Friday, September 24, 2010


Several people have asked me if there is a patron saint of the Arctic. (This is not technically true; only 2 people asked, but their interest looms large.) And I am sorry to report that there is not.

There are a few saints who are frequently represented with bears. Probably the first was St Cerbonius whom Roman soldiers threw to wild bears to be cruelly slaughtered. Instead, the bears, awed by his sanctity, became docile and licked Cerbonius’ feet.

Then in the 6th century, St Columbanus was looking for a lonely cave in which to pray his lonely prayers. He found such a cave, but it was already occupied by a slumbering bear. The bear, however, agreeably vacated the cave to accommodate St Columbanus.

A century later, both St Corbinian and St Humbert managed to turn ferocious ursines into bellhops: both saints are generally pictured with a bear behind, carrying their luggage.
Were any of the above-mentioned bears of the polar variety? Probably not. But we are grasping at straws here.

Tamed bears aside, it is Saint Brendan the Navigator who is most commonly associated with the Arctic, or voyages that may or may not have arrived at the Arctic regions.
In 484, Brendan was born, significantly, under the Aurora Borealis,in Kerry, Ireland. He grew up in the care of St Ita who made sure he was devout. Mostly, he traveled. In Sabine Baring-Gould’s 8-volume Lives of the British Saints, which devotes about 30,000 words to Brendan, we are told that Brendan’s first voyage came about when St Ita advised him to make himself scarce for a couple of years. Brendan had left a young boy in charge of his boat and the boy had drowned; when his brother went to help him, the brother drowned as well. Assuming that the boys’ family would be seeking revenge from Brendan, absence was suggested.
Whether he was fleeing an angry family, or seeking the Isle of Blessed, Brendan and 14 of his monks built 3 boats out of willow twigs, covered them with hides, and packed food for 40 days. On March 22 they sailed west. How far did they get? Perhaps they made it to Greenland or Newfoundland or Baffin Island. It is unlikely that St Brendan celebrated mass on the back of a whale; though there is a small whale-shaped island off Galway, conveniently called Whale Island, with an inland ‘blowhole’ into which the waves pour in at high tide and spout up.
Pre-Norse Irish books and relics have been found on Iceland. It certainly seems more possible that Brendan and his sailing monks made it to North America, than that Simeon Stylites lived atop a pillar for forty years, and no one doubts that for an instant.

Side note: Brendan’s sister’s name was Briga, and like my sister with a similar name, I can bet that it was frequently either misspelled or mispronounced or both.

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