Thursday, February 23, 2017

St Pol and the dragon

The iconography of St Pol (Sant Paol in Breton), one of the founding saints of Brittany, shows the saint with a dragon beneath his feet. The reference is to an event on the Ile de Batz, in the area where he came to settle permanently, witnessed today by the nearby mainland town of St-Pol-de-Léon with its cathedral commemorating St Pol as the first bishop in the early 6th century.

St Pol began his religious career in Wales, studying at the prestigious monastery of Llanwit Major. From a noble family, he was marked by his piety from an early age, although the evidence for his later life suggests the uneasy mixture of asceticism and missionary zeal not uncommon in the early Breton saints. After a sojourn with King Mark in Cornwall, where he was refused a bronze bell to take to his new land, St Pol sailed across the Channel to confront the pagan population of western Brittany with the steady truth of Christianity.

This focused purpose is suggested by his first landfall on Ouessant, a remote island in the Atlantic off the north-west shore of Brittany. Here there was a well-established pagan cult centre, a group of priestesses that St Pol is said to have forced from one end of the island to the other. A cross on the cliffs marked his first landfall, with a nearby stone bearing the imprint of his knees at prayer. The name of the only sizeable settlement on Ouessant today is Lampaul – the holy place of St Pol.

Further place-names reflect the saint’s traditional journey eastwards across what is now Léon, the northern part of Finistère: Lampaul-Plouarzel, Lampaul-Ploudalmezeau, the chapel of Prat-Paol, Lampaul-Guimiliau and finally St-Pol-de-Léon. Here St Pol is said to have had a positive interview with local count Withur (who may have been a relation), and received land on the Ile de Batz, just off Roscoff. Here he founded a monastery on the site of what later became a chapel to St-Anne, still visible in ruins on the island now.

The Ile de Batz was terrorised by a marauding dragon and the inhabitants approached St Pol for help. He is said to have called the beast out of its lair, placed his bishop’s stole around its neck, led it to the western edge of the island and commanded the dragon to hurl itself into the sea. It obeyed. The place today is called Toull ar Zarpant, Serpent’s Hole, and a striking rock formation marks the bay where this remarkable event took place.

In the village church, a medieval bishop’s stole is displayed in a glass case, echoing the most memorable feature of the story, a wild beast led like a tame dog to its death. The fabric has been tested and is very early, possibly 8th century, alas too late for St Pol himself who died near the end of the 6th century at the great age of 102.

He had wanted to continue a quiet monastic life on the Ile de Batz, but was tricked into becoming a bishop by Withur who sent him to Clovis in Paris with a note requesting his episcopal consecration. Thereafter he cleared more wild beasts from the Celtic site of Occismor and founded what later became the cathedral and town of St-Pol-de-Léon. Official life was not congenial to St Pol who made several thwarted attempts to retire to the Ile de Batz before he was finally allowed to live out the rest of his long life in peace there.

The dragon story overrides all other tales of St Pol’s miracle-working, such as healing the blind and commanding the sea to respect a boundary he had set, the powers that set him apart from other Christians in his group of settlers. It is surely the detail of that wild monster behaving like a family pet that sticks in the memory and makes the story curious. Another interesting detail, often overlooked, is that the saint took a companion with him for this feat, a certain knight from Cléder. The implication of a knight is of course a warrior with a sword, which sounds suspiciously like an insurance policy or back-up plan. Did St Pol want a witness? Or perhaps a muscle-man if things did not turn out to his advantage. Did the islanders turn out to watch a potentially thrilling contest or cower in their huts until the danger was past? An observed miracle and a reported one are markedly different things.

If the dragon, so vividly described in the Latin text of an early Vita of St Pol, written by Wrmonoc, a monk at Landévennec in 884, symbolized pagan religion, the worship of natural forces and elemental powers, it was perhaps apt that it met its end on the western shore, a direction associated with death and the Isles of the Blessed in Celtic mythology, here where the sea stretches emptily and endlessly into the far distance. The bay is crammed with rocks of all sizes today, dominated by the vaguely beast-shaped pile of giant stones at a point exposed fully at low tide. The sea of course has resurrective potential in pagan mythology, so the beast may not have been reluctant after all, and needed little bidding to opt not for destruction but regeneration, and a welcome release from the irritating goodness of Christian saints.

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