Sunday, 3 February 2013

Saint Blaise - throat doctor and wolf whisperer

Today is the Feast of St Blaise in the Roman Catholic calender, notable for a tradition known as the Blessing of the Throats. In this ritual two candles are consecrated with prayer, crossed and held against the congregation's throats while the following words are spoken:

"Through the intercession of St. Blaise, may God preserve you from throat troubles and every other evil."

Weirdly specific, right? The earliest reference we have of St Blaise is from the medical writings of court physician A√ętius Amidenus at the beginning of the 6th century where he was invoked for objects lodged in throats. Apparently before he died he witnessed a wolf eating a pig. He told the wolf to release the delicious swine and it obeyed. The owner gave the pig to the starving Blaise but later he would be tortured and killed, dying in 316AD.

E.H Vollet writes about the acts of the saint in the Grande Encyclopédie (1886-1902):

"Blaise, who had studied philosophy in his youth, was a doctor in Sebaste in Armenia, the city of his birth, who exercised his art with miraculous ability, good-will, and piety. When the bishop of the city died, he was chosen to succeed him, with the acclamation of all the people. His holiness was manifest through many miracles: from all around, people came to him to find cures for their spirit and their body; even wild animals came in herds to receive his blessing. In 316, Agricola, the governor of Cappadocia and of Lesser Armenia, having arrived in Sebastia at the order of the emperor Licinius to kill the Christians, arrested the bishop. As he was being led to prison, a mother set her only son, choking to death of a fish-bone, at his feet, and the child was cured straight away. Regardless, the governor, unable to make Blaise renounce his faith, beat him with a stick, ripped his flesh with iron combs, and beheaded him."

The village of St. Blazey in Cornwall is named after Blaise and he's also the patron saint of Dubrovnik in Croatia. In Dubrovnik the supposed body parts of St Blaise are paraded through the streets, including a piece of bone from his throat, his head and his hands.

When depicted, Blaise is often shown with the devices used to torture him: steel combs. In fact, because of the similarities to wool combs, Blaise has become the patron saint of the wool trade. Now that's a leap.