A Novel about Reincarnation and Restitution
Why the odd title, The Anathemas?
Given its name, it could be a novel about an eccentric family of exotic origin, but anathema is actually an ancient and provactive word used in English without translation.
Webster’s Dictionary cites it as derived from the Greek and meaning “a thing devoted to evil” although it previously signified “anything devoted” to a specific purpose. Immediately, we sense confusion here. The implication, however far-fetched, is that anyone or anything set apart in a special manner is somehow the servant of evil.
The Encyclopedia Britannica explores this turnabout in the word’s evolution. In the Old Testament, it explains, anathema designated a creature or object set apart for sacrificial offering. Its return to profane use was strictly banned, and such objects, destined for destruction, thus became effectively accursed as well as consecrated. Old Testament descriptions of religious wars call both the enemy and their besieged city anathema inasmuch as they were destined for destruction.
In New Testament usage a different meaning developed. St. Paul used the word anathema to signify a curse and the forced expulsion of one from the community of Christians. In AD 431 St. Cyril of Alexandria pronounced his 12 anathemas against the heretic Nestorius. In the 6th century anathema came to mean the severest form of excommunication that formally separated a heretic from the Christian church and condemned his doctrines.
Such reversals in the meanings of words are not unusual. Take the common word hot, which normally means something too warm to be bearable, but when the current generation says, “She’s hot,” hot means “extremely desirable.”
As the priest DuPont explains to the protagonist in the novel: “Beware of words, my friend. Over time, meanings change. In this case, the meaning reverses. Anathema, which now connotes the solemn condemnation of a person or thing as damned or cursed, originally meant an equally solemn dedication or setting aside of a person or thing as sacred, even divine.” (The Anathemas, p. 310)
The paradox inherent in the word anathema and the related practice of placing certain ideas out-of-bounds, a powerful form of mind-control, is at the heart of this novel. Thus, the title. It is not coincidence that it begins with the line: “It was as if there were a curse on him.”
Is it possible that centuries ago we were robbed, personally and collectively, of our true history, our immortal heritage, and then force-fed a myth about a rigid and unforgiving spiritual destiny that enslaved us to the robbers? Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return!
The Emperor Justinian depicted in a mosaic in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
The History: Reincarnation
In 553 AD, Justinian I, the self-righteous ruler of the eastern half of the decaying Roman Empire, held Pope Vigilius prisoner until the church leader agreed to sign The Anathemas of the Council of Constantinople, previously convened by the emperor. Thus, with the stroke of the papal pen, anyone who believed in the ancient doctrine that souls existed before the present body’s birth or reincarnated after its death were excommunicated from the church, subject to persecution and eternally damned. This little-known power play between church and state served to prejudice the western world against the possibility of reincarnation right up to the present.
More than 25 years before, Justinian had married Theodora, a commoner and courtesan about 20 years his junior. When he became emperor in 527, he made Theodora empress and co-ruler. The marriage and elevation caused a scandal, but Theodora proved to be a potent leader in her own right as well as Justinian’s greatest supporter. She died in 548, perhaps of cancer, at a relatively young age, leaving the rudderless emperor to rule on his own for the remaining twenty years of his long life.
As if to assuage his grief, the emperor took to theology, usurping the rightful role of the clergy in deciding doctrine and proscribing heretics. Believers in reincarnation were just one group that felt his wrath.
Witnessing the triumphs and tragedies of the reign of Justinian and Theodora was the official court historian Procopius. While his public works are extravagant in their praise of his patrons, he also authored The Secret History, in which Justinian is cast as cruel and incompetent and Theodora, formerly a prostitute of insatiable lust, is shrewish, mean-spirited and manipulative as empress. It is to Procopius that we owe history’s ambivalent judgment of this imperial couple.
The Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. Sixth century mosaic.
The Story: Restitution
In 1879, Richard Strawn, a Civil War medic disowned by his fellow Quakers, has to come to terms with his daughter Jennifer’s conviction that she was once a fabulous queen and he a king, or concur with his wife, Lucinda, that the girl is hopelessly insane.
Burying his head by day in work and at night at the pubs, he delays the decision, betting that time will either cure Jennifer’s fantasies or soften Lucinda’s intransigence. Then, just when a truce appears to be holding between mother and daughter, nightmarish events erupt. A fire destroys the Philadelphia business Richard manages, and he is accused of arson. He escapes town, drunk and despondent, only to be pursued by a dream in which he is indeed a king, but a cowardly one about to capitulate to a revolting faction.
Lucinda takes advantage of his absence to have Jennifer committed to an asylum. With luck, which materializes as randomly as misfortune, Richard rescues the girl. While recovering, she too has the dream about the revolt, but she, the queen, boldly confronts the rebels and saves their realm. This baffling coincidence eventually leads them to the irresolute 6th-century Byzantine emperor, Justinian, and his profligate empress, Theodora. Compelled by inescapable fascination, father and daughter—sometimes in tandem, sometimes in opposition—set out to discover what binds them to this long-dead royal couple.
But Lucinda, like the black magician who successfully foiled the two in the earlier existence, is never far behind. She is determined to prove that history indeed repeats itself, and there is nothing they can do to stop it.
Meticulously researched in disciplines both outer (academic research, on-site observation)and inner, (meditation, daily journalling adding up to thousands of pages), The Anathemas is founded in history, notably Procopius’s Secret History and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But it is a story first and foremost—a mystery with generous dollops of grotesque Gothic and romantic “magical realism,” a dynamic roller coaster ride that hurls the reader through the action. One enthusiast said it was unlike any novel she’d ever read, a new genre of literature. Another declared it “life changing”.
I am convinced THE ANATHEMAS should be on the shelves next to Dan Brown. The characters morphed into family members in my dreams at night and invaded my thoughts during the day. Now that’s a good book!
I got engrossed in the book…and lost my weekend! I am assuming you imbedded the facts you found when researching into the story accurately. I mean to say, I can use it as a sort of history lesson? In that case, I learned quite a bit. Interesting and thought-provoking.
Your text is not only erudite but exceedingly engaging. I usually only have time to pleasure read in the evening before lights out and I must say you have made me resist sleep with your text.
S.B., Quebec, Canada
Vic Smith’s Anathemas is a historically rich and detailed romp into the ancient past that should give history buffs–especially those who have a penchant for ancient Roman and Byzantine history–much to chew on… an excellent and fast-moving story that should keep the reader turning the pages well into the night.
J. D., Colorado