Monday, November 29, 2010

Variations upon a theme: Pelagius(es) versus the Moors

Pelayo of Asturias unifies sky and earth....
You will recall in our survey of Virgin Martyrs that their martyrdom often resulted from a refusal to marry what these young Christians would have considered heathens.  Saint Quiteria, Liberata, Saturnina, Pelagia....each one slain for their chastity before the pagans.

The Saintes Puelles were likewise martyred for refusing to bow before pagans.  Saint Sernin was murdered for his refusal to offer sacrifices at the pagan temples.  Defying the pagan authorities, the Puelles gathered his remains and gave him a Christian burial; for this they were beaten and exiled.  The abbé Rous makes much of the fact that the word "puelle" signifies "virgin".

This resistance of "puelles" to heathen approaches is also illustrated in the the tale of nunnery of Sant Pere de les Puel·les.  According to the legend, the nuns there were daughters of noble families who retreated to the convent to avoid arranged marriages.  One version has it that the puelles, the nuns, disfigured themselved in order to avoid being violated by Moorish invaders under Al-Mansur in 986 CE.

In this case then, the resistance is to Islam.  Certainly the diffusion of these tales not only recalls Chritianity's era of weakness and vulnerabilty under the Roman persecutions, but under the later Saracen occupation of the Iberian peninsula.  It would necessarily bring to mind the (then) more current struggles with the Muslims in the Holy Land.  (It would be interesting to see if their cults are undergoing a resurgance given the current climate of anxiety and hostility towards Islam in the face of terrorism, immigration etc.)

There is a whole genre of religious lore constructed around the crusades against the Moors in Spain.  Saint James appeared at one particularly pitched battle, leading the Christians to victory, thus earning him the epithet Santiago Matamoros (Moor-Slayer).  Notre Dame de Sabart, a Black Virgin, appeared to no less a personage as Charlemagne, preventing him from entering a death-trap set by his Muslim foes in the valley of Vicdessos.  La Virgen de Montserrat was hidden from the Moors at its current location for protection.

Let's cut over to Asturias.  The Moors had defeated the Wisigothic King Roderic in 711 at the Battle of Guadalete.  Subsequent Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula was both fast and thorough.  In the years following 711 a Wisigoth by the name of Pelayo came to lead the resistance.  Traditions states that in 722 Pelayo made his stand at Covadonga, where a hermit had hidden a statue of the Virgin (Our Lady of Covadonga) to protect it from the Moors, like at Montserrat.  Pelayo prayed in this cave for the help of the Virgin; in the battle that ensued, miraculous intercession is described.  The Christians were victorious and this event is cited as the beginning of the reconquista; indeed, the Kingdom of Asturias was able to maintain its autonomy for the duration of the Moorish occupation.

The first monastery and chapel at Covadonga date from the reign of King Alfonso I (739-757) and to this day the place remains an important destination for pilgrims.  What we find interesting is that in some legends associated with Pelayo, his uprising was sparked by the forced marriage of his sister to the Moorish governor Mununza:

Tradition has it that he fell in love with Pelayo's sister, Ormesinda, and that, together with Kazim, kidnapped and married her. The chronicle of Alfonsio III speaks of a "compulsory marriage", the failure of which compelled Pelayo into rebellion.

Historians speculate that this was a move on Pelayo's part to create an alliance with the new power structure and secure a preferential place among the defeated Wisigothic nobles.  Others, however, claim that Pelayo opposed the wedding and imply his armed resistance was a result of protecting his sister's virtue.  It would be useful to point out that Pelayo is the Spanish name; in English he is know as....Pelagius.  One cannot help but recall the many tales of fearless resistance to heathen advances by a young virgin named....Pelagia (please see our earlier post  for details).

Shrine of Our Lady of Covadonga
The name Covadonga comes from Latin, Cova Dominica, or "Cavern of the Lady".  So this Pelagius starts the reconquest of Spain to protect a woman's virtue, winning a battle by successfully defending a place known as the lady's cavern.  Paging Dr. Freud....

The shrine sits in a cave perched above a sheer rock face from which water pours at different spots, forming a large pool at the base.  This impressive sight of living water pouring forth from the rock seems strikingly akin to a metaphor for the miracle of life itself, like the child emerging from the mother's womb.

Living Water
It also recalls Jesus as the Water of Life and brings the following verse to mind; John 19:34:

But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

Easy to see how this could be associated with childbirth, involving as it does water and blood.  This post-crucifixion/childbirth link is intriguing.  Jesus, after all, was about to be reborn.  His crucifixion, the sacrifice, expiates us from original sin and pain in childbirth is explicitly mentioned in the Bible as punishment for Adam and Eve's sin.  Jesus and the Virgin Mary were both paths to override this malediction.  It also strikes us that Pelayo's entrance and victorious emergence from the cave in a way echoes Jesus's own resurrection; the reborn Christ becoming a handy and inspirational metaphor for the eventual rebirth of Christian Spain.

This could be developed quite a bit but somehow we figure in some ways it's already been done, more nimbly by people much more clever than we.

Finally, we'd like to venture that yet another Pelayo, Pelagius of Cordova, represents a type of masculine Virgin Martyr.  The story here is that Pelagius (c. 912-926) was left with the Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III as a trade for another captive...a trade that never occurred.  After three years, he was offered his freedom on the condition he convert to Islam; his refusal led to his torture and susequent execution.

Yet some versions of this story aren't about his refusal to convert but his refusal to bend over.  The physical beauty of the boy and the homosexual desire of the Caliph is emphasized.  Details differ according to some versions, but in each, the boy refuses to submit, his chastity is preserved.

According to Wikipedia, "The cult of Saint Pelagius is thought to have provided spiritual energy for centuries to the Iberian Reconquista...."  This is certainly true of our Asturian Pelagius!  Pelagius of Cordova's feast day is on June 26, which doesn't necessarily correspond to those of our female Virgin Martyrs, but it is interesting that the major shrine of this Pelagius, despite the Andalusian setting of his tale, is to be found in Oviedo, capital of Asturias.  Asturias is a northern province just next to Galicia, origin of the Liberata/Quiteria cult....and where of Pelagius, instigator of the reconquest, first defeated the Moors....

Of course this tale demonizes the Moors and upholds Christian virtue, but at least one author thinks that on some levels it is a warning about same sex desire, a cautionary tale of sorts.

Whatever the sexual overtones of this story, it's not unsurprsing as a bit of propaganda that works on many levels.

Not having a snappy ending, we'll admit to not knowing where to go next and can only state our wish that you visitors, apparently numerous, would leave some comments and give your thoughts....

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