Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Empress Drama Of Emperor Leo VI

Leo VI was the emperor of Constantinople from 886 to 912. He was a prolific writer who published codes of law, poems, treatises, and other miscellaneous works on ecclesiastical and secular subjects. These scholarly endeavors earned Leo the epithet of “the Wise” or “the Philosopher,” yet, outside of the realm of academia, Leo’s reign was incredibly chaotic. Militarily, his time in power was disastrous. The Empire of Constantinople was defeated in Lombardia by Prince Aigion of Benevento (c. 887), and Symeon of Bulgaria was so successful against the emperor’s armies between 894 and 897 that Leo VI began pay annual tribute to the Bulgars. Leo’s forces were also pushed out of Sicily (c. 902), and the Muslim naval forces began to dominate the seas. In the Aegean, the Greek-Muslim admiral, Leo of Tripoli, was a nightmare for Constantinople—he captured Thessalonica in 904 and also inflicted a major defeat against the imperial navy in 912 at Samos. In addition to the poor military record of Leo VI, he also had an incredibly tumultuous love life, as well as a long-running feud with the church of Constantinople. Interestingly, the poor relationship between the emperor and his church was often directly related to his private life, especially toward the end of his reign.

The troubled love life of Leo VI began in 882, when the sixteen-year-old future emperor was forced by his father (Emperor Basil I) to marry Theophano Martinakiou. As arranged marriages go, Theophano was the dream of most imperial princes. Not only did she have powerful connections to the Amorian Dynasty, an influential family allied with Leo’s own Macedonian Dynasty, but she was also one of the most beautiful women in the empire—In fact, she was chosen as Leo’s wife after winning a beauty contest in 882. Nevertheless, love cannot be forced, and, despite the two having a daughter together, Leo VI and Theophano never had a particularly warm marital relationship.

Leo’s marriage to Theophano was one of politics, not love, and the young prince was open to a more passionate relationship outside of marriage.  He found this more emotional connection in Zoe Zautsina, a noblewoman of Armenian descent who was reportedly a widow. It is unclear when the clandestine relationship between the married Leo and the widowed Zoe began, but some think it was a contributing factor to Leo’s long period of house arrest from 883 to 886, in the years prior to his father’s death.

Leo VI became emperor after his father, Basil I, died in 886. Once in power, Zoe Zautsina was apparently raised from the shadows to the position of a concubine. Empress Theophano was still alive at the time, and she reportedly was kept well informed about her husband’s affair. Yet, she seemingly sympathized with her husband, or at least kept a dignified demeanor despite Leo’s wandering attentions. Of Theophano’s attitude, the historian, John Skylitzes (c. 11th century), wrote, “For her part, she saw and heard everything that was going on but did not in the least allow herself to give way to the passion of jealousy” (Synopsis historion, chapter 7, section 3). Unfortunately, Empress Theophano fell ill and died around 896 or 897. Interestingly, Leo VI may have been gaining a new appreciation of his wife at the time of her death—the emperor successfully pressured the clergy of Constantinople into naming his late empress a saint.

After the death of Theophano, Leo VI was finally able to marry his mistress, Zoe Zautsina. The marriage occurred around 898, yet their long-delayed union was tragically short. Empress Zoe Zautsina reportedly lived only a year and eight months after the marriage, placing her death around 899 or 900. They had one daughter together, Anna, who was reportedly born well before Leo and Zoe were officially married. Although Emperor Leo VI doted over Zoe Zautsina, many of his courtiers and clergymen thought she was distasteful. As her burial was being prepared, someone allegedly vandalized Zoe’s sarcophagus with a distasteful reference to Psalm 137:8; John Skylitzes wrote, “When the sarcophagus in which her body was to be laid was being prepared, they found an incised inscription which read: ‘Daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery’” (Synopsis historion, chapter 7, section 16).

With the death of Zoe Zautsina, Emperor Leo VI faced an ecclesiastical and political problem. The church of Constantinople only condoned a man to marry twice—this was a problem for Leo because the children he had with Theophano and Zoe Zautsina were all daughters. If the church had its way, Leo VI would die without an heir since the emperor’s daughters could not inherit the empire. There were also ceremonies that required someone to play the role of the empress, so Leo VI named the young Anna, daughter of Zoe Zautsina, as his symbolic empress while he planned his next move.

It did not take long for Emperor Leo VI to make his decision. To the protest of the clergy, Leo married a woman named Eudokia Biane around the year 900. Yet tragedy struck again, and Empress Eudokia died of childbirth complications in 901. The newborn baby, a boy named Basil, survived the birth, but he unfortunately died a few days later. After the tragic deaths of Eudokia and Basil, the public duties of empress were once more carried out by Anna.

Although young Anna would continue to play out the role of empress in public for years to come, Emperor Leo soon found a new mistress. Her name was Zoe Karbonopsina, or Zoe ‘of the coal-black eyes,’ a woman from a distinguished family. She quickly became something more than just a mistress, but the emperor withheld from her the title of empress. The church of Constantinople was apparently ok with this marital gray-area as long as Zoe Karbonopsina was not made Leo’s official wife and empress. Yet, the precarious balance between the emperor and the religious Patriarch of Constantinople broke in 905, when Zoe Karbonopsina gave birth to a son named Constantine VII. With a male heir finally born, Emperor Leo VI scrambled to strengthen the boy’s status. First, Leo had his brother, Alexander, become the boy’s godfather. Next, Leo put plans in motion to elevate Zoe Karbonopsina to the rank of a full-fledged empress, which would further legitimize young Constantine’s claim to the throne.

When Emperor Leo VI married Zoe Karbonopsina in April, 906, and declared her to be his empress (finally relieving Anna of her ceremonial duty), it ignited an odd showdown in Constantinople, known as the Tetragamy affair. Leo’s third marriage to Eudokia had been scorned, but begrudgingly accepted. His fourth marriage to Zoe Karbonopsina, however, was considered pure scandal. In fact, after the fourth marriage, Patriarch Nicholas of Constantinople and other clergymen banned Leo VI from entering church on at least two occasions—at the Christmas service of 906 and the Epiphany service of 907. Later in 907, however, Leo VI was able to have a much more friendly churchman, named Euthymios, placed at the head of the church in Constantinople.

Zoe Karbonopsina would remain Leo’s empress until the emperor’s death in 912.  After Leo VI, power momentarily passed to his brother, Alexander. During Alexander’s reign, the late Leo’s allied patriarch, Euthymios, was kicked out of Constantinople (and was given a physical beating by his fellow clergymen) and was sent into exile—Nicholas was then restored as Patriarch of Constantinople. Alexander also systematically began stripping power from other allies of the late Leo VI (including Empress Zoe), but Alexander died in 913 and power returned to Constantine VII, the son of Leo VI and Zoe Karbonopsina.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Leo VI from the Hagia Sophia, photographed by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro and licensed Creative Commons 3.0).

  • John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11th or early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Irish Hermit Monks Were Said To Have Inhabited Iceland Before Scandinavian Settlers

Several Irish Christian anchorites (holy-men seeking seclusion from society) reportedly discovered and lived in Iceland before the arrival of pagan settlers from Scandinavia. As questions like “which nation arrived first?” and “which religion was here first?” can inspire nationalistic and theological biases, the existence of such anchorites on Iceland remains hotly debated to this day. Some scholars want to entirely disregard written sources about the Irish anchorites in Iceland until archaeological evidence is found. Other scholars take a more literalist approach and want to blindly believe written records unless archaeology proves the sources wrong. Here, however, we will take a neutral stance and present the earliest written evidence behind the idea that Irish anchorites were present on Iceland, doing this simply for public awareness and intellectual entertainment—the metaphorical “food for thought.”

It is believed that the earliest person to claim that Irish hermits had set up camp in Iceland was the Irish monk, Dicuil, who published a text called Concerning the Measurement of the World in the year 825. In the work, Dicuil claimed that three Irish anchorites sailed to the mysterious island of “Thule” around 795. The so-called island of Thule has a history stretching back to the 4th century BCE, when the Greek explorer, Pytheas, found a large landmass (which he named Thule) after having sailed for nearly a week out into the sea off the northern coast of the British Isles. The identity of Pytheas’ Thule is still debated—many believe the explorer found Iceland, yet others think he may have reached Norway, instead.

It is unsurprising that we are not in agreement on the location of Thule, as even the ancients did not seem to know exactly where to find Pytheas’ Thule. By the time Julius Agricola was the Roman governor in Britannia (r. 77-84 CE), his fleet apparently believed Shetland was Thule. With multiple islands being called Thule by various authors, modern scholars have a difficult task of using the geographical description and latitude information to differentiate the regions. In the case of the 9th-century monk, Dicuil, his description of Thule has convinced many that he was referring to Iceland. The renowned Icelandic scholar and translator, Hermann Pálsson made mention of Dicuil in the introduction of his translation of The Book of Settlements. On Dicuil’s Thule, Hermann Pálsson confidently wrote, “The latitude he assigns to ‘Thule’ makes it certain that this must have been Iceland” (Pálsson, Landnámabók introduction, 1972, reprint 2006).

Another source from outside of Iceland is the Historia Norvegiae (History of Norway), an anonymous work that is believed to have been written in the 12th century. In that text, monkish figures called “Papae” were said to have lived on islands scattered around the British Isles before the arrival of Norse settlers. The anonymous author explained the title given to the religious figures by stating, “the Papae have been named from their white robes, which they wore like priests; whence priests are all called papae in the Teutonic tongue” (trans. A. O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, vol. I, 330-2). The author of the Historia Norvegiae did not specifically mention Iceland as a destination of these so-called papae, yet if they were sailing to places such as the Orkney Islands, who is to say that they did not keep sailing farther out.

Although the Historia Norvegiae did not connect the Papae to Iceland, another 12th-century writer did make that connection. Ari Thorgilsson the Learned (c. 1068-1148) was the first known historian of Iceland to write in the Icelandic vernacular and he claimed that when Norwegian settlers first arrived in Iceland, they found a few Irish monks already present on the island. This claim was first written in Ari’s text, the Book of Icelanders (Islendingabók). The assertion was later repeated in the Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), of which Ari the Learned is thought to have been a major contributor or original author. The Book of Settlements became a generational affair, with numerous versions being produced over the centuries and additional information included in each new edition.

There are five existent versions of the Book of Settlements, the oldest of which is the Stulubók (produced c. 1275-1280). The Stulubók and the Islendingabók have a nearly identical passage about the existence of Irish monks in Iceland before the arrival of Scandinavian settlers. Sturla Thordarson, the author of the Sturlubók, wrote, “before Iceland was settled from Norway there were other people there, called Papar by the Norwegians. They were Christians and were thought to have come overseas from the west, because people found Irish books, bells, croziers, and lots of other things, so it was clear they must have been Irish” (Sturlubók, chapter 1, trans. Hermann Pálsson, 1976, 2006). Ari Thorgilsson’s earlier account matched that of Sturla Thordarson except that Ari also claimed that the Christian monks left Iceland after the arrival of the Norse settlers. Ari the Learned was also slightly less committal to the monks’ origin—whereas Sturla claimed it was “clear” that the monks were Irish, Ari wrote “one could perceive” the monks of having an Irish origin based off of the evidence left behind (the books, bells, croziers, etc…). Although the Book of Settlements and the Book of Icelanders both mention Christian relics being left behind by the monks, no convincing archaeological remains of such pre-settlement items (or of the monks who left them there) has yet been discovered on Iceland.

In addition to the lack of physical evidence, some have questioned the truthfulness of Ari the Learned on the claim of Irish monks in Iceland because of Ari’s close connections to the See of Skalholt in Christianized Iceland. Like most medieval scholars, Ari received much of his education through the church, and two of his greatest patrons were the bishops, Thorlak Runolfsson of Skalholt and Ketil Thorsteinsson of Holar. Nevertheless, the question of whether or not Ari the Learned and other Christian scholars in Iceland would lie about the pre-settlement Irish monks is a debate of opinion, not fact. As of now, with no archaeological evidence to prove or disprove the claims, historians can only fall back on the stereotypical government response—we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of Irish monks in Iceland before the arrival of Norse settlers. Yet, although the existence of the monks cannot be confirmed, a majority of the historical community still seems to give Ari Thorgilsson and his successors the benefit of the doubt on their claim that Irish monks were present on Iceland before the time of settlement.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Public Domain: (An image from the tale of Saint Brendan, published by the Franciscan Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration (La Crosse, Wis.), c. early 1900s, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006. 

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Emperor Wu And His Spirit Mistress

Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) of China was said to have shown great respect to an interesting deity known as the Spirit Mistress. The interactions of the emperor and the spirit were documented by Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the Grand Historian and palace secretary of Emperor Wu. Sima Qian’s passage about the Spirit Mistress appears in his “Treatise on the Feng and Shan Sacrifices(Shi Ji 28), which purports to be a text on the ceremonial rites performed by China’s mythical/folkloric sage rulers, but really expands to be a text on sacrifices, mysticism, religion and miscellaneous supernatural topics.

According to folklore recorded by Sima Qian, the Spirit Mistress came into being after an unnamed woman from Changling died during childbirth. Although the woman’s name was unknown, Sima Qian did provide a name for her brother—Wanruo. The spirit, following her unfortunate death, traveled to the home of her brother. There, the spirit drew major attention to herself by supernaturally possessing Wanruo’s wife. Wanruo reacted to the spiritual possession in an interesting way—he became the spirit’s first worshipper and, perhaps, her first priest. Wanruo, or possibly his possessed wife, invited neighbors to come see the spirit and then neighbors brought their friends, exposing more and more people to the new spiritual being. Before long, the so-called Spirit Mistress became the talk of the town and soon came to be thought of as more of a deity than just a simple ghost.

The Spirit Mistress predated the reign of Emperor Wu, for the emperor’s maternal grandmother, Lady Pingyuan, had reportedly been an avid worshipper of the Spirit Mistress before the emperor was placed on the imperial throne. Nevertheless, it was Emperor Wu who really brought the Spirit Mistress to prominence. After ascending to the throne, the emperor sent agents to Changling (or wherever the spirit had moved), and somehow lured, guided or simply invited the Spirit Mistress to relocate to the Imperial Capital Area. The Spirit Mistress reportedly accepted the offer and was housed with honor in the Tishi Tower at Shanglin Park, located southwest of the capital city, Chang’an. By the time the Spirit Mistress was moved to the tower, she reportedly no longer was possessing a human body and instead inhabited her new home in an invisible ghostly state—Sima Qian wrote, “It was said that one could hear the words spoken by the spirit but could not see her form” (Shi Ji 28).

Sometime later, a man from Youshui named Fa Gen informed Emperor Wu that there was a skilled shamaness living in the province of Shang. This woman, Fa Gen claimed, could commune with spirits and was possessed by ghosts regularly. Emperor Wu reportedly retrieved the shamaness and housed her in the Palace of Sweet Springs, which was a place he recently had constructed for the worship of all spirits.

The shamaness quickly became the chosen spokeswoman of the Spirit Mistress, who apparently moved from the Tishi Tower to be with the shamaness in the Palace of Sweet Springs. This partnership between the Spirit Mistress and the shamaness occurred before the year 118 BCE, at which point Emperor Wu fell ill. He consulted the Spirit Mistress (through the shamaness) about his health, and when he subsequently recovered from his illness, Emperor Wu was convinced that the Spirit Mistress had intervened to improve his health. In thanks, Emperor Wu built for the Spirit Mistress a new home—the Temple of Long Life. This temple was said to have been dedicated specifically for the Spirit Mistress, and with the new temple came more respect and higher rank for the Spirit Mistress in the hierarchy of spirits.

Sima Qian recorded further details about the Spirit Mistress, but the renowned translator Burton Watson warns that anything exceeding the information listed in the preceding paragraphs may have been corrupted over the millennia. Nevertheless, some of the possibly corrupted pieces of information includes that at least one other temple was built for the Spirit Mistress by Emperor Wu and that a group of lesser deities, known as the Great Forbidden Ones, became associated with the spirit and were believed to be her supernatural attendants and helpers. Another possibly corrupted claim of Sima Qian is that Emperor Wu kept a record of all of messages or prophecies delivered by the Spirit Mistress’ mediums, but any such text (if it existed) has been lost.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Painting of Hongxian (紅線), attributed to He Dazi, from his collection called "Gathering Gems of Beauty", [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.