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George Harley McKnight.

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days. If he should happen to be in Catania on
one of the two days in the year devoted to the
honor of Catania's patron saint Agatha, he would
see the image of St. Agatha surrounded by native
offerings of extravagant value, in a resplendent
car drawn by white-robed men, and he would
hear enthusiastic shouts of "Viva Sant' Agatha!"
whenever a new candle for the car was offered by



112




Triumphal Car of St. Lucy used in the Annual Procession in Honor
of the Saint at Syracuse in Sicily.



St. Nicholas as Patron Saint 113

one of the votaries of the saint. In Palermo he
would find like honor paid on her festival day to
St. Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo ; in Syra-
cuse he would find St. Lucy; in Taormina, St.
Pancras, similarly honored. These Sicilian cele-
brations of saints' days, featured as they are by
the presence of such modern, ultra-secular inven-
tions as fireworks, nevertheless retain not only
much of the form but to some extent the spirit
of earlier celebrations.

Nor is the Sicilian worship of saints entirely
one-sided. On the one hand honors are paid, but
on the other hand benefits are supposed to be re-
ceived. An idea of the nature of the protection
afforded by the saints and of the intimate relation
existing between saint and votary may be gained
by a visit to the church of San Nicola at Girgenti.
There one will find the picture of the saint sur-
rounded by representations, in silver, or more
often in wax or carved and painted wood, of swollen
limb, cancerous breast, goitered throat, injured
eye, carbuncle, and the like, healed through the
intervention of the saint. Even more specific,
more living, record of protection received is af-
forded by the votive offerings on one wall of the
church in the form of naive little paintings illus-
trating the aid afforded by St. Nicholas, one



ii4 St. Nicholas

"showing a spirited donkey running away with
a painted cart, the terrified occupant frantically
making signals of distress to S. Nicola in heaven
who is preparing promptly to check the raging
ass, others showing S. Nicola drawing a petitioner
from the sea, or turning a mafia dagger aside, or
rinding a lost child in the mountains." 1

In Catholic Brittany, too, one will find similar
forms of saint worship. One will find the so-called
"Pardons," or pilgrimages on different days of
the year to different ones of the famous shrines
of Brittany, occasions celebrated with festal pro-
cessions accompanying the image or the relics of
the saint honored. In the Breton churches also
one will find the same form of testimony, as in
Sicily, to the protection offered by the various
saints. In the church of St. Sauveur at Dinan,
in the chapel of St. Roch, one will find a represen-
tation of the saint over the altar and on the wall
a framed vceu, to the effect that St. Roch confers
many benefits, especially in case of pestilence,
that he saved the city from pestilence in 16 ,
and that the VCEU is for the sake of preserving the
memory of his goodness to the city. On the wall
also are framed litanies to St. Roch and individual
votive offerings with dates, many in the form of
hearts, others framed inscriptions with "Merci Bon



St. Nicholas as Patron Saint 115

St. Roch," accompanied by the date of the benefit
received. Over the door of a house in Brittany
also one often finds the image of the patron saint
of the occupant.

In Brittany down to our own time honor con-
tinues to be paid to a great number of saints not
known elsewhere, never canonized by the Roman
church and probably in their origin having little
of Christian character, more than likely Christian
representatives of earlier, local, pagan divinities.
The functions of these local Breton saints are
specialized to an extent hardly found elsewhere
at the present .time. Ailments are subject to the
cure of particular saints. The specialization is
hardly equalled even by that in the modern practice
of medicine. Saint Mamert is invoked in case of
pains of the stomach, Saint Meen for insanity,
Saint Hubert for dog bites, Saint Livertin for
headache, Saint Houarniaule for fear, Saint
Radegonde for toothache.

There is a certain beauty in the intimate rela-
tions existing between simple people and their
divine representative, but the naive character of
the practice , in a striking manner, brings to one's
realization the superstitious mode of thought pre-
valent in medieval times. The Reformation, in
the sixteenth century, did much to dispel these



ii6 St. Nicholas

older, superstitious forms of religious thought.
As already remarked, among Protestants the old
reverence of the saints is hardly understood. In
the modern Catholic church, too, the extravagant
features of saintly legend and of saint worship
have been largely eliminated, only vestiges surviv-
ing in those provinces little affected by modern
progress.

Evidence of similar specialization in earlier
forms of saint worship, and of Protestant ridicule
of it, is to be found in Barnabe Googe's sixteenth-
century translations from Naogeorgus 2 :

To every saint they also doe his office here assine,
And fourtene doe they count of whom thou mayst
have ayde divine;

Saint Barbara lookes that none without the body of

Christ doe dye,
Saint Cathern favours learned men, and gives them

wisdome hye;



Saint Appolin the rotten teeth doth helpe, when sore

they ake;
Otilla from the bleared eyes the cause and griefe doth

take;

Saint Gertrude riddes the house of mise, and killeth

all the rattes ;
The like doth bishop Huldrich with his earth, two

passing cattes ;




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St. Nicholas as Patron Saint 117

Saint Gregerie lookes to little boys, to teach their

a, b, c,
And makes them for to love their bookes and schollers

good to be;
Saint Nicolas keepes the mariners from daunger

and diseas
That beaten are with boystrous waves and tost in

dreadfull seas.

Not only were the saints invoked for protection
against particular ills, but the guilds, or craft
fraternities, had each its patron saint. Cities
and nations also had each its particular saintly
guardian, and individuals, by assuming the names
of particular saints, aimed to establish a protective
relationship. Variations in these relationships
existed, but some ones widely recognized were
that between St. Agatha and nurses, St. Catherine
and St. Gregory and studious persons, St. Cecilia
and musicians, Saints Cosmas and Damian and
physicians, St. Luke and painters, St. Sebastian
and archers, St. Valentine and lovers, St. Ives and
lawyers, Saints Andrew and Joseph and carpen-
ters, St. George and clothiers, and so on. Of
countries Scotland comes under the care of St.
Andrew, England under that of St. George, Ire-
land under that of St. Patrick, Wales under that
of St. David. St. Anthony belongs especially to
Italy, St. Denis to France, St. Thomas to Spain,



n8 St. Nicholas

St. Mary to Holland, St. Sebastian to Portugal.
Of cities Venice is under the protection of St.
Mark, Florence of St. John, Paris of St. Genevieve,
Vienna of St. Stephen, Cologne of the Holy
Magi. 3

As compared with some of the other saints in
affording protection St. Nicholas is less the special-
ist and more the general practitioner. He cer-
tainly has his share of duties assigned him. With
St. Mary and St. Andrew he shares the guardian-
ship of Russia, with Olaf that of Norway, 4 with
St. Julian of Rimini, that of the whole eastern
coast of Italy. Of cities he is the patron saint:
in the North, of Moscow and Aberdeen, in the
South, of Ban and Corfu, in intermediate countries,
of Amiens, Civray (Poitou), Ancona, Fribourg
(Switzerland), and several places in Lorraine. 5

The guardianship of St. Nicholas over school-
boys and unwedded maids has already been dis-
cussed. Mention has also been made of St.
Nicholas as patron saint of various crafts in the
towns of the Netherlands. To the list of occupa-
tions protected, may be added those of butchers,
fishermen, pilgrims, brewers, chandlers, and coop-
ers, 6 with all of which St. Nicholas is more or
less closely associated as patron saint. It remains
to consider in more detail the part played by St.




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St. Nicholas as Patron Saint 119

Nicholas as the protector of mariners and the less
prominent, but not the less interesting, relationship
between St. Nicholas and thieves.

Throughout the Christian world, everywhere,
the devotion of sailors to St. Nicholas is much in
evidence. In Greece, where St. Nicholas is one
of the most popularly honored saints, at the present
day, according to a recent authority, 7 "everyone
connected with seafaring appeals to him for pro-
tection and relief. All ships and boats carry his
ikon with an ever-burning lamp, and in his chapels,
models of boats, coils of cables, anchors, and such
things, are given as votive offerings. Pirates
even used to give him half their booty in gratitude
for favors received. On account of this worship,
St. Nicholas has been said to have supplanted
Poseidon, for the cults lie along the same lines.
During a recent strike at the Pirasus the seamen
swore by St. Nicholas not to yield, and they
would not break their vow although they wished
to compromise. The Archbishop had to come
specially to release them from their oath."

In Russia, as in Greece, an ikon of St. Nicholas
is carried in every merchantman. 8 In other
countries there is plentiful record of similar asso-
ciation of St. Nicholas with the protection of the
sea. In the Island of Minorca, in the eighteenth



120 St. Nicholas

century, near the entrance to the harbor, stood a
chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, to which, accord-
ing to an old account, "the sailors resort that have
suffered shipwreck, to return thanks for their
preservation, and to hang up votive pictures
(representing the dangers they have escaped),
in gratitude to the saint for the protection he
vouchsafed them, and in accomplishment of the
vows they made in the height of the storm." 9

In Teutonic countries St. Nicholas played a
similar part. In Germany it was formerly cus-
tomary for sailors escaped from shipwreck to dedi-
cate a piece of old sail to St. Nicholas. 10 In every
Hanseatic city there was a church to St. Nicholas,
and in Hanseatic cities favorite personal names
were Nicolaus, Claas, Nickelo, and other popular
derivatives from St. Nicholas. There were also
churches dedicated to St. Nicholas in places
threatened by injury from water, for instance at
Quedlingburg. In Switzerland, too, St. Nicholas
is the patron of travelers by water. Sailors on the
Lake of Lucerne are said to make vows and votive
offerings to him, and by Swiss waters formerly
there were everywhere to be found St. Nicholas
chapels. 1 I

The association of St. Nicholas with the sea is
found in one of the best known of the incidents in



St. Nicholas as Patron Saint 121

his legend, although, in this case, even more than
the case of the other incidents of his life story,
there is room for question whether he is to be
regarded as the protector of seamen because of the
incident in his story, or the incident in the story
originated as an explanation of the veneration
paid St. Nicholas by seamen.

The incident in question is thus recorded in
the Golden Legend :

It is read in a chronicle that the blessed Nicholas
was at the Council of Nice; and on a day as a ship
with mariners were in perishing on the sea, they
prayed and required devoutly Nicholas, servant of
God, saying: If those things that we have heard of
thee be true, prove them now. And anon a man
appeared in his likeness and said : Lo ! see ye me not ?
ye called me, and then he began to help them in their
exploit of the sea, and anon the tempest ceased. And
when they were come to his church, they knew him
without any man to show him to them, and yet they
had never seen him. And then they thanked God
and him of their deliverance. And he bade them to
attribute it to the mercy of God, and to their belief,
and nothing to his merits.

It is worthy of note that the mariners of this
story, when in distress, already know of the repu-
tation of St. Nicholas for efficacy in such situations,
which seems to indicate that in this case story
grew from belief rather than belief from story.



122 St. Nicholas

The story of the rescue at sea accomplished by
the intervention of the saint forms a favorite
subject for Italian painters, particularly those of
the earlier period. The picture by L. Monaco
represents the scene in a manner delightfully
primitive.

The aid afforded by St. Nicholas to mariners in
distress also forms the subject of a story sung in a
popular Servian carol, 12 in which there is w much
in evidence the peculiar charm of the folk-tale.
The story goes that all the saints, festively as-
sembled, were drinking wine. When the cup, out
of which each drank in turn, was passed to St.
Nicholas, he was too sleepy to hold it, and let it
drop. St. Elias shook him by the arm and aroused
him. "Oh! I beg the pardon of the company,"
said the sleepy saint, "but I have been very busy
and I was absent from your festival. The sea
was rough, and I had to give my help to three
hundred ships that were in danger."

It is not easy to associate St. Nicholas with the
thought of severity. One can hardly conceive of
him as a stern judge. Was he open to the charge
of being what is popularly called ' ' easy ' ' ? Certain
it is that his beneficence had a wide scope. The
universality of his guardianship can hardly be
better illustrated than by the fact that he not only




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St. Nicholas as Patron Saint 123

afforded protection from robbers and shielded the
unjustly condemned, but at the same time shared
with St. Dismas the questionable honor of being
the protector of pirates and thieves.

This protective relationship, in Elizabethan
times, formed the subject of a stock jest. Robbers
and thieves were facetiously called "St. Nicholas'
clerks."

"Sirrah," says Gadshill, "if they meet not with
St. Nicholas' clerks, I'll give thee this neck."

"No," rejoins the Chamberlain, "I'll none of
it; I pr'ythee keep that for the hangman; for I
know thou worshipp'st Saint Nicholas as truly
as a man of falsehood may." 13

How did St. Nicholas get into such evil associa-
tions? It will be remembered that the seamen
protected by him included pirates, and that Greek
pirates are said to have shared their booty with
him. Have these evil associations corrupted his
good manners, and has he thus been brought into
association with thieves and robbers? Perhaps
so. But other explanations have been offered.
His name has become associated with that of
the "Old Nick" in a way that remains to be ex-
plained. Perhaps in this way he has come to
acquire the function of the "Old Nick," as the
protector of evil. A more plausible explanation



124 St. Nicholas

accounts for his association with thieves by the
popularly known story, which formed the subject
of one of the St. Nicholas plays, that of the thieves
who had stolen goods left under the guardianship
of St. Nicholas' image and who were compelled
by the saint to restore the goods and thus brought
" to the way of trouth. "

Whatever the cause, the association was one
well established. St. Nicholas' clerks were well
known in Elizabethan times, 14 and are fre-
quently referred to in literature. There were also
lively popular stories on the subject, one of which
forms the subject of a stanza in a merry St. Nicho-
las carol. * s

" Another he dede sekyrly,
He saved a thief that was ful sly,
That stal a swyn out of his sty,
His lyf than savyd he."



CHAPTER IX

PAGAN HERITAGE OF ST. NICHOLAS

FT is well known that when paganism was super-
seded by Christianity, the older religion was
by no means obliterated. In Greece the pagan
temples often were converted into Christian
churches. At Athens, the Parthenon, a temple of
the Virgin Pallas, became a church of the Virgin
Mary; the temple of Theseus became a church
devoted to a Christian hero, also a dragon-slayer,
St. George of Cappadocia. In the structure of
new churches, material from the older temples
was freely used. In many of the churches of
Rome may be seen beautiful classical columns
taken from the earlier pagan structures. A fine in-
stance of the mingling of elements, old and new, in
Christian architecture, is to be seen at Syracuse in
Sicily, where the older classical temple of Minerva
has been transformed into a renaissance cathedral.
The columns of the Doric temple are built into
the wall of the church but are too thick to be

125



126 St. Nicholas

concealed. On the outside they may be seen, at
times a protruding Doric capital, at times a whole
Doric column ; within the church, they form a line
of magnificent weathered columns bordering the
outer side of each aisle. In this church, to the
Christian and pagan combination, is superadded
a third element, in the form of rounded Saracenic
battlements.

The hybrid nature of this Christian architecture
in the countries pervaded by classical civilization
finds a striking parallel in the Christian practices
and Christian beliefs of these countries. In
these, too, there is evident a mingling of elements
new and old, Christian and pagan, with here and
there a tinge taken on from later forms of non-
Christian religion, corresponding to the Saracenic
element in the architecture of the cathedral at
Syracuse. Just as the graceful classic columns
survive as beautiful features in the Christian
churches, so, many fair products of the poetic
imagination belonging to the earlier faith have
found a place in the Christian religion. This is
particularly true in the case of the saints, who
continue to exert over the forces of nature the
same control in the interests of man that the minor
gods and demi-gods had done before.

In modern Greece there is to be found ample



Pagan Heritage of St. Nicholas 127

illustration of Christian appropriation of the old.
When gods have not been directly transformed into
saints, at least many of their attributes have been
taken over. In the island of Naxos, St. Dionysios
is widely worshiped, and like the god of similar
name, is connected in popular story with the origin
of the wine. There is a story of the journey of
the saint from Mt. Olympos to Naxos, in which
there is assuredly more of the pagan than of the
saintly quality. "He [St. Dionysios] noticed
an herb by the way and planted it in the bone of
a bird, then in the bone of a lion, and lastly in the
bone of an ass. At Naxos he made the first wine
with its fruit. The intoxication which followed
the drinking of this wine had three stages: first,
he sang like a bird; then, felt strong as a lion;
and lastly, became foolish as an ass." l In a
similar way, St. Demetrios, as the popular patron
of Greek husbandmen and shepherds, and the
protector of agriculture in general, assumes the
functions of the Earth-Mother, Demeter, 2 and
St. Artemidos, as patron of weakly children, has
taken over some of the attributes of Artemis, to
whom belonged protecting powers over children,
animals, and vegetation. 3 Still better known is
the case of St. Elias, who has acquired many of
the attributes of the sun-god, Helios. "It would



128 St. Nicholas

be difficult to find any spot in Greece from which
one could not descry on a prominent hilltop a
little white chapel dedicated to him, where at
least once a year, on the 2Oth of July, a service
is held. This hilltop saint is believed by the
peasants to be lord of sunshine, rain, and thun-
der. "4

Venus, too, finds her place in Christian worship
under the name of St. Venere. In West Albania,
where the practice has been imported from the
south of Italy, "she is invoked by girls as patron-
ess of marriage." 5 In the territory of St. Sophia,
in Calabria, her festival is celebrated on the 27th
of July, and the girls sing a song, in substance ' ' a
prayer to St. Venere not to leave them husband-
less now that all their companions are married
and gone." 6 St. Merkurios, also, has many of
the attributes of the pagan god Mercury. There
is an ancient story in which the saint plays the
role of messenger formerly assigned to the god.
Basil, Bishop of Csesarea, in a vision, saw the
heavens open, revealing Christ enthroned. ' ' Then
Christ called, 'Merkurios, go and slay Julian the
King, the persecutor of the Christians.' And
St. Merkurios stood before Him wearing a gleam-
ing iron breastplate, and on hearing the command,
he disappeared. Then he reappeared and stood



Pagan Heritage of St. Nicholas 129

before the Lord and cried, 'Julian the King has
been slain as Thou didst command, O Lord. ' " 7

In many other cases, where the direct pagan
inheritance is not so easily traced, saints in modern
Greece accomplish functions precisely similar to
those accomplished in ancient times by minor
deities. St. George is regarded as the protector
of the crops, probably on account of the etymology
of his name (Ge= "earth," ergmz = "work"). For
a similar reason, apparently, St. Maura is invoked
in case of ulcers or smallpox. Other saints with
similar functions are St. Madertos invoked in
case of pestilence among beasts, St. Blasios in
case of sore throat, and St. John in cases of fever.

People accustomed to seek divine aid in this
way, in case of trouble, are not easily to be deprived
of their recourse. If they are forbidden to wor-
ship their pagan divinities, then substitutes must
be found. Thus seamen deprived of Poseidon
as source of aid, had recourse to St. Phokas and
later turned to St. Nicholas, possibly, as has been
pointed out, due to the story, in the legend of
St. Nicholas, of aid rendered by him to the ship
in distress. The connection once established,
St. Nicholas came more and more to occupy the
place formerly held by Poseidon. Hence probably
the position held by St. Nicholas in popular be-



130 St. Nicholas

lief, especially in eastern Christendom, as the
guardian of sailors.

There is one modern Greek story of St. Nicholas
as patron saint of seamen which deserves to be
told because it shows the occasional survival, in the
popular worship of saints, of pagan elements which
the Christian Church could not countenance.
The story, as told by an old Greek man, is to this
effect: "At the time of the Revolution a number
of Greek ships assembled off Kamari. There
was great excitement and trepidation. So they
thought things over and decided to send a man to
St. Nicholas to ask him that their ships might
prosper in the war. They accordingly seized a
man and took him to the large hall at Kamari.
There they cut off his head and his hands, and
carried him down the steps into the hall." This
was a pagan rite obviously not to be tolerated by
the Christian God, for the story goes, "thereupon
God appeared with a bright torch in his hand, and
the bearers of the body dropped it, and all pres-
ent fled in terror." 8

It is evident that St. ' Nicholas inherited some
of the attributes of Poseidon, or Neptune. But
that does not sum up the extent of his pagan
heritage. Probably earlier than the association of
St. Nicholas with Poseidon is that with Demeter,



Pagan Heritage of St. Nicholas 131

or Diana, whose cult was particularly in vogue in
Lycia, the scene of the principal events in the
story of St. Nicholas.

In the Eastern Church there were two celebra-
tions in honor of St. Nicholas, not only the one on
the 6th of December, but one on the 9th of May.
The May celebration, which is still kept up by
Italians, even in America, is usually said to be in
honor of the removal of the relics of St. Nicholas
to Bari, but not unlikely is the continuation of the
Rosalia, a local pagan spring festival at Myra, the
Lycian home of St. Nicholas. Not only in Lycia,
but elsewhere, the St. Nicholas cult supplanted the
earlier worship of Artemis. In ^Etolia "at the
village of Kephalovryso, there is a little ruined
temple of St. Nicholas which, according to an
inscription built into the church, stands on the
site of a temple of Artemis. Another instance of
the same transference occurs at Aulis, where a
little Byzantine church of St. Nicholas has replaced
the Artemisium. ' ' 9

Following the substitution of the Christian


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