Jailbreaking the Saints

Dedication

Para Nossa Senhora de Lourdes, que protege pelo menos 3 gerações da minha família, incluindo esse queer bruxe, a mae do ceu que me ama como eu sou.

For St Lucy and Freya, who charged me to “Write a story where I live,” and guarded me in that journey. May your golden shining continue until the end of humanity.

Prologue

There are at least two kinds of saints that polytheists and pagans can form healthy relationships with: the Mighty Dead and Deities. To be clear, while any saint can be seen as a member of the Mighty Dead, not all can be seen as deities. Here, I will go over theoretical basis for each of these relationships, and give examples. My goal is not to say what the “true nature” of the saints is; I don’t believe there is such a thing. Rather, I want to leave you with the impression that saints are complex and sacred mysteries that have room for a polytheist and pagan interpretation. I want us to live in harmony alongside other faiths that interpret and make relationships with saints.

What happens when someone who was raised within a Christian culture but is not Christian takes a concept from Christianity and changes it? To put it in more general terms, what happens when someone takes a concept from the cultural hegemony they live in and reinterprets it? That’s what a living tradition looks like. That’s where folk magic comes from. The “misuse” of Saints as spirits of the dead to be prayed to or deities in themselves is exactly what they have always been, regardless of official church doctrine. In the wake of Christian regimes forcing their religion on others, it seems especially appropriate that their imagery and practices should be adapted by whoever.

Pagans who take the concept of sainthood are just stepping into a magical current that has been around us the entire time. Elevated dead, in particular, require no Jesus or Saviour or Monotheism. To say the saints are deities to be worshipped rather than spirits to be venerated strikes right where the institutional churches are most vehement in their denial. Further, the adaptation of a practice our ancestors would recognize can be very healing for some people. For myself, it is a feeling of being connected but different, a feeling of being properly uncomfortable instead of harmed.

My experience taking this idea from workshop to essay is that pagans raised in a Catholic context have no problem whatsoever with this idea. They often come to the discussion with a sense of relief and joy. Pagans and polytheists raised in a Protestant context vary. Some are curious, some are eager, and some find the entire idea ludicrous. Whatever your context, know that this material is open to you. Explore it at your own pace.

A Final Note: for the duration of this essay, please think of Mother Mary as the Queen of Saints and as a saint herself.

The Mighty Dead

Let’s begin with a very narrow interpretation of what a Saint is, then expand it. To start, let’s look at a definition so narrow that we can all agree it is bad.

“A saint is a saint because the pope said so.”

That’s obviously not true. By looking at why it isn’t true, we can come to a robust and nuanced understanding. To start, we’re pagans; we don’t take direction from the pope. Christians don’t even agree on whether or not to listen to the pope. Coptic, Orthodox, Protestant, and other churches all take direction from other leaders, and some of them have active relationships with the Saints.

When you look at how a saint becomes a saint according to the pope, the definition becomes a little wider. The first step to becoming a saint after dying in the Catholic church is to be a “folk saint”. That is, people venerate someone who has passed as a Saint. That veneration of the deceased is what cues the local church officials to investigate that person. So, one way to look at the sainthood process is that the people make someone a saint by venerating them, and the official church procedure just changes what kind of saint the person is.

Along with being able to widen the definition within Christian churches and cultures, there are many similar (but not identical) practices in other spiritual paths for which the only good translation into english is “saint”. Obviously, it isn’t a 1-to-1 matchup. Every culture and path conceives of its honored dead differently, but the permeability of the sainthood concept is important.

So who should we think of making a saint?  Here are my general guidelines. Your mileage may vary.

1) The Saint has to be dead. They do not have to be a human (Balto) or a historical person (St. Cyprian of Antioch). They do have to be dead.

2) They should have accomplished something that was a benefit to their community or humanity as a whole. Doreen Valiente, for example, wrote the Charge of the Goddess, a poem that is referenced by many present day Neo-Pagans. My great-grandmother Nicacia, while an amazing woman, only really worked for the benefit of her family. (Obrigade, Vovo) They do not have to have been a perfect human being. Doreen Valiente certainly had her faults. But please refrain from trying to Saint someone who committed genocide or some other Obviously Terrible Bad Thing.

3) You must have their consent. Aside from issues of cultural sensitivity (Be careful about sainting Jewish people, for example. That’s a sticky topic.), some people just don’t want to be sainted. Some people. even if they do want to be sainted, don’t want to work with you. If you don’t know how to talk to dead people, that is a little beyond the scope of this essay.

Local folk heroes make great saints. Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame seems to be very happy as a saint in Pittsburgh. Joe Magarac, a sort of steel worker counterpart to John Henry, also takes well to being treated as Saint Joe.

Some Christian saints don’t seem to care if their devotees are Christian or not. St. Anthony has been known to find lost things for all manner of heathens. St Lawrence, patron saint of cooks and giver of the middle finger to the Roman Empire, also doesn’t seem to care if the person praying to him is a follower of his Christ.

Another good category is ancestors of spirit. Queer History is filed with people who worked hard for Gay and Trans power: Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk, and William Arondeus are all examples of people who did good for humanity and were queer. There are also ancestors of the craft such as Doreen Valiente and Isobel Gowdie.

Deities

From what I have researched so far, most syncretism between saints and deities happens under forced conversion. Forced conversion to Christianity has been happening since the reign of Theodosius in the 300’s. It continues right up to today. I can’t speak to many countries, but in Brazil there is a strong movement by Evangelicals and Catholics to repress the Afro-Brazilian religions. There, the government seems to look the other way all too often in favor of the Christians, making it difficult for the practitioners of Candomblé and other such faiths to protect their altars and sacred sites.

In the US the landscape is different, but we all know pagans who are or have in the past lived with Christian family members who punished any sign of atheism or paganism. The Wild Hunt has been covering the repression of non-Christian faiths in South Africa, though I have no idea if there is any syncretism with the saints in that country. Forced conversion to Christianity may not use the same kind of violence that it has in the past, but it continues to today on a massive scale.

In order to look at the relationship between saints and deities, let us begin by looking at La Virgen de Guadalupe. In the poem that is her sacred text, it is made clear that La Virgen is both a saint and an indigenous goddess. It is not a 50-50 split either. La Virgen is clear that she encompasses both things, and that is part of her miracle.

We can see a similar nature in Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes. Venerated in Portugal as a patron of fishermen, she was brought to Brazil and syncretized with the Orisha Iemanja. While her feast day in Portugal is the 15th of August, in Brazil she is worshipped/venerated on February 2nd. I have joined followers of Candomblé, Catholicism, Spiritualism, Atheism, and others as they go to the beach to give roses to the sea. Fishermen and sailors decorate their boats with flowers and take their boats out to the bay. Whether the person is celebrating a saint, a goddess, or just their culture, the entity of the feast holds all these interpretations and doesn’t seem to mind. Just be sure to give her roses.

Nothing pisses off tyrants like trying to rule over people who don’t have the same religion. It’s why the Romans killed Christians when they were polytheists, then turned around and killed pagans when they were Christian. As Christianity started to split off from Judaism, Christians were respectful of their Jewish neighbors. It was the propaganda of the priests, by then deeply ingrained in the politics of the day, that caused the shift from peaceful neighbors to the rabid mob violence that continues to this day. The violent sectarian conflicts within Christendom are almost always tied to some form of power struggle between elites.

When we look at the present day phenomenon of syncretism, it can give us clues to how previous eras of syncretism functioned. Some would argue, for example, that Saint Brigid of Kildare and the goddess Brigid are not the same entity. I disagree. I think the entity is both a saint and a deity, an unbroken line of worship from the Celts of antiquity to the present day. This interpretation leaves room for Catholics, Pagans, Atheists, and Agnostics to come to the same symbol and live as neighbors.

Since not every saint is a deity, there are at least a few different ways to figure out which saints are and which aren’t.

Obviously, when it comes to syncretism and deities of West African peoples and African diaspora, you can go ask your local practitioner as the practices are more out in the open then they have been in previous centuries. When we get to the Celts, Slavs, and Norse peoples, there is another goldmine of information called Interpretatio Christiana. The IC was a church policy for many centuries that is built out of the Roman Empire’s assimilation policies. Basically, priests will co-opt local temples and festivals of polytheist deities by dedicating them to their Jesus and their saints.

Brigid is an obvious example of the co-opting of a feast day and practices. The keeping of a sacred fire passed from druids to nuns. The feast of the saint is on the same day as Imbolc, a day many pagans know is sacred to Brigid. The cathedral dedicated to St Brigid in Ireland is on the same land that once held the goddess’s fire temple.

In addition to being a saint and a goddess, Brigid is also syncretized to a loa called Maman Brigitte in Haiti. Both the Haitian loa and the Celtic goddess have connections with fire and snakes. So Brigid is a good example of just how wide and nuanced the room for interpretation is. For those of us who don’t feel the need to find the “true” interpretation, only our own interpretation, interfaith respect and shared space is possible. In this case, interfaith respect includes respecting that Voodoo is a closed faith and has certain boundaries around who builds relationships with the loa and how.

Now I want to turn to another Saint, John the Baptist. His feast day is June 24, and in the northeast of Brazil, this is a very well-celebrated holiday. Fireworks are set off, bonfires are lit, and we celebrate our farmers, who work hard in a drought-ridden land to produce crops. All over Europe, similar traditions abound. Folks in Puerto Rico and Voodoo practitioners in Louisiana also have their own celebrations. Witches are rumored to meet. Ritual baths are taken. Bonfires are jumped. A lot of plant magic is done as well. From fern seeds to yarrow, plants collected on this day are said to have special properties of healing and luck.

Saint Eligius, a great example of a Saint who is not a deity, used the Interpretatio Christiana to lure people away from the pagan rites of midsummer toward the Feast Day of Saint John. We may not know all the deities St John is syncretized to, but we know some of them, such as Kupala from Slavaic Paganism. My belief is that you do not have to know what deity the saint was syncretized to. If the signs are there, all that is left is to ask the Saint.

That last point is truly what drove this essay.

Practices

So what are some practical, concrete things someone can do to start interacting with the saints as a polytheist?

Novena jar candles. Go nuts. Draw the folk saints that matter to you and modge podge the image onto a blank novena candle. I made one for Mr. Rogers, and he seems very happy with it. You can also look for novena candles of the saint-deities you want to reach out to, but most of what is available will be the saints syncretized to native Central American Deities and those who are popular in the Carribean. I have yet to see a St. John, for instance. So for those, you may want to draw your own as well.

Another thing I deeply recommend is bastardizing the rosary as a set of prayer beads. You can buy one and alter it or make your own from scratch. Either way, you will need replacements for the following prayers:

  • The Apostles creed is a declaration of faith. Write your own declaration of faith or use this bead as a time to ground yourself before working. I chant a hymn to Death because that’s what feels right to me.
  • The Our Father prayer is a declaration of gratitude to Creator. You could replace this with a prayer to Star Goddess or Gaia or to your own Sacred Self.
  • Glory Be isn’t so much a prayer as an endcap. I’m still fiddling with this one, but there’s no reason you can’t use “Blessed Be” or “So Mote it Be” or a declaration of intent.
  • The Hail Mary is the bread and butter of the Catholic rosary. Confession: Mary is my patron, so I use a version of the Hail Mary with the words “Jesus” and “sinner” taken out. You could replace this with a mantra or a prayer to any divinity you want, but if you have read this far in the zine then praying to Mary, Queen of Saints is something you should consider.

When praying a Rosary, there is typically an intent. Contemplating mystery, praying for the dead to find peace, trying to draw in a lover: you can choose the intent you feel is right. That intent is a good thing to replace the “Glory Be” with, as I mentioned above.

The last thing I want to recommend, especially if you cannot be open about your polytheism, is prayer cards. They’re very cheap and can be bought online or at Catholic shops. Yo can use them for hidden, informal altars, or add them to more formal workspaces.

 

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