Today, November 1, is All Saints' Day in Western Christendom. In Eastern Christianity, All Saints' Day falls on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Tomorrow is All Souls' Day, which is considered a Holy Day of Obligation in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.
All Saints' Day commemorates all those who have achieved sainthood. Originally, the Feast of All Saints was celebrated on May 13, which was also the culmination of the pagan celebration of Lemuria, in which people exorcised evil spirits from their homes. Several Medieval scholars believed the two rites to be connected and it should be noted that Samhain, which falls around the same time as All Saints' Day has a theme quite similar to Lemuria's. It was Pope Gregory III who moved All Saints' Day to November 1.
For All Saints' Day, here is a painting of the Martyrdom of Saint Agnes painted by Juan Vincente Massip in the 1540s.
Saint Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility martyred under Diocletian in 304 A.D. The Prefect Sempronius wanted Agnes to marry his son and, when she refused, he condemned her to death. Roman law did not allow for the execution of virgins, so Sempronius had her paraded naked through the streets to a brothel to be raped. According to the story, hair miraculously covered her body and all who looked upon her were struck blind, preventing her from being raped. Enraged, Sempronius had Agnes beheaded.
This is all shown in the painting quite well. Around Saint Agnes is a heap of sticks that are barely burning- according to the story, the soldiers were unable to light the faggot when they attempted to burn her. She is holding a lamb; the Latin word for lamb is "agnus" and Saint Agnes is often shown holding a lamb.
Saint Agnes is the saint of chastity, girls, engaged couples, gardening, and rape victims. Her day is celebrated on 21 January.
For me, I suppose I've never had a difficult time believing in martyrs. It's fairly easy to understand why believers are moved by those who give their life for their creed. And, actually, I think we've all known people who "would give you the shirt off their own back", as the cliche goes. There are still plenty of people who go to remarkable lengths to help others, with little thought as to their own safety. I suspect that creed really has little to do with it- I think there are people who would go to self-sacrificing lengths no matter the beliefs behind it. Actually, most cultures have had some sort of self-sacrificing hero figure.
To be honest, I always had a harder time believing in evil; not so much in evil deeds or people who are colored by those deeds- there are certainly also plenty of examples of that throughout history! But the idea of a metaphysical force of evil, usually called Satan, tempting us to do evil, just seems too distant from my own experience to believe. I think there are, of course, people who are... let's say self-sacrificing heroes of evil. But, it's hard to believe that suicide bombers or school shooters, to use the obvious examples, are responding to any malevolent force in the universe; but instead I'd say they're just psychopaths.
Anyway, the good news is that healthy cultures seem to produce a lot more people who care for others in a self-sacrificing way than those who go about sacrificing others along with themselves. The balance is still tipped in the direction of martyrs thankfully.