Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cross My Palm With Silver

I'd heard the phrase "cross my palm with silver" in fortune-telling settings, and assumed it meant "Give me some money for a reading." But I'm just reading Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear, and in the opening scene the hero goes to a fortune-teller. "Cross my palm with silver," she says, and he takes out a piece of silver money, makes the sign of a cross over her palm, and pays her the coin - a half-crown (two shillings six, one-eighth of a pound, to you metric types). In return (this being Graham Greene) she gives him a piece of information he is not supposed to have, setting off a spy chase plot.

So "cross" is not a euphemism for pay but actually means to make the sign of a cross, as in to "cross oneself" is to make a cross on one's abdomen ("when in Rome, do like a Roman" as Tom Lehrer put it) - I first encountered that usage at 11 or 12, reading Howard Pyle's medieval children's novel, Otto of the Silver Hand, and had no idea what it meant - I thought crossing oneself was like stepping on your own toe in utter confusion. People seemed to do it when confused, or driven to an unintended oath.

Since I studied Wicca, of course, I have "starred" myself - drawn a pentagram on my chest. (Or, in oil, on the brow of others.)

The cross makes me uncomfortable. I won't wear one. Too many people have been slain in its name. The Cathars regarded it with horror as an instrument of the torture of Christ, which it was. They are, of course, among the people the Christians murdered in the name of the cross. They're extinct now.

Long before Christ's day, the cross was a popular symbol of many meanings.
INDIAN: It's a cross - symbolizing the division of the universe into active and passive principles.
PADRE, disgusted: Lord have mercy on your heathen souls.
- Firesign Theater, c. 1968

It's a fairly obvious glyph - but its original meaning may be obscure, and its later meaning (the letter t?) unhelpful at discerning its antiquity. A gallows with which to play Hangman? A crossroads at which to bury a suicide? An X-Y graph on which to chart an equation? Any or none of these to the original hierophants who drew crosses upon rocks or inscribed them in tablets.

Its antiquity indicates (say unbelievers) that the cross, found among so many peoples, need not be assigned any fixed meaning, and may celebrate anything. Likewise the broken cross, or swastika - but you see, even the most ancient symbols may acquire a new meaning that soils the others and spoils all the aesthetic possibilities by ending our innocent objectivity. Wherefore Christian mystical types will assure you that the antiquity of the cross as a symbol indicates a certain sybilline strain among ancient peoples, who reveled in the cross because they knew instinctively that it would become the symbol of salvation. (You can't prove they're wrong.)

The Romans executed criminals by nailing them to crosses. You probably knew that, having seen it done in The Life of Brian. The fact is, the Romans did everything in a cruciform manner. Their roads were straight in all directions, but if a Roman chicken wanted to get to the other side, a cross was the natural result. The Roman castrum, or camp, was a square, cut in four parts by large straight paths, with a forum at the center. All their camps were like this, and some of them became towns, and some of the towns became cities, and many of the Roman cities (Paris, for instance - and New York) still have that crisscross grid pattern at the center.

This is especially evident at Split (in Croatia), which was originally not a city at all but the retirement cottage of the Emperor Diocletian. It is in the form of a rectangle, slightly longer on the E-W sides than the N-S, with barracks for two legions on the inland quarters of the square (why two? perhaps he had them play sports against each other) and an imperial residence in the other two quarters, with a three-story library and an enormous mausoleum, plus a balcony the equivalent of five city blocks long on the sea front, where he had music 24/7 - harder to arrange in 305 CE than it is today, but even in retirement the imperial purple has its privileges. At any hour of the day or night, the aged Diocletian could stroll by the sea and listen to lyres twang while the surf rolled in.

Diocletian certainly wasn't thinking of Christianity when he renounced the throne and went home to Illyria - he is the last man on record who ever attempted to stamp the religion out in its entirety - he thought Christians were unpatriotic, undermining the authority of Rome, which was certainly in decline. His successor, a few years later, Constantine, had the brilliant idea of using the Christians to give Rome a new backbone, proclaiming it the only legal religion. There were protests, but on the whole the scheme was a resounding success: The Roman Empire lasted another thousand years (till 1453), and preserved a great heap of classical learning until the Italians of the Renaissance were ready to receive it.

But meanwhile many a barbarian invaded the land. The city of Salonae was burned to the ground, and its people were homeless and afraid. Where could they take refuge? "What about the old palace?" someone said. It was half ruined, abandoned for 200 years, sheltering a textile mill. But the walls were still standing - and the balcony five blocks long - which is still standing today. The Illyrians hid out in the cross-shaped palace; the rich families took the big rooms, the poor families lived in the basement or the closets, chapels were stuffed everywhere, and the mausoleum of the emperor became the cathedral. It became the city of Split. The bust of the pagan emperor looks glumly down on the high altar where mass is celebrated, and a Venetian campanile stands across the way. In the forum, operas are staged.

You could say: A city at cross purposes.

1 comment:

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

What a fabulous post! FWIW, John, I've linked to it (and the previous post, which I also loved) from the Pagan blog aggregator, MetaPagan. It will take a little while, but it should show up within a few hours not only there, but on our nifty little blog widgets on blogs and My Space pages--that sort of thing.

(And if you'd like to get the nifty blog widget installed on your own blog, you can pick it up at Widgetbox, and install the code as a new html page element in your blog layout. It's actually pretty easy.)