“Happy birthday–and Cremation–Emperor Domition!”

Persecution of St. John the Evangelist by the Emperor Domitian. As described in the Golden Legend, soldiers shave his head and put him in a pot of boiling oil, but he remains unharmed and free of pain. In the background is a representation of the Porta Latina in Rome, where the event was said to take place. Detail of fresco in the Crypt of St. Magnus (1237), Cattedrale di Santa Maria, Anagni, Lazio, Italy.

Domitian (born 24 October AD 51 – died 18 September AD 96) was Roman emperor from 81 to 96. He was the younger brother of Titus and son of Vespasian, his two predecessors on the throne, and the last member of the Flavian dynasty. During his reign, his authoritarian rule put him at sharp odds with the senate, whose powers he drastically curtailed. Domitian’s reign came to an end in 96 when he was assassinated by court officials. After his death, Domitian’s memory was condemned to oblivion by the Roman Senate, while senatorial authors such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius propagated the view of Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. As emperor, he oversaw one of the cruelest periods of persecution of Christians.

Domitian’s body was carried away on a common bier and unceremoniously cremated by his nurse Phyllis. It is difficult to burn a body; it would have been extremely difficult for one person to cremate a corpse without being noticed, so perhaps the nurse was simply the ringleader of a small group intent on burning the imperial remains. Nero, also murdered because he was unable to bring himself to commit suicide at the last moment, was refused burial and was said to have been cremated by his nurses as well. Burial was refused to Nero and Domitian because the Romans thought unburied corpses prevented the spirit’s entering into eternal rest. Cremation was an older, more honorable way to set the spirit at rest. But in the case of Nero and Domitian, the underworld refused to take them in and their spirits passed into flocks of birds instead. Flocks of crows, starlings, and ravens that still circle around the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, the place where they were clandestinely cremated, are said to contain the restless spirits of the emperors. (The church of Santa Maria del Popolo was built there in the piazza in 1099 in an effort to exorcize the imperial ghosts.)

Great undulating clouds of birds that dip and swirl over the Tiber can seem to take the shape of human bodies or a human arm and hand reaching out toward the people below. It is easy to see how the clouds of smoke ascending from a cremation could be thought to lodge in the flock of birds and then posses the flock.

The Dark Crystal

“Another World, Another Time… In the Age of Wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good, until the Crystal cracked. For a single piece was lost; a shard of the Crystal. Then strife began, and two new races appeared: the cruel Skeksis… the gentle Mystics.” (photo from The Dark Crystal)

Puppeteer Jim Henson (1936-1990) was born in Greenville, Mississippi on September 24. He created the Muppets, including Kermit the Frog, and Bert and Ernie, entertaining and educating generations of children via the daily TV show Sesame Street. He also oversaw The Muppet Show and several Muppet movies. But his non-Muppet feature, The Dark Crystal, was a stunning visual adventure into a fantasy world previously unexplored.

The Dark Crystal’s theatrical release in 1982 was overshadowed by competition over the Christmas of that year, including Tootsie and the already massively successful E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated this film for its Top 10 Fantasy Films list.

I always liked the Dark Crystal story line and the characters. It is a classic fairy tale in the style of the original un-sanitized Brothers Grimm collection; in fact, it was Henson’s intention was to “get back to the darkness of the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales”, as he believed that it was unhealthy for children to never be afraid. When he was conceptualizing the evil Skeksis, Henson had in mind the Seven Deadly Sins, though because there were 10 Skeksis, some sins had to be invented or used twice.

I remember the day in May, 1990 of Henson’s funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. All the Muppet characters attended and sang a medley of Henson’s favorite songs. Life magazine described it as “an epic and almost unbearably moving event.”

Aoife and Strongbow

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Cork born historical painter Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) at the National Gallery of Ireland

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Cork born historical painter Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) at the National Gallery of Ireland

Aoife, princess of Leinster, wed the English knight known as “Strongbow” on August 25, AD 1170. Aoife’s father, Diarmait Mac Murchada, had lost his seat as king of Leinster and sought military aid from England to reclaim it. Richard de Clare, a minor knight at the English court, responded to the Irish king’s request for aid; Diarmait promised that whichever knight helped him regain the throne would be given the his daughter Aoife as wife. Richard brought 1,200 fighting men with him and won the battle at Waterford, Ireland on August 23. He and Aoife were married on August 25 on the shore of the River Suir beneath a great oak tree that came to be known as “Strongbow’s Oak.” (The painting above shows the couple being wed in front of the stone tower that was built later alongside the oak.)

According to Irish law at that time, both the man and the woman had to consent to the marriage; it is fair to conclude that Aoife accepted her father’s arrangements. Aoife led troops in battle and is sometimes known as Red Eva (Aoife Rua).

When Diarmait died the next year, Strongbow claimed the throne by right of his marriage to Aoife and began the English occupation of Ireland which continued until the Irish Free State was established in 1922.

Aoife had two sons and a daughter with her husband Strongbow, and via their daughter, Isabel de Clare, within a few generations their descendants included much of the nobility of Europe including all the monarchs of Scotland since Robert I (1274–1329) and all those of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom since Henry IV (1367–1413); and, apart from Anne of Cleves, all the queen consorts of Henry VIII.

Later folktales also identify Strongbow’s Oak as the location of the grave of the young woman known as the dearg-due (“red blood sucker”) who rises from the dead to seduce and kill men, lapping up their blood to sustain herself. The girl who became the dearg due was herself said to have been beaten to death by her English husband and he was her first victim when she rose from the grave as the vampire woman. The dearg due is an important character in the Come Hell or High Water trilogy.

In my upcoming project Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes the princess Aoife makes a bargain with the goddess Badb to be sure that Strongbow wins the battle; the English occupation of Ireland is therefore the result of witchcraft and magic. The goddess Badb is involved in creating the dearg due in an attempt to drive at least some of the English away from Waterford itself.