For the past year or so I’ve been obsessed with the study of ecstatic religion and the phenomenon of spirit possession in antiquity and beyond. If I had to give a reason for my unwavering interest, it’d probably be two-fold: (1) ecstasy – a type of altered state of consciousness – is present in practically every religion, and (2) historical accounts of spirit induced behavior and exorcism are arguably the most captivating and obscene readings in existence.
It is this last point which I wish to demonstrate in this Halloween post – which probably shouldn’t even be called such since the stories below aren’t even scary. They’re mostly just plain “what the f***.” Though I suppose much of what you’ll encounter, like a description of Satan’s genitalia, is scary in the disturbing sense. But I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
So without further ado, here are just some of the many horrific accounts of spirit possession and obscene behavior I’ve come across in my exhaustive study. Note that these come straight from the secondary sources referenced below.
WARNING: THESE ARE NOT YOUR AVERAGE HALLOWEEN STORIES. IF YOU ARE EASILY OFFENDED GO READ SCARY STORIES BY ALVIN SCHWARTZ; THEY ARE FUN AND NOSTALGIC AND DO NOT INVOLVE SEX, GENITALIA, BODILY FLUIDS, OR INFANT-CANNIBALISM. ACCOMPANIED ARTWORK IS ALSO NSFW.
If you’d like to be fed other interesting nuggets on ecstatic religion and view an organized display of the books I used for research, check out my tumblr page Belly Talkers
Like most people my age, I have a relationship with my phone that in some ways mimics that of a parent and his newborn: always taking it with me, always expecting it to wake me up, having the reflex to play with it at every dull moment, and, shrieking when I drop it. My addiction has also severely worsened since joining Twitter and discovering the immense academic population that inhabits it (with good reason). At the same time, I’ve never been one who felt the need to constantly upgrade my mobile gadget; I had this bad boy for years before hopping on the smartphone bandwagon. If you are one of those people who upgrades every year, say to each consecutive iPhone the month of release – and you can afford it – great. I may hold the strong opinion that those hundreds of dollars could be spent better elsewhere, but who am I to judge? I’m no Son of Man.
A few months ago, Pope Francis elevated former popes John XXIII and John Paul II to sainthood. What does that mean? While the word “saint” carries a baggage of different meanings today depending on the denomination it’s used in, generally speaking a saint is a holy individual (i.e. believer in Christ) who has earned the rewards of heaven after death. In the more Catholic sense, a saint is someone with whom Christ dwells, giving them an exceptional level of holiness as displayed through heroic and philanthropic deeds one earth. After their death, the Catholic Church comes to recognize and canonize some of these individuals who are now in heaven. 
While the Catholic Church recognizes a great number of individuals as saints, they by no means claim to have a complete or even a nearly complete list. How many have they canonized so far? The answer isn’t an easy one to find. Using official church sources it tallies close to 1,000. Elsewhere, it appears to exceed 10,000. That’s a lotta saints marching in. Note that these are numbers within the Roman Catholic religion. The numbers may be even higher among the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox congregations, since their “canonization” process isn’t nearly as fixed. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that with so many saints to choose from there are a handful of individuals whose legends are worth reading about purely for entertainment in addition to historical interest. Never did I imagine how surprisingly bizarre they would turn out to be, aided especially by artwork which has strongly preserved their tradition. So without further ado, here’s my top eleven.
If you’d simply like to view their depictions in art, check out my gallery of each saint here.
- St. Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380): The woman Christ married with his foreskin
- St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153): Breastfeed by the Virgin Mary
- St. Christopher (? — c. 251): A giant Cynocephalus (i.e. dog-headed man)
- St. Moses the Black (330–405): Former bandit leader and all-around badass
- St. Stephen (? — 34): Switched at birth for a changeling by Satan
- St. Margaret of Antioch (? — 304): Escaped the belly of a dragon
- St. Joseph of Cupertino (1603 – 1663): The Flying Friar
- Blessed Agostino Novello (1240 – 1309): Your friendly neighborhood monk
- St. Roch (c. 1328 – c. 1376): Saved from the plague by Lassie
- St. Gall (550 – 646): Acquired a pet bear
- St. Veronica (1st century AD): Obtained Jesus’ face on a cloth (Veil of Veronica)
← Rewind to Genesis 1-2 Fast-forward to Genesis 3-4 →
Jump to Context and Scholarly Notes
Jump to Parallels and Deleted Scenes (coming nigh!)
An Apple? Have you ever been tempted by an apple? I would have been like, “cover it in caramel and come back to me. You got any cake back there?”
(3:1-3) Enter the serpent, who was craftier than the other animals. It asks the woman about the dietary rules of the garden, to which she replies that they may consume the fruit of any of the trees, but “God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it, and you shall not touch it, or else you’ll die.'” Question: why isn’t the woman (later named “Eve”) freaked out that a snake just started talking to her? Do all animals talk in the garden? Or is Eve just a relative of Lord Voldemort and speaks Parseltongue? Continue reading
In celebration of Father’s Day I thought I’d share an interesting motif I noticed in Christian art throughout the centuries: step-dad Joseph’s gloomy emotion during the nativity. I learned that this is especially common in works of the Eastern Orthodox tradition which in-bedded the folk tradition that Joseph continued to have doubts regarding Mary’s virginity. Some artists believed that this is because Satan approached Joseph in disguise in an attempt to persuade him into doubt, as seen in the painting at the top right of my collage below where Satan comes resembling an old man. More than anything I love how consistent the portrayal of Joseph is, his head resting on his hand in exhaustive despair.
What I find interesting about this supposed genealogy (other than the level of gullibility) is that she is related to Mary through Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus in his tomb. The problem is that nowhere in the New Testament does it say that Joseph is related to Mary – or anyone else that we know of. The idea that he’s Mary’s Uncle stems from medieval legend. Nice try, Ancestry.com.
Ēostre or Ostara, the Germanic goddess of Spring. By Johannes Gehrts (1884).
Ah, spring! The smell of flowers, copulating rabbits, and anti-theist propaganda. I had originally planned on discussing the history of Easter at length in order to debunk the dubious claim it was originally in celebration for the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, however I discovered that other bloggers have already done an excellent job doing so. Long story short, Ishtar has nothing to do with Easter. Rather, historians believe that the Easter we celebrate today took most of its aspects from the Germanic spring festival commemorating the pagan goddess Ēostre – whose fertility symbols included rabbits and eggs. The end of winter was a time for celebrating the resurrection of spring and good harvest for many cultures, and therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that Christians in Europe chose to adopt already attractive pagan elements into their celebration of the resurrection of Jesus – a move not unusual in the history of Christianity.
But maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the symbols of Easter do go back to the early days of Christianity. Baby chicks coming out of eggs could represent Christ emerging from his tomb; the rabbit represents Jeshua Cottontail – the animal’s Messiah; we eat chocolate because it’s brown and so was the cross. See? It is possible for Easter to remain purely Orthodox. For further information on the history of Easter check out www.historyofeaster.info.
Now that that’s settled, I thought I’d take this occasion to discuss the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, which I think most will find quite eye-opening.
Since this post is a tad long and exhaustive scrolling can lead to carpal tunnel, feel free to jump to its following segments.
- Problems with the Gospels as Historical Accounts
- The Historical Validity of the Empty Tomb
- The Evolution of the Risen Jesus in Textual Tradition
- What Did the First Disciples Believe?
- Jesus as the Exalted Son of God by his Resurrection
- The Son of God in Historical Context
—Deleted Scenes: The Gospel of Peter’s account of Jesus emerging from the tomb
—Sources and Further Reading
Problems With the Gospels as Historical Accounts
When I was a young tike my mom would occasionally put on for me the imperative cartoon for cool Catholics growing up in the 90s: Animated Stories from the New Testament on VHS. All I really recall learning from these tapes was that Jesus was an important man who was white, soft spoken, could perform magic tricks, and had women begging at feet. I’m happy to report that my understanding of the historical Jesus has grown with my height since then, eventually forcing me to accept the fact that these stories about him aren’t as simplistic and straightforward as many believers continue to claim. It wasn’t long ago I rediscovered the episodes of the cartoon online, finding it quite interesting how the writers attempted to weave together the gospels to construct a single, consistent account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Granted, if you were to quickly read through the gospels one by one, your memory would probably do the exact same thing, like a puzzle: remembering the story of Jesus as a single unit after having pieced together the different accounts – all while having payed little attention to pieces which turned out to be doublets or don’t fit together smoothly.
God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Since Genesis never gives an account of the first couple’s wedding, a fair number of rabbinic writers give us their thoughts of how it went. Below is a condensed version by Howard Schwartz from the midrashic sources. The most entertaining aspects of this story, in my opinion, are the archangels Michael and Gabriel serving as Adam’s groomsmen (I bet the bachelor party was off the hook knowing those two), God’s role as best man and snazzy wedding planner, and the angelic dance party that followed. Continue reading