Hornets and Mines: When Folktales Meet History

There’s an old Russian legend about St. Nicholas’ Day collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev:

13th Century, from the collection of the Russian State Hermitage Museum; United States Public Domain. from Wikimedia Commons

13th Century, from the collection of the Russian State Hermitage Museum; United States Public Domain. from Wikimedia Commons

Some peasants worked for a foreign steward, and the foreigner did not follow the Orthodox faith or observe the Russian holidays. He made the peasants work all the time.

One day the village elder came to the Estate house and spoke to the steward. “Tomorrow is St. Nicholas’ Day and we are forbidden to work.”

“Who is St. Nicholas?” the steward scoffed. “Show him to me.”

The village elder brought him an icon of the saint.

“This is just a wooden board” the steward persisted. “It can’t do anything to me. I shall work, and so shall you all.”

So the peasants worked the Estate, keeping St. Nicholas in their hearts and minds that day. But they soon decided to play a trick on the foreign steward.

A few months later, the elder walked up to the Estate house again.  “Tomorrow we have a holiday,” he informed the steward.

“Who is it this time?”

“St. Hornet’s Day.”

“Who is he? Show him to me.”

The elder brought the steward to a hollow tree in which hornets had built a nest. “There he is,” he told the steward.

The steward peeped through the cracks in the bark. He heard humming and buzzing but could see nothing. “How he sings!”  he exclaimed. “He must have drunk too much vodka. Nonetheless, I am not afraid of him, and you all must work.”

As he spoke, the hornets flew out of the hollows and stung him in a great swarm.  The steward screamed at the top of his lungs. “I swear I won’t order you to work. I too shall rest. Take the whole week off.”

And that is how the peasants outwitted the harsh steward.

(Adapted by Cynthia June Long)

I couldn't find hornets, so here are some bees. "Apes (apis = bee) coming from a bee-hive, attack a man." 1450. From the National Library of the Netherlands via Europeana Creative Commons. Public Domain

          I couldn’t find hornets, so here are some bees.                       “Apes (apis = bee) coming from a bee-hive, attack a man.” 1450. From the National Library of the Netherlands via Europeana Creative Commons. Public Domain

 

~         ~         ~

            An amusing tale, good for a few chuckles, and like much oral tradition, no doubt with its origins in a reality Russian peasants would have faced working for a foreigner. I’m partial to stories about the underdog or trickster. My favorite heroes are those who overcome an adversary through wit.

However, history bears an unexpected somber resemblance to this folktale: in 1907 real-life tragedy struck down 239 lives while those who kept a holy feast day were spared. In December 1907, the celebration of St. Nicholas Day saved more than 200 Carpatho-Russian miners in Jacob’s Creek, Pennsylvania.

They worked long, hard, unsafe days in the Darr Mine on the west side of the Youghioheny River, about forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh.  They lost a day’s wages to attend church and keep the feast.  On December 19, 1907, in the middle of the liturgy, around 11:30 a.m., a loud rumble preceded an explosion which spewed thick smoke and shook the ground for miles. Immediately everyone knew what had happened.  The mine had exploded. The next day the Philadelphia Inquirer reported “Scores Dodged Death by Going to Church Instead of to Work.” The survivors considered it a Miracle of St. Nicholas. A few years after the disaster, ~1911, St. Nicholas Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church at Jacobs Creek was founded to honor the saint’s intervention that fateful day. A commemorative icon was created later.

darr-mine-pi-cropped-2

At least 239 men lost their lives in the Darr mine; the period newspaper accounts are gruesome, describing unidentifiable remains and worse. Very Rev. Dr. Edward Pehanich, pastor of the Jacob’s Creek St. Nicholas Church, was quoted by the Pittsburgh area Tribune-Review on the occasion of the 100th year anniversary of the event: “We certainly don’t believe that those who were saved were better than those who died, but for whatever reason, St. Nicholas prayed to save those miners. . . If it wasn’t for the service that day, another 200 men would have lost their lives.”

December 1907 was one of the bloodiest months in U.S. mining history, and over 700 miners died that month throughout the United States. The national total for 1907 was 3200 lives lost in mining accidents.  Workplace safety rules followed on the heels of these mining disasters. Even so, forty-fivc years later in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, my own grandfather would die from the coal miner’s ‘black lung’; my father was only 13 years old at the time. It was—and is—a brutal profession.

The Philadelphia Inquirer also reports great drunkenness in the Jacobs Creek area that December 1907 night: “Some of the men . . .got a good start on account of the holiday, continuing their carousal after the explosion in celebration of their escape.”  Constables were called in, and the only tavern within two miles was asked to close down throughout the several days duration of the recovery operation.

The folktale steward reconsidered his viewpoint after a painful encounter with hornets. It took 700+ deaths to begin to reform the mining industry. In my younger years, I would postpone filling up the car gas tank and then find myself a week later praying like mad that I’d be able to make it back to a gas station in time. A few times—I hate admitting it—I cut it too closely and unexpectedly rolled to a stop on the side of the road.  Then I’d repeat the cycle a few weeks or months later. (It’s a Jersey Girl thing; after over twenty years living in Philadelphia, I still can barely accept the fact that I have to pump my own gas here.)

How many car accidents have I ‘miraculously’ escaped?  One day I might be stung by a hornet and another day, spared from death or injury. Feast day or work day, December 6 or December 19 or any day at all, I pledge to celebrate each day as a gift.

 

Sources and Resources

Afanas’ev, Aleksandr. “The Foolish German.” Russian Fairy Tales. N.Y.:  Pantheon Books, 1945, 1973. Print.

“Blames Coroner Juries.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 159 n. 75. September 13, 1908. p. 5A.

“Buried in Wrecked Mine 250 Men Are Probably Dead.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 157 n. 173. December 20, 1907. p. 1-2.

Centennial of the Miracle of St. Nicholas, Jacobs Creek.” Holland, MI: St. Nicholas Center. Web. http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/centennial

Darr Mine Disaster Historical Marker.” n.d. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Web.

“Experts To Probe Mine Disasters.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 159 n. 27. July 27, 1908. p. 8.

Reeger, Jennifer. “New Exhibit Remembers 1907 Darr Mine Disaster.”  Pittsburgh, PA: Tribune-Review. 2007. Web.

Storey, Jerry. “Orthodox Faithful Endure In the Face of Mine Disaster, Church Fire.” Pittsburgh, PA: Tribune-Review. n.d. Web.

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The Blessing of the New Year

Here’s a Highlands New Year’s Blessing from the Carmina Gadelica. It’s traditional to say this poem “the first thing on the first day of the year.” (I’m a little late.)

"Camhanaich" by John McSporran.Creative Commons License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/127130111@N06/16477446765/in/photolist-r74dRK-pCvAqb-3vH1uX-742jEJ-5WoZyN-5WjHAx-jgcbLB-5NA2iD-59z2D5-5Wp1ao-5Wp1rN-idk3uu-quULh1-NtL9m-5NBxs8-3ujV2S-idket1-qpVmtD-dGi73e-qD5eAS-3gxPUj-6tnBKg-4fWSH4-pYVokH-teYUrb-6vk4bs-pVvZZS-8E7XxW-ifnC2R-dz925x-4f1gn3-CsoXck-8HAAKT-nkGcMA-axsW3e-nCbMGx-s8u7Rp-9dyfK4-4nsuoU-41wC45-4nsvnA-5Sqb6x-9dBg8b-9dBc5d-6cbe6Q-diHrH5-uJWiXq-APLtMP-qYDTsk-ASuxXP

“Camhanaich” by John McSporran via Flickr. Creative Commons License.  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

GOD, bless to me the new day,

Never vouchsafed to me before;

It is to bless Thine own presence

Thou hast given me this time, O God.

.

Bless Thou to me mine eye,

May mine eye bless all it sees;

I will bless my neighbor,

May my neighbor bless me.

.

God, give me a clean heart,

Let me not from sight of Thine eye;

Bless to me my children and my wife,

And bless to me my means and my cattle.

.

Happy New Year and many blessings for a brand new day: a new beginning every day.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale [Book Review]

“It was Christmas Day of that year and Dell Martin hovered at the double-glazed PVC window of his tidy home, conducting a survey of the bruised clouds and concluding that it might just snow; and if it did snow then someone would have to pay out.”

Not the first line, but it should be, of Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

Art by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Photo by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Twenty years ago, a daughter/sister/girlfriend went missing. No traces. Presumed dead or some other tragic end. If she was all right, she would have called. Even if she’d run away, she would have written. For twenty years her loved ones have been stifled by the inpenetrable grief of not-knowing.

Then Tara Martin reappears on Christmas, young and slight, looking not a day older, unable to account for her whereabouts. She makes up a story about traveling but eventually discloses her truth: she had spent time—in her mind only six months—with the fairies.

Doctors are brought in; dental records are checked. She meets with the local psychiatrist who explores amnesia, traumatic memory loss, and confabulation. Tara’s tales of the fairies’ sexual exploits are presumed to be projections of her own repressed self. But questions remain: Is the girl who she claims to be? Why hasn’t she aged?

This novel presents a deft handling of the faerie mythos. Set in “the deepest heart of England,” it is a welcome addition to modern Fairy Tale lore. Author Graham Joyce has a familiar knowledge of faerie story tropes and carries his premise to its logical conclusion: what would happen if someone today were taken to and returned from Faerie?

The clash of modernity with traditional folklore is accentuated by Graham’s frequent epigraphic references to the Bridget Cleary case. In 1895 near Tipperary, Ireland, twenty-six year old Bridget Cleary was burned and murdered by her husband and family who believed she was a changeling, a fairy imposter, a fairy in disguise. Ten of Bridget Cleary’s relatives and neighbors were tried for murder. To Graham, the Bridget Cleary case illustrates the ascendance of law and rationality over superstition.

Now, in his novel written and set over one hundred years later, he explores a parallel question: how would modern society respond if the folklore proved true?

A true gem for the faerie and fairy tale enthusiast.

Joyce, Graham. Some Kind of Fairy Tale. London: Orion Publishing, 2012.

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

 

Merry Christmas to all my readers.

Hermits and Saints

I went to morning prayers yesterday and my priest commemorated, among others, St. Colman of Ireland. A Celtic saint I didn’t know! I was pleased and flummoxed. Flummoxed because I would now have to go and research him . . .

A perusal of Butler’s Lives of the Saints and a Google consultation soon followed (not necessarily in that order). Butler concisely informs that St. Colman was a bishop and hermit in Western Ireland who escaped to the barren Burren “because he had been made a bishop against his will.” (There’s been a few of those, no? Perhaps a topic for another day.) Apparently burren (boireann) means “great rock” in Irish—not a very habitable place. During my 2003 trip to Ireland, we traveled through the Burren. It’s an inhospitable mound of rocks about which one of Oliver Cromwell’s officers famously stated had “not wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him.”

The Burren, photo by the author, 2003

The Burren, photo by the author, 2003

Tradition says St. Colman retreated to the Burren ‘forests’—had the forest had been cut down by the time of Cromwell a thousand years later? The St. Colman Mac Duagh Burren Forest page has pictures of the dense brush today; I’m not sure I would call those scrawny trees a ‘forest’ but landforms change over the course of a millennium. At any rate, it is a place far more austere than St. Kevin’s lush Glendalough. Not a place I would want to live.

St. Colman later founded a monastery at Kilmacduagh, near Galway. I can piece together the Irish meaning: Kil-mac-duagh, church (kil) of the son (mac) of Duagh. Butler eludes to the legends of St. Colman’s friendships with a mouse, fly, and cock without recounting them, and you’ll have to visit the Russian Orthodox Christianity page on St. Colman to read them yourself.

Kilmacduagh Monastery Ruins by Jerzy Strzelecki By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Kilmacduagh Monastery Ruins by Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Once, I may have wanted to be a hermit . . .

In therapy, I talk quite a bit about my introversion and social anxiety—(although it’s not social anxiety as we normally think of it, it’s still a helpful if imprecise term). My therapist’s advice ranges from the self acceptance of embracing my introversion to cognitive-behavioral promises not to be the first person to leave a party. I attended a family event last weekend—a pleasant, wonderful visit which nonetheless left me utterly exhausted.

In my therapist’s office on the eve of St. Colman’s feast, I lamented adult-ing. I wanted to go back to my high school self and sit in a corner reading a science fiction paperback for the entire duration of a party. I entertained what I call my “Unabomber” fantasy [sans bombs] in which I daydream about living off-the-grid in a cabin in Wyoming and walking into town once a week to buy my groceries and check my email through the public library computers.

I am more functional than I was twenty years ago; I make the effort; I force myself to attend dreadful odious baby showers because it’s the right thing to do. I’m probably less lonely. I’m not sure if I’m significantly happier. People exhaust me.

Knowing of my faith, my therapist spontaneously asked me if there were any hermetic examples or outlets I could explore or learn from. Doubtful, I told him glumly. A good number of hermits are only temporary hermits; eventually, after many years of solitude, they end up getting dragged (against their will!) back into the community and end up abbot of a monastery or something. The solitude teaches them the fortitude they will need for their future endeavors. It happened to St. Colman, and many others. We had a good laugh.

The next morning I learned it was St. Colman’s feast day. Later in the afternoon I discovered it was also National Hermit Day—a day dedicated to stepping away from the frenzy of our lives and the tyranny of our electronic devices. We are encouraged to “retreat to someplace quiet.” The National Day Calendar tips their hats to St. Colman, their inspiration for this nouveau holiday.

Three hermit references within twenty-four-hours. Once upon a time, I would have considered it a message from the Universe.

A Spring Flower Garland

The Annunciation, f.45v from Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary; vellum, 15th C; courtesy of the University of Edinburgh

The Annunciation, f.45v from Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary; vellum, 15th C; courtesy of the University of Edinburgh

Five days after the announcement proclaiming the arrival of Spring we have it: The Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary: “For behold, you shall conceive and bring forth a Son . . .”

Winter has been long and brutal. I am cold; I am weary; my heart is frozen. I long for life. In the Northeast this Winter has been especially harsh, and I am just now starting to see the sprouts of daffodils and tulips poking through cold soil. The new life of Easter is just around the corner.

How many times a day do I become flustered and discombobulated—and downright cranky—by disruptions to my “plan,” my routine? Mary’s acceptance of the news brought by her unexpected visitor gives me a hint of how to experience blessing in my own life. May I learn to say, like Mary, “May it be unto me as you have said. . .”

Spring will come; it always does. I long for a fresh springtime in my permafrost heart.

 

In honor of Mary and Springtime, here’s a poem collected and recorded by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica:

 

Praise of Mary

 

Flower-garland of the Ocean,

          Flower-garland of the land,

Flower-garland of the heavens,

          Mary, Mother of God.

 

Flower-garland of the earth

          Flower-garland of the skies,

Flower-garland of the angels

          Mary, Mother of God.

 

Flower-garden of the mansion

          Flower-garland of the stars

Flower-garland of paradise,

          Mary Mother of God.

 

 

From Slave to Saint: Enlightener of Ireland

 

St. Patrick, Enlightener of Ireland, courtesy of the Orthodox Church in America (oca.org)

St. Patrick, courtesy of the Orthodox Church in America (oca.org)

“I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many . . .” thus begins St. Patrick in his Confessions.

            We are so accustomed to seeing St. Patrick as a larger-than-life Bishop, enlightener of Ireland, his successful ‘career’ behind him, that we forget his humble beginnings; we forget his ever–present humility:

            “I am imperfect in many things, nevertheless I want my brethren and kinsfolk to know my nature so that they may be able to perceive my soul’s desire.” He continues, “I am, then, first of all, countrified, an exile, evidently unlearned . . . I know for certain that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and He that is mighty came and in His mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favors in this world . . .”

Slave-to-bishop lacks some of the glamour of the more common phrase rags-to-riches. A rustic shepherd slave became the symbol of a nation. Somewhere along the way his account of his humility and faithfulness has mostly been forgotten. Now all too often his feast has become an excuse to get drunk.  As we listen to our craic and eat our lamb stew or corned beef and colcannon, I ask you to remember the real St. Patrick, as described in his own words.  This is the Patrick I urge you to get to know:

            “But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God [. . .] and my faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day I said from up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number, besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain . . .”

Patrick didn’t live and labor in a vacuum.  His effectiveness was fueled by prayer. May we emulate St. Patrick on his feast day by an equal commitment to prayer so that we also may say:

“I fear nothing because of the promises of Heaven; for I have cast myself into the hands of Almighty God who reigns everywhere.”

Remember the real Saint Patrick today: slave and struggler, faithful endurer, servant of God.

 

Source

The Confessions of Saint Patrick, courtesy of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library

What Is Essential Is Invisible to the Eyes

Author Diana Butler Bass has encouraged her readers to post one book throughout each day of Advent which has influenced their spiritual journey. I don’t know if I have 25 books to recommend (let alone 40 books for an Orthodox Advent, which I’m a little late for anyway), but I’ll give it a try.

Today I recommend Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

The Little Prince

The Little Prince is so much more than a fable. In a way, it has been a personal roadmap for life. The narrator, the voice of the author, offers advice for holding onto the true wisdom that only children know. Because all grown-ups were once children—“although few of them remember it”—he dedicates his book not to his best friend, but to his friend “when he was a little boy.”

Through the story of an aviator who befriends a little man from a tiny planet, the narrator relates the story of the Little Prince, who is in love with a personified Rose. The author himself was a pilot, lending credence to his tale; one year after publishing this book, St. Exupéry disappeared over the Mediterranean while flying a French reconnaissance mission during W.W. II. The book warns against the soul-deadening impulse to be busy with “matters of consequence” and reminds that friends and strangers are more important than tasks and projects.

St. Exupéry was the first to encourage me to listen to and reclaim my intuition. As a teenager and young adult struggling to overcome my dysfunctional perception-invalidating childhood, this was a desperately needed call: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eyes.” His words resonated with me and gave me hope.

The little prince meets a fox who instructs him in friendship. “Please—tame me!” the fox begs, for friendship is expressed as the process of ‘taming’ another. Consistency is key, as is time—time for a gradual deepening of intimacy.

            “What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.

“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me—like that—in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. . .But you will sit a little closer to me, every day.”

Because I have trust and intimacy challenges, this tale of how to gradually develop friendship is so significant that I have given a copy of The Little Prince to every boyfriend I’ve dated seriously, and I have given my fiancé a stuffed fox fashioned to resemble the character in the book.

LITTLE PRINCE FOX PLUSH TOY

The fox taught me about reliability and loyalty. “Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must never forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

This book never fails to delight. It is truly timeless. It survives multiple re-readings. Even today, in preparing this reflection, I discovered new truths. It’s a quick read, around 100 pages (my copy is un-enumerated), with simple illustrations. You may find it in the children’s section of the library or bookstore, or perhaps you had to read it in its original French as a school or college assignment. Don’t be fooled. It’s not a children’s book.

The Little Prince is a story about how to become human.