Catherine was high-born, beautiful and learned. She disputed with pagan learned men against the worship of idols. She wiped the floor with them, and Emperor Maxentius had 50 of the learned men burnt alive for their failure to answer adequately.
Catherine was imprisoned where many people came to visit her and were converted to Christianity. The most illustrious visitor was the Emperor’s wife, Valeria Maximilla who was, herself, martyred. Then, the Emperor offered to marry Catherine, but she refused to abandon her faith, so he had her tortured. In prison, she was fed by the holy dove and had visions of Christ.
Her gaolers then tried to break her on a wheel, although the wheel broke, killing spectators with the splinters, she stood steadfast. Two hundred soldiers were converted to the faith on the spot. They were then beheaded, followed by Catherine herself. Milk, not blood, flowed from her severed veins.
The persecution in the early 4th Century was real, but it wasn’t driven by Maxentius, who came to power promising religious tolerance. But, following the accession of Constantine the Great, Maxentius’s reputation was blackened. There is no contemporary evidence for the events of Catherine’s life. There is a modern theory that her tale was conflated with the remarkable story of Hypatia of Alexandria (d. 415), a pagan and a real learned woman; The first female Mathematician we know any facts about. She was murdered by a rampaging mob of xenophobic Christians.
Catherine is remembered by the firework: the Catherine Wheel and is, of course, the patron of Philosophers, Theologians, and Royal women; young women, students, spinsters, and anyone who lives by a wheel: carters, potters, wheelwrights, spinners, millers. And, I imagine, Formula 1 drivers.
St Catherine in London
There are several Churches in London dedicated to St Catherine or St Katherine, dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. The one in Coleman Street, rebuilt by Christopher Wren and his team, was demolished in the 1920s. There was a Chapel to St Catherine at Westminster Abbey (c1160), the ruins of which are visible in St Catherine’s Garden. I would guess that St Katherine’s Dock and St Katherine’s Cree Church are also so dedicated, but cannot as yet find a dedication for either.
First published on 25th November 2022. Revised and republished 25th November 2023
March 25th is the day that the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she is pregnant. But it is also the anniversary of the birth of Adam and Eve (and presumably Lilith); the death of Jesus Christ; the anniversary of the Immolation of Isaac; the Parting of the Red Sea; the Fall of Lucifer; and, (until 1752 in the UK) the beginning of the Year.
Of course, it isn’t or to put it another way, no one can, or ever could, prove any of these dates except the last one. So what they speak to is the way the Church saw the world as logical structured by God. Christian thinking about the year, the world, the universe, creation, developed over many years and took influences from many cultures. Its also very complicated to work out the sequence, so I’m going to summarise from what I know (or at least what I think I know).
Christians chose Christmas Day as the Birthdate of Jesus because it was a prominent birthday already shared with several Gods but particularly Mithras and Saturn. It was approximately at Solstice, the beginning of the Solar Year, and close to one of the main festivals of the Roman World, the Saturnalia.
So Jesus was born on/or around the Solstice, so he would be conceived approx. 9 months earlier which would be around the Spring Equinox. I have always thought that the 4 or 5 days difference between the Solstice, the Equinox and the Christian festivals was down to the fact that the Calendars were not well coordinated with the actual movements of the Sun. But I have just realised the importance of something I discovered yesterday when preparing these two posts on the Annunciation. And since writing that sentence have had another revelation. But be patient.
So, God sends his Son to save the human race. God is a logical being so she would send her Son at an appropriate time. If the Child is born at or near the Solstice, which is an appropriate time for the Son of the Creator, then 9 months earlier, March 25th, is near the Equinox, which is the beginning of Spring. For many people Spring is a new beginning, for example, the Anglo-Saxons saw Winter as the death of the year, and Spring as the young Year.
So to the Creation. God, having a free choice, would have created the world at the beginning of Spring. In fact, if you think about it, God creates everything necessary for life at the creation in 6 days and it is going to immediately spring into new life, and the first season must, therefore, be Spring? So March 25th.
This gives a nice symmetry with Jesus’s Life. Conceived on March 25th, born December 25th, and died 30-40 years later, according to the Church, on March 25th. (the only other famous person I know born and died on the same day is William Shakespeare).
Easter, when Jesus is martyred, isn’t March 25th I hear you saying. But remember Easter is a lunar festival so its date varies each year. Birthdays, on the other hand, are fixed to the Solar Calendar and the Church chooses March 25th as the most appropriate day to pin the death of Jesus, on the anniversary of his conception and the anniversary of the creation of the Earth, and I am guessing that this is also the preferred date for the Day of Judgement.
It is also the Birthday of Adam, and his first wife Lilith (or so some say), and Eve. More about Lilith below. I thought this date was just one of the parallels that the Church liked, Jesus and Adam born on the same day but, yesterday I worked out why Adam is born on March 25th, and why these dates are not March 20th but March 25th, which has been bugging me.
Let’s go back to the Beginning of Creation. According to the Anno Munda‘s arrangement of the Year, the world was created 5500 years plus 2023 years ago so 7523 Before the Present. And it was supposed to have ended in 600AD, 6000 years after the Creation. But, ignoring that, the Creation, as described in Genesis, has the following sequence of Seven Days. As the Creation began at the Equinox March 20th. I have added dates to the 6/7 day sequence of Creation:
So there you have it! Adam, Lilith and Eve were created on Day 6 with the Land Animals – March 25th. Jesus conceived, also on this date, and so 9 months later is born on December 25th. It all makes sense, and aligns the Christian year fully with the Solar Year.
And that, dear Reader, is the very first time any one has been able to explain to me why Christmas is not at the Solstice, and why the Annunciation was not at the Equinox. Maybe you all know this but its very exciting to work this out for myself. And believe me I have done a lot of reading about Calendars and not spotted an explanation!
So that was yesterday’s revelation. What about the revelation I had about 45 minutes ago? (now about 5 hours). When writing items like this, there are a lot of things that are interconnected, and I begin writing them before realising I am interrupting the story I am trying to tell. This is often to the detriment of the story arc, or to understanding (although often, I think, adds to the joy of this blog – after all ChatGBT couldn’t write this stuff – could it?).
So I began to write about Dionysius Exiguus and his invention of the AD/BC system and about eras, cycles and ages. (He replaced the Anno Mundo year with the AD/BC system in the 6th Century AD).
I was thinking about the beginning of the year. The Celts chose October 31st, Julius Caesar chose January 1st, other cultures have other dates, and the Spring Equinox is another choice sometimes made. The Church and Dionysius Exiguus choose March 25th, although secular society also recognised the claims of January 1st. Britain kept to this system until 1752 when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar. But people like Samuel Pepys celebrated New Year on 31st December. But the year number did not change until March 25th. So King Charles I thought his head was being cut off on January 30th 1648; while history books will tell you it was cut off on January 30th 1649. Same day, different reckonings.
December 31st/January 1st is essentially a Solstice New Year Festival. And I have, previously, used the difficulty of keeping calendars as to why these days has slipped out of alignment with the Solstice. But today I realised that it is as likely that the reason is the Solar/Lunar nature of our time keeping. The year and its festivals is largely arranged around the Solar Cycle. But our weekly and monthly cycles are derived from the Moon. So, I think that January 1st would originally have been the First New Moon after the Winter Solstice! Keeping the Moon months and the Sun years in sync is very, very difficult and so Roman and Christian cultures gave up and fixed the moon months, completely abandoning any attempt to keep the months to the actual lunar cycle. This is our current system, in which only Easter remains a true to the moon festival much to our perennial confusion.
Maybe you all know this, but I’ve learnt a lot in writing these two posts..
The April 2023 Issue of ‘History Today’ has a short piece called ‘The Liberation of Lilith’ which suggests that the story of Lilith, a figure from Jewish Folklore, is first attested in a Medieval satirical text called ‘The Alphabet of Ben Sira’. The story goes that Lilith is created using the same clay as Adam. Adam then demands she lies below him during sex. She refuses, saying that they are both made from the same stuff and, therefore, equal. Adam refuses to accept this and so Lilith leaves the Garden of Eden. So the story goes.
The story of Lilith, Sarah Clegg suggests, is one of a series of similar stories found around Europe and Asia. And Clegg assumes that it is modified to make Lilith a demon who will kill babies unless the names of three angels are spoken out loud. So, the story survives as a charm to keep babies safe, and perhaps to remind people of equality among the sexes. But this causes problems for, OK, lets call them, the Patriarchy. Lilith becomes a monster, not made from the same clay as Adam but from the scum and waste left over from Adam’s creation. I imagine the story then went on to suggest that God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, and so she is created from Adam, and is subservient to him. Lilith is now a very important figure in feminist folklore cycles
Attached to the watercolour of Lilith at the top of the page by Rossetti, was a label with a verse from Goethe‘s Faust as translated by Shelley. (Wikipedia)
“Beware of her fair hair, for she excells All women in the magic of her locks, And when she twines them round a young man’s neck she will not ever set him free again.”
The model is Fanny Cornforth Rossetti’s mistress. He painted another version a few years later but the model in that is Alexa Wilding. His models are arguably more interesting than the man himself and include: Elizabeth Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth. Christina Rossetti, his poet sister, modelled for yesterday’s Rossetti painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini!
I think I might have enough material to begin my own Cult.
I’ve relieved of the necessity to search for the Town Walls of Amsterdam without prior research by the fact that I am here to see my daughter who has recently broken her ankle, so she has an excuse for refusing to go on forced forced marches around the City.
I haven’t yet had a good look at a map, but the pattern of Canals circuling the centre is amazing and it seems possible there was no need for walls, when the centre is protected by so many rings of water.
I don’t know much about Amsterdam, but it reminds me of the surprising fact that Holland was a major power in the 17th/18th Century. I discovered this on a visit to Kerala in India where I realised that Portugal had a vast empire which was largely taken over by the Dutch in the 17th Century and then taken over by the British in the 18th Century.
It was one of the major pivots in world history. These three countries were small peripheral seafaring nations of no great importance in Europe until the Age of Discovery. Portugal set up trading systems (perhaps rather systems of exploitation) first down the coast of Africa and then to India and beyond. The Dutch then took over the trading stations and took control of the spice routes. Then the British took over.
Previously the spice routes from the East came through Egypt, Greece, Rome, Carthage and later the Ottoman and the Venetian Empires. This made the Mediterranean the richest place in Europe, both north and southern coasts.
The new ocean routes led to a major shift in power from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, leading to the current situation where the Mediterranean is no longer the centre of the world. Greece, Southern Italy, North Africa now under performing economies. A Roman would find this hard to believe.
Portugal, then Holland followed by Britain rose to the status of world power which would, itself, have been inconceivable before the 16th Century.
Holland was in the perfect geographic position astride the trade routes that lead to the heart of Europe. The entry point was the major river systems around the Rhine/Danube axis including the Rhine, the Scheldt, the Waal, and the Amstel. Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam developed from regional trading towns to global Cities. They spawned a self confident set of merchants who set the foundations of modern capitalism with foundations in spices and slaves.
Central to this was the Dutch East India Company. The first organisation in Europe where an investor only risked their investment rather than the shirt off their back in the event of bankruptcy. This let the shackles off investment, took money out of gold in the bank vaults and multiplied it around the economy.
But not only did it take away the risks of the consequences of investment the Dutch East India Company, set up in Amsterdam in 1602, was given quasi state power, with the ability to fight wars and impose laws on subject populations. This template was copied by the British East India Company which conquered and ran India, setting the seal for the British Empire and Capitalism.
So, Spring has sprung. We are 20 days into the meteorological Spring (started 1 March) and now starting the astronomical or solar Spring. The 20th of March is the Spring Equinox, or Vernal Equinox, half way between the Winter Solstice and the Summer Solstice. The sun has been rising further north each day since December 21st, and it now rises due East, and sets due West, The day and night are roughly equal in length although by no means exactly.
The term vernal comes from the Latin for Spring, and today is the primavera, the first day of Spring. The Anglo-Saxons originally used the word lencthen (Lent) for Spring, but later adopted the idea of the springing of the year when the plants bud. In Middle English the word Spring was also used for sunrise, the waxing of the moon, the rising tides (spring tides) as well as sprouting of the beard and the first appearance of pubic hair!
Up to the 15th Century the English also used the french term ‘prime-temps’ in the sense of ‘first times’. This follows the idea that the year is young, while Winter represents old age. As we shall see, on March 25th, there was also a belief that the world was created in Spring at what became the Equinox (after God created it!), and Jesus was also conceived at this point of the annual cycle.
Zodiacally, if that is a word, Spring is Aries (brave and impulsive); Taurus (sensual and stubborn), and Gemini (dynamic and talented).
The modern druids have been out at their annual Spring Equinox festival at Tower Hill. I have a picture of this from many years ago when I last attended, but, Heike Herbert, who seems to be always travelling around the world, was in the UK for long enough to attend the Druid Festival and has kindly let me use photos for this post. When I last went to the ceremony I remember noting, with some distaste, that the druid costumes seemed to be made with nylon sheets, and their footware was mostly plimsolls. I see the nylon has at least been replaced with cotton, and the plimsolls with trainers. Not quite sure what that pair of black trainers are doing in the picture!
I say modern druids because there is no convincing evidence that the modern fellowships of Druids can trace their origins back to prehistory. Druidry was reinvented in the 18th Century – for example the Ancient Order of Druids was formed in 1781. They were set up as societies in the tradition of the freemasons and with a belief in the fundamental importance of nature.
As to when the Equinox first had importance for human society, the answer is, probably, at least as long as we have been reasoning creatures. On January 24th I draw attention to a recent discover suggesting evidence for a Palaeolithic Calendar. This is what I wrote:
But recently, evidence of a Palaeolithic Calendar has been uncovered by an ‘amateur’ studying markings in cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and other caves. Furniture maker Ben Bacon has collaborated with Professors at UCL and Durham and interpreted markings which suggest the use of a lunar calendar to mark the time of the year when particular animals gave birth. A Y shaped mark is interpreted as meaning ‘giving birth’ and the number of dots or dashes drawn by or in the outline of the animal or fish has been shown to coincide with the time of the year that the wild creature gives birth. For further details follow this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/
At Stonehenge, in the old Car Park they found three huge Pine postholes in a line, erected in the Mesolithic period. They align to the direction of the Mid Summer Sunrise and Mid Winter Sunset (NNE/SSW) IF and its a big if, you were sighting from Stonehenge itself which was built some 5000 years in the future. It is a bit of a stretch using two pieces of evidence so far apart in time but recent excavations have revealed that there are, on the Stonehenge site, natural periglacial striations in the soft chalk bedrock which themselves point to the Solstices. These not only predate Stonehenge but also the three post holes, and may well have been visible from the time they were created when the glaciers melted.
As I’m on a train to Amsterdam with no internet I’m using dates from my memory which are roughly right but not as accurate as they might be. Around 12,000 years ago the climate changed and the glaciers melted. This left a lot of water rushing around the landscape and at Stonehenge, it gouged out striations in the chalk. By chance, or as ordered by the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature, the striations pointed to the Solstice Axis, just at a place where the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature provided super-abundance in the guise of herds of Aurochs, which are huge wild cows. Richard Jacques excavations in the vicinity of Stonehenge have revealed that the aurochs came to the Stonehenge area for grazing and water. Each one had enough meat on them to feed 200 people. So, by 8,000 BC we have what might constitute proof of recognition of the significance of the major movements of the Sun.
This is confirmed by the alignment of many megalithic monuments dating from 3,600 BC onwards, including, of course, Stonehenge. Also all around the UK are long barrows and other burial mounds, many of which are indeed sighted/sited E-W to the Equinoxes. Many are fairly approximate, but at Loughcrew, County Meath in Ireland the Vernal Equinox shines right into the burial chamber, onto a stone marked by stone carvings. Similar alignments are recorded at Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley.
The Equinox also has another role which is to be the anchor of the cardinal points – North, South, East, West, when there is a harmony, a balance in the world, and therefore a fortunate, a lucky time, a time to fall in love or undertake notable undertakings. Of course, as the Christian world awaits the commemoration of the death of the Messiah, marriage has to wait a little longer.
There are also two versions of the cardinal points too: there are the geographic and the magnetic cardinal points. The magnetic cardinal points wander – magnet North does not always point North, the earth has sometimes had magnet reversals when the north pole has pointed in different directions including south.
My first proper job after university was as an technician then research assistant at Oxford University studying this phenomena. I say ‘proper’ because when I left University, I became an itinerant archaeologist, digging in Switzerland, Northampton, East Anglia and Nottingham before I got the job at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, Keble College Oxford. Working with Dr. Mike Barbetti who was an expert on the wanderings of the Magnetic Pole. His interest was firstly in the pure science of the subject, but he was keen to explore the applied uses of the science to Archaeology as well So, after being appointed as a Research Fellow at Oxford he set up an epic journey from his native Australia to Oxford that went via some of the iconic sites of Palaeolithic Archaeology, such as Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, site of excavations by Mary and Louis Leakey.
In order to plot the movements of the magnetic north, scientists needed dated samples, and early human sites were some of the best dated sites. Also, archaeomagnetism, as the discipline became known, offered the possibility of dating sites. Also to determine whether deposits were fired or not. One of the sites Mike sampled was a candidate for the first evidence of fire in human existence.
As I said, Mike’s interest was discovering how the magnetic field of the earth changed over time, and, more importantly, what was the mechanism. He shipped back to Oxford samples of soil cast in plaster of paris. My job was to cut the samples up and to measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field in the samples. I cut them up with an electic saw in a shed in the backyard of the Laboratory, and then we used a mini-computer to measure the direction and intensity of the magnetic field in the samples. Soil contains particles of iron, and they align randomly so a sample of soil has a low magnetic intensity and a random direction of magnetic field. But once heated up, the iron particles align to the current direction of the magnetic pole and its intensity is proportional to the intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field and so provided a method of plotting the changes of the magnetic field. And from this data models could be constructed explaining how the iron in the earth’s core worked as a giant magnet.
We could tell if a sample of soil had been heated by fire and once we had built that reference curve for the movements of the direction of the magnetic poll and the changing intensity of the magnetic pole we might be able to develop another dating method to rival radio carbon, thermoluminescence and tree ring dating all of which were being developed at the Research Laboratory in Oxford.
Having got the results I then typed them up onto machine readable cards, took them to the Oxford University Computer Centre with a copy on cards of the programme written in Fortran, and gave them to the Computing Staff. They were run through the Centre’s mainframe computer which was probably an IBM or ICL computer, and 24 hours later I received a print out to proof read. When I located mistakes, I ran an editing run of punched cards essentially instructing the computer: ‘ on card two replace 2.5 with 2.6, and run the programme again’. I would pick up the results 24 hour hours later.
It seems extraordinaryily primative now but then it was an enormous saying of time. And that, patient reader, was my early contribution to Digital Heritage and pure science. We published at least three articles in the prestigious Science Journal Nature. And it is slightly annoying that my citations in the groves of academia are still dominated by articles I co-wrote in the late 1970s!
The work was important in the development of the study of the earth’s magentic field. However the use of archaeomagnetism in archaeology has never risen above strictly limited. Occassionally, in specific circumstances, it can be useful, but those circumstances tend to be times when no other methods came up with the goods and most often in attempting to date kilns.
AKA the Elgin Marbles. All my life it seems as if we haven’t been talking to Greece about sending them home. Recently, there was a strong dismissal of any such hope. But today, I read that the British Museum is open to discussion. Statements from the Deputy Jonathan Williams and even the Chairman, ex Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, have expressed optimism that there is a ‘deal to be done’.
Reading between the lines, the position appears to be based on the ‘fact’ that we own them legally, and that, by discussion of mutual loan arrangements, some, if not all, of the stones, can go home on loan, in exchange for other loans from Greece coming to the UK.
Nearly, all ‘restitution’ cases are settled by the realisation that there are mutual benefits to be had for the return of items. The Horniman is leading the way with its announcement to return 72 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
The statement from Nigeria suggests that mutual loans are a part of the deal here too.
Abba Tijani, director-general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), said: “We very much welcome this decision by the trustees of the Horniman Museum & Gardens. Following the endorsement by the Charity Commission, we look forward to a productive discussion on loan agreements and collaborations between the NCMM and the Horniman.”
The Society of Antiquities newsletter ( Salon: Issue 494) reports on a restitution deal of one of the major collections of Benin bronzes back to Nigeria.
The Bronzes, which are actually Brasses, are from the Royal Palace of the Kingdom of Benin which was looted by the British during the Benin Expedition of 1897 as part of British subjection of Nigeria.
Wikipedia reports that ‘Two hundred pieces were taken to the British Museum in London, while the rest found their way to other European museums. A large number are held by the British Museum[ with other notable collections in Germany and the United States.’
The Smithsonian has recently made a similar arrangement to restore their brasses to Nigeria, and UK collection The Great North Museum: Hancock, has followed suit joining Jesus College, Cambridge and the University of Aberdeen. (The Art Newspaper)The British Museum has refused and is indeed prevented from so doing by an Act of Parliament.
An interesting sidelight on the collection is that the wealth of the Benin Kingdom benefited from income from the slave trade.
This is what The Society of Antiquities newsletter ( Salon: Issue 494) says:
Two Benin Bronzes Returned
Last week, Germany signed a restitution agreement with Nigeria. The agreement covers 1,100 artefacts currently held by the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, the Cologne Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Hamburg’s Museum of World Cultures and the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony. The agreement immediately puts these objects into Nigerian ownership; the affected Museums will then negotiate directly with the Nigerian Government whether they return to Nigeria, or remain in Germany under custodial agreements.
Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Culture Minister, described the agreement as ‘the single largest known repatriation of artefacts in the world’. It was marked by the return of two Benin Bronzes – an eighteenth century 35kg head of an oba and a 16th-century relief depicting an oba accompanied by guards or companions. German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said ‘It was wrong to take the bronzes and it was wrong to keep them. This is the beginning to right the wrongs.’
Image credits: The returned Benin Bronzes, Martin Franken
The Society of Antiquities newsletter ( Salon: Issue 494)