Thursday, June 3, 2010

History: Saints Preserve Us

I recently had question from another writer whom I admire very much and whose blog you really should follow. CRwM asked me if there was a patron saint of pirates. I liked the question so much that I ran off and did a fair amount of digging only to find that the answer is far more complicated than no or yes or even maybe.

To begin, there was mention of the Sufi Saint Sidi Ahmed Ibin Ashir as being venerated in the pirate empire at the Moroccan port of Sale. We talked about the port and the idea of it's pirate utopia on Tuesday so I won't go into that. What I found is that the Ashir (or Achir) in question was a reclusive holy man who was sought as a teacher. He lived and is buried in Sale and you can learn more about his life here. Unfortunately, aside from the Sale connection, I can't find any specific reference to the Sallee Rovers attachment to the Saint. But I love the story.

In Europe, where Saints did a brisk trade for thousands of years, there was a saint for everything at some point. The particular favorite of Mediterranean seaman was St. Erasmus, a bishop in Formiae, Italy who was martyred in the persecutions of Roman Emperor Diocletian. The bishop's popular name is St. Elmo and, as you are probably aware, it is the source of the term St. Elmo's Fire. These rosy hued electrical discharges are seen during storms collecting around high points like church spires and, particularly, ship's masts. They are so called because mariners thought of them as a sign that St. Elmo was protecting their ship.

The other interesting point is that St. Elmo, whose martyrdom is shown at the header, is the patron of sailors specifically for the grizzly fashion in which he died. His intestines, according to tradition, were pulled from his body and wound around a windlass. A windlass is the ancestor of the ship's capstan, used to pull up anchors and kedges. But it doesn't stop there. Some historians now theorize that because St. Elmo was depicted in early churches holding a windlass, the story of his martyrdom was built around it. Either way, he is still a favorite of sailors today and was certainly called upon by pirates for help at sea.
Up north, particularly in the British Isles, Saints of the sea abound. The two that are particularly fond to seaman are both Irish. First, there is St. Brendan who, with his band of intrepid monks, sailed off to the Viking lands to get those heathens right with God. In the process Brendan saw visions of Christ and learned the details of the end of time. St. Brendan, I feel compelled to add, is the patron saint of the U.S. Navy.
Also from the land of Erin, where women at sea were not as unusual as they might have been elsewhere, comes the story of the mermaid saint, Muirgen. Originally a girl named Liban, Muirgen was swept away in a flood along with her little dog. Alone beneath the waves, she prayed to be turned into a salmon so that she might have companions. She was instead turned into a salmon-tailed woman and her dog transformed into an otter. They lived at sea for three hundred years until they were found and brought back to Ireland by a monk named Boec. Muirgen was taken to the local church and baptized before she died. Local fishermen, merchants and pirates began to call on her to ease storms and bring them luck. Her miracles caused the local Bishop, Comgall, to declare her a saint and images of the mermaid were set up in sea ports and carried aboard ship. Some stories say that she was especially dear to the Irish pirate queen, Grania ni Maille - Grace O'Malley.
And with that I will close the book on the Saints of the sea, and ask them - as I'm sure my ancestors did - to preserve us and give us safe crossing. But we're not quite done. There was a second part to the question. Next time: folk heroes and outlaws evoked and remembered by the brigands of the sea.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Fun post. My favorite (so far) is St. Muirgen... for obvious reasons, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! She was a bit of a revelation, actually. I like that her little dog became an otter (they do kind of look like puppies) and that her name - when pronounced - sounds so similar to the little redhead's.

It's obviously an old story that has been Christianized, especially when you consider that the salmon and the otter were sacred to the Ancient Celts. If you can't beat 'em, make 'em Saints.

Annah said...

That first painting looks so much like a Caravaggio :) I like.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Annah! The painting is actually by Flemish master Dieric Bouts the Elder and was completed some time in the 1450s. Certain art historians say Bouts style was one of Caravaggio's inspirations. Good eye!

Daggar said...

Considering the Caribbean slant to your blog, it got me wondering if there are any orisha among the practitioners of Santeria or loa of Voudoun that are associated with pirates. Each of them have powers of the sea, and probably some power looking after sailors. I don't know anything specific, though.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar and way to read my mind! The Voudon lwa and the Santeria orisha will come up in the next post on the subject.

Since many a Caribbean pirate was a runaway slave or refugee from places like South America and Haiti, you can bet those religions figured prominently in the freebooting folk tradition. More on that next Thursday.