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Olivia’s superpowers

· ​The saint of the month ·

Statue in Palermo Cathedral

Olivia was born in Palermo in 448 to Christian parents belonging to a noble family. She was an extremely beautiful girl. Endowed with strength, quickness, sensory capacities and super-human resistance, she was characterized by a complete lack of fear and by profound faith in the Lord. Because of her gifts, this daughter of prominent citizens was used somewhat unscrupulously by senior figures in the Government of Palermo as a weapon against Genseric’s Vandals who in 454 conquered Sicily and occupied Palermo, bringing martyrdom to Christians. When she was still a little girl and with her parents’ approval, Olivia was sent on mission and while her young friends spent their time playing at searching for husbands, she was involved in the search for increasingly sophisticated weapons and practised every day in competitions of speed with the sturdiest Palermitan men. Anyone might think that Olivia’s service to the community would have brought her honours and respect but this was not the case. In those times and in that male world it did not pay to be a girl who did not conform and who gave little consideration to winning the favours of the opposite sex. Olivia spoke to animals – she was gifted in languages – and had a predilection for wolves. Thus, understandably, she was labelled as “different” from the rest of the community. Instead of being proud, her own family was almost ashamed of her and when they heard her code-switching, according to whether she was talking to the members of her family or to the hens in the courtyard, they would lower their eyes and pretend not to know her. For this reason she lacked her family’s support and her struggle against the Vandals was a solitary one. Despite her initial successes (she once came home with the scalps of three Vandals hanging from her golden belt), unfortunately one day Olivia was captured. Indomitable, far from losing heart she supported and encouraged her Christian companions, fellow-prisoners of the Vandals. She withstood all advances, whether they were made by the Vandals or by her companions in the faith, and spent her days in prayer. Her family by this time considered her lost and did not attempt to save her. How ungrateful they were! Genseric on the contrary did come to her rescue. He was moved by her strong spirit and instead of torturing her decided to set her free, trusting that it would not be difficult to keep under control a little girl who was then only 13 years old. On her release from prison and having mourned her mother’s death, which deeply distressed her although she had received little affection from her, Olivia joined a community of stray orphans, a sort of shabby band of lost children who, continuously harassed by both Palermitans and Vandals, found in faith alone a support for their wretched existence. The arrival of Olivia in their small community changed their lives: the lost children, mostly little girls, formed a vigilant group closely gathered round their new leader whom they began to call “saint”. The group always went out together to patrol the city. Olivia’s life changed too. She was no longer a solitary avenger but was the centre of a group of adoring children who asked nothing more than to work with her.

Once again the city showed scant gratitude to Olivia and her band, but was nonetheless hypocritically glad that the Vandals had been held at bay by this group of courageous outsiders. Having by then lost his patience with the rebellious girl’s actions, after many unsuccessful endeavours Genseric managed once again to have her captured by his men. Still feeling tenderness for this little girl, perhaps attracted by her but basically a gentleman, he decided to send her to Tunis: he knew that Amira, the governor of that city, a man with a very firm hand, would be able to sway her and to convert her to paganism. In any case, it was important to deprive the lost children of their leader.

In Tunis although Olivia was once again alone, she now felt not only super-powerful but, by a phenomenon which today psychiatrists would call inflation of the ego, also that the nickname of “saint” given to her by the lost children might not have been an exaggeration. To Amira’s consternation, Olivia began to convert pagans to Christianity and to work miracles, although scholars have not come to an agreement as to how many miracles she managed to perform: according to one American scholar, Professor Isabel Archer from the University of Wisconsin, they numbered at least 36, including the resurrection of Amira’s dead dog. According to the research group led by the Oxford scholar Dr John Knightley, PhD, her miracles amounted to no more than 12. In any case, although Amira was very happy to embrace his dog once again, he sent her to a desert place swarming with lions, snakes and dragons, so that they might devour her or at least, if this proved impossible, so that she would die of hunger there.

The cover of Jaqueline Carey’s book on the young saint

We now know that Olivia’s life was marked by the ingratitude of those who should have been grateful to her. Nonetheless, we are struck by the ingenuity of Amira who was not Genseric’s equal in intelligence. In fact Olivia lived rather well during her stay in the desert, nourishing herself precisely on the abundant fauna of lions, snakes and dragons. Amira, exasperated, sent an army to capture her once again. Since immersion in boiling oil caused her no harm in 463 he decided to have her beheaded. Olivia was 15 years old. Her head was carried during a banquet in a basket of mangos and bananas. Amira was pleased by this but was too drunk to be properly aware of the event and her head was left forgotten in a corner until the following day when they found the puppy asleep beside it.

This sad epilogue should not be a cause of grief to us because holiness does even more good after death. The cult of the saint is very much alive in both Tunisia and Sicily and she comforts and reinvigorates the faith of all who feel little appreciated in the place where they were born or by the people who in theory ought to support them. If you come across outcast people who love you, the saint tells us, join them, they are your family.

Her body has not been found and, in Tunis, as people know all too well, it is better like this. However, we know for certain, because it has been passed down to us in the diary of one of the lost children, that it lies in a deep well of fresh water.

Olivia’s story interweaves episodes of the saint’s life with fictitious particulars and details inspired by the fantasy fairy-tale Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey.

Irene Ranzato

Irene Ranzato

Irene Ranzato, who has a PhD in Translation Studies, is a researcher in language and English translation at the University of La Sapienza, Rome. Her interests are in audio-visual translation and intersemiotic translation. Her most recent monograph, Translating Culture Specific References on Television: The Case of Dubbing (Routledge 2016), is on the translation of cultural references in television dialogue. 




St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 20, 2019