Warning: MASSIVE unmarked spoilers for HBO’s Rome ahead
The tv show that gave us Octavian, Agrippa, and Maecenas putting the “bro” back in “Ancient Brome”1 and reminded everyone why Cleopatra VII’s hotness is common knowledge 2,000 years after her death also gave us a bizarre misunderstanding of Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus – at least, the historical figures.
Historical sources fail to comment, for example, on how much time they spent walking around looking goofy and giving each other relationship advice.
Rome’s Pullo and Vorenus are the best Bill-and-Ted Centurions you could ask to invade and, through lovable misadventure, interfere in, a significant historical event. They are also clearly heavily inspired by the genuine articles, who occupy an arguably similar place in history.
The real Pullo and Vorenus were more like the Zach Snyder remake of Bill and Ted. I don’t know about you, but it really bugs me when movies and stuff change random names or words when there is absolutely no reason to do so. By “really bugs me” I mean like, I kind of hate it. In fact, you could say I consider it a mortal sin, and spend an inordinate amount of time working myself into a silent rage about particularly egregious instances. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer-and-or-Philosopher’s Stone Hagrid explains his acquisition of the cute three headed dog Fluffy by telling the principle trio that he “bought him off a Greek chappie I met in the pub”2. This joke is reasonably clever, and particularly nice because it doesn’t condescend to the reader and spell it out. However, apparently it needed to. Apparently some dude named Steve Kloves was too busy doing whatever it is dudes named Steve Kloves do to bother reading like even one page of any book about Greek mythology ever, or seeing like even one movie that references it. Or just generally being around in conversations with people. Because Steve Kloves – this catalyst of intellectual rot – this champion of lazy thought and half-done jobs – this petty defiler of the western mind – changed the line to “bought him off an Irish chappie I met in the pub.”3 Excuse me? Does the Hound of Culain (the dog, not the dude named after the dog) have three heads? Does Dobhar frakking Chu? Please, if there is a three headed dog somewhere in Irish mythology, somebody leave that information in the comments section, because I will get like a good fifteen minutes more sleep every night if I can stop thinking about that stupid, stupid edit.
Ok, perhaps that was a digression. Far less grievous a sin is the as-far-as-I-can-tell random decision to move Vorenus and Pullo from their historic legion, the XI Claudia (or eleventh Claudian) to the thirteenth.
The XI served under Cicero4. But not that Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, the ridiculously famous dude you’ve definitely heard of, and also who Pullo kills on Octavian’s orders in season 2)5. Pullo and Vorenus worked for another Cicero: Marcus Tullius’ lesser known brother, Quintus Tullius. Quintus was a favorite of Caesar’s, and one of his main lines of defense against the Nervii, a group of Belgian natives who had decided they didn’t feel like being Roman citizens, thank you just the same.
This is what happens to you when you lose to Rome. This is how you’re remembered.
“In that legion there were two very brave men, centurions, who were now approaching the first ranks, T. Pulfio and L. Varenus [sic]”4
With the occasional breakup ep or wacky misunderstanding, the majority of TV!Pullo and Vorenus’ clashing gets chucked out the window somewhere over the Rubicon. The real life duo had a longstanding and heated rivalry, “and every year used to contend for promotion with the utmost animosity.”ibid
“When the fight was going on most vigorously before the fortifications, Pulfio, one of them, says, “Why do you hesitate, Varenus? or what [better] opportunity of signalizing your valor do you seek? This very day shall decide our disputes.” ibid
Without waiting another second, Pullo anticipates Leroy Jenkins by two thousand years and “rushes on that that part of the enemy which appeared the thickest.” ibid
Challenge accepted, Vorenus ran after.
As soon as he drew close to the enemy, Pullo hurled his javelin and dropped one of the leading men.
A returning volley pierced Pullo’s shield and left a Gallic javelin stuck in his belt. Pullo reached for his sword, but the javelin kind of got in the way.
“The enemy crowd around him when thus embarrassed.” ibid
Y’know, “embarrassed.” Like how you’d feel after ripping your pants in a school play, or sending your boss snap chats of the graffiti in the bathroom at the bar.
So Pullo is down, but struggling to draw his sword and fight. Mooks prepare for their finishing moves, and it’s generally down to the wire. Just like in that scene on the show in the gladiator fight.
Given all the exaggeration, alteration, and adaptation that these stories go through over the centuries and media (it’s not the Commentarii de Bello Gallico, it’s HBO), Raw Mythistory is always touched when something is so raw that no one can top it. And that’s the case here:
Vorenus stepped in for his long-time rival. Whether he was moved by ésprit de corps or just trying to rub Pullo’s nose in it, his heroic assault on the Nervii was enough to be remembered in Julius Caesar’s memoires:
Vorenus “runs up to him and succors him in this emergency. Immediately the whole host turn from Pulfio to him, supposing the other to be pierced through by the javelin. Varenus rushes on briskly with his sword and carries on the combat hand to hand, and having slain one man, for a short time drove back the rest: while he urges on too eagerly, slipping into a hollow, he fell.” ibid
This could be one of those stories about hubris and getting cocky, or it could be one of those stories about an epic defeat, in which the loser puts up such a good fight that their deeds are remembered for thousands of years. But no. This is a story about awesome dudes winning fights and learning about the magic of friendship.
Because that’s when Pullo comes back:
“To him, in his turn, when surrounded, Pulfio brings relief; and both having slain a great number, retreat into the fortifications amid the highest applause. Fortune so dealt with both in this rivalry and conflict, that the one competitor was a succor and a safeguard to the other, nor could it be determined which of the two appeared worthy of being preferred to the other.” ibid
During the war of the Triumvirate, Titus Pullo fought for Pompey, not Caesar, but that’s another story6.
The haters will tell you that there’s little to no evidence that King Tut’s tomb was cursed1. We like to avoid this kind of mythistorical naysaying because a) it takes the fun out of everything b) we don’t feel like dying of mysterious mosquito bites to the neck tomorrow.
Every Friday the 13th movie has some moron saying “c’mon guys, what’s wrong, why don’t we have the orgy down by Crystal Lake? You don’t actually believe there’s a killer? Just ‘cause of the last dozen massacres?”
In life, Tut was a religious reformer and peacemaker, who restored both the cult of Amun (changing his own name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun, meaning “living image of Amun”) and Egypt’s neighborly relations2. On the downside, his parents were brother and sister, and he didn’t live to see 203. A boy-king (though not Raw Mythistory’s youngest)2, he gave significant power to at least two primary advisers. That worked out about as well as you’d expect, and, largely because of their feuding (and his inability to produce a living heir), Tut’s death ended the Eighteenth Dynasty4.
And began the Ninteenth Dynasty, featuring the various Rameses, so we have him to thank (sort of) for Prince of Egypt and Watchmen.
He became Pharaoh when he was nine, reigned for ten years with very high-profile advisors (both Ay and Horemheb would assume power, in succession, after his death, and enjoyed more or less free reign during his life)4, so he does not appear to have been particularly famous among Egyptians of his time5.
Not as God-Kings go, anyway.
But now, he’s almost better known than his country. I’d go so far as to say that, along with the Sphinx and Cleopatra, Tut is the most recognizable individual in Egyptian mythistory.
A number of factors, including having only the one set of grandparents, probably contributed to the teenage Pharaoh’s untimely end. He may have developed an infection from a broken leg, he may have had all sorts of immune deficiencies, etc…but one thing we’re pretty sure of, he got malaria (malaria tends to come from a mosquito bite). The malaria may have combined with infection and produced blood poisoning3.
Deaths attributed to Tut typically begin after the opening of his tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter and the Earl of Carnarvon.
According to no less (or more) a source than the New York Times, the very day that the tomb was opened, Carter had everyone over for dinner. As one might want to do after making the most significant discovery in modern Egyptology.
First came a fight between Carter and Tut’s pets: Carter had purchased a pet canary, and all Pharaohs had, as their iconic familiar, the Egyptian Cobra.
“When the party was dining that night there was a commotion outside on the veranda. The party rushed out and found that a serpent of a similar type to that in the crowns had grabbed the canary. They killed the serpent, but the canary died, probably from fright.”6
Or, y’know, cobra venom…
Next up, the Earl of Carnarvon. He died a few months after opening the tomb, from blood poisoning resulting from a mosquito bite (he re-opened the bite while shaving)7. Thing is, Tut had an injury on his cheek as well8.
Then George Gould, another visitor in the tomb, from fever9. Then the Egyptian Prince who sanctioned the opening of the tomb (he got shot by his wife)10. Carnarvon’s half-brother was next, again from blood poisoning11. Then another rich tourist who decided the tomb of Tut would make a good vacation spot, also shot. In the beginning of 1924, Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid, who had done the x-rays on Tut, succumbed to a mysterious illness. Another member of the excavation team died a few years later, poisoned by arsenic10. Carnarvon’s other half-brother, in 1929, from malaria11…Howard Carter’s secretary, found smothered to death10…finally, years later, Howard Carter himself, from lymphoma. While that last one doesn’t seem very curse-related, it’s worth noting that Carter himself, an ardent skeptic when it came to the supposed curse, mentioned in his diary that for more than 30 years in the area he never saw a jackal, but shortly after opening the tomb he encountered some from the same species that lent its image to Anubis13. God of the Dead. The first line on his tombstone, beneath his name, reads:
Discoverer of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, 1922”
They probably meant that as a tribute. It can also be read as a warning.
Those are the deaths everyone knows about. But were they the first people to incur the most famous mummy’s wrath?
See, Tut had a wife.
Evidently she brought him flowers. Cute couple.
And when he died at 18 or 19, he left her childless and on the Throne of Egypt, with two scheming advisers vying for that seat. Understandably, she got nervous. Hoping to find a man who could provide some measure of security, she wrote to the Hittite king:
“My husband has died and I have no son. They say about you that you have many sons. You might give me one of your sons to become my husband. I would not wish to take one of my subjects as a husband…I am afraid.”13
The Hittite King, not without some reservations, agreed to send over his young son, Zannanza, who was of an appropriate age to replace Tut.
He never reached Egypt. Nobody ever found the body.
Hamorheb and Ay insisted they knew nothing about the disappearance14.
Here endeth the part with sources.
Let’s get wildly speculative for a moment, in the spirit of the holiday.
Scene: The Valley of the Kings.
A caravan led by our Hittite heartthrob is riding hard for Thebes, heading for the queen. Maybe Zannanza is a little distracted, thinking about the girl at the end of the journey. He doesn’t notice the buzzing sound until he feels the tiny sting of the mosquito. He slaps at the spot on his left cheek. Suddenly, his horse bucks. He looks down. Thick black ropes have come up from the ground, and wrapped themselves around its legs. Scaly ropes. Scaly ropes with flaring hoods and fangs…The caravan is in chaos behind him, but he doesn’t see it. He’s looking in front. At the gold-masked, lanky teenager, body wrapped in bandages, shambling towards him with arms outstretched.
Would you make a move on this guy’s wife?
We wish you a happily horrific Halloween.
An eighteen year old girl, her twenty eight year old boyfriend, her seventeen year old stepsister (who may have been banging said boyfriend) and the stepsister’s own boyfriend (a notorious pimp: she was definitely banging him) – and, oh, ,right, the nerd they hang out with who never gets any credit (He was the pimp’s personal physician) – go camping. They get really high and start telling scary stories1.
Take a wild guess what happens next.
“AND HE’S BACK – THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK!”2 (sorry, I just love that song).
If you said “an undying slasher/monster appears” you’d be sort of right. Sort of, in the sense that more than one appeared, and instead of chopping the drugged-up, sexed-up young people into nymphomaniac chili, the monsters stuck around in the Western Literary Canon and have been making appearances ever since.
The camping trip took place during a year-long volcanic winter, in a house owned by the aforementioned notorious pimp on the bank of a lake (yeah, he was totally ripping off the Stiffmeister) in Switzerland. Lake Geneva, to be precise3.
The bored, stoned, young people are (mostly) famous now. You might have heard of them.
18 year old girl: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
Her Vegetarian4 Boyfriend: Percy Bysshe Shelley
Her Stepsister who might be banging said boyfriend5: Claire Clairemont (not that I spend a lot of time thinking about Stan Lee’s personal fanatasies, but you gotta assume a name like that gets him going)
Notorious Pimp: Lord George Gordon “anything that moves” Byron
Their nerd: John William Polidori (see? You never heard of him, right?)
One chilly June night3, sitting around in Byron’s beach house, after a long session of reading horror stories aloud and guzzling laudanum1, Lord Byron came up with a game3. Since this is Lord Byron we’re talking about, the guy who would write Don Juan and more or less the biggest man-slut in Europe in the time between Henry VIII and Oscar Wilde6, I’m guessing his first suggestion was a game called “Sexmania.” But since that must not have gone over well, they landed on “everyone comes up with a ghost story that will redefine the genre for centuries to come.”
As with all stoned young people, their conversation started out with a half-informed discussion of current events. Headline makers of the day including Luigi Galvani and Erasmus Darwin (yeah, as in that Darwin. He was Big Charlie’s grandfather, and an inspiration for his grandson’s world-changing theory). Galvani had recently developed the idea that dead nerves could be triggered by electric current, and Darwin, true to the family spirit, was very interested in the origins of life7. Needless to say, this set the tone for their campfire tales, all of which revolved around the walking dead.
Byron began a story about a mysterious old man named Augustus Darvell, who travels with a young man around Eastern Europe. Augustus’ health fails, but as he approaches death he swears his young companion to secrecy: no one can know if he dies. He does, of course, and the narrator buries him. Byron left off there, probably because he was too busy having sex with Mary’s stepsister, but his plans for the rest of the story involved the young man returning home and finding the old one alive again, and sexing up the protagonist’s sister. Real subtle, Lord B. His story was called “A Fragment of a Novel”.
Polidori, not being distracted by the entire female population of Enlightenment-era Europe throwing their petticoats at him, was actually able to finish the story. Instead of a weird old dude, he made the vampire a hawt young lord, and based his personality on Lord “Anything that Moves” Byron. “Lord Ruthven” accompanies a young man on his journeys, during which time he seduces a host’s daughter, kills the protagonist’s girlfriend, and gets killed in a mugging. Dying, he makes the protagonist swear not to tell anyone of the mortal injuries. Then he shows up a few days later and seduces the protagonist’s sister. They marry (after the protagonist himself has died of a nervous breakdown). The morning after the wedding night, the bride is found dead, drained of blood. Ruthven is nowhere to be seen8.
Polidori called the story “the Vampyre” and it is generally credited with introducing teh sexx to the vampire genre. Polidori, however, gets no credit: all props for Dracula, Angel, and Edward Cullen tend to go straight Byron9, 10. Even though his vampire was some old dude, and not a “centuries old guy who may or may not be evil” and has been seventeen for a long time. So, whether you prefer your vampire dreamboats sparkly or billowy-cloak, king-of-pain, you have the tagalong geek of Mary Shelley’s crew to thank for them11.
Percy Bysshe Shelley is an interesting guy, but as far as the development of modern horror goes, his contributions stem mostly from inspiring his wife (and not always in the most positive ways). His story that particular night was “A Fragment of a Ghost Story” which, unless I’m missing something critical in the eight lines he actually managed to get onto paper, doesn’t have a lot of literary descendants. At least compared to his companions’ work. Appropriately enough, his courtship with Mary began in a graveyard, where they would meet in secret by Mary’s mom’s grave for the creepiest hookups in recent history12.
His discussions with Byron about the latest news, particularly Darwin and Galvani, are generally believed to be the main forms of this inspiration. The following passage is from Erasmus Darwin’s “Temple of Nature.”
“Thus the vorticella or wheel animal, which is found in rain water that has stood some days in leaden gutters, or in hollows of lead on the tops of houses, or in the slime or sediment left by such water, though it discovers no sign of life except when in the water, yet it is capable of continuing alive for many months though kept in a dry state. In this state it is of a globulous shape, exceeds not the bigness of a grain of sand, and no signs of life appear; but being put into water, in the space of half an hour a languid motion begins, the globule turns itself about, lengthens itself by slow degrees, assumes the form of a lively maggot…”13
This description of apparent reanimation struck a chord with young Mary. Though apparently she was so high off that laudanum that she decided he was talking about pasta.
“They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin…who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case till by some extraordinary means it began to move with a voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”14
In what she describes as a “waking dream”14 Mary received a vision that would make Lovecraft jealous.
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy half-vital motion.” 14
Her moment of inspiration makes it into the final draft, though not exactly in the form to which Boris Karloff and Universal Pictures have made us accustomed:
“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”15
Now, I don’t care how much you didn’t like the Star Wars prequels, there’s one scene nobody should hate on. And it’s more faithful to Shelley’s original than the theatrical or Karloff-starring adaptations. The horror of the reanimation here lies in the phrase “breathed hard.” A twisted, decaying body resurrected by dark art on a table in a lab, late one night? The new life of the piecemeal monster is signaled to the audience with a heavy breath, falling at the nadir of the uncanny valley.
Accept no substitutes.
And Mary’s story was called “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.”
I have no idea what Claire Clairmont came up with. Probably she was too busy sexing up Byron and pining for Percy to get much writing done. Every good slasher movie needs an insecure teenage girl with, shall we say, liberal sexual mores, and Claire more than fit the bill. Of her attendance on the trip (and the subsequent resumption of their affair), Byron said:
“I never loved her nor pretended to love her – but a man is a man — & if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night – there is but one way.”16
First of all, our sincere apologies for the hiatus. We’ll be back as soon as possible. In the meantime, please bear with us.
Now, for another raw moment in myth and history…
When it comes to that’s-kind-of-a-reach reinterpretations of the motivations behind the relationships of our great literary and historical icons, you would think the wells have run dry. Generations of college students, historians, literary theorists, politicians, writers, and who knows who else have visited those wells again and again, rehearsing a respectably wide range of theories about romantic subtext and desires euphemized into oblique references. Some of these (the guys in Dorian Gray are probably getting it on off-page every time more than one of them leaves a room) are pretty reasonable. Others (maybe Alexander the Great and Hephaestion did naked races during pilgrimages to Troy to honor the love between Achilles and Patroclus in a totally platonic bro way and maybe there was something more going on there) are iffier, but still pretty well within with the expected parameters for conduct in the time and place. Some are kind of out there (Honest Abe and John Speed shared a bed in a tavern when they were travelling, a common move for dudes at the time, so obviously they were SECRET INTERCOURSE BUDDIES). But if you want to get beyond that’s-kind-of-a-reach reinterpretations, into the really taboo-breaking, squicky, Alfred Kinsey-would-need-geometry-lessons-from-H.P. Lovecraft-to-make-a-scale perspective, you don’t look in a 40 g a year liberal arts classroom. You don’t go to a place where “maybe they were gay?” is considered edgy. You go where the writers never apologize. You go where the fans can be anonymous. You go where incest is wincest.
Want some more kink in your historical and literary criticism?
Don’t look here.
And yes, we fully acknowledge the many nonromantic/sexual aspects of fanfiction*, but one of the big merits of its utterly unfettered exploration of romance and sex, and all the possible (and impossible) ways in which they could emerge from the interaction of any two established pop culture icons, is that it lets us re-evaluate every now and then. This group of fanfic writers, the ones who focus on their Guns and Handcuffs and their Deanstiels and their Team Jacobs, are the ones who remind us to look between the lines. To remember that there are three people in that scene, not just the protagonist and love interest, or to wonder if that hug between reunited siblings really should have lasted that long. And they’ve been doing it for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. So let’s take a moment to acknowledge one of the most pivotal pieces of sexually deviant fanfiction ever conceived by fangirl mind: the original Pacey/Joey fic, where the shining star of chivalry brings lust and deception into the marital chamber of the perfect king and queen. Where an eyebrow wag was added to the phrase “courtly love.” Where Lancelot and Guinevere got it on.
Where Sir Lancelot was before the popular works of Chrétien de Troyes hit the 12th century streets, we are not entirely sure. It seems likely he was a hero in a separate mythology from Arthur (maybe a French one), and got worked into the Arthurian stories in an epic crossover event tragically lost to history (don’t let your parents throw out your comics, kids. Every variant cover in the trash is a slap in the face of the future).4 Either way, it wasn’t until Chrétien de Troyes that he appeared as a prominent knight of the Round Table5. After that, we have a decent record, and he persists as one of the most recognizable and oft-referenced names in chivalric tradition.
Depictions of Sir Lancelot du Lac in the following nine hundred years have run a pretty extensive gamut…
…from the saintly and allergorical
…to what can only be described as proto-Ron Burgundyesque (read: super awesome)
Chrétien did some stuff like anticipate the modern novel and popularize romantic prose during the middle ages, but we’re going to focus on the decade or so where he worked for a teenage-twenty something year old girl: Marie Capet, Countess of Champagne.
Aside from having the most ballingest title ever and the richest mom in Western Europe, Marie had Chrétien as her personal scribe and bard. She and her husband, Count Henri I “the Liberal” of Champagne, created a court full of poetry and prose enthusiasts, and commissioned a load of the stuff with varying degrees of involvement in the creative process (Marie wasn’t above the self-insert, either). They also named one of their kids “Scholastique.” They were nerds.
Henri tended to commission religious, somber works, but Marie had more interest in excitement, gloss, and scandal (Benton, 1961). She was, essentially, a highly educated (and by all accounts highly intelligent and analytic) blockbuster enthusiast. If she were alive today, she’d be writing your favorite Finnick/Katniss fanfic and sponsoring the next season of the Metropolitan opera. And hopefully ordering ABC to reinstate Bunheads. #Sixseasonsandamovie.
During Marie’s patronage, Chrétien began including Lancelot in his Arthurian contributions. With foresight, he built the French knight up from the periphery, establishing his name among Arthur’s heavy hitters before including him as a character.
“Since my lady of Champagne wishes me to undertake to write a romance, I shall very gladly do so…I will say, however, that her command has more to do with this work than any thought of pains that I may expend upon it. Here Chrétien begins his book about the Knight of the Cart. The material and the treatment of it are given and furnished to him by the Countess, and he is simply trying to carry out her concern and intention. Here he begins the story…”
(Chrétien DeTroyes: Arthurian Romances, W.W. Comfort trans., Everyman’s Library, London, 1914, “The Knight of the Cart” Part I Vv. 1-30)
There are a lot of awesome scenes in that story, most of which involve Lancelot beating up many men in rapid succession, and generally being teh sexx. A few highlights:
From a tournament, in which Lancelot competes as a mystery knight, and has to joust a handsome prince. But handsome princes are a dime a dozen compared to ya boy:
“When Lancelot entered the tournament, he was as good as twenty of the best, and he began to fight so doughtily that no one could take his eyes from him, wherever he was. On the Pomelegloi side there was a brave and valorous knight, and his horse was spirited and swifter than a wild stag. He was the son of an Irish king, and fought well and handsomely. But the unknown knight pleased them all more a hundred times. In wonder they all make haste to ask: ‘Who is this knight who fights so well?’” (ibid, Part I Vv. 5641-6104)
From the final boss fight, in which Lancelot delivers a good old fashioned whuppin’ to Guinevere’s captor/stalker
“The man who is a perfect lover is always obedient and quickly and gladly does his mistress’ pleasure. So Lancelot was constrained to do his Lady’s will, for he loved more than Pyramus, if that were possible for any man to do.”
(Ibid, Part III: Vv. 3685-Vv.3954)
For context, Pyramus is the dude in Ovid’s Metamorphosis who did a Romeo (of course, it’s really the other way around) and then turned into a tree. So Lancelot was willing to be turned into a tree over Guinevere.
And from the money shot:
“…he passes quickly and proceeds to the window, where he stands, taking good care not to cough or sneeze, until the Queen arrives clad in a very white chemise. She wore no cloak or coat, but had thrown over her a short cape of scarlet cloth and shrew-mouse fur.” (Part III, Vv.3685-3954)
Apparently shrew-mouse fur was the black lace lingerie of fifth century Britain.
“As soon as Lancelot saw the Queen leaning on the window-sill behind the great iron bars, he honoured her with a gentle salute. She promptly returned his greeting, for he was desirous of her, and she of him.” (ibid).
(see? The shrew-mouse fur is always a dead giveaway)
“Their talk and conversation are not of vulgar, tiresome affairs. They draw close to one another, until each holds the other’s hand. But they are so distressed at not being able to come together more completely, that they curse the iron bars.” (ibid).
Then Lancelot drops the kind of game that you’d expect from someone who is very literally the guy that the girls dating actual knights in shining armor think about during sex.
“…Lancelot asserts that, with the Queen’s consent, he will come inside to be with her, and that the bars cannot keep him out. And the Queen replies: “Do you not see how the bars are stiff to bend and hard to break? You could never so twist, pull or drag at them as to dislodge one of them.” (ibid).
“’Lady,’ says he, ‘have no fear of that. It would take more than these bars to keep me out. Nothing but your command could thwart my power to come to you. If you will but grant me your permission, the way will open before me. But if it is not your pleasure, then the way is so obstructed that I could not possibly pass through.” (ibid).
Remember, college freshpersons, Sir Lancelot du Lac says asking for consent is sexy. Sexy enough to get you into an adulterous affair with a superhot queen married to your best friend that ultimately causes the ruin of the greatest kingdom of all time. And that is pretty sexy.
“’Certainly,’ she says, ‘I consent. My will need not stand in your way; but you must wait until I retire to my bed again, so that no harm may come to you, for it would be no joke or jest if the seneschal….” Etc etc. Basically she gives him the green light. (ibid).
“Seizing the bars, he pulls and wrenches them until he makes them bend and drags them from their places. But the iron was so sharp that the end of his little finger was cut to the nerve…but he who is intent upon something else paid no heed to any of his wounds or to the blood which trickled down.” (ibid, Part III, Vv. 4651-4754)
“Though the window is not low, Lancelot gets through it quickly and easily. First he finds Kay asleep in his bed…”
That Kay. He’s way more hardcore in the pre-Disney versions.
“…then he comes to the bed of the Queen, whom he adores and before whom he kneels, holding her more dear than the relic of any saint.”
Putting sex above worship: always a bad sign in epic poetry. Always a good sign in shipping.
“And the Queen extends her arms to him, and, embracing him, presses him tightly against her bosom, drawing him into the bed beside her and showing him every possible satisfaction”
Yeah she did.
“It is love that prompts her to treat him so; and if she feels great love for him, he feels a hundred thousand times as much for her. For there is no love at all in other hearts compared with what there is in his….Now Lancelot possesses all he wants, when the Queen voluntarily seeks his company and love, and when he holds her in his arms, and she holds him in hers. Their sport is so agreeable and sweet, as they kiss and fondle each other, that in truth such a marvelous joy comes over them as was never heard or known.”
That’s Monsieur de Troyes’ way of saying they had the best sex in history. He does demure in the next line though:
“Yet, the most choice and delightful satisfaction was precisely that of which our story must not speak.”
So, cut to
“That night Lancelot’s joy and pleasure were very great.”
Fanfiction can get pretty explicit. I have no illusions about that (that’s not true, I’m sure I do, in that I’m sure there’s stuff out there I can’t even imagine, and so I really want to keep those illusions). But it’s pretty hard to deny Lancelot’s sheer awesomeness, and by extension his wish-fulfillment role. But whose wish is he fulfilling?
He’s a knight of the highest possible order; his name has become synonymous with the concept. But Galahad (his son btw), Gawain, Percival, and, of course, Arthur himself, all have that going on. Consistent among the many interpretations of Lancelot is his status as a sex symbol. He is a paragon of chivalry, bravery, and skill in battle, and also of all-consuming passion and illicit lust, along with total devotion to the object of his affections. He makes Jason Bourne look like Howard Wolowitz and he makes Edward Cullen look like Archie Bunker.
If you don’t know the definition of Mary Sue/Gary-Larry-Marty Stu with regard to fanfiction, please refer to wikipedia or that great tome of knowledge: tvtropes. If you do, we remind you that a trademark of the Sue is, in addition to general perfection, a powerful allure to canon characters involved in committed canonical relationships.
Lancelot’s status as a fan addition to the Arthurian legend is undisputed – as above, most of the elements are. But we propose that it was the sort of work which by all stereotypes defines Mary Sue fanfic, deftly dreamboated-up by a brilliant, super rich, teenage fangirl that defined western mythology’s once and future heartthrob. And that’s raw.
* In this modern Fifty Mortal Shades of Draco Dormiens world, fanfiction and fanfic writers may seem to be enjoying a resurgence of popular credibility. The official Raw Mythistory party line on potential literary significance of fanfic is “Aeneid, sucka!”
We’ve all been on housing probation at one point or another. But very few of us can say we had as awesome a reason as Frank Buckland, future pioneering naturalist and surgeon. The man who was eventually the Inspector of Salmon Fisheries for the British Empire, and a bitter scientific opponent of Charles Darwin (he may have made the wrong call on that one) earned the ire of his dean at Oxford for keeping a pet in the dorm.
Frank got the six month old bear cub, Tiglath “Tig” Pileser, his very own cap and gown. I’m assuming that was part of a scheme to have Tig attend classes, disguised as a particularly furry student.
Surprisingly, this worked out well for a while. Tig was “taken to wine parties, or went boating with his master, to the wonderment of the children in Christ Church Meadow, who would follow them down the walk leading to the boats, regardless of expostulations and threats, until sometimes the bear was turned loose and shambled after them, whereupon they fled.” (Bompas, 1886, “Life of Frank Buckland”, pg 47)
Let that be a lesson to our younger readers (if we have any): if you see a college kid doing something cool, and start coming over, and he starts cursing at you, don’t keep going – he might set his bear loose on you.
“Tig…took part in the proceedings of the British Association at Oxford in 1857, attending in cap and gown the garden party at the Botanic Gardens, and receiving a visit from Lord Houghton….who attempted to mesmerize him in his corner. This made the bear furious…” (ibid).
Though these sorts of wacky antics were apparently frequent, the fun had to come to an end.
The Dean found out and gave Frank an ultimatum: “either you or your bear must go.” (ibid, pg 48)
This whole bear keeping thing wasn’t an isolated event. Tig was sent first to Buckland’s home estate, along with his eagle and jackal, and then to Frank again, and then back home, and then to the Royal Zoological Gardens. Frank had many other exotic animals as pets, but he also ate a lot of exotic animals. Including a panther which “had bad, however, been buried a couple of das, but I got them to dig it up and send me some. It was not very good.” Well, duh. That’s why we don’t eat dead panthers that have been buried for a few days. Seems like an easy call to me.
Edward II was, according to mythistorical sources, made the first Prince of Wales as kind of a mean spirited prank on the Welsh. His father, Edward I, had been asked to appoint a prince of Wales, and one who spoke Welsh, rather than English. Allegedly Edward I (whose entire family spoke French, like all English kings did for a while) said he would give them a prince who didn’t speak a word of English – his infant son (Crofton, 2007, “Edward I of England,” “The Kings and Queens of England”).
Everyone thought this guy was the worst.
While not actually true (Edward II was made a formal Prince of Wales around his seventh birthday, so hopefully he spoke something by that point), the story caught on because people really hated Edward II. He was “the first king after the Conquest who was not a man of business,” and spent his time on lavish entertainments (like the “Feast of Swans” where he made a bunch of lords stuff themselves with swan, watch him knight his son, and pledge to destroy Scotland) and on giving land and gifts to guys with whom he may or may not have been cheating on his wife. Sometimes he tried to give them titles typically reserved for royalty. If they were his concubines, he wasn’t very subtle about it. After his first such favorite was killed, he fell into deep mourning and started hanging out with a series of men in the Despenser family – in laws to his first favorite. More than one of them was named Hugh. Whichever Despenser was hanging out with and/or sexing it up with the king was given enormous influence over the governance of England. Bee tee dubz, the Despencer influence has recently been felt in descendants like Winston Churchill and Princess Di.
In short, we may have this purple bear because King Edward II was into dudes named Hugh.
The increasingly rash and unhelpful decisions of Edward and the Despencers incited, as such decisions often do, an assassination plot. Several, in fact, but we’re just talking about one this time, when nobody really seemed upset about it. In 1325, John of Nottingham was tried for attempted regicide by witchcraft.
John of Nottingham was a “famous necromancer” (Wright, 1852, “Narratives of Sorcery and Magic, from the Most Authentic Sources, pg. 16) which is a totally awesome thing to introduce yourself as at cocktail parties. I would imagine. He was hired by some particularly inventive conspirators to kill the king using the dark arts.
I couldn’t find a picture of him, so we’ll assume he looked like other famous necromancers.
That’s the advantage of being a medieval conspirator. Your plotting conversation doesn’t have to get past the “what if he was to disappear…magically…” stage.
The courts got John’s assistant Robert Marshall to turn King’s Witness, “He said that John of Nottingham and himself having agreed for a certain sum of money to do as they were requested by the citizens, the latter brought them, on the…11th of March, a sum of money in part payment, with seven pounds of wax and two yards of canvass, with which wax the necromancer and his man made seven images, the one representing the king with his crown on his head, the six others.” (ibid, pg 17). There were two Despensers, but the conspirators also sought to annihilate the king’s prior, steward, and caterer. And if you think the caterer is overkill, they tossed in some dude named Richard de Lowe “merely for the purpose of trying an experiment upon him to prove the strength of the charm.” (ibid). That’s black magic for you.
The court records show that the men were believed to have done their work in an abandoned house under Shortely park. At midnight, after the feast of the Holy Cross, John of Nottingham ordered Robert “a broach of lead with a sharp point, and commanded him to push it to the depth of about two inches in the forehead of the image made after Richard de Lowe” (ibid). The following day, Robert was sent to spy on poor Richard, who was apparently suffering from something like a stroke. When “Master John” heard this, he removed the broach from the effigy’s head and plunged the pin into its heart. The following Wednesday, Richard de Lowe died.
Fortunately for the king and his Despencers (and caterer), this was the point where things went south, and Robert snitched on John. The King’s Bench, possibly hoping he’d get further with it next time, took the charge seriously but judged him innocent. Hugh the Despenser, unsatisfied, wrote to the pope complaining “that he is threatened by magical and secret dealings.” (1895 “Regesta 112: 1323-1324’, Calendar of Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 2: 1305-1342”, “Kal. Sept. Avignon”). Pope John XXII gave him the papal brush off, which really is not a place in life you want to be: “the pope recommends him to turn to God with his whole heart, and make a good confession and such satisfaction as shall be enjoined. No other remedies are necessary beyond the general indult which the pope grants him.” (ibid)
If you’re anything like us, you probably think Jason Statham should play MacBeth in a Frank Miller-directed summer blockbuster. I picture the end of Act IV Scene VII this way:
Enter Young Siward:
[in this version, MacBeth/Statham’s back is turned to the door and he’s glaring ominously at the floor, like a level boss at the beginning of a cut scene in Banjo-Kazooie]
Young Siward: “What is thy name?”
MacBeth: “Thou’lt be afraid to hear it.”
Young Siward: “No; though thou call’st thyself a hotter name than any is in hell.”
And then MacBeth would whip around and be all:
MacBeth: “Are you dense? Are you retarded or something? I’m the Goddamn King of Scots.”
They fight and Young Siward is slain
Except in this version it’s a crazy Frank Miller style fight, where MacBeth punches him through a wall, then charges him, and Young Siward stabs him through the heart, and MacBeth laughs and pulls the sword out of his heart and crushes Young Siward’s head with his hands and then is like
“Thou was born of woman, but swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn, brandished by man that’s of a woman born.”
And then you see the blood go back into his chest and the wound heal up real fast, like a vampire, or Dorian in LXG.
Anyway, in real life, MacBeth was a lot more like he’s portrayed in Greg Weisman’s Gargoyles.
The most accurate popular portrayal of MacBeth, by a long shot.
He was basically a good and noble king, albeit a super rough warlord who led from the frontlines. I can’t speak to whether or not he had an eternal grudge against a blue gargoyle.
The historical MacBeth lost his father, Mormaer of Moray, to assassination by MacBeth’s cousins (Mael Coluim and Gille Coemgain). Nine years later Mael Coluim died. Three years after that, Gille Coemgain and fifty of his men were killed in a fire. MacBeth, who married Gruoch (better known as Lady MacBeth) the widow of Gille Coemgain, was implicated (Hudson, 1996, “Prophecy of Berchan: Irish and Scottish High-Kings of the Middle Ages;” Anderson Translation, 1922, “Early Sources of Scottish History AD 500 to 1286”).
At the time (circa 1030) Scotland’s throne was held in alternating succession by two lines of descent from the dude who conquered the Picts. According to historical sources this guy was called Kenneth Mac Alpin, but we know who really destroyed the Picts:
Conan the Cimmerian.
So the descendants of Kenneth (presumed pseudonym of Conan), at that point, included Gruoch (and her son Lulach). Historical-Nice-Guy!MacBeth did (possibly murder and) marry into the line of succession for kingship, but raised Lulach (his first cousin once removed, and the son of the man who killed his father – who he then killed in revenge) as his own son (Hudson, 1996, “Prophecy of Berchan: Irish and Scottish High-Kings of the Middle Ages).
The ruling line at the time was represented by the recently crowned young king Duncan I.
By most reports, Duncan was a pretty bad king, who was only competent when he wasn’t doing anything (Hudson, 1996, “Prophecy of Berchan: Irish and Scottish High-Kings of the Middle Ages) and a group of lords, including MacBeth, rebelled. Duncan led an army to MacBeth’s lands, “MacBeth, son of Findlaech, struck him a mortal wound. The king died at Elgin.” (Stevenson (ed), 1835, Chronicle of Melrose, p. 227). His wife and kids (Mael Coluim mac Donnchada and Domnall Ban mac Donnchada aka Malcolm and Donalbane) went into hiding (Anderson Translation, 1922, “Early Sources of Scottish History AD 500 to 1286”).
MacBeth did not obsessively hunt them, as far as we know, and instead did things like go to Rome on vacation and give away money to poor people “as if it were seed” (Marianus Scottus, 1559, “Chronicle” vol. v, p. 558). He earned the nicknames “Mac Bethad the renowned” and “The generous king of Fortriu” (Prophecy of Berchan, stanza 191). He was also a patron of the arts, commissioning poetry and histories. The sixteen years of his rule were prosperous (Anderson Translation, 1922, “Early Sources of Scottish History AD 500 to 1286”).
“Scotland will be brimful, in the west and in the east, during the reing of the furious Red one” (Prophecy of Berchan, stanza 192).
He was furious and red because of his prowess in battle and his red hair, not because he was mad about uninvited ghosts and on a murder spree.
During MacBeth’s reign, he fought Vikings and the English, and a few upstart lords, but most of the threats came from without.
In the 1050s, Siward of Northumbria joined with the English and led an invasion that included Mael Coluim mac Donnchada). His nephew (Young Siward) was killed in a fight against MacBeth in 1054 (Hudson, 1996, “Prophecy of Berchan: Irish and Scottish High-Kings of the Middle Ages;” Anderson Translation, 1922, “Early Sources of Scottish History AD 500 to 1286”). The war dragged on.
Three years later, Malcolm and his forces were still at war with MacBeth and, one August day, engaged him in a final battle. MacBeth and Mael Coluim mac Donnchada found each other, and “Duncan’s son, named Malcolm, cut him off by a cruel death” (Skene, 1867 “Picts and Scots,” 102).
MacBeth, mortally wounded with a sword, rode the sixty miles to Scone, in order to die like a King of Scotland (Prophecy of Berchan, stanza 193).
Lulach, his stepson/cousin once removed, became king (Anderson Translation, 1922, “Early Sources of Scottish History AD 500 to 1286”)
J.P. Morgan was a banker so good at his craft that when he took over your business and improved it, they said you’d been “Morganized.” He was very, very rich. He also didn’t talk much, except when he meant it: on his desk was a plaque reading (in French) “Think a lot, Say little, Write nothing,” and news of an event at which he was given an award received the headline “MONEY TALKS MORGAN DOESN’T.” (Chicago Tribune, 1908, “Money Talks Morgan Doesn’t.”). He liked to hang out at the Union Club, and was getting along swimmingly with the establishment until they blackballed his good friend, the railroad president John King, who had wanted to become a member. They are said to have quoted French writer and Nobel laureate Anatole France, who said “it is harder to eat like a gentleman than to talk like one.” People were big on France back then (Strouse, 1999, Morgan: American Financier). Morgan didn’t appreciate that.
Though most of his portraits make it seem as if he didn’t appreciate much.
So he went to his friend, who had similarly been snubbed when his guest was shunned for poor manners and blackballed from another club. William Kissam Vanderbilt was, like Morgan, among the first members of a wealthy American house to be born with money, but he managed his family’s railroad interests deftly, and used his spare time to establish American horseracing and build palatial estates called “Idle Hour.” Because, why not? Lloyd Banks thinks he’s fancy for having a “car I only drive on Thursdays” (Lloyd Banks and Young Buck, “Work Magic,”) – Willie K. had a mansion he only used for hours when he was bored.
The financiers commiserated, and decided to remind their respective offenders that J.P. Morgan wasn’t a businessman, but a business, man.
Morgan is purported to have declared either “Build a club fit for gentlemen. Damn the expense!” (Strouse, 1999, Morgan: American Financier) or “Hang the expense; let’s build our own club” (Broderick, 2010, Triumvirate, McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age” pg 356)
Morgan and Vanderbilt went around assembling the ragtag misfits of Gilded Age high society with the simple admissions requirement of $350 in cold, hard, cash (Broderick, 2010, Triumvirate, McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age). Among these were Stanford White, the great architect (among other things, he designed the second Madison Square Garden, and was eventually shot to death for sleeping with another guy’s at-the-time sixteen year old wife) Nevius, Michelle and Nevius, James. Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City. New York: Free Press, 2009, James Roosevelt, T-Roose’s uncle and the first Roosevelt to make the move away from the family’s original glass Captain Woodbury Kane, a man who had three “occupations” membership in Theodore’ Roosevelt’s Rough Riders (The Successful American: A Magazine, vol. 1, no. 1) and, according to Wikipedia “yachtsman and bon vivant.” If Wikipedia has to list your official professions as “yachtsman and bon vivant,” you’re doing retirement right. Instead of a gruff old coach who initially resents but comes to love his position working with the outcasts, they got William Vanderbilt’s grandfather: Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in America. Ever. He might still have felt that way about them though. I have no idea.
Stanford White and his teen-wife-seducing mustache.
The founders decided to pool two million for the foundation of the club, and announced their intentions over dinner at the popular Knickerbocker club, where, in a suitably dramatic fashion, they all stood up when making the announcement.
There were conflicts: The land turned out to be an extra expense; they each chipped in another $5,000; Willie K. wanted to be in charge of interior design, but Stanford White refused, and so in retaliation William hired the French architect Cuel, rival of one of their architectural teams, to assist. That didn’t work out for anyone, and Cuel’s workers ended up urinating on the floors of the club, after which that group was fired, perhaps understandably (Broderick, 2010, Triumvirate, McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age). Three years later, Morgan, John King, and Stanford White personally welcomed the first round of guests to what remains one of the premiere private clubs in New York City. The total cost was $1,777,480.20 (metropolitanclubnyc.org(Strouse, 1999, Morgan: American Financier).), or $46,445,938.61 adjusted for inflation (“Westegg.com” inflation calculator).
The club today
You know that scene in Twilight, where Bella and Edward are lying in the grass? Don’t worry, you don’t have to be man enough to admit you watched the movie (#TeamJacob), it was in like all the trailers.
Anyway, picture a young couple, about 16 years old, in Mongolia, circa 1178 AD, doing the same thing. They’ve been married for four years, and engaged for seven. By all accounts, they’re very much in love. They canoodle for a while. The boy is from a noble family, but has lived, according to custom, with the girls’ impoverished family for several years. Their names are Temujin and Borte.
Then a bunch of rival tribesmen, Merkits, roll up in their cart and jack Borte, then try to run down Temujin. This was a harsher take on the perils-of-makeout-point story than some dude with a hook trying to tell you your headlights are out before you rip off his prosthetic with your car door due to fear of amputees.
Temujin tries to lead them away from the camp, not knowing they have his wife. He dashes through the steppes on foot, the Merkit men riding hard on his trail.
“Three times around Mount Burkhan Khaldun they chased Temujin, but they still couldn’t catch him. They rode this way and that through the thickets and swamps, through a forest so dense that a snake could barely slip through it, and though they could follow his trail, they couldn’t catch up with him.” (Paul Khan trans. 1984, “The Secret History of the Mongols,” pg. 31)
The Merkid pursuers were big names: Chiefs Toghtoga, Dayir Usun, and Kahatai Darmala.
Temujin rode to a family friend – the Khan, and asked for help. Now, just so we’re clear, I’m operating from two sources here: one is the original “Secret History of the Mongols” epic poem, the other historical sources. So we’re firmly in mythistorical territory here. Most of this seems to have actually happened, but it’s been dramatized a bit.
According to the myth side, Temujin pined as only a teenager in love can pine, and said “They’ve emptied my bed…they’ve taken a part of my heart.” (Paul Khan trans. 1984, “The Secret History of the Mongols,” pg. 34)
Temujin had a best friend: Jamugha (aka Jamuka). The two had known each other from early childhood, and sworn to be blood brothers “anda”. They had “played at games of knucklebone dice at the banks of the Onan, casting bones on the frozen waters of the Onan. Jamugha had given Temujin the knucklebone of a roebuck and in return Temujin gave Jamugha a knucklebone of brass. With that exchange the two boys had pledged themselves Anda forever. Then later that spring when the two were off in the forest together shooting arrows, Jamugha took two pieces of calf-horn. He bored holes in them, glued them together to fashion a whistling arrowhead, and he gave this arrow as a present to Temujin. In return Temujin gave him a beautiful arrow with a cypress wood tip. With that exchange of arrows they declared themselves anda a second time.” (Paul Khan trans. 1984, “The Secret History of the Mongols,” pg. 40)
The Khan, blood-brother of Temujin’s dead father, reminded him of the value of such relationships, and told him to find Jamugha. Then, with the power of friendship, and 40,000 Mongol Warriors, they would get Temujin’s wife back.
When Temujin and his men arrived, Jamugha was already standing there, tapping his foot. Again (myth!Jamugha) complained: “Didn’t we say to each other, ‘Even if there’s a blizzard, even if there’s a rainstorm, we won’t arrive late?’” (Paul Khan trans. 1984, “The Secret History of the Mongols,” pg. 36)
They gave each other trouble about that for a while, friendly banter style.
Then, “having settled this score, they moved their forces…into Toghtoga Beki’s land. They came down on him as if through the smoke-hole of his tent.”
You’d think that was just a cool metaphor – like their attack was so stealthy and enveloping that it was like smoke, or something. But no. The epic goes on:
“beating down the frame of his tent, and leaving it flat.” (ibid)
They literally came down on top of his tent.
“capturing and killing his wives and his sons. They struck at his door-frame where his guardian spirit lived, and broke it to pieces. They completely destroyed all his people until in their place there was nothing but emptiness.” (ibid)
These guys were nothing if not committed.
But some of the Merkit had been out gathering provisions, and when they realized what was happening back at the encampment, they fled. Temujin and Jamugha pursued them, Temujin crying the same thing he’d been screaming since the attack began:
“Borte! Borte!” (Paul Khan trans. 1984, “The Secret History of the Mongols,” pg. 37)
Borte was among the fleeing group, and “when she recognized Temujin’s voice, Borte leaped from her cart. Borte Ujin and Old Woman Khogaghchin saw Temujin charge through the crowd and they ran to him, finally seizing the reins of his horse. All about them was moonlight. As Temujin looked down to see who had stopped him he recognized Borte Ujin. In a moment he was down from his horse and they were in each other’s arms, embracing.” (ibid).
“There and then Temujin sent off a messenger to find Toghoril Khan and Anda Jamugha, saying: ‘I’ve found what I came for. Let’s go no further” (ibid).
Then Temujin and Jamugha exchanged the command belts of the chiefs they’d just killed, and pledged themselves blood brothers a third time.
It was all very sweet, except if you were a Merkit. Then it pretty much sucked. Temujin might have seemed like some newlywed punk kid at the time, but now his appetite for conquest was whetted: in a few years he would take on a different name and title, reflective of his roughness.
And that’s why you don’t steal Genghis Khan’s girlfriend.
We here at Raw Mythistory are big fans of people taking what psycho-emotional succor they can from any given story. The moral is in the eye of the beholder, basically. To me, as an ecologist and general nature lover, Easter is about rebirth in the spring, and the vivacity that returns to the world in what Rudyard Kipling so eloquently terms “the time of new talk” or, the breeding season. Bunnies, chicks, eggs, dormant trees unfurling, etc, these are all symbols of fertility and “resurrection” in nature. So our Raw Easter Moment this year is going to be about the relationship between a mom and her son, and how it involved the original Easter story.
Maybe not the mother and son you’re thinking of, though.
Those of you who took AP Art History may remember that Emperor Constantine I is generally regarded as having introduced Christian iconography to the Roman Empire, and by extension to the world at large (note: though also involved with angels, this is not the same Constantine who appears in Dark Horse comics as a cancer-ridden demon hunter, or in the ridiculous movie loosely based on that character). He was a visionary in the most literal sense, having first decided to inscribe the cross on the shields of his men after receiving a vision from Christ, who told him that would be a good way to win a major battle (he did win, quite decisively). He was later Guided By Voices to the site where he would found Constantinople, and you should youtube the Bunheads dance for that song right now because it’s super fly (of course he also poisoned his son, so he wasn’t all that nice a guy). To top it all off he may have used one of the nails from the crucifixion for the point of his spear. Presumably he figured if it could pierce the flesh of Christ it could pierce anything. He also used one in his helmet and one in the bit of his horse, just to be on the safe side. Clearly, he had Holy Nails to spare. But even the Emperor of Rome doesn’t usually have that kind of grip. That’s Sir Percival/Henry Jones Sr. style stuff. So where did he get it?
From his mom.
Constantine I. Pretty sure his mom would have told him to wear a helmet if he was gonna lounge arrogantly like that.
Helena of Constantinople aka Saint Helena, was born somewhere in Europe or Asia (isn’t it fun how specific history can get?) around 250 AD. Her first job was as a stable-maid (Ambrose, “de Obitu Theodosii”), a report which got glossed over during the reign of Constantine. Apparently she and Constantinius (Constantine’s dad) were wearing identical bracelets when they had their meet-cute, and took it as a sign that they should get it on and make an Emperor who would restore some class to the Roman dynasty. They divorced following political pressure against Constantinius’ marriage for love rather than status, but Constantine (then in his teens) remained very close with Helena. He declared her Augusta Imperatrix, which essentially gave her free reign in Rome and her sphere of influence, second only to the Emperor. Then he sent his eighty something year old mother on a mission to find the relics of Christ.
And she did.
Or at least, that’s how the story goes. Helena went to Jerusalem and built churches at the sites of the Nativity and the Ascension. Those churches are still there today, 1800 years later, though at least the Church of the Nativity is in serious danger of falling apart (understandable given its age). Helena, the octogenarian Queen Mother, learned that Emperor Hadrian, true to his desires to eliminate Christianity wherever it cropped up, had demolished much of the old Tomb of Christ and built a temple to Aphrodite/Venus over it. You gotta think the Puritans would’ve felt that was adding insult to injury, but since Solomon Kane and Miles Standish were born more than a dozen centuries too late to slap Hadrian, he’d gotten away with it (yes I realize Solomon Kane is a fictional character. Sue me).
Anyway, “it became known to the emperor’s mother” (Socrates and Sozomenus, “Ecclesiastical Histories”, pg 38:213). That’s one way to put it. Another is that she went around grabbing local priests by the throat and asking where the Sepulchre of Christ had been hidden. When the one alleged to have the information didn’t answer her, “she gave him his choice of telling her or dying by starvation. At first he was obstinate, but six days of total abstinance from food brought him to terms, and on the seventh he promised” (Eusebius of Caesarea, 4th century, Pamphilus: Church History, Life of Constantine, part 7).
Helena force-marched her snitch to the spot he had indicated; the temple of Aphrodite. There she began to pray to her son’s God, and, depending on whose account you prefer, there might have been “a sort of earthquake, and a perfume filled the air” (ibid). The statue of the Greek Love-Goddess still stood, in her eyes a blasphemy.
"Accordingly she having caused the statue to be thrown down, the earth to be removed, and the ground entirely cleared, found three crosses in the sepulcher." (Socrates and Sozomenus, The Ecclesiastical History, pg 39:213-215)
Well ok. If you find the Tomb of Christ and there’s any number of crosses in it, you’ve made a pretty big contribution to history, legend, and religion. But eighty six year old Helena wasn’t satisfied.
"One of these was that blessed cross on which Christ had hung, the other two were those on which the two thieves that were crucified with him had died…since, however, it was doubtful which was the cross they were in search of, the emperor’s mother was not a little distressed" (Socrates and Sozomenus, The Ecclesiastical History, pg 39: 216).
This woman had high standards. She had been charged to find a two hundred year old piece of wood used in an execution that, while sacred to many and of immeasurable historical significance, would not have meant a thing to the ruling class at the time. But she wanted to know just which of the crosses was the Holy one. She consulted her favorite bishop (in my mind Helena looks and sounds like Jessica Walter/Lucille Bluth/Mallory Archer), who rustled up a dying woman and tried pressing each cross to her forehead.
You can guess where this is going.
"When the third, which was the true cross, touched her, she was immediately healed, and recovered her former strength. In this manner then was the genuine cross discovered" (ibid).
Then she had a huge party thrown for all the virgin girls of Jerusalem, which sounds like the most loaded possible event you can offer to teenagers. She built her churches, left part of the cross in one of them, and sent the rest home.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by Helena circa 327 AD
"Moreover the nails with which Christ’s hands were fastened to the cross (for his mother having found these also in the sepulcher had sent them) Constantine took and had made into bridle-bits and a helmet, which he used in his military expeditions" (Socrates and Sozomenus, The Ecclesiastical History, pg 39: 217).
So the moral of the story is, nobody wants to protect you like a parent does; Constantine’s mom found the nails they’d used to crucify Jesus Christ to keep her baby safe in battle. That’s raw.
Helena retrieves the cross
Happy Easter, dear readers!