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Paleolithic Saints?

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Saint Christopher
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

The gallery of Catholic saints contains some interesting oddities and cases of mistaken identity.

Take the case of Barlaam and Josephat, two fellows who were canonized in the Middle Ages. Their feasts were celebrated until the nineteenth century, when folklorists discovered that they were actually bodhisattvas. Their heroic life stories were told in Ashvaghosha’s Lives of the Buddha, a collection of biographies of the Buddha’s former lives, and they were mistaken for Christian martyrs by European monastic scholars working with a garbled translation.

Another favorite of mine is Saint Guinefort, who was never officially recognized, but was nonetheless widely venerated by a popular cult. Guinefort was a greyhound who was martyred in the thirteenth century after his master, arriving home at night to find the dog’s jaws covered with blood, mistakenly believed that Guinefort had bitten his child. In fact, the loyal beast had slain a deadly viper that threatened the infant.

Saint Christopher is said to have come from the dog-headed tribe of Marmaritae, where he was a cannibal and a barbarian, until he met the Christ-child and was redeemed, becoming an ascetic “athelete of God.”

I was recently alerted to another case of possible misattribution in the outstanding book The Quest for the Shaman by Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green, an archaeological survey and analysis of shamanism that reaches back to the earliest human symbolic cultures in the Upper Paleolithic. The authors credit the librarian Martin Howley for this tale, which I find speculative but plausible. (1)

Our story concerns the patron saints of Milan, Saints Gervasius and Protasius. Their remains were discovered by the church father Saint Ambrose (d. 397) during the construction of the Cathedral of Milan. He had agreed to consecrate the building if any relics of martyrs were found, and in a letter he recounts:

Gervasius and Protasius

I found the fitting signs, and on bringing in some on whom hands were to be laid, the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest, that even whilst I was still silent, one was seized and thrown prostrate at the holy burial-place. We found two men of marvellous stature, such as those of ancient days. All the bones were perfect, and there was much blood. During the whole of those two days there was an enormous concourse of people. Briefly we arranged the whole in order, and as evening was now coming on transferred them to the basilica of Fausta, where watch was kept during the night, and some received the laying on of hands. On the following day we translated the relics to the basilica called Ambrosian. During the translation a blind man was healed. (2)

The “bloody bones” were attributed to the Christian martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, who became the patron saints of Milan. Saint Ambrose himself was interred in a porphyry sarcophagus along with the remains of Gervasius and Protasius. (3) The sarcophagus was lost for several centuries, but is believed to have been rediscovered in 1864, and the cult of Gervasius and Protasius is now alive and well.

Several scholars, including the Aldhouse-Greens, speculate that what was in fact unearthed was a paleolithic burial site dating to the Gravettian period (around 30,000-20,000 BCE). This is the same cultural complex that is primarily associated with the well-known Venus-type fertility figurines of the Stone Age.

Milan lies well within the Gravettian range, and many burials associated with the culture involved decorating the human remains with red ochre, which gives the strong impression of “much blood;” indeed, this was probably why it was used. You can see what such a grave looks like here.

1) Aldhouse-Green M and S. The Quest of the Shaman. Thames and Hudson. 2005. pp. 32-3.
2) Medieval Sourcebook: Ambrose of Milan: Letter 22: The Finding of SS. Gervasius and Protasius. Accessed Nov 11, 2012.
3) “St. Christopher”. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. Accessed Nov 11, 2012.


Written by Mesocosm

November 11, 2012 at 11:07 am

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