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Teaser Tuesday: On the Survival of Ancient River Gods

Tuesday, June 18, 2019 - 08:16

It is no secret at all that any number of the more...apocryphal saints in the historic Catholic tradition were adopted from extra-historical sources. In many cases, extra-Christian sources. The church has gone though a gradual process of pruning away those for which a solidly historic basis can't be established. But in many cases, those discarded traditions evolved and grew and set deep emotional roots in the hearts of worshippers. During my recent research on cross-dressing narratives in medieval history, I spent a lot of time combing through the Acta Sanctorum, a ca. 1600 encyclopedia of every saint on the calendar that reviewed and evaluated the evidence both for their historicity and their sanctity. (Spoiler: many of the legends of cross-dressing saints are apocryphal.) It's a fascinating field both for religious history and for folklore and the processes by which both develop.

I don't remember exactly when I first got the idea that the Rotein River might have its own survival of this type. There was a time early in the plotting of Daughter of Mystery where I envisioned a system of ancient tunnels and catacombs under the city that the characters might use as an escape route and where they might encounter interesting antiquities. That specific image and event was left on the cutting room floor, but I held on to the image of intriguing ancient survivals and hidden tunnels.

As I developed the theme of the centrality of stories and images involving the Rotein in Mother of Souls, I knew that somewhere in Alpennian history, the river must have had a clear personification of some sort. If you go far enough back, pretty much all major European rivers had their own local deity. And I'd established through various passing references (to say nothing of simple historic inevitability) that Alpennia was part of the Roman Empire and that some of its towns and cities had architectural relics of that era. So I knew it was perfectly possible that there might be Roman-era shrines to the Rotein's deity still lying around somewhere. And it was reasonable that an important deity of that sort might have been Christianized at some early date.

But the Alpennia series is set in an era when that pruning away of spurious saints had been thoroughly accomplished for the most part. So what might survivals look like in the early 19th century? For one, a "saint" associated with the river might be clung to by those whose lives and livelihoods most depended on the water. And traditions associated with that saint might well survive in contexts of peril and danger associated with the river: flood, drought, fever.

I knew that the Rotein would be an even larger "character" in Floodtide and--simply given the way the worldbuilding has developed across the series--I knew that the patron saint of the river could not be part of high-culture worship or traditions (because she hadn't been mentioned in any of the high-culture magical discussions to that point). But knowing this, I planted two minor seeds in Mother of Souls. In the "prelude" text, when I describe the usual course of the river's behavior, I note, “For those who can leave the city, floodtide signals an exodus to the pleasures of country estates. Those who remain light a candle to Saint Rota against the fever.” And at a later point, when Serafina is arguing with Margerit about whether Luzie's opera counts as a miracle or a mystery, she protests, “It doesn’t matter that the opera doesn’t invoke any saints. If it works, it doesn’t matter. Lots of market charms don’t call on saints. Or they call on people who aren’t saints, like Mama Rota.”

But how would a foreigner like Serafina know about the apocryphal Saint Rota? She heard about the tradition from Celeste, of course, who lives well within the flood zone in the western part of the city, and whose collection of market charms would certainly include ones that invoke her. In my mind, Saint Rota developed as a saint of the people, of the working class and especially those whose lives and fates were most influenced by the whims of the river. They would be well aware that Rota wasn't an accepted saint, but she was theirs. And half the time, she wouldn't be "Saint" but "Mama," a very personal figure whose recognition verged on admitted heresy. Her rejection by the church authorities would make her even more special and personal to those who felt overlooked and rejected themselves.

I envisioned more details of her cult: a connection would have arisen with Rotenek's patron saint, Mauriz. And because Mauriz was depicted as a black man, a Moor, Rota might be envisioned similarly. But Mauriz was a military saint, martyred while commanding an army--how might a sister be worked into his legend? Well, Rota was always and ever associated with water, and what better miracle for her than to have created a spring of pure water for her brother's soldiers to drink? Thus, the idea of Saint Rota's well passed into legend, and the idea of water from her well having miraculous properties became a motif, even when it also became a metaphor for the unobtainable. Because there was no "Saint Rota's Well" was there? So the associations for her well were transferred to the river itself.

In the first encounter when Roz meets Liv on the river, she notices her habit--as automatic and unthinking as crossing oneself--of dipping her fingers in the river and bringing them to her mouth as she pushes out into the current. And Roz, in her usual well-meaning but clumsy way, asks about why she's "tasting the river."

* * *

I was startled when Liv dropped the oars for a moment, sending us spinning loose in the water. She grabbed my wrist. “Don’t mock Mama Rota,” she said. She was real serious, like the Orisule sisters at school had been about taking God’s name in vain. She let me go and grabbed the oars again and had us back on course in three strokes. “Show respect. If you want Mama Rota to keep you safe on the water, you say thanks every time. And if you don’t know what you’re talking about, then keep your mouth shut.”

I wanted to ask who Mama Rota was, but Liv wasn’t the right person to ask just now. So I kept my mouth shut.

[later Roz asks one of the other housemaids about Mama Rota]

“Folks on the river call her that, but others call her Saint Rota. They say she was Saint Mauriz’s sister and she watches over the river like he watches over the city. There’s a picture in one of the cathedral windows that some people say is Saint Rota but I don’t know about that. If she were a real saint, wouldn’t she have a feast day?”

The next time we were at services in the cathedral together, I asked Ailis to show me the window. It was above one of the side altars. You could see Saint Mauriz in the center window, with his armor and a white turban almost as big as his halo. One of the side windows had a whole group of his soldiers. The people in the other side window included a lady who looked dark like Mauriz, though they weren’t either of them as dark as Mefro Dominique. The lady was pouring water out of a pitcher, so maybe that was why folks thought she was Mama Rota. She was pretty but she didn’t have a halo.

* * *

Keep that image in mind: a dark-skinned holy woman bringing safety and salvation to the city's downtrodden using water from a miraculous spring. It will be a couple more books before that image comes back to haunt the city that Saint Rota watches over.


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