St. Colman and His Ducks

22 January 19 | Posted in Animals, Arts and Letters, Saints

There are seven St. Colmans from Ireland.  St. Colman of the ducks legend came from Connacht.  He served at the old church of Templeshanbo in County Wexford, three miles east of Mt. Leinster.  A few hundred feet from the church is a holy well that was venerated in ancient times.  At the time of St. Colman, a pond was close to the well.  St. Colman was a contemporary of St. Aidan, who appointed him Abbot of Templeshanbo.  St. Colman died on October 27, 595.  His ducks stayed close to the church and pond for many, many years after.  

Gerald of Wales in his Topography of Ireland recorded the stories of St. Colman and his sacred teals almost 600 years after the death of the saint. According to folklore, the ducks could not be harmed.  Illustrations on the lower part of Gerald’s manuscript depict the ducks taking food from the saint, a kite paralyzed by attempting to take a duck as prey and a fox choking on one of the birds.

Gerald of Wales, also called Giraldus Cambrensis was born in 1146.  He was an archdeacon, royal clerk and historian. Gerald entered into the service of King Henry II of England in July 1184.  He visited Ireland on a military expedition (1185-86) with Henry’s son, the future King John.  As a result of the trip he wrote Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland) in 1188 and Expugnatio Hibernica (Conquest of Ireland) in 1189.  

The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, published in 1905, combined both volumes in one book.  It was translated by Thomas Forester, Sir  Richard Colt Hoare and edited by Thomas Wright. The story below is taken from the book.

                     CHAPTER XXIX – Of St. Colman’s Teal, Which Were Tamed by Him, And Cannot Be Injured

There is in Leinster a small pool frequented by the birds of St. Colman, a species of small ducks, vulgarly called teal. Since the time of the saint these birds have become so tame that they take food from the hand, and until the present day exhibit no signs of alarm when approached by men. They are always about thirteen in number, as if the formed the society of a convent. As often as any evil changes to befall the church or clergy, or the little birds themselves, or any molestation is offered to them, they directly fly away, and, betaking themselves to some lake far removed from thence, do not return to their former haunts until condign punishment has overtaken the offenders. Meanwhile, during their absence, the waters of the pond, which were very limpid and clear, became stinking and putrid, unfit for the use of either men or cattle. It has happened occasionally that some person fetching water from this pond in the night-time, has drawn up with it one of the birds, not purposely but by chance, and having cooked his meat in the water for a long time without being able to boil it, at last he found the bird swimming in the pot, quite unhurt; and having carried it back to the pond, his meat was boiled without further delay.  

It happened, also, in our time, that Robert Fitz-Stephen, with Dermot, king of Leinster, was passing through that country, an archer shot one of these birds with an arrow.  Carrying it with him to his quarters, he put it in a pot to be cooked with his meat, but after thrice supplying the fire with wood, and waiting til midnight, he did not succeed in making the pot boil, so that after taking out the meat for the third time, he found it as raw as when he first placed it in the pot. At last, his host observing the little bird among the pieces of meat, and hearing that it was taken out of this pond, exclaimed with tears: “Alas me, that ever such a misfortune should have befallen my house, and have happened in it!” Thereupon the meat being put alone into the pot, was cooked without further difficulty. The archer soon afterwards miserably expired.

Moreover, it chanced that a kite, having carried off one of these little birds, and perched with it in a neighbouring tree, behold, all of his limbs immediately stiffened in the sight of many persons, nor did the robber regard the prey which he held in his claws. It also happened that one frosty season a fox carried off one of these birds, and when the morning came, the beast was found in a little hut on the shore of the lake which was held in veneration from its having been formerly the resort of St. Colman, the bird being in the fox’s jaws, and having choked him.  In both cases the spoiler suffered the penalty of death, while his prey was unhurt, the birds returning to the lake without the slightest injury, under the protection of their holy patron.  

Read more –

Wonders of Ireland – St. Colman’s Ducks

My Albion – The Teal of St. Colman

St. Gobnait – Patron Saint of Bees and Beekeepers

11 November 18 | Posted in Animals, Garden, Saints

St. Gobnait is a patron saint of bees and beekeepers.  Her fondness for bees suggests a calm and gentle nature. Tradition associates her with St. Abban and suggests she lived during the 6th century.

Gobnait was born in County Clare, but fled to Inis Oirr (Inisheer) the smallest of the Aran Islands to escape a family feud. There an angel appeared to her and told her to continue her journey until she should come to a place where nine deer were grazing. The angel told her this would be the “place of her resurrection.”

She traveled south in search of this place and her many stops are marked by churches and holy wells dedicated to her.  At various stages of her journey Gobnait met with deer of varying numbers but it was only when she reached Ballyvourney in County Cork that she found the nine deer.  They were grazing together on a rise overlooking the River Sullane and looking towards the Derrynasaggart Hills.  This is where she settled, died and was buried “to await her resurrection.”  The “resurrection place” is where the soul leaves the body.  Celtic lore believed the soul left the body as a bee or butterfly.

St. Abban is said to have worked with her on the foundation of the convent and placed St. Gobnait over it as abbess.  The nuns must have kept bees, since there are many stories about bees associated with the saint.  In one story she cured one of her sick nuns using honey. Many accounts exist of how St. Gobnait prevented raiders or robbers from stealing cattle.  Gobnait commanded the bees from the convent hives to drive them away. When a plague threatened the people, Gobnait walked to the village border and drew a line in the earth with her walking stick.  The pestilence halted before reaching Ballyvourney.

The local chieftains, the O’Herlihys sought her help in a border war.  One of her hives into a bronze helmet and the bees turned into soldiers.  The O’Herlihys handed down the bronze helmet from one generation to another until it was lost in the 1700s.  Another version has the beehive turning into a bell which then became Gobnait’s Bell.

For more on St. Gobnait:  Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland and Pixie’s Pocket.

Porpoise Burial Mystery

27 February 18 | Posted in Animals, Events, Global Catholic, Spirituality

In September 2017 archaeologists were wrapping up an excavation on the English Channel island of Chapelle Dom Hue when they made an unexpected and mystifying discovery. The excavation revealed a carefully cut grave plot, which the archaeologists reasonably assumed would hold the remains of a deceased human. Instead, they found that the grave contained the bones of a juvenile porpoise.  

The grave, carefully cut into the rocky soil on a high point of the island overlooking the sea, was constructed with the same techniques used for human graves.

The discovery was made at the site of a medieval monastic site, which was once occupied by monks searching for solitude. The team believes the bones date to the 13th or 14th century.

Philip de Jersey, a States of Guernsey archaeologist, said: “If they had eaten it or killed it for the blubber, why take the trouble to bury it? It was entirely consistent with a human burial, which is one of the most puzzling aspects,” de Jersey added. “The grave cut has been dug very carefully, with vertical sides and a flat base cut into the underlying bedrock. This has taken some considerable care and effort.”

He said it was the most unusual find in his 35-year career. “It’s very peculiar, I don’t know what to make of it. Why go to the trouble of burying a porpoise in what looks like a grave. It’s a wonderful surprise.”

Perhaps the answer is obvious: a wild porpoise developed a bond with one or more of the monks. Someone may have started to feed it, or found it stranded and helped it back into the sea. Or, the porpoise and the man saw each other at a certain time of day in the same spot and a companionship developed.  When it died, or if it was killed, the porpoise was lovingly buried.  

See the excavation video.

 

St. Hilda and the Ammonites

3 August 14 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints

St. Hilda of Whitby or Hild of Whitby (c. 614-680 A.D.) was a Saxon abbess and a member of the ancient Northumbrian nobility. She is frequently depicted with a pastoral staff and carrying an abbey church.  There are often ammonites at her feet.  Saint Hilda2

The historian, St. Bede (who was about eight years old when she died), records she hosted the Synod of Whitby, at which Celtic and Roman Catholicism met to decide on liturgical matters in 664 A.D. She is an important person, and personality, in the history of the early development of Christianity in Britain.  St. Hilda, or “Mother” as she was affectionately known, was a source of encouragement and counsel for people from all walks of life.

Hilda was baptized at age 13 by St. Paulinus of York, who converted her great-uncle, St. Edwin, King of Northumbria and all of his court to the Christian faith. She lived the first half of her life as a noblewoman, but at the age of 33 she became a nun. Whitby Abbey was a double monastery housing both monks and nuns, and Hilda presided over both communities. Whitby Abbey became well-known as a place of learning.  For more on her life, especially her importance to women in the Church, read here.

St. Hilda is associated with several legends, especially turning snakes into stone.

Ammonites were frequently interpreted as being coiled snakes that had turned to stone and somehow lost their heads. They were often called snakestones. Most of the legends surrounding snakestones centered around Whitby. Sir Walter Scott recounts in his 1808 poem, Marmion, how snakestones came to be:

They told, how in their convent cell – A Saxon Princess once did dwell, The lovely Edelfled. And how, of thousand snakes, each one – Was changed into a coil of stone. When holy Hilda pray’d: Themselves, within their holy bound, Their stony folds had often found. They told, how sea-fowls’ pinions fail, as over Whitby’s towers they sail. And, sinking down, with flutterings faint, They do their homage to the saint.

The legend goes that she turned all the snakes to stone in Whitby in order to clear the ground for a new convent.  In response to her devout praying, the snakes coiled up, turned to stone, and fell off the edge of the cliffs after she cut off their heads with a whip. The absence of heads is also attributed to a curse by St. Cuthbert.  ammmonite 1

It has become a tradition in Whitby to carve snakeheads onto ammonites.  These snakestones, usually specimens of Hildoceras (named in honor of St. Hilda) and Dactylioceras are used for this purpose.  Some of the carved and polished specimens from Whitby were found in Norway, clearly traded or transported by Norse settlers.  In Elizabethan England snakestone brooches of jet were highly prized.

Hilda was succeeded as abbess by Eanflaed, widow of King Oswiu of Northumbria, and their daughter, Aelfflaed. St. Hilda and Eanflaed were cousins. All three were buried at Whitby Abbey with St. Hilda.

After the rule of Aelfflaed as abbess, nothing more is known of Whitby until it was destroyed by Vikings in 867.  After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 AD, monks from Evesham refounded the abbey as a Benedictine house for men.  It continued until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1539.

According to local folklore, the the wraith of St. Hilda appears in the abbey ruins in a shroud; and the bells of the abbey can be heard ringing under the sea, where they sank with the ship taking them to London after the abbey was dismantled.

The 2013 novel Hild by Nicola Griffith is based on the life of St. Hilda.  She also appears as a main character in Absolution for Murder, the first book in Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma mysteries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Emer and the Dragon

16 January 12 | Posted in Animals, Saints

There are different versions of everything in this story! St. Emer, Saint Emerius, Sant Emerio or Mer, was an 8th century abbott, Benedictine monk, and legendary founder of the monastery of San Esteban de Banyoles, Spain. Tradition places his birth at Narbonne, in southern France.  Although his father was a noble, Emerius renounced the prospect of a military career to live as a hermit, journeying to the Catalonia region of Spain.  Another version explains Emerius was called by Charlemagne to accompany him in his campaign against the Muslims in Girona–also called Gerona. Several wonders and miracles are attributed to Emer.  He wore some cloak, helmet or basket with a fish design, which was removed each day to feed the army of Charlemagne in its siege of Gerona.  There was always enough and never failed. But the fighting around Girona was not only against the Muslims, said chronicler Joan Amades, an eminent Catalan ethnologist and folklorist, “the Christian troops were fighting a fierce dragon and had its huge falls in the lake of Banyoles, this dragon possessed the property of flying, swimming and walking..”…his fetid breath had made life impossible for people and livestock in Selva, “and its strength was so great that the best of the French army” died by its claws or poisoned by its breath. Emerius, arming himself with holy water, led a procession to confront the beast. In one version, he sprinkled the dragon with holy water, easily capturing and destroying it.  In another version, he was sent alone to confront the monster. When Emer drew the sign of the cross on the dragon, it became tame.  Emer wrapped his stole around its neck, and led the dragon “like a gentle dog” to Charlemagne.  Santmer

 

There is another version that links the dragon to dinosaurs. “A story from the 8th century tells of a great beast which lives beside the lake. It is the last descendant of the prehistoric beast that lived in that region.  It lives in a deep cave and it is not good to disturb him. According to what people said, the beast had a voracious appetite and it devoured the peasants’ flocks.  They lived hidden at home protected by walls. In fact, every night one man disappeared from his house. One day, Charlemagne arrived there and, having heard about the beast, he decided to go kill it. When the soldiers arrived there, the dragon came out of its cave giving off its foul breath and they began to cough because of the toxic cloud that formed around them. After that, the peasants asked a monk to help.  He had arrived with Charlemagne’s troops, and was called “Mer” (Sant Emerio). The monk went into the dragon’s cave and began to pray, after that both the dragon and the monk appeared together at the mouth of the cave.  The peasants asked the monk to kill him. The monk stopped them and told them it was harmless and ate only grass and roots. And when they asked him about the disappeared people he told them the truth: the disappeared people were fighting with Charlemagne who stole all the flock. The big monster went back to its cave and even today, if somebody tries to disturb it, it will give off its foul breath against them.”