Saint Muirgen the Mermaid (And Other Tales from Peculiar Corners of Church History)

By Cinnamon.

During the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Calendar was updated to remove the feast days of certain saints whose historical existence couldn’t be verified. The most well-known of these would have to be Saint Christopher, but many others – including Philomena, Ursula, and Barbara – also quietly disappeared from public celebration at the time.  This doesn’t mean they were ‘de-canonized’ or booted out of Heaven (to my knowledge there’s only one person who’s had that dubious honour; more on him later). Rather, their Feast Days could now be celebrated privately but were no longer officially listed as memorials for the Mass or Divine Office of that day.

One reason for this paring-down of the Calendar is that, in addition to the canonized saints raised to the altars by the Magisterium, we also have a legacy of folk saints canonized by popular acclaim in their local regions. And, let’s face it, some of these folk saints were pretty darned weird. So, for no other reason than that 2021 is a rough year and we all need a break, here’s a brief guide to some of the unusual saints you won’t find in official lists, and who make up a rowdy and colourful hidden history within the Church.

1) Saint Muirgen the Mermaid.

Let’s face it, there’s only one reason you clicked on this post, and that was: “Saint Muirgen the what?

So, to prove that the title wasn’t clickbait, let’s start our list with this this entry from the Irish Martyrology of Donegal:

MUIRGHEIN : i.e., a woman who was in the sea, whom the Books call Liban, daughter of Eochaidh, son of Muireadh ; she was about three hundred years under the sea, till the time of the saints, when Beoan the saint took her in a net, so that she was baptized, after having told her history and her adventures.

The 12th-century  Lebor na h-Uidri (Book of the Dun Cow) goes into more detail, explaining that she was the daughter of an Irish king whose palace fell into Loch Neagh, drowning him and trapping her underwater in the sunken palace for a year. After this, she prayed to the pagan goddess Danu to turn her into a salmon. And while her lower half did indeed become that of a salmon, her upper half remained that of a woman. (Thanks, Danu?) In this form she spent the next three hundred years chilling out in Loch Neagh before encountering a boat full of Irish monks, getting tangled in their fishing net, and hearing the Gospel for the first time while they were pulling her free. She promised to return to shore at the monastery a year from that day, and upon doing so gave up the rest of her extended mermaid life (another three hundred years) in exchange for Baptism and an immortal human soul. She died shortly thereafter, and her soul was taken to Heaven. Her Feast Day is on the date of her original capture, and her Baptism and death one year later: January 27th.

 

2) Saint Guinefort the Hound.

No, he wasn’t a friar of the Order of Preachers, aka Domini Canes (‘Hounds of the Lord’): Saint Guinefort was an actual dog of the four-legged variety.

The 13th-century Inquisitor Stephen de Bourbon railed against the ‘insulting superstition’ of a canine saint celebrated in the diocese of Lyon in France, and by his contemptuous retelling of the legend in his report on what he found there, he accidentally preserved it for all time.

The story goes that a wealthy local lord had a favourite greyhound named Guinefort, to which he gave the task of protecting his baby son. One day he came home to the castle and found the baby’s cradle overturned and Guinefort sitting calmly beside it, muzzle red with blood. In a broken-hearted rage, the lord drew his sword and slew the dog. A moment later, he spotted the baby lying alive and unharmed in a pile of blankets on the floor behind the cradle, next to the bloodied corpse of a large snake which had tried to attack the child, but was killed by the loyal Guinefort before it could do him any harm.

The repentant lord and his wife buried Guinefort in a well and planted a grove of trees nearby. The grave immediately became a site of pilgrimage by parents seeking a cure for their sick infants, and the people of the diocese venerated the greyhound as a saint on the basis of his ‘noble deed and innocent death.’

Stephen, extremely unimpressed by the virtues and alleged curative powers of Saint Guinefort the Hound (and by the practice of leaving sick babies unattended while surrounded by burning candles at the shrine), decided to put a stop to it. “We had the dead dog dug up,” he reports, quite devoid of sentimentality, “and the grove of trees cut down and burned along with the dog’s bones.” This, combined with the threat of a fine for anyone caught visiting the site in the future, put paid to the grassroots cultus that had sprung up organically around Saint Guinefort the Hound. Nonetheless, the legend of the faithful dog has remained a peculiar footnote in folk Catholic history ever since. According to the Ultimate History Project:

“For historians, the cult of Guinefort sheds light on the complexity of past cultures in Europe, including the power of popular religion.  The people in this area forged their own interpretation of what a saint should be and created a set of rituals around this particular saint which served their immediate needs.  Guinefort may have been a saint in this community but he was not officially declared a saint by the powers that ruled the church [sic].  Additionally, neither decrees from the official church nor ridicule from the Protestant churches persuaded local believers to halt their practices, some of which persisted until the twentieth century.”

 

3) Saint Christopher the Cynocephalus.

We all know the basic story of Saint Christopher: he was a giant who lived by a river and carried a little boy across on his shoulder on a stormy night, only to find the boy growing so heavy that he could barely hold him up. When Christopher finally staggered up the bank on  the other side, the boy revealed that He was actually Jesus, and Christopher (‘Christ-Bearer’) had been carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders.

Now, according to his legend, Saint Christopher was a Canaanite. No problem. Until, that is, someone apparently confused ‘Canaeus’ (Canaanite) with ‘Caninus,’ (dog), at which point the story goes completely off the rails. The idea began to circulate that Saint Christopher was one of the mysterious dog-headed people (cynocephali) believed to live on the edges of the civilized world, and in the version of the story that made it East to Orthodox Russia, he ended up looking like this:

Likewise, the 15th-century Irish Passion of Saint Christopher recounts: Now this Christopher was one of the Dogheads, a race that had the heads of dogs and ate human flesh. He meditated much on God, but at that time he could speak only the language of the Dogheads. When he saw how much the Christians suffered he was indignant and left the city. He began to adore God and prayed. “Almighty God,” he said, “give me the gift of speech, open my mouth, and make plain thy might that those who persecute thy people may be converted”. An angel of God came to him and said: “God has heard your prayer.” The angel raised Christopher from the ground, and struck and blew upon his mouth, and the grace of eloquence was given him as he had desired…

Fortunately or unfortunately, the Orthodox depiction of Saint Christopher the Cynocephalus was forbidden by Moscow in the 18th century, having long since disappeared in the Western Church as well. Except for a few glimpses in icons and ancient stories, this unusual story has largely faded from memory.

If you’re interested in the way the Church approached the existence of cynocephali, though, check out this letter written by a ninth-century monk addressing the question, ‘Do the Dog-Headed Men Have Souls?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-5RZBKBl_A

(Note the reference to Saint Christopher at the 9:13 mark.)

It features the classic line, “people seem to be better at reasoning than animals,” and if that doesn’t sum up most of the events of 2020 and 2021, I don’t know what does.

 

4) Blessed Charles de Blois, 1319-1364.

aka “The Saint,” aka Remind Me Again Why We Canonized this Dude?

Pious, ambitious, rich and ruthless, Charles de Blois, nephew of King Philip VI of France, spent most of his life fighting for the right to be named the Duke of Brittany. Eventually, Brittany was partitioned under a treaty which gave each of the two claimants (the other one being  John de Montfort, a surname that will be familiar to many Catholics) half of the province. Then Charles broke the treaty, went to war for the other half, and ended up dead at the Battle of Auray in 1364.

Apparently he was quite famous for his great religious devotion and severe penances, which is how his family got his Cause for canonization before Rome in spite of some of the shady things he’d done, up to and including ordering the execution of some 2000 civilians after the Siege of Quimper. We don’t know exactly what happened with the canonization process, but we can make an educated guess that some strings were pulled and some money changed hands, and presto, one new Saint.[1] (There’s still a small stone church called Église Saint Charles-de-Blois in Auray. Based on the handful of photos posted online, it’s quite pretty.)

An unspecified number of years later, but within the lifetime of John de Montfort – now John V of Brittany – who pushed to have the canonization reversed, Pope Gregory XI took another look and seems to have had an “Oh hell, what have I done?” moment.  The canonization was annulled; to my knowledge, the only time this has happened. (Although it makes no sense theologically, I like to picture Charles sitting on a cloud and playing a harp, only to have a couple of angels in black mobster suits materialize behind him, haul him up by the arms, and frog-march him back down to Purgatory.)

Charles was beatified (for real this time) in 1904, but there are currently no active efforts underway to return him to sainthood.  The only other thing of interest about this rather dodgy historical figure was that he played an important supporting role in the story of a much more interesting person.

Charles de Blois had a nobleman friend named Olivier de Clisson who supported him in his campaigns to gain control of Brittany. When Charles developed unfounded suspicions of treachery, however, he had Olivier summarily imprisoned and executed and his head stuck on a pike, as one does. Olivier’s widow, Jeanne de Clisson, was not impressed. So unimpressed was she that she sold all her lands and possessions, bought a ship which she had painted black and draped with blood-red sails and named My Vengeance, then added two more black ships to her fleet and embarked upon a life of piracy along the northern coast of France, plundering and sinking any French ship unlucky enough to cross her path. She herself would use an axe to behead any Frenchman of noble birth who happened to be on board, leaving only one or two crew members alive to tell the king what she had done. (Did I mention that ‘Saint’ Charles was the nephew of the king of France, and had the tacit support of the French Crown in his campaigns against John de Montfort? Well, Jeanne de Clisson, now known as the Lioness of Brittany, was having none of that. A friend of my enemy, etc…)

Eventually, according to some accounts, the English hired her as a privateer. She didn’t care where the money came from as long as she was allowed to keep unleashing hell on France, which she did very successfully for no less than thirteen years. After that, she hung up her cutlass , married an Englishman and retired to his castle in Brittany (which was now controlled by the Montforts), where she died a few years later of unknown causes.

Now, Jeanne de Clisson is not a saint, nor even a blessed. But if you were having difficulties with an unscrupulous landlord or obnoxious colleagues, to whom would you rather address your appeals for assistance: the unpleasant bloke who died in battle and later got shiftily canonized and then de-canonized again,  or the unstoppable pirate queen with a fleet of black ships and all cannons blazing away in a hail of breathtaking destruction? Hmm…

 

This picture of Saint Quiteria looks altogether too nice and normal for an article like this.

5) Saint Quiteria.

And on the topic of warrior women, here’s our final probably-less-than-historically-authentic saint for the day! According to the legend, a noble Roman lady living in fifth-century Portugal gave birth to nine daughters all at once, and was so disgusted that she’d given birth to a “litter” (and not one of them a son) that she gave an order for the babies to be drowned in the river so she could start again with a clean slate.

This being that kind of story, of course, the girls were not drowned, but given to a peasant woman to grow up together in some remote rural location. And then, in the words of the article in which I first read about Saint Quiteria: “Things get really weird. They formed a nonuplet warrior gang. The girls were all good Christians and their gang was formed to travel around breaking Christians out of jail… and smashing Roman idols.”

After carrying out this unusual apostolate for several years, they were captured and brought before their father, the Roman governor of the region. He cottoned on that these nine young women looked rather a lot like him, and with this in mind, he decided to show them mercy; provided, of course, that they agreed to the good pagan marriages he was arranging for them. Quiteria, the eldest, was having none of that, and led her sisters in a successful jailbreak. They fled to a nearby mountain, which became their home base in an ongoing guerilla war against the Roman Empire. Quiteria was eventually captured, beheaded, and thrown into the sea, after which she walked calmly out of the water carrying her head in her hands.  As I discovered while researching this blog post, the Church has a technical name for Saints-who-walk-around-carrying-their-own-heads: cephalophores. Wikipedia states that Quiteria is not considered part of this select group because the historical accuracy of her story cannot be verified, but some Catholic websites give her the title cephalophore nonetheless.

That’s more like it.

The other eight sisters were also martyred in various ways, and two of them are also, like Quiteria, still venerated across Portugal and parts of France and Spain. Her feast day is May 22nd. She is often depicted in artworks holding two dogs on a leash, having once tamed two vicious dogs by singing to them, and is invoked as a patron saint against rabies. (What is it with folk saints and dogs, by the way? So many of these legends have canine connections…)

 

 

 

 

Last-Minute Bonus Saint:

You know those eight other sisters of Saint Quiteria I mentioned, martyrs all? One of them was Saint Liberata, also known in English as Saint Wilgefortis (meaning ‘Strong Virgin’) or Saint Uncumber.  According to her legend, when her father was searching for a pagan husband for her, Liberata prayed to God to alter her appearance so that her prospective husband wouldn’t want to marry her… and woke up the next morning with a full beard. And so if you look up the martyrdom of Saint Liberata/Wilgefortis on your preferred search engine, you’ll find paintings and statues that look like this…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her statue in Westminster Abbey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s even stranger to me, though, is that if you look up the painting of the crucifixion of Saint Liberata by the king of weird, Hieronymus Bosch, he’s painted her beard as a light down across her chin, almost invisible unless you zoom right in on her face. Of all the artists I would have expected not to handle the subject with this much restraint, Bosch would be top of the list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And there you have it, folks. I promised weird, and weird I have delivered. May all the saints of the Catholic Church – official, unofficial, and ambiguously in-between – pray for us!

[1] Wikipedia raises doubts that the canonization process was completed, as opposed to being started and then dropped. The other sources I’ve read, though, mostly state that he was canonized.

 

Bibliography

(aka “References or it didn’t happen, buddy”)

Saint Muirgen:

https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/irelands-little-known-mermaid-saint

http://omniumsanctorumhiberniae.blogspot.com/2013/01/muirgen-mermaid-saint-january-27.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lí_Ban_(mermaid)

Image from https://twitter.com/lorraineelizab6/status/1089482424831148032 

 

Saint Guinefort:

https://unireadinghistory.com/2018/02/14/saint-guinefort/

https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/guinefort.asp (primary source)

https://ultimatehistoryproject.com/the-cult-of-guinefort-an-unusual-saint.html

 

Saint Christopher the Cynocephalus:

https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-icon-of-st-christopher/

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_christopher_cynocephalus.gif

https://web.archive.org/web/20130729215126/http://www.ucc.ie/milmart/chrsirish.html  (primary source)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-5RZBKBl_A

 

Charles de Blois and Jeanne de Clisson:

http://www.self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Charles_I,_Duke_of_Brittany?View=embedded

https://www.geni.com/people/Charles-de-Blois-Duc-de-Bretagne/6000000002188569206

https://peoplepill.com/people/charles-i-duke-of-brittany

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles,_Duke_of_Brittany

https://allthatsinteresting.com/jeanne-de-clisson

https://military.wikia.org/wiki/Jeanne_de_Clisson

Statue image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanne_Hachette. It’s not actually a statue of Jeanne de Clisson, but another woman named Jeanne a hundred years later who was also famous for wielding an axe. But the image was too cool not to use.) Attribution: Markus3 (Marc ROUSSEL), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Saint Quiteria:

https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=767

http://www.newmanconnection.com/faith/saint/saint-quiteria

https://listverse.com/2011/01/30/top-10-truly-badass-saints/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiteria

Stained glass window from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vitrail_Ste_Quitterie_Mimizan.jpg  Attribution: Jibi44, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Saint Liberata:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilgefortis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crucifixion_of_Saint_Wilgefortis#/media/File:BoschTheCrucifixionOfStJulia.jpg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilgefortis#/media/File:Saint_Wilgefortis_Graz_20121006.jpg    Gugganij, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

https://www.christianforums.com/threads/the-9-nonuplet-saints-of-portugal-saints-wilgefortis-or-liberata-the-crusified-her-sisters.7940816/

 

 

 

Life Hacks, Convent-Style

Happy Easter, Leonie’s Ladies!

This being a joyful season, we’ve decided to kick off with a light-hearted post, along the lines of the “Ten Things Only 90s Children Will Understand” lists that you see on Buzzfeed. Except that this is a list of Life Hacks that Only Someone Who Has Been in the Convent Will Understand – and please feel free to add your own! (It would be great to be able to post a list of them on forums for people who are discerning religious life.) Here are a few to kick off with…

Problem: you’ve been given a shirt or t-shirt from the community’s storeroom that is (at least) one size too big, creating an unsightly bulge of cloth under your postulant vest/habit.

Solution: you will need one ribbon, long enough to fit around your waist several times, and two safety pins. Put on the out-sized shirt, then lay one end of the ribbon over your stomach and wrap the longer part once around your body. Overlap the ribbon and pin in place. Then wrap several more times above and below the original level, not too tightly, and pin. This will keep the shirt from bulking up. Use your postulant vest or sweater to conceal this arrangement.

Problem: your hair is in need of a good clean, but you won’t be able to wash it until the time allocated for showers that night.

Solution: dust some talcum powder into your hands, and pat lightly onto the hair on your scalp. Massage in until the powder disappears. This isn’t as effective as washing, but it softens and brightens the hair enough to get you by! (NB: my hair is light brown. I don’t know whether this would work on red or black hair.)

Problem: there’s a crease in your shirt/skirt/habit, and ironing day is days away! Argh!

Solution: get some water in a cup (assuming you’re doing this in your cell), and pour a small amount onto the crease. Gently massage it with your fingers until the crease flattens out, and then allow the damp patch to dry. Best to leave it overnight if you can, but it can be done with something you’re wearing at the time.

Any more?

The Moment You’ve All Been Waiting For…

Thank you to everyone who contributed to our convent-themed Mad-Libs this week!

Here is the completed story…

By Christopher John SSF from Chuncheon, South Korea – TongdosaUploaded by Caspian blue, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7526568

It was evening recreation at the Convent of Saint Erasmus of Humpty Doo, and 24 Sisters were gathered around the table.

Old Sister Giuseppe Methodius, who had spent a long afternoon singing, baking and reading, sat back in her chair with a ­smile. The novices had vanished from the room a few moments earlier, giggling, to prepare for a skit they had been rehearsing in secret. For a few minutes, only whispers and clatters were heard, and then a young Sister poked her head around the door.

“Sisters,” she declared with a bright smile, “we present the Life and Martyrdom of Saint Lucian!”

At that, two more novices appeared, armed with a mop, spatula and toilet brush, and one of them wearing a lamp that she had converted into a helmet. She bowed to the audience, then growled, “I am the Emperor Trebonianus Gallus, slayer of 2000 Christians!” (Loud cries of “Boo!” from behind the scenes.)

“And I,” said the other, “am Lucian, a humble keyboard shiner and convert to Christianity!”

Thence followed a dramatic battle, which ended with Lucian falling to the ground, the toilet brush plunged into his heart. At this, three of the junior professed, who had been briefed earlier by the playwright, leaped up from their chairs and declared their intent to become Christians as well. Trebonianus obligingly provided each of them in turn with a holy death, swinging the mop so enthusiastically that the prioress had to warn him to be careful of the bookshelves behind him.

The last of the three, Romulus, knelt placidly: before submitting to the final blow, he declared that before the day was through, Trebonianus, too, would become a Christian. Trebonianus dispatched him and laughed monstrously, then stopped and stared as the narrator, now wearing a set of golden wings, descended upon the martyrs and swept them up to heaven with a chorus of Now Thank We All Our God. Trebonianus fell to his knees and piously embraced the Christian faith. After a long pause, the narrator declared, “The End.”

Old Sister Giuseppe Methodius clapped along with the rest as the actors tugged off their costumes and sat down around the table. One of them turned to her and said, “Sister, tell us a story about when you were a novice!”

So she began:

It was evening recreation at the Convent of Saint Erasmus of Humpty Doo, and 24 Sisters were gathered around the table…

Just for Fun!

This week, we have an interactive activity lined up! Some of you may have played “Mad Libs” before, but if not, all will be explained below.

In this game, I write a story (with, of course, a convent-related theme) for publication at the end of the week, but leave blank certain words throughout. In the meantime, I’ll tell you the kinds of words that I need to complete the story, and you are invited to submit them in the comments below. The final story will include a combination of different people’s answers – please be as imaginative and humorous as you like!

Here’s what we need…

1: Saint’s name

2: Place name

3: Number

4: Two more Saints’ names

5: Three verbs

6: Adjective

7: Another Saint’s name

8: Three household objects

9: Ancient Roman name (male)

10: Number

11: Occupation

12: Name of a hymn

Read the completed story here!