Monday, September 17, 2018

The Devil did it (Following folktales around the world 83. - The Vatican)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

I have been wondering what I could read for the Vatican. Eventually, since saints' legends have been featured multiple times before anyway, I decided to choose a classic that I've wanted to read for a long time.

Legenda Aurea
Jacobus de Voragine
Helikon, 1990.

The Golden Legend was one of the most popular bestsellers in Europe in the Middle Ages. More than 1000 of its manuscripts survived from between the 13th and the 15th century. The author, Jacobus de Voragine Dominican monk collected the popular legends of saints and their miracles, organized around the Catholic calendar, in order to provide a resource for sermons and readings at monasteries. The full manuscripts contain somewhere between 180 and 243 saints, depending on the edition; the one I read (in Hungarian) had 110 chapters, sometimes with multiple saints in one. The full edition would have also contained descriptions of the non-saint-related Christian holidays, but I was less interested in those anyway. (I was raised Catholic, I know the drill.)
Most of the stories revolve around martyrdom. It is noted in the Introduction that the Legenda contains 81 distinct torture methods, mixing and matching them in all kinds of creative (and gory) ways. It is not exactly a historical source (the dates of Roman emperors' rules are not even remotely correct), and it is less than kind to women, Jews, and pagans, but it does contain a whole lot of folklore motifs, tropes, and legends, that are a part of the larger European oral tradition. In that sense, it was both an entertaining read, and an intriguing comparison to the folktales I have read so far.


I liked the legend where a saint and the devil had a contest of questions and answers. It appeared twice, once featuring St. Andrew, and once St. Bartholomew, and the answers were sometimes surprisingly beautiful. When the devil asks what the greatest miracle is that God worked on a small thing, Andrew responds: "The variety and beauty of faces. On a small human face God placed all the feelings of an entire body." St. Bartholomew said "the place of the Cross," but he was corrected by the (female) devil: It is the human head, because as such a small thing, in contains worlds. To the question of what it is that is the most human in a person, Bartholomew answered "the ability to laugh." But the snappiest of all answers came from Andrew, who, when asked by a decadent bishop how far Heaven is from Earth, simply said: "Ask your friend, he probably measured it when he fell." Boom.
Pic from this great Twitter account
I enjoyed the legend of St. Juliana, who tackled the Devil, bound it, and beat it into submission with chains so badly, that later a glance was enough from her to send it running. I was also entertained by the story that claimed that Vespasian had wasps (hence the name) up his nose, until a man named Albanus cast them out in the name of Christ. I don't remember this from History class... neither the story where Nero swallowed a frog, thought he was pregnant, then threw it up, and thought he gave birth. Legend claims that's why the Lateran is named after (latuerat rana).
There was a lovely story about the tame lion of St. Jerome, who guarded the monastery's donkey, and was in distress when it went missing. My favorite animal appearance, however, was the "camel yelling in a human voice" that told people where to bury the bodies of St. Cosmas and Damian. Camel ex machina.
Of course, being the legend collection of the Middle Ages, the book contains some well known stories: St. Nicholas' gift (hence Santa), the legend of the Castel Sant'Angelo (where St. Michael appeared to signal the end of the Roman plague), St. George and the dragon, Attila the Hun meeting Pope Leo, St. Peter's "quo vadis" moment, St. Christopher the Giant, St. Martin and the beggar, and even Roland's last battle. At the same time, there are also some surprising omissions. St. Valentine's legend does not say anything about love, St. Patrick's is very short and devoid of all colorful Irish details, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary was missing the famous Miracle of the Roses. Too bad.


I have seen the tale type of the gold returned through cheating (in Burma, among other places). A man swears he returned money to its owner, while all he did was put the money inside a walking stick, and ask the owner to hold it for a second. In this case, St. Nicholas made sure the cheater was punished in the end. I have also encountered the legend in which a man entrusts his fortune to an image of St. Nicholas, and threatens the saint when he gets robbed, so that Nick has to bring the stolen goods back (see also: Macedonia). The legend of St. Felix contained the popular trope of spiders spinning webs to disguise the hiding place of the persecuted saint. I was reminded of an Appalachian folktale (about two foxes) by the story in which two monks in St. Agathon's monastery made an attempt to fight, but did not know how, and ended up being too nice to each other.
Dragon-slaying was a popular element of the collection. Next to St. George, dragons were also dispatched by St. Sylvester, St. Philip, St. Margaret, St. Martha, St. Donatus, and St. Matthew. Margaret allegedly was swallowed whole by the dragon, and burst forth from its stomach (the author says that is dubious), while Martha defeated the legendary Tarrasque of the River Rhône, a monster that "shot its excrement over an acre's span at its enemies."
The legend of St. Patrick included a nice, colorful walk through hell and back that would have made Dante proud.
The book does feature some elements of classical mythology, usually in the role of the enemy (the goddess Diana attacks saints with alarming regularity). In the legend of St. Anthony, however, a very helpful centaur and a satyr made an appearance, guiding the saint on the road to St. Paul. I was reminded of the legend of Oedipus by the story of the birth of Judas, and his marriage to his own mother.
Last, but not least: I always considered Monty Python's Life of Brian a genius piece of British humor - and here I found the original story of the ex-leper! St. Martin's legend contained the story of two beggars, one lame and one blind, fleeing from the saint's funeral procession, in fear of being cured and losing their livelihood. The saint cured them anyway. Bummer.

Where to next?


  1. Once again you've given the story teller in me some lovely ideas...

    I love Monty Python, esp. the Holy Grail. Still cracks me up to this day.