Mary Mann on Reading Horoscopes in Butler’s Lives of Saints
When Alban Butler sat down to write the lives of the saints in the 1720s, he probably wasn’t thinking anyone would ever want to read them in lieu of horoscopes. Butler himself had no need for predictions—he had determined his future when he embarked on a thirty-year mission to write biographies for all the church’s saints and organize them by their appointed feast days.
But I like to think that, even though an astrological reading of the saints may have befuddled Butler, he wouldn’t have been offended. He lived in a world where the astrological leanings of the early church were still in play. Clergymen consulted astrologers, star signs were engraved on churches, and there was a belief that—in the words of 18th century diplomat Boris Kurakin—“Stars rule over the people, but God rules over the stars.”
This wouldn’t last long: as Butler wrote, a growing group of churchgoers argued to ax astrology from the church, along with other common mystical beliefs. Removing the magic must have seemed like the only way to bring Christianity into the future, shaking it of its previous associations, some fanciful and fun—walking on water, parting the seas, making a world in a day—and some downright awful: witch trials were still fresh in everyone’s minds. As Thomas Paine wrote in his 18th century bestseller The Age of Reason: “It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine, and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man.”
Meanwhile, Butler was preserving the less awful magical aspects of the church in the stories of saints: their miracles, mishaps and martyrdoms. He was obsessed and read about them constantly. “When he was alone,” wrote his nephew Charles Butler, “he read; when he was in company, he read; at his meals, he read; in his walks, he read; when he was in a carriage, he read; when he was on horseback, he read; whatever he did, he read.” And no wonder—the saints in Butler’s Lives are a weird and wonderful bunch. As mothers say about their most worrisome children, they “march to the beat of a different drummer.”
Take Saint Bartholomew of Farne, June 24th. He was christened Tostig at birth, but changed his name—odd even by 12th-century standards—in response to jibes from friends. He sought the life of a hermit on England’s Inner Farne Island, but there were more people around than he would have liked, so to protect his solitude he insisted on wearing unwashed rams skins, stiff with sweat and dirt—his motto: “the dirtier the body, the cleaner the soul.” His favorite company was a pet bird.
A typical daily horoscope on Yahoo might advise: “Love, romance, laughter—you’ve got all the right elements put together, but it might all feel like a house of cards. Make sure you’ve cleared everything with that special someone in your life, or it all could blow over in a strong wind. Communication is the key to ensuring that these grand plans come off in grand style. You should never assume that someone else knows what you’re thinking anyway—but that goes double right now.” Borrowing the style might look something like this:
St. Bart’s horoscope, June 24: Engaging in manual labor or cardiovascular exercise today will feel especially good, and don’t feel obligated to be social. You may start thinking about adopting a pet.
Saint’s lives can be turned into horoscopes, but reading the life and its horoscope together has a different effect than a regular horoscope on its own. Perhaps most obvious is that while horoscopes predict everything from promotions to breakups, they never predict death—the only element of the future we can be sure about—whereas no saints’ day in Butler’s Lives is complete without death. In fact, most saints are martyrs (though not Joseph or Bartholomew—I started you off easy), so their deaths are messy affairs: they’re beheaded, boiled, grilled, drowned and skinned, to name a few.
One such martyr is Saint Cecilia, November 22th. Cecilia lived in the second century and, in the manner of most early Christians, she had it rough: a pagan judge tortured her incessantly. She was burned, hacked at with a sword, and boiled in her own bathtub. But Cecilia—who continued to preach even while simmering like so much soup—didn’t feel a thing. On the third day of torture she abruptly died, though by all accounts she was not in pain. A millennia later, her life was memorialized by Chaucer: “In spite of all the bath’s heat and fire/She sat quite cold, and felt no kind of pain.”
Saint Cecilia’s horoscope, November 22nd: Today is full of opposition—anything that can go wrong will. But stick to your guns and you’ll manage to sail through this day of disasters unscathed. Toward evening you’ll be extra tired, and a hot bath may prove a source of inspiration.
Any day you manage not to die and/or be brutally tortured, you’re almost always guaranteed to be one up on that day’s saint.
The same is true of romance. Love predictions are a large component of horoscopes, bringing along all the attendant neuroses: “he’s a Leo so he might cheat,” “we’re fighting because it’s a bad love week,” “she’s flaky because she was born in January.” And the world’s most-mocked pick-up line, “What’s your sign?” But it’s hard to imagine anyone ever saying, “What’s your saint?” As a whole, the saints aren’t known for their eventful love lives. Most were celibate and died as virgins, so even if you’re not gettin’ it as often as you’d like, chances are you’re pulling more than a saint.
A few rare saints had partners, but their relationships took a back seat to other concerns. Such was the case for July 8th Saints Priscilla and Aquila. Like Paul the Apostle, they were first century tentmakers, and they met him on the job soon after being banished from Rome as Jews. After chatting with Paul, they became Christian evangelists, which was yet another surefire way to get banished or fed to lions. Though the details of their deaths are lost to history, it’s believed they were martyred, and Paul wrote in the book of Romans that they risked their lives for him. Aquila and Priscilla are always mentioned together in the Bible, and surprisingly, given the times, records indicate that Priscilla was the brains of the duo—some scholars suspect she may even have authored the book of Hebrews.
Saints Priscilla and Aquila, July 8th: If you’re single, someone you work with may turn out to be more than a friend. If you’re coupled up it’s a lucky day to begin a joint project—look outside the relationship for a cause you can support together. Women in particular may want to take the lead.
Romantic love wasn’t the guiding force in saints’ lives. They were too busy pissing people off by preaching or scaring people by performing strange miracles: flying, raising the dead, predicting the future, that sort of thing. Even though it most often got them killed, they didn’t seem to give a shit what other people thought. Many of them also had a pretty good sense of humor about the crazy costs of saintly living—Billy Joel was off the mark when he sang “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” Saint Francis of Assisi, for example, cautioned the church, “Don’t canonize me too soon. I’m perfectly capable of fathering a child.” More virgin jokes came from Saint Augustine of Hippo, who prayed, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.”
Another jokester is Saint Laurence, August 10th, who lived and preached in the bloody days of third century Rome. He was ordered to give the wealth of the church to Caesar, but there wasn’t any money, so he gathered the city’s devout poor and presented them as “the treasure of the church.” For his cheekiness Laurence was sentenced to a ghastly death by roasting. Legend has it that he cheerfully asked his executioners to turn him over after one side was toasted so he might be “evenly cooked.”
Saint Laurence, August 10th: Today you may be called on to help or represent someone in need. It’s a good day for charity, grilling out, and telling jokes.
Though I’m sure Butler didn’t mean to, he gave us a great alternative to horoscopes. Saints lives are stranger than astrological predictions and less apt to conform to expectations; they’re drenched in failure (martyr here, martyr there, martyr, martyr everywhere) but pretty nonchalant about it, all things considered—“as long as we did our best,” the saints seem to say, “it’s fine.” It’s all very comforting to read before the beginning of a big day.
“Saints are sinners who kept on going,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, and it rings true—it’s why their stories have lasted so long, with some help from Alban Butler—but I would add a second clause, truer to the reason I read them every day: saints are weirdos who kept on believing.
Mary Mann is a Hoosier living in Manhattan. Her essays have appeared in Salon, the Hairpin, the Rumpus, the Toast, Bookslut, and Ploughshares online. Her other writing has appeared in Columbia Journal online and New York magazine online.