The Wee folk: THE RISE OF ST. ONUPHRIUS

The Wee folk: Strictly Fantasy,  Or Was there a Basis in fact? (PART 4: THE RISE OF ST. ONUPHRIUS THE “WOODWOSE SAINT” AS PERSECUTION INCREASES AGAINST HERETICS, SLAVES & THE WEE FOLK)

The Church wanted the Dark Helper back on a chain and back “in the box” of the demonic identity it had designated for him – but how to do it? Take a look at the featured picture. It’s a painting of St Onuphrius the Hermit (painted in 1460). If he looks a bit like the Woodwose, the old fantasy character from Roman days, he should – that’s exactly what the Church wanted him to look like.
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If the Green Man and Woodwose represented a way for the “old religions” both pagan and panentheistic to worm their way back into society, the Church would simply have to conflate the two, and generate a Green Man/Woodwose saint on the Church’s side, and could be safely managed.

Hence, the canonization of St. Onuphrius.

He was not generated from whole cloth, either – he did exist, said to be a staunch anti-Arian, who prayed for deliverance from Arian Roman emperors, Valens and Constantius II. This is historically open to question, since there seems to be a dispute as to whether he lived in the 3rd, 4th or 5th centuries, thus whether he would have been alive during their reigns.

What is known is that, having studied jurisprudence and philosophy, he joined a monastery near Thebes (now Luxor, 420 miles south of Cairo), before going into the desert as hermit. An angel was said to be his sole companion, bringing him his daily sustenance as well as delivering communion to him once a week.

He was made patron saint of weavers due to the fact that he was depicted “dressed only in his own abundant hair, and a loin-cloth of leaves.” Exactly where in a North African desert, which has six-month summers with insufferably hot desert temperatures and dry, burning African winds, one would find leaves sufficient to make a loincloth is an unanswered question.

But no matter, since he’s depicted wearing the leaves of the northern European rainforest – the same ones, by fantastic coincidence, that usually surround Green Man – and he’s hairy in exactly the same way as Woodwose. Logic and reason would have the Church make St. Onuphrius a Green Man/Woodwose assistant to St. Nicholas – a way to sanctify/neutralise Eckhart – instead, St. Onuphrius’ feast day is on the other side of the calendar, June 12.

The Church wanted to have its cake and eat it, too.

It wanted a Woodwose/Green Man saint it could control, but well away from Christmastide, so that Eckhart could remain a way to ridicule the old religion – a cowed, farcical demon on a chain, doing the bidding of good St. Nicholas..There was no room in their plan for a Nørwi-like partner saint for Nicholas – and this was where the Church made a major mistake.

Or rather, its third major mistake: The first had been its jihad-like attack on the “Arian Heresy.” The second was its genocidal approach to the Wee Folk, still on the fringes of society, who’d seen no advantage to interacting with the Romans and had spent several centuries is hiding and isolation, but had re-emerged after the end of the Roman occupation, sometimes intermarried with practitioners of the old ways. The Roman church had a near-genocidal determination to neutralize them – by wiping them out, if necessary.

For all its supposed opposition to Manichæism, the Church’s own philosophy had become almost Manichæistic: There were fixed, immutable and absolute latitudes of right and longitudes of wrong, and no room for subtlety, nuance, alternative ideas or shades of grey. Determination of what was good and right was a closely guarded monopoly of the powers in Rome. Anyone found dabbling with that thought risked an ecclesiastical kangaroo court and execution – usually by being burnt at the stake.

But Arian heretics”, or any other “heretics,” had the option of publicly recanting, whilst privately retaining their beliefs and living on to fight another day. The same was not true of the Wee Folk, where the Church’s campaign was as much an attack on their existence as upon their beliefs. It was true that the Church, unable to fathom the idea of an omniscient nature spirit that was part of everything, engaged in creation and destruction as but two parts of a single process. The Church viewed their panentheism as not only anti-theistic – and therefore, heretical – but as satanic.

But it was the existence of the Wee Folk themselves that upset the Church most.

They lived quite well outside the established order. There was no way for the Church to control them. Then there was their odd “powers” – which clergy believed, as passionately as the most ignorant peasant, that the Wee Folk possessed: Powers that, since they were alien to the established order, must accordingly also be satanic.

Then there was slavery – it was not unknown to northern Europeans, but one generally became a slave only three ways: Capture in battle, gambling away one’s freedom or being sentenced to be a slave after being found guilty of certain high crimes. No one could be born into slavery. That all changed with the Romans, who considered the offspring of slaves to be slaves as well, and who expanded the ways by which one could become a slave. As their concept of slavery took hold in northern Europe and the number of slaves geometrically increased, there was also the geometric increase in the number of runaway slaves, seeking to claim their freedom.

These three groups, the heretics, the runaway slaves and the Wee Folk, slowly began to see a kind of kinship in their oppression, leading them – as we shall see — to tentatively reach out to one another and band together.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.