Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, November 25, 2010

St. Catherine & the wheel

Those who have read my speculative and meandering reconstructions of (aspects of) the mythical substrate of philosophy (a lot of this is e.g. in my paper on Herodotus, but some of the grammar of it is also in my paper on Badiou and Platonism and especially its appendix), know that I believe (to a far greater extent than I can prove) that ancient philosophy intentionally transmuted the symbols and experience of earlier cultural strata, especially mythology. In the cultural upheaval that occurred at the end of the Bronze Age (my guess is that much of it had to do with the effects of the technology of writing), participation began to dry up; what Charles Taylor has called the "pourous self" was on its way to mutating into the "buffered self" of today. If I have any semi-original case to make, it is that this development went neither unnoticed nor unopposed. Philosophy takes its place in the context of a minority cultural movement which aimed to keep available the experience of participation (albeit not the expressions of it) even by means of the very cultural forms--in particular, rational thinking--under which it was withering.

I think a good deal of this was preserved, either knowingly or (often) unconsciously, in later religious tradition as well, always doubtless sliding into superstition (or, put more mildly, at least into poetry); and that this is one way (not the only way) in which we ought to understand the "survival of paganism." It is not simply a case of the convenient appropriation of the trappings of one cult for the purposes of another, since there is always a radical transmutation. One instance of this, to my mind, is the cult of St. Catharine of Alexandria, patron of wheelwrights, of the dying, and of philosophy.

Catherine, whose feast is Nov. 25, was once one of the most venerated saints in the Church. In a wave of demythologization she was demoted to an optional observance by the Roman Catholics, but most strong critics of her legend admit that her historicity itself was not meant to be questioned. She is still revered by the Orthodox.

Her legend says (I am collating from several sources) that she was the daughter of a pagan king of Cyprus, wise and devoted to study and learning. Urged after her father's death by her mother and the nobility to marry, she preferred to remain single, and persuaded an assembly of aristocrats of the wisdom of this course, or at least of her own stubborn determination. (She argues for instance that, as they all admit her to be wise, and that there is no guarantee that a man will be wiser, the better course for them is to agree to be ruled by her.)

This was not long before Catherine traveled to Alexandria, to continue her study of philosophy. While there, an encounter with a hermit (sent by the Virgin Mary) converted her to Christianity. One day, sometime afterwards, Catherine saw the Roman Emperor Maxentius (or in some versions Maximian) making a sacrifice; and seeing the Christians there preparing to be put to death for refusing to join in, she went to upbraid the Emperor persecuting them, and for his idolatry. Since he was left stammering by her, he detained her in the palace and summoned as many scholars and thinkers as he could get to debate her. One by one they all fell to her argument, and either stormed away angry or converted, and were martyred. Thrown into prison, Catherine converted her fellow inmates, her guards, even the Empress who came to remonstrate to her, and the accompanying general along with his retinue of 200 soldiers. During this time Catherine experienced visions assuring her that her martyrdom was coming and that her sanctity would be accomplished thereby. One mystical encounter which figured frequently in later art was the "mystical marriage" in which the Virgin appeared and drew her hand near to Christ, who placed on her finger a ring. (This episode sometimes narratively comes before her first approach to the emperor, as a Christian sequel to Catharine's demonstration--while she is still pagan--to the host of assembled noblemen, of the superiority of remaining unmarried.)

Finally, after refusing Maxentius' offer to marry her and cause her to be herself worshipped as a goddess, she was condemned to be broken on the wheel. This by now rather medieval-sounding process seems to have had more than one form over the centuries, all of them horrible. One elaborate account of Catherine's story describes it as a diabolical device of four wheels turning against each other, equipped with knives and saw-teeth; but it was probably a wheel on which the victim was bound (either on the rim or against the side) and turned in order that their limbs be broken by the successive impact of weapons put in its way. In any case, the moment Catherine touched the wheel it broke asunder, killing its inventor, the story goes (The Golden Legend adds that its flying pieces killed "4,000 pagans"), and so she was beheaded instead. Her body, saith the hagiography, bled sweet milk instead of blood, and was borne by angels to Mt. Sinai where a monastery, still & continuously operative, was founded. Maxentius, of course, went on to be defeated by Constantine.

Catherine's connection to the wheel made her the patron of wheelwrights as well as of philosophers. Her circular iconography is also connected to the episode in her legend according to which she was mystically betrothed and wed to Christ. To this day, pilgrims to the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai are given a ring that had been laid on her relics. The abbey at Rouen (which name is plausibly connected to wheels, though this is a matter of speculative controversy) kept the relic of Catherine's finger(s) through the later middle ages.

This circular iconography makes her story replete with suggestive hints for someone disposed to look for continuity rather than rupture between the later Christian cultural forms and their predecessors. In the papers I reference above, I argue that cosmic models of the universe (the wheeling stars--the day, the year, the precession of the equinoxes), of music (the cycle of the octave) and of the soul's journey (the wheel of rebirth), are all interwoven into a vast symbol of wholeness that is not quite perfect. The cycles have built into them a structural flaw, but this flaw itself makes possible a use of the models more edifying than if the model had been perfect--to wit, the experience of it as model--at which point, the model "breaks." This suggests that Catherine's explicit association with philosophy is not by chance. She is supposed to be the emblem of the passage from the "closed world" cosmology of cosmic cycles to the "open universe" (to appropriate a title of Alexandre Koyré's) made accessible by faith, which is participation, but not participation as it was. (This makes it a necessary part of my project to contend, along the way, against reductive mis-definitions of faith.)

Catherine has been seen as an appropriation of the historical account of the death of the philosopher Hypatia at the hands of angry Christians, an inversion of the story of Ixion who Zeus ordered bound on a fiery wheel, and a recasting of details from the myth of the goddess Arianrhod, "silver wheel". My supposition is that there is a degree of truth in these correlations, but they do not explain the hagiography. In some future posts I hope to expand a little on some of these parallels and on Catherine's legacy (e.g. in the later episodes of Ss. Catherine of Sienna and Joan of Arc), possibly at the risk of analogy-mongering, in order to spell out a little more some of the structure of my thesis that the "survival of paganism" under Christianity is not a matter of undigested fossils being carried along, nor of the mere return of the repressed, but of genuine modulation of a heritage into a new key.


  1. I find this really fascinating. I am now wondering if you are still thinking about writing, or even have time to write, something on the Phaedrus. I am especially interested in reading what someone with your lifestyle (which I can only guess at) finds so appealing in it. Is it metalepsis? Is it metaleptic madness? My thoughts are wheeling around.

  2. I'm not sure how I missed this post when it came out; I look forward to your future posts on the subject. Another interesting connection is occasional cross-fertilization between the St. Catherine legends and Boethius's character, Philosophy; prob. in the direction from Boethius to Catherine. And Lady Philosophy herself has interesting roots.

  3. Brandon~~ Thanks for this, and welcome. When I wrote my paper on Herodotus and the wheel of fortune I did a bit of looking into Boethius, but Catherine was one of the tangents that wound up on the cutting-room floor-- the topic got too huge. Boethius is to me an awe-inspiring figure, and one for our times. He saw the whole damn world going down in flames, and managed to preserve so much, not just in terms of texts, but of the cultivation of philosophy itself. He's a good bet for the most under-rated ancient thinker.