Monday, April 17, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we head to the mailbag to answer a few questions about Irish folk etymology.

It is the 17th of April, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Hey everybody- it’s Monday- time to head to the mailbag, and I got an email all the way from Ireland from a friend of the show Jane in Lake Arrowhead who was on a bucket list vacation. She was in Kilkenny, Ireland, and had a delightful tour guide who told her all kinds of things, and she was wondering, well, just how true these seemingly amazing facts were.

First, I want to be a tour guide when I grow up. In a way it seems like the most practical use for a historian and teacher- I could do Scotland, Germany, or Southern California. So- if you want a tour guide…

Jane mentions a few things- like the origin of the word “sinister,” which- yes! It comes from the Latin for “left-handed” and “evil.” Consider the idea of being “at the right hand of”- this is a place of privilege (think of the creed- we say Jesus sits at the “right hand of the Father”). The name Benjamin, in Hebrew, means “son of my right hand”- a good thing! But what about those on the left? What about those, once thought “willfully obstinate” who wrote with their left hands?

What about “sin eaters”- yes! In Medieval Britain, we have records of people putting cakes, bread, etc… on the corpses of the dead to then eat the food and consume the benefits or lack thereof, the sins of the dead. The clergy hated it, it has no theological basis in Christianity, but folk traditions are always going to be hard to get rid of. 

Jane asks why the idea of the “stinking rich” is about rich people being buried above ground? And at Kilkenny, so many people wanted to be buried near the church and above ground- so the place was known for literally “stinking.” Well- this one is a no-go for me. The term seems to date from the 20th century and just means “really rich” or perhaps “rich by unethical means.” But- it was true that in Medieval and Early Modern times, you would want to be buried in the churchyard- the closer to the altar, the better. It was thought that as the “sacrifice of the mass” took place on the altar, grace radiated out from that place, and so the closer you’re buried to it, the better. In St. Andrews, at the old Cathedral, we see tombs underneath the place where the altar was.

Part of the “stinking rich” story also has to do with the rich wanting to be buried above the ground such that if they weren’t actually dead, they could more easily alert others to their premature burial. Being buried alive seems to have been a pretty decent fear- but I don’t think it’s connected to “the stinking rich”- but it’s a good story.

And then, finally- the idea that if a sarcophagus has a figure on it with crossed legs, they fought in the Crusade. Jane mentions that a woman had her legs crossed, and she was told that’s because she likely funded the Crusades. Well… this is a big old wives' tale. I like the idea, which I was fascinated with, that the number of hooves on the ground of a statue of a soldier on horseback tells you how they died. Just like with crossed legs, it may be that in some places, there was a tradition, but nothing uniform and universal. And so people may have crossed legs, knees, or thighs- enough hay has been made of this that in 2000 we got a whole scholarly article: CROSS-LEGGED KNIGHTS AND SIGNIFICATION IN ENGLISH MEDIEVAL TOMB SCULPTURE by one Rachel Dressler.  

So- I don’t mind folk etymologies and stories. Often they reflect what people have believed- and sometimes, that’s more important for understanding people than what we believe actually happened. I was told I had Cherokee ancestry- it turns out that's not true- but I had old family ties to Cherokee Oklahoma. How many families have stories like this? How many well-meaning tour guides pick up tidbits and use them to spice up local history? There is no single oracle of all historical truth, and so sometimes we listen, dig deeper, do a little research, or email your friendly podcasting historian. Thanks for the email, Jane- glad you survived the great blizzard and got to see the Emerald Isle. You can send me your questions at


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- back in Corinthians 15, this time from the Common English Bible.

12 So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, “There’s no resurrection of the dead”? 13 If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. 14 If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless. 15 We are found to be false witnesses about God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, when he didn’t raise him if it’s the case that the dead aren’t raised. 16 If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. 17 If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, 18 and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. 19 If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else.

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead. He’s the first crop of the harvest of those who have died.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of April 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite sinister lefties include Da Vinci, Mozart, Joan of Arc, Michelangelo, and Jimi Hendrix- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man whose favorite lefty is the greatest one-armed pitcher of all time- former Angel Jim Abbott (Pete Gray, who played the field with only one arm, was also a lefty). I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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