Thursday, November 2, 2017

Jonah and St Columba

Image result for saint columba and sea monster
Damien F. Mackey
“Likewise the whale which is a creature unknown to the Picts, must have simply been described to them by Columba as a huge aquatic animal with a mouth full of big teeth and an agressive nature. To them this was simply a monster and they described it as such”.
Claire Nahmad

Claire Nahmad asks, in her book Pilgrimage to Iona (Ch. 10: “The Dove of the Eternal”) - {“Iona” thought to mean “John”}:


From where did this name, ‘the isle of John’, originate, and why is it so important? Fiona writes:

‘I do not know on what authority, but an anonymous Gaelic writer, in an account of Iona in 1771, alludes to the probability that Christianity was introduced there before St Columba's advent, and that the island was already dedicated to the Apostle St John, “for it was originally called I'Eoin, i.e. the Isle of John, whence Iona”.’

Yet, Iona means 'the dove'. The name Columba ('the dove') was assumed by the saint as a declaration of his renunciation of his former life as a warrior - whereby he had been known as 'the Wolf’ - and his assumption of a life of holiness dedicated to the Holy Spirit or the Paraclete ….

The Holy Spirit is symbolised by the dove, and the name Columba, meaning 'dove', is identical with the Hebrew name Jonah, pronounced 'Iona', which also means 'dove'. 'Jonahis a form of 'John'; and although 'John' is quoted as meaning 'gift of God' in the Bible, it also means 'dove', as its earlier form is 'Jonah' – 'dove'.

…. And so we can see a correlation between Columba, the saint of IonaJonah, the man who was swallowed by a great creature of the sea ... and re-emerged a changed man … and … John the Beloved Apostle, to whom Jesus said on the Cross, “Behold thy mother” …. To his mother, Jesus said, ‘Behold thy son”. Their is an ocean-depth of meaning in these words.

Holy man and the pagans
We read further about St. Columba in the article, “St Columba and the Monster of Iona”:
… [Columba] travelled to scotland and soon after was granted land on the Isle of Iona and founded a monastery there which he used as a base of operation to launch his famous evangelising mission against the native picts of Scotland. He was very successful and became a political figure in the area meeting with the pictish king Bridei who although liking him immensely was not interested in converting himself. With the kings permission Columba preached his message amongst his kinsmen looking to convert as many as possible to Christianity. ….
The prophet Jonah’s mission took him, not to the Picts of Scotland, but to the Assyrians of Nineveh (Jonah 3:3-10):
“Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown’. The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
‘By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish’.
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened”.
“Both Scotsmen and Irishmen alike revere [Columba’s] name and are eternally grateful to him for civilizing their pagan ancestors and offering them Christ's promise of salvation and eternal reward”.
Holy man and the “great Whale”
The main source on the life of Columba was the chronicler Andamann who was Abbot at the monastery founded by Columba on the isle of Iona from 670CE until his death in 704 CE. Andomann could not be what is called an unbiased source being himself related to the saint by descent from Columbas cousin. He set about writing a chronicle of Columbas journey starting at Iona as Columba had and following his route through scotland in order to pick up stories by the local tribes who had met him. One of the first accounts he wrote was from the archives of the Iona monastery which gives us this account of a monstrous whale

How the Saint knew and told beforehand about a great Whale.
ONE day when the venerabIe man was staying in the Iouan island (Hy, now 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 ….
“Sailors” in a boat also figure in Jonah 1:3-9
“But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish’.
Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity’. They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, ‘Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?’
He answered, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’.”
Whilst Jonah showed no fear, but slept, “all the sailors were afraid”.
And so it was in the case of the story of St. Columba, “… the rowers … pulled back in the utmost terror”, and “were much terrified”, but Columba’s companion, Baithene, “alone was without fear” recalling that the saint had told him, “… thy faith in Christ shall defend thee from this danger."  
Cf. Jonah 2:6, 9-10: “But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit”.
“What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord’.”
… 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 coat 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." ….
Jonah 1:17: “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights”.
Jonah 2:10: “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land”.
The relevant details here are that a monstrous whale, most likely a sperm whale was banished by the power of Columbas God. The monks of Iona were familiar with sea creatures being both educated and islanders and easily recognised tha creature for what it was. That it could be dispatched by the sign of the cross "raising up both his hands" and with a christian blessing.
Later on Andamann visited the Picts at the shores of the River Ness and collected this story from them
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."
As you can see the story sounds very familiar, a Monster presents itself to a holy man and is despatched by the sign of a cross and a few words. That this incident happens in the river Ness and not the Loch, which is further south, is sometimes glossed over by later writers who use it to establish the presence of a monster in Loch ness at such an early date. But consider, it had been almost two hundred years since the visit of Columba and the follow up by Andamann and that had allowed a very recognised cultural phenomena to happen.
That phenomena is known as "cultural transmission" and it is often responsible for changing the details of factual stories. In this case a story told by Columba to the picts had so impressed them that they retold it including themselves in it. The details changed ever so slightly, the location changed from the sea off Iona to an area they recognised, the river Ness. Likewise the whale which is a creature unknown to the Picts, must have simply been described to them by Columba as a huge aquatic animal with a mouth full of big teeth and an agressive nature. To them this was simply a monster and they described it as such.
Image result for jonah and whale

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