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The Valley of Sweet Bells and Dead Bodies February 19, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

Usually when Christian missionaries come face to face with a pagan shrine, the vitae tells us that the axe comes out and the splinters fly. But imagine if you were one of these (perhaps God-forsaken) missionaries in the woods of early medieval Germany or the great mountain ranges of Asia. How many really felt courage as they approached the shrine of their enemies? Here is an atmospheric description from Odoric of Pordenone of his own experiences apparently in (though the text is not clear) northern Persia.

There was another terrible thing which I saw there: for passing by a certaine valley, which is situate beside a pleasant riuer, I saw many dead bodies, and in the sayd valley also I heard diuers sweet sounds and harmonies of musike, especially the noise of citherns, whereat I was greatly amazed. This valley conteineth in length seuen or eight miles at the least; into the which whosoeuer entreth, dieth presently, and can by no meanes passe aliue thorow the middest thereof: for which cause all the inhabitants thereabout decline vnto the one side. Moreouer, I was tempted to go in, and to see what it was. At length, making my prayers, and recommending my selfe to God in the name of Iesu, I entred, and saw such swarmes of dead bodies there, as no man would beleeue vnlesse he were an eye witnesse thereof. At the one side of the foresayd valley vpon a certaine stone, I saw the visage of a man, which beheld me with such a terrible aspect, that I thought verily I should haue died in the same place. But alwayes this sentence, the word became flesh, and dwelt amongst vs, I ceased not to pronounce, signing my selfe with the signe of the crosse, and neerer then seuen or eight pases I durst not approach vnto the said head: but I departed and fled vnto another place in the sayd valley, ascending vp into a little sand mountaine, where looking round about, I saw nothing but the sayd citherns, which me thought I heard miraculously sounding and playing by themselues without the help of musicians. And being vpon the toppe of the mountaine, I found siluer there like the scales of fishes in great abundance: and I gathered some part thereof into my bosome to shew for a wonder, but my conscience rebuking me, I cast it vpon the earth, reseruing no whit at all vnto my selfe, and so, by Gods grace I departed without danger. And when the men of the countrey knew that I was returned out of the valley aliue, they reuerenced me much, saying that I was baptised and holy, and that the foresayd bodies were men subiect vnto the deuils infernall, who vsed to play vpon citherns, to the end they might allure people to enter, and so murther them. Thus much concerning those things which I beheld most certainely with mine eyes, I frier Odoricus haue heere written: many strange things also I haue of purpose omitted, because men will not beleeue them vnlesse they should see them.

Aliud terribile fuit quod ego vidi ibi. Nam cùm irem per vnam vallem quæ sita est iuxta fluuium deliciarum, multa corpora mortua vidi, et in illa valle audiui sonos musicos dulces et diuersos, et maximè de cytharis, vndè multum timui. Haec vallis habet longitudinem septem, vel octo milliarium ad plus, in quam si quis intrat, moritur, et nunquam viuus potest transire per medium illius vallis, et ideò omnes de contrata declinant à latere: Et tentatus eram intrare, et videre, quid hoc esset. Tandem oratis et Deo me recommendans, et cruce signans, in nomine Iesu intraui, et vidi tot corpora mortua ibi, quòd nullus crederet nisi videret In hac valle ab vno eius latere, in vno saxo vnam faciem hominis vidi, quæ ita terribilitèr me respexit, quòd omnino credidi ibi fuisse mortuus: Sed semper hoc verbum (verbum caro factum est et habitauit in nobis) protuli, et cruce me signaui, nec propiùs quàm per 7. passus, vel 8. accedere capiti ausus fui: Iui autem fugiens ad aliud caput vallis, et super vnum monticulum arenosum ascendi, in quo vndique circumspiciens nihil vidi nisi cytharas illas, quas per se (vt mihi videbatur) pulsari et resonare mirabiliter audiui. Cùm vero fui in cacumine montis, inueni ibi argentum in maxima quantitate, quasi fuissent squamæ piscium. Congregans autem inde in gremio meo pro mirabili ostendendo, sed ductus conscientia, in terram proieci, nihil mecum reseruans, et sic per gratiam Dei liber exiui. Cùm autem homines illius contratæ sciuerunt me viuum exisse, reuerebantur me multum, dicentes me baptizatum et sanctum: et corpora illa fuisse daemonum infernalium qui pulsant cytharas vt homines alliciant intare, et interficiant. Haec de visis certudinalitér ego frater Odoricus hic inscripsi; et multa mirabilia omisi ponere, quia homines hon credidissent nisi vidissent.

This was presumably a pagan shrine with human sacrifices round about. The money must have been offerings. Other human failings on the part of missionaries : drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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WJ writes: ‘If Odoric was in Peria, could he be giving us his misinterpretation of  the Zoroastrian practice of exposing bodies of the dead? Maybe with some fantastic story elements added by the Muslim neighbors such as “men subiect vnto the deuils infernall”. Then Invisible has another explanation entirely: Frankly, the first thing I thought of when I read your post on sweet bells and dead bodies  was not “human sacrifices” but “poison gas.”  Hear me out… Think of the Grotta del Cane and Lake Nyos in Africa.  In each location, invisible and odorless carbon dioxide gathers in a low area (a valley) and kills those who breath it. Which is possibly why the locals in this case avoided going into the middle of the valley, but went up one side. Odoric may have been preserved, not by God’s grace, but by a favorable prevailing wind. Or, as in the case of Lake Nyos, the site might only be intermittently toxic. The silver on top of the mountains might be mineral deposits/slag thrown out of a volcanic vent. Colorful and metallic deposits are noted around vents and hot springs in Yellowstone Park, Japan, and other seismically active regions. Possibly the sweet music was gases whistling through openings in the earth. See this site and scroll down to “Music in the Air” for mysterious musical sounds perhaps produced by seismic activity .  (That does not explain the actual citherns, though, if I am reading Odoric correctly.) So which came first, the terrifying god carved on the stone or deadly seismic activity that encouraged the locals to placate the death-dealing deity? How fresh were these dead bodies? The biggest difficulty for this theory is that we don’t know the exact location. However if I’m correct in assuming North Persia to encompass modern-day Turkey, the area is, of course, very seismically active.’ Should note that some commentators believe that Odoric was hallucinating in part here (which doesn’t seem necessary to Beach), if so then this would fit into Invisible’s explanation too? Thanks WJ and Invisible!!