Almost everyone who visits Paris has heard of Montmartre, but few know that the butte is such a storied place. So many fantastic events, many gruesome, have taken place on it for so long, since the dawn of time, that most tourists have no clue of its amazing history. Not many visitors even know that its name translates as the mountain of the martyr. Moreover, there are many candidates for the title, so who, exactly, is the martyr? It cannot all be explained in a few words, and this is the first of several posts on Montmartre, dealing with events that occurred in prehistory and antiquity.
It is, of course, the highest point in Paris, reaching a peak of 131 meters at its Calvary Cemetery. Celts believed the butte possesses mystical powers and they considered it to be a sacred place. Led by their Druids, they erected megaliths on it. Later the Romans constructed more, including temples to two of their gods, Mars and Mercury.
But it was the first bishop of Paris, who really put the butte on the map, circa 258 AD. An evangelist sent from Rome, his name was Denis, also known as Denys and sometimes referred to as Dionysius, causing confusion for many. The proselytizer urged Lutètians (it was Lutèce at that time, not Paris) to pledge their allegiance to a power far greater than any civil authority, which the Roman administration took to be an incitement to rebellion against their authority.
Denis after a Roman lesson
Denis was warned to stop stirring trouble in the population. When he ignored their instruction, they provided him a Roman lesson. It is believed to have been administered at what is now number 9, rue Yvonne le Tac, in the form of his beheading. At this point the legend becomes interesting, as the hapless body of Denis is reported to have picked up his severed head, and proceeded to walk up the butte. When Denis arrived at what is now the Girardon cul de sac, a geyser of water is said to have erupted, in which he washed his bloody head. He then set out down the north slope of the butte, walking north on the St. Denis plain. At a spot that is six kilometres from where he was decapitated, Denis allegedly collapsed, and was buried at the spot where the St. Denis Basilica now stands.
Denis was canonized by the Catholic Church, and became known as St. Denis. Pilgrims began to visit the site of his martyrdom, and performed a pilgrimage that was a variation of self-flagellation. Falling on their knees at the site of the beheading, they climbed the butte on their knees to reach the Girardon cul de sac. By the time they arrived, their knees were a bloody mess. This raised the question: does the martyr in Montmartre refer to Denis or to the knees?
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