Veni, Vidi, Vaticanus
By: Carla Ciccone
Vatican has come to stand for Christianity, Popes and power, along with corruption, greed and ignorance, depending whom you’re talking to.
But like many words, Vatican, at its Latin core, is far less corrupt than organized religion has made it. “Vatis” means prophecies, and the “can” part is up for debate, but many believe it could refer to a snake. Eve or Lilith might agree.
Up Vatican Hill the Etruscans would climb to pray to the god Vaticanus. It was a prophetic spot of divine messages, and Vaticanus was the bearer of these auditory texts from heaven. So pure was this herald god of divine messages that he is the god of the first sound a newborn baby makes—that blissful sigh, squeak, squeal or scream that takes a brand new human from silent to sounding.
Vaticanus was an important deity, but he wasn’t the only one worshipped at the site. Also nearby was a temple for Cybele, the Magna Mater or “Great Mother” goddess.
So, did the early Catholics storm up Vatican Hill, with its divine prophet god and the Great Mother goddess, and claim it for their own in the world’s most lucrative game of King of the hill? Sort of, but like everything involving these people, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Rome is a city of seven hills, each with their own rich histories, but Vatican hill isn’t among them. It sits on the other side of the Tiber river, in the distance, and perhaps rightly so. It’s about the only separation of Church and state the Eternal City is afforded. The Cupola of St. Peter’s seems as omnipresent in Rome as god and Gaia, as haunting as it is beautiful.
But I’m jumping ahead. At the time of the Roman Republic and before Christianity, what is now Vatican City was already being referred to as “Vatican,” although the site was mostly marshy and uninhabitable, thanks to the run off from the nearby Tiber river.
Agrippina the Elder, granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, was the one who drained the land and made her gardens there. Her son, Emperor Caligula took over his mother’s garden and turned it into a circus for charioteers. Since obelisks were the BC version of ridiculously expensive foreign cars, Caligula had one brought from Egypt and erected in the middle of his circus. Emperors will be Emperors.
Circus Vaticanus, later known as the Circus of Nero, took up much of what is now Vatican City, and in addition to hosting chariot races, it was also a site of public persecutions. For this reason, buried deep below St. Peter’s were the bones of many, including the man himself. The circus is said to be where St. Peter was crucified, upside down, before his body stolen off the cross for safekeeping by his faithful followers.
By the time Constantine came around and Christianity was starting to gain traction, he built what is now known as Old St. Peter’s Basilica. It housed the remains of St. Peter safely in its apse. Although the Vaticanus temple was long gone by now, the nearby shrine to goddess Cybele and Attis, god of vegetation, survived close to the basilica, and stood for many years.
It wasn’t until Renaissance sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini redesigned Piazza San Pietro that it became what it is now—a wonder. And at the centre of it: the obelisk Caligula brought to Rome from Egypt all those years ago, re-erected. Thanks to Bernini’s design, that obelisk is now the gnomon at the centre of a giant sundial, and below it, stones with the names and dates of the 12 astrological signs decorate the floor.
Justification for the presence of astrology on the ground floor of the holy piazza comes in the form of Jesus’ disciples. It is said that each of the 12 apostles is linked to a zodiac sign. Peter is, of course, Aries. Simon the Zealot takes Taurus. James the preacher is Gemini. Loner Andrew is repped by Cancer. John “the beloved” is the Leo, while studious Philip takes Virgo. Nathaniel/Bartholomew is Libra. Suspicious Thomas is Scorpio. The other James, who loved to travel, is Sagittarius. Matthew the tax collector gets to be Capricorn, because of course, and Thaddeus-Jude the questioner is the Aquarius of the group. Lastly, that slippery fish Judas Iscariot is Pisces. All fine, I suppose, but I’d like to make some swaps: Mother Mary as Cancer, Mary Magdalene as Taurus or Virgo, and Veronica as Scorpio.
History, religion and apostles as zodiac signs aside, I can honestly say that to see St. Peter’s Square in person is worth the trip to Rome. While I felt the airy, and sometimes heavy, pulse of many spirits as I pounded Rome’s ancient cobblestones, this sensation was at its peak within the sturdy walls of Vatican City. There was a sense of calm amidst chaos, and of being bathed in god-light. It is one of the most magnificent places in the world—and one that always honours its namesake Vaticanus, prophetic god of newborn cries and brand new starts, whether it wants to or not.
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