It was in the nineties of the last century I think that there were some reports in the newspapers – not the serious ones – about dinosaur s still living in the jungle in Africa. Of course no scientist believed this, but stories of unknown monsters still living somewhere have kept the imagination of the public. We only need to think of the Yeti or terrible snowman in the Himalaya or the Bigfoot in North America. Somehow a completely explored and explained environment is boring and there is a yearning for something spectacular, unexplained and mysterious, something that defeats science and scientists. The most famous example is of course Nessie, the monster of Loch Ness. The first reference is In Adomnán’s Vita Sancti Columbae, a hagiography of the life of St Columba (521-597), written about century later. Part of a hagiography was the performance of miracles by a saint and this is exactly what Columba does: he prevents amongst other miracles monster eating a man crossing the river Ness. Indeed, the river Ness, not the lake.
Miracles had the function of proofing that a man or woman was a saint indeed, working under the guidance of God and served to strengthen the faith of the readers. This is expressis verbis stated in this text: ejusdem miraculi magnitudine, quod et ipsi viderant, compulsi, Deum magnificaverunt Christianorum `compelled by greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had watched too, they praised the god of the Christians’.
There is also another point: for mediaeval Christian historians and hagiographers all history was sacred history in the sense that God had a hand in the course of history and through his miracles he showed his power.
A miracle story in a religious text is a literary topos, one might say a pia fraus, and not history. Looking for a rational explanation is therefore a waste of time and it betrays a lack of understanding of such texts: they want to be understood as miracles and as an extraordinary intervention in an ordinary world. Searching for a monster in Loch Ness is as hopeless as wondering what kind of whale had swallowed Jonah. As for the latter: some 18th century rationalistic thinkers thought that Jonah in fact stayed for three days some pub, called `At the Whale’, or had boarded a ship called `The whale’!
Miracles are best left where they belong: in texts. But still, somehow in my more romantic moments, may be in the depth of Loch Ness…
Adomnán, Vita Sancti Columbae, Liber 2, Caput 28: De Cujusdam Aquatilis Bestiae Virtute Orationis Beati Viri Repulsione
Alio quoque in tempore, cum vir beatus in Pictorum provincia per aliquot moraretur dies, necesse habuit fluvium transire Nesam: ad cujus cum accessisset ripam, alios ex accolis aspicit misellum humantes homunculum; quem, ut ipsi sepultores ferebant, quaedam paulo ante nantem aquatilis praeripiens bestia morsu momordit saevissimo: cujus miserum cadaver, sero licet, quidam in alno subvenientes porrectis praeripuere uncinis. Vir e contra beatus, haec audiens, praecipit ut aliquis ex comitibus enatans, caupallum, in altera stantem ripa, ad se navigando reducat. Quo sancti audito praedicabilis viri praecepto, Lugneus Mocumin, nihil moratus, obsecundans, depositis excepta vestimentis tunica, immittit se in aquas. Sed bellua, quae prius non tam satiata, quam in praedam accensa, in profundo fluminis latitabat, sentiens eo nante turbatam supra aquam, subito emergens, natatilis ad hominem in medio natantem alveo, cum ingenti fremitu, aperto cucurrit ore. Vir tum beatus videns, omnibus qui inerant, tam barbaris quam etiam fratribus, nimio terrore perculsis, cum salutare, sancta elevata manu, in vacuo aere crucis pinxisset signum, invocato Dei nomine, feroci imperavit bestiae dicens,` Noles ultra progredi, nec hominem tangas; retro citius revertere.’ Tum vero bestia, hac Sancti audita voce, retrorsum, ac si funibus retraheretur, velociori recursu fugit tremefacta: quae prius Lugneo nanti eo usque appropinquavit, ut hominem inter et bestiam non
amplius esset quam unius contuli longitudo. Fratres tum, recessisse videntes bestiam, Lugneumque commilitonem ad eos intactum et incolumem in navicula reversum, cum ingenti admiratione glorificaverunt Deum in beato viro. Sed et gentiles barbari, qui ad praesens inerant, ejusdem miraculi magnitudine, quod et ipsi viderant, compulsi, Deum magnificaverunt Christianorum.
Pictorum provincia: the Picts were the original inhabitants of Scotland. Little is known about their language, but in all likelihood it was Celtic, though not the predecessor of Gaelic Celtic spoken in Scotland today.
moror moratus sum: to stay, delay
ripa: shore, bank
accola (m.!): neighbour
misellum homunculum: a poor fellow (Note the double diminutive. Diminutives are rar more frequent in Mediaeval and Vulgar Latin than in Classical Latin.)
humo: to burry
sepultor (m.): burier
ferebant: the verb fero can have the meaning `to tell, relate’
praeripio: to snatch away
morsus –us (m.): bite
mordeo momordi morsum: to bite
sero licet: though too late
in alno subvenientes porrectis praeripuere uncinis: coming to aid in a boat (alnus) seized (praeripuerunt) him with outstretched hooks
e contra: in reaction (actually: contrary to what he was expected to do)
preacipio praecepi praeceptum: to order
enato: to swim away
caupallus: a small boat (normal spelling caupulus)
ad se navigando reducat: he should bring it back to him by sailing (or rowing)
obsecundo: to obey
excepta tunica: decency in front of a saint!
Bellua: (water) monster
quae prius non tam satiata, quam in praedam accensa: which rather than not satiated, was eager for prey
latito: to hide, lurk
eo nante: while he (Lugneo) was swimming
natatilis: swimming creature
alveum: bed of a river, river
fremitus –us (m.): loud noise
curro cucurri cursum: (here) to approach quickly
nimius: very much
omnibus… perculsis: an abl.abs. with a relative clause
percello perculi perculsum: strike down, discourage
salutare (adjective! from salutaris)…crucis pinxisset signum: he made (litt. `painted’) the saving sign of the Cross
funis –is: rope
eo usque …ut: so close, that
appropinquo (+ dat.): to approach
contulus: small pole
commilito –onis (m.): comrade
incolumis –is: unharmed
Translation by W. Reeves (1857)
How an aquatic monster was driven off by virtue of the blessed man's prayer
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.