Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/S. Patrick's Purgatory

IN that charming mediaeval romance, Fortunatus and his Sons, which, by the way, is a treasury of Popular Mythology, is an account of a visit paid by the favoured youth to that cave of mystery in Lough Derg, the Purgatory of S. Patrick.

Fortunatus, we are told, had heard in his travels of how two days’ journey from the town, Valdric, in Ireland, was a town, Vernic, where was the entrance to the Purgatory; so thither he went with many servants. He found a great abbey, and behind the altar of the church a door, which led into the dark cave which is called the Purgatory of S. Patrick. In order to enter it, leave had to be obtained from the abbot; consequently, Leopold, servant to Fortunatus, betook himself to that worthy, and made known to him that a nobleman from Cyprus desired to enter the mysterious cavern. The abbot at once requested Leopold to bring his master to supper with him. Fortunatus bought a large jar of wine, and sent it as a present to the monastery, and followed at the meal time.

“Venerable sir!” said Fortunatus, “I understand the Purgatory of S. Patrick is here; is it so?”

The abbot replied, “It is so indeed. Many hundred years ago, this place, where stand the abbey and the town, was a howling wilderness. Not far off, however, lived a venerable hermit, Patrick by name, who often sought the desert for the purpose of therein exercising his austerities. One day he lighted on this cave, which is of vast extent. He entered it, and wandering on in the dark, lost his way, so that he could no more find how to return to the light of day. After long ramblings through the gloomy passages, he fell on his knees, and besought Almighty God, if it were His will, to deliver him from the great peril wherein he lay. Whilst Patrick thus prayed, he was ware of piteous cries issuing from the depths of the cave, just such as would be the wailings of souls in purgatory. The hermit rose from his orison, and by God’s mercy found his way back to the surface, and from that day exercised greater austerities, and after his death he was numbered with the saints. Pious people, who had heard the story of Patrick’s adventure in the cave, built this cloister on the site.”

Then Fortunatus asked whether all who ventured into the place heard likewise the howls of the tormented souls.

The abbot replied, “Some have affirmed that they have heard a bitter crying and piping therein; whilst others have heard and seen nothing. No one, however, has penetrated, as yet, to the furtheest limits of the cavern.”

Fortunatus then asked permission to enter, am the abbot cheerfully consented, only stipulating that his guest should keep near the entrance, and not ramble too far, as some who had ventured in had never returned.

Next day, early, Fortunatus received the Blessed Sacrament with his trusty Leopold; the door of the Purgatory was unlocked, each was provided with a taper, and then with the blessing of the abbot they were left in total darkness, and the door bolted behind them. Both wandered on in the cave, hearing faintly the chanting of the monks in the church, till the sound died away. They traversed several passages, lost their way, their candles burned out, and they sat down in despair on the ground, a prey to hunger, thirst, and fear.

The monks waited in the church hour after hour; and the visitors of the Purgatory had not returned. Day declined, vespers were sung, and still there was no sign of the two who in the morning had passed from the church into the cave. Then the servants of Fortunatus began to exhibit anger, and to insist on their master being restored to them. The abbot was frightened, and sent for an old man who had once penetrated far into the cave, with a ball of twine, the end attached to the door handle. This man volunteered to seek Fortunatus, and providentially his search was successful. After this the abbot refused permission to any one to visit the cave.

In the reign of Henry II. lived Henry of Saltrey, who wrote a history of the visit of a Knight Owen to the Purgatory of S. Patrick, which gained immense popularity. Henry was a monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Saltrey, in Huntingdonshire, and received his story from Gilbert, Abbot of Louth, who is said by some to have also published a written account of the extraordinary visions of Owen[1]. This account was soon translated into other languages, and spread the fable through mediæval Europe. It was this work of Henry of Saltrey which first made known the virtues of the mysterious cave of Lough Derg. Marie of France translated it into French metre, but hers was not the only version in that tongue; in English there are two versions. In one of these, “Owayne Miles,” H. S. Cotton. Calig. A. ii., fol. 89, the origin of the purgatory is thus described:—

“Holy byschoppes some tyme ther were,
 That tawgte me of Goddes lore.
 In Irlonde preched Seyn Patryke,
 In that londe was non hym lyke:
 He prechede Goddes worde full wyde,
 And tolde men what shullde betyde.
 Fyrste he preched of Heven blysse,
 Who ever go thyder may ryght nowgt mysse:
 Sethen he preched of Hell pyne,
 Howe wo them ys that cometh therinne:
 And then he preched of purgatory,
 As he fonde in hisstory,
 But yet the folke of the contré
 Beleved not that hit mygth be;
 And seyed, but gyf hit were so,
 That eny non myth hymself go,
 And se alle that, and come ageyn,
 Then wolde they beleve fayn.”

Vexed at the obstinacy of his hearers, S. Patrick besought the Almighty to make the truth manifest to the unbelievers; whereupon

“God spakke to Saynt Patryke tho
 By nam, and badde hym with Hym go:
 He ladde hym ynte a wyldernesse,
 Wher was no reste more ne lesse,
 And shewed that he might se
 Inte the erthe a pryvé entré:
 Hit was yn a depe dyches ende.
 ‘What mon,’ He sayde, ‘that wylle hereyn wende,
 And dwelle theryn a day and a nyght,
 And hold his byleve and ryght,
 And come ageyn that he ne dwelle,
 Mony a mervayle he may of telle.
 And alle tho that doth thys pylgrymage,
 I shalle hem graunt for her wage,
 Whether he be sqwyer or knave,
 Other purgatorye shalle he non have.’”

Thereupon S. Patrick, “he ne stynte ner day ne night,” till he had built there a “fayr abbey,” and stocked it with pious canons. Then he made a door to the cave, and locked the door, and gave the key to the keeping of the prior[2]. The Knight Owain, who had served under King Stephen, had lived a life of violence and dissolution; but filled with repentance, he sought by way of penance S. Patrick’s Purgatory. Fifteen days he spent in preliminary devotions and alms-deeds, and then he heard mass, was washed with holy water, received the Holy Sacrament, and followed the sacred relics in procession, whilst the priests sang for him the Litany, “as lowde as they mygth crye.” Then Sir Owain was locked in the cave, and he groped his way onward in darkness, till he reached a glimmering light; this brightened, and he came out into an underground land, where was a great hall and cloister, in which were men with shaven heads and white garments. These men informed the knight how he was to protect himself against the assaults of evil spirits. After having received this instruction, he heard “grete dynn,” and

“Then come ther develes on every syde,
 Wykked gostes, I wote, fro Helle,
 So mony that no tonge mygte telle:
 They fylled the hows yn two rowes;
 Some grenned on hym and some mad mowes.”

He then visits the different places of torment. In one, the souls are nailed to the ground with glowing hot brazen nails; in another, they are fastened to the soil by their hair, and are bitten by fiery reptiles. In another, again, they are hung over fires by those members which had sinned, whilst others are roasted on spits. In one place were pits in which were molten metals. In these pits were men and women, some up to their chins, others to their breasts, others to their hams. The knight was pushed by the devils into one of these pits, and was dreadfully scalded, but he cried to the Saviour, and escaped. Then he visited a lake where souls were tormented with great cold; and a river of pitch, which he crossed on a frail and narrow bridge. Beyond this bridge was a wall of glass, in which opened a beautiful gate, which conducted into Paradise. This place so delighted him that he would fain have remained in it had he been suffered, but he was bidden return to earth and finish there his penitence. He was put into a shorter and pleasanter way back to the cave than that by which he had come; and the prior found the knight next morning at the door, waiting to be let out, and full of his adventures. He afterwards went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and ended his life in piety. “Explycit Owayne[3].”

Marie’s translation is in three thousand verses; Legrand d’Aussy has given the analysis of it in his “Fabliaux,” tom. iv.

Giraldus Cambrensis, in his topography of Ireland, alludes to the Purgatory. He places the island of Lough Derg among one of the marvels of the country. According to him it is divided into two parts, whereof one is fair and agreeable, and contains a church, whilst the other is rough and uncultivated, and a favourite haunt of devils. In the latter part of the island, he adds, there were nine caves, in any one of which, if a person were bold enough to pass the night, he would be so tormented by the demons, that he would be fortunate if he escaped with life; and he says, it is reported that a night so spent relieved the sufferer from having to undergo the torments of purgatory hereafter[4].

In the ancient Office of S. Patrick occurred the following verse:—

“Hie est doctor benevolus,
 Hibernicorum apostolus,
 Cui loca purgatoria
 Ostendit Dei gratia.”

Joscelin, in his life of the saint, repeats the fable. Henry de Knyghton, in his history, however, asserts that it was not the Apostle of Ireland, but an abbot Patrick, to whom the revelation of purgatory was made; and John of Brompton says the same. Alexander Neckham calls it S. Brandan’s Purgatory. Cæsar of Heisterbach, in the beginning of the 13th century, says, “If any one doubt of purgatory, let him go to Scotland (i. e. Ireland), and enter the Purgatory of S. Patrick, and his doubts will be dispelled[5].” “This recommendation,” says Mr. Wright, in his interesting and all but exhaustive essay on the myth, “was frequently acted upon in that, and particularly in the following century, when pilgrims from all parts of Europe, some of them men of rank and wealth, repaired to this abode of superstition. On the patent rolls in the Tower of London, under the year 1358, we have an instance of testimonials given by the king (Edward III.) on the same day, to two distinguished foreigners, one a noble Hungarian, the other a Lombard, Nicholas de Beccariis, of their having faithfully performed this pilgrimage. And still later, in 1397, we find King Richard II. granting a safe conduct to visit the same place, to Raymond, Viscount of Perilhos, knight of Rhodes, and chamberlain of the King of France, with twenty men and thirty horses. Raymond de Perilhos, on his return to his native country, wrote a narrative of what he had seen, in the dialect of the Limousan, of which a Latin version was printed by O’Sullovan, in his ‘Historia Catholica Iberniæ[6]’”

This work is simply the story of Owain slightly altered.

Froissart tells us of a conversation he had with one Sir William Lisle, who had been in the Purgatory. “I asked him of what sort was the cave that is in Ireland, called S. Patrick’s Purgatory, and if that were true which was related of it. He replied that there certainly was such a cave, for he and another English knight had been there whilst the king was at Dublin, and said that they entered the cave, and were shut in as the sun set, and that they remained there all night, and left it next morning at sunrise. And then I asked if he had seen the strange sights and visions spoken of. Then he said that when he and his companion had passed the gate of the Purgatory of S. Patrick, that they had descended as though into a cellar, and that a hot vapour rose towards them, and so affected their heads, that they were obliged to sit down on the stone steps. And after sitting there awhile they felt heavy with sleep, and so fell asleep, and slept all night. Then I asked if they knew where they were in their sleep, and what sort of dreams they had had; he answered that they had been oppressed with many fancies and wonderful dreams, different from those they were accustomed to in their chambers; and in the morning when they went out, in a short while they had clean forgotten their dreams and visions; wherefore he concluded that the whole matter was fancy.”

The next to give us an account of his descent into S. Patrick’s Purgatory, is William Staunton of Durham, who went down into the cave on the Friday next after the feast of Holyrood, in the year 1409. Mr. Wright has quoted the greater portion of his vision from a manuscript in the British Museum; I have only room for a few extracts, which I shall modernize, as the original spelling is somewhat perplexing.

“I was put in by the Prior of S. Matthew, of the same Purgatory, with procession and devout prayers of the prior, and the convent gave me an orison to bless me with, and to write the first word in my forehead, the which prayer is this, ‘Jhesu Christe, Fili Dei vivi, miserere mihi peccatori.’ And the prior taught me to say this prayer when any spirit, good or evil, appeared unto me, or when I heard any noise that I should be afraid of.” When left in the cave, William fell asleep, and dreamed that he saw coming to him S. John of Bridlington and S. Ive, who undertook to conduct him through the scenes of mystery. After they had proceeded a while, William was found to be guilty of a trespass against Holy Church, of which he had to be purged before he could proceed much further. Of this trespass he was accused by his sister who appeared in the way. “I make my complaint unto you against my brother that here standeth; for this man that standeth hereby loved me, and I loved him, and either of us would have had the other according to God’s law, as Holy Church teaches, and I should have gotten of me three souls to God, but my brother hindered us from marrying.” S. John of Bridlington then turned to William, and asked him why he did not allow the two who loved one another to be married. “I tell thee there is no man that hindereth man or woman from being united in the bond of God, though the man be a shepherd and all his ancestors, and the woman be come of kings or of emperors, or if the man be come of never so high kin, and the woman of never so low kin, if they love one another, but he sinneth in Holy Church against God and his deed, and therefore he shall have much pain and tribulations.” Being assoiled of this crying sin, S. John takes William to a fire “grete and styngkyng,” in which he sees people burning in their gay clothes. “I saw some with collars of gold about their necks, and some of silver, and some men I saw with gay girdles of silver and gold, and harnessed with horns about their necks, some with no jagges on their clothes, than whole cloth, others full of jingles and bells of silver all over set, and some with long pokes on their sleeves, and women with gowns trailing behind them a long space, and some with chaplets on their heads of gold and pearls and other precious stones. And I looked on him that I saw first in pain, and saw the collars, and gay girdles, and baldrics burning, and the fiends dragging him by two fingermits. And I saw the jagges that men were clothed in turn all to adders, to dragons, and to toads, and ‘many other orrible bestes’ sucking them, and biting them, and stinging them with all their might, and through every jingle I saw fiends smite burning nails of fire into their flesh. I also saw fiends drawing down the skin of their shoulders like to pokes, and cutting them off, and drawing them to the heads of those they cut them from, all burning as fire. And then I saw the women that had side trails behind them, and the side trails cut off by the fiends and burned on their head; and some took of the cutting all burning and stopped therewith their mouths, their noses, and their ears. I saw also their gay chaplets of gold and pearls and precious stones, turned into nails of iron, burning, and fiends with burning hammers smiting them into their heads.” These were proud and vain people. Then he saw another fire, where the fiends were putting out people’s eyes, and pouring molten brass and lead into the sockets, and tearing off their arms, and the nails of their feet and hands, and soldering them on again. This was the doom of swearers. William saw other fires wherein the devils were executing tortures varied and horrible on their unfortunate victims. We need follow him no further.

At the end of the fifteenth century the Purgatory in Lough Derg was destroyed, by orders of the pope, on hearing the report of a monk of Eymstadt in Holland, who had visited it, and had satisfied himself that there was nothing in it more remarkable than in any ordinary cavern. The Purgatory was closed on S. Patrick’s day, 1497; but the belief in it was not so speedily banished from popular superstition. Calderon made it the subject of one of his dramas; and it became the subject of numerous popular chap-books in France and Spain, where during last century it occupied in the religious belief of the people precisely the same position which is assumed by the marvellous visions of heaven and hell sold by hawkers in England at the present day, one of which, probably founded on the old S. Patrick’s Purgatory legend, I purchased the other day, and found it to be a publication of very modern date.

Unquestionably, the story of S. Patrick’s Purgatory is founded on the ancient Hell-descents prevalent in all heathen nations; Herakles, Orpheus, Odysseus, in Greek Mythology, Æneas, in Roman, descend to the nether world, and behold sights very similar to those described in the Christian legends just quoted. Among the Finns, Wainomoinen goes down into Pohjola, the land of darkness and fear; and the Esths tell of Kalewa plunging into a mysterious cave which led him to the abode of the foul fiend, where he visited his various courts, and whence he ravished his daughters. A still more striking myth is that of the ancient Quiches, contained in their sacred book, the Popol-Vuh; in which the land of Xibalba contains mansions nearly as unpleasant as the fields and lakes of S. Patrick’s Purgatory. One is the house of gloom, another of men with sharp swords, another of heat, one of cold, one of the mansions is haunted by blood-sucking bats, another is the den of ferocious tigers[7]. Odin, in Northern Mythology, has mansions of cold and heat[8]; and Hell’s abode is thus described:— “In Niflheim she possesses a habitation protected by exceedingly high walls and strongly barred gates. Her hall is called Elvidnir; Hunger is her table; Starvation, her knife; Delay, her man; Slowness, her maid; Precipice, her threshold; Care, her bed; and Burning Anguish forms the hangings of her apartment[9].” Into this the author of the Solarliod, in the Elder Edda, is supposed to have descended. This curious poem is attributed by some to Soemund the Wise (d. 1131), and is certainly not later. The composition exhibits a strange mixture of Christianity and Heathenism, whence it would seem that the poet’s own religion was in a transition state:—

“39. The sun I saw, true star of day,
     Sink in its roaring home; but Hell’s grated doors
     On the other side I heard heavily creaking.
 51. In the Norn’s seat nine days sat I,
     Thenre was I mounted on a horse:
     There the giantess’s sun shone grimly
     Through the dripping clouds of heaven.
 52. Without and within, I seemed to traverse
     All the seven nether worlds; up and down,
     I sought an easier way
     Where I might have the readiest paths.”

He comes to a torrent about which flew “scorched birds, which were souls, numerous as flies.” Then the wind dies away, and he comes to a land where the waters do not flow. There false-faced women grind earth for food.

“58. Gory stones these dark women
     Turned sorrowfully; out of their breasts
     Hung bleeding hearts, faint with much affliction.”

He saw men with faces bloody, and heathen stars above their heads, painted with deadly characters; men who had envied others had bloody runes cut in their breasts. Covetous men went to Castle Covetous dragging weights of lead, murderers were consumed by venomous serpents, sabbath-breakers were nailed by their hands to hot stones. Proud men were wrapped in flame, slanderers had their eyes plucked out by Hell’s ravens.

“68. All the horrors thou wilt not get to know
     Which Hell’s inmates suffer.
     Pleasant sins end in painful penalties :
     Pains ever follow pleasure[10].”

Among the Greeks a descent into the cave of Trophonius occupied much the same place in their popular Mysticism that the Purgatory of S. Patrick assumed among Christians. Lustral rites, somewhat similar, preceded the descent, and the results were not unlike[11].

It is worthy of remark that the myth of S. Patrick’s Purgatory originated among the Kelts, and the reason is not far to seek. In ancient Keltic Mythology the nether world was divided into three circles, corresponding with Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven; and over Hell was cast a bridge, very narrow, which souls were obliged to traverse if they hoped to reach the mansions of light. This was—

“The Brig o’ Dread, na brader than a thread.”

And the Purgatory under consideration is a reflex of old Druidic teaching. Thus in an ancient Breton ballad Tina passes through the lake of pain, on which float the dead, white robed, in little boats. She then wades through valleys of blood[12].

As this myth has been exhaustively treated by Mr. Thomas Wright (S. Patrick’s Purgatory; by T. Wright, London, 1844), it shall detain us no longer. I differ from him, however, as to its origin. He attributes it to monkish greed; but I have no hesitation in asserting that it is an example of the persistency of heathen myths, colouring and influencing Mediæval Christianity. We will only refer the reader for additional information to the Purgatoire de Saint Patrice; légende du xiii Sièćle, 1842; a reprint by M. Prosper Tarbé of a MS. in the library at Rheims; a Memoire by M. Paul Lacroix in the Mélanges historiques, published by M. Champollion Figeac, vol. iii.; the poem of Marie de France in the edition of her works, Paris, 1820, vol. ii.; an Histoire de la Vie et du Purgatoire de S. Patrice, par R. P. Franpois Bouillon, O. S. F., Paris, 1651, Rouen, 1696; and also Le Monde Enchanté, par M. Ferdinand Denys, Paris, 1845, pp. 157—174.

Original footnotesEdit

  1. Biograph. Brit. Lit.; Anglo-Norm. Period, p. 321.
  2. Wright, S. Patrick’s Purgatory, p. 65.
  3. Wright, Op. cit., cap. iii.
  4. Girald. Gambr. Topog. Hiberniæ, cap. v.
  5. Cæsar. Heist. De Miraculis sui Temporis, lib. xii., cap 38. Ap. Wright.
  6. Wright, Op. cit., p. 135.
  7. Popul-Vuh: Brasseur de Boubourg, Paris, 1861; lib. ii. 7—14.
  8. Hrolf’s Saga Kráka, cap. 39; in Fornm. Sögur I., pp. 77—79.
  9. Prose Edda, c. 33.
  10. Edda of Sœmund, tr. by Thorpe, Part I., p. 117.
  11. Pausanias, ix. c. 39—40, and Plutarch., De genio Socrat.
  12. Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte: Band III., Die Kelten, p. 29.