Celtic Saints and Animal Stories
A Spiritual Kinship
by Edward C. Sellner
The lives of the Celtic saints constitute the largest body of hagiographies of any group in Christian history to have so many creature stories included in them, revealing early and medieval Irish as true lovers of animals, with the saints sharing this quality to the full. While Native American and Hawaiian peoples, as well as certain Asian spiritual traditions such as Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Taoism have stories about animals, only the hagiographies of the Celtic saints have so many references to them as fellow creatures.
This sense of kinship was an intrinsic aspect of Celtic Christian spirituality that affected those living in Celtic lands, as well as the spirituality and theology of later saints such as Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, and Joan of Arc who were raised in geographical areas on the European continent evangelized by Irish missionaries. Anyone who studies these hagiographies can discern not only what the saints did for animals, often protecting them from hunters, but also what the animals did for the saints. This pattern of reciprocity that transcends species differences so that all benefit in the circle of life has a great deal to teach contemporaries about what can be called “a new spirituality of holiness.”