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Chapter 2 of the Gospel of St Matthew records what might be an old tale concerning Zarathustra. In the Persian empire Zarathustra had been a reforming religious figure, and his reforms had spread far beyond Persia. But he was regarded with jealousy by the priests of the older polytheistic religion of the Medes, whose rites had been abandoned by the Emperor and his court. During a sacrifice to the one god Ahura Mazda the priests of the old rite murdered Zarathustra, causing great grief among his followers. These followers the Greeks who passed on the story called magicians, followers of what seemed to them mysterious rites. A magician is a magus in Greek, the plural is magi. And the Magi used all their skills and knowledge of astronomy to search for the reincarnation of Zarathustra. They believed he would be reborn in a country to the south of Persia.
Matthew wanted to show that the whole world was waiting for the birth of the Jewish Messiah (although of course only Jews had heard of such a figure). Matthew simply appropriated the Persian story, and has the Magi travel south in search of the Messiah.
It cannot be said too often, the Gospels are not history. They are explanations of a new ritual concerning the figure of Jesus Christ, Jesu the Messiah. So Matthew strings together a tale designed to show just how special Jesus was. This was potent and beautiful myth making, not bad history.
The Magi came to Jerusalem (the Magi, and all Zoroastrians, would have realised that YHWH was a version of Ahura Mazda) and obtained an audience with the King of the region Herod the Great. Herod of course knew something about the Messiah. The prophet Micah had said he would be born in Bethlehem, a village near Jerusalem associated with the great King David.
The Magi were what we call astrologers. That is, they derived hidden lore from a study of the movement of stars and planets. They had made what we would call a natal chart, which told them where the new Zarathustra might be found. Matthew made the Magi follow a star to Jerusalem then Bethlehem, which can’t be done. If you try to follow even a 20 foot flare on a telegraph pole you’ll only get lost. But for Matthews the heavens themselves were declaring the birth of the Messiah.
Then Matthew added other Old Testament verses. Although he is the one who knows about Bethlehem and the birth of the Messiah, and although the Messiah would be less than two years old (the Magi said) and hardly a threat to his rule, Herod instigated a massacre. All two year old and under male children in the area were killed. However the killing was not too effective, for Joseph and Mary escaped to Egypt with Jesus. This last story was derived from a poem of the prophet Hosea. Then we find out the killing was a fulfilment of passages in Exodus and Jeremiah. Matthew was speaking to the Jews who were followers of Jesus, showing Jesus fulfilled scripture, and that he was a figure similar in many ways to Moses.
In the book of Exodus we learn that the King of Egypt was fearful of the Israelites in his country, and ordered all the boy babies drowned in the Nile. One child, Moses, was laid in a basket and set adrift in the reed beds near the shore, where the king’s daughter found him and brought him up.
(‘Moses’ is part of a name eg [Thoth]moses, ‘born of Thoth’, perhaps ’son of god’, and if we knew more of Egyptian culture we might come across stories involving him, with his full name given. The drowning of the infants in the Nile is a little reminiscent of a myth we do know about, of Osiris, who was murdered and thrown in the Nile and his body later cut into pieces by his brother Set, each piece given a separate burial until the pieces were bought together by Osiris’ sister and wife Isis, who bought him back to life. Osiris represented the rise of the Nile, and also personal immortality for his devotees.)
The Magi, the star and the massacre are all designed by Matthew as miraculous birth stories, legends similar to those often told about the birth of great heroes. These stories were made up, adapted and assembled by the man we refer to as Matthew, and credit should be given him as one of the world’s great myth makers, alongside other creators of Christianity such as Luke and Paul.
Witchcraft and the magus
The death and rebirth of Osiris, the saving of Moses, the massacre of the holy innocents and Jesus’ escape to Egypt were stories of the attainment of immortality: Osiris, Moses and Jesus were all saviours. In the myths about these events there is depicted life in the midst of death: Osiris’ body, the Egyptian babies and the ones in Bethlehem all had to die, but Osiris, Moses and Jesus survived to bring eternal life to their followers.
This meant a lot perhaps to one famous, or rather infamous, figure in medieval France. Gilles, Baron de Rais, Marshal of France was a soldier from Anjou. For ten years he was a Commander of forces that fought with Joan of Arc against the British, 1427-1435, aged 22 to 30 years, famous for his reckless bravery in battle.
In 1431 Joan was burned at the stake as a witch, aged 19. In 1435 Gilles left the army and almost bankrupted himself building a magnificent Chapel of the Holy Innocents, and then staged an elaborate play about the siege of Orleans that had parts for over 500 people.
Gilles was one of the richest and most influential peers of France. His behaviour disturbed his family, adherents and allies, to the extent they persuaded the King to issue an edict stopping his extravagance. Gilles was not behaving as a peer of France should. He may have been critical of the murder of Joan of Arc, sold by the Burgundian army to the English. He had seen her perform miracles.
In 1438 Gilles became an alchemist, and attempted to make contact with demons and devils it was alleged. He went further, and began practising necromancy, rites involving the dead. It was said Gilles had sacrificed over 40 children in his rites, though his accusers had no knowledge of his object in doing so.
Gilles was investigated by the Catholic Church, in a court convened by the Bishop of Nantes. He and his household members were threatened with both torture and excommunication. The later threat persuaded Gilles to confess, and he was finally hung in 1440, aged 35.
The Malleus Maleficarum, hammer of witches, was to be published in Germany 1487: it was not a good time to be accused of witchcraft.
Gilles is said to have been tried, but we have to remember this was the age of feudalism. A nobleman could do no wrong provided he had the protection of a liege. Once he lost that protection, he too was lost. The ‘trial’ was a procedure set up to justify the liege lord’s decision to sacrifice a vassal. It had a predetermined verdict, the ‘evidence’ was procured from informers who were paid, or ‘accomplices’ who were tortured, there was no defence allowed, and the ‘judge’ was himself subservient to the liege. To understand why Gilles was sacrificed we must look at the career of his liege, the Duke of Brittany.
John V, the Wise, inherited a duchy with rival claimants to its throne. He several times switched allegiance between England and France, and fought vigorously against a rival count at home. By 1430 he had consolidated his position. But he was in urgent need of funds, and was prepared to sacrifice his former supporter Gilles de Rais. When his agent the Bishop of Nantes found against Gilles, John immediately confiscated Gilles’ still considerable possessions in Brittany. It was power politics of the day. Here we find the reason for Gilles prosecution and death.
The lurid accounts of Gilles’ victims, boys who were sodomised while they were being decapitated, can not even be considered. There is no way to know now whether these accounts were procured by torture, or perhaps written by members of the court of hearing to be assented to by ‘witnesses’. Gilles was exonerated of these charges by the King two years after his death.
In 1435 Gilles built a chapel to the Holy Innocents. He almost bankrupted himself, or at least had a cash flow and credit problem, in the process. He went on to write a play about the battle of Orleans, and became entangled in alchemy and necromancy. What was he after?
In the Bible account of the Holy Innocents the babies died so that Jesus could live. The same was true in the story of Moses (and for Osiris). Was Gilles intent on bringing someone to life, and ensuring success by the death of 40 children? Was he practising magic?
The diabolical story
The essence of myth is that it liberates a difficult process in the psyche and allows spiritual development. Magic on the other hand is about power. By arcane knowledge the magician is able to control spirits and demons and force them to do his will. But magic loses a lot of its force when belief in spirits and demons is not strong. Magic becomes fairy tale, a story about fairies. The evil Gilles becomes the monster Bluebeard.
Or so it is believed. There is not much in common between Gilles and the tale of Bluebeard. Bluebeard is a necromancer, revealed at first by the blue beard, and then by the room full of bodies of ex wives.
One can imagine how fairy tale elements entered Gilles’ own story, with accounts of the number of corpses he collected steadily growing till it reached 600. Lurid tales of decapitation and disembowelment, the summoning of devils and the pleasure Gilles took in his activities would have terrified listeners.
Bluebeard was a minor player: he had seven wives, each killed for her vice of curiosity. It makes you wonder why the 600 victims of Gilles didn’t ask questions. Bluebeard’s model could be the Sultan who had Scheherazade as a wife in the One Thousand Nights and One Night, whose previous wives had all been strangled on their wedding night to preserve their chastity.
To necromancy, the room full of bodies, has been added a misogynist tale of caution, of the punishment of women who indulge their lust, or vice of curiosity. These stories however, such as the famous version of Bluebeard by Perrault of 1697, were retold at court among the court ladies, and came to have resourceful heroines. (Bluebeard in Perrault’s tale was a pirate, and has a brother pirate called Blackbeard, though the famous pirate Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, only came to prominence about 1720).
Look closer though and you can see traces of the mystery religions, of later what had become necromancy. The initiate must in some sense die, go to the underworld where the dead are buried, and there perform rites that will enable him to gain eternal life, by walking in the footsteps of a god, an Osiris, a Moses or a Jesus (to mention the ones I’ve stumbled upon here).
Only the context has changed over the centuries. Religion has become magic, and then a tale of entertainment.
The way these events are read tells us also something about ourselves. We look for astronomical verification of the Bethlehem star, and disprove the massacre of the innocents, but miss the mythic journey of the hero to gain eternal life.
We imagine a non existent forensic science of the 15th century (the age of relics and miracles) able to prove the committal of mass murder, yet miss the politics of feudalism and the practice of alchemy.
We notice misogyny and sexism in 17th century fairy tales but miss references to Masonic rites. Charles Perrault’s elder brother Claude for example was an associate of Huygens and Isaac Newton (also a famous alchemist) and all were advanced scientists of the day, operating under the shield of the Masonic Order. In Bluebeard you only have to ask why Bluebeard (the initiate) provides a key, and asks the heroine to avoid one particular door, behind which she discovers death.
There seems an openness in the ancient world about spiritual matters that is lacking in the ordered Catholic world of the West, with its Aristotelian laws of nature from simple to complex forms, Ptolemaic astronomy of fixed spheres, and Orthodox theology. The so called Age of Reason just moved this ordered view of the world to a secular context to create what we call science.
Only recent developments in quantum physics, with their emphasis on relationships rather than laws, come close to supporting the imaginative scope needed to explore the universe and its origin in eternity.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.