“The martyrdom of a virginal young girl made a deep impression on a society enslaved to a materialistic outlook…” This is what my “Saint of the Day” says about Agnes, described as “virgin and martyr” from perhaps 258 AD. I am endlessly fascinated by “Saints of the Day” not because I am so focused on the church, but because I am so intrigued by what it viewed as noble behavior back in its earliest days. Remember, the world knew nothing of Jesus, the disciples, any of those things in the third century. The myth had not yet been invented or fixed in the hearts of believers.
But it knew a good deal about sex, I would suggest. That was why it became such a juicy target (pardon me!) for the church to attack as things moved on. Where the attitude toward it developed I can’t say. I always assumed it was later, when the church wanted to avoid responsibility for the families of priests and monks. The easiest way to do that was to diss sex and elevate the idea of virginity to a very significant status.
Which, perhaps, gives us Agnes.
First thing, the only thing anyone knew about her was that she was young. The rest is made up.
Because she was such a looker, many men asked her for her hand, which she refused in all cases. One of the suitors, either heartbroken or pissed off, decided that was worth a report to the early cops about her Christianity, which was frowned up on in those days. So the suitor dumped on her. Imagine that. “She wouldn’t marry me,” he would have said. “Cripes! arrest her!” She was arrested, so the story goes and, sentenced to a house of prostitution. The legend says one guy who looked upon her lustfully (could it only have been one? What kind of house of prostitution was that?) immediately lost his sight. She said a prayer and it was returned.
Imagine the conversation. “My goodness you are beautiful!” Oh, no, I have lost my eyesight! “I can fix that,” Agnes says, uttering a prayer. God answers, apparently because she is a virgin. His eyesight returns.
“How did you do that, Agnes.”
“I’m a virgin and God responded!”
“Sure. You are aware this is a whorehouse, aren’t you?’
And what was the fascination with virgins in the first place? There are buckets of them in the listing of the saints. Some performed notably. Some left no record. Some, like Agnes, seemed to have been created from some vague knowledge about how things were in the first few centuries of Christianity. One thing was certain, if you were a good looking teenager out there rambling in the wilds, it would be best to have your “I’m a Virgin!” T-shirt on at all times.
Nothing is known about this St. Agnes woman except that she was about 12 or 13 years old, remarkably beautiful and, of course, had many suitors. No one knows exactly how she died. The suggestion was she was burned or perhaps, strangled. Her name means “pure,” and was given to her in some tract by St. Andrew.
The suggestion is women should all be like this, courageous, beautiful, virginal. It would take a couple of hundred years before the church came around to admit women were human, too. Although the church fathers remained confused about the role of sex until , say, recently!