St. Melangell, Hares and the Origin of the Easter Bunny

17 December 19 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints, Supernatural

St. Melangell (pronounced “Mel-eng-eth”) is the patron saint of hares and rabbits.  They are sometimes called St. Melangell’s lambs.

According to Welsh legend, Melangell was the daughter of King Cyfwich Addwyn, who is mentioned in the Tales of Culhwch and Olwen as a member of King Arthur’s court.  King Cyfwich Addwyn was said to be related to St. Helen of Caernarvon, the famous Elen Luyddog (Helen of the Hosts) who married the Roman general, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig) the 4th century emperor in Britain, Gaul and Spain. Elen’s story is told in The Dream of Macsen Wledig, one of the tales associated with the Welsh epic, Mabinogion.

In most accounts Melangell is described as the daughter of an Irish king who fled from her father’s court to avoid marriage. Around 590 A.D., she arrived at the valley of the river Tanat, at the foot of the Berwyn mountains in Powys, Wales. 

In 604 A.D. the prince of Powys, Brochwel Ysgithrog, went hunting close to where Melangell lived and prayed. His hounds pursued their prey into a thicket, where he found a young woman with a hare lying under the fold of her garments. She boldly faced the hunting dogs and they retreated. The prince gave up the chase and sat down to listen to Melangell’s story. She told him she was a hermitess who lived nearby and had dedicated herself to God.  The prince and his huntsmen were the first men she had seen in 15 years.

So moved was the prince that he offered her the valley where she lived as a perpetual asylum and refuge for animals, and anyone who was fleeing harm.  Melangell lived there the rest of her life, eventually attracting a small community of women for whom she served as abbess.  A church was eventually built in the spot where she lived and it remained a place of sanctuary throughout the Middle Ages.  The killing of hares and rabbits has long been forbidden in the region, because people believe they are sacred animals under the protection of St. Melangell.  People in the parish still honor this custom. 

The association of religious female figures and hares is legendary and predates Melangell by several centuries. When the Romans invaded the British Isles, Julius Caesar saw that Celtic people did not regard it lawful to kill and eat the hare.  In Ireland the hare was associated with women who could shapeshift into their form, so eating them was taboo.  There is a legend that the God and warrior, Oisin, hunted a hare, wounding it in the leg.  He followed the wounded animal into a thicket, where he found a door leading down into the ground. He went in and came to a large hall where he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a leg wound.

Boudicca, the British warrior queen, was said to have prayed to a hare goddess before going into battle with the Romans and released a hare from beneath her gown to divine the outcome of the battle from the hare’s movements.  She also took a hare with her into battle to ensure victory and it was said to have screamed like a woman from beneath her cloak.

Boudicca probably prayed to Eostre, the Celtic version of the Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ostara.  Ostara gave her name to the celebration of Easter.  She was associated with the seasonal change from winter to spring.  Ostara was a shapeshifter who took the form of a hare at each full moon. All hares were sacred to her and acted as messengers. 

Eostre/Ostara is mentioned by Saint Bede in his treatise, The Reckoning of Time, written around 725 A.D.  Bede states that during the time period equivalent to April, Anglo-Saxons held feasts in Eostre’s honor.  The tradition had died out by his time, replaced by the Christian Paschal month, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

In his 1892 study on the hare in custom and mythology, folklorist Charles J. Billson cited numerous incidents of folk customs in northern Europe involving hares around the Easter season. Billson said, “whether there was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon and British worship, there are good grounds for believing the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island.”

The story of St. Melangell is a blend of local history, custom, folklore and pre-Christian goddesses and practices. Was Melangell created to legitimatize these beliefs, or is she another in a long line of spiritually powerful women with a hare as her symbol and companion?

St. Bega and Her Holy Arm Ring

16 April 19 | Posted in Saints, Supernatural

St. Bega is an ancient Irish saint whose life is steeped in legend and mystery.  She lived between 700-900 A.D., probably closer to 850 AD and the time of Viking settlement in Ireland.  Bega was the daughter of an Irish king.  She is described as beautiful, virtuous and learned.  Her father had promised her to the son of the King of Norway, but Bega had no intention of marrying.  She consecrated her virginity to Christ.  According to one story, an angel presented Bega with an arm ring inscribed with the cross as a token of her sacred promise.  Arm rings were usually worn by men, not women.

On the night of her wedding Bega was desperate to escape.  All the doors in the palace were locked, and the strongest men of Ireland standing guard, “each with a dagger over his thigh, a double-edged axe over his shoulder and a spear in his hand.” (Very phallic symbols!) After a lengthy invocation by Bega, a holy voice directs her out of the palace while everyone else is drunk at a feast. All of the locks yield at the touch of the holy arm ring, and a boat is waiting for her at the shore.  In another account, Bega is transported across the Irish Sea by a clod of soil.  She arrives safely on the English coast at Cumbria. Settling there, Bega lived in strict seclusion in a hut she built in a grove of trees near the seashore.  She survived on food brought to her by seagulls and gannets.

After some years passed Viking pirates began to raid the coast.  Fearing rape and the loss of her virginity, Bega left her hermitage and traveled inland.  On the advice of King Oswald (later St. Oswald), she professed her religious vows, and established a monastery at St. Bees in Cumbria. 

What became of her magical arm ring?  In one story she leaves her arm ring behind as a future source of miracles. In another her arm ring was preserved as a holy relic at St. Bees.  St. Bega is credited with restoring the sight of a blind Irish boy; gifting a Galloway horse thief with an ass full of arrows, and killing by a disfiguring disease a detachment of soldiers who raped a nobleman’s virgin daughter.

The Registry of St. Bees’ Priory records the swearing of oaths on the “Bracelet of St. Bega” through 1279, and offerings to the arm ring were made as late as 1516.

The arm ring may have disappeared during King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s; or, it may have been looted by the Scottish knight, Lord James Douglas during a raid in 1315.

Read more about St. Bega on these sites:

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore

St. Bees Village Website

St. Bega – Cumbria and Borders

Baldy Blog – St. Bees Priory

 

Saint Natalis and the Werewolves

2 April 19 | Posted in Animals, Supernatural

Saint Natalis of Ulster (also spelled Naile, Naul, Naal) died in 563 or 564 A.D. He was a monk, abbot and contemporary of Saint Columcille.   Natalis was a student of Columcille (Columba). and founded monasteries throughout Ulster, serving as abbot at St. Naul’s Abbey, Inver,  Kinawley (Cill Naile), Inver Naile at Raphoe, County Donegal; and Devenish Island, County Fermanagh.  The handle of a bell given to him by Saint Columcille was preserved at the church in Kinawley up to the 19th century. 

Saint Natalis appears in the Martyrology of  Donegal (Calendar of Saints) written and compiled by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh around 1630. In the chronicle the stories about St. Natalis allude to his temper.  Frustrated and thirsty, he flung his crozier at a rock pile.  Miraculously, a stream of pure spring water began to flow.  The spot became known as Cill Naile.  The saint was was a dangerous man to cross. He cursed his enemies and people who opposed him.  “I curse that Murchad with his descendants; defect of carving on his carving, and on himself, and on his families after him.”

According to legend, St. Natalis placed a curse on a clan which transformed their members into werewolves.  Here is the tale:

An unnamed priest was traveling from Ulster to Meath on an important mission with his assistant, a young boy. The two stopped for the night near woods at the edge of the See of Ossory. As they lay down to sleep, the priest hears a human voice calling from the nearby forest. He gets up and looking out into the darkness and sees a giant wolf draw near.  The priest and boy draw back in horror, but the wolf speaks in a human voice and tells them not to be afraid.“We are natives of Ossory,” the wolf said, “From there every seven years, because of the imprecation of a certain saint, namely the Abbot Natalis, two persons, a man and a woman, are compelled to go into exile not only from their territory but also from their bodily shape.” “But how came you by this fearsome form?” the priest asked in wonder. “And why must you wear it for seven years?” “I am a member of Clan Allta, a tribe of this region,” the wolf answered, “and like yourself, Father, we are believers in Jesus Christ and in the power of His salvation.  However, in times long past, we were cursed for some ancient sin by the blessed Abbot Natalis.”  The priest had heard of Natalis, who had come to Ireland shortly after the Blessed Patrick to bring the Word of God to a dark and pagan land. He had even read some of the holy man’s works.  From what he had read, he had always imagined Natalis to be exceedingly severe and inflexible in his teachings and one who would brook no deviation from his own interpretations of God’s law.

“The sin which my clan committed has long been forgotten,” said the wolf, “but the curse is still in force.  Every seven years two of us must lose our mortal form to wear the skin of a wild wolf and must live in the deep woods away from our clan. When the seven years are up we shed our animal form and regain our human shape and two others must take our place. It is a terrible burden, Father, and one that will never be lifted, for Natalis is long dead.” 

The wolf asks the priest accompany him into the woods to give the last rites to his mate, the female wolf.  The priest is filled with terror that the wolf will kill him, but follows the wolf into the woods.  He gives the dying wolf communion and blesses her.  The male wolf returns the priest to his campfire and bids him farewell, loping back into the forest.  The priest calls out after him saying he would return. On his way back to Ulster, the priest stopped in the woods of Ossory and searched for the werewolves but did not find any trace of them.

Saint Patrick and Saint Natalis are sometimes confused in the werewolf story.  In one account, “it is told when the holy Patricius (St. Patrick) preached Christianity in that country, there was one clan which opposed him more stubbornly than any other people in the land; and these people strove to do insult in many ways both to God and to the holy man. And when he was preaching the faith to them as to others and came to confer with them when they held their assemblies, they adopted the plan of howling at him like wolves.”

St. Patrick responded by praying to God to punish the clan, resulting in them suffering “a fitting and severe through marvelous punishment, for it is told that all the members of the clan are changed into wolves for a period and roam through the woods feeding upon the same food as wolves; but they are worse than wolves, for in all their wiles they have the wit of men, though they are as eager to devour men as to destroy other creatures.”

Saint Natalis (Naal) and the Werewolves first appeared in Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica, written in 1185 A.D. The incident with the werewolves and the priest was supposed to have occurred two years before Gerald’s visit to Ireland with King John in 1175 A.D. While he was in Ossory, Gerald was approached by two priests sent by the bishop to ask him his view on this “serious matter.” Gerald met with the Bishop of Ossory and set down the story in writing, which was sent to Pope Urban III. It became one of the first werewolf stories ever recorded. A Norse work written about 1250 A.D., Konungs Skuggsja (King’s Mirror), describes Irish werewolves as being humans who were cursed as a divine punishment for wickedness.  The tale is clearly based on the Ossory werewolves. 

The story of Saint Natalis and the Ossory Werewolves can also be found on Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae, Library Ireland – The Wonders of Ireland, and Dark Emerald Tales.