‘Saints and Beasts’ III

‘Saints and Beasts’ III The arrival of the lion, as imagined by a Renaissance artist

Irish saints are, of course, not the only ones to have curious associations with birds and animals. Two remarkable instances are the lives of the Northumbrian St Cuthbert, and the even more remarkable legend of the Father of the Church, St Jerome. These are worth contrasting with our Irish saints.

St Cuthbert and the otters

The noted Scottish writer Gavin Maxwell was famous for his books about the otters that lived with him in his West Highland retreat. His own intimate experience of otters and their ways allowed him to have a special insight into the legends recorded about St Cuthbert.

The saint is today the patron saint of otters, and also of the eider duck, from which came the moulted feathers that were once collected to stuff eiderdowns, the ancestors of duvets. Mr Maxwell was able to read more into the legend of Cuthbert and the otters than his hagiographers could, based on an eyewitness account of the saint’s ‘conversation’ with these usually shy creatures.


He quotes in his own book this passage from Helen Waddell’s Beasts and Saints (Constable, 1934). Helen Waddell, author of the Desert Fathers and The Wandering Scholars, was intellectually and spiritually in tune with the mentality of the Middle Ages. Her text, quoted below, is largely drawn from the Venerable Bede, Cuthbert’s prime biographer in the seventh century.

“It was [Cuthbert’s] way for the most part to wander in those places and to preach in those remote hamlets, perched on steep rugged mountain sides, where other men would have a dread of going, and whose poverty and rude ignorance gave no welcome to any scholar…Often for a whole week, sometimes for two or three, and even for a full month, he would not return home, but would abide in the mountains, and call these simple folk to heavenly things by his word and his ways…

“(He was, moreover, easily entreated, and came to stay at the abbey of Coldingham on a cliff above the sea.)

“As was his habit, at night while other men took their rest, he would go out to pray: and after long vigils kept far into the night, he would come home when the hour of common prayer drew near. One night, a brother of this same monastery saw him go silently out, and stealthily followed on his track, to see where he was going or what he would do. And so he went out from the monastery and, his spy following him, went down to the sea, above which the monastery was built: and wading into the depths till the waves swelled up to his neck and arms, kept his vigil through the dark with chanting voiced like the sea. As the twilight of dawn drew near, he waded back up the beach, and kneeling there, again began to pray: and as he prayed, straight from the depths of the sea came two four-footed beasts which are called by the common people otters. These, prostrate before him on the sand, began to busy themselves warming his feet with pantings, and trying to dry them with their fur; and when this good office was rendered, and they had his benediction they slipped back again beneath their native waters. He himself returned home, and sang the hymns of the office with the brethren at the appointed hour. But the brother who had stood watching him from the cliffs was seized with such panic that he could hardly make his way home, tottering on his feet: and early in the morning came to him and fell at his feet, begging forgiveness with his tears for his foolish attempt, never doubting but that his behaviour of the night was known and discovered.


“To whom Cuthbert: ‘What ails you, my brother? What have you done? Have you been out and about to try to come at the truth of this night wandering of mine? I forgive you, on this one condition: that you promise to tell no man what you saw, until my death.’

“And the promise given, he blessed the brother and absolved him alike of the fault and the annoyance his foolish boldness had given: and the brother kept silence on the piece of valour that he had seen, until after the saint’s death, when he took pains to tell it to many.” [Bede, The Life of St Cuthbert, ch. X]

Mr Maxwell’s thoughts about this episode and his interpretation of what happened are very enlightening.

“Now it is apparent to me that whatever other saintly virtues St Cuthbert possessed he well merited canonisation by reason of his forbearance alone. I know all about being dried by otters. I have been dried by them more times than I care to remember. Like everything else about otters, it takes place the wrong way round, so to speak. When one plays ball with a puppy, one throws the ball and the puppy fetches it back and then one throws it again; it is all comparatively restful and orderly. But when one plays ball with an otter the situation gets out of hand from the start; it is the otter who throws the ball — to a remarkable distance — and the human who fetches it. With the human who at the beginning is not trained to this the otter is fairly patient, but persistent and obstinate refusal meets with reprisals. The same upside-down situation obtains when being dried by otters. The otter emerges tempestuously from the sea or the river or the bath, as the case may be, carrying about half a gallon of water in its fur, and sets about drying you with a positively terrifying zeal and enthusiasm. Every inch of you requires, in the view of a conscientious otter, careful attention. The otter uses its back as the principal towel, and lies upon it while executing a series of vigorous, eel-like wriggles. In a surprisingly short space of time the otter is quite dry except for the last four inches of its tail, and the human being is soaking wet except for nothing. It is no use going to change one’s clothes; in a few minutes the otter will come rampaging out of the water again intent upon its mission of drying people.


“I have but little doubt what the good brother of Coldingham monastery really saw. St Cuthbert had been praying at the water’s edge, not, as the brother thought (it was, one must bear in mind, night, and the light was poor) up to his neck in the waves; and it was entirely the condition of the saint’s clothing after he had been dried by the otters that led the observer to deduce some kind of sub-marine devotion. Clearly, too, it was an absolution rather than a simple benediction that the now shivering and bedraggled saint bestowed upon his tormentors. In the light of my interpretation St Cuthbert’s injunction to silence falls neatly into place, for he could not know of the brother’s misapprehension, and not even a saint enjoys being laughed at in this kind of misfortune.”

(From Ring of Bright Water, by Gavin Maxwell (London: Longmans, 1960).

This episode in Cuthbert’s long active life illustrates once again the essential sympathy that the true saints have not just for the birds and animals but for the whole of creation. These saints never lost sight of the fact that for the true Christian it is God not man who is the master of creation.

All too many people, even some high-ranking clergy in the Church, all too often lose sight of this fact.


St Jerome and his lion

St Jerome (c. 342-420 AD) is one of the most important figures in the early centuries of the Church. He was responsible for the creation of a Latin version of the Bible derived in the case of the Old Testament from the Hirer version rather than the Septuagint (the version in the current use among the Jews). This version called the Vulgate dominates the scriptures of the Church down to the recent centuries, when a more scholarly approach was adopted. But this great man was also famous for his relations with animals, notably with a lion.

Jerome had had a varied career before he became a convert, then a priest and eventually thanks to his scholarship a cardinal. He moved from Western Europe to Bethlehem, where he worked on his Bible translation.

“On a day towards even Jerome sat with his brethren for to hear the holy lesson, and a lion came halting suddenly in to the monastery, and when the brethren saw him, anon they fled, and Jerome came against him as he should come against his guest, and then the lion showed to him his foot being hurt. Then he called his brethren, and commanded them to wash his feet and diligently to seek and search for the wound. And that done, the plant of the foot of the lion was sore hurt and pricked with a thorn. Then this holy man put thereto diligent cure, and healed him, and he abode ever after as a tame beast with them.”

[The Golden Legend by Jacobus Voragine (1275), ch. 146, translated into English and printed by William Caxton, 1483.]


The lion was the subject of other pious legends which are also detailed in The Golden Legend. This story was read as an instance of the saint’s humble love of all animals, which derived from his experiences as a hermit in the Syrian desert.

But reading it today it also has a significance drawn from the fact of natural history, like St Cuthbert’s otters.

Jerome may well have known more about lions than his later hagiographers and commentators. Col. Jim Corbett, the author of that classic book Man-Eaters of Kumaon (London: Oxford University Press, 1946), explains how it is that some tigers, usually an animal that stays well away from humans, turn into man-eaters.

“A man-eating tiger is a tiger that has been compelled, stress of circumstances beyond its control, to a diet alien to it. The stress of circumstances is, in cases out of ten, wounds, and in the tenth case old age. The wound that has caused a particular tiger to take to man-eating might be the result of a carelessly fired shot and failure to follow up and recover the wounded or be the result of the tiger having lost its temper killing a porcupine.”


The tiger which encountered the porcupine had lost an eye and had got some fifty quills, varying in length from one to nine inches, embedded in the arms and under the pad of the right foreleg. So what the legend simply describes as a ‘thorn’ might well have had a serious outcome.

By the way, the lion of St Jerome was not – despite what Renaissance painters might lead us to believe – the familiar African lion to be seen in the wild and in so many zoos. It was in fact the Asiatic lion, a smaller creature with a different kind of mane and carriage. (One can be seen, if I remember rightly, among the preserved higher mammals on the second floor of the Natural History Museum in Merrion Square in Dublin (when it is open).

Today the Asiatic lion is restricted to the Forest of Gir, a nature reserve in the Indian State of Gujarat. However in earlier times it was found in Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Persia and across much of south Asia. They were well known in Palestine; with many place names derived from them, and there are many allusions to them in the Old Testament. Lions would have been found in the canebrakes along the river Jordan flowing into the Dead Sea to the east of Bethlehem, which is where St Gerasimus, in the Orthodox traditions, is said to have encountered his lion. But it would seem more likely that Jerome’s lion came down from the then heavily forested Judaean Mountains to the west of the town. Today these forests are gone and with them the lions.

The lion features in very many medieval and early modern images of St Jerome, especially at work in his study. It was a potent symbol of the kindly, intimate association possible between wild beasts and those of a saintly character.