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Happy Saint Vitus Day!

June 15, 2009

June 15th celebrates the patronage of Saint Vitus, a young man who originally was born to a Roman Senator from Sicily, but who fled his father's house along with his tutor, Modestus, and his nanny (who was also Modestus' wife), Crescentia. Modestus and Crescentia are the ones credited with converting Vitus to Christianity at a young age, which pissed off his father Hylas, who worshiped several of the 'pagan' gods venerated throughout the Roman Empire. Fearing Hylas' wrath, they fled somewhere to Lucania, which was a Roman province in the southern part of Italy, between the Tuscan Sea and the Gulf of Taranto. Various reports have him at the age of seven or twelve when he fled.

From there, he was summoned to Rome, because one of Emperor Diocletian's sons had been possessed by a demon, and Vitus was asked to cast it out. Once Vitus was successful in chasing the demon from the young man's body, Diocletian was so overcome with joy and good cheer that he decided to have Vitus, Modestus and Crescentia tortured--all because they wouldn't renounce their Christian faith and revert to the paganism that still was celebrated in Rome. Diocletian--as is common with people born on December 22--had a heart of pure gold. He was very open and accepting toward different cultures and religions...except for Christianity. Diocletian saw the Christians as a threat to undermine the Empire, and so he declared an edict to rid the world of Christianity once and for all. This little act was known as the Diocletianic (or Great, if you can't wrap your tongue around all those syllables) Persecution, and when all was said and done, some 3500 Christians had been slaughtered, several of them going down in the church annals as being martyrs. Diocletian's successor, Constantine, was the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire.

In a somewhat ironic twist, while Diocletian disliked the Christians enough to order their wholesale slaughter, he respected the Jews for their ancient and respectful worship of their God. Therefore, the Christians were the ones persecuted and the Jews were left alone to worship as they pleased. Diocletian seemed to have missed the memo when it came to religious persecutions.

Anyway, it's not surprising that Vitus, Modestus and Crescentia were tortured under Diocletian. According to the legend, Vitus was dumped into a kettle of boiling oil, from which he emerged unscathed. Undaunted--and unimpressed with his faith in God--his torturers then dunked Vitus into a kettle of boiling tar, which still didn't get the job done. Once more, he emerged from the kettle with no visible wounds. I imagine that the guys standing around with feathers were mighty disappointed. Finally, his torturers were totally pissed, and they tossed Vitus into a kettle of molten lead. After completing a few laps around the kettle and doing an Esther Williams routine, Vitus climbed out of the kettle, looked up at his torturers, gave them the finger, and asked "Is that all you got?"

Seeing that the kettles of boiling liquids weren't going to get the job done, his captors dragged Vitus, Modestus, and Crescentia out into the countryside and lopped off their heads. Their decapitated bodies were left for the carrion birds to pick over, until Vitus appeared to a wealthy matron named Florentia and told her where their bodies were lying. Curious, Florentia went to investigate and found the three where the ghost of Vitus had told her they would be. She buried the bodies there on the spot.

The story of Saint Vitus doesn't end there. His veneration became extremely popular throughout the southern reaches of the Italian peninsula and over into Sicily. He was so popular, in fact, that children were named for him in these regions, which gave rise to the names Vito and Guido. These were translated into other languages, which then led to the names Guy in France, Wyatt in England, Veit in Germany and Austria, Wit in Poland, Vid in the southern branches of the Slavic languages, and Vit and Vith in Czechoslovakia. St. Vitus also became extremely popular in the Slavic lands, because his name was translated as Sveti Vid, which came to replace the very popular god of light, Svantovid, which is probably why his Saint days are in the summer months (June 15th by our Calendar, June 28th by the Gregorian Calendar used by the Orthodox church). In Croatia alone, there are at least 123 churches dedicated in St. Vitus' name.

St. Vitus is represented by a young man, holding a palm leaf, and standing in a kettle. Sometimes, he is symbolized by a lion (a common symbol used for martyr's from Diocletian's time) and a raven (probably because Florentia found ravens munching on his innards when she happened upon his body). He is also symbolized by a rooster, probably for his cocky demeanor when dumped unharmed from the cauldrons.

In Germany and some of the other eastern European countries--especially in Latvia and the Baltic states--it was a common custom to gather around St. Vitus' statue on his feast day. While this is not uncommon practice, it became custom to dance in a wild, jerky manner. The dance became so popular that it was named "Saint Vitus' Dance". However, the dance was reminiscent of having a seizure, and because of this dance, Saint Vitus became the patron saint of epileptics, especially those suffering from chorea (which derives its name from the Greek word chorea, meaning a type of dance, which gave us our words "chorus" and "choreography").

Because of the "dance" named in his honor, Vitus also became the patron saint of entertainers, which included dancers, comedians/jesters and actors. He's also the patron saint of dogs, snake-bite victims, and storms. He's said to protect against lightning strikes, animal attacks, and oversleeping (though nothing about sleeping with the fishes, eh Vito and Guido?). He's also the patron saint of Bohemia and a shit-ton of other towns throughout southern Italy and Eastern Europe, most notably Prague in the Czech Republic. He is also one of the Fourteen Martyrs that can be invoked during times of trouble, especially when one is sick. The practice arose during the Middle Ages when the continent of Europe was stricken by this little thing called the Bubonic Plague.

Originally, Modestus and Crescentia were venerated alongside Vitus. They have since fallen out of vogue, as there really is no historical proof that they were ever martyred or--for that matter--existed. I guess that's what you get for teaching your boss' son to be Christian--dumped in vats of boiling liquids, beheaded, and forgotten by history.


Cooper Green said...

I see that he is also the Patron Saint of Speedos and bling.

Kristine said...

I wish you wrote my high school history books. They could all use a little more wit and phrases like "shit-ton."

Eric said...

Nicely done. I'll get to work on my St. Vitus alarm clock this very day...

Nej said...

December 22nd eh?

"....looked up at his torturers, gave them the finger, and asked "Is that all you got?"

Love it!!!

Nej said...

There are Vittitoe in my family....tried (briefly) looking up the origin. Did you find anything related to just his toe, while you were researching?? :-)

Fancy Schmancy said...

You are more informative, and so much more fun, than Wikipedia! Raise the roof, indeed!

Soda and Candy said...

Yay learning!

My favorite part is the etching of the poncy little Victorian boy getting his groove on.

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

@ Cooper Green: Thanks for stumbling over here. Your blog is fucking hilarious.

@ Kristine: I wish I wrote high school history books, too. Because then I'd have mo' money.

I have thought about gathering together my saints stories and putting them into book form. Shit-tons and all.

@ Eric: Be wary of the molten lead kettle. Oh, hey, that'd wake you up, wouldn't it?

@ Nej: Yep. December 22nd. Diocletian was born. Nicolai Ciaocescu was overthrown. Sure, it was 1775 years apart, but December 22nd certainly is an important date in European history.

@ Nej: When they went to carry his remnants to the cathedral named in his honor, someone discovered that Vitus was missing a toe. They tracked the culprit down and found him with the bones. Hence, Vittitoe.

@ Fancy: The story from Wikipedia was lifted, word-for-word, from the Catholic Encyclopedia. Seriously, try synonyms, people. Plagiarism is completely alive and well.

@ S&C: I think that lad is having a seizure. Or, at least, he's being used to show what Saint Vitus' Dance is like.

Lisa-tastrophies said...

I am going to have to finish reading this after I gouge out the vision of the hairy-speed-o-wearing-fat man from my brain...

P.s. Where ever did you learn this stuff???? I want to be in the cash cab with you! Dude, we would completely kick butt. I could answer all the six-degrees of Kevin Bacon questions and you could answer all the questions that required real knowledge.