Thursday, December 24, 2015

When Fish Scream: The Sibil·la

Matins, those of you with only passing knowledge of French might appreciate, would appear to be derived from the French for morning. This would, of course, be too simple an explanation. Linguistics of western Europe demand a Latin connection, and so - naturally enough - there is one. Matins comes from "matutinum": of the morning, as opposed to actually being morning.

Once upon a time, in religious circles, Matins was - as you would expect - of the morning. But this was morning as in at night. Up would rise monks at some ungodly hour in order to conduct their observance. They would go back to bed and then get up again. It was a hard life for a monk, if you wanted a good night's sleep, that is.

Fortunately, for the faithful of contemporary times, the Matins liturgy is somewhat more flexible. And confusing. Of the morning has become of the evening and up to around or just past midnight. There is still some element of the morning that remains, but when Matins can start - as it does - at six the previous evening, then that old Latin meaning can be said to have been pretty much abandoned.

In this week of election, Matins services are a bit like the rush to be the first place to declare the result of the election. Not, it has to be said, that the Spanish go in for the rituals of a British election in quite the same way. Results just suddenly appear. There is no parading of the candidate from the Monster Raving Loony Party behind the losing incumbent in whatever constituency it might be.

On Christmas Eve, somewhere has to claim the honour of being the first to do the Matins thing, and it is even earlier than six. You can make a case for six being the evening, but half five is not. It's the afternoon, and by my reckoning the honour falls to the Sant Miquel church in Felanitx. Today, it will not just be the first to declare its Matins, it will also be the first to do the Sibil·la.

Churches across the island engage in this tradition, one that was given greater meaning by Unesco which, in 2010, declared the chant to be a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the only "thing" to have been deemed this in Mallorca or indeed the Balearics. Accordingly, town halls which issue their festive period programme of events (and not all of them do) invariably now tag on a reference to the Unesco award. The Sibil·la is no longer just some song from ancient times, it has the Unesco seal of approval as well, and the town halls and other public authorities make sure everyone knows that it has.

If you are unfamiliar with the Sibil·la and might expect to pitch up at the local parish church and hear something jolly and Christmassy, such as seeing three ships come sailing in, then you would be disappointed. The Sibil·la is distinctly unjolly. To give you a flavour:

"On the day of judgement, he will be spared who has done service.
Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, man and true eternal God, from Heaven will come to judge and to everyone what is fair will give.
Great fire from the heaven will come down; seas, fountains and rivers, all will burn. Fish will scream loud and in horror. Losing their natural delights.
Before the Judgement the Antichrist will come and will give suffering to everyone,
and will make himself be served like God, and who does not obey he will make die."

Given that this is, therefore, a vision of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement, why do they do it? Well, it all of course has to do with the Council of Trent, as these things do. In the mid-sixteenth century, the church powers that be came to the conclusion that the Sibil·la was "offensive to our Lord". They might have added that there were more jolly things to chant at Christmas, but didn't. They did, nevertheless, decide to ban it from churches.

In Mallorca, however, they weren't having any of this, and so twelve years after the decree had been issued, the Sibil·la re-emerged. The question as to why it was Mallorca which rebelled and which was to, therefore, become the keepers of the tradition to such an extent that it was to eventually be given the Unesco award has never been adequately answered. Perhaps it was a case of being an island in the middle of the Mediterranean and thinking no one would notice.

Though restored in Mallorca, it was to still be over a hundred years before the Sibil·la reappeared in Palma's cathedral and not till 1976 before it was formally reintroduced to the liturgy.

If you're having fish this evening, just be careful in case it starts to scream loud and in horror. Merry Christmas.

No comments: