On a trip to the grocery store this evening, I kept running into little old ladies with these hideous ash smudges on their foreheads — I had to resist the urge to pull out a hankie, spit on it, and clean them up. I was wondering what was going on, but then discovered what was up: They were honoring the victims of Catholic dogma.
On this date in 1600, Giordano BrunoÂ (née Filippo Bruno) was executed for heresy. The Italian philosopher was burned alive at the stake at age 52 for refusing to recant heretical ideas. Born Filippo Bruno in 1548, he entered the Dominican Order at Naples at age 15, adopting the name of Giordano. After being accused of heresy, he fled his Italian convent and traveled throughout Europe (1576 to 1592). During two years in England, Bruno wrote and published six dialogs, including “On the Infinite, the Universe, and Worlds” and “The Ash Wednesday Supper.” A Copernican, he rejected Aristotelian dogma and challenged entrenched religious teachings, declaring pantheist views. Some academics today regard him as a path-blazing intellectual, others as a victim of his nonconformity. When Bruno returned to Italy in 1592, he was arrested by the Inquisition. Bruno was imprisoned for seven years in the dungeons of Rome, where he was tortured and isolated before being executed.
Isn’t that sweet? I felt like joining them and scrawling an ashy “A” on my forehead in solidarity.
MAJeff, OM says
“a victim of his conformity”
More like, “a victim of those who demand conformity.”
I get no end of joy telling these people “you got some shit on your forehead”…
If nothing else, it makes it easier to identify the kooks.
We saw a photograph of VP Biden last year with one of those smudges and wondered WTF had happened to him. It took a little investigation before we found out about Ash Wednesday and the whole dirty forehead thing.
Only thing more amusingly fascinating then watching a flock of chickens scratch around in the dirt is watching religious people and their curiously amusing rituals.
SC OM says
I know I’ve linked to this poem by Czeslaw Milosz before, but:
Jadehawk, OM says
I remember Ash Wednesday.
On the one hand, it meant I could skip class without the usual consequences, since catholic kids were allowed to leave class to attend mass(which wasn’t precisely something school was able to check up on). fun.
On the other hand, my birthday is usually just the other side of Ash Wednesday, when you’re supposed to start being all gloomy and deprive yourself of something fun until Easter. not fun.
Glen Davidson says
One should recall that Bruno was a woo-meister, even as one remembers the persecution that no one deserves.
Woo felt threatened by other woo, so Bruno died a martyr’s death.
I feel bad for our International Student Association – they planned a big fundraiser dinner for Chinese New Year for tonight, not realizing that half the campus would be fasting today.
Antiochus Epiphanes says
PZ…I know that you are a busy man…however, I love botany wednesdays. If I can help in any way with this, I will do my damnedest. For me its botany everyday, and I have no short quantity of sweet plant photos and links to share.
Your Brother in Christ,
'Tis Himself, OM says
According to Catholic dogma, Bruno was a heretic. He denied the divinity of Jesus, the transubstantiation of the cracker, and the virginity of Mary, plus he professed a rather weird form of reincarnation.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology.”
My parents’ megachurch never used to celebrate ash wedensday until years after I left for college. It seems to me to be yet another sign of the church’s further slide into funditude.
For those who know some of the basic memes of High Church Anglican or Roman Catholicism, this Eliot poem is really quite beautiful, even for many atheists. I read it every year…
Michelle R says
I proudly say that I did not see a single ashy forehead around my area today!
…then again I wasn’t exactly staring at people’s faces.
Steven Dunlap says
Remember this the next time a Xian troll tries the “but science developed under the protection of Christianity” line in the comments here. Protection racket.
Gyeong Hwa Pak, Pikachu para lang sa iyo. says
My school held a large mass today and a great number of student had ash on their forehead. If anyone ask me what I gave up for lent, I’ll say I gave up lent. :P
Ah at least the catholics do it once a year,
The hindus do it almost everyday and the ash is powdered , dried cow dung. Extremely holy, a good dose of it on ur forehead before an exam can make you come out with flying colors, except of course if you didn’t study in which case God is angry with you and wont help you out
In the Bible there are episodes where people rend their garments and strew ashes upon themselves as a sign of mourning. Apparently the tearing of clothing has been abandoned in recent years, although a symbolic smearing of ashes remains as a token of mourning at the beginning of the period of Lent. (It’s not specifically about Bruno and the coincidence of his execution on this particular date — since Ash Wednesday occurs on different dates from year to year.)
Fifty years ago, when I was a youngster, you’d see lots of people all day long with a smudged cross on their foreheads from the morning Ash Wednesday service. Today, as PZ noted, it’s mostly old ladies with ashes on their foreheads. In fact, I did not see a single case today, either at school or elsewhere. While the pope and his right-wing minions in the Church would never want to give up such a holy and sacred practice as carbon-smeared foreheads, Catholics appear to be abandoning it anyway. Its passing will be noted, but casually (and not with the rending of garments and the sprinking of ashes).
My English Professor had one today. The guy next to me asked, “Does she know she has something on her head?”. I told him it was Lent and Ash Wednesday.
Zeno, I’m pretty sure rendering of garments is still practiced in Judaism, and very sure in Orthodox Judaism.
Still no questions about the A on my backpack though, nuts.
Peter H says
So, then, Bruno’s immolation was due to other peccadilloes of the Roman Church than a possible connection with Copernicus? In my eyes that makes it no less an obscenity.
John Harshman says
What color is it? If it’s scarlet, there may be some confusion.
It must be getting close to easter then. The story is one for Snopes; Giordano Bruno has nothing whatsoever to do with the cult practice; it is far more ancient than that.
Bruno was burned as a witch, basically, and to use contemporary terms. Doesn’t mitigate the Church’s crime at all; it’s just that we pro-reason types should insist on accuracy. Bruno was no more pro-science, as we understand the basic stance of science today, than Martin Luther or the Pope.
Here’s a link to his statue in Rome, which the Italians put up in the 19th century to scold the Church:
The mention of Giordano and cooking made me hungry. There’s a local (San Francisco) restaurant Giordano’s that sells a great version of a Primanti’s Cheesesteak (not a real Philly cheesesteak, but a Pittsburgh version – hamburger stacked with coleslaw and french fries). I think I’m going to go get one for dinner.
No ashes for me, thanks, I’m driving.
Hank Fox says
Heh. One of the young men at work today was telling me he’d gotten grease on his shirt from cleaning some piece of equipment, and not knowing what day it was, I said “You’ve got a pretty good smudge on your forehead too.”
He said “Oh, that’s for Ash Wednesday.”
I chuckled. “Little Catholic tribal ritual, eh?”
He looked like he didn’t know what to say at that, and I walked away thinking about how all-consuming this stuff is to the people raised in it. It’s all they know, so it’s as real as anything can be to them.
And damn, isn’t that weird.
It was only later today I read about the anniversary of Giordano Bruno’s burning, and started to wonder when the Ash Wednesday custom got started. Considering the prime symbol of Christianity is a torture device, I wouldn’t be surprised if this ash ritual didn’t have some similar origin.
I’m picturing the public burning of a heretic, then everybody in town lines up and has the dead guy’s ashes smeared on their foreheads, which they’re forbidden to remove for an entire day, just as a friendly reminder from the church not to let your mind stray.
I’m sure there’s some totally different official explanation for the ash marks, but I can also easily imagine it’s a sanitized reframing of some infinitely more horrible original custom.
In my former christian days of the episcopalian/anglican variety, the reason we were always given for getting ashes on one’s forehead on ash wednesday was as a reminder that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” Of course, it was always in the context of lent and self-denial as a way of memorializing christ’s suffering, blah blah blah. The Bruno guy was never mentioned (maybe because it wasn’t a catholic church? I dunno)
I always kind of liked the sentiment, however. It seemed humbling and, surprisingly, accurate.
Desert Son, OM says
Yep. Supposedly the tradition is to take the palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration (a tribal ritual to commemorate the entry of the supposed Eshua son of Yosef into the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey while cheering masses plucked palm leaves and laid them down as a carpet to celebrate the arrival of the messiah. A week later he got the nails) and burned to make the ashes then inscribed on foreheads as a memento mori.
I saw a bunch on campus at CSUS, along with some people leaving near the end of the day with a big wooden cross and a basket and one of those roller carts with assorted giblets. I think they had some sort of mini-rally or something.
Desert Son, OM says
*whistle blows, ref books Desert Son with a yellow card for grammar fail*
Supposedly the tradition is to take the palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration (overburdened parenthetical here) and burn those leaves to make the ashes then inscribed on foreheads as a memento mori.
Still learning (one sentence at a time),
To Zeno and others,
I suspect PZ knows perfectly well what the imposition of ashes is about – which is why he’s drawing our attention to the rather more ghastly practice of the Holy Inquisition (rebadged comparatively recently as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and previously headed by Pope Panzerfaust when he was just plain old Cardinal Joe Ratzi).
Cheers, Pope Maledict DCLXVI
Today, I was standing in line at Wendy’s and saw a large chunk of people wearing ashes and eating meat. I wanted to stand up and say, “You fucking morons don’t even follow you’re damn religions tenants, you fucks!!!! You don’t even fucking know you’re own religion, yet insist that the rest of us follow you’re fucked up moral code!!! Go to hell!!! . . . Yes, that’s a number 5, no mayo. Thank you.”
Craig Motbey says
Although it’s tempting to identify Bruno as a martyr for science, he wasn’t. To steal a phrase, Giordano Bruno wasn’t an early scientist; he was a late idiot.
His writings make it clear that he didn’t truly understand the Copernican system, and he didn’t adopt it for any scientific reason; instead, he thought it provided support for his (spectacularly deranged, even by the standards of the time) philosophical theories.
During his trial, Bruno tried to portray his Copernican leanings as the reason for his persecution, but they weren’t. His death had much more to do with local political issues and Pope Clement VIII’s paranoia about a repeat of Tommaso Campanella’s attempts at revolution than anything related to science.
I remember reading somewhere that the real reason Giordano Bruno was burned alive was that he was spreading the secrets of tantric sex….this is all I could dig up…..
“….It was during those Oxford years that Bruno published his Eroica Furioso, which alternates love poems with prose passages on the union of the soul with God. It is usually assumed that the poems are allegories about the soul’s pilgrimage, but they may just as well be keys to the yoga that produces the ultimate union and communion……Bruno, of course, ultimately returned to Italy, where the Inquisition locked him in a dungeon for 8 years and then burned him at the stake. Most historians note only that the Nolan (as he liked to call himself) was condemned for teaching the Copernican theory of astronomy, but actually he was charged with 18 offenses, including practising Magick and organizing secret occult societies dedicated to overthrowing the Vatican. Francis Yates suspects that the latter might be true and finds a Bruno-esque influence in the first Rosicrucian manifestoes.7 Certainly, The Alchemical Marriage of Christian Rosycross shows more than a tinge of Bruno’s Tantrism, and “dark sayings” like “It is only on the Cross that the Rose may bloom” strongly suggest both Bruno’s sex-magick and his love of paradox.8 (Two of the Nolan’s favorite koans were “In filth, sublimity; in sublimity, filth” and “In joy, tears; in tears, joy.”)”
#30–Even if that’s the reason for Bruno’s execution, it’s a damned stupid reason to burn a person alive, wouldn’t you agree?
As for the Ash Wednesday forehead-smudging…
I guess I hadn’t been around enough hard-boiled pope’s knob-bobbers to know they did this thing, until I moved to South Texas.
When I finally got exposed to it, I’d have this urge all damned day to yell at people, “Wash your goddamned face!”
Wash the stupod off for them? Forget it. I wouldn’t touch them for love or money. Argh. So frustrating to watch idiots parading around with their dirty faces, and acting all smug about it, as if saying, “Look what a super pope’s knob-bobber prat I am! Isn’t it great?” They were like the girls in school who would brag about being virgins, and you wanted to scream back, “Nobody wanted to know, and who’d screw you anyway, you loser!”
I take it back–I would touch these people–to punch them in the face for being such a bunch of annoying tits. If I could get away with it.
And now you all know why I make it a habit to take my vacations around Ash Wednesday.
Uh-that’s a joke, btw. Mostly.
You’d think I’d be in a better mood, being on vacation and all, but I’m getting meaner. Shit. I’ll be impossible when I return to work…
Thanks for mentioning Giordano. He one of the two saints I worship. The other is Hypatia of Alexandria, who was shown Christian love by having her skin flayed from her body.
Imagine what our world would be like today if these people were honored in their time, instead of tortured.
Craig Motbey says
@#32: Yup, I agree entirely. Bruno was brutally murdered by a pack of psychotic theocrats, with no sound ethical justification.
But he wasn’t a scientist of any sort, much less the “proto-Galileo” that he is often portrayed as. Putting Bruno in the same category as the real scientific heroes (such as Galileo) is both incorrect and somewhat insulting to the true pioneers of science.
“Even if that’s the reason for Bruno’s execution, it’s a damned stupid reason to burn a person alive, wouldn’t you agree?”
And the United States Govt did basically the same thing to Wilhelm Reich …
“Reich was living in Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933. On March 2, the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter published an attack on one of Reich’s pamphlets, The Sexual Struggle of Youth. He left immediately for Vienna, then Scandinavia, moving to the United States in 1939. In 1947, following a series of articles about orgone in The New Republic and Harper’s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) obtained an injunction against the interstate sale of orgone accumulators. Charged with contempt for violating it, Reich conducted his own defense, which involved sending the judge all his books to read and arguing that a court was no place to decide matters of science. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and in August 1956, several tons of his publications were burned by the FDA, arguably one of the worst examples of censorship in U.S. history. He died in jail of heart failure just over a year later, days before he was due to apply for parole.”
Just WTF is your point with directing that at me, hey?
Argh–35, not 34.
The only thing I directed at you was that I agree with you.
My other point was that Christians seem to be more intimidated by talk of sex than by talk of astronomy. I did not mean to direct that at you.
A friend of mine approached an old lady in Ireland and asked why she had the ash on her face. She said that wasn’t quite sure, and mentioned it had something or other to do with the death of Jesus.
When she was asked if this meant that Jesus had been cremated, she looked a bit confused and admitted that she wasn’t sure.
Well it’s good the Catholics are up to speed on this one, at least!
One Furious Llama says
I for one am very disappointed that heretics are no longer burnt by the holy mother church. It is a beautiful part of our culture that should be preserved.
I suggest we burn a muslim on Monday, a jew on Tuesday, a baptist on Thursday, a methodist on Friday, a johova’s witness on Saturday and a catholic who doesn’t believe in evolution on Sunday.
That way, we can have a whole ash week, preserve a two thousand year old tradition and just think of the entertainment value. Prime, time, TV.
Ok, Pastafarianism so totally needs to have a Marinara Thursday.
I recall Penn Jillette talking about wearing a Chiquita Banana sticker on his forehead for Ash Wednesday.
When I was in divinity school, people asked me what I would give up for Lent. I looked at them and said, “Not a damn thing.”
Whatta buncha ash-holes.
Hypatia's Daughter says
Which is where I got my web-name. (I usually use Hypatia, but someone else was already using it here.) She was a mathematician & astronomer – a noble namesake indeed: Hypatia
I felt like joining them and scrawling an ashy “A” on my forehead in solidarity. I thought of getting some temporary tatoos and making a Darwin or Atheist based symbol, but I have job interviews this week (finally!).
I did make up an anti-Lenten holiday a few years ago called Suelto. Instead of giving something up for the next six weeks, add some hedonistic pleasure. Have dessert with every meal or a weekly massage or sex every day. Just use your imagination and have a lot of hedonistic fun.
Amusing video of irreligious Brit news anchors with no idea what’s up with Biden’s forehead…
Am I wrong, or weren’t Reich’s legal problems based not on his writings, but on selling his quack-box orgone accumulators? My understanding is that if he’d just advocated his ideas, no one would’ve cared, but commerce gets you under the FDA’s brief.
I don’t do religion, but the Ash Wednesday ritual seems like good performance art— dust-to-dust and a reminder of impermanence, some things worth remembering. And of course there’s Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”, one of the great 20th-c. poems.
Well… I think PZ is guilty of conflating Bruno and the ashes. Ash Wednesday (as fucked as it is) moves all over the calendar because it’s based on the lunar cycle. Bruno’s execution date of 2/17/1600 was probably not Ash Wednesday, and the priests smudging the smutz on the dumbasses are not saying “Ha Fucking Ha. Here’s the burned up body of that guy we killed over 400 years ago.” I think it’s best to stay accurate in your pointing out how stupid and weird those people are without giving them ammo to say that you’re making stuff up and lying about them.
We where lucky enough to get a 2 hour delay yesterday. They make you do the stupid burnt plant matter on forehead thing at my school. If they did I would just wipe it off and reapply it as either an A or 666. The good news is they didn’t have enough time that day and had to cancel it.
I can’t help it. . .
[David Bowie]Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know Major Tom’s a junkie [/David Bowie]
Darrell E says
Some years ago me and a friend walked into a little diner called The Beanery for lunch. As I walked in I noticed a person with a dark smudge on their forehead. As we were seated, waiting for our food, I kept seeing people with the same kind of smudge right in the center of their foreheads. I started feeling like I was in the middle of a Twilight Zone episode. It was a small place, most of the people in it were elderly, and they all seemed to have grim looks on their faces. I finally leaned close to my friend and whispered “Have you noticed that everyone in here has a smudge right in the middle of their foreheads? What the fuck is going on?” At which point he let loose a full belly laugh, which disrupted the entire place and put even more grim looks on everyone’s faces. He had gone to a catholic school as a boy and so was able to explain what was going on.
Fucking weird shit. I just can’t take religion seriously when the believers indulge in shit like this.
Bruno may not have been as scientific as Copernicus or Galileo, but he saw further than either of them, first realizing that our Sun was one of infinite stars in an infinite Universe. Though Galileo came later, he placed the Sun at Universe’s center, as had Copernicus.
Bruno also saw the Sun and stars as living beings, and it may well have been this assertion that secured his incineration (at which his tongue was tied). We forget, to this day, that it was not science that deemed Sun worship primitive and ignorant, but centuries of church control of education. My own book picks up where Bruno left off, at http://www.sunofgod.net
I must have read a different post than most of you, because I can clearly tell that PZ was being deliberately obtuse about the (non-)connection between Ash Wedensday and Giordano Bruno. Of course the smudges aren’t there because of Bruno, but this year the anniversary of Bruno’s execution/cremation falls on the same day as Forehead Smudge Day, so why not have a bit of a larf?
It’s hardly clear. For all his Crackergate antics, PZ is not a religious scholar and has been wrong on certain tenets before (he was raised Lutheran, not Catholic iirc). It is not an unreasonable guess that when he says something wrong about religion, it might not be intended as irony or deliberate obtuseness.
Doesn’t keep me from enjoying the blog, of course. But if we want to strive for rationality and fact-based reasoning, we need to be able to recognize and call out untrue “facts” when they are spoken, even by people on our side.
The Bible is Useless says
I lived in Olympia, WA in 2001, and we had a 6.8 earthquake on Ash Wednesday. Walking outside in the rubble, everyone had that kind of glazed look of shock, and I kept seeing people with ashes on their foreheads. It was super surreal and apocalyptic. Catholics can be really scary (I should know, having shamed my thoroughly Irish-Catholic family by being a heathen.). That goes double for you, Bill Donahue!
Craig Motbey says
@#53: Yes, Bruno was one of the first to propose an infinite, centreless universe. However, the reasons he did so weren’t because of scientific observation; he proposed the idea for entirely mystical reasons. The point that his speculation is roughly in line with modern thinking doesn’t make him a scientist (or a particularly insightful non-scientist), any more than current knowledge about localisation of some brain functions validates the theories of phrenologists.
Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Bruno relied upon the scientific observation of Copernicus to recognize what now seems obvious to us. It was mystical reasons, more likely, that prevented Copernicus or Galileo, both devout Catholics, from recognizing what must have been obvious to Bruno once “the penny dropped.”
Give the man the credit he deserves. At the Inquisition sittings he patiently sought to explain the workings of the solar system to the judges. And he would not deny what he knew to be truth.
When the judges passed sentence, Bruno famously responded: “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce with sentence against me with greater fear than I who receive it.”
Heh. Years ago I nearly wiped an ash smudge mark off my boss’s forehead. The pitfalls of being an atheist – you have no idea when something’s part of some weird ritual.
Paul @ 55,
looking at the thread it appears that enough people have either gotten the clue, or have missed it completely, as to provide reasonable evidence of PZ being deliberately obtuse in linking to the wrong thing.
It’s not doing any harm.
“Am I wrong, or weren’t Reich’s legal problems based not on his writings, but on selling his quack-box orgone accumulators? My understanding is that if he’d just advocated his ideas, no one would’ve cared, but commerce gets you under the FDA’s brief.”
You are likely correct…but how does that explain this ..from my earlier comment..
“…August 1956, several tons of his publications were burned by the FDA, arguably one of the worst examples of censorship in U.S. history…”
My point was, that like Bruno, it was probably the sexual content.
Hemant at Friendly Atheist just posted this video of news anchors wondering what the hell was up with Biden’s head. It’s pretty funny. I like the fact that an ostentatious symbol of piety is taken as a weird problem.
You have to be a religious scholar to determine the fact that Catholics seldom celebrate those martyred… by Catholics? Or to have heard of Ash Wednesday? Or to guess that “Ash Wednesday,” which is presumably celebrated on the same day of the week every year, would therefore not be linked to a particular date? Do you really think that membership in the reality-based community requires that you abandon the use of verbal irony?