The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The Feast Day of St Agatha (February 5th)
Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days
St Agatha, another Sicilian martyr, allegedly died c. 250 CE. She is believed to have served as direct inspiration for St Lucy. St Agatha’s fate was particularly horrific and brings to mind the brutal violence so often historically (and presently) inflicted upon women. St Agatha, who according to legend wished to be a virgin martyr, was sent to a brothel where she was repeatedly raped. Deprived of food and water, she was then racked, beaten, her flesh was ripped by iron hooks, her breasts were cut off and she was burned with torches. Agatha was then rolled over broken potsherds and live coals until she died.
Early Christian icons depicted Agatha carrying her breasts on a plate (as Lucy carries her eyes). They were eventually confused for bells (or were they?) and so St Agatha reigns today as the matron saint of bell makers. Her symbolic objects include a bell, a brazier filled with smoking coals, and a pair of iron tongs. St Agatha allegedly once saved her hometown Catania from Mount Etna, the volcano, where Hephaestus, the Greek sacred smith, had his forge. Sacred images of Agatha almost always depict the volcano as well; it is frequently drawn so as to resemble a huge breast, threatening to overflow with milk rather than lava.
Here’s the thing: if one examines St Agatha’s iconography completely out of Christian context, Agatha looks amazingly like the pagan spirit of Mount Etna. From that perspective, Agatha is a fire spirit who presides over smithcraft: her brazier and iron tongs are the symbols of that magical craft. Bells, her emblem, are magical tools of purification crafted by metalworkers. (And, in fact, St Agatha today is an official matron of metalsmiths and bell foundries.)
Even Agatha’s name resonates of paganism, deriving from a Greek word, agathos, meaning “good.” It was also the name of a beneficial serpent deity who was widely venerated. And what was Hephaestus the Smith’s sacred creature, by the way? A serpent. (Among the many gifts St Agatha bestows upon people is protection from venomous snakes. Allegedly if you drink Holy Water on her feast day, snakes will not harm you.)
It is not uncommon for female deities from Mediterranean regions to be depicted cradling and lifting their naked breasts toward their devotees as if they were nursing mothers offering comfort and nourishment to a very young child. And, in fact, St Agatha is matron saint of wet-nurses and nursing mothers as well as those who are hungry, who cry out for the goddesses’ breast when there is no other food to be had.
St Agatha heals those who suffer from afflictions of the breast—not only breast cancer but mastitis and other conditions that interfere with breast-feeding or that make it painful or difficult. Of course, all those old bare-breasted deities kept theirs on their chests whereas with St Agatha it is as if all her old icons and sacred images were turned against her. The very things that were once sacred (coals, iron implements, earthenware shards, fire, sex, the female parts of the body) became vehicles of torture, humiliation, and annihilation.
There is something uncomfortably lascivious in discussions of Agatha’s torture. During a time when people didn’t discuss sex—all discussion was considered inappropriate—still there was a willingness to dwell in detail on Agatha’s rape, the brothel, the amputation of her breasts and the sadistic mortification of her flesh. The word “brothel” wouldn’t have been mentioned in polite company, certainly not mixed company, and yet exceptions were made in Agatha’s case. Her saga, in many ways, bears the aura of violent misogynist pornography—or of elaborately detailed witch-trial transcripts. If one understands “virgin” in its pre-Christian sense, i.e., as an independent, autonomous woman beholden to no one (as in the virgin fertility goddess Artemis or in Vodou’s wanton virgin Ezili Freda-Dahomey), then it is very tempting to see hidden in the tale of Agatha’s torture a warning or foreshadowing of tortures and oppression to come.
Throughout Italy special breast-shaped pastries called “St Agatha’s Breasts” are eaten on her feast day. Although St Agatha’s official feast day is February 5th, the festivities in Catania, Sicily, her hometown, begin on February 1st. She is feted with candle processions, fireworks, music, and poetry contests.
St Agatha protects Catania from fires, earthquakes, and volcanic eruption. Her veil, which was taken from her tomb and is preserved at Catania, is said to keep Mount Etna under control. The annual display of her veil is accompanied by tambourine performances that would have done Isis or any number of pagan deities proud. (There are those who perceive Isis, Mistress of Magic, hidden under Agatha’s veil. Isis, too, has affiliations with snakes and protection.)