It is the 9th of February 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
It’s a time-honored tradition on this show and elsewhere: someone suggests that a modern practice actually has pagan origins. It could be Christmas and the Winter Solstice or Easter and pagan fertility cults, and so on and so forth. My response is: perhaps there is a parallel, and Christians did indeed baptize it in conjunction with the events of the life of Christ and our celebration of them.
But what if it worked the other way around? For instance, with the Tooth Fairy. What if I told you the tooth fairy came from Church History and only later became the nighttime sprite exchanging quarters for canines?
This takes us to today, which has been recognized as the Feast (or remembrance) of St. Apollonia on the 9th of February. Let me tell her story and then explain.
All we know of this very popular medieval saint comes from the Church History by Eusebius in the early 300s from what he says was a first-hand account from the bishop of Antioch. The account is only three sentences long and has given birth to centuries of tooth-related lore. I’ll read it in English translation:
“Then they seized also that most admirable virgin, Apollonia, an old woman and, smiting her on the jaws, broke out all her teeth. And they made a fire outside the city and threatened to burn her alive if she would not join with them in their impious cries. And she, supplicating a little, was released when she leaped eagerly into the fire and was consumed.”
A few notes: first, “admirable virgin and an old woman” is certainly a choice when it comes to the translation of “parthénos presbûtis” or “Virgo presbytera”; this could refer to her as a virgin or young woman. Because she is then called “old,” we’ll take “virgin.” But “presbutis” has a pretty set ecclesial definition: it’s a church leader. An elder, which is sometimes translated as “deaconess” in Medieval texts, gives her a more gender-appropriate role.
And it is the re-telling of the story of Apollonia in Jacob Voragine’s “The Golden Legend,” which made a star of her and her role with all things dental. But, as usual, there is a little embellishment. First, Voragine has her suffering this in the great persecution of Decius. Eusebius records it the year priorto Eusebius. This would make it a smaller regional persecution.
And, as with Vorgine’s popular work, you were more likely to come across a retelling of the story rather than the original. And in the Middle Ages, a popular medium for telling stories was church art, stained glass, and the like. The story of a woman getting her teeth knocked out for her faith is the kind of titillating story that made popular medieval art. But how do you represent teeth getting knocked out? Easy: the Pelican. Both the bird and the medieval tooth extractor are called by the same name.
In Christian iconography, the pelican represents Christ. Legend had it that the pelican mother would plunge her beak into her breast, draw her own blood, and use that to heal or bring her children back to life. And so, in the iconography of St. Apollonia, we see her holding toothpincers and sometimes see the sea bird in the same picture.
And making something of the teeth is an ancient practice within the church and without. The loss of a tooth was one of the first small mortalities pointing to our ultimate death. In some traditions, the tooth needs to be saved for good luck or destroyed, as if someone got a hold of it, they would have power over the person who lost it. In Armenia, the tooth was to be saved for the final resurrection, and thus, they would be collected and put on church walls. Apollonia would take the initial role as a kind of tooth collector before this was altered into small creatures and then into the fairy today.
She is the patron saint of people with tooth and gum problems, and the Journal of the History of Dentistry can be found on their premium website called the Apollonian. So, brush and floss and remember today, St. Apollonia, the loser of teeth but, more importantly, a martyr for her faith.
The last word for today is from the daily lectionary, the benediction from 1 Timothy.
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 9th of February 2024, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who prefers his pasta “al dente,” literally “to the tooth.” He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who bragged about his Clippers only to have them lose last night- to the New Orleans Pelicans- 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.