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St. Martha, from Gospel Figure to Medieval Legend to La Dominadora: Sources, Resources, and FAQs

art honey jars household woes housekeeping hyatt literary analysis madame lindsey medieval legends medieval manuscripts monsters peaceful home products religion rootwork education saints st. joseph st. martha sweetening work

Note: This is a copy of the original post at the main blog. To see original context and any additions/edits or conversations that unfold in the comments, visit the main Seraphin Station blog.

St. Martha in Scripture

st martha woodcut

Woodcut by Jacobus de Man, haven't tracked down the specific publication yet, but it's late 1600s, early 1700s and public domain. [1]

"Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus."
- John 11:5

The Gospel of Luke tells us how Martha invited Jesus to her home in Bethany. She cooked and cleaned and catered while her sister Mary sat at Christ's feet and listened to him speak. Martha pointed out that Mary wasn't pitching in.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41, NIV)

Christ's point is that in the grand scheme of things, your eternal soul is more important than social conventions and what people think about your housekeeping. But we need to understand this in context. It's not that Martha had no imagination or faith or respect or that she was too small-minded to want to sit at Christ's feet, too.

In Martha's mind and in her culture, these were her duties, and her performance of them comprised her reputation, value, and trustworthiness as a member of her culture -- in a society that valued hospitality quite highly, that in fact didn't even work as a society without hospitality as a huge part of the glue that held it together.

She wasn't saying nobody should value hearing him teach. She also wanted to hear him speak; she was also his disciple and believed in him. She was just pointing out that people needed to eat and wash and sit, and somebody's efforts had to make that happen. (You can imagine that Jesus was accompanied by an entourage, too, all of whom also needed to eat and wash and sit.) She was determined to do her duties well for such an esteemed guest as Jesus, but she wasn't a doormat. She was pointing out that she was not the only one who could be doing these things, that she *could* be sitting at Christ's feet right now, too, if she just gave off doing the less glamorous stuff. But somebody has to do it. Dramatic events are unfolding, but somebody has to make the setting they're unfolding in happen.

In John 12, Christ is in Bethany again before Passover at a dinner in his honor. Lazarus is reclined at the table with him. Word of his resurrection has spread like wildfire; Jesus' followers are increasing and so are the machinations against his life. Mary makes a spectacle of herself pouring half of liter of precious perfume on Christ's feet - worth a year's wages - and wiping them with her hair. Christ is constantly, increasingly aware of the massive cosmic drama he's part of and what's right around the corner, his every action and word heavily symbolic. Every step he takes is under the weight of prophecy and its fulfillment, is part of a massive dramatic ritual. In this play, Christ has simultaneously the perspective of the main character and the omniscience of the author. The drama in John's portrayal is thick indeed.

Martha during all of this? John writes only, "Martha served" (John 12:2).

martha 1497 isabella breviary public domain

From the Breviary, Use of the Dominicans ('The Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile'), British Library, Add MS 18851, f. 417r. Public domain.

So in replying to Martha's protests about doing all the work herself by saying Mary chose what is better, Christ is speaking from a perspective in which a single human life is only a flash in the vastness of eternity, one in which mundane details completely evaporate in the face of the enormity of God and the movement of all creation towards its ultimate fulfillment.

Martha, on the other hand, is speaking from the very pragmatic perspective of someone who knows that no matter what historical event or miracle is unfolding next door, someone is still going to have to clean up after it when the crowds have all gone home. 

And don't pretend she's not right. The miracle isn't the Loaves and Fishes and Latrines That Never Smelled Bad Despite the Crowds. It isn't the Resurrection of Lazarus and the Erasure of All Putrefaction From Any Fabric in Contact With His Rotting Corpse. Even an event as monumental and paradigm-shattering as Christ's resurrection and transfiguration doesn't change the fact that when the angels and crowds have all left and life as you know it will never be the same again, the clothes will still need washing and mending, people will still need to eat, bodies will still smell. Someone will always have to do these things until the end of human time, and Martha knows this.

So St. Martha is the patron saint of servers, cooks, domestic workers, housewives,  and those in the hospitality industry - those who are behind the scenes making important things go even when nobody notices. Her devotees will call on her for intercession when they need steady work, especially in these fields, or when they are having difficulty with their work. She's often called on to help with peace in the home, as well, as an extension of her association with the domestic sphere.

Martha's Life After Bethany: Dragon-Slaying and Dominating

In medieval lore and in her iconography, she is shown as a slayer of dragons. Some legends have her leaving Bethany for France after Christ's death and resurrection, and she was quite busy there. William Caxton's 1483 English translation of Jacobus de Voraigne's 1275 Aurea Legenda (Golden Legend) tells how she tamed an infamous monster through her confidence in the power of God, her faith in the sign of the cross, and her skill in using the domestic tools with which she was familiar and comfortable. In this case, that was her girdle (which can be understood in context as her belt), which she used to tie up the tamed beast. [2]

And this was no garden variety baby dragon. It was really more of a sea monster, half beast and half fish, the offspring of the infamous Leviathan and some Galician beast named Bonacho. The locals called it Tarasconus, and it was bigger than an ox, had sharp teeth and horns and huge wings, and had the strength of a dozen lions (or bears, take your pick). It regularly sank ships and ate people, and it defended itself from pursuit by strategically evacuating its bowels behind it, leaving an entire acre of toxic dragon manure that was "bright as glass" and burned anyone who touched it.

martha tarasque blog jpg MSH0008_C_0191_verso-0192_recto from Hours of Henry VIII, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS H.8, ff. 191v–192r

 

And she tied it up with her belt. She didn't put on armor. She didn't come in on horseback. She didn't need the accoutrements of the medieval knight with which dragon-slayers like St. Michael and St. George are so commonly depicted. She just needed faith and the tools she already knew how to use. (One wonders what she might have accomplished with a ladle!)

These extra-scriptural legends account for much of her fame and reputation as a patron saint. She is called on for assistance by those who need to get the upper hand in any kind of relationship in which they find themselves "at the bottom of the totem pole." In conjure and in the folk traditions of Latin America, she's earned the title of St. Martha the Dominator, and she's often called on when women want to dominate a man.  But in this role as dominatrix, she is also petitioned to help employees get better treatment from their employers, for instance, especially if they are household employees like kitchen servants or nannies. So she is a great ally for all types of situations in which you are the underdog, or you might be taken for granted, or there's a built-in power imbalance in a situation, or you need to find a way to "top from the bottom."

Be warned, though: many old-school workers who work extensively with saints in conjure have said that if you call on her to dominate somebody in your life, and she doesn't take to the way they are treating you, she may well just run them off and out of your life. If this isn't about a boss at a job you need to survive but is focused on a spouse or partner who is beating on you or emotionally torturing you, St. Martha may answer your pleas by getting rid of the jerk for you. So don't expect her to just blindly do as you say - she's going to assess the situation, and she's a pretty no-nonsense kind of woman.

(And in cases like this, or if your boss is engaged in discriminatory, unjust, or illegal practices against you, please don't try to use St. Martha stuff, or conjure in general, as your only means of improving things.  If you are being hurt or misused, call a hotline or shelter, or your HR department, or the police, or a trusted friend who can call for you, as befits your situation. Do not rely solely on conjure or the saints to protect you from physical harm; the Lord and the saints help us in practical ways and expect us to help ourselves, too, and sometimes the best spiritual act involves picking up the phone.)

Will St. Martha Work for Men?

There is a tradition that she doesn't like men and won't work for them, but that's not always necessarily true. It depends on what they're asking her for. Most stories I've heard about successfully working with St. Martha for domination in a relationship setting have involved women dominating men, but the reverse is not completely unheard of. In fact, Madame Lindsey in Algiers, LA, one of Hyatt's informants, gives a lovely variation of a sweetening/honey jar type working with which a husband may invoke St. Martha to keep his wife doing her "wifely duties" (in volume 2). [3]

This is for use in situations where a wife "won't stay home," "won't keep her house in order [or] attend to her children" (1503).  You make a name paper by writing her name on parchment paper seven times, and then you put it in a white cup (like a teacup) over which you pour three teaspoons of orange water (aka orange blossom water), which is for faithfulness to her marriage vows (1503).  Next you add honey and condensed milk. Madame Lindsey says, "Milk an' honey makes people kind - de milk of human kindness - an' de honey tuh sweeten" (1502).

Set it where she won't find it,  ideally, or come up with some explanation that doesn't have anything to do with her if she asks, and don't let her see that you've made a name paper on her. You set this cup in front of an image or statue of St. Martha, and apparently, you burn pink lights on it.

Now Madame Lindsey instructs Hyatt on the lights and uses the word "taper," but it gets confusing with mentions of corks and floating, so I don't think she means to just set a pink taper candle in front of this. Earlier she had described creating basically a homemade oil lamp out of a bowl, and I suspect that's what she's describing here. She says, "Yo' set dat [taper] right on dere an' po' yo' oil an' light it- right befo' St. Martha."  Pouring the oil suggests she means something other than dressing a candle with condition oil, so I think the white cup in this case is essentially a homemade unenclosed oil lamp and the oil is any kind of cooking oil, as she was describing earlier. Then the cork/taper combo would be a floating wick.

In any case, obviously there is always more than one way to do these kinds of things.  I personally work this as if I'm making a cup of tea and then turning it into an oil lamp. I add honey and condensed milk as I would to a cup of tea, just a spoon or a splash or so. And I pour my oil - I use olive oil - to which I add a dollop or little glunk of St. Martha condition oil. The layer of oil totally covers the orange water/honey/milk mixture, then, so you don't just have a cup full of sweet stuff sitting there for any ants or flies or pets to get curious about. And the oil is the fuel for the fire - this isn't about using oil as a balm for bad feelings or hot tempers or anything, so you do not go easy on the oil. Your wick need to stay in contact with the fuel. If orange water etc. soaks into it, it's not gonna work right, so you have to keep an eye on this type of thing and ensure that layer of oil is substantial.

If you've never made and used a homemade oil lamp before and aren't really familiar with floating wicks and such, this might not be the best one to start with. These can get a little fiddly. So another option is to use a saucer or shallow bowl instead of a cup. If you do it this way, the layer of liquid should be shallow enough that a candle with a wide enough base should stand upright in this saucer and burn with no problem. A skinny little four-inch taper probably isn't going to work all that well, so I recommend a candle with a flat base that is at least an inch wide, probably wider, so it will stand up on its own. I suppose you could always use a taper in a candle holder and set the candle holder in the saucer, though that is plainly not what Madame Lindsey is describing.

I don't see this as a good candidate for turning it into an actual honey jar because of the milk. This has always seemed to me like something you would work on the fly, as needed, to influence someone. I'd be really wary about putting milk into a sealed honey jar and working that longer-term, but if any of you folks have tried it or have some variation that renders this absolutely nothing to be concerned about, please by all means, share!

So - a spell for a man to dominate his wife.  Yet this coexists with a tradition that Martha doesn't like men. What gives?

Well, I think one of the key things here becomes a bit more clear if you read about St. Martha in scripture -- see Luke 10:38-42, John 11:1-53, and John 12:1-9.  She was a woman in a time when managing the household, and being a servant to all guests and visitors, was the proper role of women.  I think Martha is called to work on a wayward wife in the above rite because of her association with the proper running of a household. I do not think that a man could work this St. Martha rite on a woman who was not his wife or committed partner, and I do not think this rite could be worked to get a woman to do something like commit adultery (or do anything else that didn't have to do with obligations related to the running of a household).  I think the key is that it is worked by a husband on a wife, that they have made a religious vow to each other in the sacrament of matrimony, and that it's worked in relation to the running of a household and raising of children in a relationship where that is presumably the understood division of labor.

But I would not call on St. Martha to try to force a woman to do things outside of this kind of purview, and I would not recommend that a husband who is not holding up all his vows with love and respect try to ask Martha to dominate his wife.  I imagine he might get the smackdown for his presumption.

St. Martha in the medieval tradition is quite atypical of female saints, whose defining characteristic was often their virginity.  While St. Martha was probably a virgin, she took a much more active and independent role as a Christian than was common. In a discussion of medieval saints' lives and gender which illustrates St. Martha's uniqueness, Martha Daas writes,

The official version of the life of Saint Martha depicts her as Christ's hostess and one of his first followers. Her popular appeal, however, stems less from her biblical role than from her position in medieval legend. In the Middle Ages, Martha is reinvented as a Gallic saint whose most celebrated feat is taming a dragon. It is this legend that has often displaced Martha's original role, both in text and in iconography. Unlike most depictions of female saints, Martha's power derives from her soul, not from her body. [emphasis mine]

[...] Martha, as depicted in the texts of the Middle Ages, is a holy person, not a holy vessel. In this article, I am positing a third ‘category’ of female saint: one not defined by her corporeality, that is, her virginity or her physical martyrdom, but by her character, which I claim is indicative of the influence of popular spirituality on the more formal teachings of the Christian church. (p. 1)

In short, there's more to Martha than her cooking skills. And we'd be wise to keep in mind that while she was a householder and in charge of her domestic sphere, Martha herself was *not* a wife.  So don't overdo it on the "housewife" thing - there's a lot more to Martha than what we might call "housewife stuff." If you want to work with a saint, get to know your saint. Crack a book. Introduce yourself. Have some conversations. Don't expect you can put a quarter in, turn the knob, and get what you want just as you want it all tied up with a bow (or with a girdle, for that matter).

There's a famous painting by Diego Velazquez which puts into sharp contrast the experiences of Mary and Martha in the household.  Martha is in the kitchen - she's sweaty from the work, her hands are chapped and rough from manual labor, her face is flushed from the heat, and to top it all off, her sister is not only not sharing the burden, she's getting the privilege to sit at the feet of Christ and listen to his words, which Martha also wants to do.  Somebody has to feed the guests, and Christ's words to Martha could very well sting anyone who gets stuck in the Cinderella role.

But I advise people to look long and hard at this painting and read the scriptures carefully and with open heart before asking St. Martha to dominate a woman.  Look at the look on her face.

Cristo en casa de Marta y María (Christ in the House of Martha and Mary), by Diego Velázquez. National Gallery, London. Public domain.

 

I suggest you be of pure heart and clear conscience before you do the above rite.  This is, after all, a woman who's said to have defeated a deadly dragon by flicking holy water on it and immobilized it by binding it up in her apron or girdle strings (or belt).  Then she called on the villagers to descend on it and hack it to pieces. Remember, St. Martha comes in and assesses a situation. She is not just going to show up and do your bidding and form no opinion about the details.  Make sure your dragon is really a dragon, and make sure you'll be fine with how St. Martha deems it best to help you tame it.

Official Prayers and Practices

My 1956 Missal gives her feast day as July 29.  A novena leaflet that I have for her gives a prayer to her as follows:

St. Martha, I resort to thy protection and aid, and as a proof of my affection and faith I offer this light which I shall burn every Tuesday. Comfort me in all my difficulties and through the great favor thou didst enjoy when the Savior was lodged in thy house. Intercede for my family that we may always hold God in our hearts, and that we may be provided for in all our necessities, I ask, St. Martha, to overcome all difficulties as thou didst overcome the dragon at thy feet.

Traditionally, this novena is performed every Tuesday for nine Tuesdays, and after this prayer, you say the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.

In orthodox Roman Catholicism, she is also the patron of dietitians, hemophiliacs, housewives, landlords, waitresses, servants, cooks, and women workers. Will she help a man in any of these roles?  I have certainly known her to.  That she assists in situations that don't have anything to do with "dominating" someone should go without saying at this point. Under the title of "St. Martha the Dominator," she has gained a widespread reputation, and there is a ton of info out there on dominating work under her aegis. But just as you might call on St. Joseph under his title "St. Joseph the Worker" for work-related petitions, but you understand it's the same saint, the same person, not two different people, so you can call on St. Martha for things that don't involve wayward spouses at all. And you certainly don't have to be a woman to call on her.

Catholic Online has a lovely summary of Martha's role in scripture, which goes some way towards explaining why I've heard folks say she's helped them with sibling issues in their family, like jealousy, or manipulative attention-grubbing, or rivalry.  I've also heard her called on by folks who are facing difficulties in managing their households because of strife or poverty; along with St. Joseph, she is a wonderful ally if you have a lot of mouths to feed and you are running short of money and resources to take care of them all.

st martha label test

My St. Martha formula is created from this sort of three-dimensional perspective of St. Martha rather than focusing only on her role as a dominator. While it's suitable to use if you're asking her help in getting the upper hand with a boss or returning a straying spouse, it's also suitable to use if you're setting lights to honor or thank her, if you want to invoke her aid for something specific, or if you're seeking her help for something more general like patience or pragmatism.

Even when the difficulty is internal rather than interpersonal, St. Martha can help. If, for instance, you need help accepting the fact that right now in your life, you have to be waiting tables if you want to be able to stay in this town and have a shot at an acting career down the road; if you're struggling with disappointment, envy, or resentment related to your current station in life; or if you need help accepting the things you cannot change while you're figuring out how to change the things you can, then St. Martha can be a great ally for you.


As of August 2020, it looks like most of the conjure-specific sources I had linked to originally are dead links now, and in one case I want to ask the person if it's still ok if I link to their blog as they've moved some things around. So I'll be updating this with more resources soon.


Notes and Sources

[1] You would not believe how long it takes to properly attribute all that shit you find unattributed on Pinterest.

[2] Selections from The Golden Legend in the Caxton translation, edited by Paul Halsall with annotations, rubrics, and formatting by Richard Stracke. Christian Iconography, accessed 3 Aug 2020.

[3] Martha Daas, "From Holy Hostess to Dragon Tamer: The Anomaly of Saint Martha," Literature and Theology, Vol. 22, Issue 1 (2008), pp. 1-15.

Featured image is derived from Jacques de Voraigne, Legende Doree, BNF Francais 242, f. 154r. Public domain.

 


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