Folklore History

The Tears of Saint Lawrence

An 1889 depiction of a meteor shower, by Adolf Vollmy.

In August, the Earth passes through the debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle, causing the Perseid meteor shower. When the pebble-sized debris burn up in our atmosphere, we see shooting stars that appear to come from the same direction as the constellation of Perseus.

I stayed up on Saturday night to watch, but I only saw a few shooting stars despite (erronous) claims that 2017 would have the best Perseids in 96 years. It was still fascinating, particularly knowing that they were space pebbles sizzling up in our atmosphere tens of miles above me. Historically, people have seen spiritual or cultural significance in astronomical events, so I wondered if there was any such history for the Perseids.

Maybe because the Perseids are faint, they haven’t left a large trail of historical paperwork. We know that they’ve been observed by Chinese scholars in 36 CE, and that Chinese, Japanese, and Korean records continue to mention them until the 12th century. Outside of East Asia, August meteors were spotted in 1029 in Egypt. Comet Swift-Tuttle (named after its 1862 discoverers) was also observed by the ancient Chinese. It is the largest object to repeatedly pass the Earth, and does so every 133 years. Its last visit was in 1992, but even though it left us, its space pebbles remain.

An ancient Chinese drawing of comets, from a text in the Mawangdui tombs.

Sporadic mentions of the meteors continued until the 1830s, when Edward Herrick, Adolphe Quetelet, and John Locke (all interesting characters themselves) simultaneously and separately noticed that there were kind of a lot of meteors in August and that they all came from roughly the same place. They discussed who figured it out first, but had to recognise that August meteors were common folk knowledge before their modern scientific description. Herrick wrote that “the peasants of Franconia and Saxony (historical regions of Germany) have believed for ages past that St Lawrence weeps tears of fire which fall from the sky every year on his fete”. Mediterranean folklore tells that you can find the cooled embers of these “tears” as lumps of coal underneath plants.

The feast day of Saint Lawrence occurs during prime Perseid season, on the 10th of August. Like many Christian saints, the story of his life and veneration is focused on his devotion to faith and gruesome martyrdom. Born in 225 CE, he was a senior member of the clergy in a Roman province in the Iberian Peninsula. During the late 250s, the Roman emperor Valerian was attempting to suppress Christianity, and ordered the execution of Christian leaders and the confiscation of church property. The bishop and writer St Ambrose records that when St Lawrence was ordered to give up the riches of his church, he redistributed the wealth as alms to the disabled and impoverished members of the congregation, then presented them as the true treasures of the church. As noble as the sentiment is, I wonder what would have happened to these people.

St Lawrence himself was taken into custody and tortured to death. Only days earlier, he had seen his mentor, Pope Sixtus II, taken to be executed, and had requested to be martyred as well. On 10 August 258, he was burned to death on an iron frame and, defiant to the last, told the torturers to cook him on both sides and eat him. It’s not a huge surprise that he’s a patron saint of comedians and cooks.

A medieval wall painting of St Lawrence tied to an iron grate over a fire. Two men blow on the fire with bellows.
15th century church wall painting showing the death of St Lawrence, photographed by Wolfgang Sauber.

The story of St Lawrence contains a similar theme to the story of a semi-legendary Roman hero, Cornelia, who was said to have explained her preference for simple clothing by saying that her sons are her treasures. There’s skepticism about St Lawrence’s death as well, as some historians claim that the method of executing Christian leaders was always decapitation. They theorise that the phrase “passus est”, “he suffered”, was mistakenly read as “assus est”, “he roasted”.

No matter the origins of the story, St Lawrence is an inspirational figure for many people who venerate Christian saints. As well as the legend of his fiery tears, he has several reported relics and is remembered through the names of many churches, schools, towns, geographic features, and a myriad of other things.