Devil in a Headlock

Today, February 16th, is the feast of St. Juliana in the Latin tradition. While the earliest lists of martyrs link her with Cumae (through birth), she is also associated with Naples (the home of her relics) and Nicomedia (the legendary site of her martyrdom). Pinning her down historically is really impossible: though the venerable Catholic Encyclopedia asserts for Juliana the quasi-historicity of a conflated personage, it concedes that the stories associated with her are simply legends. What I care about, however, is not the history, but the legend, because the legendary Juliana is the one that is significant in Christian imaginations across centuries and cultures. In particular, I care about Juliana because she shares, with Beowulf, the distinction of being one of only two people in the Old English poetic corpus who manage to put a demon in a submission hold.

Juliana’s legend comes to us through various sources: the two I’m most familiar with are the Old English poem “Juliana”, by Cynewulf, and 13th century Latin hagiographic compilation, the Golden Legend. (The Old English text of “Juliana” is here.) There are differences between the two: in Cynewulf’s poem, Juliana’s pagan fiance is Eleusius; in the Golden Legend, he is Eulogius; and so forth. But their accounts of Juliana’s encounter with a demon generally agree.

Here’s the abridged story for background: Juliana, daughter of a wealthy pagan, converts to Christianity. Unfortunately, she is betrothed to a prefect who is also a pagan; when he pressures her to move forward with the nuptials, she demands he also convert before the marriage. He refuses, she is jailed and then tortured.

It is in the midst of these torments that Juliana receives an (apparently) heavenly visitation, in which she is commanded to capitulate to her persecutor’s demands:

Then suddenly came into the prison the Enemy of mankind, skilled in evil; and he had the form of an angel. Wise was he in afflictions, this enemy of the soul, this captain of Hell, and unto the holy maid he said, “Why sufferest thou who art most dear and precious unto the King of glory, our God ? This judge hath prepared for thee the worst tortures, torment without end, if thou wilt not prudently sacrifice and make propitiation unto his gods. Be thou in haste when he bids thee be led outward hence, that thou make a sacrifice, an offering of victory, before that death come upon thee, death in the presence of the warriors. In this wise shalt thou survive the anger of this judge, O blessed maid!” (Juliana)

Juliana, rightly, questions this messenger’s veracity, praying for confirmation of the demon’s words from God. In reply, God gives her another command:

Then unto her spake a glorious voice from the clouds and uttered this word: “Do thou seize this vile one and hold him fast, till that he rightly declare unto thee his purpose, even from the beginning what his kinship may be.” And the heart of the glorious maid was glad; and she seized upon that devil. (Juliana)

At that point, the demon, like Grendel, wants nothing more than to get away—but Juliana’s grip, like Beowulf’s, is inescapable. She compels the trapped demon to confess all his misdeeds—an impressive catalog by any standard—that takes up the next 265 lines of the poem. In the end, she is called forth from prison to stand trial, and out she goes, dragging the devil with her, who begs for his release:

And in his grievous plight he began to lament his journey, bewail his torment, grieve for his fate, and he said unto her:

“I entreat thee, gracious Juliana, by the grace of God, that thou work upon me no further insult or reproach before men than thou hast already done, when thou overcamest the wisest in the prison shades, the king of the dwellers in Hell, in the city of fiends, who is our father, the lord of death. Behold thou hast afflicted me with painful blows, and in truth I know that, before or since, never did I meet in the kingdoms of the world a woman like unto thee, of more courageous heart, or more perverse, of all the race of women. Clear is it to me that thou wouldst be in all things unashamed in thy wise heart.” (Juliana)

Juliana relents, and the demon limps back to Hell, embarrassed at the thought of reporting his failure to the other devils. On this last point, the Old English poem is vividly and hilariously clear: “he, the announcer of evil, was wiser than to tell unto his fellows, the ministers of torment, how it befell him upon his journey” (Juliana).

So, this is the heroine of February 16: a martyr who endured to the end, who refused to surrender for relief, and indeed saw the temptation to surrender as itself another kind of attack.

* The image at the head of this post was discovered (via Google) on Flickr, taken by a photographer with the nom de album Jaycross, and is (apparently) a Spanish painting—not sure of the date.

1 thought on “Devil in a Headlock

  1. Though I have never been a student of the Saints I do find their stories fascinating when I read them in ancient literature. The story of St. Juliana touches me in that while I was in the Church of Christ, non-instrumental as a younger man I went through a very tormenting period of questioning my tradition; and to know who’s voice to heed, family’s, friends and teachers, or my own as a result of my study and reflection created many sleepless nights. I can recall preaching on Sunday morning without a minute’s sleep the night before. I thank God for the rest I have now. Yet, still, I can hear the voices of uncles and cousins who preach in Alabama and Mississippi throwing arguments at my convictions(they still crave the days of public debates); then, myself throwing arguments at theirs, until I tell myself to stop it. They will always “know the truth”; I have finally come to enjoy the search. They see me as believing nothing…but that’s ok.

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