Photo by Aizar Raldes,
La Paz, Bolivia 2006
This post began with the discovery in In the Labyrinth of an Aymara tradition, stemming from the introduction of the Aymara people to Christianity by Jesuit missionaries following the invasion of South America by Spain. The tradition is called "La Diablada."
Photo by DrCarlosAMG on Flickr
La Diablada combined the ancient Andean ceremonies and the medieval Spanish Auto Sacramental dances, which can be "defined as a dramatic representation of the mystery of the Eucharist," (Wikipedia) or a theatrical re-telling and explanation of the Last Supper, in which the bread and wine offered changed into the body and blood of Christ at his word, and were consumed. "La Diablada" tells a different part of the Christian story, in which St. Michael conquers evil by overcoming a multitude of devils. The story is also an "allegory of the indigenous population's conversion to Christianity" (source).
Wikipedia describes the event:
"At the start of the krewe are Lucifer and Satan with several China Supay, or devil women. They are followed by the personified seven deadly sins of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Afterwards, a troop of devils come out. They are all led by Saint Michael, with a blouse, short skirt, sword, and shield."
photo by Giorgio del Lago on Flickr of the Peruvian La Diablada
Photo by Dado Galdieri
The Archangel Michael is, interestingly, the patron saint both of battle (as in these presentations) and of healing, and guards over not only warriors and the police, but paramedics and other emergency workers. He is described as "the prince of light, leading the forces of God against the darkness of evil," (Wikipedia) a warrior, the warrior on God's side, expected in the end to lead the final battle against evil at the apocalypse.
We see that battle played out in generations of iconography as St. Michael and his sword facing down the devil:
"Saint Michael of the Apocalypse"
photo by Zenosaurus on Flickr, listed as an icon by Fr. Theodore Jurewicz.
"Archangel Michael Slaying the Dragon"
As far away from politics as I wish to stay, I find one aspect of the effect of Archangel Michael's legends fascinating in its seemingly perfect (perfectly horrific) expression of the dangers of confusing a metaphor, that is, an external representation of an internal battle for true balance between dark and light with the actual, physical necessity for the bloody gore of battle itself. The example I would like to use here is that of Romanian Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who, after hearing the voice of God call to him from an icon of the Archangel, interpreted the symbolism of the icon in a very physical sense, and went off to form the Iron Guard, an act which would lead to what the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia calls "one of the most brutal pogroms in history--" a comment written after the end of World War II.
In Balkan Ghosts, Robert D. Kaplan describes the founding of the Iron Guard--the Legion of the Archangel Michael-- in terms that immediately call to mind the legends of Dracula, which stemmed from the same dark Carpathian landscape:
"He organized the Legion around cuibs ("nests") of thirteen members each. To join a cuib, an initiate had to suck the blood from self-imposed slashes in the arm of every other member of the nest, and then write an oath in his own blood, vowing to commit murder whenever ordered to do so. Before setting out to kill, each man had to let an ounce of his blood flow into a common goblet, out of which all would drink, thus uniting the entire nest in death. Members were also obliged to wear crosses and packets of Romanian soil around their necks...
Tall and handsome, Codreanu had riveting eyes and the chiseled features of a Roman statue. His followers call him Capitanul ("the Captain"). He liked to dress completely in white and ride a white horse through the Carpathian villages. There, he was worshipped as a peasant-god--the Archangel Michael's envoy on earth. When Codreanu married, 90,000 people formed a bridal procession.
King Carol II saw Codreanu as a dangerous rival, especially after Hitler told Carol to his face, during a 1938 meeting in Berchtesgarten, that he preferred Codreanu to be the 'dictator of Romania.' Carol, perhaps because of his overweaning arrogance, was no coward. He answered the Fuhrer by having Codreanu and thirteen other Legionnaires strangled to death in November 1938...
Many peasants claimed that they had seen 'the Captian' riding his white horse through the forests at night, in the weeks and months following his supposed execution. Later, the Romanian Orthodox Church proclaimed Codreanu a 'national saint.'"
Carol was forced out, and a General known as "Red Dog" took power, appointing several Legionnaires as cabinet members. This was not enough to appease the Legion members, and after a terrible earthquake was determined to have occurred in order to castigate the people for not avenging the death of their martyrs, an awful massacre began which included stripping 200 Jews naked and putting them on the slaughterhouse conveyor belt. The descriptions of the incident are unbearable.
Rethinking the Archangel:
It is here that his healing qualities become important to remember, because they point out that all this sword-wielding was for the protection of the souls of mankind--from a non-human darkness.
According to Wikipedia,
"At the place where he was first venerated, in Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), his prestige as an angelic healer obscured his interposition in military affairs. It was from early times the centre of the true cult of the holy angels, particularly of St Michael. Catholic tradition relates that Saint Michael in the earliest ages caused a medicinal spring to spout at Chairotopa, near Colossae, where all the sick who bathed there, invoking the Blessed Trinity and St Michael, were cured....
At Constantinople likewise, Saint Michael was the great heavenly physician. His principal sanctuary, the "Michaelion", was at Sosthenion, some fifty miles south of Constantinople. He supposedly visited Emperor Constantine the Great at Constantinople, intervened in assorted battles, and appeared, sword in hand, over the mausoleum of Hadrian, in apparent answer to the prayers of Pope St. Gregory I the Great (r. 590-604) that a plague in Rome should cease. In honor of the occasion, the pope took to calling the mausoleum the "Castel Sant'Angelo" (Castle of the Holy Angel), the name by which it is still known. The sick slept in this church at night to wait for a manifestation of St Michael; his feast was kept there June 9."
From there, we come back to the ritual of drinking blood, but in a different light.
The quest for the Holy Grail, the symbolic search for that famed hidden chalice which contains the blood of Christ, a mythical representation of the human quest for redemption famously retold in the King Arthur Legends and the Indiana Jones movies, also stems from the stories of the Archangel Michael:
"Also of legendary fame is the mythical vessel known as the Holy Grail. According to an ancient legend, when Satan rebelled against God, he was wearing on his crest an enormous stone, which is alternately identified as an emerald or a ruby. When the archangel Michael struck down Satan, this jewel fell to earth and was found by some unidentified sea-faring people who shaped it into a magnificent chalice. This was somehow acquired by King Solomon and from him it descended to Jesus, who used it at the Last Supper to institute the Sacrament of Communion. This same chalice was used by Joseph of Arimathea to gather the blood of Jesus while He was still nailed to the cross..."
--The Complete Book of Amulets and Talismans by Migene Gonzalez-Wippler
The search for the holy grail changes the focus of the St. Michael stories, from the battle with Lucifer itself to the recovery of this "jewel" which fell from heaven following that battle. That jewel was reshaped to form the cup which caught the blood of Christ, named the Redeemer of mankind--a very different drinking of blood than that enacted by Dracula or Codreanu. The quest stories are an internal search for what is good, for what will redeem us instead of the internal battle with what is bad. The idea here is to focus on the desire, the dream, the truth we must believe is there if we are ever to see it--as opposed to focusing on the bad that we see so easily in our every day lives, focusing on the difficulties that beset us, on things like violence, poverty, and suffering. The idea is to heal through our actions.
And that ideal brings me back to the art of Remedios Varo, a painter who often made visible magical possibilities, and who has recently been studied by Estella Lauter as a female creator of such a questing myth. She "claims that the fantasy and female-centered art of Remedios Varo reveals the same stages found in traditional quests: the Separation, the Initiation, and the Return." (source)
"Rupture" (The Separation: Leaving the cloister, despite the heavy, disapproving gaze of the Institution)
"The Calling" (The "quester" carries a chemist's flask; an alchemist's mortar hangs from her neck. She receives her charge directly from the heavens, it ignites her, it makes her a light.)
"Exploration of the Sources of the Orinoco River" (Note the waters of life flowing from the chalice hidden inside the tree.)
Lauter describes the above painting thus:
"The moment of discovery in Varo's rendition of the quest occurs in Born Again. It is the discovery of the grail, which eluded all but three of King Arthur's knights. The naked female breaks through a wall into a sacred space that contains the grail, miraculously full and containing the reflected image of the crescent moon. . . . It is an ecstatic moment, . . . entirely feminine because of the ancient association of the woman with the vessel and the moon, and because of the vaginal imagery presented in the tearing wall. . . . [T]he protagonist has become her own fate."(92)
That final line seems most important, here: "The protagonist has become her own fate." Because the journey, just like the battle in the other versions of this story, is internal. It is a quest for the best of oneself, the quest to make that all that we are.
The Mont St. Michel:
According to Ben Heine, the photographer,:
"UNESCO has classed the Mont Saint-Michel as a world heritage in 1979 and this mecca of tourism welcomes more than three million visitors a year.
The 'Wonder of the Western World' forms a tower in the heart of an immense bay invaded by the highest tides in Europe."
By reaching up. Right?