Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Joining the Chorus of Martyrs: Culture, Evangelical Copypasta, and the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste

Today, on the Revised Julian Calendar used by the Orthodox Church in America, it is the feast of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. This feast is a source of much contemplation and reflection for me, due in large part to the curious place it held in my own Baptist upbringing.

The story (which you can read here) tells of 40 Cappadocian Christians in the Roman army in the Eastern half of the empire under the rule of the Emperor Licinius, the co-ruler and rival of Constantine the Great until 324. These Christians were put out in the middle of a frozen lake to die of cold and exposure, and told that if they would but recant Christ, they would be allowed to warm up at a nearby bathhouse which had been constructed on the edge of the lake. Eventually, one of the forty did recant, but his place on the lake was taken by one of the guards, who was so moved by the steadfastness of the martyrs that he confessed Christ and joined the other 39 on the frozen lake.

The hagiography of the 40 martyrs usually shows the apostate running for the bathhouse (to meet his death) while one of the guards removes his clothing to join the other martyrs on the ice and make up the number of the company.

The feast of these martyrs, which on the Julian calendar always falls during Great Lent (as a result of which, the "propers" for this feast are contained in the Lenten Tridion, the primary service book used during the fast), seems to have been celebrated within only a few decades of the suffering of these martyrs. Notably, St. Gregory of Nyssa (the brother of St. Basil the Great and one of the three "Cappadocian Fathers") had a formative encounter with the veneration of these martyrs when he was only 20 years of age:

Gregory of Nyssa (335-396), Basil’s brother, was also deeply influenced by the Forty Martyrs. When he was twenty years old, some of the relics of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste were brought to a chapel on the family estate. During an all-night vigil service at the chapel, in honor of the Forty Martyrs, something dramatic occurred. Gregory attended the service half-heartedly at his family’s insistence. Wearied by the long prayers, he snuck out of the chapel and went to bed. Gregory then had a vivid dream in which he tried to enter the church, but the Forty Martyrs would not permit him. It was only with the help of one of them that he managed to escape punishment. This fearful dream left a lasting impression on Gregory who soon afterward devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures and service to God. When Gregory’s parents died, he had their remains buried beside some of the forty martyred soldiers. In his lifetime, Gregory preached two panegyric homilies about the Forty Martyrs. (From Cappadocia History).

Reading the panegyric homilies composed in the memory of these martyrs is almost a crash-course in the whole doctrine of the communion of the saints. Consider the following passage from St. Basil the Great's homily:

The saints didn't have one native land, for they all came from different places. What does that mean? Let us say that they were without a city, or that they were citizens of the world. For just as in the joint contributions at festivals what is brought in by all individuals becomes the common property of the participants, so too the native land of all of these blessed men was common property, and all of them from wherever they came gave to each other what they had brought. Indeed, why should one investigate the native lands that lie on earth when it is possible to form a notion of the nature of their city now? After all, the city of martyrs is the city of God (Heb 12:22). The craftsman and the workman was God (Heb 11:10), the Jerusalem above was free, the mother of Paul, and of those similar to him. But their human pedigree differed one from the other. Their spiritual pedigree was one between all of them. I mean that their common father was God, and that they were all brothers, not born from one father and mother, but that as a result of their adoption by the Spirit they were joined to each other in a one-mindedness through love. The chorus was ready, a huge supplement to those who praised the Lord from ages, not gathered together one by one, but translated as a group...

Here, St. Basil addresses the fact that the 40 Martyrs (as it seems) hailed from lands all over the Roman Empire. In that sense, each of them had a different earthly homeland. In this passage and that which follows us, there is a sense that just as the Roman army had brought them together and made them in to a single group (we may here think of the way in which Roman citizenship was offered as one of the perks at the end of a long career of military service at various points in the Empire's history), so too their enlistment in the ranks of the martyrs had made them citizens of the New Jerusalem. In the aftermath of their martyrdom their veneration was of course firmly established on Cappadocia (where numerous ruins of churches dedicated to their memory can still be found to this day), but it was not limited to merely a local cult: as they had come from many nations across the Roman world, so their veneration and memory spread to every corner of the Christian world. 

For those of us who are converts to the Eastern Orthodox Church from various western traditions, the story of the 40 Martyrs ought to provide comfort, consolation, and an adjusted perspective. I was recently interviewed on the Areopagus Podcast on the question of "The Past in the Present." Among the many issues we addressed were the phenomena of people who, on the one hand, encounter the "Easterness" of the Orthodox Church and find it alien, and the people who on the other hand adopt not only the Church, but all of the trappings of Russian or Syrian culture as well. As St. Basil points out, the 40 Martyrs show us the way forward through this Scylla and Charybdis: They give up an earthly homeland in exchange for a heavenly city; as a result, their earthly homelands are returned to them as their relics are venerated and their commemoration spreads across the Roman Empire. 

As I mentioned earlier, I have my own personal connection with the commemoration of these martyrs: there is a version of their martyrdom which has long circulated in Protestant circles, and is usually found in published collections of sermon illustrations.

As an aside, those among us who were taught to preach in the Southern Baptist seminary tradition will be aware of this genre of literature; each point of your sermon was supposed to have a little story, aka a "sermon illustration" to drive it home. Since pulling fresh and relevant stories out of your own life experience or reading is hard for young preachers (and time-consuming for old preachers), there were books, and later whole websites, dedicated to collecting emotionally punchy stories and arranging them by topic. The problem was that everyone seemed to have access to the same story collection, so if you paid attention, you would notice that every preacher told the same stories. 

In any case, there was a version of the story of the 40 Martyrs called the "40 Wrestlers" which circulated widely in the fundamentalist circles in which I grew up. If you're curious, you can read it here as it appears in the popular non-denominational publication Our Daily Bread. Other versions of this story often misattribute it to the reign of the Emperor Nero (I suspect this is because more people have heard of him). Try as I might, I have been unable to hunt down the "source" of this version of the story--I had thought it might be in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, but it isn't (at least, not in the edition to which I have access). It is therefore something of a mystery to me as to how the story of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste made it into the popular memory of American Evangelicalism while so many other martyrs and saints were forgotten. I suppose it is a testament to the enduring quality of this story that they were remembered at all. As for this story (especially the "Nero" version), it seems to have become a kind of Evangelical "copypasta." A search for the "40 wrestlers story" will turn up multiple examples of the same story, copy and pasted (even to Roman Catholic websites). And along with the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, this was one of two stories of martyrdom from the early church which I was told frequently as a child, and heard frequently from the pulpit in the Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches in which I was raised.

One lovely element of this evangelical retelling is the song which is often put into the mouth of the martyrs as they march out onto the ice:

The forty soldiers stripped off their clothing, fell into four columns of ten each, and marched towards the center of the frozen lake to their death. But as they marched onto the ice, they chanted; “Forty wrestlers, wrestling for thee O Christ, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”

I cannot find the wording of this chant in any of the ancient sources (though there is a good chance I missed it; St. Ephraim the Syrian and St. Romanos the Melodist both authored compositions in memory of the 40 Martyrs, neither of which have I been able to track down as of yet). St. Basil has their prayer as rather more verbose:

"Let us not take off a garment," they said, "but let us put off the old man who has been corrupted through his desire for error. Let us give thanks to you, Lord, as we cast off sin together with this garment. Since we put on clothes because of the snake, let us take them off because of Christ. let us not hold on to clothes because of the paradise which we have lost. What shall we give back to the Lord? Our Lord also took his clothes off. What greater suffering can a slave have than to suffer what his Master did? I should say that we were the ones who took off the clothes of the Master himself. I mean that this was that shameless act of soldiers -- they took off his clothes and divided his garments. So let us delete the written charge against us by our own efforts. Winter is piercing, but paradise is sweet. Freezing is painful, but rest is pleasing. Let us wait for a little while, and the bosom of the patriarch will comfort us. Let us exchange a single night for all eternity. Let our foot burn, so that it may continually dance with angels; let our hand fall off, so that it may be able to achieve access to the Master. How many of our soldiers have fallen in the battle-line, while keeping faith wit ha mortal emperor? But shall we not let go this life for the sake of our belief in the true emperor?... Since it is necessary to die, let us die that we may live. May our sacrifice come before you, Lord, and may we be received as a living sacrifice acceptable to you, burnt up completely by this cold, a beautiful oblation, a new burnt offering, a complete offering, not through fire but through cold... The forty of us went into the stadium; let the forty of us be crowned, Master. Let not even one person be missing from that number. It is an honorable number, which you honored in your fast of forty days, through which law-giving came into the world. After a forty-day fast seeking the Lord, Elias had a vision..." And their prayer went like this.

No doubt, the emphasis on the number 40 here is intended to help us think of the Great Fast, during which this feast always falls on the Julian Calendar.

It is interesting to me, here, that one of the features that the Evangelical version of the story has retained is the theme of crowning, which appears over and over again in both St. Basil's and St. Gregory's homilies on this feast, and is accordingly one of the main themes in its Synaxarion entry. St. Basil even recounts the vision of 39 crowns descending from heaven upon the martyrs (there was no crown for the 40th soldier, who recanted, died immediately, and then was replaced by one of the guards). There is no indication of this in the evangelical version, but the focus on the martyr's crown (Rev 2:10) has somehow survived.

I can still remember my delight the first time I attended a service for this feast day and realized what it was that was being celebrated. It felt like coming home--this had once been an inspirational story from long-ago times; now it was about real people, whose names and faces the Church had never forgotten, and I was joining them in the worship of the Holy Trinity.

Troparion for the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste, in the First Tone:

Together let us honor the holy company united by faith, 
those noble warriors of the Master of all. 
They were divinely enlisted for Christ, 
and passed through fire and water. 
Then they entered into refreshment praying for those who cry: 
Glory to him who has strengthened you! 
Glory to him who has crowned you! 
Glory to him who has made you wonderful, O holy Forty Martyrs!

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Symbolism of Hagiography

Recently, I've had two pieces on hagiography published by The Symbolic World blog. Long-time readings of Blog on the Barrow Downs will be aware of my debt to Jonathan Pageau's Symbolic World project, and it is a pleasure to be able to contribute to it.

The first piece is on the symbolism of St. Dionysius the Areopagite:

Scholarship has separated the “body” (Latin: corpus), in the sense of the written text and its historical context from its “head”, in the sense of its source, origin, or organizing principle. For instance, On the Divine Names begins with an address to “Timothy the Fellow-Elder,” the recipient of two New Testament epistles and a fellow disciple of St. Paul.3 By accepting the theological propositions of this text while discarding its proposed author, namely St Dionysius, and audience, namely Timothy, we separate the ideas of St. Dionysius from their “body,” that is, their historical embodiment in a particular text sent by a particular person to another particular person. Once this separation has been made, modern scholarship is free to try to fit that head to any number of other bodies, be they Neo-Platonist or crypto-pagan.

Read the rest here.

The second, which was just published today, is on the symbolism of hagiography in general. Put another way, how are we to read hagiography?

Our first approach to reading hagiography must therefore be mystical, for to encounter a saint is to encounter the deep mystery of personhood. This mystical reading requires, first and foremost, an “unknowing” of the limits of our own personhood—of our own feeble attempts to participate in the Patterns. It is for this reason that the Fathers of the Church have long considered the reading of hagiography to be an ascetic discipline, one which should be cultivated specifically to counter the passion of pride, for pride is a false knowledge of one’s own personhood, an attempt to seize personhood without crucifixion.

Read the rest here.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Dragons in the Water: Hymns of the Forefeast of Theophany

Christmas is a wonderful time to be a medievalist. It's really the only time of year that society at large, however faintly, takes an interest in old songs and old traditions. Ours was a very liturgical Advent and Christmas, and it's only now that I find myself with time to sit down and write again (though I've done a bit of fiction writing over the holidays--but I don't usually post that here).

Before I get on with the subject of today's post, I wanted to go ahead and drop one small note about another project I'm working on: The Cave Dwellers Podcast. The Cave Dwellers has the potential to morph into something more as the year wears on, but for now it's simply a place for my daily narrations of my attempt to read through the complete works of Plato (spurious dialogues included) in a year.  Since we're only 3 days into the read (it's only weekdays; you get weekends off) it's not too late to join me. By "narration," I mean a simple-yet-effective technique used in Classical Education/Charlotte Mason Education circles of telling back information in my own words in order to synthesize it. Anyway, I'll be doing that for the rest of the year, in case you want to follow along.

Now, about those dragons.


Monday (January 6) is the Feast of Theophany in the Eastern Rite (usually known as Epiphany in the West, where the focus of the feast is slightly different). This is one of the ancient Church's great feasts of light, along with The Nativity (Christmas) and the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas, aka Groundhog Day). After Easter, it's the most ancient of the Great Feasts, with the practice of keeping vigil all night before the feast day dating back at least to 140 AD. Alas, it's little known or celebrated in modern times outside of Orthodox and Catholic circles.

The Byzantine hymnography and iconography for this feast yields some rich examples of the traditional understanding of the feast in reference to ancient paganism, Old Testament typology, and the use of paradox which seems to be a defining note of Eastern Rite hymnography.

Fresco of the Theophany, St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas TX

Consider this Doxastichon (a special kind of hymn sung between the "Glory to the Father... Both now and ever..." following the chanting of Psalm 129 (LXX) during Vespers) of the Forefeast of Theophany:
Make ready, O river Jordan: for behold, Christ our God draws near to be baptized by John, that He may crush with His divinity the invisible heads of the dragons in thy waters. Rejoice, O wilderness of Jordan; dance with gladness, O ye mountains. For the eternal Life hath come to call back Adam. O voice that criest in the wilderness, O John the Forerunner, cry out: 'Prepare ye the ways of the Lord, make his paths straight.'
The reference here to "dragons in thy waters" might seem curious to modern ears, and downright puzzling to anyone who goes to any of the four Gospel accounts of Christ's baptism looking for any dragons in the story. This is not a scriptural reference, but rather a memory the Church's tradition preserved, through her hymns and iconography, until its source was recently discovered by modern archaeologists. As Fr. Stephen De Young points out in an article published this time last year, this reference to dragons or monsters in the water (present in almost all of the icons of the feast as well) refers to the ancient Semitic sea and river gods Yam and Nahar, whose subjugation to YHWH is an important part of both the Exodus narrative, but also to much of the later Hebrew prophetic works (see Isaiah 27). The Hebrew scriptures presented a direct challenge to the sacred stories of rival religions in the Levant (such as the Baal Epic), and for centuries before the modern rediscovery of Ugarit and the Baal Cycle, that challenge continues to inform the liturgical hymns and iconography of this feast.

Icon of the Theophany

And then there's this wonderful bit of juxtaposition from yet another Doxastichon, this one coming at the end of Psalm 92 (LXX) during Vespers:
Let the desert of Jordan rejoice exceedingly and blossom as the lily. For the voice of one who crieth hath been heard within it: 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord.' For he who weighed the mountains in scales and the wooded valleys in a balance, who fillest all things as God, is baptized by a servant. he who bestoweth rich gifts hath now become poor. Eve was once told, 'In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children,' but now the Virgin hears: 'Hail, thou who art full of grace, the Lord who hath great mercy is with thee.'
Look at the contrasts here: A desert blooms; the one who weighed the mountains is baptized by a servant; the one who gives gifts is now poor; Eve's sorrow replaced by Mary's joy. This last contrast hints at one of the most important ideas of Theophany, its origins found as early as the writings of St Paul in the New Testament (see Galatians 3:27 and traditional understandings thereof): Christ's baptism is, in some sense, a re-creation of humanity (or at least enables the re-creation of human persons through their baptism). This is developed beautifully in the Troparion and Kontakion of the forefeast:
Prepare, O Zebulon, and adorn yourself, O Naphtali; River Jordan, cease flowing and receive with joy the Master coming to be baptized. Adam, rejoice with our First Mother and do not hide yourself as you did of old in Paradise; for having seen you naked, He has appeared to clothe you with the first garment. Christ has appeared to renew all creation.
Today the Lord enters the Jordan and cries out to John: “Do not be afraid to baptize me. For I have come to save Adam, the first-formed man.”
The "first garment" seems to be a reference to a very ancient tradition found in Rabbinical sources, as well as the Syriac Peshitta, of "garments of light" (perhaps a way of describing the unmarred imago dei in which they were made) in which Adam and Eve had been clothed before the fall. Fourth century Church father and poet St. Ephraim the Syrian vividly imagines Christ as having left the "garment of light" for us in the water during his baptism; by being baptized ourselves, we follow him down into the water and put on the garment of light (one might say, of righteousness) which he has left for us.

Finally, consider this imagined dialogue between Christ and the Baptist, sung at Matins on the eve of the feast:
Christ: Why dost thou doubt, O Baptist, concerning the dispensation that I fulfill for the salvation of all? Set now aside the old and think of the new. Believe in God who has come down to earth, and drawing near, obey me. For I have come as God, to cleanse in my compassion fallen Adam. 
John: Taking our sins upon thy shoulders, thou art come, O Jesus, to the streams of Jordan: and I am afraid at thy dread coming. How, then, dost thou bid me baptize thee? Thou thyself hast come to cleanse me, and how dost thou, the Cleanser of all, seek baptism of me? 
Christ: My nature is beyond understanding: but clothed in the form of a servant have I come forth to Jordan. Doubt not at all concerning me. Come, fear not, draw near me. Place thy right hand upon my head and cry aloud, 'Blessed art thou, our God made manifest: glory to thee.' 
John: Beyond all thought and without measure is thy poverty, O Word of God! I know that, for my sake who am fallen, thou has from pity clothed thyself in Adam, and all the posterity of Adam thou makest new again. Obeying thy command I cry to thee in faith, blessed art thou, our god made manifest: glory to thee!
All of the hymns of this wonderful, ancient feast, encourage us to dance with the mystery rather than define it. In the Gospels, Christ rather cryptically tells the Baptist that He must be baptized in order to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15). These ancient hymns, which document the Church's lived-out experience of Theophany, help us examine these mysterious words from a variety of perspectives largely lost to modern interpreters of Scripture.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Sound of Silence

I had a lot of driving time this weekend, which meant I finally got to catch up on the ever-excellent Amon Sul podcast. In the most recent full episode, Father Andrew Stephen Damick brought in guest co-host and violinist Rebecca Rovny, who happens to be a personal friend of mine (and even gives us a little shout-out during the episode). They had a long and fruitful discussion around the role of music in Tolkien's subcreation. I regretted listening to it in the car, since there were several "aha!" moments--especially some amazing moments of intuition from Rebecca--where I wanted to write something down.

What follows is a brief meditation on another musical moment in the Legendarium, which I think says some very powerful things about song, magic, enchantment, and the hiddenness of God in Middle-earth.


Finrod's skills as a minstrel were touched on a couple of times in this episode, but here I would like to call particular attention to his battle of song with Sauron. This is one of the most powerful passages in the published Silmarillion, although the poetry itself is from the much older Lays of Beleriand (which are to the Silmarillion as the Silmarillion is to The Lord of the Rings):

On an evening of autumn Felagund and Beren set out from Nargothrond with their ten companions; and they journeyed beside Narog to his source in the Falls of Ivrin. Beneath the Shadowy Mountains they came upon a company of Orcs, and slew them all in their camp by night; and they took their gear and their weapons. By the arts of Felagund their own forms and faces were changed into the likeness of Orcs; and thus disguised they came far upon their northward road, and ventured into the western pass, between Ered Wethrin and the highlands of Taur-nu-Fuin. But Sauron in his tower was ware of them, and doubt took him; for they went in haste, and stayed not to report their deeds, as was commanded to all the servants of Morgoth that passed that way. Therefore he sent to waylay them, and bring them before him.
Thus befell the contest of Sauron and Felagund which is renowned. For Felagund strove with Sauron in songs of power, ad the power of the King was very great; but Sauron had the mastery, as is told in the Lay of Leithian:
He chanted a song of wizardry,
Of piercing, opening, of treachery,
Revealing, uncovering, betraying.
Then sudden Felagund there swaying,
Sang in a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,
And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;
Of changing and shifting shape,
Of snares eluded, broken traps,
The prison opening, the chain that snaps.
Backwards and forwards swayed their song.
Reeling foundering, as ever more strong
The chanting swelled, Felagund fought,
And all the magic and might he brought
Of Elvenesse into his words.
Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighting of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls on Elvenland.
Then in the doom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn-
And Finrod fell before the throne.

Other authors have already drawn out the similarities between this and certain passages in the Kalevala,  but I've always felt not enough attention has been paid to the songs themselves as they're described (making this a sort of meta-song; we aren't given the words of Felagund or Sauron's songs, only a song about their songs), and what it tells us about the part magic and song play in Middle-earth.

The contest begins with abstract concepts set in opposition to each other, opposing themes if you will (here of course the Ainulindale should never be far from our minds). Sauron's themes betray his motives: he suspects the heroes (who are disguised as orcs, thanks to Felagund's earlier use of song-magic) to be other than what they appear. Therefore, he tries to pierce their guise first by "piercing, opening" -- that is, trying to simply pierce through or lift the veil over the truth -- and then by "treachery." The next line, "Revealing, uncovering, betraying" is an example of apposition, using different words for the same idea. The implication seems to be that if Sauron cannot pierce their disguise by brute magical force, he will attempt to induce one of the company to betray the rest (a tactic which has already worked for Sauron earlier in this story).

Felagund's own themes are called forth as a direct response to this two-pronged assault:
Then sudden Felagund there swaying,
Sang in a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,
And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;
Of changing and shifting shape,
Of snares eluded, broken traps,
The prison opening, the chain that snaps.
These opening volleys somewhat invert the internal narrative many of us have of good and evil: we are most likely to associate what is evil with what is secret, hidden, tucked away from public view (hence the whole idea of the "conspiracy theory"). We tend to believe that if what is evil were to be exposed to the light of day (if, to take a recent example, if "locker-room talk" were aired in the public forum) that it would wither away to nothing, shown up once and for all for the fraud that it is. Eschatologically speaking (in the Silmarillion, and in Christianity), this is true. Sooner or later, as Tolkien confessed daily, venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.

But in the "long defeat" of history, in life under the sun, our experience of goodness--and of God--is very different. YHWH declares that "with a secret hand the Lord wages war upon Amalek to all generations." (Exodus 17:16, LXX). That secrecy, that hiddenness, is the very signature of the finger of God upon the whole story of history. The Christmas story itself is "wrought in the silence of God." The work of God is secret and hidden in the world, evident only to the eyes of faith. The "long defeat" is really what C.S. Lewis described as a Resistance Movement against the current management of this world, until the day that "the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God, and of his Christ." Tolkien intuitively grasped this role of secrecy and smallness, something which I believe is one of the main reasons his narratives remain so compelling.

The contest then moves from the abstract to the concrete. Here, we should notice that this is the same pattern already established in the Ainulindale: moving from abstract "themes" to their incarnation within reality and time (which is the whole work of history). The concrete themes which Felagund invokes are visions of Elvenesse: birds singing in Nargothrond (still a hidden and secret place at this point in the story); the sighting of the Sea beyond the Western World (does this mean the sea beyond Beleriand, or the sea beyond Aman?); lustrous pearls strewn on the beaches of Alqualonde.

Why does Felagund evoke these images to evade Sauron's chanting? Nargothrond is an obviously secret, obviously hidden place. The fact that there are birds singing there seems to indicate that there are some places and moments of beauty which still remain hidden from the Dark Lord's gaze, upon which Felagund calls for strength. The sight of the "Sea beyond,/beyond the Western world" is -- whether it speaks of the Great Sea or something beyond Valinor itself--a vision of transcendence denied forever to Sauron (though of course to Felagund as well). Finally, the pearl-strewn sands of the Bay of Eldamar and Alqualonde bring home the idea of longing for a haven (a haven is both a hidden place of refuge, like Nargothrond, as well as a place where ships can put in for shelter from the sea). Pearls themselves are a kind of beauty formed in a secret, enclosed place.

But of course, the invocation of Eldamar is fatal for Felagund. Sauron knows the history of the Noldor all too well, and the pearl-strewn strands of the havens of Alqualonde once foamed with the blood of the Teleri in the Kinslaying. That is the chink in Felagund's armor, exactly the moment of treachery and betrayal Sauron has been looking for. Incisively, surgically, he pries it open, dismantling Felagund's defenses and following the narrative to its inevitable historical conclusion: all secret and hidden places exposed to the Dark Lord's gaze. The wolf howls. The raven flees. Secrecy is replaced by bondage: muttering ice (which freezes in place, but which probably also is meant to evoke evil memories of the crossing of the Helcaraxe); captives in chains. Finrod falls before the throne. In defeat? In bondage? It seems so.

Here we cannot forget that the name of this story is the Lay of Lethian, with Lethian meaning "the release from bondage." The chains will snap. If only Finrod could have seen--could have sung--a little farther.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Concerning Dragons

I wrote the following notes on dragons a year or two ago on a now-defunct forum (at the height of the Game of Thrones-related dragon craze, though I don't remember exactly when that was). I dug it out of my personal archives again today for a conversation I was in in another forum, and thought I'd post it here for my readership. Dragons seem to come up a lot in the circles I frequent, a fact which seems to affirm my life choices.


Concerning Dragons

“I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.”

The current season of Game of Thrones has led to a significant amount of speculation about dragons - are they in fact the nuclear weapons of fantasy warfare, would they actually let us ride them and use us for war, etc. These are not uninteresting questions - although it may say a great deal about us as a society that when confronted by a creature of such ancientry, malice, and peril, that we immediately begin to speculate on how we might best use them to murder our fellows (however hypothetical).

However, I want to sidestep the discussion of Game of Thrones (which, for one thing, I do not watch), and look at dragons as a Medievalist and Germanic Philologist. This might be of interest to those who like to dig around the roots of things, or to those sub-creating fantasy worlds of their own who would like their ideas of dragons to be more rooted in primary world myths and legends.

I'm particularly interested in the serpents, dragons, wyrms, and other assorted reptilian monstrosities belonging to Indo-European mythology. There's a very rich tradition of these things in Chinese/Japanese folklore, of course, but they are separate things, and I do not want to give those traditions short shrift by lumping them in with my own particular area of study. For our purposes, Indo-European dragons include everything from Vritra, the drought-dragon Indra killed, to Python, the earth dragon-serpent Apollo slew, to Fafnir, the archetypal wyrm of Germanic legend, to the dragon of Eden which St. George slew. What are these dragons like, and what do they do?

The prototypical dragon is a very large serpent. Sometimes they are given legs, and sometimes wings, but the shape of a dragon seems to be serpentine enough that the language used to describe them is chiefly words which can be equally applied to serpents. So Sanskrit ahi, Old English wyrm, etc. Over time as various regional versions of these stories came into contact with each other, a sort of taxonomy of dragons arose, but we should be careful not to enforce our Monster Manual sensibilities backwards onto the Middle Ages. A linnormr and a wyvern are just two names describing the same winged, bipedal serpent. By tradition dragons are very fierce and hard to kill, but also very parochial, as a rule choosing a hill, forest, sacred stream, barrow, or mountain as their primary dwelling place, from which to dominate the land around them. This makes them ill-suited to employment as a sort of pet airforce.

To understand whey they do these things, and also why and how they are killed (and by whom) we need to understand a little more about dragon's motivations. To do that I want to look at three examples which I think are particularly good dragons: Vritra, Fafnir, and Beowulf's Bane (who may be named Starkheart).


Vritra is a dragon, or a demon in the form of a dragon, who in the Rig Veda takes all of the waters of all the rivers in the world and hoards them under a mountain. This is of course disastrous for the world - no fresh water and no fertile river valleys means that the ancient agrarian societies of the Indian sub-continent would completely collapse. Vritra is slain by the hero Indra, who slew him with the thunderbolt crafted for him by the god Tvashtri. This is of course on some level an iteration of the popular myth of a storm-god who slays a drought-causing monster and brings rain back to the earth (see Baal, may also be echoed in Thor slaying the Midgard Serpent). But I want to focus less on mythographical theory and more on the actual activity of the dragon: Vritra is taking something which is essential for the continuation of civilization, in this case the fresh water (and thus the fertile river valleys) needed for the agrarian society, and hoarding it in such a way that society can no longer exist. It's up to the hero, then, to kill the monster so that civilization can grow and flourish. We see echoes of similar myths in Cadmus and Apollo.


Fafnir is, as Tolkien says, the archetypal Norse dragon. What is probably often forgotten about him is that he was not always a dragon. Fafnir, in fact, was the dwarf, the son of a powerful sorcerer. After the family came into the possession of a hoard of (cursed) gold, Fafnir drove his brother off and turned into a dragon to guard the hoard himself. Along comes Sigurd the Volsung (or Sigemund in the earlier versions of the tale) who slays the dragon, with a little help. The manner of Fafnir's death is significant: Fafnir's underside is particularly vulnerable, so Sigurd/Sigemund waits in a trench dug in the path the dragon uses to slither down to a stream, and stabs him as he passes overhead. In some versions of the story, Fafnir and Sigurd have a conversation as the dragon lays dying, in which Fafnir curses Sigurd. There are two elements worth observing here: the first is that Fafnir is not merely monstrous; he is malicious. The malice of the dragon is something which we see first introduced here, but which would become an important element of the monster from this point forward. The second is the importance of the treasure hoard not as merely something which the hero gets to carry away as a sort of prize, but the whole basis for becoming a dragon in the first place. Here we see an echo of the water-hoarding of the Indra, Cadmus, and Apollo myths - gold is at least as important in the economy of Iron Age Germania as fresh water is to agrarian societies - but we see something more, too. The old name for this kind of sin is avarice. It's distinguished from greed (mere acquisitiveness) because dragons, of course, don't want to do anything with their treasure. As C.S. Lewis notes, this probably goes back to Greco-Roman myth (in Aesop's Fables, the dragon is a mere allegory for avarice), but in Fafnir the concept takes on a whole new massive, poison-belching dimension.

Beowulf's Bane

I mentioned just now that gold was as important as fresh water to the economy of the Iron Age Germanic peoples, the people who lived and moved in the world described by the Beowulf poem. But it wasn't merely the existence of gold (and other treasures) - it was the free flow of those things from a king or chieftain to his retainers. In that sense it's a gift-based economy. There's a significant difference (one could argue it's only semantics, but I think there's more to it than that) between the attitude of "I should serve my lord because he's always given me good gifts" (which is Wiglaf's argument in Beowulf), and "I should do what my lord says because he pays me." But of course the problem with giving gold and land and horses and other gifts is that if you aren't also on the receiving end, you start running out - and when the gifts dry up, your society falls apart. Typically this necessitates some sort of raiding of your neighbors, making this gift-based economy also a pirate economy. But consider in this context what a giant hoard of gold lying in the ground actually represents: it's not a lottery waiting to be won; that hoarded wealth represents the death of a society.

So in the Beowulf poem. We're given some backstory for the dragon's hoard (and possibly the dragon himself) in the so-called Lay of the Last Survivor:

The barrow all-ready
occupied the plain    near the water-waves,
new on the headland,    made secure by difficult-craft;
there inside bore    of the treasure of earls
a hoard of rings    a hand-fashioned share
of plated gold;    some words he spoke:
'Now hold you, Earth,    now the heroes cannot
earls' possessions.    Listen, it formerly from you
was obtained by good men;    war-death has taken away,
terrible murder of life,    of crimes each one,
my belovèd people,    they gave this up to me:
they had seen joy in the hall;    he I have not, who might wield sword
or make beautiful    this gilded flagon,
this precious drinking vessel;    the veteran warriors are ill elsewhere;
must the stern helmet    adorned with gold
stripped of its ornaments;    the burnishers slumbers,
they who war-masks    ought to brighten;
also so the army's coats of mail,    which in battle endured
over the shattering of shield-boards    the bite of iron,
decays along with the men;    byrnie's ring may not
with war-fighter    fare widely,
alongside heroes;    there was not harp's joy,
delight of glee-wood,    nor good hawk
soaring through the hall,    nor swift horse
trampling the courtyard;    baleful death has
many of my living kin    sent forth.'
Thus sad at heart    in grief he bemoaned
one after all,    unhappily passed
days and nights,    until the flood of Death
reached to his heart.
(Translation by Dr. Benjamin Slade)

Essentially, a warrior or a king, who is the last survivor of his people, takes all the wealth of his people and buries it in the earth. He either goes off to die or (and there is cause for ambiguity in the text) becomes the dragon which then guards the hoard. The dragon's subsequent outrage over the absence of a missing cup, which brings him into inevitable and fatal conflict with Beowulf, is not because he'd intended on using the cup for anything. It's outrage over being parted from even one very small portion of this hoard, which could be the foundation of a tribe or a civilization were it in circulation, but which the dragon intends to keep for himself. In fact, the cup is taken specifically to pay a weregeld (to settle a feud), which is one of the most important uses of gold in Iron Age Germania.

The dragon is of course slain. That dragons can and should be slain is one of the chief elements of all dragon stories within the Indo-European tradition. But no dragon is easy to slay. Typically you must be a hero (like Sigemund/Sigurd or Beowulf), in possession of a magical weapon (like the sword Gram, or Wiglaf's sword of significant lineage), and usually you need help (both Sigemund and Beowulf are aided by a valiant younger kinsman).

The dragon's poison is ultimately the bane of Beowulf, but Beowulf is able to stab the dragon in the belly with a seax or knife. Someone has made the comment that dragons must not have very good armor if they can be killed by a septuagenarian with a knife, but we must not forget that the septuagenarian in question is Beowulf, who even in his old age was no ordinary man, and that he manages to stab the dragon in the belly (where, let us not forget, drakes are notoriously weak), only after repeated attempts to strike its head had shattered the hero's sword.

With the dragon dead, the dying Beowulf asks Wiglaf to bring up some of the treasure from the hoard so that Beowulf can see it and go to his reward knowing that he has provided for his people; the vast treasure of the hoard ought to provide for the Geats for years to come. But when Beowulf is buried, all of the hoard is buried with him under the earth, and remains eldum swá unnyt swá hyt aérer wæs - "as useless to men as it ever was."

One of the many puzzling questions proposed by the end of the Beowulf poem is why exactly the Geats do this. One simple explanation seems to be that the hoard was regarded (as most dragon's hoards are) as cursed, and decided that was drama they didn't need. In any case, it's no use hauling off a major hoard of treasure unless you're prepared to defend it, and Beowulf was the last of the great Geatish heroes.

There is much more that could be said here, and even now I feel I have vastly oversimplified a really interesting subject. To sum up: Dragons in Indo-European myth tend to be: Serpentine, solitary, avaricious, cunning, extremely deadly (in most cases spewing poison or fire or both), and are the archetypal enemies of civilization, embodying the antithesis of whatever civilization looks like to the culture in question. For prospective world-builders, I think some very interesting takes on dragons could be done by using this basic blueprint and asking what it would look like to a culture that values something (say children) more than gold. When we start thinking about dragons as merely engines of war or tools in the no-holds-barred game of realpolitik, I think we've lost something.

Friday, September 27, 2019

A Lament for Our Lady's Shrine at Walsingham

In the wracks of Walsingham
Whom should I choose
But the Queen of Walsingham
to be my guide and muse.

Then, thou Prince of Walsingham,
Grant me to frame
Bitter plaints to rue thy wrong,
Bitter woe for thy name.

Bitter was it so to see
The seely sheep
Murdered by the ravenous wolves
While the shepherds did sleep.

Bitter was it, O to view
The sacred vine,
Whilst the gardeners played all close,
Rooted up by the swine.

Bitter, bitter, O to behold
The grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham
So stately did show.

Such were the worth of Walsingham
While she did stand,
Such are the wracks as now do show
Of that Holy Land.

Level, level, with the ground
The towers do lie,
Which, with their golden glittering tops,
Pierced once to the sky.

Where were gates are no gates now,
The ways unknown
Where the press of peers did pass
While her fame was blown.

Owls do scrike where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung,
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the palmers did throng.

Weep, weep, O Walsingham,
Whose days are nights,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.

Sin is where Our Lady sat,
Heaven is turned to hell,
Satan sits where Our Lord did sway --
Walsingham, O farewell!

- Author Unknown

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

This Elvish Craft: Language Invention as Recovery

Another old essay, to go with the one I posted earlier this month, about Tolkien's language invention. I pose an unlikely similarity between Tolkien and Russian zaumists.


1. Renaming the Lily

In her book In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent characterizes language inventors as “misguided souls” led through “hard work, high hopes, and full-blown delusions” to attempt to improve on natural language for philosophical, altruistic, and political motives. Only briefly, in her final chapters, does Orkent acknowledge another important reason someone might create a language, when she mentions Tolkien and others who create languages out of a sense of pleasure. (Okrent 2010)

Yet despite the short shrift Okrent gives this motivation in her book, it is evident that Tolkien considered pleasure—specifically the pleasure of finding fitness between sound and meaning—to be the driving force behind the language creation process. In his 1931 lecture A Secret Vice, Tolkien describes the way this impulse drove his own early language invention: “Certainly it is in the contemplation of the relation between sound and notion which is a main source of pleasure.” Going farther, Tolkien suggests that pleasure is a major component of the development of even natural languages: “The communication factor has been very powerful in directing the development of language; but the more individual and personal factor—pleasure in articulate sound, and in the symbolic use of it...must not be forgotten for a moment.” (MC 208)

Left there, Tolkien’s argument would be quite safe and unassuming; pleasure is a subjective experience, and there would be very little to be said for or against his secret vice beyond “he enjoys it.” This seems to be the conclusion Okrent draws about Tolkien’s language invention. But Tolkien progresses the theme of pleasure beyond mere aesthetic pleasure itself and into the realm of enchantment:

And with the phonetic pleasure we have blended the more elusive delight of establishing novel relations between symbol and significance, and in contemplating them... as soon as you have fixed even a vague general sense for your words, many of the less subtle but most moving and permanently important of the strokes of poetry are open to you. For you are the heir of the ages. You have not to grope after the dazzling brilliance of invention of the free adjective, to which all human language has not fully attained. You may say green sun or dead life and set the imagination leaping.
Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind? (Monsters and the Critics 218-19)

For Tolkien, language invention is not just a means to pleasure, it is a way to set both mind and word free from the “habitual” and “associated notions” to which even poetry is subject; notions which words pick up naturally through constant use and the layering of meaning over time. Modern poetry is so full of “significant language” that to speak of green is not to speak of green itself, but to speak of green’s poetic associations with growth, spring, youth, innocence, and inexperience. To escape this detritus of meaning and recover the lost harmony between the signifier and the thing signified, Tolkien presents us with two possible solutions: the first is to study the poetry of the ancients, the second to cast off habitual and associated notions through language invention of our own. (MC 218-19)

Tolkien was not the only, or even the first language inventor to engage this concept. In his 1912 Declaration of the Word as Such Russian avant garde poet Alexei Kruchenykh states:

WORDS DIE, THE WORLD IS ETERNALLY YOUNG. The artist has seen the world in a new way and, like Adam, proceeds to give things his own names. The lily is beautiful, but the word “lily” [liliya] has been soiled and “raped”. Therefore, I call the lily, “euy” – the original purity is reestablished.” (Lawton 1988) 

Zaum—the “transrational” language which Kruchenykh introduces in his Declaration and its related manifestos—is more of an artistic effort than a functional language, but it has this in common with Tolkien’s own invented languages. Both men saw a need to recapture something important which had been lost in the relationship between the signifier and the signified.

But to say “the green sun” is different from renaming the lily. A lily is a real, concrete thing, which really exists in the real world. Although I can perhaps admire the freshness of the lily more if I call it by a fresh name, I have taken for myself only the role of the namer—a new Adam—not that of the creator. When Tolkien “set the imagination leaping” with a “green sun,” he takes upon himself the role of sub-creator and enters into Fantasy.

2. Green Suns

Tolkien returned to the theme of “green suns” again in his seminal essay “On Fairy Stories,” this time in the context of creating Fantasy: “Anyone...can say the green sun.... But.... To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will...certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” (MC 140)

These words, which Flieger has described as Tolkien’s “creative manifesto,” (Flieger 2012) echo Tolkien’s ideas in A Secret Vice. Just as language invention is a way to say what cannot be said with ordinary language, Fantasy is a means of seeing—and helping others see—what does not exist in the real world. To do such a thing is a “a kind of elvish craft,” an imitation of the enchantment Tolkien attributes to his own elves. (MC 122, 143) After going to great lengths to describe the nature of Fantasy and sub-creation, Tolkien lists three uses of Fantasy. Of these three, it is the first—“Recovery”—which resembles most strongly his sentiments about language invention.

Tolkien defines Recovery as “regaining a clear view” of things which we have taken for granted through familiarity. “We need, in any case, to clean our windows.... from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.” (MC 146). Just as the “significant language” of modern poetry obscured the fitness of sound and sense, so too the possessiveness which comes with familiarity obscures our ability to see the world clearly. Fantasy is a means of recovering that clear view.

This regaining of freshness is clearly related to the “strange and beautiful pictures in the mind” which drove Tolkien’s language invention, as demonstrated by the recurring leitmotif of the “green sun.” But Tolkien’s exploration of this relationship was not limited to essays. Within his fiction, he invests the elves with both an impulse for language invention and a need for Recovery. This should come as no surprise to us. Fantasy, after all, is an imitation of elvish craft. (MC 143)

3. The Elves as Language Inventors

Tolkien emphasizes the elves’ love for language invention from the earliest days of the mythology (BLT:I 155) to its twilight years. Writing the Dangweth Pengoloð in the early 1950’s, Tolkien sought to answer the question “How/Why did Elvish language change?” Pengolod—an elven philologist and author in the Dangweth’s narrative frame—answers this question in a way which sheds important light not only on why Elvish languages change, but on Tolkien’s thoughts about language change in general:

Weak indeed may be the memories of Men, but I say to you, Ælfwine, that even were your memory of your own being as clear as that of the wisest of the Eldar... your speech would change.... For Men change both their old words for new...and this change comes above all from the very changefullness of Eä; or if you will, from the nature of speech, which is fully living only when it is born, but when the union of the thought and the sound is fallen into old custom, and the two are no longer perceived apart, then already the word is dying and joyless...and the thought eager for some new-patterned raiment of sound. (PME 397)

According to Pengolod, the motivation for creating new words is the same for both races: when the union of sound and sense falls into “old custom,” the word and sound are no longer perceived as separate things. The word becomes “dying and joyless,” and a new sound is needed. The primary difference between human and elven language change lies in the latter’s skill. The elves consciously change whole sound patterns instead of individual words, in a manner reminiscent of how Christopher Tolkien described his father’s language invention process. (LR 378-9) Thus the “tongues of the Quendi change in a manner like to the changes of mortal tongues” albeit more artfully and deliberately. (PME 398, 400)

4. Conclusion

In A Secret Vice, Tolkien identifies the desire for a fresh relationship between sound and sense as the primary motive for the development of both real and invented languages. In On Fairy Stories, he further develops this idea as “Recovery” and names it as the first of the three benefits of fantasy literature. But Tolkien goes beyond theory, portraying his elves as artful language inventors across the fictional and textual history of the legendarium, their language invention motivated by a desire for Recovery. Both within and outside of his fiction, Tolkien’s works are a proof case for the value of glossopoeia as a means of Recovery—both for those who study Tolkien’s invented languages, and for those who make their own.

Joining the Chorus of Martyrs: Culture, Evangelical Copypasta, and the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste

Today, on the Revised Julian Calendar used by the Orthodox Church in America, it is the feast of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. This feast ...