from Chapter Two
November 1, Samain
Saint Martin (November 11)
Forty days before Christmas is the feast day of Saint Martin (November 11). Saint Martin, “the apostle of the Gauls,” played an essential role (perhaps one more symbolic than real) in the conversion of France to Christianity. His actual historical role is no doubt much less than the one attributed to him by his posthumous legend. It is undeniable though that this figure gives us a key to understanding the occultation of paganism by Christianity starting in the first centuries of evangelization.
The Goose of Saint Martin
Of all the saints, it is Saint Martin to whom the largest number of French churches are dedicated (close to four thousand) whereas the place names that start with Saint Martin or include Saint Martin are beyond count. This kind of celebrity cannot be the work of chance. If we are to believe the official legend of Martin, this son of a retired legionnaire, who was born in Sabaria in Hungary, offered half of his cloak on one particularly harsh winter day to a vagabond who was wandering the streets of Amiens. On his return to the barracks with only half his cloak, he had to endure the gibes of his fellows, but this gift definitively associated his name with an almost legendary charity.
The memory of Saint Martin is combined with that of the donkey (⮥), but the form of the word seems to have been preserved here almost independently of its content. As we have seen earlier and as this will be confirmed even more solidly with the study of other legendary and mythical figures, the word ane can have two meanings in ancient French. Not only does this term designate the equine creature (⮥, from the Latin word asinus) that is well known for its whims and stubbornness, but it also designates the duck or goose (ane) from the linguistic line of descent of the Latin word anas. Hence the ritual goose at the feast of Saint Martin would find the beginning of an explanation: it forms one with the ane [donkey/duck].
Here it is helpful to add a fact of folklore to this linguistical observation. In Alsace, in the Munster Valley, there is a kind of female Father Christmas, a “Christmas Lady” who distributes sweets to children in the company of an ⮥ ࠢec [a donkey with a beak]. This beaked donkey is nothing other than a duck, a fairy tale creature from the Other World, a woman-bird like the others one will find in the mythic tales of Celtic origin or in the folk tales they have spawned.
On November 11, Saint Martin on his donkey distributes gifts to children in certain regions of Germany, Austria, and Belgium. In other regions it is Saint Nicholas, also on a donkey, who fills the hearts of the younger residents of Germany, Holland, and Lorraine with joy. We should also note that in Wales, there is a mythical horse that makes the rounds of all the houses on Christmas and New Year’s Day. In Welsh this horse is called Aderyn bee y llwyd, meaning the “bird with the gray beak.” This figure is readily reminiscent of the beaked donkey from the Alsatian valleys. All of these intercessors would be eventually be replaced by Father Christmas, himself the heir of the Anglo-Saxon Santa Claus, whose name is linked to that of Nicholas and who also has a donkey when his sled is not pulled by swans or reindeer. In fact, these figures are linked to a consort, an ancient woman-bird figure bequeathed by the Celtic Great Goddess, a provider of sovereignty and wealth, who symbolically arrives to offer her presents at the time of the gift-giving and festive season, that is to say at the time when time is renewed, the dawn of the new year.
The very official hagiographic texts concerning Saint Martin confirm this obscure connection of the saint with the Other World as well as with the fairy-like world of the bird-women or the Great Goddess of the Celts. Sulpicius Severus relates how Saint Martin took refuge for a time on Gallinaria Island--gallinaria means “henhouse” in Latin. From this it would seem that Martin’s contact with geese/ducks (or anes) was recalled quite clearly but carefully hidden. In reality, the theme of Martin’s consort, the Bird-Goddess of the Other World, is truly central to the understanding of the mythical pre-Christian figure overlaid by the saint.
A rereading of the Amiens episode of the cloak cut in half can confirm the presence of coded mythological motifs. Here it is necessary to take a detour through folk tales. Folk stories, in fact, offer many instances in which a scenario comparable to the “Charity of Saint Martin” occurs. A young man who has nothing but is extremely generous gladly does a favor for someone who begs his aid. Most often, the person disguised is Christ himself or the Virgin (in the hagiography); in the folk tale this person who is given charitable assistance is most often a fairy in disguise. Now, to reward her benefactor, the fairy (Christ or the Virgin) will give this individual a magic object. This is often a talisman (a chain, a wand, and so forth) or an animal (a golden goose). For example, three collected versions of this archetypal story are entitled The Golden Goose. In other words, the charitable young man (like Saint Martin) can own a goose (an ane), which will earn him eternal riches (or eternal life in the case of Saint Martin). The theme of the shared cloak would thus belong to a mythical series partially concealed by the idealized story but perfectly transparent in the context of the Celtic myth and folklore.