Selected quotes from Rev. Blunt

“These purgatories, which meet the eye more or less upon the walls in every part of Italy, abound to a singular degree in the kingdom of Naples, where the neighboring volcanos appear to have furnished the imagination of the artist with more than common horrors.” (pp. 45-46)

“A profusion of tapers was thought particularly acceptable to [Ceres]. ‘Then light the unctuous torch; should incense fail, with Ceres chaste not costly gifts prevail.’ (Fast. iv. 411) But it was further usual to dedicate to her candles or torches of that enormous size which I have said are now offered to St. Agatha; emblematical, no doubt, of the pines which she is reputed to have plucked up and lighted at Aetna whens he traversed Sicily in search of her daughter Proserpine.” (pp. 63-64)

“…the dress of the persons officiating the procession of the saint… was made expressly for the occasion, and was invariably white. In all heathen rites that colour was thought to have a favourable influence upon the gods, and the prayer of a suppliant so lcothed was held to have a more common claim upon the bounty of Heaven. In the worship of Ceres, however, no other colour was even permitted…” (p. 71)

“Again, the custom of kissing objects of religious reverence, so universally prevailing in Italy and Sicily, seems to have been a mark of affection formerly bestowed on the images of the heathen gods with equal profusion.” (pp. 75-76)

“Finally, it may be remarked, that as the greater and less Eleusinia were celebrated in the same year, at an interval of six months, so are there now two annual festivals to S. Agatha, the one in February, the other in August. …The festival of S. Rosolia [sic], the patron saint of Palermo, exhibits a similar spectacle; and I doubt not that both the one and the other derive their origin from a common source–the honours paid to pagan deities, but especially to Ceres, whose worship radiating from Enna, the centre of Sicily, and the throne of her glory, extended to the most remote and inaccessible shores of the island.” (pp. 82-83)

“Thus the temple of Vesta is now the church of the Madonna of the Sun; fire being the prevailing idea in both appellations. That of Romulus and Remus is now Cosmo and Damien, not only brothers, but twin brothers. The site of the old Templum Salutis is supposed to be occupied by the church of S. Vitale, if not an imaginary saint, at least one whose name was selected as doing little violence to that of Salus. In the church of S. Maria Maggiore, the cradle or manger in which our Savior was laid is amongst the relics; a peculiarity very probably derived from that building having succeeded the temple of Juno Lucina.” (pp. 91-92)

“I will add, that the necklaces, rings, and pendants for the ears, with which the [pagan gods] were bedecked, are now lavished on the [saints] with equal profusion. Indeed, the excess of rings seems, if possible, to be greater than in the days of Pliny…” (p. 105)

“…the practice of drawing curtains before these figures, to create in the people a mysterious awe, had its commencement in Pagan times. Thus we read in the 2d Book of Kings (ch. Xxiii. 7.) “of the women who wove hangings for the groves,” which is explained by some of the commentators, with apparen reason, to mean ‘curtains spread before the idol of the grove for the purpose of procuring it respect’… (pp. 105-106)

“There is every reason to suppose that the Egyptian temples did not greatly differ in the style of their furniture from those of Italy; the latter country having derived a great part of her mythology, and many of her religious rites, from the people of the Nile.” (pp. 107-108)

“The sounding brass, in some shape or other, was struck in the sacred rites of Dea Syria; and in those of Hecate. ‘It was thought,’ says the scholiast on Theocritus, ‘to be good for all kinds of expiation and purification.’ It had, moreover, some secret influence over the spirits of the departed. …[bells] were instruments well known to the ancients, and employed by them… for many superstitious purposes.” (pp. 115-116)

“Again, the familiarity with which the Romans treated the effigies of their gods is not less remarkable with respect to those of our Savior and the saints, in the present Italians and Sicilians. I have seen them expostulate with an image in a church in a half whisper, with as much emphasis and expression as if an answer had been forthwith expected to have issued from its lips.” (pp. 123-124)

“When disappointed by his tutelary saints, an Italian or Sicilian will sometimes proceed so far, as to heap reproaches, curses, and even blows, on the wax, wood, or stone, which represents them.” (p. 125)

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Christian novenas & pagan funerary rites

“The Jews had no nine days’ religious celebration or nine days’ mourning or feast on the ninth day after the death or burial of relatives and friends. They held the number seven more sacred than any other. On the contrary, we find among the ancient Romans an official nine days’ religious celebration whose origin is related in Livy (I, xxxi). After a shower of stones on the Alban Mount, an official sacrifice, whether because of a warning from above or of the augurs’ advice, was held on nine days to appease the gods and avert evil. From then on the same novena of sacrifices was made whenever the like wonder was announced (cf. Livy, XXI, lxii; XXV, vii; XXVI, xxiii etc.).

“Besides this custom, there also existed among the Greeks and Romans that of a nine days’ mourning, with a special feast on the ninth day after death or burial. This, however, was rather of a private or family character (cf. Homer, Iliad, XXIV, 664, 784; Virgil, Aeneid, V, 64; Tacitus, Annals, VI, v.). The Romans also celebrated their parentalia novendialia, a yearly novena (13 to 22 Feb.) of commemoration of all the departed members of their families (cf. Mommsen, “Corp. Inscript. Latin.”, I, 386 sq.). The celebration ended on the ninth day with a sacrifice and a joyful banquet. There is a reference to these customs in the laws of the Emperor Justinian (“Corp. Jur. Civil. Justinian.”, II, Turin, 1757, 696, tit. xix, “De sepulchro violato”), where creditors are forbidden to trouble the heirs of their debtor for nine days after his death. St. Augustine (P.L., XXXIV, 596) warns Christians not to imitate the pagan custom, as there is no example of it in Holy Writ. Later on, the same was done by the Pseudo-Alcuin (P.L., CI, 1278), invoking the authority of St. Augustine, and still more sharply by John Beleth (P.L., CCII, 160) in the twelfth century. Even Durandus in his “Rationale” (Naples, 1478), writing on the Office of the Dead, remarks that “some did not approve this, to avoid the appearance of aping pagan customs”.

“Nevertheless, in Christian mortuary celebrations, one finds that of the ninth day with those of the third and seventh. The “Constitutiones Apostolicae” (VIII, xlii; P.G., I, 1147) already speak of it. The custom existed specially in the East, but is found also among the Franks and Anglo-Saxons. Even if it was connected with an earlier practice of the pagans, it nevertheless had in itself no vestige of superstition. A nine days’ mourning with daily Mass was a distinction, naturally, which could be shared by none but the higher classes. Princes and the rich ordered such a celebration for themselves in their wills; even in the wills of popes and cardinals such orders are found. Already in the Middle Ages the novena of Masses for popes and cardinals was customary. Later on, the mortuary celebration for cardinals became constantly more simple, until finally it was regulated and fixed by the Constitution “Praecipuum” of Benedict XIV (23 Nov., 1741). For deceased sovereign pontiffs the nine days’ mourning was retained, and so came to be called simply the “Pope’s Novena” (cf. Mabillon, “Museum Italicum”, II, Paris, 1689, 530 sqq., “Ordo Roman. XV”; P.L., LXXVIII, 1353; Const. “In eligendis” of Pius IV, 9 Oct., 1562). The usage still continues and consists chiefly in a novena of Masses for the departed. A rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Rites (22 Apr., 1633) informs us that such novenas of mourning, officia novendialia ex testamento, were generally known and allowed in the churches of religious (Decr. Auth. S.R.C., 604). They are no longer in common use, though they have never been forbidden, and indeed, on the contrary, novendiales precum et Missarum devotiones pro defunctis were approved by Gregory XVI (11 July, 1853 [sic]) and indulgenced for a confraternity agonizantium in France (Resc. Auth. S.C. Indulg., 382).”

Hilgers, Joseph. “Novena.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 20 Feb. 2016<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11141b.htm&gt;. Emphasis mine. 

Funerary rites in Ancient Greece

“Following death, the body was washed and laid out by the women of the family (prothesis). A passage from Aristophanes indicates that vine branches and the herb origanos were strewn under the body as part of this process. In antiquity, this bitterly pungent herb was believed to repel harmful animals; in later European folklore, we hear of it being used to avert ghosts and demons. Together these observations suggest that its use in funerary rites reflects a fear that even in death, evil forces of some kind were waiting to attack the departing soul or the body. An attack on either would be disastrous: the soul might be diverted by a manipulative magician for his own purposes, and thus be prevented from reaching the haven of the Underworld, and damage to the body could affect the postmortem functioning and thus the happiness of the soul, as the practice of maschalismos [ritual mutilation of corpses by severing extremities] perhaps attests. It was the duty of the survivors to provide protection against such attacks until the body was safely in the ground and the soul had begun its journey to the Underworld…. Perhaps amulets against such attacks were buried with the dead as well; we have some late examples of what seem to be amulets for postmortem protection made out of metal, and it is possible that earlier types of perishable materials once existed, too.

“The traditional length of prothesis was one day; this would fit with the fact it was on the third day after death (counting inclusively) that the body was carried out to the place of burial (ekphora). The swiftness of burial reflects not only the obvious need to remove a decomposing corpse quickly but the perception that the individual no longer belonged amongst the living. As many anthropological studies have discussed, in ancient Greece and elsewhere death initiates a rite of passage for both the deceased and those left behind; the passage begins to approach completion only when the corpse has been removed from the company of the living.

“The deceased was accompanied to the grave by family members and perhaps by other mourners, too, although funerary legislation of the late archaic and classical periods sometimes restricted the number of people who might participate, as well as the places at which they might sing their laments. In Athens, for example, Solon passed laws to the effect that only women over the age of sixty or women closely related to the deceased might take part in the ekphora and lament. Solon’s laws curbed the most extreme forms of lamentation, such as self-laceration, mourning for anyone other than the person immediately dead, and excessive funeral gifts as well. He also ordered that the prothesis take place inside a house, and that the ekphora take place before sunrise on the day after the prothesis. Plato’s laws for funerary conduct in his ideal city take all of these ideas a bit further; real laws in some other places similarly aimed to restrict the ostentation of the funeral, the number of people lamenting or otherwise participating, and the degree to which it was public.

“Offerings were made at the grave at the time of the funeral. These always included choai, libations made of honey, milk, water, wine, or oil mixed in varying amounts. There was also a ‘supper’ (deipnon or dais) of various foods; the dead who partook of these sometimes where described as eudeipnoi, which we best can translate, perhaps, as ‘those who are content with their meal.’ The word, a euphemism, seems to reflect the hope that, once nourished, the dead would realize that they had nothing to complain about. There is some evidence that water was also given to the dead person so that he could wash, just [as] a host would give a living guest water in which to wash before a meal. Offerings to the dead might also include jewelry, flowers, and small objects used in everyday life such as swords, strigils, toys, and mirrors (although gifts, like lamentation, were sometimes restricted by funerary laws). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these gifts were expected to be useful in the afterlife, particularly when ghost stories tell of the dead demanding objects that were forgotten or omitted at the time of burial.

“A grave marker (sema or stele) often was set up at some time after burial; according to Cicero, post-Solonian Athenian funerary laws attempted to restrict the size or grandeur of these markers. The stele or sema subsequently might be decorated with ribbons, myrtle branches, or fillets of colored wool; it was also common for survivors to cut off and offer some of their hair. Several theories have been proposed to explain the latter practice. One argues that offerings of hair were symbolic human sacrifices–pars pro toto–and another that cropped hair marked the survivors as being ‘different,’ as being in a marginal period of mourning. Either idea could be supported by interpreting funerary offerings of hair within the context of other occasions when the Greeks made offerings of hair, which tended to be associated with marginal periods as well….

“The separation process continued to move the living and the dead further apart, but the link was not completely broken. On certain days after the funeral (the third, ninth, thirtieth, and possible also after a year), additional offerings were made at the grave. Some evidence suggests that, as nowadays, offerings were also made on the anniversary of the deceased’s birth, death, or both, and that survivors made additional offerings whenever they wanted the help of the dead person, or whenever they wanted him or her to participate, albeit distantly, in a family occasion such as a wedding….the Greeks themselves so often describe these rites as fulfilling the needs and desires of the deceased that we must accept this as a serious motivation. Funerary rites were believed to benefit the dead, and deprivation of them meant an unhappy afterlife for the disembodied soul. In other words, Greek funerary rites attest to the expectation that the deceased had some sentience in the afterlife and some of the same desires that he or she had had while alive, and to the idea that the living could–and should–gratify those desires.”

Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, pp. 39-43

Cult of Heroes vs. Cult of Saints

“The rise of the Christian cult of saints took place in the great cemeteries that lay outside the cities of the Roman world: and, as for the handling of dead bodies, the Christian cult of saints rapidly came to involve the digging up, the moving, the dismemberment–quite apart from much avid touching and kissing–of the bones of the dead, and, frequently, the placing of these in areas from which the dead had once been excluded. …Even when confined to their proper place, the areas of the dead, normative public worship and the tombs of the dead were made to coincide in a manner and with a frequency for which the pagan and Jewish imagination had made little provision.

“To idealize the dead seemed natural enough to men in Hellenistic and Roman times. Even to offer some form of worship to the deceased, whether as a family or as part of a public cult in the case of exceptional dead persons, such as heroes or emperors, was common, if kept within strictly defined limits. Thus, the practice of ‘heroization,’ especially of private cult offered by the family to the deceased as a ‘hero’ in a specially constructed grave house, has been invoked to explain some of the architectural and artistic problems of the early Christian memoria. But after that, even the analogy of the cult of the hero breaks down. For the position of the hero had been delimited by a very ancient map of the boundaries between those beings who had been touched by the taint of human death and those who had not: the forms of cult for heroes and for the immortal gods tended to be kept apart. Above all. what appears to be almost totally absent from pagan belief about the role of the heroes is the insistence of all Christian writers that the martyrs, precisely because they had died as human beings, enjoyed close intimacy with God. Their intimacy with god was the sine qua non of their ability to intercede for and, so, to protect their fellow mortals. The martyr was the ‘friend of God.’ He was an intercessor in a way which the hero could never have been. …

“We can chart the rise to prominence of the Christian church most faithfully by listening to pagan reactions to the cult of martyrs. For the progress of this cult spelled out for pagans a slow and horrid crumbling of ancient barriers… In attacking the cult of saints, Justinian the Apostate mentions the cult as a novelty for which there was no warrant in the gospels; but the full weight of his religious abhorrence comes to bear on the relation between the living and the corpses of the dead that was implied in the Christian practice: ‘You keep adding many corpses newly dead to the corpse of long ago. You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres.’ He turned against the cult practiced at the tombs of the saints all the repugnance expressed by the Old Testament prophets for those who haunted tombs and burial caves for sinister purposes of sorcery and divination.”

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints, pp. 5-7