Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dec. 31, New Year's Eve - Saint Silvester

I first became aware of Saint Silvester when I was living in Poland because there you do not celebrate New Year's Eve - instead, you celebrate "Sylwester," since this saint's day is on December 31. New Year's greetings are called "┼╗yczenia Sylwestrowe" - "Silvester Wishes," in English. In Italy, New Year's Eve is called "The Night of Saint Silvester," La notte di San Silvestro. (Compare the way we celebrate the festival of Saint Valentine's Day, and have turned the name "Valentine" into the name of a holiday.)

Saint Silvester is the subject of both history and legend - and one of my favorite legends about Saint Silvester is the story of how he subdued a dragon! Below, you will find the Latin version of this story from the Life of Saint Silvester from the famous collection of saints' lives called the Legenda Aurea. You can read more about Saint Sylvester at Wikipedia, Catholic Encyclopedia online, and at the Catholic Forum. The emperor referred to in the first line is Constantine, who converted to Christianity.

Here is the Latin story - I've broken it up into segments to make it easier to read:

Post aliquot dies
ydolorum pontifices
ad imperatorem venerunt, dicentes:
"Sacratissime imperator,
draco ille, qui est in fovea,
postquam fidem Christi recepisti,
plus quam trecentos homines cotidie interficit
flatu suo."
Consulente super hoc Constantino Silvestrum,
per Christi virtutem
eum ab omni cessare faciam lesione."
Promittunt pontifices
se, si hoc faceret, credituros.

Orante autem Silvestro,
sanctus Petrus ei apparuit, dicens:
"Securus ad draconem descende tu
et duo presbiteri, qui sunt tecum.
Cumque ad eum veneris,
eum taliter alloqueris:
'Dominus noster Ihesus Christus
de virgine natus, crucifixus, et sepultus,
qui resurrexit et sedet ad dexteram patris,
hic venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.
Tu ergo, Sathana,
eum in hoc loco, donec venerit, expecta.'
Os autem eius ligabis filo,
et annulo, signum crucis habente, desuper sigillabis.
ad me, sani et incolumes, venietis
et panem, quem vobis preparavero, comedetis."

Descendit itaque Silvester
cum duobus presbiteris
in foveam per gradus CL,
duas secum ferens laternas.
Tunc draconi praedicta verba dixit
et os ipsius, stridentis et sibilantis,
ut iussum fuerat, alligavit;
et ascendens, invenit duos magos,
qui eos secuti fuerant
ut viderent
si usque ad draconem descenderent,
ex draconis foetore paene mortuos,
et eos secum adduxit, incolumes atque sanos;
qui statim,
cum multitudine infinita,
conversi sunt
populus Romanorum
a morte duplici liberatus est,
scilicet a cultura demonis et veneno draconis.

Maso-Di-Banco c. 1340 Miracle of the Dragon
(click here for larger view - in the larger view,
you can see the two Magi almost dead from the stench,
and notice here how the saint's assistant is holding his nose)

The pioneering English printer William Caxton published an edition of the Golden Legend in English - here is his version of the story of the dragon (with the spelling modernized):

Then came the bishops of the idols unto the emperor and said unto him: O thou most holy emperor, sith the time that thou hast received christian faith the dragon which is in yonder fosse or pit slayeth every day with his breath more than three hundred men. Then sent the emperor for S. Silvester and asked counsel of him of this matter. S. Silvester answered that by the might of God he promised to make him cease of his hurt and blessure of this people. Then S Silvester put himself to prayer, and S. Peter appeared to him and said: Go surely to the dragon and the two priests that be with thee take in thy company, and when thou shalt come to him thou shalt say to him in this manner: Our Lord Jesu Christ which was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried and arose, and now sitteth on the right side of the Father, this is he that shall come to deem and judge the living and the dead, I commend thee Sathanas that thou abide him in this place till he come. Then thou shalt bind his mouth with a thread, and seal it with thy seal, wherein is the imprint of the cross. Then thou and the two priests shall come to me whole and safe, and such bread as I shall make ready for you ye shall eat. Thus as S. Peter had said, S. Silvester did. And when he came to the pit, he descended down one hundred and fifty steps, bearing with him two lanterns, and found the dragon, and said the words that S. Peter had said to him, and bound his mouth with the thread, and sealed it, and after returned, and as he came upward again he met with two enchanters which followed him for to see if he descended, which were almost dead of the stench of the dragon, whom he brought with him whole and sound, which anon were baptized, with a great multitude of people with them. Thus was the city of Rome delivered from double death, that was from the culture and worshipping of false idols, and from the venom of the dragon.


Stephen Bujno said...

Very nice article. It's been a while since I thought of St. Silvester I...back when I did a catechisis on the homoosious of Nicea. I was unaware of the legend about him though or I would have worked the imagery into the class. It's no little thing for the liturgical calender to honor this saint on the eve of the Solemnity of Mary. Thanks! and buono fortuna to all!

Laura Gibbs said...

Hi Stephen, I had a project a few years ago working on the Legenda Aurea - it's such a fantastic text, and only bits and pieces are available online. Ah, if only I had more time! There are so many marvelous stories in there! Omnes felicitates Anni Novi tibi exopto!