When Saints Took On Legendary Beasts

The previous portions of this series have looked at theological and philosophical aspects of our Christian Faith. We turn now to more historical matters, for stories of strange creatures appear also in many lives of the saints. These hagiographical texts include stories of one saint or another facing off with a mysterious creature, often described as a “dragon” or some variation of lake monster. Cryptozoologists frequently point to these stories as historical reports of real creatures. 

Regardless of whether these stories are real or not, we can use them as a way to introduce others to the incredible holy lives of these saints and present them as models of holiness, even if their cryptozoological side turns out to be exaggerated.  

The Classic Catholic Cryptid Story

Most of these saint and monster stories are more metaphorical than historical; in other words, they may point to spiritual realities or conflicts, rather than actual events in the life of the saint.  That said, some saints faced supposed monsters in locations where modern day sightings of such beasts continue. 

This is most famously shown in the life of St. Columba (aka, Columkille), one of the great patron saints of Ireland.  

In one of the most famous accounts of St. Columba’s life, the Vitae Columbae, the saint repels a “monster” in the River Ness, which flows out of Scotland’s Loch Ness, the legendary home of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. In doing so he saves a young man swimming in the river, and thereby convinces the pagan people who witness the miracle to abandon their paganism and embrace Christianity. For many, this is no mere medieval miracle story. So seriously do cryptozoologists take this story that one leading cryptozoologist suggests that “Every self-respecting cryptozoologist knows — or should know — about the famous encounter claimed for St. Columba.” Understandably, almost every work on Nessie mentions St. Columba and the Monster. 

Yet Columba’s story is more than this cryptozoological footnote. His life was one of drama, intrigue, warfare, and a radical love of Christ and evangelizing His Church. In fact, compared to many of the other stories in the Vitae Columbae, the story of the monster in the River Ness is rather mundane. The monster, then, serves as a way to invite readers to learn more about the man behind the legend.  

St. Columba is far from the only saint whose life included an encounter with a cryptid.  In fact, we need look no further than Ireland, called “Insula Sanctorum,” “the Island of the Saints,” by many medieval writers. As with Columba, we might first hear about these saints because of the monsters associated with them, but we soon find ourselves learning about profound figures of our Faith.  In other words, we come for the monsters and stay for the saints. 

St. Mochua and the Lough Cime Creature

After Columba, Mochua is perhaps the most famous monster-facing Irish saint.  The Book of Lismore tells of how one day, Mochua approached Lough Cime in County Galway (or Lough Ree; reports differ on the location). A prince named Ceallach had just chased a deer into the lake, but none of his men wanted to follow the stag, as the lake was said to contain a monster. Mochua promised that none of the prince’s men would be hurt, and a young man dove into the lake, swam to the deer (who was at this point on a small island), and started to swim back with his prize when the monster arose from the depths of the lake and devoured him. Understandably, Ceallach was upset with Mochua; the saint then prayed (the Book of Lismore says he “waxed wroth”) against the monster, and it spewed the young man unharmed. Ceallach and his men were amazed and became Christian. 

This may be mere legend, but the man behind the legend, St. Mochua (d. 637) was real indeed. Born into a negligent family, named Cronan at his birth, the future saint was educated by another Irish saint, St. Comgall, who found the young boy living in poor conditions. A soldier in his earlier life, at around age 30 Cronan Mochua gave up his secular life and became a monk, living as a hermit in the Celtic tradition. Irish monks embraced asceticism, and Mochua was no exception. By the time he embarked on a journey throughout Ireland, establishing monasteries wherever he went, he already had a reputation as a miracle worker. 

St. Kiaran (or Ciaran) of Clonmacnoise

Kiaran/Ciaran’s monstrous claim to fame involves (as always seems the case) his triumph over a monster in the River Shannon, which he relocated to Lough Ree.  The creature was attacking local herds of cows, and the farmers called upon St. Ciaran to help them.  The holy man did battle with the monster, and drove it into the larger Lough Ree, where it was confined by the saint’s prayers.  Whether this is the same creature as encountered by St. Mochua or not is up for debate. 

Kiaran is perhaps best known not for facing lake monsters but for founding Clonmacnoise, the most influential Christian monastery in Irish history.  The monastery became the center (geographically and spiritually) of Irish Catholicism, and as such helped transform continental Europe as well.  The spirituality of the monastery flowed from Kiaran’s association with other Irish spiritual masters, such as St. Finnian of Clonard, St. Enda of the Aran Islands (who together taught the “Twelve Apostles” of Celtic monasticism), and St. Kevin of Glendalough.  

St. Kevin and the Beastie

St. Kevin likewise faced a lake monster in his hermitage.  The story was that all of nature obeyed and honored Kevin.  Birds flocked to him, and cows from the local farms licked his feet and produced great quantities of milk.  The problem was that the local lake monster began to eat pilgrims and farmers who came to ask Kevin for spiritual advice.  And so, Kevin convinced the monster to move from Glendalough to nearby Lough Nahanagan, where it was occasionally seen in the ensuing centuries.  

The story is fantastic, but like the other monster stories we’ve mentioned, we see behind the monster’s tale a saint worthy of our imitation.  Although we know little for certain about St. Kevin, as the earliest account of his life dates from centuries later, we can verify his reputation for holiness.  He came from a noble Irish family, but, like many of the great monastic saints, gave up his wealth to embrace the radical call to follow Christ.  Pilgrims can travel to County Wicklow in Ireland and visit where Kevin lived and prayed; perhaps even hearing Christ’s call for their own lives.  

A Host of Holy Tales of Tails

We have examined a handful of the saints who, according to the legends and stories surrounding them, faced a cryptid. The tales we have examined barely begin to trace the stories of strange creatures and saints. 

Other Irish saints faced lake monsters:

  • St. Senan banished a man-eating monster from the River Shannon.
  • St. Colman of Dromore saved a young girl from being eaten alive by a monster.  
  • St. Molua saved two boys from a boat-sized beast chasing them. 

We could even include St. Brendan the Navigator in our catalog of saints who faced cryptids. On his voyage to a strange land to the west, Brendan encountered a huge range of strange creatures, including sea monsters (whales?), hairy men (men in furry coats?), and huge, fat beasts with teeth like spears (walruses?).

We might also speak of St. George and his dragon, or of St. Theodore of Amasea and his. St. Donatus of Arezzo likewise slew a poisonous beast which infected the water of his town’s well; you can visit the islands of Murano, near Venice, Italy, and see Donatus’ body and above him the bones of a creature claimed to be the dragon he slew.

Did these stories happen as described in the Vitae of the saints?  Probably not.  A healthy skepticism is important when inspecting medieval monster tales. A true skeptic, in examining the tales of monsters in hagiographic works, might seek the true story by digging into the historical lives of the saints, to peel away the legend to get at the man behind the story. In doing so, this historian might find a model of holiness prompted not by typical spiritual reading, but by tales of unknown creatures. In learning of the saints, the historian learns about the One whom they served. Perhaps it might even lead to a relationship with God. 

In that way, even legends can lead to the glory of our Lord.  

This article is the final installment in the four-part series Catholic Cryptozoology. Click the above image or click here for previous entries.

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Matthew B. Rose received his BA (History and English) and MA (Systematic Theology) from Christendom College. He is the chairman of the Religion department at Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School in Arlington, VA. Matthew also runs Quidquid Est, Est!, a Catholic Q & A blog, and has contributed to various online publications. He and his family live in Northern Virginia.

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