I recently came across a Saxon infant saint called Rumwold of Buckingham who only lived for three days. But before this poor baby died, he was able to display what can only be described as magical powers. Rumwold asked to be baptised and immediately after, preached a sermon on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Apparently, the very precocious baby was able to reference heavy theological sources such as the Athanasian Creed. Not bad for somebody who hadn’t been alive for a week yet. The sermon concluded with Rumwold predicting his own death and outlining the funeral arrangements. His short life took place in the village of King’s Sutton in what is now the English county of Northamptonshire. And the chatty baby was the scion of a noble Saxon family with both pagan and Christian relatives. He died in the year 662.
There are plenty of infant saints aside from Rumwold but one that I find morbidly fascinating is Sicarius of Bethlehem. This infant saint was one of the Holy Innocents killed by King Herod, as recounted in the Nativity story. Now – I hear you ask – how could any of the Holy Innocents have died a Christian when Christ himself had only just been born? Put another way – there was no Christianity when Herod gave his notorious order so how does a baby at that time become a Christian saint?
Well, details, details. None of these inconvenient points stopped early medieval France getting very enthusiastic about his cult. From the time of Charlemagne, Sicarius was worshipped fervently and his remains were kept at an abbey in the Dordogne. How were they discovered? You ask too many questions!
Though not a saint, Ellen Organ (1903-1908) was an Irish child whose apparent holiness was so overwhelming that Pope Pius X lowered the age for first Holy Communion from 12 to 7 years of age. “Little Nellie of Holy God” was another infant who rather implausibly was able to recite big chunks of scripture despite being obviously very young. The sickly child died of a variety of dreadful diseases from TB to whooping cough.
She was exhumed by the nuns looking after her a year following death and – of course – showed no signs of corruption. In 2015, there was some controversy over a call from a local bishop to exhume her yet again and move the body to a place where she could be venerated more easily by the faithful.
You wouldn’t normally think the Devil would want to go anywhere near a church – but apparently in the medieval period, he’d often pop in. With disastrous consequences!
I grew up in the county of Essex in England, not far from London. It’s full of medieval churches and abbeys – some still standing and others in ruins. And it’s well documented from the Middle Ages, that on occasion Satan was known to wander in. For whatever reason.
In the 1992 book, Secret Essex by Glyn Morgan, there are several instances noted of the devil coming to mass. In one case, in the year 1402, he came disguised as a grey friar – that is a member of the Franciscan order. This resulted in a huge storm that severely damaged the building.
He subsequently sneaked back to steal one of the bells, which was eventually retrieved in a nearby field. But nobody would dare ring it for years afterwards. This theft isn’t entirely surprising as apparently Satan can’t stand the sound of church bells. It distracts him as he tries to seize the souls of the recently departed!
According to Glyn Morgan, churches often used to have “devil doorways” on the north side of the nave. These are usually bricked up now. But the idea was that they encouraged Satan to vacate the premises during events like christenings where his presence really wasn’t appreciated at all. Nobody wanted a possessed baby!
At one church in the village of Runwell, a new priest took mass one Sunday and he was well known for his inappropriate interest in the occult. While he was delivering a sermon, the devil appeared out of his mouth. Recovering quickly, he dashed to the main door of the church and slammed it shut.
The devil in turn, crashed into the door and began trying to claw his way out. And you can still see Satan’s frantic scratches on the woodwork today.
According to local media in the county, there are lots of examples of the devil in church in Essex. In the town of Broomfield, there is an ancient tomb in the churchyard and if you walk round it seven times – guess who shows up?!!
If you have any stories about Satan coming to your place of worship – do share!
Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and into the Holy Land. The bible acknowledges that Moses was born and raised an Egyptian in elite circles. But some have wondered whether he rose to the very top and was indeed the Pharaoh Akhenaten.
Indulge me for a moment!
This is an intriguing theory about an enigmatic pharaoh who rejected the Gods of ancient Egypt and established a monotheist (one-God) cult around the Sun. Or the Aten to be more precise.
Some, even in academia, have argued that this one-God worshipping king of Egypt may have either been Moses or inspired him in some way. The father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, even believed that Moses had been a priest in the cult of the Aten who had to flee with his other believers when the old religion was restored and Akhenaten overthrown.
Akhenaten (or Moses if you prefer!) was famously married to the incredible Nefertiti whose beautiful bust is displayed at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Their depictions are almost touchingly domestic with the queen tending the children while Akhenaten sits nearby.
I was at the Neues Museum just a fortnight before it closed because of the Coronavirus. And I filmed some of the very distinctive artwork that was created under Akhenaten. It’s almost like the artist’s rule book was thrown out under his reign and new styles developed – reflecting his revolution in religion.
You’re not allowed to take photos or film the Nefertiti bust but I found an unfinished bust dating back over three thousand years. In some ways, this object was more alluring because you could see the artist’s smudges and tracing. Enjoy the little film I made below because it may be a long time before any of us get to see these treasures again.
One key difference between Akhenaten and Moses is, of course, that we know for 100% certainty that Akhenaten existed. We have his statues, his mummy (vandalised after death) and cartouches. Of Moses, we have the story but no confirmed grave or contemporary images.
When I was a kid back in the 1970s, I devoured a hugely popular book by the Swiss author Erich von Däniken called Chariots of the Gods. You may have read it too.
His contention was that ancient monuments, carvings and stories clearly evidenced the presence of alien beings amongst us in ancient history.
One famous example in his book is a carving on the sarcophagus lid of the Mayan king Pakal Votan (603-683 CE). He was a long lived ruler in central America and Von Däniken speculated that the Mayan had experienced contact with superior alien technology (as the image above shows):
In the centre of that frame is a man sitting, bending forward. He has a mask on his nose, he uses his two hands to manipulate some controls, and the heel of his left foot is on a kind of pedal with different adjustments. The rear portion is separated from him; he is sitting on a complicated chair, and outside of this whole frame, you see a little flame like an exhaust.
Chariot of the Gods – Erich Von Däniken
Von Däniken wasn’t the first person to speculate along these lines. Imagining contact between humans and creatures from outer space began to emerge in 19th century as the shackles of religion were thrown off and science increased our knowledge of the cosmos.
In 1897, the British author HG Wells wrote The War of the Worlds where resource hungry Martians invade southern England. A later movie version with Tom Cruise moved the action to the United States.
But Wells imagined aliens as hostile and warlike with no interest in helping humanity. That jaundiced view of extraterrestrials has been hugely influential in science fiction ever since.
But others conjectured a more benevolent relationship. Aliens as our friends and mentors. The most notable proponent of this view was a woman normally referred to as Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891 CE).
She was convinced that humans in ancient history had made contact with highly advanced alien life forms on the planet Venus. Christianity, obsessed with putting humanity at the centre of the universe, had hushed this up.
It’s been hypothesised that there are stories in the bible that point to first contact with aliens and the inability of humans two thousand years ago to understand what they were seeing. So many of the visions of people ascending into the sky and fiery lights all relate to aliens and UFOs.
In popular culture the idea of more primitive species being influenced in weird ways by more advanced beings has even been dramatised in sci-fi classics such as Star Trek and Doctor Who. The Ridley Scott movie Prometheus also dabbles in the notion of an advanced species calling humanity into existence for its own dark purposes.
The belief in aliens creating humanity or turbo-charging our civilisation has been derided by a number of scientists including the late Carl Sagan. In a nutshell, they argue that the alien-human contact theorists are relying on a kind of “god of the gaps” intellectual approach. Where religious fundamentalists insert God into gaps in scientific knowledge, the first contact brigade place aliens.
Needless to say – opinions on this subject are sharply divided!
Flat Earthers will find no support for their view that we’re standing on a very large dinner plate from ancient sources. Because even the Greeks of Pericles and Aristotle knew we were on a globe. They even calculated its circumference!
When I was at school, we were taught something false about the shape of the Earth.
Medieval people were not Flat Earthers
The falsehood was that people in the Middle Ages sincerely believed that the Earth was flat. Seafarers feared that if they sailed too far their ships would literally fall off the edge of the planet into the void. Christopher Columbus had to convince the church that by heading west in search of a better route to the Indies he wouldn’t suffer such a terrible fate!
The astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson appears to think our ancestors clung to this superstitious belief. When the Atlanta rap singer B.o.B recently tweeted his personal view that the Earth is flat, Tyson replied that nobody had believed that for five centuries – thereby inferring that before the Renaissance, it was the accepted wisdom.
But it wasn’t.
Even the Dark Ages rejected Flat Earthers
Even in the so-called “Dark Ages”, after the fall of the Roman Empire when classical learning was allegedly lost to us, the Venerable Bede calculated the date for Easter on the assumption that the Earth was spherical.
One mistake he made was thinking this “orb” was at the centre of the universe. It would take Copernicus hundreds of years later to put the Sun in the middle and the Earth orbiting round it. But, while getting that wrong, Bede never countenanced the notion that the planet was flat as a pancake.
Long before Bede, the Sumerian civilisation, Babylonians, ancient Greeks and Hebrew scholars – all accepted that the Earth was round. They didn’t have modern observatories or the ability to fly planes and rockets. Instead, they deduced the Earth was round from observation – mainly of the stars in the skies and their movements.
Also, simple facts like watching a ship disappear hull first when it reached the horizon.
Ancient Greek boffins blow apart Flat Earther theory
Ancient Greek super-brains Pythagoras and Aristotle wrote about the Earth being round five hundred years before Christ while Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar living in Ptolemaic Egypt even calculated the circumference of the Earth using a stick, the shadow cast by the sun in two places and some pretty basic maths. This video explains how he did it – then read on afterwards!
So why on Earth, pardon the pun, in the 21st century is the Flat Earth movement experiencing huge growth?
The Flat Earth Conference this year was better attended than ever. Attendees were told that mainstream science and NASA in particular have been lying to them. The planet is flat and the Antarctic forms an icy barrier that stops us all falling off and plunging into outer space.
The Flat Earth view is endorsed by celebrities from ex-basketball star Shaquille O’Neill to English cricketer Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff. In an outburst against those who think the planet is spherical, Flintoff asked:
If you’re in a helicopter and you hover, why does the Earth not [rotate under you] if it’s round?
In 2007, a survey found that 55% of American adults and 95% of eight-year-olds (who have a better excuse for ignorance) believed the Earth was flat. Not even Christopher Columbus, most of the medieval church and anybody remotely educated in the Dark Ages thought we live on a gigantic plate. Yet there are people today who think NASA and the world of science are peddling myths.
Blame the Victorians for Flat Earthers
Today’s Flat Earth movement began in Victorian England with a reaction against rationalism and the scientific establishment. A chap called Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884), writing under the pseudonym “Parallax”, founded the school of Zetetic Astronomy.
This kicked off a rancorous debate that ended in a vicious court battle between scientist and round Earth proponent Alfred Russel Wallace and Flat Earth advocate John Hampden – who ended up trolling Wallace (in a Victorian manner) for years afterwards.
Surveyors make calculations for the construction of roads and railways that make no allowance for the Earth’s surface being curved
The light from lighthouses is seen from distances that should be impossible if the Earth was round
Mariners use maps and not globes because the Earth is flat
Carpenter begged his readers to just use their senses and trust the bible – which he claimed made no assertion of the Earth being round (but neither does it state it’s flat). His lightweight arguments were known to the Ancient Greeks and refuted over two thousand years ago.
Eratosthenes, using his calculations of the Earth’s size, was even able to work out a distance from the Earth to the moon and a rough idea of its size. Other Greeks got close to working out how gravity operates (so why human beings don’t fall off a spherical earth) and that our planet circled the sun and not vice versa. This was two thousand, five hundred years ago.
The depressing revival in Flat Earthism threatens to take us back – not to the Middle Ages…but to the Bronze Age!