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Well (s)he did wear a dress....
December 8, 2009 1:48 PM   Subscribe

Pope Joan aka La Papessa is the second card of the major arcana in the Tarot. However there were pre tarot images of a female pope. It's a myth that won't go away. There is sometimes historical truth behind legend. The Cathoic Church relegates everything to fable; especially with a film around the corner. Some more thoughts on the facts behind the legend.
posted by adamvasco (50 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Duos habet et bene pendentes.
posted by electroboy at 1:57 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Has two, and they dangle nicely.
posted by Splunge at 2:09 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always thought this myth was linked to the Empress Irene, the female Pope of the Byzantine Empire, which was called "The Roman Empire" in the Middle East and Asia.
posted by ruelle at 2:10 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


See also: The Bad Popes - other shit that the Catholic Church should be proud of.
posted by lalochezia at 2:10 PM on December 8, 2009


Interesting. I thought this fable arose purely from speculation on the use of the sella stercoraria, and in ignorance of the Nicean problem with eunuchs. I didn't realise the original stories were so early, ignore the pierced chair, and are associated with the mendicant orders.
posted by ServSci at 2:14 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait, really, a cardinal used to grab the new pope's balls and announce how well they dangle? That's really hot.

Assassins Creed 2 has lots of fun with a fictional story around Pope Alexander VI (massive spoilers). Nothing about his balls, though.
posted by Nelson at 2:22 PM on December 8, 2009


I find the mystery perfectly appropriate considering that the Female Pope (or High Priestess) card is used to describe hidden wisdom, impressions that emerge in our consciousness from unknown, unconscious sources.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't like to find out more, of course.
posted by hermitosis at 2:23 PM on December 8, 2009


Uh, how could there be a woman pope, as the name means Poppa. They have good records for this stuff, you know.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:23 PM on December 8, 2009


I always thought this myth was linked to the Empress Irene, the female Pope of the Byzantine Empire

Irene was Empress, not Pope. There was never a "Pope" of the Eastern Orthodox religion.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:25 PM on December 8, 2009


So she'd be a Mope? Probably just bummed everyone has forgotten her.
posted by InfidelZombie at 2:28 PM on December 8, 2009


From the around link:
The Myth:
In the middle ages, there was a "Pope Joan," a woman who hid her gender and rose through the ranks of the Church, became a cardinal and was elected pope. No one knew she was a woman until, during a papal procession through the streets of Rome, she went into labor and gave birth to a child. She and the baby were killed on the spot by the mob, enraged at her imposture.

...In any case, the fact is, there was no Pope Joan. She exists only as pure legend, but one that makes for a sexy story. And when it comes to sexy stories, you know Hollywood will try its hand at making a blockbuster out of this piece of pope fiction.
Nothing sexier than being stoned to death with your newborn child. Seriously, there are so many adjectives other than "sexy" that would fit this story/myth.

Uh, how could there be a woman pope, as the name means Poppa. They have good records for this stuff, you know.

From the won't go away link: Pope Clement VIII, in the 17th Century, ordered all records of Pope Joan destroyed. He realized that if the Papal chain were broken it would destroy the myth that claims that the Papalhood descended from St. Peter to the current Pope in an unbroken line. Apparently there was a carving of her, titled Johannes VIII, that was either destroyed or recarved and relabeled at this time.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:37 PM on December 8, 2009


There was never a "Pope" of the Eastern Orthodox religion.

Not quite correct. The word means something somewhat different, but not a lot different. According to the Orthodox, the Pope is (after all) just the Bishop of Rome, with only honorary primacy.
posted by jock@law at 2:39 PM on December 8, 2009


"Bene Pendentes" is one of my favourite Elton Joan songs. "Hey, kids, shake them loose together..."
posted by pracowity at 2:45 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


A female pope is called a "mome".
posted by now i'm piste at 2:49 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Mome," I think.

And with all that ceremonial groping and the state of medieval hygeine, a mome could pick up a nasty rath, ifyouknowhwatimean.

Anyone with a good pun on "outgrabe"?
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:52 PM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


DAMN YOU, PISTE.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:52 PM on December 8, 2009


"Pope Fiction?"

Gee, thanks everyone. I'm now imagining Cardinals Jules et Vincent.
posted by me & my monkey at 2:54 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Benedict was a better Papal ball-grabber than John Paul. Benedict OUTGRABE John Paul.

There. I feel better.

posted by nebulawindphone at 2:55 PM on December 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


It won't go away because it's a fun story. If the Catholic church fights against it, they're ruining our ability to tell fables, one of the most joyful things about being human. Do they really want to cement themselves as being anti-fun? Why not also spread the fact that the Paul Bunyan story is likely not entirely biologically possible, and that it's statistically unlikely the world's tallest man would happen to come across the world's biggest ox?

Oh wait, they are. Considering they're against married couples using condoms and George Carlin records, I guess I should have seen the pattern sooner.

NOT CATHOLICISM-IST.
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:56 PM on December 8, 2009


There's a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you."

I been sayin' that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before you popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin' made me think twice. Now I'm thinkin': it could mean you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. .45 here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could be you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin, Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd.
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:59 PM on December 8, 2009


See also the Robbie Coltrane movie The Pope Must Die(t), which ends with a female pope.
posted by nomisxid at 3:31 PM on December 8, 2009


and that it's statistically unlikely the world's tallest man would happen to come across the world's biggest ox?

Well that's just silly. Of course Bunyan would be able to find the Ox, he's so tall he can see over everything. Plus, the ox is bright blue, so it stands out.

Geez, just using some basic logic would solve conundrums like this for everyone.
posted by quin at 3:36 PM on December 8, 2009 [6 favorites]


A lot of this nonsense reminds me of why virus writers attack Microsoft instead of smaller brands. There is a touch of the panic forwards that probably every one has received promising dire results if you don't do something. All are simply made up for attention, as Dan Brown has found to his profit
posted by Cranberry at 3:49 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Like the story of the Shroud of Turin, one of the main problems with the story of Joan is that there are no references before the 13th century, a good 300 years after the events supposedly took place. A scandal of that magnitude would have been the talk of the entire western world, and the likelihood that no mentions would have survived seems remote, though not completely impossible.

Incidentally, I wouldn't hold out much hope for the movie, since the book on which it was based is pure bodice-ripper: SPOILERS.

Young Joan, brilliant student, survives an abusive father, takes a white wolf as a familiar, is separated from her true love by Viking marauders. She conceals her femininity to be allowed to continue to study, becomes a brilliant doctor who saves one pope, becomes the confidant of another, and finally ascends the throne herself. She is reunited with her prince as he rides to Rome to warn the city of invaders. After another prolonged separation they finally consummate their love, resulting in the fatal pregnancy of the legend.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 3:57 PM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Considering they're against married couples using condoms and George Carlin records,

Wait, the Catholic Hierarchy believes that George Carlin records are a form of birth control?

That is screwed up...
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:58 PM on December 8, 2009


With respect to the tarot, it has been pointed out that none of the other cards in the major arcana refer to historical characters, so it seems unlikely that the Papessa would be unique in this regard. It is therefore more likely to be associated with the Gnostic Shophia/Isis/Wisdom figure as a dualistic counterpart to the male Pope.

The wikipedia article on the card also suggests an alternate myth: Sister Manfreda, an Umiliata nun, who was supposedly to return to earth and replace the male line of popes with a female line. Incidentally, the tarot first appeared in northern Italy where this legend held sway.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 4:15 PM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Do they really want to cement themselves as being anti-fun? Why not also spread the fact that the Paul Bunyan story is likely not entirely biologically possible, and that it's statistically unlikely the world's tallest man would happen to come across the world's biggest ox?

Look, it's important that the Catholic church set apart these myths and legends. They are committed to a FACT-BASED WORLDVIEW. I mean... erm... hmm.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:20 PM on December 8, 2009


There was never a "Pope" of the Eastern Orthodox religion.

Not quite correct. The word means something somewhat different, but not a lot different. According to the Orthodox, the Pope is (after all) just the Bishop of Rome, with only honorary primacy.


Bzzt. Do not pass Go.

Coptic Orthodox Church != Eastern Orthodoxy. The Coptic Orthodox Church is a member of the Oriental Orthodox communion which split off from Eastern Orthodoxy after the Council of Chalcedon.

The closest equivalent to the Pope in Eastern Orthodoxy is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

The Ecumenical Patriarch has a unique role among Orthodox bishops, though it is not without its controversy. He is primus inter pares ("first among equals"), as he is senior among all Orthodox bishops.

Orthodoxy is far less centralized than Roman Catholicism, however. Responsibility for running church affairs is controlled by the heads of the autocephalos churches (Russia, Antioch, Jerusalem, etc.). The Patriarch in Constantinople heads the meetings when the various Patriarchs, Archbishops, Metropolitans, etc. that head those churches come together for Pan-Orthodox Synods. But he has no say in the day-to-day administrative affairs of those churches (except for, of course, the one that he directly controls, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He is usually the front man for Eastern Orthodoxy's dealings with Rome, though the Vatican does not pass up the chance to meet with the autocephalos church leaders whenever the Pope is visiting their regions.

There is not, and will never be, a pope in Eastern Orthodoxy. Everyone is quite happy running their own churches and would never accept giving any one bishop, even the Ecumenical Patriarch, the level of control the Vatican has in Roman Catholicism. This is yet another reason why the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity will never be reunited.
posted by longdaysjourney at 4:20 PM on December 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


There was never a "Pope" of the Eastern Orthodox religion.

Not quite correct. The word means something somewhat different, but not a lot different. According to the Orthodox, the Pope is (after all) just the Bishop of Rome, with only honorary primacy.


Let me get more technical. There is no Pope of the Eastern Orthodox religion. The person you linked to is the Pope of Alexandria, who is the head of the Coptic Church in Egypt, not the Eastern Orthodox (Greek) Church. The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Patricarch of Constantinople. He is definitely not a Pope and is merely primes inter pares.

I guess that Master's in European history did pay off.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:37 PM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


on preview, what longdaysjourney said.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:38 PM on December 8, 2009


longdaysjourney and Ironmouth: Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria, the non-Coptic, in-communion-with-Constantinople patriarch, uses pope (papas) as one of his titles. So it is in a sense correct to say there is "a pope" within Eastern Orthodoxy, though of course he only has primacy within his own patriarchate and not over other Eastern Orthodox Christians.
posted by gubo at 4:43 PM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Look, it's important that the Catholic church set apart these myths and legends. They are committed to a FACT-BASED WORLDVIEW. I mean... erm... hmm.

When they're talking about material phenomena (a.k.a. "the real world"), yeah, they are. These days they're keeping up with evolution, with geology, with archaeological knowledge of the ancient world, with astronomy and cosmology. If there's historical evidence that Joan didn't exist, they're going to listen.

(Of course, they've been denying Joan's existence since well before they gave a shit about scientific facts. A hundred years ago, this line would have been an apt and clever bit of satire.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:50 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


qubo: Agreed, but the Alexandria Patriarch's use of "Papas" is a title, nothing more. His role within the Eastern Orthodox Church is just not equivalent to that of the "Pope" in Roman Catholicism. And he has no first among equals role. So it's misleading to even make a statement like jock@law's "The word means something somewhat different, but not a lot different." The word's literal meaning is the same - but in political and spiritual (for want of a better word) terms, the Alexandria Patriarch's use of Papas is about as different as you can get from the Bishop of Rome's use of Papas.

But in any case, I read the Pope Joan novel, enjoyed it and will probably Netflix the movie at some point. Ecclesiastical history is fun.
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:05 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


When they're talking about material phenomena (a.k.a. "the real world"), yeah, they are.

I'm curious: are miracles still considered part of the material world? Or is all of that officially (and safely) metaphor now?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:07 PM on December 8, 2009


Right. I said not quite correct because (as usual), Ironmouth's point was substantively right on - there is of course no hierarchical head in Eastern Orthodoxy. I was aware that the term, however, was in occasional use, and wanted to nitpick. I was a bit hasty in assuming Shenouda was the Eastern Orthodox patriarch though. Thanks gubo for the correction. :-)
posted by jock@law at 5:10 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wonder whether the designation of Card II as High Priestess predated the designation Papessa. Some interesting history here.
posted by blucevalo at 5:11 PM on December 8, 2009


The Cathoic Church relegates everything to fable

Surely not!
posted by mattoxic at 5:40 PM on December 8, 2009


The Pope Joan book by Emmanual Royidis is pretty hilarious stuff if you have an ecumenical sense of humor; he's catholic in his choice of targets. The translation by Durrell is a good read, though I can't speak to how faithful it is, and the footnotes are handy for those of us who have forgotten our early church history.
posted by klangklangston at 5:50 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always called the second trump card the High Priestess. Veiled to be sure.
A Pope? Only if you are projecting Catholic symbolism on a Jewish-Gypsy belief system.
posted by Balisong at 6:32 PM on December 8, 2009


longdaysjourney and Ironmouth: Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria, the non-Coptic, in-communion-with-Constantinople patriarch, uses pope (papas) as one of his titles. So it is in a sense correct to say there is "a pope" within Eastern Orthodoxy, though of course he only has primacy within his own patriarchate and not over other Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Right. I said not quite correct because (as usual), Ironmouth's point was substantively right on - there is of course no hierarchical head in Eastern Orthodoxy. I was aware that the term, however, was in occasional use, and wanted to nitpick. I was a bit hasty in assuming Shenouda was the Eastern Orthodox patriarch though. Thanks gubo for the correction. :-)

To clear up for everyone--there are several "stem" Christian churches. These arose during the early period of Christianity and are all considered by one another to have what is known as "apostolic succession" which is to say that the priests within these denominations have been ordained at the hands of bishops who are linked directly to the 12 apostles by an unbroken chain of bishops ordaining priests.

These Stem churches include "Eastern Orthodoxy"also known as "Greek Orthodoxy" which is the Greek-speaking church of the Eastern Roman Empire, which arose out of an administrative and political division of the Roman Empire during its later period. The Catholic Church is also one such church. The Coptic Church (of Alexandria) is also one. The Syriac Church is a third. Others also exist. Each broke off from one another after one or another church council where a decision that they disagreed with occured.

jock@law originally linked to the website of the Coptic Church's leader, who is styled 'Pope.' However, some Greek Orthodox also reside in Egypt and Africa, and their leader is also called Pope. However, he is not the head of Greek Orthodoxy. The first among equals of the Greek Orthodox Church is the Patriarch of Constantinople.

This will be on the test.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:00 PM on December 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm curious: are miracles still considered part of the material world? Or is all of that officially (and safely) metaphor now?

Yep. It makes the whole Beatification process much simpler. Mother Theresa qualified for once having crossed the road during rush hour in Calcutta.
posted by Sparx at 7:00 PM on December 8, 2009


When they're talking about material phenomena (a.k.a. "the real world"), yeah, they are.

Unless the material phenomenon in question is the ability of condoms to prevent HIV in Africa, of course.
posted by homuncula at 7:00 PM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm curious: are miracles still considered part of the material world? Or is all of that officially (and safely) metaphor now?

The official line is still that miracles really do occur in a non-metaphorical way. But for the material part of the miracle, nowadays church policy is to stick to observed facts.

Most of the miracles claimed these days are miraculous cures. For these the church insists on evidence that the patient really was sick, that their symptoms went into lasting remission, and that there's no known medical explanation for the remission. There's actually a sort of ecclesiastical fact-checking office for this stuff, and my understanding is that the fact-checking is taken pretty seriously, although of course it's not infallible (har har). Claims of sainthood do get thrown out because it turns out the kid was faking his symptoms or whatever.

The unobservable, unfalsifiable part of the miracle is the spiritual part — the claim that it was prayer to a dead spiritual leader that caused the remission.

Homunculus: You and I are on the same side of that issue. But dude, know your enemy. The Catholics and modern science agree that HIV causes AIDS, that condoms are sometimes effective against it but not 100% effective, and that reducing the incidence of AIDS could save lives. It is in full awareness of those facts that they go on advocating against condoms.

I have some pretty strong words about the ethical consequences of that, but this isn't the place for them. MeMail me if you want to get into it, because there are some other folks having a nice neutral discussion of church history here and I don't want to crap in their pool.

posted by nebulawindphone at 7:40 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Homuncula. Sorry 'bout that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:45 PM on December 8, 2009


You're right, nebulawindphone, the church's contemporary position on women and sexuality has nothing to do with the current thread on a female pope.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:55 PM on December 8, 2009


Coptic Orthodox Church != Eastern Orthodoxy. The Coptic Orthodox Church is a member of the Oriental Orthodox communion which [...]

If a woman once was the accepted leader of the strongly patriarchal RC church and therefore set a precedent that might affect current church policy and politics and a billion church members, she would matter. But most people aren't much interested in whether some other branch of the Christian church maybe sorta coulda accidentally had a female leader until they discovered her, are they?
posted by pracowity at 11:48 PM on December 8, 2009


I know this is a tangent, but I don't get to see the word autocephalous used much and don't want to let it just pass by without saying anything.

thanks, longdaysjourney.
posted by ServSci at 9:43 AM on December 9, 2009


@klangklangston: Apparently the movie is not based on Roidis fictionalized study, but some other German book with the same subject, which is a pity because it was a pretty funny book (not for the Church of Greece though - he got excommunicated for it). Durrell did a fine job, but he couldn't really transmit the effect of anticlericalism + sexual innuendo written in katharvousa, the "official" literary form of modern Greek with an ancient Greek patina at the time. Roidis was quite a character, certainly the only Greek writer of the 19th century whose humor has survived almost intact the passing centuries.

Part of the first translation English translation (Colette) along with the translator's foreword on the subject of the Popess' existence can be found here.
posted by talos at 4:23 PM on December 9, 2009


A Pope? Only if you are projecting Catholic symbolism on a Jewish-Gypsy belief system.

I don't think there is any historical evidence that the suit of Trumps is based on a Jewish or Gypsy belief system. The Jewish/Kabbalistic interpretations were projected onto the cards by the Victorian era occultists.

If you look at the art and architecture of the time and place of the Tarot's origin, you'll note that there really was no significant Jewish iconography to speak of -- synagogues were almost completely unadorned, for example; Jews had different beliefs about the display of holy imagery. Catholic churches, on the other hand, were fabulous spectacles literally covered in many of the symbols and figures that you see in the earliest Tarot decks.

I'm going to quote at length here from Robert M. Place's brilliant book, The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination:
"...The Papesse and the Pope are the first and last of the four temporal rulers, each of which trumps the ones before. The word temporal literally means 'the world of time,' in contrast to the timeless and eternal. This is a fitting name for these rulers because they are all trumped by the images of time that come in the next act -- which in turn are trumped by the images in the third act that transcend time...

After the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Papesse and the Pope were sometimes replaced with other images. For example, in the Belgian deck that developed in the seventeenth century, they became the Spanish Captain and Bacchus, and in the 1JJ Swiss Tarot... they became Juno and Jupiter...

"In Tarots other than the Visconti-Sforza (which places a cross in the hand of the Papesse) it is likely that the Papesse represents the priestess of Venus, as the image from the Hypnerotomachia suggests. If this is so, she represents classical paganism and the Pope represents the triumph of Christianity over paganism, just as in the Psychomachia, Christianity or 'Faith' was shown to triumph over 'Pagan Worship'. In the Tarot, therefore, the Empress and Emperor are seen going away from paganism and submitting themselves to the authority of the Pope. However, the next card, the Lovers, which is dominated by the classical god Cupid, triumphs over all of them. This represents the triumph of sensuality... Cupid is Venus' son, and, although the Pope has demoted her priestess, she has the last laugh, because even he cannot free himself from the desires that the Classical gods represent."
I left out a couple of 'graphs that cover a lot of the stuff about Pope Joan and Sister Manfreda that has already been addressed above, and more details about the Hypnerotomachia that describe the priestess of Venus as a popular literary figure of the times.
posted by hermitosis at 9:18 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, I spent a lot of time exploring the supposed roots-in-Jewish-mysticism approach to the Tarot. I think that for the most part it's an extremely valuable layer of interpretation that has enriched the overall tradition of the cards, but it's important for people to remember that these associations were assigned, not discovered. And have been shuffled and re-assigned over time, as each occultist was determined to tailor the deck to his opinion. For the most part, the Jewish associations fit quite beautifully, but in the places where they don't fit, well, people have forced them to fit, making up whatever they like.

I don't mind it as a wonderful thought-game or a way of repurposing traditions to fit one's own belief system, but claiming "that's the way it was always supposed to be!" is a big problem, especially when you see how over time the occultists' claims have wound up obscuring actual historical facts.
posted by hermitosis at 9:29 AM on December 10, 2009


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