Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Golden Legend of St. Fris

Onward, Christian Soldier 

According to legend, St. Fris was the son of the Frisian King Rabbod and a nephew of Charles Martel. In 732, he was ordered to follow the retreat of the Moorish army led by Abd el-Rhaman after the latter was defeated at Poitiers. The Saracens defeated the Franks at Lupiac, but Fris caught up with his quarry once again at the plateau of l’Étendard[1] just outside the present-day village of Bassoues in the Gers department. In the ensuing battle, Fris rallied his troops by planting his cross-bearing standard into the ground, (very sexy), but for him the victory was not to be sweet. Fris was struck by an arrow and his frightened horse bolted, carrying him to the banks of the stream called the Guiroe, where he died. His troops found his body and buried him on the spot. Although his deeds were remembered, his final resting place was to be forgotten.

Two hundred years later a herdsman frequently grazed his herd on this hill, unknowing. Over time he became puzzled by a cow which always stood alone, never eating, yet remained among the best-looking animals in his herd. Then one day he noticed it licking a boulder. He was perplexed and investigated; scratching at the stone, he revealed a sarcophagus which proved to hold a man's body inside, perfectly intact, laid to rest with his armor and his weapons. At this very instant a fountain sprung up on the spot. News of this miracle spread, and the townspeople came to wonder at the water flowing up from around a dead man’s body. Soon afterwards several miraculous cures ensued. It was thus decided that a basilica should be constructed to house the remains of Saint Fris, but upon its completion, even the most powerful oxen were unable to transport the sarcophagus. The peasant thus hitched his young cow and thence transported the sarcophagus with ease. 

(basic details of the legend from the Dossier de Presse Comptes et Légendes and the website of Bassoues) 

Pagan Predecessors, Christian Corrollaries 

Denise Homerin links St. Fris to several pagan deities prominent in this part of the Gers long before and well into the Christian era.[2] The first of these was Mars. The ancient forest of Marsoulès is one of many places in the region that still bears his name. St. Fris himself is of obvious Martian, that is to say martial, significance. First and foremost he is a warrior, pictured in armor and carrying a sword. His colors of red and gold are also those of Mars, as is his title; he is Astra d’or, the Star of Gold. The horse upon which he is often depicted also echoes the iconography of Mars. According to the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica regarding Mars:
We know little of the character of his cult except at Rome, and even at Rome it has been variously interpreted. He has been explained as a sun-god, a god of wind and storm, a god of the year and a god of vegetation; and he has been compared with Apollo by Roscher (Apollo, and Mars, 1873, and in the article "Mars" in his Lexicon of Mythology). But in historical times his chief function at Rome was to protect the state in war, and it is as a god of war that he is known to all readers of Roman literature.

It is also worth noting that St. Fris bears significant symbolic ties to San Jacques de Compostela, who in some traditions is known as Santiago Matamoros, or "Moor-Slayer" after his apparition at the battle of Clavijo in 844, a mere century after the death of St. Fris. As Matamoros, Saint Jacques is often depicted on horsback, with sword and armor and wearing a red cape. In short, the same iconography as St. Fris and Mars.
The body of St. Fris was found on January 16, 10 days after Epiphany, which in Orthodox traditions lasts until January 18. Epiphany celebrates the “shining forth” of Jesus; it is the twelfth day of Christmas, which itself corresponds roughly to the winter solstice. His iconography thus also reflects that of the unvanquished Sun, Sol Invictus. Other aspects are like those of Apollo-Belenos (“Bel” is found in many local place names). This incarnation of Apollo was a god of the air, a celestial god of light, emphasizing the fertile and curative virtues of the sun.

An analysis of place names along local pilgrimage routes to that pass Bassoues on the way to Compostela also links St. Fris to giants, specifically the divine force later personified by Rabelais as Gargantua. Gargantua, is a character which derives from various French oral traditions dating back to the time of the Celts.[3] Originally he was a divinity or a kind of beneficial primordial force personified as a giant bringing order out of chaos. In the wake of his passage, his feet left hills and depressions; where he rested became natural rock formations. He was even responsible for rivers created by answering nature's call. In short, he represented the telluric forces which created natural landscapes. To this day many place names and mountains all over France bear names which derive from his various Celtic appellations. Perhaps more importantly to our story is that his was sometimes a solar myth.

Many of the megaliths and cromlechs found throughout France are described as his furniture. These places are often linked to the earth’s fecundity and indeed, Gargantua’s phallus was quite celebrated. Like the fairies (Morgan la Fey was his godmother) he was capable of transforming himself into many forms, especially that of a dragon, long recognized to be a phallic and masculine symbol. In the Christian era his cult was transformed; St Gorgon, for example, took his place as a patron of fecundity.

According to one legend “Gargantua” lived at the bottom of a well where people came to throw stones at him, hitting him in the head. Does the discovery of St. Fris echo these legends, found as he was surrounded by stone from which a sacred spring miraculously issued? His head was later placed as a relic in nearby Peyrusse Grande.

An ancient burial rite for millers placed the corpse in its tomb with a circle of stones about the head, the stones presumably a reference to the millstone which made his trade possible. Another legend has it that a young woman, a bread maker, once went to a sacred fountain to get water for her dough and as she lifted the bucket the water turned to blood. Folklore has it that sacred water used for profane purposes leads to punishment and pollution of water. Was she the last remnant of a pagan culture?

The Mother Goddess or Magna Mater was also very prominent in the area. We have already noted the similarity of S.t Fris legend to that of Marial legends: discovery by a cow or ox, the association with the earth and especially life-giving waters. In addition to the discovery of Saint Fris, at Bassoues there is a long tradition of cows with horns in the form of crescent moons, a conspicuous symbol of the Virgin Mary, whose abundant syncretic capacities have been well-established in scholarly literature.

Homerin also links St. Fris to another curious local legend of the seven cows of gold. The story goes as follows. As rich as the earth itself, a King gave freely to friends and poor alike, who all assured him they would walk through heaven and earth for him as a result of his generosity. One day, a tearful young man came to the King to ask for alms in order to grieve for his mistress and to pay to have a mass sung in her honor. This was granted and the deeds were done. The young man returned to the palace to place himself in the service of the king, where he became known as the Black Valet. When he noticed that the King's fortune was falling to a dangerously low level, he warned the King that he would soon be penniless. But the King continued to give generously to his friends. As his fortunes continued to diminish, the King's friends accused the Valet of being a thief. But the King continued to spread his largess until he was destitute. The Valet’s predictions had come to pass and the impoverished King found that his "friends" had disappeared. But the King had been planning to reside in another palace he had built, and thence he repaired in the company of the Black Valet. There the King revealed a secret ritual to the Valet that would ensure the opulence of the Kingdom. He made a flute from a cut reed during the last night of the year [That is to say, during Epiphany] and taught the Valet how to play it. Then at Midsummer’s day [June 24th, day of St. Jean], they both went to the banks of the Gers. At midnight and at the sound of the flute, seven golden cows appeared, ready to be milked. Their milk transformed into gold coins which were then thrown into the river. When the King died a year later, the Valet inherited his kingdom as a wealthy man. A herald announced that the inhabitants would have a share of this wealth and the new King set off for the land where his master was buried. He learned Latin, became a monk, and had a monastery built where prayers were held day and night for the Prince of the seven golden cows. 

(This account based on Le prince des sept vaches d’or by Jungian Psychologist Lorraine Dupont.)
The legend of the golden cows tells us many things. It is based upon the Biblical account of Pharaoh’s dreams. Genesis 41:1-4 reads:

When two full years had passed, Pharaoh had a dream: He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up.
The links to St. Fris are also clear. The gold coins in the legend were submerged in water the on Midsummer’s Day, the 24th of June, the day that the sarcophagus of St. Fris was interred. The day the reed flute which calls the cows forth was created on the last night of the year, during Epiphany, when St. Fris was discovered. St. Fris is connected with solar divinities such as Mars, Sol Invictus, Apollo and the Celtic force later personified as Gargantua. He has also been linked to Mary. 

Legend has it that cows often attract shepherds to statues of the Virgin, especially Black Virgins. Recall the Black Valet who with the King’s secret brought back wealth from penury, or life from death. Cows also attracted people to St. Fris who then functioned as both solar agent and life-giving spring. Water and sun. Beginning a slow death at Midsummer and shaking off death beginning at Yuletide. As above, so below, as they say.

Recall old St. Jacques de Compostela, man of the seashell. He too was placed on a stone which became sacred; when his corpse was laid upon it he sank into the stone. Mother Earth had taken him back, temporarily, into the womb. His casket, then, was in fact a crib, a symbol of resurrection. The cow licking the stone where St. Fris was found in his sarcophagus was acting like a cow aiding the birth of a calf, licking away the afterbirth. The sun appears vanquished in the west, but rises in the east above the fountain six months after the immersion of the coins and the corpse on St. Jean, that is to say the time of Epiphany. Brought forth by a cow with crescent horns and a fertile mother. At Rouffignac men used to go in wagons drawn by oxen to the tomb of the giant Gargantua. Sometimes he awoke and swallowed the cows! At l’Etendard hill the men likewise came in oxen-drawn wagons to carry the body of St. Fris to a new location, but they couldn't move the body.  Not any old cow or goddess would do. When the young herdsman who had discovered the tomb hitched his heifer to the sarcophagus, he affixed a statue of the Virgin to his cart. She was dressed in funerary garb, but she represented a kind of birth, a birth indistinguishable from its own future resurrection. She brought St. Fris forth during Epiphany, when she brought the Son forth, and, to hack into an old Star Trek episode, the Sun as well. For it is at this point the sun starts to come back from the dead. And onSt. John's Day, when St. Fris died, and the coins of the Golden Cows were put into the river, the sun begins its downward descent. But like the coins and the Kingdom, the Sun is reborn, and of course Jesus returns. It's telling that the literal instrument—the flute—which calls the cows forth was made during Epiphany.

St. Fris is essentially a stand-in for the Virgin. When St. Mary's Cathedral was dedicated at Auch, St. Fris’ relics were brought along for the ceremony. The altar at the St. Fris chapel therein includes a statue of the Virgin more recent that that of St. Fris.  The village fête of Bassoues is on September 8, the day of the Nativity of the Virgin. On 15 August, Assumption, there is a procession to l’Étendard where hymns are sung to the Virgin.

[1] Translates to “standard” or “banner” 
[2] The remainder of this text is a summary of her article A l'aube de l'Europe, un saint friso-gascon : la légende dorée de saint Fris de Bassoues. (2[ème] partie) ; Bulletin de la Société de mythologie française ; 1999, no195, pp. 17-28 
[3] The name Gargantua, however is a Rabelaisian invention; there is no record of it anywhere before him.

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