Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Wolves of St. Patrick

Today (March 17th) is St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick (died c. 460 C.E.) is the patron saint of Ireland and one of Christianity’s best known and most revered figures. The holiday of St. Patrick’s Day marks the day on which tradition says Patrick died and has been celebrated by Irish Catholics since the 7th-Century. Because the holiday falls during the time of Lent – when Christians are suppose to abandon their vices in imitation of Christ – St. Patrick’s Day with its drinking, feasting, partying and more drinking was seen as a welcomed reprieve.

Today St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated not only in Ireland but throughout the United States as well – the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was actually held in New York City in 1762 – and while many people, not all Irish themselves, associate a wide variety of things with the holiday – such as the color green, shamrocks, leprechauns, and, of course, alcohol – one thing which most people probably don’t think of when it comes to St. Patrick’s Day is werewolves. And yet St. Patrick has very much to do with werewolves indeed.

According to an autobiographical letter called the Declaration (Latin: Confessio) written by the saint himself sometime before the 5th-Century, Patrick was born in Britain to wealthy parents. His father, Calpornius, was a deacon, and his grandfather, Potitus, a priest in the Catholic Church. At the age of sixteen Patrick was abducted by Irish marauders who sold him into slavery in Ireland where he was forced to work as a herdsman for six years. During his time as a slave Patrick’s faith did not weaver but grew stronger. One day Patrick received a vision from God in which he was instructed to escape from his master and head for a port two hundred miles away where a ship was waiting to take him back home. Patrick, making good on his vision, escaped and headed towards the northern coast where he did indeed find a ship that ferried him back to Britain.

After being returned home Patrick followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and became a bishop. Nearly fifteen-years had passed since Patrick escaped from Ireland when he had a second vision. This time Patrick was visited by an angel carrying a letter from Ireland that cried out; “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” After this vision, Patrick knew that he was to return to Ireland and spread the Christian faith.

But St. Patrick’s connection with werewolves doesn’t come from history but rather legend. While it is generally accepted that Patrick converted, baptized and ordained “thousands of people” from Celtic paganism to Catholicism with little more than a helpful demonstration on how the Holy Trinity is like a three-leaf clover, this is not to say that he didn’t encounter some opposition from many of the indigenous pagans. One of these individuals was the Welsh King Vereticus who, no matter what St. Patrick preached, refused to humble himself and accept Christ. Finally, St. Patrick grew so annoyed with the king’s boastfulness that he chose to humble him himself by placing a curse upon him which caused him to assume the form of a wolf every seven years – thus giving us what maybe Ireland’s oldest werewolf story.

Other tales that connect St. Patrick with werewolves tell of how the saint’s message of Christianity was met with scorn and mockery. One account describes how St. Patrick was walking along a road one night enjoying the light of the full moon. As he went along he encountered three men who began heckling the saint, mocking his missionary efforts and profaning the name of Christ. With each insult the men’s howling laughter grew loader and St. Patrick’s patience shorter. Finally, irritated by these heathen’s taunting and disrespect St. Patrick spun around and cursed them by the light of the full moon; “If you want to howl and laugh like wolves,” he told them, “then from now on you shall howl every time the moon is full!” After that the three men quickly found that every time the moon was full their bodies were transformed into those of savage wolves. This particular folktale has been cited by some scholars as the first myth ever to draw a connection between the full moon and lycanthrope, something modern day werewolf books and movies have made us accustom to.

One final legend comes from an ancient text called the Giraldus Cambrensis or Geral of Wales; a tome which recounts the confessions made by Irish priests. One confession contained within gives an account by a priest who claims that while on the way to Meath he was approached by a wolf that spoke with a human tongue. The wolf assured the priest that he would come to no harm and that he simply wished for the priest to follow him into the woods where his wife, also a wolf, lay dying in need of the sacrament of last rites. The priest agreed and on the way the wolf explained that he and his wife had once been human and lived in the town of Ossory. One day a traveling bishop had come to their town preaching the gospel. The people of the town, however, only mocked the bishop and his faith. Angry and insulted by the people’s insolence the traveling bishop cursed the entire town, condemning them to assume the form of a wolf every seven years. Eventually the priest reached the wolf’s dying wife and performed the sacraments of last rites thus saving her soul from eternal damnation. In some versions of this tale the traveling bishop who curses the people of Ossory is St. Patrick, in others it is a St. Natalis.

Naturally, these tales about St. Patrick are not ones that are widely known, most likely because they cast the saint in a rather bad light. In fact, some scholars believe that such tales may in reality have actually been invented by the pagan Irish as part of an ancient smear campaign attempting to tarnish not only St. Patrick’s image but also Christianity in general. Of course, it’s also just as likely that they could have originated amongst the early Christians of Ireland who were inspired by other tales of prophets and saints who occasionally loose their tempters with their potential converts and lash out with deadly curses. Some such stories can even be found in the Bible itself.

So in conclusion I just want to say Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Go eat, drink (safely), and be merry. And if you happen to be out late and the moon in full perhaps you can stop and have a pint with these guys….


At Top: Statue of St. Patrick at Hill of Tara, Ireland.

At Bottom: A 19th-Century print shows werewolves gathering at Normandy, France.

Sources: The History of St. Patrick's Day at History.com, Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & Coca-Cola: Modern Holidays (2006) by Gabriella Kalapos, and The Book Of Were-Wolves (1865) by Sabine Baring-Gould.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

Which is better Coca-Cola or Pepsi?
SUBMIT YOUR ANSWER and you could win a prepaid VISA gift card!