Magical Essence of Pope, or, The Creepy Side of Religion, Episode 7,464,221

Popes cologne

As Molly Ivins used to say: Sometimes it's hard to know whether to laugh, cry, or throw up.

Today's story centers on The Pope's Cologne — stop laughing, I am not making this up — a product purportedly based on the private cologne formula of Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), and being shamelessly hawked to credulous suckers tastefully offered for sale to the devoted ranks of the faithful. PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame came across this charming story about it on the Christian News Wire:

What I experienced later will be a sight I will never forget!!! The widow used the cologne to "anoint" her husband EVERY 20 minutes. She would sprinkle it on his hands, his head, his forehead, and his neck. You could see in her eyes she had found a way of redemption through the cologne. Everyone was asking about the cologne and its origin. Everyone that came in to give her their condolences could not stop asking about the pleasant aroma they were experiencing. Everyone was quiet and in awe for hours. She also kept on rubbing the bottle as if it was some sort of amulet or charm.


Lots of commenters on Pharyngula, and indeed PZ himself, are going with the humorous side of the story. And I can't say that I blame them. There's definitely a ghoulishly funny aspect to it, like something you'd see in a Gahan Wilson cartoon when he was in a particularly sick mood.

But personally… well, maybe it's because it's been a long day and I'm tired and cranky. But I'm having a hard time seeing this as hilariously wacky. I'm mostly seeing it as sick and sad and awful.

Be forewarned: Today I have my cranky pants on. And my snarky underwear. I am not going to be nice. I am not even going to try to be nice.

Cranky Thought Number One:

Let me see if I have this story straight.

A grieving widow is obsessively smearing cologne on the corpse of her dead husband, and rubbing the bottle it came in as if it were a magical object.

And her fellow mourners are

a) touched and awestruck by the gesture, and

b) struck by the nice smell.

They're not — oh, say, just for instance — simultaneously pitying and grossed out beyond belief? They're not wondering, "What on Earth is she doing? What does she think she's going to accomplish by this?" They're not wondering if they should gently encourage Grandma to see a therapist?

What the zarking fardwarks is impressive and awe-inspiring about this spectacle? Other than, "Man, people do some strange stuff when they're grieving"?

Cranky Thought Number Two (closely related to CT #1):

I do not ever — ever — want to hear another progressive theologian say that modern religious thought doesn't involve magical thinking.

God delusion

Anyone who's hung around the atheosphere for more than twenty minutes has almost certainly run across this argument. It gets leveled at Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion a lot. "You're battling a straw man," the argument goes. "You're arguing against archaic religious beliefs that nobody takes seriously anymore. Nobody still believes in the personal interventionist God who answers prayers, and hands out rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior, and responds to sacred potions and objects. That's just silly."

Well, maybe nobody still believes it in theology schools. Maybe in theology schools, they mostly believe in the impersonal, non- interventionist, largely abstract God: the God who is, in any practical or meaningful sense, entirely indistinguishable from no God at all.


But if you think nobody believes it in the rather larger world outside of theology schools, you need to visit Lourdes. Or attend a prayer meeting being organized by the parents of a terminally sick child. Or visit a website where prayer accessories are being sold by the thousands. Or talk to any one of the roughly 50% of Americans who believe human beings were created by God in more or less their current form about 10,000 years ago.

Or else, just go to a funeral where the grieving widow is anointing her dead husband with Magical Oil of Pope.

In fact, a not very nice part of me wants to buy a bottle of this Eau de Pontiff crap.

So the next time I hear someone make the "you just don't understand modern theology" argument, I can throw it in their face.

Mask photo by Marsyas.

Magical Essence of Pope, or, The Creepy Side of Religion, Episode 7,464,221

15 thoughts on “Magical Essence of Pope, or, The Creepy Side of Religion, Episode 7,464,221

  1. 1

    I’d say that most people engage in some sort of magical thinking that’s comparable to this when they attach meaning to objects of their loved ones and idols, like locks of hair, pieces of clothing, or even perfume. It feels like you have a part of that person, and there’s the illusion of physical proximity. I think this is basically what’s going on here.
    But I agree with you wholeheartedly, Greta, on two points. First, while I don’t think that’s the case with this cologne, the Catholic Church does have relics, bones, hair, or objects that belonged to saints and are said to have magical properties, so I think your criticism, in general, absolutely holds. Second, it’s definitely creepy as all hell, and I hope even the religious agree about that.

  2. 2

    I’m a Catholic heretic. Right, that’s out of the way.
    I totally agree with your position on this … marketing schtick. As a self-respecting theist, I find the notion of this potion insulting, not to mention the whole anointing thing being gross, disgusting, without any theological merit, and really rather horrific.

  3. 3

    Ysabet – I think you missed the point. I could be wrong, but yeah.
    Greta- FUCK YEAH. (I was searching for a better, more eloquent way of saying that… but I haven’t had enough coffee yet today and I fully agree with you, so yeah. You get a “fuck yeah”. In caps. Oh yeah.)

  4. 4

    “So the next time I hear someone make the “you just don’t understand modern theology” argument, I can throw it in their face.”
    The spray or the bottle itself?
    At least if it’s the spray, it will do less harm than throwing a fossilized femur at them.

  5. 7

    Addendum: As for ‘magical thinking’ (i.e. the person mentioning that ‘we all do it’ with items from loved ones), I know that I will sometimes have an item of a loved one who has passed away, and I will associate memories with the item, in my mind… so seeing or holding it is useful to bring the memories up (for purposes of reminding myself – allowing me to remember the person). Sure, in a way, I do associate the person as the item, but more importantly, I associate the memories of that person with the item.

  6. 10

    Caio and Leigh: You have a point about magical thinking and the human tendency to imbue objects with great symbolic meaning, especially at times of stress. None of us is immune to that, and I wouldn’t want us to be. But the thing I think we have to remember is:
    It’s not like her husband bought her this cologne. It’s not like a wedding ring or a photo, a gift he gave her or a memento of a happy time together. What made it special didn’t have anything at all to do with her husband. What made it special was that it was Eau de Pope. Ew.

  7. 12

    And now let us pray, according to the Word of St. Carlin…
    “What’s the use of being God if any rundown schmuck with a 2-dollar prayer book can come along and fuck up your Plan?”

  8. 13

    You don’t get to be religious without loose elastic in your disbelief suspenders. Theologians – who tend to be an angstrom less thick than yer average Jeezers Sheep – have a problem here: on the one hand they usually joined the cult because they want to lap up the same big daddy/forgiveness/purpose/plan magic Kool-Aid as their hard-of-thinking brethren; on the other, they’re occasionally called upon to justify their silly beliefs (even if only to themselves).
    So they seem to develop a sliding scale of things they believe in, to match the circumstances. When pressed, they may retreat back to a deist position, and argue intellectually for a God of the Gaps, pooh-poohing the risible notions of lumpen churchgoers. But ten minutes later you’ll find ’em on their knees pleading for forgiveness for having had one off the wrist when no-one (else) was looking, begging for Heaven, and terrified of Hell.
    Ultimately, if a religoid tells you he doesn’t believe in something, it’s probably true at that moment.

  9. 14

    Wait a minute, this cologne is from a Pope in the EIGHTEENTH CENTURY?! Do you have any idea how much the Church’s official doctrine has changed since then? Surely that cologne would have lost its redemptive power the minute its namesake ceased to represent the Church.
    These people gotta get caught up here. They need to start using Benedict XVI cologne — which would most likely be made by Prada.

  10. 15

    First time reading your blog, I really liked your cranky pants observations. I come across magical thinking in Christians far more often than I come across detailed theological arguments.

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