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In the early second century, Ignatius of Antioch penned his Epistle to the Romans, a brief work in which he enthused over his coming martyrdom, eagerly hoping that the beasts of the arena would do their duty and devour him:
Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God. Entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep, I may not be found troublesome to any one.This passage has been interpreted as one in which Ignatius turns his body, through martyrdom, into the Eucharist; Bynum tracks its efforts to promise continuity of self even in those moments when it seems to be in danger of utter dissolution (Resurrection 27). Ignatius pictures the “breakings, tearing . . . . separations of bones[,] . . . . cutting off of members[, and] . . . bruising to pieces of the whole body” that he will undergo. Yet Ignatius describes his final end also as something far more mundane: he is wheat turned into bread; he has, in a common image, fallen asleep; he is the body laid to rest in the tomb of these beasts. The latter image is especially arresting. He hopes that nothing will remain of him – no relic – over which any Christian might expend any care. Presumably such a hope would be vain for the arena, given that even the most ravenous -- or fastidious -- of beasts leave behind scraps of carrion; but it would not be a vain hope for a burial, as even the sloppiest of burials tend not to leave pieces behind. Although Ignatius will be devoured by beasts, he resists the wildness of it by imagining what is meant to be a humiliation as a banal, albeit pious, terminus of his life. He undoes the coming dispersal of his limbs into multiple animal stomachs through a metaphor that transforms these numerous temporary receptacles into a single tomb that will preserve his remains until the Last Judgment. In a manner of speaking, that burial is precisely what happened. After his martyrdom, nothing remained of him “but the harder portions of his holy remains,” which “were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church by grace which was in the martyr.” His humble request that he not be preserved in the form of relics has not been honored, but the fact of his having been killed and consumed by animals is at least counterbalanced by his osteal preservation. He has been reassembled preparatory to the coming resurrection, and until then, his remains, his self partially in abeyance, will be preserved by the church. This end and enduring postmortem existence is presumably what he would have come to even if he had not been consumed by animals: his flesh would have turned to dust, his bones kept.
The above story is the Greek version of Ignatius's death. Some, but not all, versions translated into Latin (beginning with the Elogium ex Martyrologiis Adonis, translated into Latin by Bede) conclude differently. A typical version of this tradition follows:
Finally, after this, that he had been tormented by fire, and by beating and prison, the emperor did send for the Romans in a place and there did do set S. Ignatius, and did do bring thither two lions for to devour him. But he had never dread for death ne for other torments, of which he had suffered many, but was always comforted for to die for the love of Jesu Christ. And he said at the last: I am wheat of Jesu Christ, which ought to be grounden between the teeth of these beasts, by which I may be pure bread for to be presented to my Lord; and anon the lions came and strangled him without tearing of his flesh, or anything hurting it (in the Latin, præfocauerunt eum tantummodo, & non tetigerunt carnes eius), wherefor Trajan had great marvel and departed from the place.What was originally a story in which a saint triumphs over eating is eventually altogether purged of eating. It becomes one of the many stories in which large predatory animals, otherwise notoriously anthropophagous, refuse to eat saints: e.g., the story of Cerbonius, Bishop of Populonia, who, in Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, is condemned to be eaten by a bear, but the bear only licks the saint’s feet and hands, acting “with a heart almost human”; or the stories of Vincent, Gordian, Primus, Felicianus, and Justina in the Golden Legend, all of whose exposed bodies remain uneaten by animals; or, even, although this is somewhat far afield, the assertion by a fourteenth-century cynegetic manual that Acteon’s dogs, even though their master had been transformed into a stag, refused to eat him. Both versions of Ignatius's martyrdom essentially tell the same tale of the failure of animal violence: in each, Ignatius resists being eaten and incorporated, in one by imagining his own swallowed body as a buried body, in the other by showing, even before the resurrection, the perdurability of flesh promised him for Eternity: subject to the power of God, the lions may only smother, so respecting the integrity of the sacred body. In the earlier narrative they may tear the saint to pieces, but nevertheless his relics persist. At any rate, what the lions ate would cease to be theirs once the lions passed into the nothingness of a merely animal death. Animals may be able to eat humans, digestion might join human with animal flesh, but this transformation is temporary: they cannot retain this human as their own flesh. Because the animal was temporary, and the human eternal, the devouring lions of the earlier legend might as well be the smothering lions of the Golden Legend.
Oh, and there's this meme thing over at Scott E. Kaufman's blog.