Þæt wæs god blog!
Inspired by a blog post about the top 10 animal-friendly superheroes, I’ve dedicated this episode of Medieval Avengers to the 4 animal-friendly supersaints of the Holy Helpers. (Sorry, Margaret and George, but you are definitely not included.)
St Eustace, The Huntsman Who Wouldn’t Hunt
Eustace (also Eustachius) was a Roman general in the 2nd century and you’ll often spot him wearing soldierly or knightly garb. One day when he was out hunting, he saw a crucifix between the antlers of a stag, his quarry. He converted to Christianity at once (and presumably didn’t kill the stag? I’m choosing to believe that’s what happened).
Eustace and his family ended up on the dinner plate of some wild beasts, one of the many Job-like trials Eustace was made to suffer. The animals didn’t have a taste for devout Christians, however, and wouldn’t touch them.
There is a tradition that says the emperor Hadrian sentenced Eustace and his family to be roasted to death because they would not sacrifice to pagan gods. Hadrian’s roasting implement of choice was a burning bronze bull that could apparently hold multiple people in its fiery innards.
Patron of forest rangers and huntsmen, Eustace protects against fire as well as family discord. (He must be busy in December with all those overly dry Christmas tree needles, warm electric Christmas tree lights, and family dinners that include that uncle, you know who I mean.) He often holds a crucifix or has an antlered, crucifix-bedecked sidekick. Or, less pleasantly, he may have a bull-shaped furnace.
St Giles, Deer Man
Giles (also Aegidius) is the only one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers who isn’t a martyr, at least in the sense of “red martyrdom”, i.e. dying for your faith. (Perhaps the fact that he was able to die a natural death (c. 710) makes him that much more impressive.) Born in Athens in the 7th century, Giles spent his later life in France and founded the Saint-Gilles monastery in Provence.
You might mistake Giles for a people person since he founded a monastery and monasteries typically involve living with other people. This was not the case. Giles may have founded a monastery but he preferred his solitary, ascetic bachelor pad in a cave.
Giles took an arrow for a doe, saving her life like the supersaint that he is.
Robert Bartlett says, “In his remote hermitage St. Giles lived off the milk of a female deer, which he protected from the huntsmen’s hounds.” (1)
Giles may be seen with an arrow, a crozier (ceremonial staff carried by a bishop or abbot), a hermitage (his cave), or a wounded doe. Sometimes he goes for the Benedictine look, black Batman…I mean, Deer Man…robes. Giles protects you against plague…and fear itself (how cool is that?!). Patron saint of nurses, he protects the handicapped as well as lepers.
St Blaise, The First Aider with a Pig Sidekick
Blaise is a physician/bishop/hermit from 4th-century Armenia. Because he once saved a boy from choking, Blaise can help with items stuck in the throat (using the Holy Heimlich).
One day a wolf stole a woman’s pig for his dinner, but Blaise came blazing in (see what I did there?) and said, “Hey, Wolf, that’s not yours! Give it back!” The wolf, of course, did as it was told. The grateful woman gave Blaise candles and a pig (the same one? I’m not sure). I really hope Blaise didn’t like bacon, making him an imposter in this “Animal-Friendly Supersaints” post, but I’m choosing to believe that Blaise continued on through life with his cute little piggy sidekick, who hogged (pun intended) all the attention while Blaise carried out his first aid quietly and professionally.
Blaise had a way with animals.
Bartlett says, “Wild animals thronged to St. Blaise and, if they suffered some ailment, would not leave him until they had received his blessing.” (2)
People invoke Blaise’s aid for the protection of their domestic animals.
Along with choking boy, candles, and pig, Blaise may be seen with a wool comb. This is not because of his passionate interest in textile manufacture. Before his decapitation, Blaise was tortured with wool combs made of iron that shredded his skin.
St Elmo, Raven-Loving Bishop of the Sea
Finally, there’s Elmo (also Erasmus), who lived during the 3rd-4th centuries. Born in Antioch (Turkey), Elmo fled to Syria, later becoming bishop of Formia (Italy). He was eventually executed, but not before suffering an especially gruesome form of torture – nails shoved under his fingernails. *shudder of revulsion* So sometimes you’ll see him with nails.
Things weren’t always bad for Elmo. While hiding out in the mountains, ravens brought him food. When he was being tortured in boiling pitch, an angel came along and rescued him. Because of these stories, you’ll sometimes see Elmo with ravens or boiling pitch.
Now for a weird case of story leading to image leading to completely different story, a kind of hagiographic game of telephone…
Sailors chose Elmo as their patron saint, possibly because of a story in which Elmo keeps preaching even though a lightning bolt strikes the ground beside him. Sailors understandably weren’t too keen on lightning (still aren’t, I imagine), so they asked Elmo for protection. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were called St Elmo’s fire and seen as evidence of Elmo’s protection (sounds like frightening protection, if you ask me). Artists began to depict Elmo with a nautical device called a windlass because of his connection to sailors.
But that’s just too tame an explanation for the presence of a windlass, thought future Christians. Clearly it’s there because Elmo was tortured with it. There is no written tradition of this, yet people began to assume that this was the reason for the windlass and created lovely images like this one.
The windlass was used to remove Elmo’s intestines (natch), and it is because of this that Elmo’s aid is invoked against intestinal illnesses, colic, birth pains, and cramps. (Cramps definitely feel like your intestines are being extracted by a windlass – after all, this was pre-paracetamol and ibuprofen.)
Stay tuned for the next episode of Medieval Avengers.
(1) Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 199.
(2) Ibid., p.391.