Wednesday 8 July 2020

Saint Columba's other Water Monsters

It is one of the best known Loch Ness Monster stories and also the first dating back over fourteen hundred years to the sixth century when the heathen Picts were being evangelized by Saint Columba and his followers from Ireland and Iona. The story was publicized pretty much soon after the monster gained worldwide publicity in late 1933. However, there are two other tales of sea monsters from the same work entitled "Life of Columba" written by his cousin Saint Adomnan who was the Abbot of Iona after Columba. But before we explore those stories, let us reprise the tale from the Ness which is taken from the Fordham translation:

On another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat. The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank.

And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream. Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed."

Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.

My main article on this story can be found here and is actually the fourth most popular article in the ten year history of this blog, so I will not dwell on this in any great detail. How much of this story is legend, myth or history is always going to be a matter of debate. It is to be remembered that the story is taken from a hagiography rather than a biography. It certainly does not carry the factual weight of a modern eyewitness report, but it has a cryptid kernel of truth in it as far as I am concerned. 

What I find interesting is the lack of any identification of the creature dubbed as an "aquatic beast" by Adomnan. Other creatures Columba met on his travels are readily identified throughout the book, so why not this one? I suggest it is because there was no ready identification for this beast in the River Ness. Some have suggested a bear or a walrus, but bears do not lie at the bottom of rivers and walruses do not bite or attack with wide open mouths. In this, Columba's beast and the modern beast have something in common, they are both unidentified.

But let us move onto the other two water monster stories, starting with the tale of a wandering boat.

When Cormac was laboriously engaged in his third voyage over the ocean, he was exposed to the most imminent danger of death. For, when for fourteen days in summer, and as many nights, his vessel sailed with full sails before a south wind, in a straight course from land, into the northern regions, his voyage seemed to be extended beyond the limits of human wanderings, and return to be impossible.

Accordingly, after the tenth hour of the fourteenth day, certain dangers of a most formidable and almost insurmountable kind presented themselves. A multitude of loathsome and annoying insects, such as had never been seen before, covered the sea in swarms, and struck the keel and sides, the prow, and stern of the vessel, so very violently, that it seemed as if they would wholly penetrate the leathern covering of the ship. According to the accounts afterwards-given by those who were there, they were about the size of frogs; they could swim, but were not able to fly; their sting was extremely painful, and they crowded upon the handles of the oars.

When Cormac and his fellow-voyagers had seen these and other monsters, which it is not now our province to describe, they were filled with fear and alarm, and, shedding copious tears, they prayed to God, who is a kind and ready helper of those who are in trouble. At that same hour our holy Columba, although far away in body, was present in spirit with Cormac in the ship. Accordingly he gave the signal, and calling the brethren to the oratory, he entered the church, and addressing those who were present, he uttered the following prophecy in his usual manner: "Brethren, pray with all your usual fervour for Cormac, who by sailing too far hath passed the bounds of human enterprise, and is exposed at this moment to dreadful alarm and fright, in the presence of monsters which were never before seen, and are almost indescribable.

We ought, therefore, to sympathize with our brethren and associates who are in such imminent danger, and to pray to the Lord with them; behold at this moment Cormac and his sailors are shedding copious tears. and praying with intense fervency to Christ; let us assist them by our prayers, that God may take compassion upon us, and cause the wind, which for the past fourteen days has blown from the south, to blow from the north, and this north wind will, of course, deliver Cormac's vessel out of all danger."

Now what could these strange beasts be that so assailed the vessel of Cormac? The description of being like frogs or insects which could swim, sting and swarm around the boat suggests these may have been some species of jellyfish. In the right warm conditions, we can have a population explosion which can clog boats and could cause consternation to travelers. The fact this happened in the summer supports such a theory and I note a modern story from the south of Scotland concerning a swarm of common moon jellyfish. But then again, one would have thought they would have known jellyfish when they saw them? Other monsters are mentioned in this story which we are told were beyond the scope of the book. We will never know what kind of encounters these were.

The final story goes to the opposite end of the size spectrum as a real monster of the deep is encountered by another associate of Columba by the name of Berach as he sailed from Iona to Tiree:

One day when the venerable man was staying in the Iouan island (Iona), a certain brother named Berach intended to sail to the Ethican island (Tiree), and going to the saint in the morning asked his blessing. The saint looking at him, said, "O my son, take very great care this day not to attempt sailing direct over the open sea to the Ethican land (Tiree); but rather take a circuit, and sail round by the smaller islands, for this reason, that thou be not thrown into great terror by a huge monster, and hardly be able to escape." On receiving the saint's blessing he departed, and when he reached his ship, he set sail without giving heed to the saint's words.

But as he was crossing over the larger arms of the Ethican sea, he and the sailors who were with him looked out, and lo, a whale, of huge and amazing size, raised itself like a mountain, and as it floated on the surface, it opened its mouth, which, as it gaped; was bristling with teeth. Then the rowers, hauling in their sail, pulled back in the utmost terror, and had a very narrow escape from the agitation of the waves caused by the motion of the monster; and they were also struck with wonder as they remembered the prophetic words of the saint.

On the morning of that same day, as Baithene was going to sail to the forenamed island, the saint told him about this whale, saying, "Last night, at midnight, a great whale rose from the depth of the sea, and it will coast this day on the surface of the ocean between the Iouan and Ethican islands (Iona and Tiree)." Baithene answered and said, "That beast and I are under the power of God." "Go in peace," said the saint, "thy faith in Christ shall defend thee from this danger." Baithene accordingly, having received the saint's blessing, sailed from the harbour; and after they had sailed a considerable distance, he and his companions saw the whale; and while all the others were much terrified, he alone was without fear, and raising up both his hands, blessed the sea and the whale. At the same moment the enormous brute plunged down under the waves, and never afterwards appeared to them.

The likely two candidates for this beast identified as a whale are the killer whale or a basking shark. The huge gaping mouth described in the story reminds one of the filter feeding action of the basking shark, though it could hardly be described as bristling with teeth. Both creatures are compared below. It is to be noted that Adomnan readily identifies the creature as a whale like everything else in his book apart from the one creature encountered on the River Ness and those strange frog-like creatures north of Iona. I made an educated guess concerning them, what was encountered in the river does not readily fit anything normally seen in that river.

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