The Pokey Finger of God

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Faded Memories

January 16th, 2008 · No Comments · history

History is a funny thing. Written history goes back four thousand years, and yet there are periods simply rife with myth to the point that it didn’t matter if “actual” history had been recorded. There does appear to be a natural tendency for famous people to accumulate mythology as they become farther removed from the living. Someone like the Roman Emperor Constantine is just such a person.

I'm a bit peckish. I wonder if there's anything tasty in here?Ironically, there actually is a great deal of (generally) reliable written information about him. I suppose one problem is that most of it is in Latin or Greek, so few Americans could be bothered to learn about it. Instead, what we “know” today about is that he converted to Christianity during a famous battle, during which he saw the Sign of the Cross and heard the words, “By this sign, ye shall conquer.”; he made Christianity the official religion of Rome; and his mother found the True Cross.

Less passionate histories record that none of these assertions are entirely true, and are, in fact, significantly flawed. In order to understand why Constantine did what he did, one must know a little about some Roman history. I just checked. Just some old hummus and stale crackers.Big C was the last Tetrarch of the . The Empire was so big that it had been administratively split up into East and West, and each half had two Emperors — a senior and a junior, to help eliminate the inevitable conflicts whenever the Imperial Throne was vacant.Constantine’s father was a Tetrarch and maneuvered masterly to bring his son in as his junior. Unfortunately, conflict between the Tetrarchs quickly escalated to civil war.

At his maturity, Constantine co-ruled the western half of the Empire, while his counterpart, Maxentius, co-ruled the eastern half. Each side had their own problems: Constantine had the Goths; Maxentius had the Persians. The East also had a Balkanizing nest of Hellenized, Asian mystery cults that had destroyed the cultural unity of the Empire, making it very difficult to work the traditional levers of power.To counter these, “Mad” Max instituted a series of harsh laws and torments against anyone who wouldn’t follow the traditional religion.

Sorry! We ate all the pie!While the West had its share of these mystery cults, they had been reflected through a Greek lens and given a philosophical character. Constantine himself belonged to the cult of the Invincible Sun, and when he defeated Maxentius on the field of battle, he ‘encouraged’ Maxentius to announce a new edict allowing most of the mystery cults to continue without further official torment. Maxentius later fell on his own sword after further military humiliation.

The story about Constantine seeing the cross on the field of battle was supposed to have occurred at this battle against Maxentius. Unfortunately, Constantine saw the vision as confirming his faith in the Invincible Sun, and the Cross symbol (like the halo of afflatus circling his head in pictures) was supposed to be a symbol of Imperial Roman power — so both were rapidly adopted in images of the Holy Family and thus absorbed into Christianity.

Constantine did invoke the Council of Nicea to hammer out the specifics of a unified mystery savior faith to replace the myriad and conflicting variations around the Empire. He lent favor to the Messiah cult of the Syrian Jews for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it was a powerless cult from a people who had no homeland, and thus wouldn’t represent favoritism to any of the other cults. The Jews had that really old book, and this impressed a lot of people; and Constantine especially liked the mythos of this Messiah cult — he saw himself as the prophesied returning Messiah. The Council of Nicea did an adequate job of homogenizing the primary beliefs and rituals of the various mystery cults into a single, Roman vessel. In the end, it was far more than just a Savior cult from one place or another: it was the universal faith of the Empire.

I will make a cherry pie!Constantine’s mother, Helena, did convert to the new Imperial faith and did travel to Syria to collect relics. However, the traditions that she somehow located or identified the ‘True Cross of Jesus Christ’ are uniformly unlikely. There were several groups in Syria who claimed to have the original cross of Christ, and Helena needed only to point to one to give it Imperial blessing. Whether this, or any of the other relics she supposedly “located”, have anything to do with historical facts of one sort or another, it is unlikely to provide modern Christians with anything like a connection to the “Jesus of Nazareth” character.

I'm allergic to cherries!Interestingly, Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is generally a more accurate historical (and hysterical) representation of life in Syria (circa 50BC-50AD) than most Gospel-based reenactments. Many of the humorous characterizations and behaviors are only barely fictionalized. Yet one needn’t look at the Roman upper-classes or religiously fervent to find behavior most outrageous to our Modern eyes — even “normal” behavior would look equally peculiar to us today. Few people today understand how people lived a hundred years ago, much less a millennium or two past.

Overlying the imaginative stories regarding Helena in the Holy Land with contemporary written accounts and it’s clear that most of what is associated with St. Helena today wasn’t relevant in her time. Yet, the average modern, Westerner comparing the two accounts would have trouble identifying which story was historical. All too frequently, we are more familiar with more recently told tales, and that’s the nature of popular culture — the “impact” of a story is more important than the historical details.

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