Roidis' Delightful Irreverance

by Mark Dragoumis
Athens News

Emmanuel Roidis was born on the Aegean island of Syros, which had been in the hands of the Venetians until 1537, when it was conquered by the Ottomans. Its inhabitants were thus, in the main, Greek Catholics. Born in 1836 in Hermoupolis, the capital of Syros, to a family of rich merchants from Chios- who had fled the island after the massacre of its population by the Ottomans in 1822- he spent much of his youth abroad. His family moved in 1841 to Genoa, where his father served as an honorary Greek consul. It was there that the young Emmanuel first came into contact with the radical liberal ideas of the 1848-49 revolution. This marked him for life, as he himself would come to acknowledge. In 1849 he returned to Hermoupo1is to become involved with the family business and pursue his literary career. He moved later to Athens where he settled in 1862, witnessing the expulsion of King Otto and the upheaval which followed. The transformation of this radical Anglophile Greek into a committed republican acutely aware of the injustice of authoritarian regimes, combined with his corrosive sense of humour and ironic irreverence, soon brought him into bitter conflict with the established church.

His masterpiece, Pope Joan (Papissa Ioanna) published in 1866-a scathing attack on official corruption and religious bigotry-earned him excommunication by the Holy Synod, a fact that enhanced his reputation as an author.

Pope Joan has remained popular in Greece ever since it was published and was amongst the few modem Greek books that gained acceptance in Europe. The French translation alone sold several hundred thousand copies and the English one by Lawrence Durrell (from which all the quotations in this piece are taken) has been very popular too. In his Introduction to Modern Greek Literature (p58) Professor Beaton calls it "a maverick work, set both in place and time far from contemporary Greece, and written with consummate disdain for most of the conventions of fiction at the time." In his judgement, "Pope Joan is one of the few comic masterpieces of Modem Greek literature."

Even though the existence of a popess has never been proven, there is plenty of archival gossip, if not evidence, that Pope John VIII, whose reign started in 853 and ended in AD 855 after 2 years, 5 months and 4 days, was not as official history would have it. John Anglicus, a ninth-century Englishman who travelled to Athens, came to lecture at the Trivium in Rome, became a cardinal and was elected pope after the death of Leo IV.

Roidis' literary masterpiece Pope Joan
is one of the few modern Greek books
that have gained acceptance in Europe;
it also earned the writer excommunication

Not one of the author's pet hates is spared in this tapestry full of mediaeval hypocrites, ruthless killers in the name of Christ and, fanatic ignoramuses who insist they have privileged access to the: truth. He even manages to deliver broadsides against h~s contemporary Athenians, be they venal politicians or talentless literati such as the grandiloquent and mellifluous romantic poet Soutsos, whom Roidis could obviously not suffer. Charlemagne, for instance, is depicted as a "happy emperor" who spent time "tracking down guilty murderers and bandits on whom he imposed a small fine, while those of his subjects who ate meat on Fridays or were caught spitting after Communion were hanged from the branches of trees."

The heroine of the book, Ioanna-the blonde baby girl born to Englishwoman Judith, after she was repeatedly raped by Saxon soldiers (who also castrated her husband for good measure) showed a very precocious respect for the ritual of the Christian faith. To the amazement of her father, or rather the husband of her mother, she was said to have "refused the teat if it were offered her on a Wednesday or a Friday: and if ever it should be offered her during the Fast she averted her eyes in horror." A gifted child by all accounts, she mastered the Lord's Prayer in English, Greek and Latin before she cut her teeth. She was only eight when her mother died, but "she nevertheless delivered the funeral oration herself, climbing upon the shoulders of a gravedigger to do so".

Ioanna developed into an attractive, sensuous, intelligent and scholarly blonde who gradually became so familiar with the Scriptures that she mastered to perfection the art of casuistry. Finding herself among famished monks in Germany during Lent, she convinced them to consume otherwise forbidden geese by renaming each bird a fish, "because anyway fishes and birds were created on the same day, so their flesh is related." Hearing her speaking in this way, brother Raleigh, one of the hungrier monks, kissed her on the cheek, took a cup of water and sprinkled the geese thrice, repeating piously: In nominem Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti haes erit bodie nobis piscis. His companions intoned a pious Amen and soon only the bare bones ofthe baptised fishes remained on the table. That is how Ioanna earned her reputation: she developed an uncanny gift for using her vast theological knowledge to solve practical problems. As to the purity of her own faith, Roidis is quite cynical. In a passage that amply justifies the ire of the Holy Synod against him, he says: "Despair and idleness are, I think, the chief motives for religious devotion. When we have nothing on earth to do or hope for, we gaze at the sky. We kiss the holy icons because we have nothing better to kiss."

Ioanna, however, soon found something better to kiss, namely Father Frumentius, a handsome young priest "distinguished for his calligraphy" who was assigned to her by the mother superior of a convent where Ioanna was residing, to copy under her guidance Pauline epistles in gold that would help him impress the infidels. Their relationship began quite innocently-as they thought- by the exchange of love letters in the form of quotations from the Scriptures ("The hungry dream of bread, but I saw thee asleep, Ioanna, yet waking found thee not": Isaiah). With time, they became lovers and decided to leave the convent together. It was then that he put it to her she should be dressed as a monk so that they could go out together, eat together and sleep together. Ioanna was at first reluctant, quoting the Scriptures which stipulated that "there shall be no garment of man placed upon woman." He responded with Deuteronomy and the opinion of Origen that women would anyway become men on the Last Day of Judgement. Not valid, said Ioanna. Origen was a eunuch and a heretic. In the end, she gave in. They left for the monastery of Fulda where they shared a cell and a blissful relationship for seven years.

As Germany sank progressively into civil war, they left and started wandering from one monastery to another until they found themselves on a boat to Corinth. From there they went to Athens. At this point Roidis allows himself full licence to make fun not just of the hypocrisy of the Orthodox Church and the vicious conflict over the icons but also of the transmogrification of ancient gods into Christian saints ("Poseidon lived on as St Nicholas, Pan was transformed into St Demetrius, while Apollo became St Elias"). Reading the Greek philosophers day and night, Ioanna reached a point where "she constructed an indulgent religion of her own, resembling her fellow countrymen of today who have succeeded in evolving Christianity minus a Christ: who as cooks can prepare garlic sauce without garlic, and P. Soutsos Esq, who can write poems devoid of poetry."

As Ioanna became more and more popular in Greece, her caution began to slip and her secret became known to "one abbot, two bishops and the eparch of Attica." Her relationship with Frumentius began to suffer as she started indulging in short-lived affairs with other men. After eight years in Greece, she left Frumentius and Athens for Rome where Saint Leo IV reigned as pope. She met him as "Father John," of course, and impressed him deeply with both her theological expertise and her worldly wisdom. While in Rome, she also endeared herself to everybody who was anybody, and became the trusted "private and secret secretary" to the pope himself. So courteous, affable, knowledgeable and kind was "Father John" that when the time came, after the death of Leo (s)he was elected pope(ss) by the crowd of Romans jostling in one of the city's large squares. His tongue firmly in cheek, Roidis notes that there were wonders and omens in Europe at that time (earthquakes in Germany, rain of blood in Bresse, a hail of dead locusts in Normandy, owls hooting ominously on the roofs of the Vatican). "I have gathered and recorded these augurs from various chronicles," he notes in a show of false piety, "in order to justify St Peter a little because heretics have accused him of not defending his desecrated throne by some miracle or other."

Ioanna the Popess, or She-Pope (Papissa in Greek), mastered in no time the "art of popery" to perfection, ordaining bishops, building churches, adding a new article to the creed, writing books against the iconoclasts and much else. Soon, however, the papacy started to bore her so much that after many daily Pyrrhic victories over "the desires of the flesh" she decided to yield to them by forging a relationship with Florus, the 20-year-old son (sorry, "nephew") of the late Pope Leo. Their fiery affair left her with child. The story ends when she fell in public and accidentally gave birth in front of a crowd of people. Some started shouting "Miracle! Miracle!" but soon after, "the swelling thunder of the mob began to kick and trample both the poor Papissa and her Pappidion," or Pope let, as one could perhaps translate this very funny word invented by Roidis.

"The body of the lovely Ioanna," the book ends, "was buried on the spot where she fell... Florus became a hermit; and the pious pilgrims-so as not to contaminate their sandals by walking in the footsteps of the sacrilegious woman pope - have taken another road to Lateran ever since."

But what really happened, a number of scholars still maintain, was contained in a tale that came to life 350 years later according to which Pope John was really Pope Joan, an English woman of great beauty, charm and wit passing as a man and dressed in ecclesiastical garb. Around this time her image also began to appear as the High Priestess card in the Tarot deck. The fact that the historicity of Pope Joan was never ascertained did not stop Roidis believing in it (even though he calls his book a novel). He takes it as a darn good story, embellishes it and manages to squeeze it for every drop of ironic pleasure that he can get out of it.

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