ulysses joyce heretics blasphemy

Decoding Dedalus: Heresies in “Telemachus”

This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a paragraph of Ulysses and give it the ol’ Frank Delaney treatment – that is, break it down line by line. As an aside, if you haven’t listened to Frank Delaney’s excellent podcast, Re:Joyce, go treat yourself. His page by page analysis of Ulysses is informative and charming. I’m not going to analyse every line, (sorry!) but some passages require a more in-depth treatment than others.

The passage below comes from “Telemachus,” the first episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 20-21 in my copy (1990 Vintage International).


To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.

The proud potent titles clanged over Stephen’s memory the triumph of their brazen bells: et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam: the slow growth and change of rite and dogma like his own rare thoughts, a chemistry of stars.

Let’s start with the most intimidating bit here, the Latin. This phrase translates to “and one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Stephen quotes this phrase in English a few lines before as an explanation for his Italian master – the Catholic church headquartered in Rome. These lines are the “proud potent titles clanging over Stephen’s memory” as they are words every Catholic memorizes as a child. They come from a prayer called the Nicene Creed that lays out the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism and is recited during the Mass.

The First Council of Nicaea, by Vasily Surikov

The Nicene Creed takes its name from the First Council of Nicaea, which was held in 325 in what is now Turkey. The council was called because after the death of Christ, there was no consensus on important theological questions, most importantly for our purposes here, the exact nature of the relationship between Jesus Christ and God. The Council of Nicaea standardized the beliefs of the church, as enumerated in the Nicene Creed. Once a standard for “correct” is agreed upon, however, that also means “incorrect” is more clearly defined. In Church terms, this means heresy (we’ll get to that in a moment).

Stephen considers “the slow growth and change of rite and dogma like his own rare thoughts.” Just as the early Christian church slowly grew and changed in its first centuries, so have Stephen’s beliefs of religion slowly evolved over time. Haines has made some assumptions in the preceding dialogue about Stephen’s religion, or lack thereof, and now he reflects on how his own views have changed.

Symbol of the apostles in the mass for pope Marcellus, the voices blended, singing alone loud in affirmation: and behind their chant the vigilant angel of the church militant disarmed and menaced her heresiarchs.

“The Symbol of the Apostles” is an alternate title for the Apostles’ Creed, another prayer that states basic Roman Catholic beliefs, though it is older than the Nicene Creed.

The Mass for Pope Marcellus is music composed by 16th century Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Legend has it that in 1562, the Council of Trent wanted to ban all polyphonic music, reminiscent of John Lithgow banning dancing in the movie Footloose. Palestrina composed the music for a Mass in honor of Pope Marcellus II and persuaded the Council to change its mind. Joyce was moved by Palestrina’s music and had performed it himself. Frank Budgen quotes him as saying, “In writing the ‘Mass for Pope Marcellus,’ … Palestrina did more than surpass himself as a musician. With great effort, consciously made, he saved music for the Church.”

As Stephen considers his own slowly evolving thoughts on religion, music could be one element keeping him attached to his Catholic identity. Palestrina saved music for the Church and also kept Stephen/Joyce intertwined in its beliefs and practices, even while he was pulling away intellectually.

The “vigilant angel” disarming and menacing the heresiarchs is St. Michael the Archangel. A “heresiarch” is an arch heretic, that is someone who speaks against the orthodox teaching of the Church.

A horde of heresies fleeing with mitres awry: Photius and the brood of mockers of whom Mulligan was one, and Arius, warring his life long upon the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, and Valentine, spurning Christ’s terrene body, and the subtle African heresiarch Sabellius who held that the Father was Himself His own Son.

Many mitred men

A mitre is a pointed hat worn by a bishop. Here you can imagine St. Michael descending on the heretics and chasing them away, their fancy hats tumbling to the ground in the scramble. Before we talk about the four heretics mentioned by name, it’s a good idea to define the Trinity. The Roman Church believes that there is only one God, but that He is made of three consubstantial parts (that is, belonging to the same body) – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are simultaneously one entity and three entities.


Okay, here come the heretics! (with a little Buck Mulligan thrown in for flavor)

Photius was the bishop of Constantinople in the 9th century. He came into conflict with the Roman church over various issues, including the nature of the Trinity. The conflict was so great that it lead to a schism in the church that exists until today – the separation of the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Mulligan is mentioned in this line, not only as a blasphemous mock on par with Photius, but also as a nod of the coming “schism” between Stephen and Mulligan since Stephen plans to not return to the tower that night.

Saint Nicholas of Myra slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea

Arius was an Egyptian bishop living in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He said that God the Father had preceded God the Son, so therefore the Father was superior to the Son, in opposition to official doctrine, which held that all three elements of the Trinity were equal.

Valentine lived in the the 2nd century and believed Christ was only a spirit and never took the form of a man (a terrene, or earthbound, body). Needless to say, this did not go over well.

Sabellius’ heresy was indeed subtle. He believed that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all names for a single entity, but are not separate entities unto themselves. Official doctrine holds that they are both separate and consubstantial. This is the sort of fight bishops have. The language used here – “the Father was Himself His own Son” – mirrors the style of Stephen’s Hamlet theory that he explains in “Scylla and Charybdis.”

The main thing you, the reader, should take away from all this is that each of these heresies deals with the nature of Father and Son in the Holy Trinity. Father and son relationships recur throughout Ulysses, here represented in allusions to the divine Father and Son. This section also feeds into one of Stephen’s many grievances with Buck Mulligan, which is…

Words Mulligan had spoken a moment since in mockery to the stranger. Idle mockery.

Mulligan spoke ill of their religion in front of the Englishman Haines. Stephen may have rejected the Church, even to the point of refusing to pray beside his mother’s deathbed, but it wasn’t right to mock it in front of the oppressor.

The void awaits surely all them that weave the wind: a menace, a disarming and a worsting from those embattled angels of the church, Michael’s host, who defend her ever in the hour of conflict with their lances and their shields.

The void, hell and eternal damnation, is waiting for these heretics, and the Archangel Michael will make sure they get their just desserts.

Frank Delaney, in episode 50 of his podcast, has an odd little conspiracy theory involving T.S. Eliot about the line “weave the wind.” You should listen to his podcast if you’d like the know the details, since he explains it better than me.

Hear, hear. Prolonged applause. Zut! Nom de Dieu!

Stephen pats himself on the back. Oh, Stephen.


Further Reading (and Listening):

Delaney, F. (2011, May 10). Episode 48: Creeds Not Deeds. Re:Joyce [Audio podcast].

Delaney, F. (2011, May 17). Episode 49: Holy Heresy. Re:Joyce [Audio podcast].

Delaney, F. (2011, May 24). Episode 50: Weaving the Wind. Re:Joyce [Audio podcast].

Lang, F. (1993). Ulysses and the Irish God. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=6QCulpmdz6wC&pg=PA111&lpg=PA111&dq=joyce+on+mass+for+pope+marcellus&source=bl&ots=v-SBCVX84a&sig=5BSecDhNK_P6RIYl65dVHGfLLeo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj75YrKoKfdAhWBI3wKHT2HBTgQ6AEwDXoECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=joyce%20on%20mass%20for%20pope%20marcellus&f=false


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