Today it’s time for another horrific story of an early Christian martyr. I always feel a little uncomfortable about describing the awful ways in which people were apparently tortured in days gone by, but as Christians found something to celebrate in it, and as their stories have obviously been considerably embellished, I think it’s probably okay. So, June 2nd is the feast day of Saint Erasmus of Formia who was martyred around the year 303. He is the patron saint of sailors, intestinal ailments, women in labour and cattle. Erasmus was bishop of Formia at a very difficult time. Christians were then a religious minority who were being persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian. Things were so awful that he ran away and hid on a mountain in Lebanon where he was fed by a raven After he had been hiding for seven years, an angel appeared and told him he had to go back.
On his way home though, Diocletian had him arrested and thrown into prison for his beliefs. But luckily, the angel helped him escape and his journey continued. While passing through Turkey, he raised a boy from the dead which caused an enormous fuss and, as a result, 40,000 people were baptised as Christians. So it wasn’t long before Diocletian’s co-emperor Maximian heard about it. Maximian was even less fond of Christians and forced Erasmus to bow down to a huge copper statue of Zeus. But as soon as Erasmus looked at it, it crumbled into dust. Then, the temple caught fire, fell down and crushed loads of Pagans. A further 30,000 were baptised, which was really the opposite of what Maximian wanted and he was pretty mad. He put Erasmus in a barrel full of spikes and rolled him down a hill, but he didn’t die, his angel healed him..
Next, the Emperor tried having Erasmus’s teeth pulled out, his skin carded, his body roasted and his eyes poked out. He tied the bishop’s arms and legs to horses, he covered his body with pitch and set light to it but still the angel kept healing him and Erasmus couldn’t die. Eventually he was thrown in jail to starve but, thanks to the angel, he escaped once again.
There are two versions of the end of this story. In one, Erasmus returns to Formia where he dies of exhaustion, which would hardly be surprising after all that. In the other, he is arrested for preaching once again and is tortured by having his belly cut open and his intestines pulled out on a windlass, which is a sort of winch. So it’s easy to see why he’s the patron saint of intestinal problems and also possibly women in labour for the same reason. How he became patron saint of sailors and cattle is less clear.
A windlass is certainly a useful piece of equipment for sailors, for raising and lowering heavy objects like anchors and the saint is often pictured carrying one. But Erasmus is also known by another name. It is Saint Elmo. You might have heard of Saint Elmo’s Fire which is a meteorological phenomenon. During an electrical storm a blue or violet light can sometimes appear, particularly at the top of tall pointy objects such as masts. It must be a pretty weird thing to see, especially if you don’t know where it comes from. Many sailors chose to see it as a sign that Saint Elmo was looking after them. It seems odd that sailors should view this eerie light as a sign of benevolence, perhaps it is because it tends to appear towards the end of a storm, when the worst is over.
Saint Elmo’s Fire is not restricted to ships at sea, it can also appear on land. At the top of church spires, masts, chimneys and even on blades of grass or the horns of cattle. So maybe that is why he is their patron saint too.