose disadvantages towards ‘modernity’ seem clear. Are they only disadvantages? Foreigners from North America surely don’t come to Rome or to Naples to admire how scientifically organized traffic is. They come to enjoy other stuff (and not just the monuments.)

Commentator. Just would like to add something else. While there’s no doubt many still look fondly back on Italy, there are still others who don’t. I’ve known and met many Italians who wanted to forget everything about the old country and wanted nothing to do with it. Such was their anger towards her.

MoR. As I told Joanne, some survivals are real obstacles to progress. The “patron-client” relationship, for example, present here in disgusting ways: in universities, in state institutions and in the civil society of areas of the country. I don’t think it’s by chance that ‘patronatus’, ‘patronus’, ‘clientes’ are Ancient Roman words and concepts. I mean, favouritisms, recommendations etc. are here so ingrained that the best brains fly to countries where there is more meritocracy.

Colosseum candy at piazza Navona. EternallyCool. Click for credits

Paul Costopoulos. Dear MoR, “favouritism” exists everywhere. Here, we call it the “Old boys network” or “le patronage”, in Québec. Merit certainly enters the equation somewhere but «knowing the right person» is of great help. What my women friends of all origins were bothered by in Italy was the ogling and buttocks pinching they endured. It seems Italian males have restless hands. Maybe that is what Frutto della passione is writing about. Fruit of passion…very evocative. [Paul’s blog]

MoR. Ah ah ah, Paul, you made me laugh! Yes, you made me laugh but then you depressed me (even though I’ll say aloud to my female readers that I don’t go around pinching buttocks.)

Paul. Cheer up Man, certainly the sun and warm Mediterranean climate is responsible for all that. All those provocative sculptures that ornate your squares, fountains and even churches are probably the main culprits. They overstimulate and induce into temptation even the most hardy souls as so many popes attest to. The Medicis popes surely are eloquent examples.

MoR. Yes, Paul, yes, even the most hardy souls, no doubt.

Paul. You show great fortitude.

MoR. I do, Paul.

[See a post on Italian Don Juanism, an irritating behaviour now declining, to tell the truth]

Commentator. Quebec functions very much like a Latin country (corruption, patronage etc.), like Italy – only it’s not so overt.

Paul. Commentator, it’s not only less overt, it’s also less. Under Maurice Duplessis, from 1936 to 1960 it was rampant and well organised, since then checks have been put in place…

Anna Magnani in the film Mamma Roma

Commentator. Here’s yet another thing regarding M. Anna Magnani. I was observing her and couldn’t help but notice she shares a common trait with how Italian women are generally perceived here. There are more “Anna’s” than women with the sensibilities or accent of a Northerner. Here, it’s all Rome and south. I went to school with many tough, joyous “Anna’s.” And you know what? There was indeed a certain way to them. What came off as crude didn’t mean there wasn’t a typically Italian panache to them. Shoot, in my family alone we have a gal that pretty much is Anna.

Mor. People in fact migrated from the most traditional areas of this country. I too like this crudity: it has verve, dash. Wow, so you have an Anna in family. Well, I do also, to a certain extent. These Annas I call ‘ancient’. Fellini said Anna (Annas) is/are a symbol and a survival. This he also meant by “She-wolf and Vestal, aristocratic and tramp, dark and buffoonish;” (listen to him saying it to Anna in the film “Roma”.)

I’m sure the perception of the artist is sometimes superior to that of the scholar. On the other hand, in my opinion, a peasant from the Italian South (or from Greece) is closer to the Greco-Romans than any historian of antiquity.

Moreover it could be that in the New World – and you seem to confirm it – some primordial traits are preserved, like hibernated, while here they can disappear: take archaisms in language (US ‘gotten’ instead of the more recent UK ‘got’), or cultures like the Amish in Ohio & Pennsylvania.
Actually I met a stunning Anna from Chicago here in Rome. This post tells about her .

Commentator. We are caught in an “Italy from a time past.” My friend went to Sicily in the early 1990s and they laughed at his accent. “We don’t speak dialect any more!”

MoR. Which makes the New World even more fascinating to me!

Female Portrait. Mosaic from PompeiiPaul. Man of Roma, the so called New World is a reservoir of cultures. The USA has strived to homogenize, the others such as Canada have taken pain to recognize, and even preserve, the cultures of their immigrant citizens. Thus our Anglophones speak a Victorian English, dans plusieurs régions du Canada les francophones parlent la langue de la province française de leurs ancêtres. The others tend to bunch together often by villages or towns they come from and keep the traditions and languages, at least the second, and at times third, generation. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver all have strong ethnic neighbourhoods where you find restaurants, stores, groceries, newspapers all catering to the native tongue of their inhabitants. It’s the Canadian mosaic…and I love it.

Roman woman. Late Republic. Click for credits

MoR. The Commentator had told me a bit about this USA – Canada difference. I have to get to Canada some day. I think I have a friend living in Toronto. I might love Montreal better though. Some students had told me Montreal is like a world-wide francophone hub, thence my interest.

Exposrip. As for melting pot versus multiculturalism I think I break with Paul here. Personally, enshrining multiculturalism in the Charter is nonsense. [Exposrip’s blog, warehouse of Commentator’s stories]

MoR. I see your point about multiculturalism: you care more about a Canadian identity, which I can understand. Although, call it selfishness, I like that somewhere things are preserved.

Paul. Go to Little Italy around La Madonna della Diffesa and you won’t know you are in Montreal. You may even not hear a word of French or English, but maybe lots of Abruzzi and Calabresi. As for food well you will judge. Caffe Italia may also please you.

Commentator. I think MOR would want to observe French-Canadian culture in action on rue St. Denis.

Paul. I agree with The Commentator, St-Denis and the Latin Quarter aroud UQAM are French Montreal “par excellence”.

MoR. I’ll be there Paul.

Canadians of Italian descent in Little Italy, Montreal

Paul. Welcome, and let us know, perhaps we could arrange a little informal meeting…however risky that may be…you know the Web and all that.

MoR. Thank you for saying that Paul. Oh … of course Paul, the risky chat encounters … I’ll bring my 4 bodyguards.

Paul. Sounds like a Maffia boss, I may hide. Ha! Ha!

MoR. Ah ah ah

(*Silly Roman laugh…making a phone call in search of the four boys*)

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Other related posts:

Italian Songs. Anna Magnani, Dean Martin, Pavarotti and the Three Tenors
Pre-Christian Rome lives
Experiencing All