Column: Among the Saints

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St. Guthlac and a bunch of demons.  From the 13th century Guthlac Scroll, housed in the British Library.

St. Guthlac and a bunch of demons.
From the 13th century Guthlac Scroll, housed in the British Library.

[Author’s Note: Before we get into the column: this summer I am looking for second-generation Pagans of all stripes for a series of profiles. Much of my material comes from thinking through my own life as someone who was raised by witches, but I’m interested in getting the stories and perspectives of other children of Pagans. The profiles will, of course, respect the wishes of anyone who chooses to remain anonymous or only known by a craft name. Interested parties should send an email to eric.o.scott@gmail.com or on my Facebook page. Now, on with the column.]

I have never known much about saints, nor have I worried about my ignorance of them. They belonged to a religion that was foreign to my own and were bound up in traditions that meant nothing to me, so I had little incentive to study them. Although I grew up in a Catholic city and had many Catholic friends, I never had reason to engage with Catholicism itself. But I do study Old English, and the way my university is set up, there would only one graduate seminar in Old English literature offered during the two years of my PhD coursework – and that seminar was about the lives of saints. In particular, the course studied a group of obscure Old English texts with no authors, simply called the anonymous saints’ lives (as opposed to the body of saints’ lives written by Ælfric, one of the best-attested authors in the literature.) It sounded painful. I signed up anyway.

My apprehensions weren’t assuaged by the class’s first readings. “Certainly Ælfric regarded himself as the apologist of the universal church,” says Michael LaPidge, an expert on these texts, “and it would have been no compliment to tell him that his hagiography imparted individual characteristics to individual saints. On the contrary, Ælfric would wish his saints to be seen merely as vessels of God’s divine design on earth, indistinguishable as such one from the other… hence it did not matter whether the saint was tall or short, fair or bald, fat or thin, blonde or brunette. In a sense it did not matter whether he was named Cletus or Clement, Narcissus or Nicasius.”

No wonder nobody wants to read these stories, I remember thinking. They’ve stripped out everything interesting for the sake of uniformity. Come to think of it, this has been my critique about everything involving monotheism.

Thankfully the texts weren’t quite as boring as I anticipated – the anonymous saints’ lives actually feature a variety of strange goings-on, perhaps because their authors did not share Ælfric’s love for universality. We read of time-traveling saints, cowardly and lazy saints, transvestite (and perhaps transgender) saints, even one saint who literally exploded out of the belly of a dragon named Rufus. 

That said, although there was novelty to be found, most of the saints’ lives tended to follow a formula: the saint, born to noble pagans, rejects paganism and turns to Christianity. There the stories divide into two broad camps. In the passio genre, the saints are brought before a cruel pagan ruler, who offers them the choice to renounce their Christian faith or die; inevitably they choose to die, because that is what makes them saints. In the confessio genre, instead of martyring themselves for their faith, the saints go into solitude, denying themselves the temptations of this world. They earn their sainthood through asceticism, which is often represented as an attack by demonic forces which are repelled through their faith, in imitation of the first saint of this type, St. Anthony.

Reading literature like this is always difficult for me – it reminds me of my own otherness. The point of a saint’s life is to imagine oneself as the saint, who is in turn an emulation of God, a winding chain of models to base one’s own existence around. But I do not find connections with the saints; I know too well that they don’t belong to me. When I read these stories, I find myself thinking only of the fallen world surrounding the saint and seeing myself in that image: my face on the head of the saint’s noble-yet-damned father, my hands holding the pagan executioner’s tools. Saint’s lives are supposed to invite the reader into their moral universe, but instead, I find myself reluctantly siding with the saint’s enemies, no matter how cruelly they are described. I can’t help it. They – the fiends, the heathens – are my people.

Intellectually, I know that the “paganism” represented by Christian literature is at best a distortion of actual ancient paganism, and more often just slander – and that, in any case, the paganism of the ancient world is not the Paganism I have grown up within. I can counterfeit dispassionate analysis of these subjects in conversation and writing. But the truth is that the whole process is tremendously alienating. Perhaps this is the danger of investing so heavily in a single world to describe oneself: I can’t help but associate with the villains of these stories, even if they are vicious caricatures. They still remind me of myself.

As I write this, morning birds are singing in my back yard, which makes me think of an episode from a poem about St. Guthlac, one of Anglo-Saxon England’s home-grown saints. Guthlac, like St. Anthony, wanted to deny the world of man and goes off to live in seclusion on a hill in the wastes, so that he can better contemplate God. He is, like the other hermit-saints, assaulted by hordes of demons who hope to tempt him away from the righteous path, and failing that, to assail, torture, and distract him from his holy purpose.

Guthlac, being a saint, endures their attacks, and with the help of another saint, Bartholomew, he expels the demons from his land. Once the demons are gone, his only companions are birds, many kinds of them, who bless Guthlac with their songs. One of the poem’s final images is of Guthlac feeding the birds, perhaps anticipating St. Francis, who would preach to those same creatures some centuries later. “So that gentle spirit detached himself from the joys of mankind,” the poem says, “served the Lord, and took pleasure in the wild animals, after he had rejected this world.” Guthlac the Saint lives in a world populated by demons and songbirds; and I suspect I must be one of these things myself, but I cannot say which.