“Inventor Rutili” Update

You know how you tend to have a certain picture in your head of how history was, and then you find out some little bit of information that brings you up short, like you’ve just tried to walk through a glass door?

In the Pope’s Easter Vigil homily this year, he said, “Gregory of Tours recounts a practice that in some places was preserved for a long time, of lighting the new fire for the celebration of the Easter Vigil directly from the sun, using a crystal.”


I assumed that the “petram” “silicis” in the hymn was flint. So did everybody else, apparently. But the poetic images transition much more smoothly from sun to rock, if Prudentius were referring to using rock crystal to focus sunlight the same way a magnifying glass does. Heck, the whole Easter Vigil imagery is stronger, for that matter.

We just don’t want to think of the classical world as knowing so many of the same scientific facts we do, much less of the early Church as employing science and technology in the service of religion. But many of the Fathers loved natural philosophy as much or more than regular philosophy. Also, it’s much easier for a Christian to love the wonderful things God’s creation can do, than if one were a Stoic thinking of the world as a plate that can break or a Gnostic hating all matter. So heck, if the early Christians had had a “frickin’ laserbeam” available to turn the sunlight into something that could start the Easter fire, they’d probably have used it.

(*rub hands together evilly* And you know, I have seen some calculations that lasers were possible in the classical world, given a good enough gemstone… that is, a good enough crystal…. Heh! No, I don’t really believe the early Christians had lasers. But in an alternate Greco-Roman universe, it’d be a pretty obvious liturgical development; and it would be really cool if the Vatican did something like that now. Not practical for every parish, though. And I think the frickin’ Roman laserbeams wouldn’t really have been technically possible without some real improvements in all kinds of materials. So take this all as total fiction; but it was pretty cool in a fictional way in that one James Rollins novel, and I think it might have showed up in a few more sf historical novels.)

UPDATE: Thanks, Cassandra, for the correction! At certain hours of the morning, I apparently can’t remember what Latin goes where, and… um… I was kinda in a hurry to post before work, so I didn’t do a fact check. *bloggy blush*

So silex, silicis = pebble, stone, rock, flint, boulder, stone. Not sounding very much like “rock crystal”, is it? I suppose Prudentius could have been writing about it in a way which would possibly include both flint and rock crystal, but… I don’t know that I’m buying it.

Sigh. Another beautiful crystalline boat of theory sinks slowly into the West, under the weight of a boulder of fact. Taking with it my frickin’ laserbeam.



Filed under Church, fandom, History

4 responses to ““Inventor Rutili” Update

  1. I do remember a laser taking out a light fixture at a Blue Oyster Cult concert at Scranton’s Catholic Youth Center circa 1979. Does that count?

  2. Lucia Rosa

    DON’T want to think about it?! I don’t want to think about anything else; that’s awesome! But…but…what sun? They must have started their vigil reallly early…but then I did hear there were many more lessons back then, and presumably more canticles and prayers between them, so…WOW.

  3. Cassandra

    Nice discussion, but it’s not “petram” that is translated to flint, but “silicis”. Petram is translated to Rock, meaning Christ.

  4. Easter vigil can start any time after sunset, so I guess they started the fire right about then.

    Btw, there is some kind of odd late legend about the Holy Sepulchre miraculously lighting up all its candles at once every Easter Vigil after light too bright to look at filled the place, and this stopping when the Muslims took over, and then starting again after the Crusaders won, and then stopping again because people were too sinful.

    However, Egeria didn’t notice any miraculous lightings happening in her much earlier time, so they must have installed the frickin’ laserbeams later. 🙂

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