Friday, May 23, 2008

San Gennaro and Vesuvius

I confess that San Gennaro was not one of the saints that I best knew as a child who enjoyed books such as Butler's 'Lives of the Saints'. Given the fact that he is the Patron Saint of Napoli, one of the most important cities of Italia, I am rather ashamed that I knew little more about him than his name.

When I lived in Manhattan, I discovered San Gennaro to be the focus of one of the most important annual celebrations in the city. The Feast of San Gennaro this year in New York will begin on 11 September and culminate on the actual official Feast Day on 19 September.

I have attended the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy more than once, but it always has been a festival that I experienced en passant, when I visited the area of Mulberry Street for some reason and found myself in the midst of the festivities.

It was only when I visited Pompeii that I became aware of the supreme importance of San Gennaro to the people of Naples. Ordinarily, I do not like to be 'guided' through any area, but the guide for Pompeii was charming, erudite and extremely thoughtful. His obvious enthusiasm for his city's Patron Saint gave me a greater understanding of the reason why his Feast is celebrated annually on another continent thousands of miles away.

The miracle of the liquefaction of San Gennaro's blood each year defies scientific reduction. It has occurred now for over a millenium not once, but twice each year, on the first Sunday in May and on 19 September. The first Sunday in May marks the date when his relics were removed from the catacombs of Naples. 19 September is the anniversary of his actual martyrdom.

San Gennaro was a bishop of Benevento who was martyred in 305 during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. Originally named Januarius, he is believed to have been a patrician, a descendant of the Caudini tribe of the Samnites. His martyrdom may have been prompted by his visit to a local prison to console other Christians who were awaiting their own impending deaths. In the fashion of many martyrs of the period, the tale of San Gennaro involves multiple tortures and unsuccessful attempts to end his life by various means. He was thrown first into a furnace where the flames did not touch him. He then was sent into the Flavian Amphitheatre in Pozzuoli to be torn to pieces by wild bears. The bears refused to attack. He was beheaded ultimately at Solfatara and an old man gathered his remains, including his severed head, in a cloth. A woman of Naples named Eusebia soaked up the precious blood of the martyr with a sponge and placed it in a vial.

The relics of this martyr were moved many times and indeed, head and body resided at different locations often throughout history. In 1506, an elaborate Succorpo was completed at the order of a local Cardinal and San Gennaro's remains rest in the Cathedral of Naples.

The blood of the saint is preserved in two phials and the head of the martyr reposes in a silver reliquary. On the first Sunday in May, these are borne in procession through the streets of Napoli from the Duomo or Cathedral to the Franciscan Church of St. Clare. It is here that the miraculous liquefaction occurs.

On the 19th of September, liquefaction occurs once again and the relics are displayed to the public in the Cathedral. What is undisputed fact is that the blood is a solid mass as one would imagine any blood that survived two thousand years would be, and yet somehow it is 'renewed', becoming liquid twice yearly.

The relationship between Vesuvius and San Gennaro is one of faith, as he is the Saint to which the people of the region turn for protection against all calamities, including earthquake and volcanic eruptions. For those who live beneath the shadow of a live volcano, San Gennaro's power is a source of comfort. His intervention is believed to have halted the flow of lava in the last eruption of Vesuvius in the first half of the 20th century.

St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote: 'The Neapolitans honour this saint as the principal patron of their city and nation, and the Lord himself has continued to honour him, by allowing many miracles to be wrought through his intercession, particularly when the frightful eruptions of Mount Vesuvius have threatened the city of Naples with utter destruction.

'While the relics of St. Januarius were being brought in procession towards this terrific volcano, the torrents of lava and liquid fire which it emitted have ceased, or turned their course from the city. But the most stupendous miracle, and that which is greatly celebrated in the church, is the liquefying and boiling up of this blessed martyr's blood whenever the vials are brought in sight of his head. This miracle is renewed many times in the year, in presence of all who desire to witness it; yet some heretics have endeavored to throw a doubt upon its genuineness, by frivolous and incoherent explanations; but on one can deny the effect to be miraculous, unless he be prepared to question the evidence of his senses.'

Miracles are not as popular now with the general public as they once were and yet, our culture's deliberate refusal of faith has not made people more intelligent, more learned or less gullible where deceit and chicanerie are concerned. George Bush's ability to deceive the masses into believing in non-existent 'weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq is proof of that. I find it rather extraordinary that people are reluctant to place their faith in the Divine and yet are quick to surrender their safety and welfare into the hands of political rogues and charlatans.

There are those who are fond of repeating Marx's axiom to the effect that 'religion is the opiate of the masses' but in the 21st century, it is the media that is the true opium of the masses. Whatever abuses have been committed through the ages in the name of different religions have nothing whatsoever to do with spirituality. People believe whatever they are told or shown on a so-called 'news' programme and yet are determined to cast doubt on the existence of 'miracles'.

Like many legends, that of San Gennaro or St. Januarius probably holds echoes of earlier tales and very ancient rites. That by no means invalidates or lessens his importance to the people of Campagna. In fact, it enhances it.

The idea of the blood that is 'reborn' twice yearly has connections in legend with the ancient seasonal death and rebirth of the King or Lord. In fact, during the Roman period, there was a rite that occurred with respect to the grape vats dedicated to Dionysius and a series of seasonal festivals that celebrated the 'rebirth' of the blood of the vine, symbolising the god himself. The first Sunday in May traditionally is the time of May processions honouring new life and fertility. The middle of September is Autumn, a time of harvest.

The motif of the 'three deaths' is one that is found in many ancient legends as well. The fact that St. Januarius first was put through the fire, then subjected to the threat of being torn to pieces by wild animals and finally was beheaded is very much part of an ancient ritual.

In the tale of Mot and Baal from ancient Canaan, the god Mot as a symbol of the grain was subjected to a number of different deaths, ultimately to be reborn. St. Gennaro is part of history but many details of his martyrdom no doubt have been borrowed and enhanced by older tales. The martyrdom of Christians (as well as Pagans) in the arenas of the Roman empire occurred regularly and all the methods described in the Saint's life were common but the motif of a god or hero who can endure more than one 'death' is an integral part of myth.

In the old Norse Eddic tales, the goddess Gullveig was put to death more than once by Odhinn and yet, she survived death by fire again and again. Fire in fact is a symbol both of death and rebirth. The phoenix actually is reborn in the flames.

The Goddess Isis held a child in the fire in order to make him immortal. Demeter did likewise. In fact, 'Achille's heel' is a term that comes from the same ritual, when Achilles as an infant was held in the flames to render him invulnerable. The only part of his body that remained vulnerable was the heel, as that was how he had been held. There are tales in the Bible that stem from the same magical tradition.
It is possible, therefore, that the inclusion of an ordeal by fire in the tale of St. Gennaro is a means by which his 'hero-status' is emphasised.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Sunday in Messina

We reached Messina on Sunday. Almost everything was shut, but one could enjoy the incredible charm of the architecture, the automated clock at the Cathedral and indeed the Cathedral itself.

I ate some sandwiches in the garden of the Cathedral and spent a rather lovely half hour there. (I always made sandwiches in the morning to take with me on any excursion.) Although I had hoped to be able to see some gorgeous Sicilian ceramics, almost every shop, apart from little souvenir shops, was in fact shut.

The architecture was not classical but appeared to combine Eastern with Western elements in a very bold and ornate fashion. I loved it. Although close to Malta geographically, it was very different.

In particular, the doorways and the actual doors of the Cathedral were spectacular. One could have lost oneself for hours in the intricate stone carvings of vines and pillars and fantastical creatures. Entering the Cathedral through an archway like that, one was very conscious of the door as a portal to a sacred dimension.

In fact, these old Cathedrals are repositories of great spiritual power. It is not only the time, labour and love lavished upon every aspect of their construction, but the fact that generation after generation has gone there to worship and has recognised it as the fountain of their spiritual inspiration. Whether by gazing up to heaven to admire the painted woodwork of the ceilings or downward to the magnificent floors, created of patterned marble, one enters easily into a heightened state of consciousness.

Although the port intially appeared to be very commercial with huge Martini and Campari signs on the horizon, there were fabulous views of the Cathedral and other historical landmarks as well, and the promise embodied in that early sight of the city was realised.

Messina is one of the oldest ports in the Mediterranean. It is steeped in the various influences that resulted from its position as a trading gateway for thousands of years.

Malta and Sicily seem to have very different attitudes where the Arab influence on their culture is concerned. Malta has embraced its glorious mixed heritage, but I have a feeling that in Sicily, the Moor very much is portrayed as the Enemy in folklore and history. A mural on the wall of a local restaurant depicted a Western Knight in confrontation with a Saracen. Charming perhaps but nonetheless redolent with old emnities, especially when one notes that the Knight's sword is bloodied.

It appeared to be rather a poor city in some respects, sadly. The vendors outside the cathedral were mainly Koreans, selling the shabbiest array of sunglasses and cheap toys for children that I had seen anywhere. One cannot judge a city by its souvenir shops, and I shouldn't comment on the basis of a few hours spent in Messina on Sunday, but I did feel that Sicily still may be less prosperous than its northern sisters.

Attending Mass in the Cathedral was the highlight of the day. The atmosphere was charged with true devotion and it was a challenge to try to understand the homily. Having spent a month in Roma once and memorised the Mass and many prayers in Italian, I nonetheless was surprised by the degree to which I was able to respond.
Although the priest quite sternly ordered all of the tourists out of the Cathedral before he began the Mass, he allowed me to stay. One touches the heart of a city when one participates in a sacred rite. Although the businesses and the shopping precincts and even many of the restaurants in Messina were shut, I left with a rather profound impression of the city.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Portals to the Underworld

This is a topic of eternal fascination for me, and I have written about it elsewhere on many occasions, but it was in Tarquinia that I actually experienced a small measure of Inanna's descent to the Underworld.

The 'Underworld' or 'Great Below' of ancient Sumer as well as ancient Canaan was an actual place, found within the heart of a mountain.

Known as the Kur, Kurgal or Ekur, it translates as 'House Mountain', 'Great Mountain' or 'House which is like a Mountain'. The descent would have been made by means of actual stairs or a path carved into the mountain. The Mountain may have been one created by Nature, or like Silbury Hill, it could have been fashioned by human beings.

Mounds or Tumuli are houses of the dead but they are mountains as well. Rising above the ground, they lead to the 'Underworld' or land of the dead. An ancient Canaanite poem eloquently describes the ritual journey undertaken to the heart of the Mound. In fact, it was a practice in Canaan to hold funeral feasts inside the tomb or special area that served as the 'seat of power' for the dead.

The Sumerian poem of the Descent of Inanna is composed in a ritualistic rhythm that takes the reciter or reader gradually down the steps to the heart of the Underworld.

'From the 'great above', she set her mind towards the 'great below'.
The goddess, from the 'great above', she set her mind towards the 'great below'.
Inanna, from the 'great above', she set her mind towards the 'great below'.

My lady abandoned heaven, abandoned earth.
To the nether world she descended.
Inanna abandoned heaven, abandoned earth,
To the nether world she descended.
Abandoned lordship, abandoned ladyship,
To the nether world she descended.

In Erech she abandoned Eanna,
To the nether world she descended.
In Badtibira she abandoned Emushkalamma,
To the nether world she descended.
In Zabalam she abandoned Giguna,
to the nether world she descened.
In Adab she abandoned Esharra,
To the nether world she descended.
In Kish she abandoned Hursagkalamma,
To the nether world she descended.
In Agade she abandoned Eulmash,
To the nether world she descended.

Now she prepares herself by clothing herself with all the symbols of her power and authority:

'The seven divine decrees she fastened at her side,
She sought out the divine decrees, placed them at her hand.
All the decrees she set at her waiting foot,
The Shugarra, the crown of the plain, she placed on her head.
Radiance she placed upon her countenance.
The rod of lapis lazuli she gripped in her hand,
Small lapis stones she tied about her neck.
Sparkling gems she fastened to her breast,
A gold ring she gripped in her hand.
A breastplate she bound about her breast.
All the garments of her lordship she arranged,
And anointed her face with oils.

Inanna walked towards the nether world,
Her messenger Ninshubur walked at her side.
The pure Inanna says to Ninshubur:
'O thou, my constant support,
My messenger of favourable words,
My carrier of supporting words,
I now am descending to the nether world.

'When I shall have come to the Underworld,
Fill heaven with pleas for me.
In the assembly shrine cry out for me,
In the house of the gods, rush about for me,
Lower thy eye for me, lower thy mouth for me,
Like a pauper in a single garment, dress in mourning for me,
To the Ekur, the house of Enlil, direct thy step alone.

Upon entering the Ekur, the house of Enlil,
Weep before Enlil.
'Oh father Enlil, let not thy daughter be put to death in the underworld.
Let not thy good metal be ground up into the dust of the underworld.
Let not thy good lapis lazuli be broken up into the stone of the underworld.
Let not thy boxwood be chopped up into the wood of the woodcutter,
let not the maid Inanna be put to death in the Underworld.'

A series of instructions on how Ninshubur should proceed from temple to temple, exhorting all the gods follows.

When Inanna reaches the portal:

'Neti the chief gatekeeper of the Underworld asks:
'Who pray art thou?'

'I am the queen of heaven, the place where the sun rises.'

'If thou art the queen of heaven, the place where the sun rises,
Why pray hast thou come to the land of no return?
On the road whose traveler retuns not, how has thy heart led thee?'

Once permission to enter is granted, Inanna is forced to strip one of her symbols of power at each gate until at last she arrives at the throne of her sister, the Queen of the Underworld, naked and powerless.

At each gate, as the object of power is taken from her, she is told:
'In extraordinary fashion, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected.
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the Underworld!'

At last at the throne, judgement is pronounced.

The pure Ereshkigal seated herself upon her throne.
The Anunnaki, the seven judges, pronounced judgement before her.
They fastened upon her the eyes of death.

At their word, the word which tortures the spirit,
The ailing woman was turned into a corpse,
The corpse was hung from a stake.

After three days and three nights had passed,
Her messenger Ninshubur,
Her messenger of favourable words,
Her carrier of supporting words,
Fills the heaven with pleas for her.

Ultimately, in the house of death, the rite of rebirth is performed:

Upon the corpse hung from a stake,
Direct the fear of the rays of fire.
Sixty times the food of life, sixty times the water of life,
Sprinkle upon it:
Truly Inanna will arise.

Upon the corpse hung from a stake they directed the fear of the rays of fire.
Sixty times the food of life, sixty times the water of life,
They sprinkled upon it:
Inanna arose.

Inanna ascends from the Underworld:
The Anunnaki fled,
When Inanna ascends from the Underworld,
Truly the dead hasten before her...
They who preceded her,
They who precede Inanna,
Those who know not food,
Who know not water,
Who eat not sprinkled flour,
Who drink not libated wine,
Who take away the wife from the loins of the man,
Who take away the child from the breast of the nursing mother.'

Having undergone her shamanic ordeal in the land of the dead, Inanna returns, armed with the power of the Underworld. The Underworld demands a substitute. Like the tale of Proserpine and other myths and legends that deal with a seasonal death and rebirth, she who returns from the dead must send some one in her stead.

It is Dumuzi the Shepherd King who is dragged kicking and screaming into the Underworld to serve the sentence, but Death is nothing more than a rite of passage even for him and he will be allowed to return in the season of rebirth.

In Tarquinia, murals on the walls depict banquets as well as scenes of hunting and fishing. The characteristic door divided into four quarters is something quite different, however, an actual portal that leads to the Otherworld. Did the living join the dead in funeral banquets periodically as once they did in Sumer and Canaan? Did a high priest or priestess visit the tombs for incubation rites or inspiration in shamanic rites? Did the living hold vigils on the tumuli as the Celts and Norse later?

Burial mounds are as ancient as life itself and always have been believed to hold special powers. The dead may turn to dust but most cultures have held beliefs in the immortality of the soul and the ability of the living to cross the border into Death as well as the ability of the Dead to return to the land of the living, if only in dreams or visions.

Photographs include a view of Silbury Hill, the site of paleolithic caves near Haifa in Palestine, Etruscan tumuli in Cervetari and a very imposing tumulus in Turkey linked in legend to King Midas. Alas, I have not been to Cerveteri myself, but I should love to see more Etruscan sites!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Rape of Proserpine and Tarquinia

Walking through the ancient site of the necropolis of Tarquinia through fields filled with poppies, purple wild geraniums and other wildflowers, surrounded by tumuli and stairways that led down to Etruscan tombs, I suddenly felt very close indeed to the portal to the Underworld.

It was easy to picture the scene of the kidnap of Cere's daughter by the Lord of Death. She and her companions were collecting wildflowers innocently when his gaze fixed upon her and he determined to have her as his Queen.

Red poppies often have been associated with Proserpine. The poppies in the fields of Tarquinia were not the papaver somniferum that brings sleep, sister to Death but nonetheless were poppies and thus sacred to Ceres or Demeter, Earth Mother.

In the ancient myth, the ground itself opened and the God appeared in his chariot to take her in his arms. The earth then swallowed chariot, God and maiden in the blink of an eye.

Natural powers are very much in evidence in Italia and the islands of the Mediterranean. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes feature in history, legend and archaeological evidence everywhere. It is said that Atlantis may have been an island kingdom swallowed by the sea due to a natural cataclysm. Some place it near Cadiz. Others believe it was near Santorini. Whatever the truth of it, the shape of every continent and island has been transformed again and again by Nature's hand.

April is a beautiful time to visit the Mediterranean. Throughout Italia, Spain and the islands, wildflowers proliferated. The scent of lavender was intoxicating in Toulon in the south of France. There are no intense shades of green but the tapestry of cypress, pine, plane trees and wildflowers beneath powerful dazzling sunlight has its own unique beauty.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Descent to the Underworld

In the renowned Sumerian account of Innana's descent into the Underworld, the perception is that of an actual journey down flights of stairs, through tunnels, into buildings that possess portals leading to the Underworld.

Visiting the Necropolis of Tarquinia, I experienced a little of that journey, albeit brief and hampered by locked glass doors that prevent the viewer actually from completing the transition from this world to the Other.

Here is an article that deals with Etruscan Tombs:

Etruscan Necropolis of Tarquinia

The path invariably does take the visitor underground, beneath the tumulus built as a landmark above the surface of the land. The actual door to the Other Realm, however, is a painted one and thus would not be accessible to an ordinary living being, except in a trance state or after death.

Where sarcophagi once stood, now only hollowed points in the sand show their original position. No funerary goods or meals remain. All furnishings have been carted off either by grave robbers or museum curators. Many can be found in the marvelous palace converted into the best Etruscan museum in Italia, situated in modern Tarquinia.

Why do the Etruscans fascinate us so? Is it because so little 'hard' evidence remains of their civilisation and philosophy? They were very much a part of the ancient world, not isolated, and trade with other cultures and civilisations influenced their fashions and beliefs somewhat, as evidenced in their art... Even so, they remain a mystery in many respects, swallowed by the Romans, and ultimately known in history as a lesser civilisation.

Etruscan murals and frescoes depict fair-skinned blondes as well as dark-haired youths and maidens. They obviously drew upon a large gene pool as an international mercantile power. They had slaves, but slavery was a state of affairs from which an individual could be freed rather easily apparently and the slaves of the Etruscans had the reputation internationally of being a favoured class, elegantly attired and demonstrating a high level of artistic skills.

The necropolis of Tarquinia is a city of little houses, each one possessing its own unique personality. Very much unlike the majestic pyramids of ancient Egypt, Etruscan tombs possess a rather cozy atmosphere, truly a city of houses for the dead.

Friday, May 2, 2008

From Antonio Gaudi back to Carthage

The extraordinary popularity of Antonio Gaudi among individuals who have little interest in the history or development of architecture in general for the most part conditioned me almost to reject his work, despite the fact that his philosophy should have been attractive to me as some one who is obsessed with caves and natural temples. Yet, like any other subject or artist who becomes too trendy, from Pachelbel's Canon to Mozart, Gaudi was damned in my eyes before I ever saw his work firsthand by too much praise.

Nonetheless, as with respect to so many natural and man-made wonders, there is no substitute for firsthand experience and actually BEING A WITNESS. Barcelona in general surprised me. Again, it is so popular with the masses, even among those with little knowledge of culture or art, that I was prepared to disregard it completely in favour of Montserrat. In the end, however, I had to come down from the lofty mountain to spend a few hours on the ground and in the streets of the city of Barcelona.

In fact, the descent from Montserrat to Barcelona was what gave me true appreciation of Gaudi's work. It was then that I realised he captured nature's handiwork in his own caves and turrets. Every one speaks of the organic quality of Gaudi, of course, but it is the 'feeling' of a mountain range or cave that he captures so completely as well as the shimmer of moonlight or sunlight on water or the ever-changing reflection of light on leaves and stones, creating a mosaic of colour. Gaudi never will be a favourite of mine because he is too modern, and indeed I always will prefer the original Cathedral in Barcelona to the Sagrada Familia simply because it is steeped in history as well as for the sake of its incredible cloisters. Nonetheless, I left Barcelona with a greater appreciation of Antonio Gaudi.

As far as Montserrat was concerned, my interest initially was sparked by its great antiquity as a sacred site that far predated Christianity. In fact, the Black Madonna was found in a cave there and legend claims that it was created by angels. This made me believe that it could have been connected to an original earlier statue of the Great Mother, Cybele.

Meteorites always were considered to have magical powers and to have been sent to earth by the gods or some divine power. I always thought that the black stone of Cybele brought to Roma to save the land was a meteorite. Certainly there are many theories of why the Madonna of Montserrat is black, but to me, the most compelling is the ancient connection with the Great Mother.

Whether the statue was carved by human hand or that of an angel or spirit, and whether or not the colour of the Madonna is black because of the slow effect of candle-burning or because of association with Cybele is really irrelevant. 'Black Madonnas' exist throughout the Mediterranean and it is the natural surroundings, in my view, that determined the power of the place.

The Mother of a God will be perceived in different forms. There is a wonderful passage in Apuleius' 'Golden Ass' when the Goddess Isis declares that: 'My name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world, in divers manners, in variable customs, and by many names.'

Initially, every cave on this Earth was revered as the womb of the Great Mother and the birthplace of every great god from Attis to Zeus to Christ.

Be that as it may, the journey to Montserrat was undertaken as a pilgrim to try to discover whether or not it were a sacred place quite apart from its Christian significance and powers.

The actual buildings at Montserrat are fairly modern, as it served as the location for a series of battles between the French and the Spanish during the Napoleonic Wars. The Spanish tend to blame Napoleon for the damage, but it was they who first used the monastery as a military position. The French, however, did not have enough soldiers to occupy the position permanently after routing the Spaniards and thus, Monserrat was occupied, vacated and re-occupied a number of times until finally, the buildings were destroyed to prevent it from being used again for military purposes.

Nevertheless, it is not the buildings but the surrounding mountains that truly are the home of the Black Virgin. She is housed in a tiny chapel in the Church, access to which is gained through a series of side chapels and finally by mounting a number of steep, narrow, winding staircases higher and higher into the very heart of the Church. Only two or three individuals can stand in the actual chapel and therefore, as the number of pilgrims and curious tourists is enormous, one is not permitted to linger for more than a moment there. To make matters worse, the statue now is protected by a large dome of glass or acrylic as though an exhibit in a museum. In the view of the ancients, whatever sacred powers she may possess have been isolated in the capsule into which she has been imprisoned. One cannot touch her foot as so many of the faithful are wont to do when appealing to statues of saints, the Blessed Virgin or her Son in other churches and sanctuaries throughout the Mediterranean region.

Preservation of historical monuments for posterity undoubtedly is a noble aim, but there is something to be said for direct contact with any object of power or virtue. I felt somewhat cheated to be honest.

Even so, the ascent to the chapel was arduous and rather magical. My favourite stairwell was a narrow tunnel with Byzantine mosaics of all the greatest holy women in Christian history from Eve onwards depicted on either side. The fact that I cannot walk easily in the best of circumstances and even more poorly when ascending stairs or a steep incline added the element of personal sacrifice and suffering to the experience, like it or not. Burning with agony therefore, I finally reached the summit of my quest and gazed upon the ancient statue of the Blessed Mother or Great Goddess.

Her face and bearing are austere and stern. She is a very different woman from the pretty Madonnas of the Renaissance or of Lourdes and Fatima. In that sense, she did inherit the mantle of the ancient Great Goddess Cybele, who was a figure of omnipotence to be feared as well as loved. Does she exhibit compassion? No more nor less than Nature herself... She is a mother, of course, and holds the Divine Child on her lap, offering him to the world. One does sense her role as a Protective Guardian, powerful enough to counter any threat, to answer any plea or prayer, powerful enough to crush the head of the ancient Serpent beneath her heel or to cause or stay any earthquake or other natural disaster.

She has been credited with many miracles and many victories. The youth of Barcelona still make pilgrimages on foot from the city to the shrine of the Black Madonna. They depart from Barcelona in the evening and arrive at Montserrat early the next morning. The devotion of the people feeds the power of any shrine. When one considers that these mountains housed temples to other gods and goddesses from time immemorial, one does recognise a true seat of spiritual power.

At Fatima years ago, faced with a large concrete pavement in the place of the fields that once surrounded the site of the tree where the Blessed Virgin made her appearance, I was conscious of great power suffocated by a manmade structure. In the vast ancient caves near Fatima, however, the power remained undiminished. I felt as though charged with electricity as I walked along those dark paths in the very womb of Nature. There, I believe, was the true source of the power that created the apparition.

I am a deeply religious individual but I do believe that humans create most of the rules, regulations and descriptions of the Divine. Strip the Divine of all the human accretions and you find the caves near Fatima and the mountains surrounding Monserrat. The source of inspiration is there.

I have strayed far from my original intention which was to link Gaudi with Carthage via Montserrat...

The area of Tunisia where the ancient sites of Carthage can be found is extremely beautiful, if slightly arid. Trees and vegetation are everywhere, but it is the subtle green of the desert rather than the lush colours of the North.

The first site I visited was a 2nd century Roman amphitheatre, almost entirely obliterated but with a rather powerful history. Originally five floors, only the first floor above ground and one that is underground remain.

Once, there was seating for over 50,000 spectators and in fact, the amphitheatre could be flooded for naumachias (mock naval battles). Historically now it is known best for its connection with early Christian characters such as St. Perpetua and St. Augustine. The former was martyred there with a number of others by being trampled to death by wild cows.

The cow as a feature of the martyrdom cannot be coincidence. From the ancient bull dances of Crete to contemporary bullfights, the cow and bull have been agents of the gods. It is difficult to separate fact from myth where early Christian history is concerned, but it is possible that the mode of martyrdom had religious significance in ancient times, long before the life and death of Christ or St. Perpetua.

The 2nd Century amphitheatre certainly was not the most magnificent ruin I have seen but the visit was a memorable one.

First, I startled a lizard who was basking on the stones of an ancient archway. It disappeared into the ruins but not before drawing my attention to the composition of the stones themselves. They contained a mixture of materials, including small rocks, concrete and seashells. In fact, I noted what appeared to be many local contemporary offerings of snail shells as well as seashells left in crevices between huge stones or in tiny niches and scars in the rocks created by Nature through the centuries.

These shell offerings, coupled with the many wildflowers growing in the cracks and in archways, served to wed the ruins to Nature. Through the thousands of years they have endured, the land has embraced them, becoming a very organic structure.

The architecture was in no way similar to that of Antonio Gaudi but the organic quality of the stones reminded me of him.

More later about Carthage. Meanwhile, here is a link to quite a good site about the ancient civilisation:

Ancient Carthage

I have included photographs here of the Gaudi house in Barcelona, the mountains of Montserrat, the ruins of the amphitheatre in Carthage and the Tree of Attis in the ruins of the Punic Quarter near the National Museum. Unfortunately, there was so little time at each location. I always was the last person to return to the group, and being at a port for less than a day in each case and having little money myself made it impossible really to venture forth alone to explore. Taking organised group tours is NOT my preferred way to explore any location anywhere in the world, to be quite honest. I would prefer to spend a month in one location than a week in a dozen different places.