Monthly Archives: December 2022

St. Sylvester’s Day

Pope St. Sylvester I is not a guy we know much about.

He was on Pope St. Marcellinus’ staff as a deacon, and rumors swirled around that particular pope. He survived Emperor Diocletian’s persecution for quite a while, and there are different legends about how he did it.

Apparently the true story is that some of the Roman imperial court officials were hiding the pope and his deacons _inside the emperor’s Roman palace_, in their rooms, with the clergy wearing the clothes of normal bureaucrats or servants — although I don’t remember where I read this. But the gossip story was that Pope Marcellinus had sacrificed to idols, and forced his whole staff to do the same. Various heretics brought up this story as justification for their own actions. But Pope St. Marcellinus died in the second year of Diocletian’s persecution, and anciently was considered a saint. (His feast day is April 26.)

Thanks to the persecution, there was no pope from AD 304 to 308. Think about that, when you complain about stuff today. But behind the scenes and despite tons of martyrdoms and imprisonments and apostasies, Christians managed to scramble along: either by fleeing the cities, or by running things through the decentralized management system of deacons and parishes.

In 308, Pope Marcellus was elected. He found a church without places to meet (because properties had been confiscated), and full of dissension between those who had lapsed or fled, and those who had stayed in place and/or suffered. He tried to make peace and imposed grave penances on the lapsed (as had been done after the Decian Persecutions of AD 250).

But there was also a large movement (led by a guy named Heraclius who had apostatized even before the persecution started!), insisting that everybody calling himself Christian should be readmitted to Communion, instantly, without any kind of confession or apology or penance.

Somebody whined to Emperor Maxentius, who banished Marcellus from Rome (officially for causing people to breach the peace). So yup, cafeteria Catholics with a grudge are not just a modern thing.

Pope St. Marcellus died in AD 309, on the way to his place of exile (probably because journeys in winter were not fun), and was immediately acclaimed as a saint. His feast day is January 16.

Pope St. Eusebius was the next lucky contestant, elected pope early in 310. He continued to teach that the lapsed and apostatized could be readmitted to the Church and to Communion (contrary to the Donatists, who wanted things one and done), but that people would have to do lots of penance for quite a while. The Heraclius crowd continued to fight violently and to whine. Heraclius and his crowd declared himself pope (also in 310), thus making him one of the first antipopes.

Emperor Maxentius exiled Eusebius to Sicily for causing breaches of the peace — along with Heraclius (much to his surprise, I bet). Pope St. Eusebius soon died, and his body was brought back to Rome. (We don’t know what happened to Heraclius.) Pope St. Eusebius’ feastday used to be Sept. 26, but now has been moved to Aug. 17.

The next to be elected was Pope St. Miltiades (aka Melchiades), a North African guy who had moved to Rome and ended up (as you recall) in Pope Marcellinus’ chancery. He was elected in July of AD 311. He supposedly ordained the then-deacon Sylvester as a priest.

Emperor Galerius, in a doomed effort to suck up to God, had just issued the Edict of Toleration, ending the official persecution of Christians. Maxentius then proceeded to suck up to the new Pope Miltiades by giving back the confiscated Christian churches, cemeteries, monasteries, and other properties.

But that didn’t save Maxentius from God’s wrath, either, because Emperor Constantine beat him at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine proceeded to legalize Christianity more, and build Old St. Peter’s over the grave of St. Peter and make it a big imperial basilica; and he gave the imperial palace of Empress Fausta, the future Lateran Palace, to Pope Miltiades for an official residence/office.

As a gesture of unity, Miltiades began the custom of sending out “fermentum” (blessed, leavened bread that was not for Communion) from his place to all the churches around Rome — this meant particles of a big giant host from the Pope’s Mass, for just the priests to consume, much as bishops had long been sending Host bits to each other as a formal sign of intercommunion (for at least two hundred years before). And eventually this turned into the custom of putting a particle of Host into the cup at every Mass, which has various symbolic meanings (including intercommunion with the Pope). Apparently the “fermentum” was sent around by way of the acolyti, who also brought Communion to the sick.

Miltiades also called the Lateran Council, which ruled that Donatus of the Donatists was wrong about apostates never being able to rejoin the Church. This failed to stop Donatism from spreading in North Africa, or Donatists from whining to the emperor.

Pope Miltiades died in January of 314. His feast day is January 10.

And then came Pope St. Sylvester. The Church was full of super-motivated Donatists with their own churches and bishops, super-unmotivated ex-lapsi, newbie Christian wannabes just trying to get in good with Emperor Constantine, and Constantinople suddenly becoming the new capital of the Empire. Oh, and Arius decided to invent a totally new heresy that said that Jesus wasn’t God, so he had to send papal legates to the first Council of Nicaea.

Obviously Pope St. Sylvester was working hard throughout his reign, until his death in 335. But we know very little about his work, other than the unanimous idea after his death that he was clearly a saint. He built churches, cleared up liturgy questions, got a martyrology list together, and set up a Roman schola for singing. He was buried in a church he built over the Catacombs of Priscilla.

His successor was Pope St. Mark, who reigned for about nine months in AD 336, before dying of natural causes; his feastday is Oct. 7. Mark’s successor was Pope Julius I, a steely-eyed yet diplomatic type who opposed Arianism, helped out St. Athanasius during his exiles, and quietly refused to do what was ordered by Arian Constantinople. He was pope from 337 to 352, and his feastday is April 12.

Ahead of the Church was more Arianism; Pope Liberius who suffered prison in Beirut, exile in Thrace, and apparently had letters faked to make him look Arianized; Emperor Julian the Apostate; and a ton of other troubles. But they still weren’t the worst things to happen ever, and the world didn’t end.

And so, we can see that messiness of history is not just a modern thing. Or division and conflict. Or government meddling in the Church’s business. Or the thankless danger of following Christ, instead of the state or mammon or cheap fellowship.

On St. Sylvester’s Day, it is correct to revel a bit.

In France, they eat champagne and foie gras, or oysters, or mussels. They also kiss under mistletoe only on New Year’s Eve, and there’s often fireworks outside in the yard/garden.

Fish dinners are traditional through most of the Catholic world, because January 1 is a solemn big feast, and the eve of a big feast was traditionally a fast. (Jan. 1 used to be the Feast of the Circumcision, because a bris is done on the seventh day after a boy’s birth. Now it’s the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, following Byzantine and older Western tradition.)

Drinking some kind of wine or beer is also traditional, although moderation is what you’re supposed to observe.

Wikipedia’s entry on St. Sylvester’s Day.

So if it means anything that Pope Emeritus Benedict died on St. Sylvester’s Day, I’d take it as a sign that we are not meant to be sad or worried. St. Sylvester was a good pope, and his feastday is a happy day. He lived in a time of turmoil; but he got through it and so can we.


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RIP, Pope Emeritus Benedict

Every so often, a public figure is clearly “yours,” someone who teaches you and makes sense to you.

For me, it was Pope Benedict. He was a remarkable synthesist as well as a theologian and Scripture scholar, and as a pope he made sensible decisions that helped people, often breaking impasses that had lasted for centuries.

OTOH, he was widely misunderstood by many, and a lot of his best efforts seem to have brought him opprobrium and disregard. Many of his sacrifices for the Church did not turn out well, at least temporally.

He now has died on Pope St. Sylvester’s Day, the last day of the year and a Saturday, as he was born on Holy Saturday. Saturdays are the Blessed Mother’s day, the Christian day of preparation and the Jewish Sabbath.


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Pizza Patron Saints!

In Naples, the official saint of pizza makers is St. Anthony Abbot, because he is a kitchen safety and fire and livestock saint in Italy. (You may know him for his Life, written by St. Athanasius.) International Pizzamaker Day is on his day, January 17.

In Rome, the baker and pizza maker saint is St. Albert or Adalbert of Louvain. He was a bishop in Belgium who was murdered, and is usually a Belgian beer saint. But in Rome, he does more as San’Alberto di Lovanio.

Other pizza maker saints in other towns in Italy include St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Firminus of Amiens, and St. Honorius of Amiens, all of whom are kitchen and baker saints.

A lot of this local stuff refers to the local parish church, or where the baking guild used to meet, or a local miracle.

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Apponius on Virginity and Springtime

In Book 4, in the sections on Songs 2:10-12, Apponius talks a lot about the things that happened in the Bible in Spring.

‘… after brumal and icy harshness, He shows [her] the flowery Springtime of His Coming…

‘Therefore, just as all the renewed creatures rejoice at Winter fleeing from the unexpected arrival of Spring, the forerunner of Summer; and just as all animals “according to their kind” (Gen. 1:21) prepare for newborns; and when heavy with child, they construct dens; and birds put together nests, and with their voices they call out to each other from their private homes in the mountains; where now the ground prepares a banquet for the “creeping things,” (Gen. 1:20, 25) nor is food lacking for the feather-bearing animals; where the voice of singing on high resounds with sweet tones; and the sting-weaponed bee goes forth to loot the flowers; even so, our Lord Christ, after the horrid Winter of idolatry, adorns the face of the earth with philosophic doctrine at the season of Spring, and with the flower of the works of the martyrs and of all the saints, through His Passion (which is our Passover, our passing over from death into life). 

‘In this season, “in the beginning,” (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1) it is understood that all creatures were created, and Man himself was created from the mud of the earth. In this season, Jacob was called back from Mesopotamia to his own seat. In this season, the children of Israel were led “out of Egypt”, and in a figure of Christ, He shut out the destroyer of Egypt with the blood of a lamb or a goat. In this season, they entered into the Land of Promise by crossing the Jordan.

‘At this season, by His example of death, Christ our redeemer called the Church out of the “vale of tears” (Ps. 83:7/84:6) onto the mountain of Paradise, saying, “Arise, hurry, my ladyfriend, my lovely one, and come, for now the winter has passed away” — that is, the power of the shadows, which delivered depression to the world, passes out of this world and into Tartarus, at the coming of the Sun of Justice.’

And then we get into the Annunciation and the Visitation, both of which also happened in Spring.

‘“The voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” (Sgs. 2:12) The voice of this most chaste bird is fitting for the summer of glorious virginity; it was first “heard in our land” in the aforementioned season, through the Virgin Mary saying to the Angel Gabriel, “How can this be, when I will not know man?” (Lk. 1:34, VL)* and “Behold, all generations shall call me blessed, because He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.” (Lk. 1:48-49)

(*”Quomodo hoc erit, cum virum non cognoscam?” where the Vulgate has “Quomodo fiet istud, quoniam virum non cognosco?” Apponius often uses Old Latin translations.)

‘The angel responded to this voice by explaining the birth of the most sacred Mystery – how that  “without the law” (Rom. 3:21, which continues “the Justice of God is made manifest”), the embraced one would be conceived, and would be delivered without the pain of “sorrow.” (Gen. 3:16). The “power”, he said, “of the Most High shall overshadow you… and… the Holy Spirit shall come down upon you. Therefore… the Holy One which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God.” (Lk. 1:35) 

‘And truly she is worthy that “all generations” call her alone “blessed”, who is glorious “among all women”; not only do those of diverse Gentile nations highly extol her, but also the wondering Powers of the heavens. 

‘Let us rejoice – through her, life entered the world, death fled it, and the world was reconciled to God!

‘Through her, first, “the voice” of preserved virginity, of holy will, which was lost in the land of incontinence, “is heard in” the land of the curse, the land of the impious. About which David predicted, “Our land shall give its fruit” (Ps. 84:13/85:12) – especially the good “fruit” of goodwill, which nature received in the “First-Formed,” Adam (Wis. 7:1, 10:1).

‘For unless her will for preserved virginity existed, she would not have said, “How can this be, when I do not know man?”

‘For as long as the depressing and constricting winter season of collusion covered up the face of the world from all good seed, and the devil possessed the land in his power, this sweetest “voice of the turtledove” was not “heard in” the “land” – neither from glorious Mary nor from blessed John [the Baptist].

‘But where this great Sun of Justice has arisen, drawing to us the indulgence of summer fertility, “the voice of the turtledove” begins to be heard “in our land,” with the desire of preserving [bodily] integrity. And what before was named “[the land] of the impious,” now the Message of God deigns to call “her land” or “the Church’s land.” (cf. Is. 62:6)

‘For, as the other Persons are conjoined to the Holy Spirit; so of course she, Mary, had Him come down upon her; and of course he, John, while still in his mother’s womb, was filled with Him; and so they did not accommodate their wills to any other love.

‘For as the nature of turtledoves loves a wilderness dwelling, and resounds with a sweet voice when calling its mate, so these two call out to these abovementioned Persons: She saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word,” (Lk. 1:38); and he saying, “After me comes One Who existed before me, Whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” (John 1:27, VL)

‘Therefore it is with just reason that virginity is compared to the most chaste bird, the turtledove. For it obtains first place in John and Mary. 

‘For, conjoined at the same time to the Word of God and to the Holy Spirit, she never thought of any other mate, nor shared any desire for anyone else’s love except for His, to Whom she was found cemented [conglutinata]. 

‘But to Him, always [John] utters the voice of promise, and the voice of the mind, by which he promises to serve Him who was born. 

‘Even as the love of the turtledove toward its unchanged-out mate moves it to serve with the affection of delight, so it is told (by the Physiologus) that it will never be joined to any other, after a dead mate; but for all the days of its life, it will seek the mate with whom it was once conjoined, desiring it.’

This is an unusual insight, because it points out that St. John the Baptist is also a virgin prophet, much like St. Jeremiah; whereas usually we focus on St. John the Evangelist being a male virgin.

But we do see, over and over again, that when a human is overwhelmed by having the Holy Spirit come upon him or her, that human becomes unconcerned with normal limits and abilities, and with what other people think. John seems to have had the Holy Spirit on him since before birth, and possibly constantly during his life. So of course his mind was always on service and making the road straight for Jesus, and his voice always speaking the promise that he had been sent to call out.

But the really bold idea is… that having the Holy Spirit come down upon a human being, and remain with him or her, is akin to sharing in the Undivided Union of the Three Persons of the Trinity.

I mean, how can you even picture that? Even those who experience great charisms have this hidden from them, in large part. It is too big for us to understand, at least now.

And yet, that is what the eternal life of the Blessed is.

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O Oriens = Eala Earendel!!

Okay, I admit that I’ve never read Christ I from the Exeter Book. I’ve seen selections from it, and that’s all.

So nope, I didn’t realize that it’s a poem about Advent, and about the O Antiphons for the last seven days of Advent — the same antiphons that were adapted into “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

So I didn’t know that the famous Old English passage that led Tolkien to create the character of Earendil, and a good chunk of his entire legendarium of Middle Earth, was actually about Jesus, under his title of “the East”.

Let’s cut to Zechariah 3:8, 10 —

“Hear, O Joshua*, you High Priest — you and your friends that dwell before you, for they are portending men. ‘For behold, I will bring My servant, the Orient’.. says the LORD of Hosts.”


It’s “My servant the Branch” in Hebrew, “semah” or “tsemach.” But the other word for branch is “netser,” and that’s the same word that gave us the town name of Nazareth.

“Semah” also means a “shoot,” something coming up. And apparently that’s why the Septuagint translated it as “anatolen,” something coming up or rising up, or the direction that the sun rises from.

“Oriens” also means both something rising up from below, and the direction of sunrise. So it’s a very exact translation, although one tends to assume the sunrise. However, it does drag in “the Sun of Justice”, as well as the prophecy that the Messiah would come from the east.

The Anglo-Saxon poet drags in a different association, that of Christ as the true morning star. (As He says Himself, in Rev. 22:16 — “I am the bright morning star.”)

Earendel literally means “dawn wanderer” – eara plus wandel. The morning star had that name since Proto-Germanic, probably, and therefore it probably came across as “dawn planet” or something similar.


So let’s look at the Oriens O antiphon, for December 21.

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:

veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

“O East-riser,

The Splendor of Eternal Light,

And the Sun of Justice —

Come, and illuminate those sitting in darkness, and in the shadow of death.”

(In case you were wondering, it’s “in umbra mortis” because sitting within things is the ablative case, whereas going into things is the accusative.)


OK. That seems pretty clear.


Here’s the Old English poet:

“Hail, Dawnwanderer, /Brightest of messengers,

Over Midgard /Sent to men!

Also the honest true /Gleam of the Sun,

Splendor brighter than stars, /when through all seasons

All by Yourself /You light them always!

Even as You, God from God /brought forth completely,

You the Father’s true Son — /in Heaven’s glory

Without a beginning /You ever are —

So now, for the poor — /Thine Own work

Waits in confidence for You — /That to us the bright

Sun, You send, /And come Yourself,

So that You give light /To those who have long been

Covered in smoke-gloom /And in darkness here

They sat in evernight, /Sin-enfolded.

Death’s dark shadow /They had to endure.

Now we, hopeful, /Believe in healing

Through that word of God /God’s Word brought.”


This is kinda fun in the Tolkien context, as he glommed onto a couple of lines and made something out of them. But it indicates that (without being cringy about it), Earendil the mariner and wanderer is a sort of fictional type of Christ as mediator, and as summing up the human destiny of mediating, through prayer, for Creation.

*Joshua in Greek = Jesus.

English translation of the whole poem, by Charles Huntington Whitman: The Christ of Cynewulf.


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What Really Offends SJWs

It’s okay to promote killing innocent people and stealing their stuff, and it’s okay to promote sex with children and cutting off kids’ reproductive organs and secondary sexual characteristics. It’s also okay to promote marijuana use, and to pass out birth control and condoms without parental knowledge.

But not a musical adapted from Dickens’ Oliver Twist! No! So shocking!

A school in California apparently booked their kids a showing of a musical without looking up anything about the content of the musical, and without getting the correct permission slips. But instead of backing out gracefully, they made a big deal about it. They also canceled the show for the junior high students who were going to see it next. (And who probably had gotten forced to read Oliver Twist in English class.)

But worse than that, of course the adult teachers tweeted about how shocked they were by the things that happened in the musical. When Oliver! has been out for at least forty years, and Oliver Twist is supposed to be a book that is common knowledge.

What makes it even funnier is that Oliver and other Victorian stories actually did change the world for the better, by promoting reform. As someone with a rough childhood in poverty, Dickens really was giving a voice to the voiceless.

SJW nonsense and real world violence? They make the world worse.

Now, I would say that Oliver is a tad advanced for first graders; but apparently the kids were loving the show, and objected to being dragged out by the adults.

I predict that kids in that school will be sneaking looks at copies of Oliver Twist for years to come.


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Lady Macbeth Fun Fact

The queen depicted in “the Scottish Play” is actually on her second marriage.

Her name was Gruoch, daughter of Boite/Bodhe mac Cinaeda, son of Kenneth II or Kenneth III of Scotland. Her first husband was Gilla Coemghainn mac Mail Brigti, the Mormaer of Moray. She married Macbethad mac Findlaech after Gilla Coemghainn was burned to death in one of his halls, with his men, on purpose. Probably by Malcolm II. (Hiss! Boo!)

Macbeth himself was the son of the next Mormaer of Moray, Findlaech. So clearly he was some sort of cousin to Gilla Coemghainn.

Gruoch also had a son from Gilla Coemghainn — Lulach, who would later become king of Scotland himself.

(Gilla Coemghainn means “servant/devotee of St. Kevin.”)

Other fun fact: “Bethad” would normally refer to “beath”, life. But a lot of the old Scottish chronicles spelled Macbeth’s name “Machabeus”, Maccabee. So you can see that functional equivalents were already a thing….

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A Sherlock Carol

Currently off-Broadway, there’s a Christmas play that combines Doyle and Dickens.

Yes. Yes, that’s right. It’s a fanfic crossover play. “A Sherlock Carol” by Mark Shanahan.

Holmes, depressed and lonely during the holidays, is begged by the respected physician, Dr. Timothy Cratchit, to investigate the murder of his beloved mentor, Ebenezer Scrooge. Drawing from the Christmas tale of the Blue Carbuncle, Holmes is drawn into a web of mystery, geese, and Fezziwigs… and a ghost fighting for his soul.

The casting is somewhat unique, challenging, and cost-saving — as every actor and actress pays multiple characters. In the tradition of English pantomime plays at Christmas, the same guy who plays Watson plays a woman with a goose, and a woman plays the male Inspector Lestrade. And the casting is colorblind, in a good way, like in most musicals and operas. It’s a very small cast of six, four of whom play a great many roles with quick changes, to the point that there are only three understudies to cover all the roles of all the actors that could possibly get sick.

All that we’re missing is songs…. no! It’s a musical too!

Sadly, it’s only playing over the holidays, so it’s unlikely that we’ll all get to see it. But this is actually its second Broadway season, so maybe someday.. It looks fun, at least from the review in the Epoch Times. It’s also interesting to see a director trusting his actors to _act_, with great craft.

A review from its 2021 season. Check out the wonderful costumes. It’s so nice to see things done right. They also note that it’s a show okay for all ages.

Sherlockians interview Drew McVety, who played Holmes for both seasons. There are also links to official “Sherlock Carol” videos on their YouTube channel. (Most of them are shorts, but there’s some nice ones.)

Writer-director Mark Shanahan explains his love of Holmes. YOU MUST READ THIS!


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Oral Literature Was the Prestigious Literature

In the ancient world, and in the world of the early Christians, we need to remember this. Prestige was associated with oral literature first, and with written literature only second. Learning was training the memory first, and the ars memoriae of locative memory and memory palaces.

In most traditional societies, it’s common to start learning bits of long epic poems at preschool ages, when kids don’t even understand the words of the archaic language they’re learning to recite or sing. They are directly exposed to all the rhetorical devices that aid memory, even when they just understand the sounds of them.

And of course, the early Christian Papias, who is known to have been mentored by some of Paul’s cousins who were female physicians, and ran a free clinic but sponsored the building of three monasteries, said outright that he preferred learning the teaching of Jesus and the apostles from people who had heard them preach, and not from books.

(Although his huge book of written reminiscences of eyewitness testimony has almost entirely been lost to us. Which shows the problem with relying on oral or written testimony.)

So it makes perfect sense that Paul (or whoever, or Paul’s team helping him) would compose a speech or series of speeches with more formal Greek and more rhetorical devices than he would use in a mere letter.


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More on Hebrews

Apparently it’s less like a letter, and more of a sermon format, or even multiple sermons on the same topic. (Three seems like a common scholarly guess.) And if they are sermons, it’s not the kind done in church, but more of an educational and encouraging preaching outside of church.

So in that case, it would make sense for St. Paul to have a more formal way of expressing himself than he would use in letters. Speeches and exhortations were supposed to be formal, and to make clever references, like the reference to the Odyssey. All the Scripture quotations would fit right in.

But if other communities were asking to be sent transcripts of this cool sermon series, a transcript could easily be turned into a letter by adding a postscript.

Anyway, it’s interesting to be thinking about salvation history during Advent.


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Odyssey Reference in the Bible

Apparently it is well-known among Classics scholars that the first few lines of the Letter to the Hebrews are a sort of imitation of the first few lines of Homer’s Odyssey. The word “polytropos” is used in both, and both have alliteration based on the letter P. (I don’t know if the scansion is the same.) And both books take their own sweet time talking about the hero, leading up to it, before finally naming Odysseus and Jesus Christ.

It does not seem to be a well-known fact among Bible scholars; and even the Oxford Study Bible and the Navarre Bible don’t have bupkis about it in the footnotes or introductions to Hebrews. Some patristics types know about it. Nobody seems to talk much about it.

I found out about it by chance, from the Odyssey side, because I heard something doubtful about the Emily Wilson translation of the Odyssey; and so I have been looking into it.

Odysseus is described as the “andra… polytropon”, and in both Iliad and Odyssey he gets described as lots of poly- adjectives. The word “polytropos” means a lot of different things, as varied as “many-traveled,” “versatile,” and “of many guises.”

The Fathers don’t really seem to comment on this, possibly because it seemed too obvious, and possibly because the association with pagan literature was controversial. But they do often comment on how God’s theophanies to Israel were literally “of many guises.” (It might also be that the Fathers were translated by people who didn’t know what the Fathers were alluding to, and therefore the allusions vanished in translation.)

Classics scholars point to a possible comparison of Israel and the Church to Odysseus, in that they went lots of places and did lots of different things, but still stayed focused on “returning home” to God. In this view, Odysseus would be a sort of “all things to all men” prototype. (And apparently the Odyssey does compare Odysseus to an octopus at one point, because he could “fit in” like a sneaky little octopus, which is always fitting into all sorts of holes, spaces between rocks, and other undersea environments.)

But of course Odysseus was also a hero who changed and affected things in the places where he went, and from which he escaped, or when he was helped and then departed. (Also like Paul.) He is identified by Homer as someone who suffers troubles, but also causes troubles to all humans he meets. His great-grandfather on his mom’s side (through Autolycus the famous thief) is Hermes, also described as “polytropos.”

On the lowest level, you could certainly compare Paul’s travels to Odysseus’ travels, right down to all the shipwrecks and escapes. And guess who Paul was mistaken for, in Lycaonia? Hermes! Hermes polytropos!

I still think there has to be more to the Hebrews allusion to the Odyssey, because a proemion is supposed to frame your view of everything that comes after it, all the way to the end. So you would expect mini-allusions throughout, and a wrap-up allusion at the end.

It wouldn’t even surprise me if different sections of Hebrews alluded to different sections of the Odyssey, although obviously it would have to be a bit subtle (because otherwise there would be footnotes all over). But I don’t know enough about the Odyssey in the original, or the Letter to the Hebrews, or Greek, for any of that to “pop up” in my brain immediately.

Odysseus is favored by Athena and others, but he also suffers the wrath of Poseidon because… his buddy Athena is angry at him, and at all the Greeks, for enabling her temple in Troy to be profaned. So she doesn’t help him with her wisdom, and he stupidly and rashly reveals his identity to Polyphemus when escaping. (For once, he acts like a Bronze Age hero, and gets punished for it.)

Odysseus’ mother wanted him to be named “Polyaretus,” “Many times-prayed for,” but his grandfather Autolycus names him “Odysseus,” which means something like “Curse”, “Troublesome,” or even “Odious.” (This is similar to Deirdre being named “sorrow.”) He’s a jinx, a Jonah, the opposite of a Benedict. And throughout the poem, the divine wrath against him, fair and unfair, is associated with the verb “odysthai,” to be wrathful. (And of course the Iliad is all about singing about “menis,” righteous wrath, both by Achilles and the gods. Really really destructive and self-destructive wrath, no matter how justified at first.) Jenny Strauss Clay’s book The Wrath of Athena talks a lot about all this stuff, and it is full of great points.

So you could argue that the children of Jacob/Israel (another trickster like Odysseus) were also both favored by and punished by God. (And they had anger issues, too.)

Odysseus is also called “many-sorrowed;” and certainly this would describe the children of Israel and even Jesus.

Also, both the Iliad and the Odyssey involve a lot of advice sections and proverbs, which is part of why many pagan Greeks and Romans regarded them as a sort of Scripture.

A lot of Hebrews is comprised of OT quotes, and explanations of how a Christian is supposed to live in the world, but also stick with God and care about people nobody cares about. You could argue that it is a book of adventure advice, maybe.

So I think there’s a lot going on with Hebrews which is implicit, and that it is mostly whooshing over our heads. The author is engaging with the whole Jewish tradition, but also with the diaspora’s Hellenic traditions. Otherwise, why the Odyssey reference?

UPDATE: An extended Odyssey reference in Acts 28, by St. Luke. This one I had heard theorized, but it doesn’t apparently involve direct quotes.

This blogger theorizes that Luke wants the reader/listener to put himself into the protagonists’ place, such that Paul’s story becomes the reader’s story.

This goes along with Homer’s tricky way of turning people inside the Iliad and Odyssey into people listening to the same story as us, and us into participants and judges of the story.

Luke also shows the hospitable goodness of pagans on the island, implicitly comparing them to the faerie Phaeacians and their king, who are much more kindly and just than the pagan gods. Paul responds graciously, by healing those who are sick.

So it’s all pretty fun but strange.

UPDATE: Anyway… we’re not used to thinking of God as “versatile” or “resourceful” or any of the other polytropos meanings. But He is. He speaks to us in all ways, by any means necessary. He is single and simple, but He finds and makes all those ways.

UPDATE: The Polymeros kai Polytropos blog listed a 2019 Society of Biblical Literature conference paper about Hebrews and the Odyssey as associated by sound and other poetic devices:

Jeffrey E. Brickle, Urshan Graduate School of Theology
“Sing in Me, Muse”: Converging Soundscapes in the Prologues of the Odyssey and Hebrews (25 min)
“While reflecting radically different eras, outlooks, genres, and styles, both Homer’s Odyssey and the Epistle to the Hebrews capitalize on the theme of an epic homecoming. The “hero” of each work seeks to lead his people on a journey fraught with danger in order to arrive safely at the intended telos. This essay will explore the prospect that the opening of Hebrews may aurally evoke the opening of the Odyssey, a well-known cultural text celebrated in antiquity for its literary characteristics, frequently deemed a mimetic exemplar, and deeply embedded in the psyche and paideia of Greco-Roman society. By investigating (1) key shared words and concepts, (2) the distinctive sound signatures developed by these prologues, (3) subjecting both prologues to the principles for euphonious composition advocated in Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s On Literary Composition (which, incidentally, begins with a quotation from the Odyssey and frequently cites Homer), and (4) examining aural resonances between these passages, the essay will attempt to demonstrate the value of utilizing sound mapping for interpreting biblical texts. Importantly, the study will evaluate the auditory effects obtained when Dionysius’s recommendations on elements such as word order, melody, rhythm, variety, and appropriateness are factored into our comparative analyses. This essay will advance the preliminary inquiry into this topic proposed by the author in his contribution to Sound Matters: New Testament Studies in Sound Mapping, volume 16 in Cascade’s Biblical Performance Criticism series.

UPDATE: Nope, the scansion of the two intros does not seem similar.

Another book that I found helpful and interesting was Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past by Gregory Nagy, which talks a lot about the relationship between the epics and the lyric poets of Greece, like Pindar. It is online at Harvard for free reading, thanks to a donation by some alumnus or fund.

The Wrath of Athena mentions one of Nagy’s earlier books, The Best of the Achaeans, as also very useful for understanding epics.

The audiobook “Homer’s Odyssey 101: How to Understand the Greatest Epic Ever Written” is an excellent and enlightening set of audio courses, by Fr. Gregory I. Carlson. It focuses on the Odyssey’s moral instruction about the consequences of actions, as well as the various strong emotional stories of various characters. IT IS GREAT. And as a Catholic, I found that the Catholic POV was really helpful.

I first read the Odyssey when I was a tad too young to get some of this stuff, so I really learned a lot. (I highly recommend listening to such a complex subject at the speed of recording, by slowing it down, rather than at the “current day audiobook” speed of 1.5x.)

Elizabeth Vandiver has several relevant Great Courses available, including on Audible and on the Great Courses channel on Amazon Prime. I haven’t listened to most of them, but her course on The Iliad of Homer is FREAKING AMAZING. (It also treats of a lot of the gore bits, so maaaaybe not for little kids.)

John Wright, the science fiction writer, posted a discussion of the science fiction and fantasy elements of the Phaeacians (and their telepathy-controlled ship) on his excellent blog. Unfortunately I cannot presently find it.

George Guidall’s amazing audiobook readings of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, from Robert Fitzgerald’s translations, are both out of print and unobtainium, now. They may be available used or at your library. You may also be able to find them online, particularly on YouTube (as with many audiobooks that are unavailable due to licensing having ended).

If you ever wondered why oral poetry epics were popular and enthralling, George Guidall will make you understand. However, there are about one zillion recordings of various translations by various actors, most of whom manage decently with such great material.

If you take Greek 101 from the Great Courses (video only, for obvious reading reasons), you will learn how to read the beginning of the Gospel of John and the Iliad; and the Iliad will take the top of your head off, even without the advantages of divine inspiration. The teacher is eccentric and fun.

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