The ubiquitous St. John's

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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Tomorrow, one day early, we celebrate Discovery Day. Legend has it that Giovanni Caboto, better known as John Cabot, discovered on St. John's Day, June 24, 1497, the harbour of our capital city.
A Portuguese origin for the name seems more likely, however, since an early Portuguese map of our area from 1519 depicts a Rio de San Johem, or St. John's River.
Paul O'Neill, a historian in St. John's, using his historical imagination, guesses that "Corte-Real, or one of his contemporaries, paid a brief visit to the harbour; saw the distant Waterford River, then many times its present width, empty into the bay, which he took to be the mouth of a large river; named the place Rio de San Johem (St. John's River); and sailed away."
At the time, many geographical locales and churches invoked the biblical figure's name and in so doing placed themselves under the protection of a powerful saint.
European folklore abounds with traditions that connect his feast day with health, wealth and good fortune. The popularity of the feast likely absorbed the strength of pre-Christian pagan fertility rites as well as the mysterious power of the midsummer solstice, which coincides with the saint's birthday.

Powerful plants
In popular folklore, even plants receive their power from the saint. In Europe, it was common on St. John's Day to collect bouquets of flowers and herbs, which were thought to have protective properties, especially when these flowers were picked at noon.
According to one tradition, St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) possesses such magical power that smoke from the burned plant shields people and livestock against lightning and thunder, and even calms tempestuous storms.
Today, St. John's wort, a weed flowering around the saint's birthday, is reputed to have genuine medicinal properties.
As a child, I used to accompany my beloved Aunt Gretchen, a person truly knowledgeable in folk medicine, to collect the yellow flowers in the field. The dried flowers would be suspended in rapeseed oil and later used as a remedy for burns. Today, there is a large scientific literature and debate about the medicinal and antidepressant functions of the plant, which may inhibit serotonin reuptake.
While the jury is still out on the pharmacological efficacy of the flower, its practical utility in folk medicine may have made it a popular herb.
These European historical and folkloric associations of the name are quite distant from the actual Jewish apocalyptic figure who proclaimed in uncompromising and stark language God's impending judgment and the figure of a Coming One.

Faithful forerunner
The gospels show how closely the ministry of Jesus and Christian beginnings start with the figure of this forerunner. John's disciples and followers were likely absorbed into Christianity after his death, although his influence spread even beyond Christianity to Mandaean religion, Islam and, in the modern period, among the Baha'i.
The story of John's death has stimulated the imagination of great artists and writers, from Caravaggio to Oscar Wilde, although St. John and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are the only Roman Catholic saints whose birthdays and not their death days are celebrated in the traditional church calendar.
St. John has always been present to me, even in my own name. Although I could offer no opinion in the matter and do not remember the event, I was named for St. John the Baptist when my uncle Hans, my godfather, vouched for the Christian upbringing of little Hans (short for Johannes) in the parish church of St. John the Baptist in Adenau in the Eifel Mountains of Germany 60 years ago. His promise would be difficult to keep, for my godfather lived in distant Bavaria, 800 kilometres away.
The 10th-century church where I was christened had yet another association with the ubiquitous saint. It was once owned by the Order of St. John, the Knights of Malta, which also took its name from their patron saint, St. John the Baptist.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at hrollman@mun.ca

Geographic location: St. John's River, Waterford River, Europe Adenau

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