The Dragon of Saint Philip

_MG_2572 (2)Tales of long ago saints have, in modern times, been stripped of their more fantastical elements, often leaving us with confusing vague stories of good people with few distinguishing details. Such has been the fate of Saint Philip, whose cross emblem is on the St. Joseph side of our St. Francis de Sales Church. It’s time to reclaim him!

We know very little about Philip from the Bible. He is said to have been the third Apostle to be called by Jesus. He is quoted in the story of the Loaves and the Fishes from St. John’s Gospel, and he is thought to have been present with the other Apostles at Pentecost. His emblem in our church is the cross “by which he is said to have overthrown the statues of the idols in the countries which he converted.

A lost story of Saint Philip, handed down through the medieval mythical Golden Legends, described how he overcame a dragon in the ancient spa city of Hierapolis, in what is now Turkey. He was said to have been captured there and taken to a pagan (Roman) temple to make a forced sacrifice, when “anon under the idol issued out a right great dragon...” which killed several people who were preparing the sacrificial fire. Then “the dragon corrupted the people with his breath that they all were sick, and St. Philip said: Believe ye me and break this idol and set in his place the cross of Jesus Christ and after, worship ye it, and they that be here dead shall revive, and all the sick people shall be made whole.

It seemed implausible, until 2013, when archaeologist Francesco D’Andria uncovered an ancient Roman shrine called the “Gates of Hell” buried under the ruins of Hierapolis. A natural gas pocket, running beneath the shrine, produces a hallucinogenic and deadly vapor which issues from the doorway. The air is poisonous even today: as it was being excavated, birds and small animals were killed when they strayed  too close to the entrance. It is easy to see how this mysterious phenomenon could be interpreted as a giant beast hidden underground, breathing out  foul and murderous breath. Sealing its shrine and constructing a cross above it would likely have closed off the vent and stopped the poison – a miracle for its time.

Suddenly, the story of Philip gains colour and interest! And a piece of our Catholic culture is restored with a new appreciation of history.

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