The Father, the Son, and the Holy Goat

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William Buckland, from Reminiscences of Oxford.


In the year 1166 a woman quietly passed away in a cave on Mount Pelligrino, Sicily. It was the end she chose for herself. At the age of twelve she had left home to become a hermit and devote her life to worshiping God, and her remains were left to rot in the isolated cave that was her home. Her name was Rosalia.

Then, in 1624, a deadly epidemic spread through Palermo. It was at this time that a sick woman claimed to have seen a vision of Rosalia, and for the plague to be ended, the apparition instructed, Rosalia's bones would have to be recovered. This was indeed done, but the disease still choked the city. Why had Rosalia abandoned them?

The answer came when a man named Vincenza Bonelli encountered a woman claiming to be Rosalia in the mountains. When asked why she had forsaken the town she is said to have replied "t is the will of Heaven; but I am now sent to declare that, as soon as my bones are carried in procession through the city, the plague will be stayed." Rosalia's further instructions were followed and her bones were paraded through the city. This time the plague ebbed, and for this Rosalia became venerated as the patron saint of Palermo. Every year on July 15 the residents of the town commemorate the event during a celebration called the festino.

Even though over 450 years had passed between the death of Rosalia and the procession through Palermo the people of the town were sure they had recovered her bones. The vision specified where the bones would be found, and sure enough the hunter charged with the duty found the osteological scraps. (Other accounts state that the discovery of the bones was an accident, but either way the relics played an important role during the 1624 epidemic.) The plague also lifted when Rosalia's instructions were followed, so how could these not be the holy remains of the saint?

Two hundred and one years after the miracle in Sicily the eccentric British geologist William Buckland married his wife Mary, and Palermo was one of their stops on their honeymoon tour. There the newlyweds went to see Rosalia's shrine, but something was amiss about the saint's remains. The priests escorting the Bucklands may not have known the expertise of the man standing with them, but Buckland was familiar enough with osteology to know the true identity of the bones. "They are the bones of a goat," he declared, "not of a woman."

The attending priests were horrified. In an attempt to cover their error they are said to have replied that the saint would not allow Buckland to see what was only visible to the faithful, which was odd given that Buckland was a devout Christian. (Though not a Catholic, which is perhaps what the priests were hinting at.) No matter. From that time onwards the bones of "Rosalia" were enclosed in a casket. No one was to see the saint, not no way, not no how.

Indeed, many of the relics exhibited by churches did not belong to the saints and holy figures they were said to have come from. There was even a sideshow-like competition between houses of worship to present the most impressive remains for veneration, many (if not most) of which were phonies. As observed by A.D. White (and re-iterated in The Pathological Aspects of Religions) this was a kind of idolatry and fetishism Christians were comfortable with, and the supposed curative powers of the bones of "Saint Rosalia" and others were upheld.

Even today nearly no mention of Buckland's conclusion can be found in any account of Rosalia's story I have seen so far, nor are the finer details of it typically included. From what I have been able to gather it appears that, either by accident or as the result of a dedicated search, someone found bones in the cave in which Rosalia was said to have died. It had been over four and a half centuries since she passed away and who knows what became of her bones, but there were roughly human-sized bones (probably ribs and upper limb bones) in the cave all the same. That the bones of a goat could have entered the cave would not take a miracle, nor would it require divine intervention for some of those remains to be confused with human bones.

At the time that bones were recovered many people were sick and dying of the plague, but moving the bones to the town did no good. Why should they have? A second vision was required to explain why God had seemingly forsaken the people of Palermo, and a further task would have to be completed before the plague lifted. That it did so after Rosalia's parade was coincidence, and it is interesting how the duration between the parade and the "miracle" is never cited. Indeed, coincidence and a poor knowledge of osteology came together to turn the bones of a farm animal into the holy remains of a saint. Even so, I do not doubt that many will continue to believe that the bones found in that cave were truly those of Rosalia.

Interestingly, however, Rosalia has taken on a second life in the scientific literature. In 1959 the Yale zoologist G.E. Hutchinson delivered a presidential address to the American Society of Naturalists in which he tapped Rosalia as the "patroness of evolutionary studies." This suggestion did not take, but Rosalia became associated with the primary question Hutchinson asked in the paper: "Why are so many kinds of animals?" As a result there have been many papers bearing the name Santa Rosalia in the title, but this is more of a reference to Hutchinson's paper than the saint herself. As the title of Roger Lewin's article "Santa Rosalia was a Goat" indicates Buckland's conclusion is remembered among naturalists if not the general public.

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Interesting piece; thanks. Hutchison's famous paper also inspired one of my favorite scientific titles. Ray Huey published a paper in which he compared the sprinting speeds of lizards, and called it "Homage to Santa Anita."

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 09 Feb 2009 #permalink

Your title = excellent!

You've reminded me of my favorite bizarre miracle story: the Stille Omgang of Amsterdam. In short, a dying man vomiting up a communion wafer which does not burn in a fire = miracle! Note that the story remains conspicuously silent on the fate of the dying man...

Interesting story--and why not a miracle with goat bones? Goats go way back to the scapegoat which was sent off into the desert with the ancient Israelite's sins. If a goat could deal with a whole tribe, why not one little town?

Catholics worshipping a goat? Does Jack Chick know? ;-)

Thanks Brian. This post has destroyed my belief in St Rosalia, the Catholic Church, religion in general and God in particular.

Henceforth, I will no longer give to the church for the relief of the poor, homeless and sick. I will no longer visit the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless...

Glad to have all that non-sense off my plate.

Thanks again.

Don; That sanctimonious comment was in no way necessary, and your comment has nearly nothing to do with what I wrote. This post was about a particular myth within the Catholic church that is still embraced today. I said nothing about whether belonging to a church, believing in God, or adhering to a religion was wise, foolish, or anything else. That is a personal choice, but should you adhere to a religious creed, I would expect that you would be concerned with truth and not want to base your faith on a legend.

Your point about caring for others is a non sequitur, and you could still do all those things even if you were an atheist. Obviously you are not, but your sarcastic show of piety does nothing but make you look foolish. If you are so devout that criticism of an unsubstantiated religious tale raises your hackles, if you find the truth a threat to your faith, perhaps you should re-examine what you believe.

Interestingly a pope once declared that holy relics could replicate, in order to explain why there were so many pieces of saints, or the cross or any other relic.

Brian,

Excellent reply to Don Ford. Interesting and informative story as well.

Don,

As a fellow Catholic, need I remind you of the catechism which states that relics in and of themselves, while beneficial if used properly, are vastly inferior to the liturgy itself (CCC 1674 & 1675). The life of a Catholic is not tied to relics, it is tied to the Church, which we hold to have been created by Jesus Christ. And as members of that Church we are told by Jesus Himself to do two things (Luke 10:27): You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

We don't need believe in relics to achieve such things.

Brian,
The title ("Father, Son and The Holy Goat") says everything about your aims and the care with which you view the faith of others.
My sanctimony was really a poor attempt to show the hurt that can be done when, apropos of nothing, people take up pen and ink and examine the beliefs of others.

It seems a pointless exercise.

I've tried to keep my belief or lack of it out of this discussion since this is irrelevant. As are yours.

Neither Brian nor TomJoe have any idea of my religion.

For the record: I never clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick (I admit to feeding some hungry folks once but that was a long time ago).

I was trying to demonstrate something independent of myself.

My sanctimony was really a poor attempt ...

Well, at least you admit as much. I guess that's all that need be said on this issue.

Coming soon to a blog near you: Totally Inappropriate Snark, by Don Ford!

More about the importance of the stories we tell relative to the facts from which they are assembled -- in the sense of Kazantzakis: "Is there anything truer than truth? Yes, Legend."