Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Saints and animals

One of the things that one often comes across in hagiographies (writings about saints) is that the saints often had a special relationship with animals, especially wild animals. The Christian monastic holy men of all ages not only mediated between man and man, and between man and God, but also between human beings and wild animals. They were believed to be able to protect people from harmful animals, and yet also to have a special relationship with animals.

In some ways, this is related to the idea of the demonic forces, which were believed to be able to control wild animals. Poisonous snakes and large carnivores such as lions and leopards were particularly dangerous in Africa before the nineteenth century, and there are many stories of Egyptian and Ethiopian saints preventing dangerous animals from harming people or their homes or crops or cattle. These accounts are very similar to many biblical ones -- Daniel being unharmed in the lion's den, and St Paul being unharmed when bitten by a poisonous snake, for example.

But the relation between the holy men and wild animals was not seen only as one of conflict, but also one of friendliness. There are stories of lions, rhinoceroses and leopards allowing holy men to mount and ride them and even to talk to them. This is not peculiar to Ethiopian monastics. St Seraphim of Sarov made friends with a bear and several other animals (Stefanatos 1992:281), as did St Columbanus in Gaul (Mayr-Harting 1991:92). Theologically, this indicates an understanding that the enmity between human beings and animals brought about through the fall has been done away with. Salvation is not simply an individual affair, between the individual and God, but rather God reconciles the world to himself, and redeems it from bondage to corruption and conflict. The monastic holy man is in a sense the image of the reconciling ministry of Christ on earth, and by growing in holiness monastics seek to live transfigured lives and so transfigure the world (Stefanatos 1992:75).

Christians, as a new creation in Christ, should be able to live in harmony with other human beings, with God, and with nature and their natural environment, and the monastic holy men are examples and models of this (Kaplan 1984:89). Similar stories are told of the monastic holy men who evangelised Ethiopia, England, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Lappland, Georgia, Armenia and Siberia. Whether Eastern or Western, African, European or Asian, the stories are remarkably similar.

St Mark's account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is the shortest in the synoptic gospels, but it contains one detail that is lacking in both Matthew and Luke: "he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts" .And so many of the followers of Jesus throughout the ages, the desert-dwelling monastic holy men, have been driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, and were with the wild beasts.


  • Kaplan, Steven. 1984. The monastic holy man and the Christianization of early Solomonic Ethiopia. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner.
  • Mayr-Harting, Henry. 1991. The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. London: Batsford.
  • Stefanatos, Joanne. 1992. Animals and man: a state of blessedness. Minneapolis: Light & Life.


This post is part of a synchroblog on Christianity and the environment. A number of bloggers synchronise their blogs by writing on the same basic theme on the same day. Here are links to the other posts:


David said...

I love the post!
Although if I was walking through Africa and a lion jumped out of the brush at me, I'm not sure if my first response would, "Hello, can I get a ride?"
But who knows...I'm sure I'd be praying and listening to God quite intently at the time.

Anonymous said...

Please check out this reference which gives a unique appreciation of the non-human inhabitants of this mostly non-human world.

And yes there are many recorded instances of saints from all of the Traditions having intimate heart-felt relations with animals.

Rory Short said...

It is not only Saints and monastics that, in the interests of all of creation, including ourselves, should work to develop a love of all of creation, including animals, it is all of us.

As I see it everything is part of the Creator. Some of it, like humankind, does go off track but the Creator wants nothing more than that the off track bit should return to the fold, it is not rejected by the Creator as the gospels tell us.

Thus the slightest hint of rejection in our hearts of any bit of creation is a rejection of an aspect of the Creator which is surely not what we want to be party to.

Related Posts with Thumbnails