Saint Dymphna

February 26, 2015 at 2:07 am 4 comments

As March rolls around, which means St. Patrick’s Day, my thoughts turn to my Irish Catholic ancestors and their faith, particular the many saints that hail from the Emerald Isle. One lesser known lady is Saint Dymphna- purportedly the daughter of an Irish pagan chieftain who converted and devoted herself to Christ. She is the patron saint of epilepsy, mental illnesses and victims of abuse and incest and runaways. Apparently, her father was horribly distraught after her mother’s death, and looked all throughout Ireland for a woman that resembled her to re-marry. After much searching, his messengers gave up, but pointed out Dymphna, and the king, mad with grief declared that he would marry his own daughter. She fled to Antwerp, Belgium along with the court jester and the priest Gerebran. She was followed by her father and his men, and beheaded. Her body was buried at the church in Gheel and many people came from far and wide to seek healing for their troubled minds and souls. Apparently this town was very advanced for its time in treating mentally ill people humanely, which was rare in the Middle Ages. I need to do more research, but I have gotten the impression that this humane treatment of disabled and mentally ill people was more common in the Early Middle Ages, but then declined as madness and other disabilities became more associated with being sinful or possessed by the Devil.
I also thought the mention of the court jester fleeing with her was interesting, as the role of jester was often played by people with disabilities- hunchbacks, dwarves, and people who now would be considered developmentally disabled- “natural fools”, they were called.

I started adding images of her to my Pinterest shrine to Neurodiverse & Disabled Ancestors. I am not sure if she should be part of it since she herself wasn’t neurodivergent. But by extension this category could include anyone who is especially known for helping or advocating for disabled people. I suppose as the board grows, she may get her own shrine.

So to be honest, there isn’t really clear evidence that Dymphna actually existed as a historical person. Her story is suspiciously similar to various fairy tales about a daughter whose father wants to marry her- the most well-known being Donkeyskin. In many variants, there is some type of garment that belong to the dead mother and the father declares that he will marry the woman who fits into it, and the daughter unwittingly tries on the garment. However apparently, because there has been so many reports of healing miracles, the Catholic Church is like “Eh, hey if it works…I guess that’s cool.” Besides declaring that a saint is not historically legit doesn’t exactly stop people from venerating them. St. Christopher, anyone? Heck, Santa Muerte?!

Symbols of St. Dymphna
Lily- for purity and chastity- it could also be further associated with purifying the mind of disturbing thoughts
Sword- weapon of her martyrdom
Shamrock- since she’s Irish
Doe, Fawn- her name in Gaelic is Damhnait- meaning little deer (dahv-nit)
Symbols for specific neurological/mental conditions, recovery/support for abuse victims/survivors

Caelesti’s Devotional Ideas-
Naomh Damhnait would be her name in Irish (Naomh= Saint, related to the word for holy/sacred)
Write prayers for her, write healing prayer that includes both her and St/Goddess Brighid
Read Deerskin, Robin McKinley’s feminist adaptation of the Donkeyskin tale type
Work on your own recovery, engage in self-care, stop and smell the lilies
Donate/volunteer/advocate for individuals with mental illness, victims/survivors of abuse, rape and incest
Support feministy/social justice-y women religious (nuns) and Catholic women in general who are working on reform.

Oh teh noes- is this Cultural Appropriation?!!! Just in case anyone asks…
Well, considering that term is generally used for historically or presently oppressed and colonized cultures- Ireland would fit that, but at the same time, Saint Dymphna is part of the Roman Catholic Church *in general* which has had pretty serious issues with colonizing and oppressing cultures from around the world. We could even say women, and sexual/gender minorities are groups that have globally suffered colonialism from various sources, not just religious. Personally, I feel some solidarity with social justice and feminist focused Catholics, and drawing on these traditions a little is a way for me to reclaim and connect with Irish history and culture, instead of just ignoring centuries of Catholic Ireland and digging back into the pagan past while modern Irish people look at me like I’m some crazy American. Anyhow, there are particular saints that have a lot of cultural context attached to them- as in Afro-Caribbean and Latin American syncretic traditions and if you are honoring saints syncretized with Orisha and such, I’d advise doing it within the social protocol and rules that are internal to those traditions. These are things you’ll need to find out from actual human beings rather than Llewellyn books and Tumblr. Anyway, those are definitely outside of my cultural bailiwick, so I am stepping off the soapbox.

Saint Dymphna: Out of the Shadows of Mental Illness

I am having trouble posting links again- but just Google her- you’ll find tons of prayers, amulets, prayer cards etc.

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Entry filed under: Celtic/Druid, Christianity, Developmental/Intellectual Disabilities, Mental Illness, The Pagan Experience. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ravew  |  February 26, 2015 at 4:07 am

    It was because of her legend that I found my favorite fairytale and book Deerskin, I can never describe how important that was for me as a survivor.
    As for the Saint I consider her important but some versions of her legend and what some church people said about her and a similar more modern saint made me sad and triggered so I started to avoid it. I took more from the original tales and the modern retelling in the book Deerskin, especially for pop culture paganism, it come to me at a desperate moment.

    Reply
    • 2. caelesti  |  February 26, 2015 at 4:11 am

      Yes, I think a lot of people are just going to look at those tales and go “Eeew, creepy” but for survivors, its an acknowledgement that yes, this is something that has happened throughout human history, in spite of all the blame and denial (esp. by church authorities!) and this is the folk traditions way of dealing with it. I have not yet read Deerskin, but its on my list along with Robin McKinley’s other books. Fairy tales are very important to me, spiritually and I think there’s a lot we can learn from them.

      Reply
  • 3. sandra dipasqua  |  February 26, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    great article. saint dymphna is an example of an ancient saint who still influences modern times. we have several things written about her on our website novena.com. here is what we have on our novena app about her: http://novena.com/2013/05/15/feast-of-st-dymphna/

    Reply
  • 4. Irish Deities/Spirits | The Lefthander's Path  |  January 29, 2016 at 4:19 am

    […] Naomh Damhnait (Saint Dymphna) […]

    Reply

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