Today is Saint David’s Day. Saint David is the patron saint of Wales and he is our only national saint who was actually born here. He could have been born anywhere between 462 and 512. He probably died in the year 589 so he had either a pretty long life for his times or was extraordinarily long lived. Legend tells us that he was over 100 when he died. Facts about his life are sparse, but about five hundred years after his death, a man called Rhygyfarch wrote a sort of biography, which was probably completely made up, that was later elaborated upon by others. But it’s worth mentioning, if only to tell you that he was baptised by Saint Elvis of Munster. I did not know there was a Saint Elvis. The saint restored several monasteries, including Glastonbury and Bath before settling in the Vale of Ross. There, he and his monks lived an extremely ascetic life, drinking only water and eating only bread and herbs. Also, he wouldn’t allow them to use animals to pull their ploughs, he made them do it themselves. Maybe the monks didn’t like this very much, because they tried to poison him. Luckily though, another Irish saint, Saint Scuthyn, rode to his rescue on the back of a sea-monster. He blessed the poisoned bread and Saint David was able to eat it without coming to any harm.
The story of Saint David’s best known miracle is about the time he was preaching to a crowd and they couldn’t really hear him. While he was speaking, a dove landed on his shoulder and the ground on which he was standing was raised up to make a little hill. So everyone could then hear him speak and see him as well. We’ve never been to Wales, but we understand hills are quite plentiful there, so yet another one was probably surplus to requirements. But that’s how you can recognise a picture of Saint David: dove on shoulder, little hill.
The leek became symbolic for the welsh because, in a battle with the Saxons, Saint David advised the soldiers to wear a leek in their hats to distinguish them from the enemy and it seems it helped them win the battle. This may be just another made up story, but there is certainly an odd association in Wales between leeks and war. You’ll find mention of it in Shakespeare’s Henry V and in the fourteenth century Welsh archers used to dress in green and white in honour of the leek. The Welsh flag is also green and white with a red dragon on it. As Daffyd is Welsh for David, I really expected to come up with some association between the saint and Wales’ other national plant, the daffodil, but I found nothing.
I did find an interesting piece of folklore connected with Saint David though. In medieval times people were terribly concerned that they never knew when they were going to die. This was a huge problem as both your body and your soul might be in jeopardy if you were not buried in a proper Christian way. The Welsh people asked Saint David to ask God to give them a sign when a person was about to die so that they could make the proper arrangements. David returned from his payers with a promise from God that whenever a Welsh person died, a light would appear, leading others to the place of their demise. A tall light warned of the death of a man, a smaller one for a woman and a tiny one foretold the death of a child. They are also supposed to vary in colour. Red for a man, pale blue for a woman and light yellow for a child.
It’s hard to imagine a world where an omen of death might be regarded as a good thing. In later times the lights, which are called ‘corpse lights’ became something to be feared. Sometimes they were said to follow the path of a funeral, I came across a story about a man who saw his own corpse candle while out walking and tried to hit it with his walking stick. The light sparked and then reformed itself into a steady glow. He died of course and, as they were carrying his coffin to the church, on the exact spot where he had struck at the light, the bier broke and his coffin fell on the ground. A corpse candle might also appear at the place where an accident would happen. In another story, a light was spotted by a hedge in the corner of a field. It was seen by several people over the course of a year. The day after it disappeared, someone out riding jumped the hedge and was killed on the exact spot the light had been.
Legends about such lights that are associated with a person’s death appear in other countries to. There are stories of corpse candles from the Highlands of Scotland and also from Denmark and, oddly, also in Japan where they are called ‘hitodama’ which means human soul.