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Posts Tagged ‘Irish saints’

Dymphna was a young lady in Ireland sometimes during the 7th century CE. Her father was a pagan Irish chieftain Damon, and her mother was his beautiful Christian wife whose name has been lost. When Dymphna was about 14, her mother died. After searching all over Western Europe and not finding a woman as beautiful as his dead wife, her father came back home, where his advisors pointed out that Dymphna looked exactly like her dead mother.

Anyone at all familiar with any sort of narrative knows what happened next: he announced his intention to marry her, so she and her priest, St. Gerebernus, fled the country. They took a ship and landed in Antwerp, Belgium. From there they went to nearby Gheel, where they lived in a hut near the church, where Gerebernus said Mass and Dymphna helped the sick and poor.

Outraged that his daughter had run away, Damon the Irish cheiftain searched for all across Europe. Eventually, in Antwerp, he tried to pay for his lodging with Irish coins (this was before the Euro), and the innkeep refused, saying it was difficult to exchange. Damon realized that the innkeeper would only know this if someone else had recently paid with Irish coins, and that his daughter must be somewhere near.

When the chieftain found them, he ordered Gerebern killed and tried to convince his daughter to come back home with him. When she refused him again, he ordered his men to kill her, but when they all refused as well he beheaded her himself. The bodies of Dymphna and Gerebern were left where they lay, but interred in a cave shortly after by the locals. They were later taken back out and but in the church at Gheel, where they remain.

Surprisingly, the life story of Dymphna is a little suspect. Her hagiography wasn’t written until the 13th century, and was based solely on oral history. Several sources think that the timing is all wrong-she would have had to have lived before 500CE or after 900; it’s charmingly offensive, but this Google book explains why that is.

However, the thing that really grabbed me is how similar this story is to lots of European fairy tales about fathers, usually kings, who want to marry their daughters. There’s a page full of them here, and a long essay about them here. What they say, basically, is that they’re all fables about sexual abuse of children. In the first one, “All Kinds of Fur,” the girl who is presumably abused as a child goes on to marry a different king who abuses her as an adult by throwing boots at her.

My best guess is that Dymphna is a Catholicized version of these tales: instead of working in the kitchen and marrying a prince, she works for the church and is “betrothed” to Jesus.

All the same, Dymphna’s saint day is May 15. Among other things, she’s the patron saint of the insane. Celebrate by getting it on with someone you’re not related to.

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