Thursday, July 16, 2009


Saint Fermin is a genuine man of mystery. And I’m not talking whodunits here. I mean mystery in the original sense of the word. Beneath the Christian/Catholic paraphernalia, once you start digging . . . well, mysteries abound.

He is said to be the son of a 3rd century Roman senator. He converted to Christianity, and was martyred. His cloak, the Capotico of San Fermin, is supposed to give protection. When you have a close call, his cape is said to have saved you. There is also a story about him being tied to bull and dragged to death.

A protective cape. Death by bull. No wonder this patron saint of Pamploma’s festival is all about bullfighting! It all makes sense.

Well, not quite.

First, Saint Fermin wasn’t dragged to death by a bull, he was decapitated. The saint who was bulldragged was Saturnius, the first bishop of Toulouse, in France. Saint Fermin was converted to Christianity by Saint Honestus, who was a disciple of Saturnius. Tradition says Fermin’s baptism took place at Pocico de San Cernin, which is across from a church built on the foundations of a pagan temple.

To further complicate things, in Toulouse, the oldest church is Notre-Dame du Taur ("Our Lady of the Bull"). It is said to have been built on the spot where the bull stopped dragging Saturnius. The site is also said to be dedicated to a pre-Christian sacred bull. And the street is called Rue du Taur.

Did the bull of Mithras bubble up through folkloric tradition and revive bull worship that exists to this very day? Is this another case, like in voodoo and Santeria, where Christian saints stand in for older gods? What is it about us that needs these ancient mysteries so bad, that when they are absent, we conjure them up?

It looks like traditions are not the static things that people would like to think they are. Like in nature, changes happen each generation. Traditions evolve and mutate. And now that we can zap folklore all over the planet at the speed of light, this process is easier, and faster than ever before.

The current generation sees the internet as a natural phenomenon, the way my generation saw television. My parents saw television as an innovation. And that was before the techno speed-up.

Traditions that are the roots of American (and Global) pop culture didn’t exist a hundred, or even fifty years ago. Once upon a time it was rare to live long enough to see your way of life totally transformed – now it’s a sure thing.

The transformations of Saint Fermin are a clue to how the traditions of the world will change in the 21st century.

What would Saint Fermin think of it all? What would Hemingway think of how his novel warped this Fiesta? Imagine the time warp through which the two of them could watch Mister Testis dancing with naked PETA girls and it may hint at what kind of future awaits us.

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