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  • St Andrew and Scythia June 13, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    Patron saints have a strange habit of not coming from the countries that they are supposed to represent. England’s Saint George was Syrian, St Patrick was born not in Ireland but in Britain, Portugal’s patron saint lived all his life in northern Italy… Usually there is a logical enough explanation. St George, for instance, was adopted by English crusaders fighting in the Middle East. St Patrick may not have been born in Ireland, but he dedicated most of his life to converting the Irish. However, at other times, the choice of patron is utterly mysterious. Take, for example, Saint Andrew, Scotland’s patron. Andrew, spent the first half of his life in Palestine, one of Christ’s disciples, and the second half evangelising the inhabitants of south-west Asia. Why, of all the saints available, did the Scots choose one who lived, died and worked thousands of miles from Scotland?

    The earliest explanation of how Andrew became Scotland’s patron is unconvincing to say the least.  According to a tale that survives in several medieval manuscripts, Oengus, a pagan king from Scotland, found himself far from home and surrounded and outnumbered by a hostile enemy. Defeat looming, Andrew appeared to the king and told him that if he fought in the saint’s name, then he would triumph. At about the same time as Oengus was preparing for battle a monk from Greece named Rule was making his way to Scotland in a boat with the relics of St Andrew. Rule, who had been inspired to make the journey by a dream, arrived conveniently in Fife in south-west Scotland at the same time that Oengus, who had triumphed in the battle, was returning home. In celebration, Oengus dedicated a church to Andrew – the modern Saint Andrews – where Rule had landed.

    This unlikely story may be interesting as a folktale, but it has nothing to do with history.  The part relating to Oengus has been copied from the legends about the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312 AD). At that battle the Roman Emperor Constantine was also converted to Christianity by a victory. He too was outnumbered. And he too, inspired by a vision, won against all the odds. The two legends even agree in particulars. So for example, both Constantine and Oengus saw luminous signs in the sky before fighting – in the case of Constantine an enormous Chi-Rho, in the case of Oengus a burning cross. The Scottish author of the St Andrew legend has done what authors so often did in the Middle Ages. He has shamelessly filled in the gaps in his knowledge by filching from other sources.

    The medieval legend, then, has to be left to one side. But the problem remains. How did a saint who made his name converting south-west Asia become the patron of Scotland? The key to this quandary may be in the works of the fourth-century church historian, Eusebius. Eusebius describes how Christ’s followers went out to convert different parts of the world. ‘When the holy apostles and disciples of our Saviour were dispersed through the whole world, tradition tells us that… Thomas [went] to Parthia, while Scythia was allotted to Andrew and Asia to John.’ To the ancient Greeks Scythia referred to the central Asian Steppes. In Eusebius it probably means the lands to the north of the Black Sea – modern Ukraine and Russia. Certainly this is where later tradition claims that Andrew undertook his mission.

    At first Scythia may not seem very relevant to Scotland. But Eusebius’s words would have excited medieval Scottish readers. Early Gaelic legends claimed that the part of Asia Eusebius referred to was the original home of the Gaels [the Irish and the Scots]. The story, recorded best in the Irish legendary the Book of Invasions, describes a fantastic voyage made by the first Gaels from Asia, to Egypt, Spain and finally Ireland and Britain. Bede, a medieval English historian, included in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People a legend that goes even further. Bede had learnt that the Picts – the people who shared the north of Britain with the Scots – had not only come from Scythia, but were Scythians! One can dismiss the historical value of such legends, but still imagine the impact that Eusebius would have made on a medieval Scot or Pict who believed passionately in their traditions. ‘St Andrew’ – so they would have reasoned – ‘was the saint set apart for the Scythians, and we, as a people with Scythian ancestors, can rightly claim him as our own.’

    That this did indeed happen seems to be confirmed by a fourteenth-century Scottish work the Declaration of Arbroath. The Declaration is one of Scotland’s great national treasures and one of the world’s great documents of freedom. In it the Scottish lords and their king declare their intention to defend their land from the English ‘as long as one hundred of us remain alive’. And they insist that they will fight not for wealth or honours ‘but for liberty, which no honest man will give up while he has life’. These noble words have distracted attention from a later, peculiar part of the Declaration, which reads as follows.

    ‘[The Scots] true nobility and merits have been made plain, if not by other considerations, then by the fact that… the Lord Jesus Christ… brought them, the first of all, to his holy faith, though they lived in the furthest parts of the world. And he chose that they be converted to the faith by none other than the brother of the blessed Peter, the gentle Andrew… whom he wished always to be over us as our patron.’

    This passage has long confused historians because it seems to suggest that Andrew came to Scotland, ‘the furthest part of the world’, in person to convert the Scots – a rather unlikely event considering the distances involved. It is far easier to read it as a reference to St Andrew’s work with the Scythians – another people who lived at ‘the furthest parts of the world’ – before they set out on their voyage to Ireland and Britain. Read in this way the Declaration is one more proof that the Scots chose St Andrew as their patron because they believed the ancient legends about their Scythian origins. If this was the case then the Scots picked a strangely foreign patron saint, paradoxically, because of their own homegrown traditions.

    Any other patron saint stories: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    28 June 2011: Neville gives a link to the old belief (that stretches back to the early Middle Ages) that the Gaels had come from Scythia via Egypt. Thanks Neville!