ADMIRATION FROM AFAR

Previously published in the AA Journal in 2013

 

When John invited me to write a piece on someone who has inspired me I was deep in my ongoing research of the previous six historical period when Pluto was in Capricorn together with Neptune in Pisces.  So this is about three people from these other times and other places who have stirred the breath of wonder in me. In each case, I was inspired – felt touched by something beautiful – and I admired and was awed by their wonderful courage.  The first is:

THEODORA

(c. 500 – 28 June 548)

Empress Wife of Justinian

Sometime between 497 and 510 C.E. a girl was born in extremely humble circumstances.  She became the most powerful woman of her time – the Empress of Byzantium. She is said to have been the daughter of a bear trainer who died when she was seven.  Her mother got herself a job on the stage and brought Theodora and her sisters along too.  It was a very rowdy life, very sexual, from an early age.  When the famous historian of the day, Procopius, wrote his Secret Histories after her death, he wrote that, before her marriage she was ‘licentious and depraved, spiteful, greedy, an intriguer, a demon in human form.’ He said that before she met and married Justinian she ‘sold her attractions to anyone who came along’. He admitted she was ‘extremely clever and had a biting wit,’ but she had not a bit of modesty.  I cannot quote much of his graphic descriptions of her activities on the stage, as our modern sensibilities would find them much too shocking.   In any case, when the taciturn and meticulous, hard working and canny Emperor Justinian met her, he took her for his own, and he had the laws changed so that he could marry her.  It is said that he was utterly faithful to her until her death that and she was his only complete confidante.  They made a formidable team.

During her lifetime as empress, she did many fine things, particularly for women from the lower strata of society.  However she was utterly ruthless towards her enemies, male or female, and when she could she destroyed anyone from whom she felt danger.      

I cannot say that she was my type of woman and I did not think of her with admiration until I read about a particular event – a moment in her life at which I stand in wonder and admiration.  In January of 523, when Pluto was at the end of Sagittarius and Neptune was in the middle of Aquarius there were riots in the street against the emperor and his generals.  

 

Charts of the first and last day of the "Nika" insurrection.

After five days the people in the streets were shouting ‘Nika!’ [Victory!]  The emperor and his generals were now planning to leave the palace by secret means, to preserve their lives.  Procopius, in spite of his hatred of her, wrote in his History of the Wars that she stood up before his generals and said these words:   

“Whether…whether or not a woman should give an example of courage to men, is neither here nor there.  At a moment of desperate danger one must do what one can.  I think that flight, even if it brings us to safety, is not in our interest.  Every man born to see the light of day must die.  But that one who has been emperor should become an exile, I cannot bear. . . if you wish safety, my Lord, that is an easy matter. We are rich, and there is the sea, and yonder our ships.  But consider whether if you reach safety you may not desire to exchange that safety for death.  As for me, I like the old saying, that the purple [the mark of royalty]  is the noblest shroud.” 

As a result of this, Justinian and his generals decided to stay and in the end they won victory over the rebels.  Now, I'm not sure I would have been on their side in this horrendous clash which, according to history, ended with more than 300,000 dead.But her courage and vitality in the face of apparently probable defeat and death makes my heart sing and I would wish it for anyone I love and for myself too.

In the church of San Vitale at Ravenna, completed in 547 (Pluto in Capricorn and Neptune in Pisces), there is the most beautiful mosaic of her with her ladies dressed in elaborate and exquisite gowns, facing a similar mosaic of her husband the Emperor, Justinian.  She died in 548 and he mourned her death greatly, turning in on himself more and more for the last twenty years of his life while still doing his duty as he saw fit.  What I most admire about her is her courage in the face of death, her willingness to take wild risks for her beliefs and her canny intelligence.  

Hermann of Reichenau

Hermann of Reichenau was born in 1013, probably on the 18th of July.  There is no known time for him, and there is another date which is occasionally used.  This is the 18th of February 1013.  However, after long consideration I have chosen the July chart as I think it reflects most accurately his reported nature and afflictions.  It is so frustrating that we do not have a time of birth, but much can be seen from the dawn chart.  He died on the 24th of September 1054. 

He was born to fairly wealthy noble parents and was severely disabled, either from birth or soon after.  It has been speculated that he had cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and a cleft palate, though recent research has decided that it was motor neuron disease.  He was badly crippled, his speech was impaired and had great difficulty in reading and writing all his life. (He is also called Hermann Contractus or Hermann the Lame because of this).  In spite of these afflictions he was exceptionally gifted intellectually.  He was also, as it turned out, exceptionally gifted in other ways. His kindness and humour are as memorable as his scholarship.

At the age of seven, on the 13th of September, 1020, his parents entrusted him to the local Benedictine monastery on the island of Reichenau, on Lake Constance.  This monastery had been there for some three hundred years and was known for its extensive library and well-equipped workshop.  We do not know what pain this caused him or his parents, but I imagine that the combination of his physical disabilities and his great intellect led them to believe he would be better served living there than isolated with them in their castle.  The monastery became his home and he took vows around his Saturn return in Scorpio. By then he was already known far and wide for his brilliance and his gentle and loving character.  He was an authority in theology, mathematics, astronomy (which included astrology at that time), music and Arabic sciences and he is credited with bringing awareness of  the astrolabe into Europe, through a most scholarly and original treatise on it.  He wrote on music and fashioned musical and astronomical instruments in the monastery workshop.  When I say 'he wrote' I mean his faithful student and assistant, Berthold of Reichenau, wrote what he dictated (and probably other students and companions at different times). 

He composed some of the most beautiful prayers to the Virgin Mary in the Catholic canon and wrote a highly respected historical chronicle from the birth of Christ to his own present day. He also wrote a treatise on a complicated board game, based on Pythagorean numbers and possibly devised by Boethius in the 6th century!  People came from afar to learn from him and to bathe in his presence and he is still considered one of the greatest minds of the eleventh century.  

Writing on lunar months, he was very precise. He said a lunar month was 29 days 12 hours 29 moments 348 atoms.   I am fascinated by the interplay of time and space here – a moment being composed of atoms.  When he wrote it, Pluto was in Capricorn with Neptune in Pisces – as it is now. It seems to me that these planetary positions touch on the paradox of time and space and I notice that in this Pluto in Capricorn and Neptune in Pisces time, we seem to be reconfiguring our notions of the relationship between time and space in new and different ways too.

Hermann’s last years were marred by blindness and increasing pain. My admiration and wonder arises each time I think about this man with his terrible impairments, his scholarship and his reputation for gentleness and humour.  The work of faith and love that he must have done daily astonishes me. The beautiful Marion prayer called Salve Regina, that he wrote speaks of 'this valley of tears'. In it he asks with all faith that ‘she’ – the Virgin - turn her 'eyes of mercy towards us'.  He must have felt that mercy again and again to keep his nature so generous and sweet.  I so admire his ability to be rigorous, gentle, kind and humorous in spite of his terrible and ongoing suffering.  Breath-taking. 

Katharina von Bora was born in Germany on the 29th of January 1499 and died on the 20th of December 1552.

Like Hermann, she was born of nobility, in this case minor nobility, and poor.  Like him she was put into a religious institution very early on.  Her mother died when she was five and very soon after, her father sent her to a Benedictine convent where she was educated and cared for in a way that he could not do. She later became a nun at her father's wish (or demand).  But this was an extraordinary time. When she was 18 the monk Martin Luther pinned his contentious "Ninety-five Theses" on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral and the Reformation took flame.  By the time Katharina was 25 it had gotten out of hand and monasteries and convents were being looted and burned with monks and nuns killed and worse.  

Luther was horrified at the brutal effects of his desire to see the Church reform, and became part of a group of people who rescued those who were in danger of violence at the hands of those who would do such things.  But besides that, some of the nuns in Katharina's convent wanted out, excited by the ideas of the Reformation.  In 1523 they wrote to Luther asking for help.  He sent a friend who was dealing in fish to the convent and 12 of them escaped at night in herring barrels.  Within a few months most of them had found homes but Katharina, who had become a servant in the house of Luther’s friend, the painter Lucas Cranach and his wife, was still unsettled after two years.  She had fallen in love with a man who could not marry her because of his parents’ disapproval (She was now an ex nun and a Catholic to boot!) and after that disappointment she decided she would marry either Luther or his friend, Nicholas von Amsdorf, and that was that!  Luther thought about it for a bit, and then decided it would be him.  And so they did.  The first year was trying for him – and I imagine for her! – but after that they found happiness together and it lasted until his death twenty years later.  

She had six children by him, (three of them died) and later they took in his widowed sister’s six children plus some of her relatives too.  In addition, they took in students to help with their finances.  She was a capable gardener, an admirable administrator of their finances, a respected healer, and she made very good beer!   She was an excellent homemaker which cheered him greatly.  Before his marriage a friend had come to visit once and found his bed full of mildew.  He had not changed it in six months.  What a transformation to his life she was!  She was his equal in quick wittedness and a good intellectual and emotional companion. He called her 'Mrs. Doctor', 'my rib' and 'Lord Katie'.  He criticized her for her pride and rejoiced in her wit and intelligence. He said he would not give her up for all the money of Croesus, nor for France or Venice.  He himself was, by all accounts, lively, stimulating, rich in humour (both coarse and subtle) and there are notes written by students who came to his evening ‘Table Talks’ that describe the witty intellectual exchanges that occurred between the two of them.  When he died, she grieved profoundly.

The reason I admire her is that she was able to adapt to the changes in her life with grace and humour and she served her God with all her heart and will, and yet she felt her emotions profoundly. Her vitality, faith, adaptability to changing circumstances, her wit and courage in dangerous times lights up my heart with wonder and delight.

 


 

[1] Procopius, History of the Wars, [1. 24. 33-37] in Robert Browning's   Justinian and Theodora, (London:  Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971) p. 112.  I have also used:  Diehl, Charles. Theodora, Empress of Byzantium,  (Frederick Ungar Publishing, Inc., 1972) transl. by S.R. Rosenbaum from the original French,  Theodora, Imperatrice de Byzance, which is a popular account based on the author's extensive scholarly research.

[1]  J.D. North, Stars, Mind and Fate, Essays in Ancient and Medieval Cosmology, (London: Hambledon Press, 1989), p 216.

[1]  In the year of the500th anniversary of Katharina's death, Jeanette C. Smith wrote: "In its literature, each century has portrayed Katharina von Bora through the filter of its own values. Luther's 'Lord Katie' has been variously depicted as the First Lady of the Protestant parsonage, the Morning Star Willenberg, the businesswoman of the Reformation, a role model for working wives, the ideal wife and mother, a pig (in polemical satire), and a woman who exemplifies the inconsistencies of the transition between medieval and modern worldviews of women. Along with her husband, Katharina von Bora was satirized, vilified, idolized, revised, and fictionalized by contemporaries and later commentators. In all portrayals, her unique, strong personality, like Luther's, shines through.   Smith, Jeanette C., Katherina von Bora Through Five Centuries: A Historiography, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 745-774.