Maxentius planned to torture Catherine on a spiked wheel, but when she was placed on it, the wheel flew into pieces.
  • Maxentius planned to torture Catherine on a spiked wheel, but when she was placed on it, the wheel flew into pieces.
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Dear Matthew Alice: Who or what is “Catherine Wheel”? I know there’s an English musical group by that name, and I’ve seen a pub in England named Catherine Wheel. Please enlighten me. — Michelle S., Chula Vista

The stunning Ms. Wheel, her sister Pin, and brother Fly are the children of Mag and Hamster Wheel, the famous Michigan industrialists. The Detroit Wheels. You must have heard of them.

Sorry. Don’t know what came over me. Let’s try this one again. A Catherine wheel is a type of fireworks — a huge pole-mounted spoke-and-rim affair that spins by means of “jet propulsion” from fireworks charges in tubes set around the circumference. European versions of Catherine wheels can be very intricate, with concentric circles of different colors. The general effect is of spinning multicolored showers of sparks. The “Catherine” for whom the wheel is named is St. Catherine of Alexandria, said to have been a fourth-century Christian evangelist. Her martyrdom came at the hands of the Roman emperor Maxentius, after she called him a bully and then deftly outargued him and a brigade of court philosophers in a big debate over religion. Sore loser that he was, Maxentius planned to torture Catherine on a spiked wheel, but when she was placed on it, the wheel flew into pieces (hence the fireworks connection), taking out a few Roman guards in the process. Her subsequent beheading seemed to do the trick, however. At the same time, the emperor offed his entire staff of philosophers for malpractice. (There is no proof that Catherine actually existed or that such events ever took place.)

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