St. Michan’s Church

A view into one of the vaults in the crypt beneath St. Michan’s Church, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)

A view of another vault beneath St. Michan’s, in which some of the mummies are exposed. The corpse on the left is an early medieval nun, the one is the middle had a hand cut off (accident? criminal punishment?), and the one on the right is a medieval man.

The church of St. Michan in Dublin is a fascinating place! Dublin was first settled by Danish Vikings (“Dublin” is derived from the Viking word for “Black Pool,” referring to the swampy ground the city was founded on) and Michan was apparently a Danish or Danish-Irish monk from that early 10th-11th century period. The church itself was first built in AD 1095 although the current building was erected in 1686 on the older foundation. It was the only parish church on the north side of the River Liffey (i.e. outside the city walls) for centuries.

In the crypt beneath the church are several vaults that were used to inter the coffins of the dead. These were preserved and expanded during the reconstruction of the building. Many of the coffins in the underground vaults date from the early Middle Ages although many also date from more recent times: leaders of a failed rebellion in 1798 are also interred here.

Because opening a sealed coffin is illegal — it is part of the crime of grave-robbing — no one realized there was anything unusual about the corpses below St. Michan’s until the older coffins began to break open as the weight of the newer coffins stacked atop them became too heavy. The coffins that broke open revealed that the corpses, which had not been treated in any unusual way, had all been mummified and preserved. This was probably due to the limestone used to build the vaults and the methane gas of the swamp below the foundations of Dublin. Limestone absorbs moisture and the constant cool temperature of the vaults helped preserve and mummify the bodies as well. The presence of methane reduces the amount of oxygen in the crypt and therefore reduces the amount of bacteria etc. that leads to more normal decomposition. (We presume that the corpses in the newer coffins are also becoming mummies as well although we won’t know for sure until the newer coffins break open as well. The vaults are still used on occasion for new internments so there is always the possibility of additional weight to break open the coffins that haven’t broken open — yet.)

Bram Stoker is thought to have visited the vaults in the crypt below St. Michan’s and possibly to have found inspiration there for at least a few of the scenes in his classic Dracula.

The church of St. Michan is very near the new Teeling whiskey distillery in Dublin, making a visit to both sites an easy excursion.

Pysanky Can Save the World

My collection of decorated eggs from Prague and Salzburg on display as an Easter egg tree in 2015.

Pysanky are the decorated eggs in Ukraine or other Slavic areas which are a very important part of the holiday season. It is important to keep making new pysanky every year to replace those that were broken by accident last year because the pysanky keep an evil dragon away from the earth. The more pysanky there are in the world, the further away the dragon must hide. But if there are too few pysanky, then the dragon can come closer and if there are really not enough pysanky in the world then the dragon can eat the earth!

Easter baskets were traditionally baskets of holiday food (meat, cheese, eggs — all the things that people were supposed to be fasting from during Lent!) that were brought to church to be blessed. Easter Monday was a good time to keep eating what was in the Easter baskets as well as enjoy the decorations and displays of Easter eggs. In many parts of Central Europe, people make “Easter trees” to hang their elaborately decorated Easter eggs on.

Pysanky were thought to protect households from evil spirits, catastrophe, lightning and fires. Pysanky with spiral motifs were the most powerful, as the demons and other unholy creatures would be trapped within the spirals forever.

Pysanky held powerful magic, and had to be disposed of properly, lest a witch get a hold of one. She could use the shell to gather dew, and use the gathered dew to dry up a cow’s milk. The witch could also use bits of the eggshell to poke people and sicken them. The eggshell had to be ground up very finely (and fed to chickens to make them good egg layers) or broken into pieces and tossed into a running stream.

The cloth used to dry pysanky was powerful, too, and could be used to cure skin diseases. And it was considered very bad luck to trample on a decorated egg -– God would punish anyone who did with a variety of illnesses.

There were superstitions regarding the colors and designs on the pysanky. One old Ukrainian myth centered on the wisdom of giving older people gifts of pysanky with darker colors and/or rich designs, for their life has already been filled. Similarly, it is appropriate to give young people pysanky with white as the predominant color because their life is still a blank page. Girls would often give pysanky to young men they fancied, and include heart motifs. It was said, though, that a girl should never give her boyfriend a pysanky that has no design on the top and bottom of the egg, as this might signify that the boyfriend would soon lose his hair.

The Golem, the Jinni, and the Syrians in New York

“The Golem and the Jinni,” by Helene Wecker was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and won the 2014 Mythopoeic Award.

These two books–one a novel, the other a study of Arab immigrants to Manhattan’s Lower East Side–are a fascinating pair to read in conjunction with each other. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker tells the story of two mythical beings–one Jewish, the other Syrian– which takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York. Strangers in the West: The Syrian Colony of New York City, 1880-1900 by Linda K. Jacobs tells the never-before-told story of the first Arab immigrants to settle in Manhattan.

Both books explore many themes but one that stands out is the tolerance individuals from each community had for the other even as each community–as well as the broader society of Manhattan–struggled with the presence of those they each considered “the Other.” The twists and turns of the novel reflect the twists and turns of historic life for the immigrants who struggled to make new lives for themselves and their families in the New World. (I never quite appreciated how radical the idea of the New World was until I saw The Hunt for Red October (based on Tom Clancy’s book) and heard Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) welcome Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) to the New World after Capt. Ramius quotes Christopher Columbus’ musings that “the sea will grant each man new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home.”)

Too many people seem too eager to demonize a wide variety of “Others” in modern society. Add either–or BOTH!–of these books to your “Want to Read” list and see how we were able to overcome such attempts at demonization in the past while enjoying wonderful storytelling!

Want to know more? Read the Huffington Post article about Strangers in the West or my post about The Golem and the Jinni.

“Strangers in the West” by Linda K. Jacobs tells the story of this classic multiethnic neighborhood which had a dominant Arabic-speaking influence from the 1880s to 1940s, and which served as the “Mother Colony” for the substantial Syrian and Lebanese immigration to the United States.