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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  June 1999

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION June 1999

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Subject:

Re: FEAST 2 June

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Date:

Wed, 2 Jun 1999 18:51:16 +0100 (BST)

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> Today, 2 June, is the feast of ... 
> 
> * Erasmus or Elmo, bishop and martyr (303?) - popularly represented with
> a large aperture in his body through which his intestines have been
> wound around an instrument of torture next to him; invoked against cramp
> and colic, especially in children - also patron of mariners; 'St Elmo's
> fire' is name given to blue electrical discharges around the masts of
> ships (under certain atmospheric conditions)
> 

Dare I ask if anyone has any (polite) comments on my recent note following on
Meg's inquiry about dating the windlass motif? I was testing out a suggestion as
to how Erasmus got to be associated with a) the electrical discharges, and b)
the windlass. Can I run it past you all again, please?
 
The electrical discharges, thought to be a sign of E's protection, are
traditionally known also as 'St Helen's Fire'. D.H.Farmer, in the Oxford
Dictionary of Saints, adds in parathensis, 'less correctly', and the confusion
between the two names for the discharges is normally explained as the corruption
of Elmo (itself a diminutive of Erasmus) into 'Elena'. The latter can lose its
second 'e' by elision, as in the name of the town in Rousillon known as Elne,
having been named by Constantine in honour of his mother Helena.
 
My thesis is that in fact the confusion worked in the other direction. That in
fact the electrical discharge was known as 'St Helen's Fire' before it was
known as 'St Elmo's'.
 
What impels me towards this thought is that in ancient Greek tradition, these
electrical discharges were attributed to the Dioscuri, the Heavenly Twins Castor
and Pollux. Indeed, it was thought a sign of their protection just as later it
was thought a sign of the protection of Erasmus.
 
In Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux were the sibs of Helen (that is, Helen in
her aspect as a deity, rather than Helen as wife of Aganemnon), and Marian
Wenzel, the art historian, has argued on iconographical evidence that the
Dioscuri were regarded as mythic fire-makers, guardians, if you like, of the
primeval fire and patrons of those with the skill of striking 'new fire'.
 
Her argument postulates a fire-making machine that works on the friction
principle and involves a post and cross-piece (with the Twins at each end) that
looks very much like a mast and its yard (i.e. the cross-piece which holds the
sail), with rope twined around the post - just as rope is wrapped around the
windlass, but more about that in a moment.
 
The mast-and-yard became, in early medieval Christian writings, a metaphor for
the Holy Cross, bringing the ship (emblematic of the Church, thus 'nave' etc)
through the storms of life to the safe shore of Redemption.
 
The traditional finder of the Holy Cross (from the time of Ambrose onwards) was
that other Helen, the mother of Constantine.
 
The suspicion must be that in the matter of the electrical discharges,
attribution of this phenomenon shifted from Castor and Pollus to their sister
Helen, and from Helen to Helena (Elena).
 
Later the attribution shifted again, from Elena/El'na to Erasmus/El'mo.
 
The engine for this final shift may have been the adoption of Erasmus as their
patron by sailors in the Bay of Naples. The fourth-century bishop and martyr was
thought to have had his see there, at Formiae, from where he was moved a short
distance within the area of the bay to Gaeta during Saracen raids in 842.
 
It seems likely that there were two Erasmuses. The saint's legend made him a
bishop in Syria (as Farmer says, a bishop of Antioch) who fled the Diocletian
persecution to become a hermit on Mount Lebanon, but he was found and rolled in
pitch which was set alight (fire motif 1). An angel rescues him and takes him to
Formiae where he dies. There he preached in a thunderstorm, unmoved when a
thunderbolt strikes close by (fire motif 2).
 
Possibly the shift from El'na to El'mo happened both in the central
Mediterranean and in the east.
 
As for the explanation of the windlass as stemming from Erasmus's patronage of
sailors, I'm less convinced than by the possibility that it represents the
Dioscuri's fire machine. Maybe the torture by windlass aims to demonise the
Dioscuri by adapting their attribute (up-ended) as a symbol of persecution.
 
OK, Learned Ones, what do you think? In the absence of primary evidence, are
there any useful analogies, hagiographic or otherwise.
 
E is, of course, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers (depending which list you use)
and offers wide (but cunningly restricted) protection in the later Middle Ages,
as Miriam has pointed out.
 
Best wishes
 
Graham



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