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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Saint Margaret the Virgin
Saint Margaret, also known as Margaret of Antioch (in Pisidia), virgin and martyr, is celebrated by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches on July 20. Her historical existence is dubious; she was declared apocryphal by Pope Gelasius in 494, but devotion to her revived in the West with the Crusades. She was reputed to have promised very powerful indulgences to those who wrote or read her life, or invoked her intercession; these no doubt helped the spread of her cult.
According to the Golden Legend, she was a native of Antioch, daughter of a pagan priest named Aedesius. She was scorned by her father for her Christian faith, and lived in the country with a foster-mother keeping sheep. Olybrius, the praeses orientis, offered her marriage at the price of her renunciation of Christianity. Her refusal led to her being cruelly tortured, and after various miraculous incidents, one of which involved getting swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon, from which she escaped alive, when the cross she carried irritated the dragon's innards, she was put to death in A.D. 304. The Golden Legend, in an atypical moment of scepticism, describes this last incident as "apocryphal and not to be taken seriously" (trans. Ryan, 1.369).
The Greek church knows Margaret as Marina, and celebrates her festival on 17 July. She has been identified with Saint Pelagia – "Marina" being the Latin equivalent of the Greek name "Pelagia" – who, according to a legend, was also called Margarito. We possess no historical documents on St Margaret as distinct from St Pelagia. The Greek Marina came from Antioch, Pisidia, but this distinction was lost in the West.
An attempt has been made, but without success, to prove that the group of legends with which that of Saint Margaret is connected is derived from a transformation of the pagan divinity Aphrodite into a Christian saint. The problem of her identity is a purely literary question.
The cult of Saint Margaret became very widespread in England, with more than 250 churches are dedicated to her. Believers consider her a patron saint of pregnancy. In art, she is usually pictured escaping from the dragon.
Although her cult was suppressed in 1969, traditional devotions to her remain in effect. Margaret is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. She is one of the Saints who appeared to Joan of Arc.
If Margaret has been a historical person, an explanation for the dragon could be a rock python (Python sebae), which can grow to length of up to 6 m (20 ft). It was known to Romans, and often seen in circuses. Rock pythons are known to have attacked and even swallowed humans, and if Margaret had been of smallish stature, the snake could well have devoured her and later vomited.

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