“One of the signs of a true seer was the feeling of unworthiness, of not meriting God’s grace. What better way to show this than to ask God for physical suffering? Many female saints had undertaken such penitance and had been blessed with debilitating ailments that allowed them to exercise both their humility and their unstinting devotion to God.”Judith C. Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986)
In the 4th century AD, Hypatia of Alexandria was born in modern-day Egypt. A philosopher and astronomer, she was also the first female mathematician recorded in history. Murdered by a mob of Christians for supposedly meddling in political tensions between the Roman prefect and the Bishop of Alexandria, she was called a martyr for philosophy.
The story of the shocking murder of Hypatia was reversed by early Christians into the myth of St Catherine. A young virgin and scholar, Catherine converted to Christianity and was tortured by the Roman ruler, though her wounds miraculously healed and the implements used to hurt her would break. When she was eventually beheaded, a milk-like substance seeped from her body instead of blood.
Another virgin martyr, Joan of Arc, defeated the English and Burgundian army at the siege of Orleans in 1429, proving to the Armagnac Dauphin that she was indeed sent by Jesus Christ and spoke the word of God. However, her first miracle was locating a holy sword in a church dedicated to St Catherine. Joan used this sword in battle and maintained that St Catherine, patron saint of virgins, had sent this sword to her in a vision.
St George slaying the dragon is a well-known Christian myth. The imagery was adapted in the 4th century AD from Ancient Greek stories such as those featuring Jason and Medea, Perseus and Andromeda, Zeus and Typhon. And, of particular importance, Apollo the Lizard Killer battling Python/Delphyne. A hero fighting a dragon is a ubiquitous narrative in Western cultures. St George is a symbol of masculine heroism defeating an animalistic, pagan foe.
Margaret the Virgin, another early Christian virgin martyr, was one of the saints that spoke to Joan of Arc in her visions, convincing her to take on God’s mission to crown the true king of France. The other saint was of course St Catherine. St Margaret had a similar narrative; in Turkey in the 4th century AD, she was tortured by pagans to renounce her Christian faith and was also tormented by Satan in her prison cell, who at one point took the form of a dragon and swallowed her; she escaped after the cross she was holding injured the dragon’s guts. Her sainthood was removed later because apparently this miraculous story was not believable.
In October 2012, Malala Yousafzai, a then-15-year-old activist and schoolgirl, was on a bus home with two other girls after taking an exam. They were attacked by a Taliban militant, targeted in retaliation to Yousafzai’s campaign for access to education for girls, and Yousafzai was shot in the head. She survived the attack and was moved to a hospital in the UK to recover. Since then, Yousafzai has written a best-selling auto-biography, been the subject of films and documentaries, received many international awards for her actions and was the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She is now studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University. And she was almost another ‘martyr for philosophy’.
In 2014, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, an extremist terrorist organisation based in Northern Nigeria. The militants objected to the girls being exposed to Western ideas and education, which they saw as corrupting. Since then, Boko Haram have claimed responsibility for numerous female suicide bombers in Nigerian cities. Some of the girls have escaped, and have told of their abduction, rape, and torture at the hands of the terrorists. Others have been radicalised and see the bombings as their duty, an honour, a holy calling, and would have gone through with their martyrdom were it not for unforeseen circumstances.
The ‘Bethnal Green Trio’, three teenage girls, left London in 2015 for Syria, to join ISIL after being radicalised online. One died in an airstrike in 2017, one’s whereabouts are unknown, and the last, Shamima Begum, resurfaced in a Syrian refugee camp this year. She gave interviews detailing her plans to return to the UK after becoming separated from her husband, the death of her first child and now heavily pregnant with her second. She was unrepentant about joining the Islamic State and her UK citizenship has been revoked.
The ambiguous relationship between women and religion raises many questions surrounding consent, agency, free will, coercion or force.
1 thought on “On Delphyne: Part 2”
[…] I realised that I never addressed St Sebastian in my Delphyne blog posts (Sexuality, Martyrdom, Gender, and Smoke & Visions), despite his image repeatedly appearing in books and images I […]