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Confronting the dragon

Marina’s fight against evil reveals that in the hagiographic tradition women and men are equal

Marina, in Greek Pelagia, in the Latin versions of the passio becomes Margherita and she is celebrated with this appellation on July 20. Received manuscripts date the devotion back to the ninth century, but its origins are older. Margarita, the pearl, is a symbol of humility due to its small size: in the Greek text, Marina refers the attribute "pearl" to herself to indicate her chastity, her soul, her virtue, meanings that can justify its transformation into her own name. The Latin versions in fact insist on the moral qualities of the saint, blending the original emphasis placed instead on the wisdom with which Marina comes to the knowledge of the truth, including that secret one on the origin of the forces of evil.

Her life seems like a fairy tale: a beautiful daughter of a pagan man but converted to Christianity by her nurse, she is sought in marriage by the powerful governor of the province. But the girl has already chosen to belong to God alone and rejects the suitor, going courageously to meet her martyrdom.

Locked in a secret prison, alone, she prays to God to show her the real enemy against which she must fight and, behold, in a dark corner a horrible dragon appears that grabs and swallows her. Stretching out her hands in the sign of the cross, Marina causes an explosion in the monster’s belly from which she comes out leaving him dead on the ground.

The martyr, like the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12), the new Eve, fulfils the promise of Genesis. From the left hand corner of the prison another demon appears to her in the form of a black man accused of having killed his brother Rufus, the dragon, sent to kill her, and to want to kill him as well with the evil spell of his prayer. The saint grabs hold of him by the hair, throws him to the ground, treading on his head with her foot, and prays. A sudden and immense light pervades the prison, while a cross stands out from the sky right down to Marina. On the cross, a dove announces to the martyr that the crown of victory and heaven have been prepared for her, straight after she has defeated the devil.

The victory soon arrives: after having bound and questioned him about his origin and his name, Marina leaves the devil in prison. On the day of her martyrdom, having been stripped, the executioners burn her body with lighted lamps, then try to drown her. Marina prays to the Lord to transform the instruments of torture into the light of salvation and the water of baptism: an earthquake accompanies the descent of a dove with a wreath in its beak, the ropes break and Marina emerges unscathed from the water. Led outside the city, after saying goodbye to her brothers and sisters, she is beheaded while uttering a last prayer. A part of the tradition relates the conversion of the executioner and his pardon by Marina, in perfect imitation of Christ. From this fantastic episode the popular cult of Marina develops as the protector of pregnant women: future mothers, in fact, to avoid the dangers of childbirth, place a book of the life of Marina on their pregnant belly, or better yet, if possible, one of "belts" of the saint preserved in France. A completely female devotion, therefore, in line with the hagiographic tradition in which, as in other passiones , in holiness the gender disparity is cancelled and in the struggle with evil, men and women become perfectly interchangeable.

The meeting with the devil, a real battle with evil, has ensured for this passio an amazing destiny, both literary and iconographic, where Marina is portrayed at the moment in which a monstrous dragon swallows her, for her to then escape unscathed.

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