Transformations

by Kristof Smeyers

The beast and the frog

In 1916, as the First World War came to a standstill in the trenches of the western front, a great beast went hunting in the forests of New Hampshire, USA. The beast, an odd and disturbing creature by all accounts, stalked a frog. In The myth of disenchantment (pp. 159-160), Jason A. Josephson-Storm describes the beast’s modus operandi. It did not kill instantaneously. At sunrise, the beast baptised the ensnared frog and named it ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. This was only the start of the animal’s prolonged suffering. At dusk, the frog was put on trial. With appropriate pomp, the beast exclaimed: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, how thou art taken in my snare. All my life long thou hast plagued me and affronted me… Now, at last, I have thee; the Slave-God is in the power of the Lord of Freedom. Thine hour is come; as I blot thee out from this earth, so surely shall the eclipse pass; and the Light, Life, Love and Liberty be once more the Law of Earth. Give thou place to me, O, Jesus; thine aeon is passed; the Age of Horus is arisen by the Magick of the Master the Beast that is Man.’

After the mock trial, the frog ‘Jesus’ was condemned to death, and subsequently crucified. The British occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1948), nicknamed the Great Beast and infamous as ‘the wickedest man on earth’, cooked the frog’s legs, ate them, and burned the rest of the body. Jesus was consumed, no more: Crowley had taken and twisted the doctrine of transubstantiation to its extreme. This series of acts was done in accordance with Book LXX (‘The Cross of a Frog’) of the Thelema, Crowley’s own written philosophy. One of many similar rituals, the consumption of the frog transformed Crowley, turning himself into a god one incongruous step at a time. In 1921, he considered the transformation complete, and crowned himself ‘Ipssissimus’: beyond the gods.

 

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Aleister Crowley as photographed by Arnold Genthe. The Equinox 3.1 (Detroit: Universal Publishing Company, 1919), facing page 197. (c) Wikimedia Commons

Transubstantiation

Christ’s suffering body occupied a particularly strong cultural imaginary in the early twentieth century. Early twentieth-century stigmatics provided ammunition for those polemicists and worriers who aimed to protest a perceived disenchantment. (Or so S. Luzzatto claimed in his 2010 book on Padre Pio: miracles and politics in a secular age; the stigmatic and their community remain disconcertingly and overwhelmingly silent in approaches that go to some length to show how a stigmatic’s suffering was the embodiment of religious negotiations of ‘modernity’.) The parable of the beast and the frog shows how Christ’s body could transgress Christianity and hold symbolic sway in magical, occult, and other practices and beliefs. Crowley absorbed Christian symbolism to make it part of his own theology. The notion of ‘transformation’, of a practical use of Christ’s body, is central to any understanding of this multiplicity of meanings. For Crowley, the body of Christ signified a physical conduit between the material and the divine: to consume it, as he meant to consume all other gods, meant to transcend the bounds of the earthly realm and to reach his full potential. Though radical both in its aetiology and in its exertion, the underlying idea that interaction with the crucified body meant personal transformation or growth connects Crowley’s time under the New Hampshire canopy to the Passion experienced by many of the people that we study. Whether or not the Tyrolean mystic Angelica Darocca used a knife to reproduce the wounds of Christ on her body, for example, is in this respect not particularly relevant. By bearing the stigmata, she transformed herself; she was transformed.

Acknowledging that stigmata could be a form of religious, emotional self-expression is not the same as forcing the phenomenon into a corset of pathology. Our research has examined to some length now how we cannot approach the stigmata as a merely metaphorically and symbolically significant manifestation. The stigmatic was not only a tool in the battles between miracle-loving Catholics and materialists. Mortal skin was not just the canvas for holy signs; the Word was not simply made flesh. But the signs transformed the flesh—and the senses. Moreover, they held power, over believers and sceptics alike. That power was itself subject to the cultural contexts in which it appeared. A religious proclivity to suffering is not universal. In Biography of a Mexican crucifix (2010) Jennifer Scheper Hughes gives the example of the Cristo Aparecido in sixteenth-century Totolapan in Mexico. In 1543 the Augustinian missionary Antonio de Roa saw a crucifix made from the wood of the native maguey plant. The Christ figure is bloody and pale, ‘his ribcage poking through almost diaphanous skin’ as Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada describes it (‘Catholic devotion in the Americas’, Religion Compass, 13 (2019), pp. 1-10: 4). The appearance of the crucifix changed the indigenous community; it also meant a dramatic change in Antonio de Roa’s life. As crucial part of his conversion mission, he turned his own body into a ‘living image of pain’. Christian evangelisation centred around bodily suffering as a gateway into personal transformation. De Roa’s bleeding body, viewed in tandem with the Cristo, became a site of religious, christocentric instruction.

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Procession of the Cristo Aparecido in the streets of Totolapan, 15-19 March 2018. Image courtesy of http://museosanestebantetelpa.blogspot.mx/

Life, death, afterlife

The crucified body of Christ had many meanings: idiosyncratic, conflicting, overlapping; to be consumed, forgotten, venerated, or emulated. Stigmata were not the exclusive terrain of Catholics who equated the wounds with penitence and redemptive suffering. Jennifer Scheper Hughes has shown how the people of sixteenth-century Mexico did not welcome Christ’s pain and passion as an embodiment of their own suffering under colonial rule, but saw the crucifix rather as an object deserving of their care and love. For Crowley, though steeped in Christian themes, the body of Christ meant something else entirely. That transubstantiation, resurrection and stigmata were notions open to interpretation becomes apparent in occult writings. Occultists were naturally drawn to the power that emanated from Christ’s life, attributing it with qualities that befitted their own conceptions of the known, unknown, and unknowable universe. Helena Blavatsky tackled the subject of stigmata in Isis Unveiled (1877): supernatural markings on the skin were, in her view, a manifestation of the power of the imagination over one’s own body. To reach that conclusion, Blavatsky cherrypicked from a wide range of material, from Pythagoras to contemporary debates in the English medical journal The Lancet.

In turn, the phenomenon itself clearly held power over the imagination of others. The transformations of Christ evoked comparisons across a broad cultural imaginary. Stigmata were, perhaps naturally, often discussed in relation to matters of life, death, and rebirth. These matters could, depending on the perspective, corrupt rather than enshrine religious practices, and turn them into different things entirely. Stories of stigmata and other phenomena existed in a state of constant flux, oscillating between truth and fiction, between myth, interpretation and hearsay. Those different iterations nonetheless co-existed. Crowley’s hunt in the woods was by some Catholics considered as a mockery of some of the beliefs they held holiest, but they did not pick apart the connotation between occultism and ‘proper’ religion. Rather, the widespread and multiform focus on Christ’s body and suffering allows us to draw seemingly separate strands together. As cultural historians of stigmata we would be wrong to limit our scope to the field of (Catholic) religion at the expense of other contemporaneous worldviews concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation, or themes of penitence and resurrection.

Similarly unnerving comparisons were made in previous centuries, by local communities as well as later scholars. David Keyworth has pointed at the notable similarities (as well as differences) between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives of Central-European vampirism on the one hand and Catholic themes on the other: ‘The supposed existence of vampires also mirrored Christian belief in a future bodily resurrection at the Last Judgement’ (‘The aetiology of vampires and revenants: theological debate and popular belief’, Journal of Religious History, 34:2 (2010), pp. 158-173: 172). Here, vampires and Catholic miracles tied to Christ existed as each other’s mirror image—even if vampires famously have no reflection. Vampires as creatures having escaped the mortal confines of the coffin for an immortal life sustained by feeding on the blood of the living was, in Keyworth’s words, ‘in effect the antithesis to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation’ (p. 172).

Without incorporating these stories we would lose a significant part of this cultural imaginary in which religious phenomena, reanimated corpses, ghosts and vampires co-existed. Ongoing beliefs in stigmata, vampires, and the power that emanates from divinely touched bodies were often linked. Stigmata may at one point have been the sole terrain of the Catholic theologian (and this, too, is up for debate), but by the time Crowley crucified a frog between the maples and birches of New Hampshire Christ’s body and wounds had long been transformed into a powerful nexus of culturally entangled meanings.

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In 2017 a student art piece at Penn State’s Abington campus caused furore: Christus Ranae, a seven-foot sculpture of a crucified frog.

A saint under investigation: from a ‘black legend’ to a blessed heroine. The case of Elena Aiello (1895-1961)

By Leonardo Rossi

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Figure 1: A young Elena Aiello in the religious habit

By the end of October, the summer season has ended and you rarely see tourists in Cosenza. So my big suitcase and the city map I was holding drew the attention of some of the people who were also making the not-so-easy journey from the airport to the Calabrian town. I explained that I was in Calabria to do research on the blessed Elena Aiello (10 April 1895 – 19 June 1961). I was surprised to discover that almost no one had ever heard about her. Especially since in 2011 her beatification was a great event for the city, involving the most important religious and civil authorities and attracting thousands of faithful from all over Italy. Moreover, between the ‘30s and ‘60s she had been a media celebrity, about whom numerous articles had appeared in several national newspapers. However, when I elaborated a little more on the mystic woman and her extraordinary gifts (such as stigmata and prophecies), I learned that in Cosenza Elena was simply called by her nickname, ‘Holy Nun’. Here, in fact, she is perceived as their saint’, ‘canonized’ from below (although officially she is ‘only’ Blessed), a contemporary and familiar presence. By opening schools and orphanages, she created better opportunities for hundreds of children. Growing up, these children engaged in spreading her fame and in the idealization of her profile as a holy nun.

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Adventures in archival hunting

by Team members

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It is 9 a.m. and my contact person is guarding the door. We did not see anyone when we came in and we want to make sure that nobody knows I have been in here. I take my pictures in a hurry. Both of us nearly get a heart attack when someone enters only a minute after my contact has put the documents back in place. This is not the description of a top-secret mission of a spy during the Cold War, it is the current reality of our archival work.

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Missing pieces: studying the relics of European stigmatics

by Tine Van Osselaer

The hood of Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824) on display in the house of her childhood in Flamschen, next to it: the box with the text on how the object was preserved. Left: detail of the hood where the fragments had been cut out.

It does not take a very alert visitor to note that there is something missing. There can be no doubt: some fragments have been cut out of the hood (“Haube”) on display in the birth house of Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824). Born there in Flamschen, she became one of Germany’s most famous stigmatics. She was well-known during her lifetime but in the first decades after her death, her fame seems to have faded. But not completely: some still cherished her memory. Next to the blood-stained hood, lays a small box that once contained it. On its cover is a handwritten text explaining how it had been handed down from generation to generation. It is the biography of an object, vouching for the authenticity of the item.

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Musical poems in praise of a stigmatic

by Andrea Graus

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Margalida Amengual in ecstasy, c. 1918. ADM, 13.1.

Abandoned the day of her birth, Margalida Amengual (1888-1919) was adopted by a peasant family from Costitx, an isolated village in the middle of Mallorca (Spain). Extremely pious, she tried to join a convent but was rejected because of her feeble health. Amengual became a Franciscan Tertiary and was said to spend several hours meditating over the Passion. In her small library, she kept a book on the life of the stigmatised Italian mystic Gemma Galgani (1878-1903), canonised in 1940. Her spiritual father removed the book from the library after the start of the extraordinary phenomena. In late July 1918, Amengual started to have severe difficulties swallowing and began a period of inedia that lasted six months, until her death on 30 January 1919. Allegedly, she was only nourished by the Eucharist and by ice mixed with sugar and cinnamon. On Friday 9 August, stigmata became visible in her hands for the first time. From then on, she relived the Passion every Friday. She allegedly experienced other extraordinary phenomena, such as visions and levitation, and had the gift of prophecy—she correctly predicted the day of her death. The Bishop of Mallorca charged Reverend Nicolás Saggese and Canon Antonio Sancho with an investigation. All rejected fraud and judged the phenomena to be veridical.

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